HotFreeBooks.com
Deadham Hard
by Lucas Malet
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"And I shall send—we shall both send," Damaris answered gravely, even a little brokenly.

The crown might be heavy; but she had strangely ceased to desire to be rid of it, beginning, indeed, to find its weight oddly satisfying, even, it may be asserted, trenching on the exquisite. And, with this altered attitude, a freedom of spirit, greater than she had enjoyed since the commencement of the whole astonishing episode, since before her cousin Tom Verity's visit in fact, came upon her. It lightened her heart. It dispelled her fatigue—which throughout the afternoon had been, probably, more of the moral than bodily sort. Her soul no longer beat its wings against iron bars, fluttered in the meshes of a net; but looked forth shy yet serene, accepting the position in which it found itself. For Faircloth inspired her with deepening faith. He needed no guiding, as she told herself; but was strong enough, as his words convincingly testified, clear-sighted and quick-witted enough, to play his part in the complicated drama without prompting. Hadn't he done just what she asked?—Stayed until, by operation of some quality in himself or—could it be?—simply through the mysterious draw of his and her brother and sisterhood, she had already grown accustomed, settled in her thought of him, untormented by the closeness of his presence and unabashed.

And having reached this vantage-point, discovering the weight of the crown dear now rather than irksome, Damaris permitted herself a closer observation of her companion than ever before. Impressions of his appearance she had received in plenty—but received them in flashes, confusing from their very vividness. Confusing, also, because each one of them was doubled by a haunting consciousness of his likeness to her father. The traits common to both men, rather than those individually characteristic of the younger, had been in evidence. And, in her present happier mood, Damaris also desired a picture to set in the storehouse of memory. But it must represent this brother of hers in and by himself, divorced, as far as might be, from that pursuing, and, to her, singularly agitating likeness.

Her design and her scrutiny were easier of prosecution that, during the last few minutes, Faircloth had retired into silence, and an attitude of abstraction. Sitting rather forward upon the sofa, his legs crossed, nursing one blue serge trousered knee with locked hands, his glance travelled thoughtfully over the quiet, low-toned room and its varied contents. Later, sought the window opposite, and ranged across the garden and terrace walk, with its incident of small ancient cannon, to the long ridge of the Bar—rising, bleached, wind-swept, and notably deserted under the colourless sunshine, beyond the dark waters of the tide river which raced tumultuously seaward in flood.

Seen thus in repose—and repose is a terrible tell-tale,—the lines of the young man's face and figure remained firm, gracefully angular and definite. No hint of slackness or sloppiness marred their effect. The same might be said of his clothes, which though of ordinary regulation colour and cut—plus neat black tie and stiff-fronted white shirt, collar, and wristbands—possessed style, and that farthest from the cheap or flashy. Only the gold bangle challenged Damaris' taste as touching on florid; but its existence she condoned in face of its wearer's hazardous and inherently romantic calling. For the sailor may, surely, be here and there permitted a turn and a flourish, justly denied to the safe entrenched landsman.

If outward aspects were thus calculated to engage her approval and agreeably fill in her projected picture, that which glimmered through them—divined by her rather than stated, all being necessarily more an affair of intuition than of knowledge—gave her pleasure of richer quality. High-tempered she unquestionably read him, arrogant and on occasion not inconceivably remorseless; but neither mean nor ungenerous, his energy unwasted, his mind untainted by self-indulgence. If he were capable of cruelty to others, he was at least equally capable of turning the knife on himself, cutting off or plucking out an offending member. This appealed to the heroic in her. While over her vision, as she thus considered him, hung the glamour of youth which, to youth, displays such royal enchantments—untrodden fields of hope and promise inviting the tread of eager feet, the rush of glorious goings forward towards conquests, towards wonders, well assured, yet to be. The personality of this man clearly admitted no denial, as little bragged as it apologized, since his candour matched his force of will.

Taking stock of him thus, from the corner of the sofa, imagination, intelligence, affections alike actively in play, Damaris' colour rose, her pulse quickened, and her great eyes grew wide, finely and softly gay.

Faircloth moved. Turned his head. Met her eyes, and looking into them his face blanched perceptibly under its couche of sunburn.

"Damaris," he said, "Damaris, what has happened?—Stop though, you needn't tell me. I know. We've found one another—haven't we?—Found one another more in the silence than in the talking.—Queer, things should work that way! But it puts a seal on fact. For they couldn't so work unless the same stuff, the same inclination, were embedded right in the very innermost substance of both of us. You look rested. You look glad—bless you.—Isn't that so?"

"Yes," she simply told him.

Faircloth set his elbows on his knees, his chin on his two hands, wrist against wrist, and his glance ranged out over the garden again, to the pale strip of the Bar spread between river and sea.

"Then I can go," he said, "but not because I've tired you."

"I shall never be tired any more from—from being with you."

"I don't fancy you will. All the same I must go, because my time's up. My train leaves Marychurch at six, and I have to call at the Inn, to bid my mother good-bye, on my way to the station."

Was the perfect harmony, the perfect adjustment of spirit to spirit a wee bit jarred, did a mist come up over the heavenly bright sky, Faircloth asked himself? And answered doggedly that, if it were so, he could not help it. For since, by all ruling of loyalty and dignity, the wall of partition was ordained to stand, wasn't it safer to remind both himself and Damaris, at times, of its presence? He must keep his feet on the floor, good God—keep them very squarely on the floor—for otherwise, wasn't it possible to conceive of their skirting the edge of unnamable abysses? In furtherance of that so necessary soberness of outlook he now went on speaking.

"But before I go, I want to hark back to a matter of quite ancient history—your lost shoes and stockings—for thereby hangs a tale."

And he proceeded to tell her how, about a week ago, being caught by a wild flurry of rain in an outlying part of the island, behind the black cottages and Inn, he took shelter in a disused ruinous boat-house opening on the great reed-beds which here rim the shore. A melancholy, forsaken place, from which, at low tide, you can walk across the mud-flats to Lampit, with a pleasing chance of being sucked under by quicksands. Abram Sclanders' unhappy half-witted son haunted this boat-house, it seemed, storing his shrimping nets there, any other things as well, a venerable magpie's hoard of scraps and lumber; using it as a run-hole, too, when the other lads hunted and tormented him according to their healthy, brutal youthful way.

—A regular joss-house, he'd made of it. And set up in one corner, white and ghostly—making you stare a minute when you first came inside—a ship's figure-head, a three-foot odd Britannia, pudding-basin bosomed and eagle-featured, with castellated headgear, clasping a trident in her hand. She, as presiding deity and—

"In front of her," Faircloth said, his chin still in his hands and eyes gazing away to the Bar—"earth and pebbles banked up into a flat-topped mound, upon which stood your shoes filled with sprays of hedge fruit and yellow button-chrysanthemums—stolen too, I suppose, from one of the gardens at Lampit. They grow freely there. Your silk stockings hung round her neck, a posy of flowers twisted into them.—When I came on this exhibition, I can't quite tell you how I felt. It raised Cain in me to think of that degraded, misbegotten creature pawing over and playing about with anything which had belonged to you. I was for making Sclanders, his father, bring him over and give him the thrashing of his life, right there before the proofs of his sins."

"But you didn't," Damaris cried. "You didn't. What do my shoes and stockings matter? I oughtn't to have left them on the shore. It was putting temptation in his way."

Faircloth looked at her smiling.

"No I didn't, and for two reasons. One that I knew—even then—you would find excuses, plead for mercy, as you have just now. Another, those flowers. If I had found—well—what I might have found, oh! he should have had the stick or the dog-whip without stint. But one doesn't practise devil-worship with flowers. It seemed to me some craving after beauty was there, as if the poor germ of a soul groped out of the darkness towards what is fair and sweet. I dared not hound it back into the darkness, close down any dim aspiration after God it might have. So I left its pitiful joss-house inviolate, the moan of the wind and sighing of the great reed-beds making music for such strange rites of worship as have been, or may be, practised within. Any god is better than none—that's my creed, at least. And to defile any man's god—however trumpery—unless you're amazingly sure you've a better one to offer him in place of it is to sin against the Holy Ghost."

Faircloth rose to his feet.

"Time's up"—he said. "I must go. Here is farewell to the most beautiful day of my life.—But see, Damaris"—

And he knelt down, in front of her.

"Leave your shoes and stockings cast away on the Bar and thereby open the door—for some people—on to the kingdom of heaven, if you like. But don't, don't, if you've the smallest mercy for my peace of mind ever wander about there again alone. I've a superstition against it. Something unhappy will come of it. It isn't right. It isn't safe. When—when I called you and you answered me through the mist, I had a horrible fear I was too late. You see I care—and the caring, after to-day, very certainly will not grow less. Take somebody, one of your women, always, with you. Promise me never to be out by yourself."

Wondering, inexpressibly touched, Damaris put her hands on his shoulders. His hands sprang to cover them.

"Of course, I promise," she said.

And, closing her eyes, put up her lips to be kissed.

Then the rattle of the glass door on to the garden as it shut. In the room a listening stillness, a great all-invading emptiness. Finally Hordle, with the tea-tray, and—

"Mrs. Cooper, if it isn't troubling you, Miss, would be glad to have the house-books to pay, as she's walking up the village after tea."



