Later, Sir Charles Verity being busy with his English correspondence and Carteret having disappeared—gone for a solitary walk, as she divined, being, as she feared, not quite pleased with her—she read it in the security of her bedroom, seated, for greater ease, upon the polished parquet floor just inside an open, southward-facing French window, where the breeze coming up off the sea gently fanned her face.
The letter began without preamble:
"We made this port—Genoa—last night. All day we have been discharging cargo. Half my crew has gone ashore, set on liquoring and wenching after the manner of unregenerate sailor-men all the world over. The other half follows their bad example to-morrow, as we shall be lying idle in honour of the Christmas festival. On board discipline is as strict as I know how to make it, but ashore my hand is lifted off them. So long as they turn up on time they are free to follow their fancy, even though it lead them to smutty places. My own fancies don't happen to lie that way, for which I in nowise praise myself. It is an affair of absence of inclination rather than overmuch active virtue. I am really no better than they, seeing I yield to the only temptation which takes me—the temptation to write to you. I have resisted it times out of number since I bade you good-bye at The Hard. But Christmas-night turns one a bit soft and craving for sight and touch of those who belong to one. So much I dare say, though I go back on nothing I said to you then about the keeping up of decent barriers. Only being Christmas-night-soft I give myself the licence of a holiday—for once. The night is clear as glass and the city rises in a great semicircle, pierced by and outlined in twinkling lights, right up to the ring of forts crowning the hills, where the sky begins—a sky smothered in stars. I have been out, on deck, looking at it all, at the black masts and funnels of the ships ranging to right and left against the glare of the town, and at the oily, black water, thick with floating filth and garbage and with wandering reflections like jewels and precious metals on the surface of it—the rummiest mixture of fair and foul. And then, all that faded out somehow—and I saw black water again, but clean this time and with no reflections, under a close-drawn veil of falling rain; and I felt to lift you out of the boat and carry you in across the lawn and up to your room. And then I could not hold out against temptation any longer, but came here into my cabin and sat down to write to you. The picture of you, wet and limp and helpless in my arms, is always with me, stamped on the very substance of my brain, as is the other picture of you in the drawing-room lined with book-cases, where we found one another for the second time. Found one another in spirit, I mean; an almost terribly greater finding than the first one, because it can go on for ever as it belongs to the part of us which does not die. That is my faith anyhow. To-morrow morning I will go ashore and into one of those big, tawdry Genoa churches, and listen to the music, standing in some quiet corner, and think about you and renew my vows to you. It won't be half bad to keep Christmas that way.
"I don't pretend to be a great letter-writer, so if this one has funny fashions to it you must forgive both them and me. I write as I feel and must leave it so. The voyage has been good, and my poor old tub has behaved herself, kept afloat and done her best, bravely if a bit wheezingly, in some rather nasty seas. When we are through here I take her across to Tripoli and back along the African coast to Algiers, then across to Marseilles. I reckon to reach there in six weeks or two months from now. You might perhaps be willing to write a line to me there—to the care of my owners, Messrs. Denniver, Holland & Co. Their office is in the Cannebiere. I don't ask you to do this, but only tell you I should value it more than you can quite know.—Now my holiday is over and I will close down till next Christmas-night—unless miracles happen meanwhile—so good-bye.—Here is a boatload of my lads coining alongside, roaring with song and as drunk as lords.—God bless you. In spirit I once again kiss your dear feet. Your brother till death and after.
Dazed, enchanted, held captive by the secular magic pertaining to those who "go down to the sea in ships" and ply their calling in the great waters, held captive, too, by the mysterious prenatal sympathies which unite those who come of the same blood, Damaris stayed very still, sitting child-like upon the bare polished floor, while the wind murmured through the spreading pines, shading the terrace below, and gently fanned her throat and temples.
For Faircloth's letter seemed to her very wonderful, alike in its vigour, its simplicity and—her lips quivered—its revelation of loving.—How he cared—and how he went on caring!—There were coarse words in it, the meaning of which she neither knew nor sought to know; but she did not resent them. The letter indeed would have lost some of its living force, its convincing reality, had they been omitted. They rang true, to her ear. And just because they rang true the rest rang blessedly true as well. She gloried in the whole therefore, breathing through it a larger air of faith and hope, and confident fortitude. The kindred qualities of her own heart and intelligence, the flush of her fine enthusiasm, sprang to meet and join with the fineness of it, its richness of promise and of good omen.
For a time mind and emotion remained thus in stable and exalted equilibrium. Then, as enchantment reached its necessary term and her apprehensions and thought began to work more normally, she badly wanted someone to speak to. She wanted to bear witness, to testify, to pour forth both the moving tale and her own sensations, into the ear of some indulgent and friendly listener. She—she—wanted to tell Colonel Carteret about it, to enlist his interest, to read him, in part at least, Darcy Faircloth's letter, and hear his confirmation of the noble spirit she discerned in it, its poetry, its charm. For the dear man with the blue eyes would understand, of that she felt confident, understand fully—and it would set her right with him, if, as she suspected, he was not somehow quite pleased with her. She caressed the idea, while, so doing, silence and concealment grew increasingly irksome to her. Oh! she wanted to speak—and to her father she could not speak.
With that both Damaris' attitude and expression changed, the glory abruptly departing. She got up off the floor, left the window, and sat down very soberly, in a red-velvet covered arm-chair, placed before the flat stone hearth piled with wood ashes.
There truly was the fly in the ointment, the abiding smirch on the otherwise radiant surface—as she now hailed it—of this strangely moving fraternal relation. The fact of it did come, and, as she feared, would inevitably continue to come between her and her father, marring to an appreciable degree their mutual confidence and sympathy. At Deadham he had braced himself to deal with the subject in a spirit of rather magnificent self-abnegation. But the effort had cost him more than she quite cared to estimate, in lowered pride and moral suffering. It had told on not only his mental but his physical health. Now that he was in great measure restored, his humour no longer saturnine, he no longer remote, sunk in himself and inaccessible, it would be not only injudicious, but selfish, to the verge of active cruelty, to press the subject again upon his notice, to propose further concessions, or further recognition of its existence. She couldn't ask that of him—ten thousand times no, she couldn't ask it—though not to ask it was to let the breach in sympathy and confidence widen silently and grow.
So much was sadly clear to her. She unfolded Faircloth's letter and read it through a second time, in vain hope of discovering some middle way, some leading. Read it, feeling the first enchantment but all cross-hatched now and seamed with perplexity and regret. For decent barriers must stand, he declared, which meant concealment indefinitely prolonged, the love of brother and sister wasted, starved to the mean proportions of an occasional furtive letter; sacrificed, with all its possibilities of present joy and future comfort, to hide the passage of long-ago wrongdoing in which it had its source.
Her hesitation went a step behind this presently, arguing as to how that could be sin which produced so gracious a result. It wasn't logical an evil tree should bear such conspicuously good fruit. Yet conscience and instinct assured her the tree was indeed evil—a thing of license, of unruly passion upon which she might not look. Had it not been her first thought—when Faircloth told her, drifting down the tide-river in the chill and dark—that he must feel sad, feel angry having been wronged by the manner of his birth? He had answered "yes," thereby admitting the inherent evil of the tree of which his existence was the fruit—adding, "but not often and not for long," since he esteemed the gift of life too highly to be overnice as to the exact method by which he became possessed of it. He palliated, therefore, he excused, but he did not deny.
By this time Damaris' mind wheeled in a vicious circle, perpetually swinging round to the original starting-point. The moral puzzle proved too complicated for her, the practical one equally hard of solution. She stood between them, her father and her brother. Their interests conflicted, as did the duty she owed each; and her heart, her judgment, her piety were torn two ways at once. Would it always be thus—or would the pull of one prove conclusively the stronger? Would she be compelled finally to choose between them? Not that either openly did or ever would strive to coerce her. Both were honourable, both magnanimous. And, out of her heart, she desired to serve both justly and equally—only—only—upon youth the pull of youth is very great.
She put her hands over her eyes, shrinking, frightened. Was it possible she loved Darcy Faircloth best?
A knocking. Damaris slipped the letter into the pocket of her dress, and rising crossed the room and opened the door.
Hordle stood in the pale spacious corridor without. He presented Marshall Wace's card. The gentleman, he said rather huffily, had called, bringing a message from Mrs. Frayling as Hordle understood, which he requested to deliver to Miss Damaris in person. He begged her to believe he was in no hurry. If she was engaged he could perfectly well wait.—He would do so in the hotel drawing-room, until it was convenient to her to allow him a few minutes' conversation.
So, for the second time, this young man's intrusion proved by no means unwelcome, as offering Damaris timely escape. She went down willingly to receive him. Yesterday he struck her as a pleasant and agreeable person—and of a type with which she was unacquainted. It would be interesting to talk to him.—She felt anxious, moreover, to learn what Henrietta, lovely if not entirely satisfactory Henrietta, could possibly want.