CHAPTER XII

CONCERNING A SERMON WHICH NEVER WAS PREACHED AND OTHER MATTERS OF LOCAL INTEREST

Before passing on to more dignified matters, that period of nine days demands to be noted during which the inhabitants of Deadham, all very much agog, celebrated the wonder of Miss Bilson's indisputable disappearance and Damaris Verity's reported adventure.

Concerning the former, Dr. Horniblow, good man, took himself seriously to task, deploring his past action and debating his present duty.

"It is no use, Jane," he lamented to his wife. The two had retired for the night, darkness and the bedclothes covering them. "I am very much worried about my share in the matter."

"But, my dear James, you really are overscrupulous. What share had you?"

The clerical wife does not always see eye to eye with her spouse in respect of his female parishioners, more particularly, perhaps, the unmarried ones. Mrs. Horniblow loved, honoured, and—within reasonable limits—obeyed her James; but this neither prevented her being shrewd, nor knowing her James, after all, to be human. Remembrance of Theresa, heading the Deadham procession during the inspection of Harchester Cathedral, sandwiched in between him and the Dean, still rankled in her wifely bosom.

"I overpersuaded Miss Bilson to accompany us on the choir treat. I forgot she must not be regarded as an entirely free agent. She has shown interest in parish work and really proved very useful and obliging. Her acquaintance with architecture—the technical terms, too—is unusually accurate for a member of your sex."

"Her business is teaching," said the lady.

"And I can't but fear I have been instrumental in her loss of an excellent position."

"If her learning is as remarkable as you consider it, she will doubtless soon secure another."

"Ah! you're prejudiced, my love. One cannot but be struck, at times, by the harshness with which even women of high principle, like yourself, judge other women."

"Possibly the highness of my principles may be accountable for my judgments—in some cases."

"Argument is very unrestful," the vicar remarked, turning over on his side.

"But there would be an end of conversation if I always agreed with you."

"Tut—tut," he murmured. Then with renewed plaintiveness—"I cannot make up my mind whether it is not my duty, my chivalrous duty, to seek an interview with Sir Charles Verity and explain—put the aspects of the case to him as I see them."

"Call on him by all means. I'll go with you. We ought, in common civility, to enquire for Damaris after this illness of hers. But don't explain or attempt to enlarge on the case from your own point of view. Sir Charles will consider it an impertinence. It won't advantage Miss Bilson and will embroil you with the most important of your parishioners. The wisdom of the serpent is permitted, on occasion even recommended."

"A most dangerous doctrine, Jane, most dangerous, save under authority."

"What authority can be superior to that under which the recommendation was originally given?"

"My love, you become slightly profane.—I implore you don't argue—and at this hour! When a woman touches on exegesis, on theology "—

"All I know upon those subjects you, dear, have taught me."

"Ah! well—ah! well"—the good man returned, at once mollified and suspicious. For might not the compliment be regarded as something of a back-hander? "We can defer our decision till to-morrow. Perhaps we had better, as you propose, call together. I need not go straight to the point, but watch my opportunity and slip in a word edgeways."

He audibly yawned—the hint, like the yawn, a broad one. The lady did not take it, however. So far she had held her own; more—had nicely secured her ends. But further communications trembled upon her tongue. The word is just—literally trembled, for they might cause anger, and James' anger—it happened rarely—she held in quite, to herself, uncomfortable respect.

"I fear there is a good deal of objectionable gossip going about the village just now," she tentatively commenced.

"Then pray don't repeat it to me, my love"—another yawn and an irritable one. "Gossip as you know is abhorrent to me."

"And to me—but one needs to be forearmed with the truth if one is to rebut it conclusively. Only upon such grounds should I think of mentioning this to you."

She made a dash.

"James, have you by chance ever heard peculiar rumours about young Darcy Faircloth's parentage?"

"In mercy, Jane—what a question!—and from you! I am inexpressibly shocked."

"So was I, when—I won't mention names—when such rumours were hinted to me. I assured the person with whom I was talking that I had never heard a word on the subject. But she said, 'One can't help having eyes.'"

"Or, some of you, noses for carrion."

Here he gave her the advantage. She was not slow to make play with it.

"Now it is my turn to be shocked," she said—"and not, I think, James, without good cause."

"Yes, I apologize," the excellent man answered immediately. "I apologize; but to have so foul a suggestion of parochial scandal let loose on me suddenly, flung in my teeth, as I may say—and by you! I was taken off my guard and expressed myself coarsely. Yes, Jane, I apologize."

"Then I have you authority for contradicting these rumours?"

The Vicar of Deadham groaned in the darkness, and rustled under the bedclothes. His perplexity was great on being thus confronted by the time-honoured question as to how far, in the interests of public morality, it is justifiable for the private individual roundly to lie. Finally he banked on compromise, that permanently presiding genius of the Church of England 'as by law established.'

"You have me on the hip, my love," he told his wife quite meekly.

But, as she began rather eagerly to speak, he stopped her.

"Let be, my dear Jane," he bade her, "let be. I neither deny or confirm the rumours to which I imagine you allude. Silence is most becoming for us both. Continue to assure any persons, ill-advised and evil-minded enough to approach you—I trust they may prove but few—that you have never heard a word of this subject. You will never—I can confidently promise you—hear one from me.—I shall make it my duty to preach on the iniquity of back-biting, tale-bearing, scandal-mongering next Sunday, and put some to the blush, as I trust. St. Paul will furnish me with more than one text eminently apposite.—Let me think—let me see—hum—ah! yes."

And he fell to quoting from the Pauline epistles in Greek—to the lively annoyance of his auditor, whose education, though solid did not include a knowledge of those languages vulgarly known as "dead." She naturally sought means to round on him.

"Might you not compromise yourself rather by such a sermon, James?" she presently said.

"Compromise myself? Certainly not.—Pray, Jane, how?"

"By laying yourself open to the suspicion of a larger acquaintance with the origin of those rumours than you are willing to admit."

The shaft went home.

"This is a mere attempt to draw me. You are disingenuous."

"Nothing of the sort," the lady declared. "My one object is to protect you from criticism. And preaching upon gossip must invite rather than allay interest, thus giving this particular gossip a new lease of life. The application would be too obvious. Clearly, James, it would be wiser to wait."

"The serpent, again the serpent—and one I've warmed in my bosom, too"—Then aloud—"I will think it over, my love. Possibly your view may be the right one. It is worth consideration.—That must be sufficient. And now, Jane, I do implore you give over discussion and let us say good night."

It may be registered as among the consequences of these nocturnal exercises, that Dr. Horniblow abstained from tickling the ears of his congregation, on the following Sunday, with a homily founded upon the sin tale-bearing; and that he duly called, next day, at The Hard accompanied by his wife.

The visit—not inconceivably to his inward thanksgiving—proved unfruitful of opportunity for excusing Miss Bilson, to her former employer, by accusing himself, Sir Charles Verity's courtesy being of an order calculated to discourage any approach to personal topics. Unfruitful, also, of enlightenment to Mrs. Horniblow respecting matters which—as the good lady ashamedly confessed to herself—although forbidden by her lord, still intrigued her while, of course, they most suitably shocked. For the life of her she could not help looking out for signs of disturbance and upheaval. But found none, unless—and that presented a conundrum difficult of solution—Damaris' pretty social readiness and grace in the reception of her guests might be, in some way, referable to lately reported events. That, and the fact the young girl was—as the saying is—"all eyes"—eyes calm, fathomless, reflective, which yet, when you happened to enter their sphere of vision, covered you with a new-born gentleness. Mrs. Horniblow caught herself growing lyrical—thinking of stars, of twin mountain lakes, the blue-purple of ocean. A girl in love is blessed with just such eyes—sometimes. Whereupon, remembering her own two girls, May and Doris—good as gold, bless them, yet, her shrewdness pronounced, when compared with Damaris, but homely pieces—the excellent woman sighed.

What did it all then amount to? Mrs. Horniblow's logic failed. "All eyes"—and very lovely ones at that—Damaris might be; yet her tranquillity and serenity appeared beyond question. Must thrilling mystery be voted no more than a mare's-nest?—Only, did not the fact remain that James had refused to commit himself either way, thereby naturally landing himself in affirmation up to the neck? She gave it up.

But, even in the giving up, could not resist probing just a little. The two gentlemen were out of earshot, standing near the glass door.—How James' black, bow-windowed figure and the fixed red in his clean-shaven, slightly pendulous cheeks, did show up to be sure, in the light!—Unprofitable gift of observation, for possession of which she so frequently had cause to reproach herself.—

"You still look a little run down and pale, my dear," she said. "It isn't for me to advise, but wouldn't a change of air and scene be good, don't you think?"

Damaris assured her not—in any case not yet. Later, after Christmas, she and her father might very likely go abroad. But till then they had a full programme of guests.

"Colonel Carteret comes to us next week; and my aunt Felicia always likes to be here in November. She enjoys that month at the seaside, finding it, she says, so poetic."

Damaris smiled, her eyes at once, and more than ever, eloquent and unfathomable.

"And I learned only this morning an old Anglo-Indian friend of ours, Mrs. Mackinder, whom I should be quite dreadfully sorry to miss, is spending the autumn at Stourmouth."

Mrs. Horniblow permitted herself a dash.

"At Stourmouth—yes?" she ventured. "That reminds me. I hear—how far the information is correct I cannot pretend to say—that kind little person, Miss Bilson, has been there with Miss Verity this last week. I observed we had not met her in the village just lately. I hope you have good news of her. When is she expected back?"

Without hesitation or agitation came the counter-stroke.

"I don't know," Damaris answered. "Her plans, I believe, are uncertain at present. You and Dr. Horniblow will stay to tea with us, won't you?"—this charmingly. "It will be here in a very few minutes—I can ring for it at once."

And the lady laughed to herself, good-temperedly accepting the rebuff. For it was neatly delivered, and she could admire clever fencing even though she herself were pinked.—As to tea, she protested positive shame at prolonging her visit—for didn't it already amount rather to a "visitation?"—yet retained her seat with every appearance of satisfaction.—If the truth must be told, Mrs. Cooper's cakes were renowned throughout society at Deadham, as of the richest, the most melting in the mouth; and James—hence not improbably the tendency to abdominal protuberance—possessed an inordinate fondness for cakes. He had shown himself so docile in respect of projected inflammatory sermons, and of morning calls personally conducted by his wife, that the latter could not find it in her heart to ravish him away from these approaching very toothsome delights. Nay—let him stay and eat—for was not such staying good policy, she further reflected, advertising the fact she bore no shadow of malice towards her youthful hostess for that neatly delivered rebuff.

After this sort, therefore, was gossip, for the time being at all events, scotched if not actually killed. Parochial excitement flagged the sooner, no doubt, because, of the four persons chiefly responsible for its creation, two were invisible and the remaining two apparently quite unconscious of its ever having existed.—Mrs. Lesbia Faircloth, at the Inn, the Vicar's wife left out of the count.—If Sir Charles Verity and Damaris had hurried away, gossip would have run after them with liveliest yelpings. But this practise of masterly inactivity routed criticism. How far was it studied, cynical on the part of the father, or innocent upon that of the daughter, she could not tell one bit; but that practically it carried success along with it, she saw to be indubitable. "Face the music and the band stops playing"—so she put it to herself, as she walked down the drive to the front gate, her James—was he just a trifle crestfallen, good man?—strolling, umbrella in hand, beside her.

All subsequent outbreaks of gossip may be described as merely sporadic. They did not spread. As when, for instance, peppery little Dr. Cripps—still smarting under Dr. McCabe's introduction into preserves he had reckoned exclusively his own—advised himself to throw off a nasty word or so on the subject to Commander Battye and Captain Taylor, over strong waters and cigars in his surgery—tea, the ladies, and the card-table left to their own devices in the drawing-room meanwhile—one evening after a rubber of whist.

"Damn bad taste, I call it, in a newcomer like Cripps," the sailor had remarked later to the soldier. "But if a man isn't a gentleman what can you expect?"—And with that, as among local persons of quality, the matter finally dropped.

Mrs. Doubleday and Butcher Cleave, to give an example from a lower social level, agreed, across the former's counter in the village shop, that—

"It is the duty of every true Christian to let bygones be bygones—and a downright flying in the face of Providence, as you may say, to do otherwise, when good customers, whose money you're sure of, are so scarce. For without The Hard and—to give everyone their due—without the Island also, where would trade have been in Deadham these ten years and more past? Mum's the word, take it from me,"—and each did take it from the other, with rich conviction of successfully making the best of both worlds, securing eternal treasure in Heaven while cornering excellent profits on earth.

William Jennifer had many comments to make in the matter, and with praiseworthy reticence concluded to make them mainly to himself. The majority of them, it is to be feared, were humorous to the point of being unsuited to print, but the refrain may pass—

"And to think if I hadn't happened to choose that particular day to take the little dorgs and the ferrets ratting, the 'ole bleesed howd'ye do might never have come to pass! Tidy sum, young master Darcy's in my debt, Lord succour him, for the rest of his nat'ral life!"



BOOK III

THE WORLD BEYOND THE FOREST



CHAPTER I

AN EPISODE IN THE EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE OF THE MAN WITH THE BLUE EYES

Thus far, for the surer basing of our argument, it has appeared advisable to proceed step by step. But the foundations being now well and truly laid, the pace of our narrative may, with advantage, quicken; a twelve month be rounded up in a page, a decade, should convenience so dictate, in a chapter.

To the furthering of which advance, let it be stated that the close of the year still in question marked the date, for Damaris, of two matters of cardinal importance. For it was then Sir Charles Verity commenced writing his history of the reign of Shere Ali, covering the eleven years following the latter's accession to the very turbulent throne of Afghanistan in 1863.—Colonel Carteret may be held mainly responsible for the inception of this literary enterprise, now generally acclaimed a classic. Had not Sir William Napier, so he argued, made the soldier, as historian, for ever famous? And why should not Charles Verity, with his unique knowledge of court intrigues, of the people and the country, do for the campaigns of the semi-barbarous Eastern ruler, that which Sir William had done for Wellington's campaign in the Spanish Peninsular?

Carteret prophesied—and truly as the event richly proved—a finely fascinating book would eventually come of it. Meanwhile—though this argument, in favour of the scheme, he kept to himself—the preparation of the said book would supply occupation and interest of which his old friend appeared to him to stand rather gravely in need. For that something was, just now, amiss with Charles Verity, Carteret could not disguise from himself. He was changed, in a way a little broken—so at least the younger man's kindly, keenly observant, blue eyes regretfully judged him. He fell into long silences, seeming to sink away into some abyss of cheerless thought; while his speech had, too often, a bitter edge to it. Carteret mourned these indications of an unhappy frame of mind. Did more—sought by all means in his power to conjure them away.

"We must make your father fight his battles over again, dear witch," he told Damaris, pacing the terrace walk topping the sea-wall beside her, one evening in the early November dusk. "His record is a very brilliant one and he ought to get more comfort out of the remembrance of it. Let's conspire, you and I, to make him sun himself in the achievements and activities of those earlier years. What do you say?"

"Oh! do it, do it," she answered fervently. "He is sad—and I am so afraid that it is partly my fault."

"Your fault? Why what wicked practises have you been up to since I was here last?" he asked, teasing her.

A question evoking, in Damaris, sharp inward debate. For her father's melancholy humour weighed on her, causing her perplexity and a measure of self-reproach. She would have given immensely much to unburden herself to this wise and faithful counsellor; and confide to him the—to her—strangely moving fact of Darcy Faircloth's existence. Yet, notwithstanding her conviction of Colonel Carteret's absolute loyalty, she hesitated; restrained in part by modesty, in part by the fear of being treacherous. Would it be altogether honourable to give away the secret places of Charles Verity's life—of any man's life if it came to that—even to so honourable and trusted a friend? She felt handicapped by her own ignorance moreover, having neither standards nor precedents for guidance. She had no idea—how should she?—in what way most men regard such affairs, how far they accept and condone, how far condemn them. She could not tell whether she was dealing with a case original and extraordinary, or one of pretty frequent occurrence in the experience of those who, as the phrase has it, know their world. These considerations kept her timid and tongue-tied; though old habit, combined with Carteret's delightful personality and the soothing influence of the dusky evening quiet, inclined her to confidences.

"It's not anything I've done," she presently took him up gravely. "But, quite by chance, I learned something which I think the Commissioner Sahib would rather not have had me hear. I had to be quite truthful with him about it; but I was bewildered and ill. I blurted things out rather I'm afraid, and hurt him more than I need have done. I was so taken by surprise, you see."

"Yes, I see," Carteret said, regardless of strict veracity. For he didn't see, though he believed himself on the road to seeing and that some matter of singular moment.

"He was beautiful to me—beautiful about everything—everybody," she asserted. "And we love one another not less, but more, he and I—of that I am sure. Only it's different—different. We can't either of us quite go back to the time before—and that has helped to make him sad."

Carteret listened in increasing interest aware that he sounded unlooked-for depths, apprehensive lest those depths should harbour disastrous occurrences. He walked the length of the terrace before again speaking. Then, no longer teasing but gently and seriously, he asked her:

"Do you feel free to tell me openly about this, and let me try to help you—if it's a case for help?"

Damaris shook her head, looking up at him through the soft enclosing murk, and smiling rather ruefully.

"I wish I knew—I do so wish I knew," she said. "But I don't—not yet, anyway. Help me without my telling you, please. The book is a splendid idea. And then do you think you could persuade him to let us go away abroad, for a time? Everything here must remind him—as it does me—of what happened. It was quite right," she went on judicially—"for everyone's sake, we should stay here just the same at first. People," with a scornful lift of the head Carteret noted and admired—"might have mistaken our reason for going away. They had to be made to understand we were perfectly indifferent.—I knew all that, though we never discussed it. One does things, sometimes, just because it's right they should be done, without any sort of planning—just by instinct. Still I know we can't be quite natural here. What happened comes between us. We're each anxious about the other and feel a constraint, though we never speak of it. That can't be avoided, I suppose, for we both suffered a good deal at the time—but he most, much the most because"—

Damaris paused.

"Because why?"

"I suppose because I'm young; and then, once I got accustomed to the idea, I saw it meant what was very wonderful in some ways—a wonderfulness which, for me, would go on and on—a whole new country for me to explore and travel in, quite my own—and—and—which I couldn't help loving."

"Heigh ho! heigh ho!" Carteret put in softly. "This becomes exciting, dear witch, you know."