BLOWING OF ONE'S OWN TRUMPET PRACTISED AS A FINE ART
The slender little Corsican horses, red-chestnut in colour and active as cats, trotted, with a tinkle of bells, through the barred sunshine and shadow of the fragrant pine and cork woods. The road, turning inland, climbed steadily, the air growing lighter and fresher as the elevation increased—a nip in it testifying that January was barely yet out. And that nip justified the wearing of certain afore-mentioned myrtle-green, fur-trimmed pelisse, upon which Damaris' minor affections were, at this period, much set. Though agreeably warm and thick, it moulded her bosom, neatly shaped her waist, and that without any defacing wrinkle. The broad fur band at the throat compelled her to carry her chin high, with a not unbecoming effect. Her cheeks bloomed, her eyes shone bright, as she sat beside Mrs. Frayling in the open victoria, relishing the fine air, the varying prospect, her own good clothes, her companion's extreme prettiness and lively talk.
This drive, the prelude to Henrietta's campaign, presented that lady at her best. The advantage of being—as Henrietta—essentially artificial, is that you can never, save by forgetful lapse into sincerity, be untrue to yourself. Hence what a saving of scruples, of self-accusation, of self-torment! Her plans once fixed she proceeded to carry them out with unswerving ease and spontaneity. She refused to hurry, her only criterion of personal conduct being success; and success, so she believed, if sound, being a plant of gradual growth. Therefore she gave both herself and others time. Once fairly in the saddle, she never strained, never fussed.
Her cue to-day was to offer information rather than to require it. Curious about many things she might be; but gratification of her curiosity must wait. Damaris, on her part, listened eagerly, asking nothing better than to be kept amused, kept busy, helped to forget.—Not Faircloth's letter—very, very far from that!—but the inward conflict of opposing loves, opposing duties, which meditation upon his letter so distractingly produced. Relatively all, outside that conflict and the dear cause of it, was of small moment—mere play stuff at best. But her brain and conscience were tired. She would be so glad, for a time, only to think about play stuff.
"I want you to go on being kind to Marshall Wace," Henrietta in the course of conversation presently said. "He told me how charmingly you received him yesterday, when he called with my note. He was so pleased. He is exaggeratedly sensitive owing to unfortunate family complications in the past."
Damaris pricked up her ears, family complications having latterly acquired a rather painful interest for her.
"Poor man—I'm sorry," she said.
"His mother, a favourite cousin of my husband, General Frayling, married an impossible person—eloped with him, to tell the truth. Her people, not without reason, were dreadfully put out. The children were brought up rather anyhow. Marshall did not go to a public school, which he imagines places him at a disadvantage with other men. Perhaps it does. Men always strike me as being quaintly narrow-minded on that subject. Later he was sent to Cambridge with the idea of his taking Orders and going into the Church. My husband's elder brother, Leonard Frayling, is patron of several livings. He would have presented Marshall to the first which fell vacant, and thus his future would have been secured. But just as he was going up for deacon's orders, Marshall, rather I can't help feeling like a goose, developed theological difficulties. They were perfectly genuine, I don't doubt; but they were also singularly ill-timed—a little earlier, a little later, or not at all would have been infinitely more convenient. So there he was, poor fellow, thrown on the world at three-and-twenty with no profession and no prospects; for my brother-in-law washed his hands of him when the theological difficulties were announced. Marshall tried bear-leading; but people are not particularly anxious to entrust their boys to a non-public school man afflicted by religious doubts. He thought of making use of his really exquisite voice and becoming a public singer; but the training is fearfully expensive, and so somehow that plan also fell through. For a time I am afraid he was really reduced to great straits, with the consequence that he broke down in health. Through friends, my husband got to hear of Marshall's miserable circumstances—shortly after our marriage it was—and felt it incumbent upon him to go to the rescue."
Henrietta paused, thereby giving extra point to what was to follow, and pulled the fur rug up absently about her waist.
"For the last eighteen months," she said, "Marshall has practically made his home with us. The arrangement has its drawbacks, of course. For one thing the General and I are never alone, and that is a trial to us both. Two's company and three's none. When a husband and wife are really devoted they don't want always to have a third wheel to the domestic cart."
Then, as if checking further and very natural inclination to repining, she looked round at Damaris, smiling from behind her thick white net veil with most disarming sweetness.
"No—no—I'm not naughty. I don't mean to complain about it," she prettily protested. "For I do so strongly feel if one sets out to do good it shouldn't be by driblets, with your name, in full, printed in subscription lists against every small donation. You should plump for your protege, and that with the least ostentation possible. The General and I are careful not to let people know Marshall stays with us as a guest. It is rather a slip speaking of it even to you; but I can trust you not to repeat what I say. I am sure of that."
Damaris laid a hand fondly, impulsively upon the elder woman's knee.
"For certain you can trust me. For certain anything you say to me is just between our two selves. I should never dream of repeating it."
"There speaks the precious downy owl of long ago," Mrs. Frayling brightly cried, "bustling up in defence of its own loyalty and honour. Ah! Damaris, how very delicious it is to have you with me!"
For, her main point having been made, she now adroitly discarded pathos. Another word regarding her philanthropic harbourage of the young man, Marshall Wace, remained to be spoken—but not yet. Let it come in later, naturally and without hint of insistence.
"We must be together as much as possible during the next few weeks," she went on—"as often as Sir Charles can be persuaded to spare you to me. Whether the General and I shall ever make up our minds to settle down in a home of our own, where I could ask you to stay with us, I don't know. I'm afraid we are hopelessly nomadic. Therefore I am extra anxious to make the most of the happy accident which has thrown us together, anxious to get every ounce possible of intercourse out of it.—We quite understand you have luncheon with me on Thursday, don't we?—and that you stay and help me through the afternoon. I am always at home on Thursdays to the neighbours. They aren't all of them conspicuously well-bred or exciting; but I have learnt to take the rough with the smooth, the boring along with the gifted and brilliant. India is a good school in which to learn hospitality. The practise of that virtue becomes a habit. And I for one quite refuse to excuse myself from further exercise of it on coming back to Europe. The General feels with me; and we have laid ourselves out to be civil to our compatriots here at St. Augustin this winter. A few people were vexatiously stiff and starched at first; but each one of them has given in, in turn. They really do, I believe, appreciate our little social efforts."
"Who wouldn't give in to you Henrietta?" Damaris murmured.
Whereupon Mrs. Frayling delicately beamed on her; and, agreeable unanimity of sentiment being thus established, conversation between the two ladies for a while fell silent.
The little chestnut horses, meantime, encouraged with "Oh he-s" and "Oh la-s" by their driver, trotted and climbed, climbed and trotted, until the woodland lay below and the Signal de la Palu was reached. A wide level space on a crest of the foot-hills—with flag staff bearing the valorous tricolor, and rustic log-built restaurant offering refreshment—opening upon the full splendour of the Maritime Alps.
Damaris stepped out of the carriage, and, patting the near horse on the neck in passing, went forward across the sparse turf, starred with tiny clear coloured flowers, to the edge of the platform.
The Provencal coachman, from his perch on the box-seat of the victoria, his rough-caste crumpled countenance sun-baked to the solid ruddy brown of the soil of his own vineyard, followed her movements with approving glances.—For she was fresh as an opening rose the young English Mees, and though most elegant, how agile, how evidently strong!
Innocent of the admiration she excited, Damaris stood absorbed, awed even, by the grandeur of the scene. Many hundred feet below, the rent chasm down which it took its course steeped in violet gloom, the milk-white waters of an ice-fed river impetuously journeyed to the fertile lowlands and the sea. Opposite, across the gorge, amazingly distinct in the pellucid atmosphere, rose the high mountains, the undefiled, untrodden and eternal snows. Azure shadow, transparent, ethereal, haunted them, bringing into evidence enormous rounded shoulder, cirque, crinkled glacier, knife-edge of underlying rock.
They belonged to the deepest the most superb of life, this rent gorge, these mountains—like Faircloth's letter. Would beautiful and noble sights, such as these, always in future give her an ache of longing for the writer of that letter, for the romance, the poetry, of the unacknowledged relation he bore to her? Tears smarted hot in Damaris' eyes, and resolutely, if rather piteously, she essayed to wink them away. For to her it just now seemed, the deepest, the most superb of life was also in great measure the forbidden. The ache must be endured, then, the longing go unsatisfied, since she could only stay the pain of them by doing violence to plain and heretofore fondly cherished, duties.
But her tears defied the primitive process of winking. Not so cheaply could she rid herself of their smart and the blurred distorted vision they occasioned. She pulled out her handkerchief petulantly and wiped them. Then schooled herself to a colder, more moderate and reasonable temper.