"I don't want to be tantalizing," she answered him, still pacing in the growing dimness of land and sea.

The dead black mass of the great ilex trees looked to touch the low hanging sky. A grey gleam, here and there, lit the surface of the swirling tide-river. The boom of the slow plunging waves came from the back of the Bar, and now and again wild-fowl cried, faint and distant, out on the mud-flats of the Haven.

"Listen," Damaris said. "It is mournful here. It tells you the same things over and over again. It sort of insists on them. The place seems so peaceful, but it never lets you alone, really. And now, after what happened, it never leaves him—the Commissioner Sahib—alone. It repeats the same story to him over and over again. It wears him as dropping water wears away stone. And there is no longer the same reason for staying there was at first. Persuade him to go away, to take me abroad. And come with us—couldn't you?—for a little while at least. Is it selfish to ask you to leave your hunting and shooting so early in the season? I don't want to be selfish. But he isn't well. Whether he isn't well in his body or only in his thinkings, I can't tell. But it troubles me. He sleeps badly, I am afraid. The nights must be very long and lonely when one can't sleep.—If you would come, it would be so lovely. I should feel so safe about him. You and the book should cure him between you. I'm perfectly sure of that. To have you would make us both so happy"—

And, in her innocent importunity, Damaris slipped her hand within Colonel Carteret's arm sweetly coaxing him.

He started slightly. Threw back his head, standing, straight and tall, in the mysterious twilight beside her. Raised his deerstalker cap, for a moment, letting the moist chill of the November evening dwell on his hair and forehead.

Though very popular with women, Carteret had never married, making a home for his elder sister, Mrs. Dreydel—widow of a friend and fellow officer in the then famous "Guides"—and her four sturdy, good-looking boys at the Norfolk manor-house, which had witnessed his own birth and those of a long line of his ancestors. To bring up a family of his own, in addition to his sister's, would have been too costly, and debt he abhorred. Therefore, such devoirs as he paid the great goddess Aphrodite, were but few and fugitive—he being by nature and temperament an idealist and a notably clean liver. By his abstention, however, sentiment was fine-trained rather than extinguished. His heart remained young, capable of being thrilled in instant response to any appeal of high and delicate quality. It thrilled very sensibly, now, in response to the appeal of Damaris' hand, emphasizing her tender pleading regarding her father. She touched, she charmed him to an extent which obliged him rather sharply to call his senses to order. Hadn't he known her ever since she was a babe a span long? Wasn't she, according to all reason, a babe still, in as far as any decently minded male being of his mature age could be concerned? He told himself, at once humorously and sternly, he ought to feel so, think so—whether he did or not. And ought, in his case, was a word not to be played fast and loose with. Once uttered it must be obeyed.

Wherefore, thus conclusively self-admonished, he put his cap on his head again and, bending a little over Damaris, patted her hand affectionately as it rested upon his arm.

"Very good—I'll hold myself and my future at your disposition," he gaily said to her. "As much hunting and shooting as I care for will very well keep. Don't bother your pretty head about them. During the Christmas holidays, my nephews will be ready enough, in all conscience, to let fly with my guns and ride my horses, so neither will be wasted. I'll go along with you gladly, for no man living is dearer to me than your father, and no business could be more to my taste than scotching and killing the demons which plague him. They plague all of us, in some form or other, at times, as life goes on."

Very gently he disengaged his arm from her hand.

"Take me indoors," he said, "and give me my tea—over which we'll further discuss plots for kidnapping Verity and carrying him off south. The French Riviera for preference?—Hullo—what the deuce is that?"

For, as he spoke, the two cats appearing with miraculous suddenness out of nowhere—as is the custom of their priceless tribe—rushed wildly past. Fierce, sinuous, infinitely graceful shapes, leaping high in air, making strange noises, chirrupings and squeakings, thudding of quick little paws, as they chased one another round the antiquated, seaward-trained cannon and pyramid of ball.

For a minute or so Damaris watched them, softly laughing. Then, in the content bred of Carteret's promise and the joy of coming travel, something of their frisky spirit caught her too—a spirit which, for all young creatures, magically haunts the dusk. And, as they presently fled away up the lawn, Damaris fled after them, circling over the moist grass, darting hither and thither, alternately pursuing and pursued.

Colonel Carteret, following soberly, revolving many thoughts, did not overtake her until the garden door was reached. There, upon the threshold, the light from within covering and revealing her, she awaited him. Her bosom rose and fell, her breathing being a little hurried, her face a little flushed. Her grave eyes sparkled and danced.

"Oh! you've made me so glad, so dreadfully glad," she said. "And I never properly thanked you. Forgive me. I never can resist them—I went mad with the cats."

Her young beauty appeared to Carteret very notable; and, yes—although she might disport herself in this childishly frolic fashion—it was idle to call her, or pretend her any longer a babe. For cause to him unknown, through force of some experience of which he remained ignorant, she had undeniably come into the charm and mystery of her womanhood—a very fair and noble blossoming before which reverently, if wistfully, he bowed his head.

"It's good to have you declare yourself glad, dear witch, in that case I'm glad too," he answered her. "But as to forgiveness, I'm inclined to hold it over until you leave off being tantalizing—and, upon my word, I find you uncommonly far from leaving off just now!"

"You mean until I tell you what happened?"

Carteret nodded, searching her face with wise, fearless, smiling eyes.

"Ah! yes," he said, "we can put it that way if you please." Damaris hesitated detecting some undercurrent of meaning which puzzled her.

"I may never have to tell you. My father may speak of it—or you may just see for yourself. Only then, then"—she with a moving earnestness prayed him—"be kind, be lenient. Don't judge harshly—promise me you won't."

And as she spoke her expression softened to a great and unconscious tenderness; for she beheld, in thought, a wide-winged sea-bird, above certain letters, tattooed in indigo and crimson upon the back of a lean shapely brown hand.

"I promise you," Carteret said, and passed in at the door marvelling somewhat sadly.

"Is it that?" he asked himself. "If so, it comes early. Has she gone the way of all flesh and fallen in love?"

And this conversation, as shall presently be set forth, ushered in that second matter of cardinal importance, already referred to, which for Damaris marked the close of this eventful year.



CHAPTER II

TELLING HOW DAMARIS RENEWED HER ACQUAINTANCE WITH THE BELOVED LADY OF HER INFANCY

The windows of the sitting-room—upon the first floor of the long, three-storied, yellow-painted hotel—commanded a vast and glittering panorama of indented coast-line and purple sea. Here and there, in the middle distance, little towns, pale-walled and glistering, climbed upward amid gardens and olive yards from the rocky shore. Heathlands and pine groves covered the intervening headlands and steep valleys, save where meadows marked the course of some descending stream. To the north-east, above dark wooded foot-hills, the flushed whiteness of snow-summits cut delicately into the solid blue of the sky.

Stretched upon the sun-faded, once scarlet cushions of the window-seat, Damaris absorbed her fill of light, and warmth, and colour. Pleading imperative feminine mendings, she stayed at home this afternoon. She felt disposed to rest—here in the middle of her pasture, so to say—and resting, both count her blessings and dream, offering hospitality to all and any pleasant visions which might elect to visit her. And, indeed, those blessings appeared a goodly company, worthy of congratulation and of gratitude. She let the black silk stocking, the toe of which she affected to darn, slip neglected on to the floor while she added up the pleasant column of them.

The journey might be counted as a success—that to start with. For her father was certainly better, readier of speech and of interest in outside things. Oh! the dear "man with the blue eyes" had a marvellous hand on him—tactful, able, devoted, always serene, often even gay. Never could there be another so perfect, because so sane and comfortable, a friend. Her debt to him was of old standing and still for ever grew. How she could ever pay it she didn't know! Which consideration, for an instant, clouded her content. Not that she felt the obligation irksome; but, that out of pure affection, she wanted to make him some return, some acknowledgment; wanted to give, since to her he had so lavishly given.

Then the book—of all Carteret's clever manipulations the cleverest! For hadn't it begun to grip her father, and that quite divertingly much? He was occupied with it to the point of really being a tiny bit self-conscious and shy. Keen on it, transparently eager—though contemptuous, in high mighty sort, of course, of his own eagerness when he remembered. Only, more than half the time he so deliciously failed to remember.—And with that Damaris' thought took another turn, a more private and personal one.

For in truth the book gripped her, too, in most intimate and novel fashion, revealing to her the enchantments of an art in process of being actively realized in living, constructive effort. Herein she found, not the amazement of a new thing, but of a thing so natural that it appeared just a part of her very self, though, until now, an undiscovered one. To read other people's books is a joyous employment, as she well knew; but to make a book all one's own self, to watch and compel its growth into coherent form and purpose is—so she began to suspect—among the rarest delights granted to mortal man.

Her own share of such making, in the present case, was of the humblest it is true, mere spade labour and hod-bearing—namely, writing from Charles Verity's dictation, verifying names and dates, checking references and quotations. Still each arresting phrase, each felicitous expression, the dramatic ring of some virile word, the broad onward sweep of stately prose in narrative or sustained description, not only charmed her ear but challenged her creative faculty. She put herself to school in respect of it all, learning day by day a lesson.—This was the way it should be done. Ambition prodded her on.—For mightn't she aspire to do it too, some day? Mightn't, granted patience and application, the writing of books prove to be her business, her vocation? The idea floated before her, vague as yet, though infinitely beguiling. Whereupon the whole world took on a new significance and splendour, as it needs must when nascent talent claims its own, asserts its dawning right to dominion and to freedom.