And, so doing, her thought turned gratefully to Mrs. Frayling. For mercifully Henrietta was here to help fill the void; to, in a manner, break her fall. Henrietta didn't belong to the depths or the heights, that she regretfully admitted. With the eternal snows she possessed little or nothing in common. But, at a lower, more everyday level, had not she a vast amount to offer, what with her personal loveliness, her social cleverness, her knowledge of the world and its ways? She might not amount to the phoenix of Damaris' childhood's adoration; but she was very friendly, very diverting, delightfully kind. Damaris honestly believed all these excellent things of her.—She had been stupidly fastidious three days ago, and failed to do Henrietta justice. What she had learned—by chance—this afternoon, of Henrietta's unselfishness and generous treatment of Marshall Wace bore effectively convincing witness to the sweetness of her disposition and kindness of her heart. Damaris felt bound to make amends for that unspoken injustice, of which she now repented. How better could she do so than by giving herself warmly, without reserve or restraint, in response to the interest and attention Henrietta lavished upon her?—At eighteen, to be wooed by so finished and popular a person was no mean compliment.—She wouldn't hold back, suspicious and grudging; but enjoy all Henrietta so delightfully offered to the uttermost.
And there, as though clenching the conclusion thus arrived at, Mrs. Frayling's voice gaily hailed her, calling:
"Damaris, Damaris, here is our tea—or rather our coffee. Come, darling child, and partake before it gets cold."
So after a brief pause, spent in determined looking, the girl bowed her head in mute farewell; and turned her back perhaps courageously, perhaps unwisely and somewhat faithlessly, upon the mountains, and the rare mysteries of their untrodden snows. She went across the sparse turf, starred with tiny clear, coloured flowers, her face stern, for all its youthful bloom and softness, her eyes meditative and profound.
The owner of the log-built restaurant, a thick-set, grizzled veteran of the Franco-Prussian war, the breast of his rusty velveteen jacket proudly bearing a row of medals, stood talking to Mrs. Frayling, hat in hand. His right foot had suffered amputation some inches above the ankle, and he walked with the ungainly support of a crutch-topped peg-leg strapped to the flexed knee.
As Damaris approached the carriage, he swept back the fur rug in gallantly respectful invitation; and, so soon as she ensconced herself on the seat beside Henrietta, bending down he firmly and comfortably tucked it round her. He declared, further, as she thanked him, it an honour in any capacity to serve her, since had not Madame, but this moment, so gracefully informed him of the commanding military career of the Mademoiselle's father, possessor of that unique distinction the Victoria Cross—a person animated, moreover, as Madame reported, by sincere sympathy for the tragic sorrows of well-beloved and so now cruelly dismembered France.
Damaris heard, in this singing of her father's praises, a grateful reconciling strain. She found it profitable, just now, to recall the heroic deeds, the notable achievements which marked his record. Her coffee tasted the more fragrant for it, the butter the fresher, the honey the sweeter wherewith she spread the clean coarse home-baked bread. She ate, indeed, with a capital appetite, the long drive and stimulating air, making her hungry. Possibly even her recent emotion contributed to that result; for in youth heartache by no means connotes a disposition towards fasting, rather does diet, generous in quantity, materially assist to soothe its anguish.
This meal, in fact, partaken of in the open, alone with Henrietta, object of her childhood's idolatry—the first they had shared since those remote and guileless years—assumed to Damaris a sacramental character, though of the earthly and mundane rather than transcendental kind. Its communion was one of good fellowship, of agreement in cultivation of the lighter social side; which, upon our maiden's part, implied tacit consent to conform to easier standards than those until now regulating her thought and action, implied tacit acceptance of Henrietta as example and as guide.
Whether the latter would have found cause for self-congratulation, could she have fathomed the precise cause of this apparently speedy conquest and speedy surrender, is doubtful; since it, in fact, took its rise less in the fascination of devotion given, than in that of devotion denied. She happened to be here on the spot at a critical juncture, and thus to catch the young girl's heart on the rebound. That was all—that, joined with Damaris' instinctive necessity to play fair and pay in honest coin for every benefit received.
So much must be said in extenuation of our nymph-like damsel's apparent subjection to levity—a declension which, in the sequel and in certain quarters, went neither unnoticed nor undeplored. But to labour this point is to forestall history. Immediately her change of attitude announced its existence innocently enough. For the sacramental meal once consumed, and courteous parting words bestowed upon the valiant soldier broken in his country's wars, the coachman mounted the box, and gathering up the reins, with "Ho he's" and "ho la's," swung his horses half round the level and plunged them over the hill-side, along a steep woodland track, leading by serpentine twists and curves down to join the Corniche Road—a blonde ribbon rimming the indentations of the five-mile distant coast.
Damaris steadied herself well back on the seat of the carriage as it swayed and bumped over ruts and tree-roots to the lively menace of its springs. She studiously kept her face turned towards her companion, a myrtle-green shoulder as studiously turned towards the view. For she found it wiser not even to glance in that direction, lest rebellious regrets and longings should leap on her across the violet-blotted abyss from out those shining Alpine citadels. While to strengthen herself in allegiance to Mrs. Frayling and to, what may be called, the lighter side, she pushed one hand into that lady's muff and coaxed the slender pointed-fingers hiding in the comfortable pussy-warmth within.
"Tell me stories, Henrietta, please," she entreated, "about all the people whom you've asked to your party on Thursday. Dress them up for me and put them through their paces, so that I may know who they all are when I see them and make no mistakes, but behave to them just as you would wish me to."
"Gradate your attentions and not pet the wrong ones?"
Mrs. Frayling gave gentle squeeze for squeeze in the pussy-warmth, laughing a trifle impishly.
"You sinful child," she said—"Gracious, what jolts—my spine will soon be driven through the top of my skull at this rate!—Yes, sinful in tempting me to gibbet my acquaintances for your amusement."
"But why gibbet them? Aren't they nice, don't you care for them?"
"Prodigiously, of course. Yet would you find it in the least interesting or illuminating if I indexed their modest virtues only?"
"I think the old soldier found it both interesting and illuminating when you indexed my father's virtues just now."
"Sir Charles's virtues hardly come under the head of modest ones," Mrs. Frayling threw off almost sharply. "Give me someone as well worth acclaiming and I'll shout with the best! But you scarcely quote your father as among the average, do you?—The people whom you'll meet on Thursday compared to him, I'm afraid, are as molehills to the mountains yonder. If I described them by their amiable qualities alone they'd be as indistinguishable and as insipid as a row of dolls. Only through their aberrations, their unconscious perfidies, iniquities, do they develop definiteness of outline and begin to live. Oh! nothing could be unkinder than to whitewash them. Take Mrs. Callowgas, for instance, with one eye on the Church, the other on the world. The permanent inconsistency of her attitude, as I may say her permanent squint, gives her a certain cachet without which she'd be a positive blank.—She is most anxious to meet you, by the way, and Sir Charles—always supposing he is self-sacrificing enough to come—because she knows connections of his and yours at Harchester, a genial pillar of the Church in the form of an Archdeacon, in whom, as I gather, her dear dead Lord Bishop very much put his trust."
"Tom Verity's father, I suppose," Damaris murmured, her colour rising, the hint of a cloud too upon her brow.
"And who may Tom Verity be?" Mrs. Frayling, noting both colour and cloud, alertly asked.
"A distant cousin. He stayed with us in the autumn just before he went out to India. He passed into the Indian Civil Service from Oxford at the top of the list."
"Praiseworthy young man."
"Oh! but you would like him, Henrietta," the girl declared. "He is very clever and very entertaining too when"—
"Well, when he doesn't tease too much. He has an immense amount to talk about, and very good manners."
"Also, when he does not tease too much?—And you like him?"
"I don't quite know," Damaris slowly said. "He did not stay with us long enough for me to make up my mind. And then other things happened which rather put him out of my head. He was a little conceited, perhaps, I thought."
"Not unnaturally, being at the top of the pass list. But though other things put him out of your head, he writes to you?"
In the pussy-warmth within her muff, Mrs. Frayling became sensible that Damaris' hand grew unresponsive, at once curiously stiff and curiously limp.
"He has written twice. Once on the voyage out, and again soon after he arrived. The—the second letter reached me this week."
Notwithstanding sunshine, the eager air, and lively bumping of the descent, Henrietta observed the flush fade, leaving the girl white as milk. Her eyes looked positively enormous set in the pallor of her face. They were veiled, telling nothing, and thereby—to Mrs. Frayling's thinking—betraying much. She scented a situation—some girlish attachment, budding affair of the heart.
"My father gave Tom Verity letters of introduction, and he wanted us to know how kindly he had been received in consequence."
"Most proper on his part," Mrs. Frayling said.
She debated discreet questioning, probing—the establishment of herself in the character of sympathetic confidante. But decided against that. It might be impolitic, dangerous even, to press the pace. Moreover the young man, whatever his attractions, might be held a negligible quantity in as far as any little schemes of her own were concerned at present, long leave and reappearance upon the home scene being almost certainly years distant.—And, just there, the hand within the muff became responsive once more, even urgent in its seeking and pressure, as though appealing for attention and tenderness.
"Henrietta, I don't want to be selfish, but won't you go on telling me stories about your Thursday party people?—I interrupted you—but it's all new, you see, and it interests me so much," Damaris rather plaintively said.
Mrs. Frayling needed no further inducement to exercise her really considerable powers of verbal delineation. Charging her palette with lively colours, she sprang to the task—and that with a sprightly composure and deftness of touch which went far to cloak malice and rob flippancy of offence.
Listening, Damaris brightened—as the adroit performer intended she should—under the gay cascade of talk. Laughed at length, letting finer instincts of charity go by the wall, in her enjoyment of neatly turned mockeries and the sense of personal superiority they provoked. For Henrietta's dissection of the weaknesses of absent friends, inevitably amounted to indirect flattery of the friend for whose diversion that process of dissection was carried out.
She passed the whole troop in review.—To begin with Miss Maud Callowgas, in permanent waiting upon her ex-semi-episcopal widowed mother—in age a real thirty-five though nominal twenty-eight, her muddy complexion, prominent teeth and all too long back.—Her designs, real or imagined, upon Marshall Wace. Designs foredoomed to failure, since whatever his intentions—Henrietta smiled wisely—they certainly did not include Maud Callowgas's matrimonial future in their purview.
Herbert Binning followed next—the chaplain who served the rather staring little Anglican church at Le Vandou, a suburb of St. Augustin much patronized by the English in the winter season, and a chapel somewhere in the Bernese Oberland during the summer months. Energetic, athletic, a great talker and squire of dames—in all honesty and correctness, this last, well understood, for there wasn't a word to be breathed against the good cleric's morals. But just a wee bit impressionable and flirtatious, as who might not very well be with such a whiney-piney wife as Mrs. Binning, always ailing; what mind she might (by stretch of charity) be supposed to possess exclusively fixed upon the chronic irregularities of her internal organs? Recumbency was a mania with her and she had a disconcerting habit of wanting to lie down on the most inconveniently unsuitable occasions.—To mitigate his over-flowing energies, which cried aloud for work, Mr. Binning took pupils. He had two exceptionably nice boys with him this winter, in the interval between leaving Eton and going up to Oxford, namely, Peregrine Ditton, Lord Pamber's younger son, and Harry Ellice, a nephew of Lady Hermione Twells. They were very well-bred. Their high spirits were highly infectious. They played tennis to perfection and Harry Ellice danced quite tidily into the bargain.—Damaris must make friends with them. They were her contemporaries, and delightfully fresh and ingenuous.
Lady Hermione herself—here Henrietta's tone conveyed restraint, even comparative reverence—who never for an instant forgot she once had reigned over some microscopic court out in the far Colonial wilderness, nor allowed you to forget it either. Her glance half demanded your curtsy. Still she was the "real thing" and, in that, eminently satisfactory—genuine grande dame by right both of birth and of training.
"She won't condescend to tell me so, being resolved to keep me very much in my proper place," Henrietta continued; "but I learned yesterday from Mary Ellice—Harry's sister, who lives with her—that she is intensely desirous to meet Sir Charles. She wants to talk to him about Afghanistan and North-west Frontier policy. A brother of hers it appears was at one time in the Guides; and she is under the impression your father and Colonel Carteret would have known him.—By the way, dearest child, they do mean to honour me, those two, don't they, with their presence on Thursday?"
"Of course they will, since you asked them. Why, they love to come and see you."
"Do they?" Mrs. Frayling said—"Anyhow, let us hope so. I can trust Carteret's general benevolence, but I am afraid your father will be unutterably bored with my rubbishing little assembly."
"But, of course, he'll be nice to everybody too—as tame and gentle as possible with them all to please you, don't you see, Henrietta."
"Ah! no doubt, all to please me!" she repeated. And fell to musing, while the carriage, quitting at last the rough forest track, rattled out on to the metalled high road, white in dust.
Here the late afternoon sun still lay hot. The booming plunge of the tideless sea, breaking upon the rocks below, quivered in the quiet air. Henrietta Frayling withdrew her hands from her muff, unfastened the collar of her sable cape. The change from the shadowed woods to this glaring sheltered stretch of road was oppressive. She felt strangely tired and spent. She trusted Damaris would not perceive her uncomfortable state and proffer sympathy. And Damaris, in fact, did nothing of the sort, being very fully occupied with her own concerns at present.
Half a mile ahead, pastel-tinted, green-shuttered houses—a village of a single straggling street—detached themselves in broken perspective from the purple of pine-crowned cliff and headland beyond. Behind them the western sky began to grow golden with the approach of sunset. The road lead straight towards that softly golden light—to St. Augustin. It led further, deeper into the gold, deeper, as one might fancy, into the heart of the coming sunset, namely to the world-famous seaport of Marseilles.
Damaris sought to stifle remembrance of this alluring fact, as soon as it occurred to her. She must not dally with it—no she mustn't. To in anywise encourage or dwell on it, was weak and unworthy, she having accepted the claims of clearly apprehended duty. She could not go back on her decision, her choice, since, in face of the everlasting hills, she had pledged herself.
So she let her eyes no longer rest on the high-road, but looked out to sea—where, as tormenting chance would have it, the black hull of a big cargo boat, steaming slowly westward, cut into the vast expanse of blue, long pennons of rusty grey smoke trailing away from its twin rusty-red painted funnels.
Hard-pressed, the girl turned to her companion, asking abruptly, inconsequently—"Is that every one whom you expect on Thursday, Henrietta?"
For some seconds Mrs. Frayling regarded her with a curious lack of intelligent interest or comprehension. Her thoughts, also, had run forward into the gold of the approaching sunset; and she had some difficulty in overtaking, or restraining them, although they went no further than the Grand Hotel; and—so to speak—sat down there all of a piece, on a buff-coloured iron chair, which commanded an uninterrupted view of four gentlemen standing talking before the front door.
"On Thursday?" she repeated—"Why Thursday?"—and her usually skilful hands fumbled with the fastening of her sable cape. Their helpless ineffectual movements served to bring her to her senses, bring her to herself.
"Really you possess an insatiable thirst for information regarding my probable guests, precious child," she exclaimed. "All—of course not. I have only portrayed the heads of tribes as yet for your delectation. We shall number many others—male and female—of the usual self-expatriated British rank and file.—Derelicts mostly."
Lightly and coldly, Henrietta laughed.
"Like, for example, the General and myself. Wanderers possessed of a singularly barren species of freedom, without ties, without any sheet-anchor of family or of profession to embarrass our movements, without call to live in one place rather than another. All along this sun-blessed Riviera you will find them swarming, thick as flies, displaying the trumpery spites and rivalries through which, as I started by pointing out to you, they can alone maintain a degree of individuality and persuade themselves and others they still are actually alive."
Shocked at this sudden bitterness, touched to the quick by generous pity, regardless of possible onlookers—here in the village street, where the hoof-beats of the trotting horses echoed loud from the house-walls on either side—Damaris put her arms round Henrietta Frayling, clasping, kissing her.
"Ah! don't, Henrietta," she cried. "Don't dare to say such ugly, lying things about your dear self. They aren't true. They're absurdly, scandalously untrue.—You who are so brilliant, so greatly admired, who have everyone at your feet! You who are so kind too,—think of all the pleasure you have given me to-day, for instance—and then think how beautifully good you've been, and all the time are being, to poor Mr. Wace"—
Whether Mrs. Frayling's surprising lapse into sincerity and bald self-criticism were intentional, calculated, or not, she was undoubtedly quick to see and profit by the opening which Damaris' concluding words afforded her.
"How sweet you are, darling child! How very dear of you to scold me thus!" she murmured, gently disengaging herself and preening her feathers, somewhat disarranged by the said darling child's impetuous onset.
"I know it is wrong to grumble. Yet sometimes—as one grows older—one gets a dreadful sense that the delights of life are past; and that perhaps one has been overscrupulous, over-timid and so missed the best.—That is one reason why I find it so infinitely pleasing to have you with me—yet pathetic too perhaps.—Why? Well, I don't know that I am quite at liberty to explain exactly why."
Henrietta smiled at her long, wistfully and oh! so sagely.
"And, indirectly, that reminds me I am most anxious you should not exaggerate, or run off with any mistaken ideas about my dealings with poor Marshall Wace. I don't deny I did find his constantly being with us a trial at first. But I am reconciled to it. A trifle of discipline, though screamingly disagreeable, is no doubt sometimes useful—good for one's character, I mean. And I really have grown quite attached to him. He has charming qualities. His want of self-confidence is really his worst fault—and what a trivial one if you've had experience of the horrid things men can do, gamble, for example, and drink."