And there the pathos of her father's position touched her nearly. For wasn't it a little cruel this remarkable gift of his should so long have lain dormant, unsuspected by his friends, unknown to the reading public, only to disclose itself, and that by the merest hazard, as a last resource?—It did not seem fair that he had not earlier found and enjoyed his literary birthright.

Damaris propounded this view to Colonel Carteret with some heat. But he smilingly discounted her fondly indignant lament.

"Better late than never anyhow, my dear witch," he said. "And just picture the satisfaction of this brilliant rally when, as we'd reason to believe, he himself reckoned the game was up! Oh! there are points about a tardy harvest such as this, by no means to be despised. Thrice blessed the man who, like your father, finding such a harvest, also finds it to be of a sort he can without scruple reap."

Of which cryptic utterance Damaris, at the time, could—to quote her own phrase—"make no sense!"—Nor could she make sense of it, now, when counting her blessings, she rested, in happy idleness, upon the faded scarlet cushions of the window-seat.

She remembered the occasion quite well on which Carteret thus expressed himself one afternoon, during their stay in Paris, on the southward journey. She had worn a new myrtle-green, black-braided, fur-trimmed cloth pelisse and hat to match, as she also remembered, bought the day before at a fascinating shop in the Rue Castiglione. Agreeably conscious her clothes were not only very much "the right thing" but decidedly becoming, she had gone, with him, to pay a visit of ceremony at the convent school—near the Church of St. Germain-les-Pres—where, as a little girl of six, fresh from India and the high dignities of the Bhutpur Sultan-i-bagh, she had been deposited by her father's old friend, Mrs. John Pereira, who had brought her and Sarah Watson, her nurse, back to Europe.

The sojourn at the convent—once the surprise of translation from East to West, from reigning princess to little scholar was surmounted—proved fertile in gentle memories. The visit of to-day, not only revived these memories, but added to their number. For it passed off charmingly. Carteret seemed by no means out of place among the nuns—well-bred and gracious women of hidden, consecrated lives. They, indeed, appeared instinctively drawn to him and fluttered round him in the sweetest fashion imaginable; he, meanwhile, bearing himself towards them with an exquisite and simple courtesy beyond all praise. Never had Damaris admired the "man with the blue eyes" more, never felt a more perfect trust in him, than when beholding him as Mousquetaire au Couvent thus!

As they emerged again into the clear atmosphere and resonance of the Paris streets, and made their way back by the Rue du Bac, the Pont Royal and the gardens of the Tuileries, to their hotel in the Rue de Rivoli, Carteret spoke reverently of the religious life, and the marvellous adaptability of the Catholic system to every need, every attitude of the human heart and conscience. He spoke further of the loss those inevitably sustain, who—from whatever cause—stand outside the creeds, unable to set their spiritual God-ward hopes and aspirations within a definite external framework of doctrine and practice hallowed by tradition.

"I could almost wish those dear holy women had gathered your little soul into the fold, when they had you in their keeping and made a good Catholic of you, dearest witch," he told her. "It would have been a rather flagrant case of cradle-snatching, I own, but I can't help thinking it would have simplified many difficulties for you."

"And raised a good many, too," Damaris gaily answered him. "For Aunt Harriet Cowden would have been furious, and Aunt Felicia distressed and distracted; and poor Nannie—though she really got quite tame with the Sisters, and came to respect them in the end—would have broken her heart at my being taught to worship images, and have believed hell yawned to devour me. Oh! I think it was more fair to wait.—All the same I loved their religion—I love it still."

"Go on loving it," he bade her.—And at once turned the conversation to other themes—that of her father, Charles Verity among them, and the book on Afghanistan, the fair copy of the opening chapters of which was just completed.

Then, the stimulating, insistent vivacity of Paris going a little to Damaris' head—since urging, as always, to fullness of enterprise, fullness of endeavour, giving, as always, immense joy and value to the very fact of living—she lamented the late development of her father's literary genius. A lament which called forth Carteret's consolatory rejoinder, along with this—to her—cryptic assertion as to the thrice blessed state of the man whose harvest, when tardy, is of a description he need not scruple to reap.

"Why," she asked herself, "should he have said that unless with reference to himself. Reference to some private harvest which he himself scrupled to reap?"

Damaris slipped her feet from the cushioned window-seat to the floor, and stooping down recovered her fallen black silk stocking. She felt disturbed, slightly conscience-stricken. For it had never occurred to her, strong, able, serene of humour and of countenance as he was, that the "man with the blue eyes" could have personal worries, things—as she put it—he wanted yet doubted whether he ought to have. Surely his unfailing helpfulness and sympathy gave him the right, in fee-simple, to anything and everything he might happen to covet. That he should covet what was wrong, what was selfish, detrimental to others, seemed incredible. And the generous pity of her youthful tenderness, her impatience of all privation, all disappointment or denial for those she held in affection, overflowed in her. She longed to do whatever would greatly please him, to procure for him whatever he wanted. Wouldn't it be delicious to do that—if she could only find out!

But this last brought her up against a disquieting lesson lately learned.—Namely, against recognition of how very far the lives of men—even those we know most dearly and closely—and the lives of us women are really apart. She thought of her father and Darcy Faircloth and their entirely unsuspected relation. This dulled the edge of her enthusiasm. For wasn't it only too probably the same with them all? Loyalty compelled the question. Had not every man a secret, or secrets, only penetrable, both for his peace of mind and for your own, at considerable risk?

Damaris planted her elbows on the window-sill, her chin in the hollow of her hands. Her eyes were solemn, her face grave with thought.—Verily the increase of knowledge is the increase of perplexity, if not of actual sorrow. Even the apparently safest and straightest paths are beset with "pitfall and with gin" for whoso studies to pursue truth and refuse subscription to illusion. Your charity should be wide as the world towards others. Towards yourself narrow as a hair, lest you condone your own weakness, greed, or error. Of temptation to any save very venial sins Damaris had, in her own person, little conception as yet.—Still to a maiden of eighteen, though she may have a generous proportion of health and beauty, sufficient fortune and by no means contemptible intelligence, noble instincts, complications and distresses, both of the practical and theoretic order, may, and do, at times occur. Damaris suffered the shock of such now; and into what further jungles of cheerless speculation she might have been projected it is impossible to say, had not persons and events close at hand claimed her attention.

The Grand Hotel at St. Augustin is situated upon a long narrow promontory, which juts out into the sea at right angles to the main trend of the coast-line. It faces east, turning its back upon the little town—built on the site of a Roman colonial city, originally named in honour of the pagan Emperor rather than the Christian Confessor and ascetic. Mediaeval piety bestowed on it the saintly prefix, along with a round-arched cathedral church, of no great size, but massive proportions and somewhat gloomy aspect.

From the terrace garden and carriage drive, immediately in front of the hotel, the ground drops sharply, beneath scattered pines with undergrowth of heather, wild lavender, gum-cistus, juniper, mastic and myrtle, to the narrow white beach a hundred feet below. Little paths traverse the rough descent. And up one of these, halting to rest now and then on a conveniently placed bench in the shade of some spreading umbrella pine, to discourse to the company of gentlemen following in her wake, or contemplate the view, came a notably graceful and telling figure.

As the lady advanced with leisurely composure, Damaris, gazing down from her point of vantage in the first floor window, received the impression of a person almost extravagantly finished and feminine, in which all irregularities and originalities of Nature had suffered obliteration by the action of art. Not art of the grosser sort, dependent on dyes, paint and cosmetics. The obliteration was not superficial merely, and must have been achieved by processes at once subtle and profound. The result obtained, however, showed unquestionably charming—if in a line slightly finical and exotic—as she picked her way through the fragrant undergrowth of the pine wood, slanting sunshine playing on her dark blue raiment, wide-brimmed white hat, and floating veil.

Coming completely into view at last, when stepping from the path on to the level carriage drive, a gold chain she wore, from which dangled a little bunch of trinkets and a long-handled lorgnette, glinted, catching the light. Damaris gave an exclamation of sudden and rapturous recognition. So far she had had eyes for the lady only; but now she took a rapid scrutiny of the latter's attendants. With two of them she was unacquainted. The other two were her father and Carteret.

Whereupon rapture gave place to a pang of jealous alarm and resentment. For they belonged to her, those dear two; and to see them even thus temporarily appropriated by someone else caused her surprising agitation. They had been so good, so apparently content, alone with her upon this journey. It would be too trying, too really intolerable to have outsiders interfere and break up their delightful solitude a trois, their delightful intercourse! Yet, almost immediately, the girl flushed, going hot all over with shame, scolding herself for even passing entertainment of such unworthy and selfish emotions.

"For it is Henrietta Pereira," she said half aloud. "My own darling, long-ago Henrietta, who used to be so beautifully kind to me and give me presents I loved above everything."

And, after a pause, the note of alarm sounding again though modified to wistfulness—

"Will she care for me still, and shall I still care for her—but I must care—I must—now I'm grown up?"