Henrietta paused, sighed. The yellow facade of the Grand Hotel came into sight, a pale spot amid dark trees in the distance.
"And Marshall, poor fellow," she continued, "is more grateful to me, that I know, than words can say. So do like him and encourage him a little—it would be such a help and happiness to me as well as to him, dearest Damaris."
IN WHICH HENRIETTA PULLS THE STRINGS
Mrs. Frayling's afternoon party passed off to admiration. But this by no means exhausted her social activities. Rather did it stimulate them; so that, with Damaris' amusement as their ostensible object and excuse, they multiplied exceedingly. Henrietta was in her native element. Not for years had she enjoyed herself so much. This chaperonage, this vicarious motherhood, was rich in opportunity. She flung wide her nets, even to the enmeshing of recruits from other larger centres, Cannes, Antibes and Nice. This more ambitious phase developed later. Immediately our chronicle may address itself to the initial Thursday, which, for our nymph-like maiden, saw the birth of certain illusions destined to all too lengthy a span of life.
Luncheon at the villa—or as Henrietta preferred it called, The Pavilion—set in the grounds of the Hotel de la Plage and dependent for service upon that house—was served at mid-day. This left a considerable interval before the advent of the expected guests. Mrs. Frayling refused to dedicate it to continuous conversation, as unduly tiring both for Damaris and for herself. They must reserve their energies, must keep fresh. Marshall Wace was, therefore, bidden to provide peaceful entertainment, read aloud—presently, perhaps, sing to them at such time as digestion—bad for the voice when in process—might be supposed complete. The young man obeyed, armed with Tennyson's Maud and a volume of selected lyrics.
His performance fairly started General Frayling furtively vanished in search of a mild siesta. It inflated his uxorious breast with pride to have his Henrietta shine in hospitality thus. But his lean shanks wearied, keeping time to the giddy music. Wistfully he feared he must be going downhill, wasn't altogether the man he used to be, since he found the business of pleasure so exhaustingly strenuous. And that was beastly unfair to his lovely wife—wouldn't do, would not do at all, by Gad! Therefore did he vanish into a diminutive and rather stuffy smoking-room, under the stairs, unfasten his nankeen waistcoat, unfasten his collar-stud, doze and finally, a little anxiously, sleep.
Whatever Marshall Wace's diffidence in ordinary intercourse, it effectually disappeared so soon as he began to declaim or to recite. The histrionic in him declared itself, rising dominant. Given a character to impersonate, big swelling words to say, fine sentiments to enunciate, he changed to the required colour chameleon-like. You forgot—at least the feminine portion of his audience, almost without exception, forgot—that his round light-brown eyes stared uncomfortably much; that his nose, thin at the root and starting with handsome aquiline promise, ended in a foolish button-tip. Forgot that his lips were straight and compressed, wanting in generous curves and in tenderness—an actor's mouth, constructed merely for speech. Forgot the harsh quality of the triangular redness on either cheek, fixed and feverish. Ceased to remark how the angle of the jaw stood away from and beyond the sinewy, meagre neck, or note the rise and fall of Adam's apple so prominent in his throat.—No longer were annoyed by the effeminate character of the hands, their retracted nails and pink, upturned finger-tips, offering so queer a contrast to the rather inordinate size of his feet.
For the voice rarely failed to influence its hearers, to carry you indeed a little out of yourself by its variety of intonation, its fire and fervour, its languishing modulations, broken pauses, yearning melancholy of effect. The part of the neurotic hero of the—then—Laureate's poem, that somewhat pinch-beck Victorian Hamlet, suited our young friend, moreover, down to the ground. It offered sympathetic expression to his own nature and temperament; so that he wooed, scoffed, blasphemed, orated, drowned in salt seas of envy and self-pity, with a simulation of sincerity as convincing to others as consolatory to himself.
And Damaris, being unlearned in the curious arts of the theatre, listened wide-eyed, spellbound, until flicked by the swishing skirts of fictitious emotion into genuine, yet covert, excitement. As the reading progressed Henrietta Frayling's presence increasingly sank into unimportance. More and more did the poem assume a personal character, of which, if the reader were hero, she—Damaris—became heroine. Marshall Wace seemed to read not to, but definitely at her; so that during more than one ardent passage, she felt herself go hot all over, as though alone with him, an acknowledged object of his adoring, despairing declarations. This she shrank from, yet—it must be owned—found stirring, strangely and not altogether unpleasantly agitating. For was not this protege of Henrietta's—whom the latter implored her to encourage and treat kindly—something of a genius? Capable of sudden and amazing transformation, talking to you with a modesty and deference agreeably greater than that of most young men of his age; then, on an instant, changing at will, and extraordinarily voicing the accumulated wrongs, joys and sorrows of universal humanity? Could Henrietta, who usually spoke of him in tones of commiseration, not to say of patronage, be aware how remarkable he really was? Damaris wondered; regarding him, meanwhile, with innocent respect and admiration. For how tremendously much he must have experienced, how greatly he must have suffered to be able to portray drama, express profound emotion thus! That the actor's art is but glorified make-believe, the actor himself too often hollow as a drum, though loud sounding as one, never for an instant occurred to her. How should it?
Therefore when Mrs. Frayling—recollecting certain mysteries of the toilet which required attention before the arrival of her expected guests—brought the performance to an abrupt termination, Damaris felt a little taken aback, a little put about, as though someone should be guilty of talking millinery in church.
For—"Splendid, my dear Marshall, splendid," the lady softly yet emphatically interrupted him. "To-day you really surpass yourself. I never heard you read better, and I hate to be compelled to call a halt. But time has flown—look."
And she pointed to the blue and gold Sevres clock upon the mantelpiece.
"Miss Verity is an inspiring auditor," he said, none best pleased at being thus arbitrarily arrested in midcourse. "For whatever merit my reading may have possessed, your thanks are due to her rather than to me, Cousin Henrietta."
He spoke to the elder woman. He looked at the younger. With a nervous yet ponderous movement—it was Marshall Wace's misfortune always to take up more room than by rights belonged to his height and bulk—he got on to his feet. Inattentively let drop the volume of poems upon a neighbouring table, to the lively danger of two empty coffee cups.
The cups rattled. "Pray be careful," Mrs. Frayling admonished him with some sharpness. The performance had been prolonged. Not without intention had she effaced herself. But, by both performance and effacement, she had been not a little bored, having a natural liking for the limelight. She, therefore, hit out—to regret her indiscretion the next moment.
"Nothing—nothing," she prettily added. "I beg your pardon, Marshall, but I quite thought those cups would fall off the table—So stupid of me."
The fixed red widened, painfully inundating the young man's countenance. He was infuriated by his own awkwardness. Humiliated by Mrs. Frayling's warning, of which her subsequent apology failed to mitigate the disgrace. And that this should occur just in the hour of satisfied vanity, of agreeable success—and before Damaris! In her eyes he must be miserably disqualified henceforth.
But his misfortunes worked to quite other ends than he anticipated. For Damaris came nearer, her expression gravely earnest as appealing to him not to mind, not to let these things vex him.
"I have never heard anyone read so beautifully," she told him. "You make the words come alive so that one sees the whole story happening. It is wonderful. I shall always remember this afternoon because of your reading—and shall long to hear you again—often, I know, long for that."
Wace bowed. This innocent enthusiasm was extremely assuaging to his wounded self-esteem.
"You have but to ask me, Miss Verity. I shall be only too honoured, too happy to read to you whenever you have leisure and inclination to listen."
But here Mrs. Frayling put her arm round Damaris' waist, affectionately, laughingly, and drew her towards the door.
"Come, come, darling child—don't be too complimentary or Marshall will grow unbearably conceited.—You'll put on flannels, by the way, Marshall, won't you?" she added as an after-thought.
"I shall not play tennis this afternoon," he answered, his nose in the air. "There will be plenty for a change of setts without me. I am not good enough for Binning and his two young aristocrats, and I don't choose to make sport for the Philistines by an exhibition of my ineptitude. I have no pretentious to being an athlete."
"Nonsense, Marshall, nonsense," she took him up quickly, conscious his reply was not in the best taste. "You wilfully underrate yourself."
Then later, as, still entwined, she conducted Damaris upstairs to her bed-chamber.
"There you have the position in a nutshell," she said. "Still am I not right? For hasn't he charm, poor dear fellow, so very much cleverness—so really gifted isn't he?"
And as the girl warmly agreed:
"Ah! I am so very glad you appreciate him.—And you have yet to hear him sing! That takes one by storm, I confess—Unhappy Maud Callowgas!—But you see how frightfully on edge he is—how he turns off for no valid reason, imagines himself a failure, imagines himself out of it? In point of fact he plays a quite passable game of tennis—and you heard what he said? These fits of depression and self-depreciation amount to being tragic. One requires endless tact to manage him and save him from himself."
Henrietta paused, sighed, sitting on the stool before her toilette table, neatly placing tortoiseshell hairpins, patting and adjusting her bright brown hair.
"I could have bitten my tongue out for making that wretched slip about the coffee cups; but I was off my guard for once. And like all artistic people Marshall is a little absent-minded—absorbed to the point of not seeing exactly what he is doing.—Poor young man, I sometimes tremble for his future. Such a highly strung, sensitive nature amounts almost to a curse. If he got into wrong hands what mightn't the end be?—Catastrophe, for he is capable of fatal desperation. And I must own men—with the exception of my husband who is simply an angel to him—do not always understand and are not quite kind to him. He needs a wise loving woman to develop the best in him—there is so very much which is good—and to guide him."
"Well," Damaris said, and that without suspicion of irony, "dearest Henrietta, hasn't he you?"
Mrs. Frayling took up the ivory hand-glass, and sitting sideways on the dressing-stool, turned her graceful head hither and thither, to obtain the fuller view of her back hair.
"Me? But you forget, I have other claims to satisfy. I can't look after him for ever. I must find him a wife I suppose; though I really shall be rather loath to give him up. His gratitude and loneliness touch me so much," she said, looking up and smiling, with a little twist in her mouth, as of playful and unwilling resignation, captivating to see.
By which cajoleries and expression of praiseworthy sentiment, Henrietta raised herself notably in Damaris' estimation—as she fully intended to do. Our maiden kissed her with silent favour; and, mysteries of the toilette completed, more closely united than ever before—that is, since the date of the elder's second advent—the two ladies, presenting the prettiest picture imaginable, went downstairs again, gaily, hand in hand.
Tall and slim, in the black and white of his evening clothes, Colonel Carteret leaned his shoulder against an iron pillar of the verandah of the Hotel de la Plage, and smoked, looking meditatively down into the moonlit garden. Through the range of brightly lighted open windows behind him came the sound of a piano and stringed instruments, a subdued babble of voices, the whisper of women's skirts, and the sliding rush of valsing feet.
To-night marked the culmination and apex of Henrietta Frayling's social effort. It was mid-March, mid-Lent—which last fact she made an excuse—after taking ecclesiastical opinion on the subject, namely, that of Herbert Binning, the Anglican chaplain—for issuing invitations to a Cinderella dance. Damaris Verity, it appeared, had never really, properly and ceremoniously "come out"—a neglect which Henrietta protested should be repaired. Positively, but very charmingly, she told Sir Charles it must. She only wished the affair could be on a larger, more worthy scale. This was, after all, but a makeshift—the modest best she could arrange under the circumstances. But he—Sir Charles—must not refuse. It would give her such intense pleasure to have the darling child make her official debut under her, Henrietta's, auspices. The hours would of necessity be early, to avoid disturbance of the non-dancing residents in the hotel. But, if the entertainment were bound to end at midnight, it could begin at a proportionately unfashionable hour. For once table d'hote might surely be timed for six o'clock; and the dining-room—since it offered larger space than any other apartment—be cleared, aired, and ready for dancing by a quarter-past eight.—Henrietta unquestionably had a way with her; proprietors, managers, servants alike hastening obedient to her cajoling nod.—Thanks to importations by road and rail, from other coast resorts, she reckoned to muster sixteen to twenty couples.—A rubbishing apology at best, in the matter of a "coming out" ball, for a girl of Damaris' position and deserts—no one could know that better than she, Henrietta, herself did!
"A poor thing but mine own," she quoted, when enlarging upon the scheme to Charles Verity. "But as at Easter we are fated to scatter, I suppose, and go our several roads with small promise of reunion, you must really be gracious, dear friend, and, for old sake's sake, give in to my desires. It's my last chance, for heaven knows how long—not impossibly for ever."
Carteret happened to be present during the above conversation. Had he not, it may be doubted whether it would ever have taken place—with this dash of affecting reminiscence in any case. Allusions to a common past were barred for excellent reasons, as between these two persons, save strictly in public. Even so it struck him as a humorous piece of audacity on the lady's part. Her effrontery touched on the colossal! But it succeeded, always had done so.—In his judgment of Henrietta, Carteret never failed to remember, being compact of chivalry and of truthfulness, that he had once on a time been a good half in love with her himself.—All the same he was not sure her close association with Damaris met with his approval.
That association had grown, Jonah's gourd-like, during the last six weeks, until, as he rather uneasily noted, the two were hardly ever apart. Luncheons, teas, picnics, excursions, succeeded one another. Afternoons of tennis in the hotel grounds, the athletic gregarious Binning and his two pupils, Peregrine Ditton and Harry Ellice in attendance. Sometimes the latter's sister, Mary Ellice, joined the company—when Lady Hermione condescended to spare her—or the long-backed Miss Maud Callowgas. Afternoons of reading and song, too, supplied by Marshall Wace.—Carteret felt self-reproachful, yet knew his charity too often threatened to stop short of the young man Wace—though the beggar had a voice to draw tears from a stone, plague him!—At intervals, all-day expeditions were undertaken to Monte Carlo, or shopping raids upon Cannes or Nice.
Yes, verily—as he reflected—Henrietta Frayling did keep the ball rolling with truly Anglo-Indian frivolity and persistence, here in the heart of Europe! And was that altogether wholesome for Damaris? He delighted to have the beautiful young creature enjoy herself, spread her wings, take her place among the courted and acclaimed. But he prized her too highly not to be ambitious for her; and would have preferred her social education to be conducted on more dignified and authorized lines, in the great world of London, namely, or Paris. When all came to all, this was hardly good enough.
No one, he honestly admitted, trumpeted that last truth more loudly than Henrietta—at times. Nevertheless she went on and on, making the business of this rather second-rate pleasure-seeking daily of greater importance. How could Damaris be expected to discriminate, to retain her sense of relative values, in the perpetual scrimmage, the unceasing rush? Instinct and nobility of nature go an immensely long way as preservatives—thank God for that—still, where you have unsophistication, inexperience, a holy ignorance, to deal with, it is unwise to trust exclusively to their saving grace. Even the finest character is the safer—so he supposed—for some moulding and direction in its first contact with the world, if it is to come through the ordeal unscathed and unbesmirched. And to ask such moulding and direction of Henrietta Frayling was about as useful as asking a humming-bird to draw a water-cart.
He was still fond of Henrietta and derived much silent entertainment from witnessing her manoeuvres. But he was under no delusion regarding her. He considered her quite the most selfish woman of his acquaintance, though also one of the most superficially attractive. Hers was a cold, not a hot selfishness, refined to a sort of exquisiteness and never for an instant fleshly or gross. But that selfishness, in its singleness of purpose, made her curiously powerful, curiously capable of influencing persons of larger and finer spirit than herself—witness her ascendency over Charles Verity during a long period of years, and that without ever giving, or even seriously compromising, herself.
Into whoever she fixed her dainty little claws, she did it with an eye to some personal advantage. And here Carteret owned himself puzzled—for what advantage could she gain from this close association with Damaris? The girl's freshness went, rather mercilessly, to show up her fading.
At times, it is true, watching her pretty alacrity of manner, hearing her caressing speech, he inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, believe her self-forgetful, her affection genuine, guiltless of design or after-thought. If so, so very much the better! He was far from grudging her redemption, specially at the hands of Damaris.—Only were things, in point of fact, working to this commendable issue? With the best will in the world to think so, he failed to rid himself of some prickings of anxiety and distrust.
And from such prickings he sensibly suffered to-night, as he leaned his shoulder against the iron pillar of the verandah at the Hotel de la Plage, and looked down into the claire obscure of the moonlit gardens, while over the polished floor of the big room at his back, the rhythmical tread of the dancers' feet kept time to the music of piano and sweet wailing strings.—For that a change showed increasingly evident in Damaris he could not disguise from himself. In precisely what that change consisted it was not easy to say. He discovered it more in an attitude of mind and atmosphere than in outward action or even in words said. But she was not quite the same as the grave and steadfast young creature who had asked his help for her father, and indirectly for herself, in the moist chill of the November twilight at The Hard—and who, receiving promise of such help, had darted away over the drenched lawn in company with the wildly gambolling cats alternately pursuing and pursued. Nor was she quite the same as when he had walked with her, through the resounding Paris streets, to pay her devoirs to her former guardians and teachers at the convent school; and, later returning, had spoken to her of the safety of religion, the high worth of the doctrine and practice of a definite historic creed.
Her relation to her father appeared—and this pained Carteret—to lack its old intimacy, its intensity of consideration and tenderness. Her interest in the child of his brain, his belated literary experiment, was less sustained and spontaneous. How could it flourish in its former proportions when she was so much away, so often absent from morning till night?—Not without leave though, for she scrupulously asked permission before answering Henrietta's gay call and taking part in that lady's junketings and jaunts. Sir Charles never refused the requested permission; but, while granting it, did he not tend to retreat into his former sardonic humour, fall into long silences, become inaccessible again and remote? The book went forward; yet, more than once recently, Carteret had questioned whether his friend would ever get himself fairly delivered of the admirable volume were not he—Carteret—permanently at hand to act midwife. An unpleasant idea pursued him that Sir Charles went, in some strange fashion, in fear of Damaris, of her criticism, her judgment. Yet fear seemed a hatefully strong and ugly word to employ as between a father and daughter so straitly, heretofore, bound to one another in love.
And then—there lay the heart of the worry, proving him only too likely a graceless jealous middle-age curmudgeon, a senile sentimentalist, thus did he upbraidingly mock himself—were there not signs of Damaris developing into a rather thorough paced coquette? She accepted the homage offered her with avidity, with many small airs and graces—a la Henrietta—of a quite novel sort. Old General Frayling—poor pathetic old warrior—was her slave. Peregrine Ditton, Harry Ellice, even the cleric Binning—let alone the permanently self-conscious, attitudinizing Wace—with other newer acquaintances, English and foreign, ran at her heels. And she let them run, bless her, even encouraged their running by turns of naughty disdain and waywardness. She was fatal to boys—that was in the natural course of things. And fatal to those considerably older than boys—perhaps—
The music flew faster and faster—stopped with a shriek and a crash. Laughing, talking, the dancers streamed out of the hot brightly lighted room into the soft peace, the delicate phantasy of the colourless moonlight.
Carteret drew back, flattening himself against the iron pillar in the shadow, as they passed down the steps into the garden below; the women's pale airy forms and the men's dark ones, pacing the shining paths in groups and couples, between the flower-beds, under the flat-headed pines, the shaggy-stemmed palms and towering eucalyptus, in and out massed banks of blossoming shrubs and dwarf hedges of monthly roses.
Midway in the light-hearted procession came Damaris, Peregrine Ditton on one side of her, Harry Ellice on the other. Leaving the main alley, the trio turned along a path, running parallel to the verandah, which opened into a circle surrounding the stone basin of a tinkling fountain, immediately below Colonel Carteret's post of solitary observation.
Damaris carried the demi-train of her white satin gown over her arm, thereby revealing a wealth of lace frilled petticoat, from beneath which the toes of her high-heeled, white satin shoes stepped with a pretty measured tread. The two boys, leaning a little towards one another, talked across her, their voices slightly raised in argument, not to say dispute.
"I call it rotten mean to bag my dance like that, I tell you.—Go away?—No I swear I won't go away, won't budge one blessed inch unless Miss Verity actually orders me to. If my dance was stolen, all the more reason I should have her to talk to now as a sort of make-up. So you just clear out, if you please, my good chap, and leave the field to your elders and betters. Remove your superfluous carcass till further notice.—Vamoose, my son, do you hear?"
This excitedly from Peregrine Ditton. They reached the fountain. Damaris stayed her measured walk, and stood gazing at the jet of water in its uprush and myriad sparkling fall. Ellice answered chaffingly yet with an underlying growl; and the dispute threatened to wax warm. But the girl heeded neither disputant, her attention rapt in watching the play of the falling water.
Throughout the evening she had easily been chief centre of attraction, besieged by partners. And those not only her present rival attendants or Marshall Wace; but by Mrs. Frayling's various importations, plus Mr. Alban Titherage—a fat, smart and very forthcoming young London stock-broker, lately established, in company of a pretty, silly, phthisis-stricken wife, at the Grand Hotel. Very much mistress of herself, Damaris had danced straight through the programme with an air of almost defiant vivacity. Now, as it seemed, her mood had changed and sobered. For presently Colonel Carteret saw her bosom heave, while she fetched a long sigh and, raising her head, glanced upwards, her great eyes searching the shadowed space of the verandah.
The cool lunar brightness flooded her upturned face, her bare neck and arms, the glittering folds of her satin gown. She was exceedingly fair to look upon just now. For an appreciable length of time her glance met Carteret's and held it; giving him—though the least neurotic of men, calm of body and of mind—a strange sensation as of contact with an electric current which tingled through every nerve and vein. And this, although he perceived that, dazzled by the moonlight, she either did not see or quite failed to recognize him. An expression of disappointment, akin, so he read it, to hope defeated, crossed her face. She lowered her eyes, and moved slowly forward along the path, the boys on either side her. Again Peregrine Ditton took up his tale—in softened accents though still as one sorely injured and whose temper consequently inclines not unjustly to the volcanic.
"Upon my honour, I think you might have given me just a minute's law, Miss Verity," he protested. "It was no fault of mine being late. Maud Callowgas kept me toddling to the most unconscionable extent. First she wanted an ice, and then a tumbler of lemon squash; and then she lost her fan, or pretended she did, and expected me to hunt for the beastly thing. I give you my word I was as rude as sin, in hope of shaking her off; but she didn't, or wouldn't, see what I was driving at. There was no getting away from her. I tell you she sticks like a burr, that girl, once she lays hold of you. Octopuses aren't in it. Her power of adhesion is something utterly frantic "—
Here Ellice cut in with a doubtless scathing though, to Carteret, inaudible remark, at which Damaris laughed outright; and the fresh young voices trailed away in the distance alternately mocking and remonstrant.
As he listened, still conscious of contact with that surprising electric current, Carteret found himself taking stock of his own forty-nine years with swift and lively repugnance. To accept the sum of them, and the limitations and restrictions that sum is currently supposed to entail, proved just now astonishingly difficult. Damaris, as beheld in the fantastic loveliness of the moonlight, her searching, unseeing eyes meeting and dwelling upon his own, the look of disappointment and defeat crossing her sweetly serious countenance, wrought upon him begetting a dangerous madness in his blood. That it was dangerous and a madness, and therefore promptly to be mastered and ejected, he would not permit himself an instant's doubt. Yet it very shrewdly plagued him, daring even to advance specious arguments upon its own behalf.
For, when he came to consider matters, was he not in perfect health, more sound and fit than many a man but half his age? And were not his fortunes just now at a specially happy turn, his sister, Mrs. Dreydel, having lately been blessed with a windfall, in the shape of yearly income, which—did he so choose—relieved him of much expenditure on her account. Her eldest son had received his commission. The three younger boys had done well as to scholarships thereby materially reducing the cost of their education. Never had he, Carteret, been so free to consult his private desires; and never, as he knew too profoundly well, had his desires taken so definite and delicious a form. Nevertheless it remained a madness to be mastered, to be ejected.—His last thought, as his first, pronounced it that.
Unconsciously, pushed by this stress of rather turbulent sensations, Carteret walked the length of the verandah and drew up in the full glare of the moonlight. From here he could see the curve of the shore; and, beyond the quay and esplanade and last scattered houses of the little town, the lighthouse marking the tip of the western horn of the bay. He could hear the soft stealthy plunge and following rush of the sea up the white shelving beach. Could hear also—less soothing sound—through the open windows of the drawing-room of the Pavilion, just across the garden, Marshall Wace singing, with all the impassioned fervour of his rich and well-trained baritone, a ballad, then much in vogue, entitled "The Lost Chord." The words, to Carteret's thinking, were futile, meaning anything, everything, or nothing, according to your private interpretation of them. But as to the fine quality and emotional appeal of the voice there could not be two opinions, as it palpitated thus in the mild night air. Was Damaris Verity a member of the singer's devout audience? Were her hands among those which now enthusiastically applauded the conclusion of the song? Under his breath, slowly, gently but most comprehensively, Carteret swore. And felt all the better for that impious exercise, even amused at this primitive expression of his moral and sentimental disturbance, and so on the high-road, as he fondly imagined, to capture his habitual attitude of charity and tolerance once again. But heaven had further trial of his fortitude and magnanimity, not to say his good honest horse sense, in store to-night.
For, as the clapping of hands died down, the whisper of a woman's dress, upon the asphalt of the verandah just behind him, caught his ear, and Damaris came rapidly towards him.
"So you are here after all, dear Colonel Sahib," she cried. "I felt you were when I was down there looking at the fountain. It sort of pulled at me with remindings of you ages and ages ago, in the gardens of the club at Bhutpur—when you brought me a present—a darling little green jade elephant in a sandalwood box, as a birthday gift from Henrietta. Later there was a terrible tragedy. An odious little boy broke my elephant, on purpose, and broke my heart along with it."
Carteret made a determined effort over himself, taking her up lightly.
"But not altogether past mending, dear witch—judging by existing appearances."
"Ah! I'm none so sure of that," Damaris answered him back with a pretty quickness—"if it hadn't been for you. For I was very ill, when you came again to the Sultan-i-bagh—don't you remember?—the night of the riots and great fires in the Civil Lines and Cantonments, just at the breaking of the monsoon."
"Yes, I remember," he said.
And wondered to himself—thereby gaining ease and a measure of tranquillity, inasmuch as he thought of another man's plight rather than of his own—whether Damaris had knowledge of other occurrences, not unallied to tragedy, which had marked that same night of threatened mutiny and massacre and of bellowing tempest, not least among them a vow made by her father, Charles Verity, and made for her sake.
"The whole story comes back in pictures," she went on, "whenever I look at fountains playing, because of the water-jets in the canal in the Bhutpur club garden where you gave me Henrietta's present. You see it all dates from then. And it came back to me specially clearly just now, partly because I felt lonely—"
"Lonely?—How lonely," he smilingly interjected, "with a goodly youth as a protector on either hand?"
"Yes—lonely," Damaris repeated, ignoring the allusion to her devoted if irascible escort. "Dance music always makes one rather sad—don't you think so? It seems to ache with everything one wants and hasn't got; and the ache goes on.—I turned homesick for—for India, and for my green jade elephant I used to love so dreadfully much.—I've all that is left of him, still wrapped in the same rice paper in the same sandalwood box you brought him in, put away with my best treasures in my own room at The Hard."
She came nearer, stood beside him, bending down a little as she rested her hands on the top of the iron balustrade of the verandah, while her eyes followed the curve of the bay to where the lighthouse rose, a black column with flashing headpiece, above the soft glitter of the moonlit sea.
"And homesick, Colonel Sahib, for you," she said.
"For me?" he exclaimed almost involuntarily, roughly startled out of his partially recovered tranquillity and ease.
"Yes"—she said, looking up at him. "Isn't that quite natural, since you have stepped in so often to help me when things have gone rather wrong?—I knew you must be somewhere quite close by. I sort of felt you were there. And you were there—weren't you? Why did you hide yourself away?"
Carteret could not bring himself immediately to answer. He was perplexed, infinitely charmed, distrustful, all at once—distrustful, though for very different reasons, both of himself and of her.
"Are things, then, going rather wrong now?" he asked presently.
For he judged it wise to accept her enigmatic speech according to its most simple and obvious interpretation. By so doing he stood, moreover, to gain time; and time in his existing perplexity appeared to him of cardinal importance.
"That's just what I'm not sure about." Damaris spoke slowly, gravely, her glance again fixed upon the beacon light set for the safety of passing ships on the further horn of the bay. "If I could be sure, I should know what to do—know whether it is right to keep on as—as I am. Do you see?"
But what, at this juncture, Carteret did, in point of fact, most consciously see was the return of Henrietta Frayling's scattered guests, from the Pavilion and other less fully illuminated quarters, towards the main building of the hotel. From the improvised ball-room within chords struck on the piano and answering tuning of strings invited to the renewal of united and active festivity. In the face of consequently impending interruption he hazarded a trifle of admonition.
"Dearest witch, you elect to speak in riddles," he gently told her. "I am in the dark as to your meaning; so, if I am guilty of uttering foolishness, you must pardon me. But I own I could wish—just a bit—that, in some particulars, you wouldn't keep on—I quote your own words—as you are, or rather have been just lately."
"Why?" she asked, without moving.
"Because, to be quite honest with you, I am not altogether satisfied about your father. I am afraid he is getting back into the habit of mind we set out to cure him of, you and I, last November."
Damaris sprang to attention.
"And I haven't noticed it. I Wouldn't stop to notice it. I have been too busy about my own concerns and have neglected him."
Arrayed in her spotless virgin finery, her head carried proudly, though her eyes were sombre with self-reproach, self-accusation, and her lips quivered, she confronted Carteret. And his clean loyal soul went out to her in a poignant, an exquisite, agony of tenderness and of desire. He would have given his right hand to save her pain. Given his life gladly, just then, to secure her welfare and happiness; yet he had struck her—for her own good possibly—possibly just blindly, instinctively, in self-defence. He tried to shut down the emotion which threatened to betray him and steady on to the playfully affectionate tone of their customary intercourse; but it is to be feared the effort lacked convincingness of quality.
"No—no," he said, "you take it altogether too hard. You exaggerate, dear witch, to the point of extravagance. You have been less constantly with your father than usual—you're the delight of his life after all, as you must very well know—and inevitably he has missed you. Nothing worse than that. The damage, such as it is, can easily be repaired."
"Ah! but the damage, as you call it, starts behind all that in something else—something older, much deeper down, of which I doubt whether any lasting reparation is possible. I did try to repair it. All my going out with Henrietta, and this rushing about lately, began in that trying—truly it did, Colonel Sahib. And then I suppose I got above myself—as poor Nannie used to say—and came to care for the rushing about just for its own sake"—
"My dance, I believe, Miss Verity."
The speaker, Mr. Alban Titherage—well-groomed, rosy and self-complacent—pulled down the fronts of his white waistcoat. He inclined to distinct rotundity of person, and the garment in question, though admirable in cut, showed, what with the exertions of dancing, a damnable tendency, as he expressed it, to "ride up."
"And my dance next afterwards, Miss Verity"—this from Peregrine Ditton, his youthful, well-bred, if somewhat choleric, countenance presenting itself over the top of the stock-broker's smooth and not conspicuously intelligent head.
Damaris looked from one to the other of these claimants for her favour, with instant and very becoming composure.
"I'm dreadfully sorry," she told them collectively, "but surely there is some mistake. Both those next dances—they are the last, I'm afraid, too, aren't they?—belong to Colonel Carteret."
"The deuce they do!" Ditton exploded, turning scarlet. With a cocked eye and a jaunty movement of the head Mr. Titherage shot out his right shirt cuff, and pointed a stout forefinger at certain hieroglyphics inscribed on its glossy surface.
"Your name, Miss Verity, and written with an indelible pencil, to the permanent embellishment of my best party-going linen and witness to your infidelity."
"I can only repeat I am dreadfully sorry," Damaris said, with a becoming air of concern, "if the confusion has arisen through my fault. But"—
She appealed to Carteret.
"They always were your dances, weren't they?"
"Without doubt," he affirmed.
Amusedly and very kindly he smiled upon the angry boy and portly young man, although the beat of his pulse was accelerated and his throat felt queerly dry.
"I am sure you understand how impossible it is for me to release Miss Verity from her promise," he said courteously. "Would you willingly do so yourselves, were the positions reversed and either of you happy enough to stand in my shoes at this moment?"
Titherage gave a fat good-tempered laugh.
"By George, you have me there, Colonel. Under such A1 circumstances catch me making way for a stranger! Not if I know it."
With which he attempted jovially to put his arm through that of his companion in misfortune and lead Ditton away. But the latter flung off from him with a petulant, half-smothered oath; and, his back very straight, his walk very deliberate, pushed through the cheerfully discoursing throng into the ball-room.
Damaris turned about, resting her hands on the top of the iron balustrade again and gazed out to sea. Her breath came with a catch in it.
"Colonel Sahib," she said, proudly if just a trifle brokenly, "are you angry?"
Then recovering control of senses and of sense—"But, dear witch," he asked her—"since when, if I may venture to enquire, have you become an adept in the fine art of—well—lying?"
Damaris looked around, her face irradiated by laughter.
"And you played up, oh! so beautifully quick! I was a teeny bit afraid you might fail me. For the idea came all of a minute, there wasn't time to warn you. And that was fortunate perhaps—for me. You might have had scruples. And I was obliged to do it. After talking about the things which really matter, I couldn't dance with that vulgar little man again—or with those jealous boys. They had an idiotic quarrel, actual quarrel, down in the garden. It displeased me. I told them so, and left them, and came here to find you—because of the fountain and the sort of home-sickness it gave me."
Between laughing and crying, Damaris held out her hands, the white moonlight covering her.
"Oh! I am tired of rushing about," she said. "Come and dance with me—it's nonsense to tell me you can't dance, and that you've forgotten how, because you have danced once this evening already—with Henrietta. I watched you and you dance better than anybody."
"With Henrietta—that's rather a different matter!"
"I should hope it was," Damaris took him up naughtily. "But dance with me, and then, then please take me home. Yes," as he tried to speak. "I know I had arranged to stay the night at the Pavilion. But I'll find some excuse to make to Henrietta—Haven't you just told me I'm proficient in lying?—You were going to walk back? Why shouldn't I walk with you? I won't be five minutes changing into my day clothes. It would be so fascinating down on the shore road at night. And I should get quiet all inside of me. I am tired of rushing about, Colonel Sahib, it hasn't been a success."