To set which disturbing questions finally at rest, being a valiant young creature, Damaris permitted herself no second thoughts, no vacillation or delay; but went straight downstairs and crossing the strip of terrace garden, bare-headed as she was, waited at the head of the steps leading up from the carriage drive to greet the idol of her guileless infancy.

To Colonel Carteret who, bringing up the rear of the little procession was the first to notice her advent, she made a touching and gallant picture. Her face had gone very pale and he saw, or fancied he saw, her lips tremble. But her solemn eyes shone with a steady light, and, whatever the excitement affecting her, she held it bravely in check. Noting all which he could not but speculate as to whether she had any knowledge of a certain romantic attachment—culminating on the one hand in an act of virtuous treachery, on the other in an act of renunciation—which had overshadowed and wrenched from its natural sequence so large a portion of her father's life. He earnestly hoped she was ignorant of all that; although the act of renunciation, made for her, Damaris' sake, represented a magnificent gesture if an exaggerated and almost fanatical one, on Charles Verity's part. It gave the measure of the man's fortitude, the measure of his paternal devotion. Still knowledge of it might, only too readily, prove a heavy burden to a young girl's imaginative and tender conscience. Yes—he hoped she had been spared that knowledge.

If she had escaped it thus far—as he reflected not without amusement—the other actor in that rather tragic drama, now so unexpectedly and arrestingly present in the flesh, could be trusted not to enlighten her. He knew Henrietta Pereira of old, bless her hard little heart. Not only did she detest tragedy, but positively revelled in any situation where clever avoidance of everything even remotely approaching it was open to her. She ruled the sublime and the ridiculous alike impartially out of the social relation; and that with so light though determined a touch, so convincing yet astute a tact and delicacy, you were constrained not only to submit to, but applaud her strategy.

Had she not within the very last hour given a masterly example of her powers in this line? For when he, Carteret, and Charles Verity, strolling in all innocence along the shore path back from St. Augustin, had to their infinite astonishment met her and her attendant swains face to face, she hadn't turned a hair. Her nerve was invincible. After clasping the hand of each in turn with the prettiest enthusiasm, she had introduced—"My husband, General Frayling—Mr. Marshall Wace, his cousin," with the utmost composure. Thus making over to them any awkwardness which might be going and effectually ridding herself of it.

Carteret felt his jaw drop for the moment.—He had heard of John Pereira's death two years ago, and welcomed the news on her account, since, if report said true, that dashing cavalry officer had taken to evil courses. Gambling and liquor made him a nuisance, not to say disgrace to his regiment, and how much greater a one to his wife. Poor thing, she must have had a lot to endure and that of the most sordid! It wasn't nice to think about. Clearly Pereira's removal afforded matter for thankfulness.

But of this speedy reconstruction on her part, in the shape of a third matrimonial venture, he had heard never a word. How would Verity take it?—Apparently with a composure as complete as her own.—And then the inherent humour of the position, and her immense skill and coolness in the treatment of it, came uppermost. Carteret felt bound to support her and help her out by accepting her little old General—lean-shanked and livery, with pompously outstanding chest, aggressive white moustache and mild appealing eye—as a matter of course. Bound to buck him up, and encourage him in the belief he struck a stranger as the terrible fellow he would so like to be, and so very much feared that he wasn't. Carteret's large charity came into play in respect of the superannuated warrior; who presented a pathetically inadequate effect, specially when seen, as now, alongside Charles Verity. Surely the contrast must hit the fair Henrietta rather hard? Carteret expended himself in kindly civilities, therefore, going so far as to say "sir" once or twice in addressing Frayling. Whereat the latter's timorous step grew almost jaunty and his chest more than ever inflated.

If Henrietta carried things off to admiration in the first amazement of impact, she carried them off equally to admiration in her meeting with Damaris. It was the prettiest little scene in the world.

For reaching up and placing her hands on the girl's shoulders her chiselled face—distinct yet fragile in outline as some rare cameo—suffused for once with transparent, shell-like pink, she kissed Damaris on either cheek.

"Ah! precious child, most precious child," she fondly murmured. "What an enchanting surprise! How little I imagined such a joy was in store for me when I came out this afternoon!"

And louder, for the benefit of the assistants.

"Yes—here are my husband, General Frayling, and Mr. Wace his cousin—he shall sing to you some day—that by the way—who is travelling with us. But they must talk to you later. I can't spare you to them now. I am greedy after our long separation and want to have you all to myself."

And, including the four gentlemen in a gesture of friendly farewell, she put her arm round Damaris' waist, gently compelling her in the direction of a group of buff-painted iron chairs, placed in a semicircle in the shade of ilex and pine trees at the end of the terrace.

"I have so much to hear," she said, "so many dropped threads to pick up, and it is impossible to talk comfortably and confidentially in a crowd. Our men must really contrive to play about by themselves for a little while and leave me to enjoy you in peace."

"But won't they mind?" Damaris asked, upon whom the spell of the elder woman's personality began sensibly to work.

"Let them mind, let them mind," she threw off airily in answer. "So much the better. It will do them good. It is excellent discipline for men to find they can't always have exactly their own way."

Which assertion served to dissipate any last remnant of jealous alarm Damaris' mind may have unconsciously harboured. In its place shy curiosity blossomed, and quick intimate pleasure in so perfectly fashioned and furnished a creature. For wasn't her childish adoration fully justified? Wasn't her darling Henrietta a being altogether captivating and unique? Damaris loved the feeling of that arm and hand lightly clasping her waist. Loved the faint fragrance—hadn't it intoxicated her baby senses?—pervading Henrietta's hair, her clothes, her whole pretty person. Loved the tinkle of the bunch of trinkets dangling from the long chain which reached below her waist. She had feared disappointment. That, as she now perceived, was altogether superfluous. Henrietta enthralled her eyes, enthralled her affection. She longed to protect, to serve her, to stand between her and every rough wind which blew, because she was so pretty, so extraordinarily and completely civilized from head to foot.

No doubt in the generosity of her youthful inexperience Damaris exaggerated the lady's personal charm. Yet the dozen years intervening—since their last meeting—had, in truth, dealt mercifully with the latter's good looks. A trifle pinched, a trifle faded she might be, as compared with the Henrietta of twelve years ago; but immediately such damage, such wear and tear of the fleshly garment, showed at its least conspicuous. She negotiated the double encounter, as Carteret had noted, with admirable sang-froid; but not, as to the first one in any case, without considerably greater inward commotion than he gave her credit for. She was in fact keyed up by it, excited, taken out of herself to an unprecedented extent, her native optimism and egoism in singular disarray. Yet thereby, through that very excitement, she recaptured for the time being the physical loveliness of an earlier period. Beauty is very much a matter of circulation; and the blood cantered, not to say galloped, through Henrietta's veins.

The sight of Charles Verity did indeed put back the clock for her in most astounding sort. Henrietta was no victim of impulse. Each of her three marriages had been dictated by convenience, carefully thought out and calculated. Over neither husband had she, for ever so brief a period, lost her head. But over Charles Verity she had come perilously near losing it—once. That, it is not too much to say, constituted the greatest sensation, the greatest emotion of her experience. As a rule the most trying and embarrassing part of encountering a former lover is that you wonder what, under Heaven, induced you to like him so well? Here the position was reversed, so that Henrietta wondered—with a sickening little contraction of the heart—what, under Heaven, had prevented her liking him much more, why, under Heaven, she ever let him go? Of course, as things turned out, it was all for the best, since her insensibility made for righteousness, or anyhow for respectability—in the opinion of the world the same, if not an even superior article. She ought to congratulate herself, ought to feel thankful. Only just now she didn't. On the contrary she was shaken—consciously and most uncomfortably shaken to the very deepest of such depths as her shallow soul could boast—sitting here, on a buff-painted chair in the shade of the pines and ilex trees, in company with Damaris, holding the girl's hand in both her own with a clinging, slightly insistent, pressure as it rested upon her lap.

"Dearest child, I believe, though you have grown so tall, I should have recognized you anywhere," she said.

"And I you," Damaris echoed. "I did, I did, after just the first little minute."

"Ah! you've a memory for faces too?"

Her glance wandered to the group of men gathered before the hotel portico—Sir Charles and General Frayling side by side, engaged in civil if not particularly animated conversation. The two voices reached her with a singular difference of timbre and of tone. Carteret spoke, apparently making some proposition, some invitation, in response to which the four passed into the house.

Henrietta settled herself in her chair with a movement of sensible relief. While they remained there she must look, and it was not quite healthy to look.—Her good, little, old General, who only asked respectfully to adore and follow in her wake—a man of few demands and quite tidy fortune—and after poor, besotted, blustering, gambling, squashily sentimental and tearful Johnnie Pereira wasn't he a haven of rest—oh, positively a haven of rest? All the same she preferred his not standing there in juxtaposition to Charles Verity. She much preferred their all going indoors—Carteret along with the rest, if it came to that.

She turned and smiled upon Damaris.

"However good your memory for faces may be, I find it very sweet you should have recognized mine after 'just the first little minute,'" she said, with a coaxing touch of mimicry. "You haven't quite parted company with the baby I remember so well, even yet. I used to call you my downy owl, with solemn saucer eyes and fierce little beak. You were extraordinarily, really perplexingly like your father then. A miniature edition, but so faithful to the original it used, sometimes, to give me the quaintest jump."

Henrietta mused, raising one hand and fingering the lace at her throat as seeking to loosen it. Damaris watched fascinated, in a way troubled, by her extreme prettiness. Every point, every detail was so engagingly complete.

"You are like Sir Charles still; but I see something which is not him—the personal equation, I suppose, developing in you, the element which is individual, exclusively your own and yourself. I should enjoy exploring that."

She looked at Damaris very brightly for an instant, then looked down.

"I want to hear more about Sir Charles," she said. "Of all the distinguished men I have been fortunate enough to know, who—who have let me be their friend, no one has ever interested me more than he. We have known one another ever since I was a girl and his career meant so much to me. I followed it closely, rejoiced in his promotion, his successes; felt indignant—and said so—when he met with adverse criticism. I am speaking of his Indian career. When he accepted that Afghan command, it made a break. We lost touch, which I regretted immensely. From that time onward I only knew what any and everybody might know from the newspapers—except occasionally when I happened to meet Colonel Carteret."

The explanation was lengthy, laboured, not altogether spontaneous. Damaris vaguely mystified by it made no comment. Henrietta raised her head, glancing round from under lowered eyelids.

"You appreciate the ever-faithful Carteret?" she asked, an edge of eagerness in her voice.

"The dear 'man with the blue eyes?' Of course I love him, we both love him almost better than anybody in the world," Damaris warmly declared.

"And he manifestly returns your affection. But, dearest child, why 'almost.' Is that reservation intentional or merely accidental?"

Then seeing the girl's colour rise.

"Perhaps it's hardly a fair question. Forgive me. I forgot how long it is since we met, forgot I'm not, after all, talking to the precious little downy owl, who had no more serious secrets than such as might concern her large family of dolls."

"I am not sure the 'almost' was quite true." Damaris put in hastily, her cheeks more than ever aflame.

"Yes it was, most delicious child—I protest it was. And I'm not sure I'm altogether sorry."

Slightly, daintily, she kissed the flaming cheek.

"But I do love Colonel Carteret," Damaris repeated, with much wide-eyed earnestness. "I trust him and depend on him as I do on nobody else."

"'Almost' nobody else?"

Damaris shook her head. She felt a wee bit disappointed in Henrietta. This persistence displeased her as trivial, as lacking in perfection of breeding and taste.

"Quite nobody," she said. And without permitting time for rejoinder launched forth into the subject of the book on the campaigns of Shere Ali, which, as she explained, had been undertaken at Carteret's suggestion and with such encouraging result. She waxed eloquent regarding the progress of the volume and its high literary worth.

"But I was a little nervous lest my father should lose his interest and grow slack when we were alone, and he'd only me to talk things over with and to consult, so I begged Colonel Carteret to come abroad with us."

"Ah! I see—quite so," Henrietta murmured. "It was at your request."

"Yes. He was beautifully kind, as he always is. He agreed at once, gave up all his own plans and came."

"And stays"—Henrietta said.

"Yes, for the present. But to tell the truth I'm worried about his staying."

"Why?"—again with a just perceptible edge of eagerness.

"Because, of course, I have no right to trade on his kindness, even for my father's sake or the sake of the book."

"And that is your only reason?"

"Isn't it more than reason enough? There must be other people who want him and things of his own he wants to do. It would be odiously selfish of me to interfere by keeping him tied here. I have wondered lately whether I oughtn't to speak to him about it and urge his going home. I was worrying rather over that when you arrived this afternoon, and then the gladness of seeing you put it out of my head. But how I wish you would advise me, Henrietta, if it's not troubling you too much. You and they have been friends so long and you must know so much better than I can what's right. Tell me what is my duty—about his staying, I mean—to, to them both, do you think?"

Henrietta Frayling did not answer at once. Her delicate features perceptibly sharpened and hardened, her lips becoming thin as a thread.

"You're not vexed with me? I haven't been tiresome and asked you something I shouldn't?" Damaris softly exclaimed, smitten with alarm of unintended and unconscious offence.

"No—no—but you put a difficult question, since I have only impressions and those of the most, fugitive to guide me. Personally, I am always inclined to leave well alone."

"But is this well?—There's just the point."

"You are very anxious"—

"Yes, I am very anxious. You see I care dreadfully much."

Henrietta bent down, giving her attention to an inch of kilted silk petticoat, showing where it should not, beneath the hem of her blue skirt.

"I hesitate to give you advice; but I can give you my impressions—for what they may be worth. Seeing Colonel Carteret this afternoon he struck me as being in excellent case—enviably young for his years and content."

"You thought so? Yet that's just what has worried me. Once or twice lately I have not been sure he was quite content."

"Oh! you put it too high!" Henrietta threw off. "Can one ever be sure anyone—even one's own poor self—is quite content?"

And she looked round, bringing the whole artillery of her still great, if waning, loveliness suddenly to bear upon Damaris, dazzling, charming, confusing her, as she said:

"My precious child, has it never occurred to you Colonel Carteret may stay on, not against has will, but very much with it? Or occurred to you, further, not only that the pleasures of your father's society are by no means to be despised; but that you yourself are a rather remarkable product—as quaintly engagingly clever, as you are—well—shall we say—handsome, Damaris?"

"I am deputed to enquire whether you propose to take tea indoors, Miss Verity, or have it brought to you here; and, in the latter case, whether we have leave to join you?"

The speaker, Marshall Wace—a young man of about thirty years of age—may be described as soft in make, in colouring slightly hectic, in manner a subtle cross between the theatrical and the parsonic. Which, let it be added, is by no means to condemn him wholesale, laugh him off the stage or out of the pulpit. In certain circles, indeed, these traits, this blend, won for him unstinted sympathy and approval. He possessed talents in plenty, and these of an order peculiarly attractive to the amateur because tentative rather than commanding. Among his intimates he was seen and spoken of as one cloaked with the pathos of thwarted aspirations. Better health, less meagre private means and a backing of influence, what might he not have done? His star might have flamed to the zenith! Meanwhile it was a privilege to help him, to such extent as his extreme delicacy of feeling permitted. That it really permitted a good deal, one way or another, displaying considerable docility under the infliction of benefits, would have been coarse to perceive and unpardonably brutal to mention.—Such, anyhow, was the opinion held by his cousin, General Frayling, at whose expense he now enjoyed a recuperative sojourn upon the French Riviera. Some people, in short, have a gift of imposing themselves, and Marshall Wace may be counted among that conveniently endowed band.

He imposed himself now upon one at least of his hearers. For, though the address might seem studied, the voice delivering it was agreeable, causing Damaris, for the first time, consciously to notice this member of Mrs. Frayling's retinue. She felt amiably disposed towards him since his intrusion closed a conversation causing her no little disturbance of mind. Henrietta's last speech, in particular, set her nerves tingling with most conflicting emotions. If Henrietta so praised her that praise must be deserved, for who could be better qualified to give judgment on such a subject than the perfectly equipped Henrietta? Yet she shrank in distaste, touched in her maiden modesty and pride, from so frank an exposition of her own charms. It made her feel unclothed, stripped in the market-place—so to speak—and shamed. Secretly she had always hoped she was pretty rather than plain. She loved beauty and therefore naturally desired to possess it. But to have the fact of that possession thus baldly stated was another matter. It made her feel unnatural, as though joined to a creature with whom she was insufficiently acquainted, whose ways might not be her ways or its thoughts her thoughts. Therefore the young man, Marshall Wace, coming as a seasonable diversion from these extremely personal piercings and probings, found greater favour in her eyes than he otherwise might. And this with results, for Damaris' gratitude, once engaged, disdained to criticize, invariably tending to err on the super-generous side.

Yes, they would all have tea out here, if Henrietta was willing. And, if Henrietta would for the moment excuse her, she would go and order Hordle—her father's man—to see to the preparation of it himself. Foreign waiters, whatever their ability in other departments, have no natural understanding of a tea-pot and are liable to the weirdest ideas of cutting bread and butter.

With which, conscious she was guilty of somewhat incoherent chatter, Damaris sprang up and swung away along the terrace, through the clear tonic radiance, buoyant as a caged bird set free.

"Go with her, Marshall, go with her," Mrs. Frayling imperatively bade him.

"And leave you, Cousin Henrietta?"

She rose with a petulant gesture.

"Yes, go at once or you won't overtake her. I am tired, really wretchedly tired—and am best left alone."



CHAPTER III

WHICH CONCERNS ITSELF, INCIDENTALLY, WITH THE GRIEF OF A VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCE AND THE RECEPTION OF A BELATED CHRISTMAS GREETING

Henrietta Frayling left the Grand Hotel, that afternoon, in a chastened frame of mind. Misgivings oppressed her. She doubted—and even more than doubted—whether she had risen to the full height of her own reputation, whether she had not allowed opportunity to elude her, whether she had not lost ground difficult to regain. The affair was so astonishingly sprung upon her. The initial impact she withstood unbroken—and from this she derived a measure of consolation. But afterwards she weakened. She had felt too much—and that proved her undoing. It is foolish, because disabling, to feel.

Her treatment of Damaris she condemned as mistaken, admitting a point of temper. It is hard to forgive the younger generation their youth, the infinite attraction of their ingenuous freshness, the fact that they have the ball at their feet. Hence she avoided the society of the young of her own sex—as a rule. Girls are trying when pretty and intelligent, hardly less trying—though for other reasons—when the reverse. Boys she tolerated. In the eyes of young men she sunned herself taking her ease, since these are slow to criticize, swift to believe—between eighteen and eight-and-twenty, that is.—We speak of the mid-Victorian era and then obtaining masculine strain.

Misgivings continued to pursue her during the ensuing evening and even interfered with her slumbers during the night. This—most unusual occurrence—rendered her fretful. She reproached her tractable and distressed little General with having encouraged her to walk much too far. In future he swore to insist on the carriage, however confidently she might assert the need of active exertion. She pointed out the fallacy of rushing to extremes; which rather cruelly floored him, since "rushing," in any shape or form, had conspicuously passed out of his programme some considerable time ago.

"My wife is not at all herself," he told Marshall Wace, at breakfast next morning—"quite overdone, I am sorry to say, and upset. I blame myself. I must keep a tight hand on her and forbid over exertion."

With a small spoon, savagely, daringly he beat in the top of his boiled egg.

"I must be more watchful," he added. "Her nervous energy is deceptive. I must refuse to let it override my better judgment and take me in."

By luncheon time, however, Henrietta was altogether herself, save for a pretty pensiveness, and emerged with all her accustomed amiability from this temporary eclipse.

The Fraylings occupied a small detached villa, built in the grounds of the Hotel de la Plage—a rival and venerably senior establishment to the Grand Hotel—situate just within the confines of St. Augustin, where the town curves along the glistering shore to the western horn of the little bay. At the back of it runs the historic high road from Marseilles to the Italian frontier, passing through Cannes and Nice. Behind it, too, runs the railway with its many tunnels, following the same, though a somewhat less serpentine, course along the gracious coast.

To the ex-Anglo-Indian woman, society is as imperative a necessity as water to a fish. She must foregather or life loses all its savour; must entertain, be entertained, rub shoulders generally or she is lost. Henrietta Frayling suffered the accustomed fate, though to speak of rubbing shoulders in connection with her is to express oneself incorrectly to the verge of grossness. Her shoulders were of an order far too refined to rub or be rubbed. Nevertheless, after the shortest interval consistent with self-respect, such society as St. Augustin and its neighbourhood afforded found itself enmeshed in her dainty net. Mrs. Frayling's villa became a centre, where all English-speaking persons met. There she queened it, with her General as loyal henchman, and Marshall Wace as a professor of drawing-room talents of most varied sort.

Discovery of the party at the Grand Hotel, took the gilt off the gingerbread of such queenings, to a marked extent, making them look make-shifty, lamentably second-rate and cheap. Hence Henrietta's fretfulness in part. For with the exception of Lady Hermione Twells—widow of a once Colonial Governor—and the Honourable Mrs. Callowgas nee de Brett, relict of a former Bishop of Harchester, they were but scratch pack these local guests of hers. Soon, however, a scheme of putting that discovery to use broke in on her musings. The old friendship must, she feared, be counted dead. General Frayling's existence, in the capacity of husband, rendered any resurrection of it impracticable. She recognized that. Yet exhibition of its tombstone, were such exhibition compassable, could not fail to bring her honour and respect. She would shine by a reflected light, her glory all the greater that the witnesses of it were themselves obscure—Lady Hermione and Mrs. Callowgas excepted of course. Carteret's good-nature could be counted on to bring him to the villa. And Damaris must be annexed. Assuming the role and attitude of a vicarious motherhood, Henrietta herself could hardly fail to gain distinction. It was a touching part—specially when played by a childless woman only a little—yes, really only quite a little—past her prime.

Here, indeed, was a great idea, as she came to grasp the possibilities and scope of it. As chaperon to Damaris how many desirable doors would be open to her! Delicately Henrietta hugged herself perceiving that, other things being equal, her own career was by no means ended yet. Through Damaris might she not very well enter upon a fresh and effective phase of it? How often and how ruefully had she revolved the problem of advancing age, questioning how gracefully to confront that dreaded enemy, and endure its rather terrible imposition of hands without too glaring a loss of prestige and popularity! Might not Damaris' childish infatuation offer a solution of that haunting problem, always supposing the infatuation could be revived, be recreated?

Ah! what a double-dyed idiot she had been yesterday, in permitting feeling to outrun judgment!—With the liveliest satisfaction Henrietta could have boxed her own pretty ears in punishment of her passing weakness.—Yet surely time still remained wherein to retrieve her error and restore her ascendency. Damaris might be unusually clever; but she was also finely inexperienced, malleable, open to influence as yet. Let Henrietta then see to it, and that without delay or hesitation, bringing to bear every ingenious social art, and—if necessary—artifice, in which long practice had made her proficient.

To begin with she would humble herself by writing a sweet little letter to Damaris. In it she would both accuse and excuse her maladroitness of yesterday, pleading the shock of so unlooked-for a coming together and the host of memories evoked by it.—Would urge how deeply it affected her, overcame her in fact, rendering her incapable of saying half the affectionate things it was in her heart to say. She might touch on the subject of Damaris' personal appearance again; which, by literally taking her breath away, had contributed to her general undoing.—On second thoughts, however, she decided it would be politic to avoid that particular topic, since Damaris was evidently a little shy in respect of her own beauty.—Henrietta smiled to herself.—That is a form of shyness exceedingly juvenile, short-lived enough!

Marshall should act as her messenger, she being—as she could truthfully aver—eager her missive might reach its destination with all possible despatch. A letter, moreover, delivered by hand takes on an importance, makes a claim on the attention, greater than that of one received by post. There is a personal gesture in the former mode of transmission by no means to be despised in delicate operations such as the present—"I want to set myself right with you at once, dearest child, in case, as I fear, you may have a little misunderstood, me yesterday. Accident having so strangely restored us to one another, I long to hold you closely if you will let me do so."—Yes, it should run thus, the theme embroidered with high-flashing colour of Eastern reminiscence—the great subtropic garden of the Sultan-i-bagh, for example, its palms, orange grove and lotus tank, the call of the green parrots, chant of the well-coollie and creak of the primitive wooden gearing, as the yoke of cream white oxen trotted down and laboriously backed up the walled slope to the well-head.

Mrs. Frayling set herself to produce a very pretty piece of sentiment, nicely turned, decorated, worded, and succeeded to her own satisfaction. Might not she too, at this rate, claim possession of the literary gift—under stress of circumstance? The idea was a new one. It amused her.

And what if Damaris elected to show this precious effusion to her father, Sir Charles? Well, if the girl did, she did. It might just conceivably work on him also, to the restoration of past—infatuation?—Henrietta left the exact term in doubt. But her hope of such result was of the smallest. Exhibition of a tombstone was the most she could count upon.—More probably he would regard it critically, cynically, putting his finger through her specious phrases. She doubted his forgiveness of a certain act of virtuous treachery even yet; although he had, in a measure, condoned her commission of it by making use of her on one occasion since, namely, that of her bringing Damaris back twelve years ago to Europe. But whether his attitude were cynical or not, he would hold his peace. Such cogent reasons existed for silence on his part that if he did slightly distrust her, hold her a little cheap, he would hardly venture to say as much, least of all to Damaris.—Venture or condescend?—Again Mrs. Frayling left the term in doubt and went forward with her schemes, which did, unquestionably just now, add a pleasing zest to life.

The innocent subject of these machinations received both the note and its bearer in a friendly spirit, though she was already, as it happened, rich in letters to-day. The bi-weekly packet from Deadham—addressed in Mary Fisher's careful copy-book hand—arrived at luncheon time, and contained, among much of apparently lesser interest, a diverting chronicle of Tom Verity's impressions and experiences during the first six weeks of his Indian sojourn. The young man's gaily self-confident humour had survived his transplantation. He wrote in high feather, quite unabashed by the novelty of his surroundings, yet not forgetting to pay honour where honour was due.

"It has been 'roses, roses all the way' thanks to Sir Charles's introductions, for which I can never be sufficiently grateful," he told her. "They have procured me no end of delightful hospitality from the great ones of the local earth, and really priceless opportunities of getting into touch with questions of ruling importance over here. I am letting my people at home know how very much I owe, and always shall owe, to his kindness in using his influence on my behalf at the start."

Damaris glowed responsive to this fine flourish of a tone, and passed the letter across the small round dinner table to her father. Opened a fat packet, enclosed in an envelope of exaggerated tenuity, from Miss Felicia, only to put it aside in favour of another letter bearing an Italian stamp and directed in a, to her, unfamiliar hand.

This was modest in bulk as compared with Miss Felicia's; but while examining it, while touching it even, Damaris became aware of an inward excitement, of a movement of tenderness not to be ignored or denied.

Startled by her own prescience, and the agitation accompanying it, she looked up quickly to find Carteret watching her; whereupon, mutely, instinctively, her eyes besought him to ask no questions, make no comment. For an appreciable space he kept her in suspense, his glance holding and challenging hers in close observation. Then as though, not without a measure of struggle, granting her request, he smiled at her, and, turning his attention to the contents of his plate, quietly went on with the business of luncheon. Damaris meanwhile, conscience-stricken—she couldn't tell why—by this silent interchange of intelligence, this silent demand on his forbearance, on his connivance in her secrecy, laid the letter face downwards on the white table-cloth, unopened.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse