Mr. Vanringham lounged forward. The comedian had a vogue among the younger men, since at all games of chance they found him untiring and tolerably honest; and his apartments were, in effect, a gambling parlor.
Vanringham now took the boy's hand very genially. "You have somewhat the look of your sister," he observed, after a prolonged appraisal; "though, in nature, 'tis not expected of us trousered folk to be so beautiful. And by your leave, you'll not quit us thus unceremoniously, Master Osric. I am by way of being a friend of your brother's, and 'tis more than possible that he may during the evening honor us with his presence. Will you not linger awhile on the off-chance?" And Osric Allonby admitted he had no other engagements.
He was in due form made known to the three gentlemen—Colonel Denstroude, [Footnote: He and Vanringham had just been reconciled by Molly Yates' elopement with Tom Stoach, the Colonel's footman. Garendon has a curious anecdote concerning this lady, apropos of his notorious duel with Denstroude, in '61.] Mr. Babington-Herle, and Sir Gresley Carne—who sat over a bowl of punch. Sir Gresley was then permitted to conclude the narrative which Mr. Allonby's entrance had interrupted: the evening previous, being a little tipsy, Sir Gresley had strolled about Tunbridge in search of recreation and, with perhaps excessive playfulness, had slapped a passer-by, broken the fellow's nose, and gouged both thumbs into the rascal's eyes. The young baronet conceded the introduction of these London pastimes into the rural quiet of Tunbridge to have been an error in taste, especially as the man proved upon inquiry to be a respectable haberdasher and the sole dependence of four children; and having thus unfortunately blinded the little tradesman, Sir Gresley wished to ask of the assembled company what in their opinion was a reasonable reparation. "For I sincerely regret the entire affair," Sir Gresley concluded, "and am desirous to follow a course approvable by all men of honor."
"Heyho!" said Mr. Vanringham, "I'm afraid the rape of both eyes was a trifle extreme; for by ordinary a haberdasher is neither a potato nor an Argus, and, remembering that, even the high frivolity of brandy-and-water should have respected his limitations."
The hands of Mr. Allonby had screened his face during the recital, "Oh, the poor man!" he said, "I cannot bear—" And then, with swift alteration, he tossed back his head, and laughed. "Are we gentlemen to be denied all amusement? Sir Gresley acted quite within his privilege, and in terming him severe you have lied, Mr. Vanringham. I repeat, sir, you have lied!"
Vanringham was on his feet within the instant, but Colonel Denstroude, who sat beside him, laid a heavy hand upon Vanringham's arm. "'Oons, man," says the Colonel, "infanticide is a crime."
The actor shrugged his shoulders, "Doubtless you are in the right, Mr. Allonby," he said; "though, as you were of course going on to remark, you express yourself somewhat obscurely. Your meaning, I take it, is that I mayn't criticise the doings, of my guests? I stand corrected, and concede Sir Gresley acted with commendable moderation, and that Cambridge is, beyond question, the paramount expositor of morals and manners."
The lad stared about him: with a bewildered face. "La, will he not fight me now?" he demanded of Colonel Denstroude,—"now, after I have called him a liar?"
"My dear," the Colonel retorted, "he may possibly deprive you of your nursing-bottle, or he may even birch you, but he will most assuredly not fight you, so long as I have any say in the affair. I' cod, we are all friends here, I hope. D'ye think Mr. Vanringham has so often enacted Richard III. that to strangle infants is habitual with him? Fight you, indeed! 'Sdeath and devils!" roared the Colonel, "I will cut the throat of any man who dares to speak of fighting in this amicable company! Gi'me some more punch," said the Colonel.
And thereupon in silence Mr. Allonby resumed his seat.
Now, to relieve the somewhat awkward tension, Mr. Vanringham cried: "So being neighborly again, let us think no more of the recent difference in opinion. Pay your damned haberdasher what you like, Gresley; or, rather, let Osric here fix the remuneration. I confess to all and sundry," he added, with a smile, "that I daren't say another word in the matter. Frankly, I'm afraid of this youngster. He breathes fire like AEtna."
"He is a lad of spirit," said Mr. Babington-Herle, with an extreme sobriety. "He's a lad eshtrornary spirit. Let's have game hazard."
"Agreed, good sir," said Vanringham, "and I warn you, you will find me a daring antagonist. I had to-day an extraordinary—the usual prejudice, my dear Herle, is, I believe, somewhat inclined to that pronunciation of the word,—the most extraordinary windfall. I am rich, and I protest King Croesus himself sha'n't intimidate me to-night. Come!" he cried, and he drew from his pocket a plump purse and emptied its contents upon the table; "come, lay your wager!"
"Hell and furies," the Colonel groaned, "there's that tomfool boy again! Gi'me some more punch."
For Osric Allonby had risen to his feet and had swept the littered gold and notes toward him. He stood thus, his pink-tipped fingers caressing the money, while his eyes fixed those of Mr. Vanringham. "And the chief priests," observed Osric Allonby, "took the silver pieces and said, 'It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood.' Are they, then, fit to be touched by gentlemen, Mr.—ah, but I forget your given name?"
Vanringham, too, had risen, his face changed. "My sponsors in baptism were pleased to christen me Francis."
"I entreat your pardon," the boy drawled, "but I have the oddest fancies. I had thought it was Judas." And so they stood, warily regarding each the other, very much as strange dogs are wont to do at meeting.
"Boy is drunk," Mr. Babington-Herle explained at large, "and presents to pitying eye of disinterested spectator most deplorable results incidental to combination of immaturity and brandy. As to money, now, in Suetonius—" And he launched upon a hiccough-punctuated anecdote of Vespasian, which to record here is not convenient. "And moral of it is," Mr. Babington-Herle perorated, "that all money is always fine thing to have. Non olet! Classical scholar, by Jove! Now let's have game hazard."
Meanwhile those two had stood like statues. Vanringham seemed half-frightened, half persuaded that this unaccountable boy spoke at random. Talk, either way, the actor knew, was dangerous....
"I ask your forgiveness, gentlemen," said Francis Vanringham, "but I'm suddenly ill. If you'll permit me to retire—"
"Not at all," said. Mr. Babington-Herle; "late in evening, as it is. We will go,—Colonel and old Carne and I will go kill watchman. Persevorate him, by Jove,—like sieve."
"I thank you," said Mr. Vanringham, withdrawing up the stairway toward his bedroom. "I thank you. Mr. Allonby," he called, in a firmer tone, "you and I have had some words together and you were the aggressor. Oho, I think we may pass it over. I think—"
Below, the four gentlemen were unhooking their swords from the wall. Mr. Allonby now smiled with cherubic sweetness. "I, too," said he, "think that all our differences might be arranged by ten minutes' private talk." He came back, came up the stairs. "You had left your sword," he said to Mr. Vanringham, "but I fetched it, you see."
Vanringham stared, his lips working oddly. "I am no Siegfried," said he, "and ordinarily my bedfellow is not cold and—deplorable defect in such capacity!—somewhat unsympathetic steel."
"But you forget," the boy urged, "that the room is public. And see, the hilt is set with jewels. Ah, Mr. Vanringham, let us beware how we lead others into temptation—" The door closed behind them.
Said Mr. Babington-Herle, judicially, "That's eshtrornary boy—most eshtrornary boy, and precisely unlike brother."
"You must remember," the Colonel pointed out, "that since his marriage Gerald is a reformed man; he has quite given up punks and hazard, they say, for beer and cattle-raising."
"Well, but it is a sad thing to have a spirited tall rogue turn pimp to balls and rams, and Mrs. Lascelles will be inconsolable," Sir Gresley considered.—"Hey, what's that? Did you not hear a noise up-stairs?"
"I do not think," said the Colonel, "that Mallison finds her so.—Yes, i'cod! I suppose that tipsy boy has turned over a table."
"But you astound me," Sir Gresley interrupted. "The constant Mallison, of all persons!"
"Nevertheless, my dear, they assure me that he has made over to her the heart and lodgings until lately occupied by Mrs. Roydon—Oh, the devil!" cried Colonel Denstroude, "they are fighting above!"
"Good for Frank!" observed Mr. Babington-Herle. "Hip-hip! Stick young rascal! Persevorate him, by Jove!"
But the other men had run hastily up the stairway and were battering at the door of Vanringham's chamber. "Locked!" said the Colonel. "Oh, the unutterable cur! Open, open, I tell you, Vanringham! By God, I'll have your blood for this if you have hurt the boy!"
"Break in the door!" said a voice from below. The Colonel paused in his objurgations, and found that the Duke of Ormskirk, followed by four attendants, had entered the hallway of the Three Gudgeons. "Benyon," said the Duke, more sharply, and wheeled upon his men, "you have had my orders, I believe. Break in yonder door!"
This was done. They found Mr. Francis Vanringham upon the hearthrug a tousled heap of flesh and finery, insensible, with his mouth gaping, in a great puddle of blood. To the rear of the room was a boy in pink-and-silver, beside the writing-desk he had just got into with the co-operation of a poker. Hugged to his breast he held a brown despatch-box.
Ormskirk strode toward the boy and with an inhalation paused. The Duke stood tense for a moment. Then silently he knelt beside the prostrate actor and inspected Vanringham's injury. "You have killed him," the Duke said at last.
"I think so," said the boy. "But 'twas in fair fight."
The Duke rose. "Benyon," he rapped out, "do you and Minchin take this body to the room below. Let a surgeon be sent for. Bring word if he find any sign of life. Gentlemen, I must ask you to avoid the chamber. This is a state matter. I am responsible for yonder person."
"Then your Grace is responsible for perfectly irresponsible young villain!" said Mr. Babington-Herle. "He's murderer Frank Vanringham, of poor dear Frank, like a brother to me, by Jove! Hang him high's Haman, your Grace, and then we'll have another bottle."
"Colonel Denstroude," said the Duke, "I will ask you to assist your friend in retiring. The stairs are steep, and his conviviality, I fear, has by a pint or so exceeded his capacity. And in fine—I wish you a good-evening, gentlemen."
Ormskirk closed the door; then he turned, "I lack words," the Duke said. "Oh, believe me, speech fails before this spectacle. To find you, here, at this hour! To find you—my betrothed wife's kinswoman and life-long associate,—here, in this garb! A slain man at your feet, his blood yet reeking upon that stolen sword! His papers—pardon me!"
Ormskirk sprang forward and caught the despatch-box from her grasp as she strove to empty its contents into the fire. "Pardon me," he repeated; "you have unsexed yourself; do not add high treason to the list of your misdemeanors. Mr. Vanringham's papers, as I have previously had the honor to inform you, are the state's property."
She stood with void and inefficient hands that groped vaguely. "I could trust no one," she said. "I have fenced so often with Gerald. I was not afraid—at least, I was not very much afraid.. And 'twas so difficult to draw him into a quarrel,—he wanted to live, because at last he had the money his dirty little soul had craved. Ah, I had sacrificed so many things to get these papers, my Lord Duke,—and now you rob me of them. You!"
The Duke bent pitiless brows upon her. "I rob you of them," he said,—"ay, I am discourteous and I rob, but not for myself alone. For your confusion tells me that I hold here between my hands the salvation of England. Child, child!" he cried, in sudden tenderness, "I trusted you to-day, and could you not trust me? I promised you the life of the man you love. I promised you—" He broke off, as if in a rivalry of rage and horror. "And you betrayed me! You came hither, trousered and shameless, to save these hare-brained traitors! Well, but at worst your treachery has very happily released me from my promise to meddle in the fate of this Audaine. I shall not lift a finger now. And I warn you that within the week your precious Captain will have become the associate of seraphim."
She had heard him, with defiant eyes; her head was flung back and she laughed. "You thought I had come to destroy the Jacobite petition! Heavens, what had I to do with all such nonsense? You had promised me Frank's pardon, and the other men I had never seen. Harkee, my Lord Duke, do all you politicians jump so wildly in your guess work? Did you in truth believe that the poor fool who lies dead below would have entrusted the paper which meant life and wealth to the keeping of a flimsy despatch-box?"
"Indeed, no," his Grace of Ormskirk replied, and appeared a thought abashed; "I was certain it would be concealed somewhere about his person, and I have already given Benyon orders to search for it. Still, I confess that for the moment your agitation misled me into believing these were the important papers; and I admit, my dear creature, that unless you came hither prompted by a mad design somehow to destroy the incriminating documents and thereby to ensure your lover's life—why, otherwise, I repeat, I am quite unable to divine your motive."
She was silent for a while. Presently, "You told me this afternoon," she began, in a dull voice, "that you anticipated much amusement from your perusal of Mr. Vanringham's correspondence. All his papers were to be seized, you said; and they all were to be brought to you, you said. And so many love-sick misses write to actors, you said."
"As I recall the conversation," his Grace conceded, "that which you have stated is quite true." He spoke with admirable languor, but his countenance was vaguely troubled.
And now the girl came to him and laid her finger-tips ever so lightly upon his. "Trust me," she pleaded. "Give me again the trust I have not merited. Ay, in spite of reason, my Lord Duke, restore to me these papers unread, that I may destroy them. For otherwise, I swear to you that without gain to yourself—without gain, O God!—you wreck alike the happiness of an innocent woman and of an honest gentleman. And otherwise—O infatuate!" she wailed, and wrung impotent hands.
But Ormskirk shook his head. "I cannot leap in the dark."
She found no comfort in his face, and presently lowered her eyes. He remained motionless. The girl went to the farther end of the apartment, and then, her form straightening on a sudden, turned and came back toward him.
"I think God has some grudge against you," Dorothy said, without any emotion, "and—hardens your heart, as of old He hardened Pharaoh's heart, to your own destruction. I have done my utmost to save you. My woman's modesty I have put aside, and death and worse than death I have dared to encounter to-night,—ah, my Lord, I have walked through hell this night for your sake and another's. And in the end 'tis yourself who rob me of what I had so nearly gained. Beyond doubt God has some grudge against you. Take your fate, then."
"Integer vitae—" said the Duke of Ormskirk; and with more acerbity, "Go on!" For momentarily she had paused.
"The man who lies dead below was loved by many women. God pity them! But women are not sensible like men, you know. And always the footlights made a halo about him; and when you saw him as Castalio or Romeo, all beauty and love and vigor and nobility, how was a woman to understand his splendor was a sham, taken off with his wig, removed with his pinchbeck jewelry, and as false? No, they thought it native, poor wretches. Yet one of them at least, my Lord—a young girl—found out her error before it was too late. The man was a villain through and through. God grant he sups in hell to-night!"
"Go on," said Ormskirk. But by this time he knew all that she had to tell.
"Afterward he demanded money of her. He had letters, you understand—mad, foolish letters,—and these he offered to sell back to her at his own price. And their publicity meant ruin. And, my Lord, we had so nearly saved the money—pinching day by day, a little by a little, for his price was very high, and it was necessary the sum be got in secrecy,—and that in the end they should be read by you—" Her voice broke.
"Go on," said Ormskirk.
But her composure was shattered. "I would have given my life to save her," the girl babbled. "Ah, you know that I have tried to save her. I was not very much afraid. And it seemed the only way. So I came hither, my Lord, as you see me, to get back the letters before you, too, had come."
"There is but one woman in the world," the Duke said, quietly, "for whom you would have done this thing. You and Marian were reared together. Always you have been inseparable, always you have been to each other as sisters. Is this not what you are about to tell me?"
"Yes," she answered.
"Well, you may spare yourself the pains of such unprofitable lying. That Marian Heleigh should have been guilty of a vulgar liaison with, an actor is to me, who know her, unthinkable. No, madam! It was fear, not love, which drove you hither to-night, and now a baser terror urges you to screen yourself by vilifying her. The woman of whom you speak is yourself. The letters were written by you."
She raised one arm as though a physical blow impended. "No, no!" she cried.
"Madam," the Duke said, "let us have done with these dexterities. I have the vanity to believe I am not unreasonably obtuse—nor, I submit, unreasonably self-righteous. Love is a monstrous force, as irrational, I sometimes think, as the force of the thunderbolt; it appears neither to select nor to eschew, but merely to strike; and it is not my duty to asperse or to commend its victims. You have loved unworthily. From the bottom of my heart I pity you, and I would that you had trusted me—had trusted me enough—" His voice was not quite steady. "Ah, my dear," said Ormskirk, "you should have confided all to me this afternoon. It hurts me that you did not, for I am no Pharisee and—God knows!—my own past is not immaculate. I would have understood, I think. Yet as it is, take back your letters, child,—nay, in Heaven's name, take them in pledge of an old man's love for Dorothy Allonby."
The girl obeyed, turning them in her hands, the while that her eyes were riveted to Ormskirk's face. And in Aprilian fashion she began to smile through her tears. "You are superb, my Lord Duke. You comprehend that Marian wrote these letters, and that if you read them—and I knew of it,—your pride would force you to break off the match, because your notions as to what is befitting in a Duchess of Ormskirk are precise. But you want Marian, you want her even more than I had feared. Therefore, you give me all these letters, because you know that I will destroy them, and thus an inconvenient knowledge will be spared you. Oh, beyond doubt, you are superb."
"I give them to you," Ormskirk answered, "because I have seen through your cowardly and clumsy lie, and have only pity for a thing so base as you. I give them to you because to read one syllable of their contents would be to admit I had some faith in your preposterous fabrication."
But she shook her head. "Words, words, my Lord Duke! I understand you to the marrow. And, in part, I think that I admire you."
He was angry now. "Eh! for the love of God," cried the Duke of Ormskirk, "let us burn the accursed things and have no more verbiage!" He seized the papers and flung them into the fire.
Then these two watched the papers consume to ashes, and stood a while in silence, the gaze of neither lifting higher than the andirons; and presently there was a tapping at the door.
"That will be Benyon," the Duke said, with careful modulations. "Enter, man! What news is there of this Vanringham?"
"He will recover, your Grace, though he has lost much blood. Mr. Vanringham has regained consciousness and took occasion to whisper me your Grace would find the needful papers in his escritoire, in the brown despatch-box."
"That is well," the Duke retorted, "You may go, Benyon." And when the door had closed, he began, incuriously: "Then you are not a murderess at least, Miss Allonby. At least—" He made a queer noise as he gazed, at the despatch-box in his hand. "The brown box!" It fell to the floor. Ormskirk drew near to her, staring, moving stiffly like a hinged toy, "I must have the truth," he said, without a trace of any human passion. This was the Ormskirk men had known in Scotland.
"Yes," she answered, "they were the Jacobite papers. You burned them."
"I!" said the Duke.
Presently he said: "Do you not understand what this farce has cost? Thanks to you, I have no iota of proof against these men. I cannot touch these rebels. O madam, I pray Heaven that you have not by this night's trickery destroyed England!"
"I did it to save the man I love," she proudly said.
"I had promised you his life."
"But would you have kept that promise?"
"No," he answered, simply.
"Then are we quits, my Lord. You lied to me, and I to you. Oh, I know that were I a man you would kill me within the moment. But you respect my womanhood. Ah, goodness!" the girl cried, shrilly, "what very edifying respect for womanhood have you, who burned those papers because you believed my dearest Marian had stooped to a painted mountebank!"
"I burned them—yes, in the belief that I was saving you."
She laughed in his face. "You never believed that,—not for an instant."
But by this time Ormskirk had regained his composure. "The hour is somewhat late, and the discussion—if you will pardon the suggestion,—not likely to be profitable. The upshot of the whole matter is that I am now powerless to harm anybody—I submit the simile of the fangless snake,—and that Captain Audaine will have his release in the morning. Accordingly you will now permit me to wish you a pleasant night's rest. Benyon!" he called, "you will escort Mr. Osric Allonby homeward. I remain to clear up this affair."
He held open the door for her, and, bowing, stood aside that she might pass.
But afterward the great Duke of Ormskirk continued for a long while motionless and faintly smiling as he gazed into the fire. Tricked and ignominiously defeated! Ay, but that was a trifle now, scarcely worthy of consideration. The girl had hoodwinked him, had lied more skilfully than he, yet in the fact that she had lied he found a prodigal atonement. Whigs and Jacobites might have their uses in the cosmic scheme, he reflected, as house-flies have, but what really mattered was that at Halvergate yonder Marian awaited his coming. And in place of statecraft he fell to thinking of two hazel eyes and of abundant hair the color of a dead oak-leaf.
As Played at Halvergate House, April 9, 1750
"You cannot love, nor pleasure take, nor give, But life begin when 'tis too late to live. On a tired courser you pursue delight, Let slip your morning, and set out at night. If you have lived, take thankfully the past; Make, as you can, the sweet remembrance last. If you have not enjoyed what youth could give, But life sunk through you, like a leaky sieve."
DUKE OF ORMSKIKK.
EARL OF BRUDENEL, father to Lady Marian Heleigh, who has retired sometime into the country.
LORD HUMPHREY DEGGE, a gamester, and Ormskirk's hireling.
MR. LANGTON, secretary to Ormskirk.
LADY MARIAN HELEIGH, betrothed to Ormskirk, a young, beautiful girl of a mild and tender disposition.
The east terrace of Halvergate House.
PROEM:—Apologia pro Auctore
It occurs to me that we here assume intimacy with a man of unusual achievement, and therefore tread upon quaggy premises. Yet I do but avail myself of to-day's privilege.... It is an odd thing that people will facilely assent to Don Adriano's protestation against a certain travestying of Hector,—"Sweet chucks, beat not the bones of the dead, for when he breathed he was a man,"—even while through the instant the tide of romance will be setting quite otherwhither, with their condonation. For in all the best approved romances the more sumptuous persons of antiquity are very guilty of twaddle on at least one printed page in ten, and nobody remonstrates; and here is John Bulmer, too, lugged from the grave for your delectation.
I presume, however, to palliate the offence. The curious may find the gist of what I narrate concerning Ormskirk in Heinrich Loewe's biography of the man, and will there discover that with established facts I have not made bold to juggle. Only when knowledge failed have I bridged the void with speculation. Perhaps I have guessed wrongly: the feat is not unhuman, and in provision against detection therein I can only protest that this lack of omniscience was never due to malice; faithfully I have endeavored to deduce from the known the probable, and in nothing to misrepresent to you this big man of a little age, this trout among a school of minnows.
Trout, mark you; I claim for Ormskirk no leviathan-ship. Rather I would remind you of a passage from somewhat anterior memoirs: "The Emperor of Lilliput is taller, by almost the breadth of my nail, than any of his court, which alone is enough to strike an awe into his beholders."
This, however, is not the place to expatiate on Ormskirk's extraordinary career; his rise from penury and obscurity, tempered indeed by gentle birth, to the priviest secrets of his Majesty's council,—climbing the peerage step by step, as though that institution had been a garden-ladder,—may be read of in the history books.
"I collect titles as an entomologist does butterflies," he is recorded to have said: "and I find the gaudier ones the cheapest. My barony I got for a very heinous piece of perjury, my earldom for not running away until the latter end of a certain battle, my marquisate for hoodwinking a half-senile Frenchman, and my dukedom for fetching in a quack doctor when he was sore needed by a lady whom the King at that time delighted to honor."
It was, you observe, a day of candors.
The Duke of Ormskirk, then (one gleans from Loewe's pages), dismissed from mind the Audaine conspiracy. It was a pity to miss the salutary effect of a few political executions just then, but after all there was nothing to be done about it. So the Duke turned to the one consolation offered by the affair, and set out for Halvergate House, the home of Marian Heleigh's father. There one finds him, six days later, deep in a consultation with his secretary, which in consideration of the unseasonable warmth was held upon the east terrace.
"Yes, I think we had better have the fellow hanged on the thirteenth," said Ormskirk, as he leisurely affixed his signature. "The date seems eminently appropriate. Now the papers concerning the French treaty, if you please, Mr. Langton."
The impassive-faced young man who sat opposite placed a despatch-box between them. "These were sent down from London only last night, sir. Mr. Morfit [Footnote: Perhaps the most adroit of all the many spies in Ormskirk's employment. It was this same Morfit who in 1756 accompanied Damiens into France as far as Calais; and see page 16.] has been somewhat dilatory."
"Eh, it scarcely matters. I looked them over in bed this morning and found them quite correct, Mr. Langton, quite—Why, heyday!" the Duke demanded, "what's this? You have brought me the despatch-box from my dresser—not, as I distinctly told you, from the table by my bed. Nay, I have had quite enough of mistakes concerning despatch-boxes, Mr. Langton."
Mr. Langton stammered that the error was natural. Two despatch-boxes were in appearances so similar—
"Never make excuses, Mr. Langton. 'Qui s'excuse—' You can complete the proverb, I suppose. Bring me Morfit's report this afternoon, then. Yes, that appears to be all. You may go now, Mr. Langton. No, you may leave that box, I think, since it is here. O man, man, a mistake isn't high treason! Go away, Mr. Langton! you annoy me."
Left alone, the Duke of Ormskirk sat for a while, tapping his fingers irresolutely against the open despatch-box. He frowned a little, for, with fair reason to believe Tom Langton his son, he found the boy too stolid, too unimaginative, to go far. It seemed to Ormskirk that none of his illegitimate children displayed any particular promise, and he sighed. Then he took a paper from the despatch-box, and began to read.
He sat, as one had said, upon the east terrace of Halvergate House. Behind him a tall yew-hedge shut off the sunlight from the table where he and Tom Langton had earlier completed divers businesses; in front of him a balustrade, ivy-covered, and set with flower-pots of stone, empty as yet, half screened the terraced gardens that sank to the artificial lake below.
The Duke could see only a vast expanse of sky and a stray bit of Halvergate printing the horizon with turrets, all sober gray save where the two big copper cupolas of the south facade burned in the April sun; but by bending forward you glimpsed close-shaven lawns dotted with clipped trees and statues,—as though, he reflected, Glumdalclitch had left her toys scattered haphazard about a green blanket—and the white of the broad marble stairway descending to the sunlit lake, and, at times, the flash of a swan's deliberate passage across the lake's surface. All white and green and blue the vista was, and of a monastic tranquillity, save for the plashing of a fountain behind the yew-hedge and the grumblings of an occasional bee that lurched complainingly on some by-errand of the hive.
Presently his Grace of Ormskirk replaced the papers in the despatch-box, and, leaning forward, sighed. "Non sum qualis eram sub bonae regno Cynarae," said his Grace of Ormskirk. He had a statesman-like partiality for the fag-end of an alcaic.
Then he lifted his head at the sound of a girl's voice. Somewhere rearward to the hedge the girl idly sang—an old song of Thomas Heywood's,—in a serene contralto, low-pitched and effortless, but very sweet. Smilingly the Duke beat time.
Sang the girl:
"Pack clouds away, and welcome, day! With night we banish sorrow: Sweet air, blow soft; mount, lark, aloft, To give my love good-morrow. Wings from the wind to please her mind, Notes from the lark I'll borrow: Bird, prune thy wing; nightingale, sing, To give my love good-morrow."
And here the Duke chimed in with a sufficiently pleasing baritone:
"To give my love good-morrow, Notes from them all I'll borrow."
"O heavens!" spoke the possessor of the contralto, "I would have thought you were far too busy sending people to gaol and arranging their execution, and so on, to have any time for music. I am going for a walk in the forest, Jack." Considering for a moment, she added, "You may come, too, if you like."
But the concession was made so half-heartedly that in the instant the Duke of Ormskirk raised a dissenting hand. "I would not annoy you for an emperor's ransom. Go in peace, my child."
Lady Marian Heleigh stood at an opening in the yew-hedge and regarded him for a lengthy interval in silence. Slender, men called her, and women "a bean pole." There was about her a great deal of the child and something of the wood-nymph. She had abundant hair, the color of a dead oak-leaf, and her skin was clear, with a brown tinge. Her eyes puzzled you by being neither brown nor green consistently; no sooner had you convicted them of verdancy than they shifted to the hue of polished maple, and vice versa; but they were too large for her face, which narrowed rather abruptly beneath a broad, low forehead, and they flavored her aspect with the shrewd innocence of a kitten. She was by ordinary grave; but, animated, her countenance quickened with somewhat the glow of a brown diamond; then her generous eyes flashed and filmed like waters moving under starlight, then you knew she was beautiful. All in all, you saw in Marian a woman designed to be petted, a Columbine rather than a Cleopatra; her lures would never shake the stability of a kingdom, but would inevitably gut its toy-shops; and her departure left you meditative less of high enterprises than of buying something for her.
Now Marian considered her betrothed, and seemed to come at last to a conclusion that skirted platitude. "Jack, two people can be fond of each other without wanting to be together all the time. And I really am fond of you, Jack."
"I would be a fool if I questioned the first statement," rejoined the Duke; "and if I questioned the second, very miserable. Nevertheless, you go in pursuit of strange gods, and I decline to follow."
Her eyebrows interrogated him.
"You are going," the Duke continued, "in pursuit of gods beside whom I esteem Zidonian Ashtoreth, and Chemosh, and Milcom, the abomination of the Ammonites, to be commendable objects of worship. You will pardon my pedantic display of learning, for my feelings are strong. You are going to sit in the woods. You will probably sit under a youngish tree, and its branches will sway almost to the ground and make a green, sun-steeped tent about you, as though you sat at the heart of an emerald. You will hear the kindly wood-gods go steathily about the forest, and you will know that they are watching you, but you will never see them. From behind every tree-bole they will watch you; you feel it, but you never, never quite see them. Presently the sweet, warm odors of the place and its perpetual whispering and the illimitably idiotic boasting of the birds,—that any living creature should be proud of having constructed one of their nasty little nests is a reflection to baffle understanding,—this hodge-podge of sensations, I say, will intoxicate you. Yes, it will thoroughly intoxicate you, Marian, and you sit there quite still, in a sort of stupor, drugged into the inebriate's magnanimity, firmly believing that the remainder of your life will be throughout of finer texture,—earth-spurning, free from all pettiness, and at worst vexed only by the noblest sorrows. Bah!" cried the Duke; "I have no patience with such nonsense! You will believe it to the tiniest syllable, that wonderful lying message which April whispers to every living creature that is young,—then you will return to me, a slim, star-eyed Maenad, and will see that I am wrinkled. But do you go your ways, none the less, for April is waiting for you yonder,—beautiful, mendacious, splendid April. And I? Faith, April has no message for me, my dear."
He laughed, but with a touch of wistfulness; and the girl came to him, laying her hand upon his arm, surprised into a sort of hesitant affection.
"How did you know, Jack? How did you, know that—things, invisible, gracious things, went about the spring woods? I never thought that you knew of them. You always seemed so sensible. I have reasoned it out, though," Marian went on, sagaciously wrinkled as to the brow. "They are probably the heathen fauns and satyrs and such,—one feels somehow that they are all men. Don't you, Jack? Well, when the elder gods were sent packing from Olympus there was naturally no employment left for these sylvan folk. So April took them into her service. Each year she sends them about every forest on her errands: she sends them to make up daffodil-cups, for instance, which I suppose is difficult, for evidently they make them out of sunshine; or to pencil the eyelids of the narcissi—narcissi are brazen creatures, Jack, and use a deal of kohl; or to marshal the fleecy young clouds about the sky; or to whistle the birds up from the south. Oh, she keeps them busy, does April! And 'tis true that if you be quite still you can hear them tripping among the dead leaves; and they watch you—with very bright, twinkling little eyes, I think,—but you never see them. And always, always there is that enormous whispering,—half-friendly, half-menacing,—as if the woods were trying to tell you something. 'Tis not only the foliage rustling.... No, I have often thought it sounded like some gigantic foreigner—some Titan probably,—trying in his own queer and outlandish language to tell you something very important, something that means a deal to you, and to you in particular. Has not anybody ever understood him?"
He smiled. "And I, too, have dwelt in Arcadia," said his Grace of Ormskirk. "Yes, I once heard April's message, Marian, for all my crow's-feet. But that was a long while ago, and perhaps I have forgotten it. I cannot tell, my dear. It is only from April in her own person that one hears this immemorial message. And as for me? Eh, I go into the April woods, and I find trees there of various sizes that pay no attention to me, and shrill, dingy little birds that deafen me, and it may be a gaudy flower or two, and, in any event, I find a vast quantity of sodden, decaying leaves to warn me the place is no fitting haunt for a gentleman afflicted with rheumatism. So I come away, my dear."
Marian looked him over for a moment. "You are not really old," she said, with rather conscious politeness. "And you are wonderfully well-preserved. Why, Jack, do you mind—not being foolish?" she demanded, on a sudden.
He debated the matter. Then, "Yes," the Duke of Ormskirk conceded, "I suppose I do, at the bottom of my heart, regret that lost folly. A part of me died, you understand, when it vanished, and it is not exhilarating to think of one's self as even partially dead. Once—I hardly know"—he sought the phrase,—"once this was a spacious and inexplicable world, with a mystery up every lane and an adventure around each street-corner; a world inhabited by most marvelous men and women,—some amiable, and some detestable, but every one of them very interesting. And now I miss the wonder of it all. You will presently discover, my dear, that youth is only an ingenious prologue to whet one's appetite for a rather dull play. Eh, I am no pessimist,—one may still find satisfaction in the exercise of mind and body, in the pleasures of thought and taste and in other titillations of one's faculties. Dinner is good and sleep, too, is excellent. But we men and women tend, upon too close inspection, to appear rather paltry flies that buzz and bustle aimlessly about, and breed perhaps, and eventually die, and rot, and are swept away from this fragile window-pane of time that opens on eternity."
"If you are, indeed, the sort of person you describe," said Marian, reflectively, "I do not at all blame April for having no communication with anyone possessed of such extremely unpleasant opinions. But for my own part, I shall never cease to wonder what it is that the woods whisper about."
Appraising her, he hazarded a cryptic question, "Vase of delights, and have you never—cared?"
"Why, yes, I think so," she answered, readily enough. "At least, I used to be very fond of Humphrey Degge,—that is the Marquis of Venour's place yonder, you know, just past the spur of the forest,—but he was only a younger son, so of course Father wouldn't hear of it. That was rather fortunate, as Humphrey by and by went mad about Dorothy's blue eyes and fine shape,—I think her money had a deal to do with it, too, and in any event, she will be fat as a pig at thirty,—and so we quarrelled. And I minded it—at first. And now—well, I scarcely know." Marian hesitated. "He was a handsome man, but that ridiculous cavalry moustache of his was so bristly—"
"I beg your pardon?" said the Duke.
"—that it disfigured him dreadfully," said she, with firmness. She had colored.
His Grace of Ormskirk was moved to mirth. "Child, child, you are so deliciously young it appears a monstrous crime to marry you to an old fellow like me!" He took her firm, soft hand in his. "Are you quite sure you can endure me, Marian?"
"Why, but of course I want to marry you," she said, naively surprised. "How else could I be Duchess of Ormskirk?"
Again he chuckled. "You are a worldly little wretch," he stated; "but if you want my title for a new toy, it is at your service. And now be off with you,—you and your foolish woods, indeed!"
Marian went a slight distance and then turned about, troubled. "I am really very fond of you, Jack," she said, conscientiously.
"Be off with you!" the Duke scolded. "You should be ashamed of yourself to practice such flatteries and blandishments on a defenceless old gentleman. You had best hurry, too, for if you don't I shall probably kiss you," he threatened. "I, also," he added, with point.
She blew him a kiss from her finger-tips and went away singing.
"Blackbird and thrush, in every bush, Stare, linnet, and cock-sparrow, You pretty elves, amongst yourselves, Sing my fair love good-morrow. To give my love good-morrow, Sing birds, in every furrow."
Left to his own resources, the Duke of Ormskirk sat down beside the table and fell to making irrelevant marks upon a bit of paper. He hummed the air of Marian's song. There was a vague contention in his face. Once he put out his hand toward the open despatch-box, but immediately he sighed and pushed, it farther from him. Presently he propped his chin upon both hands and stayed in the attitude for a long while, staring past the balustrade at the clear, pale sky of April.
Thus Marian's father, the Earl of Brudenel, found Ormskirk. The Earl was lean and gray, though only three years older than his prospective son-in-law, and had been Ormskirk's intimate since boyhood. Ormskirk had for Lord Brudenel's society the liking that a successful person usually preserves for posturing in the gaze of his outrivalled school-fellows: Brudenel was an embodied and flattering commentary as to what a less able man might make of chances far more auspicious than Ormskirk ever enjoyed. All failure the Earl's life had been; in London they had long ago forgotten handsome Harry Heleigh and the composure with which he nightly shoved his dwindling patrimony across the gaming-table; about Halvergate men called him "the muddled Earl," and said of him that his heart died, with his young wife some eighteen years back. Now he vegetated in the home of his fathers, contentedly, a veteran of life, retaining still a mild pride in his past vagaries; [Footnote: It was then well said of him by Claridge, "It is Lord Henry Heleigh's vanity to show that he is a man of pleasure as well as of business; and thus, in settlement, the expedition he displays toward a fellow-gambler is equitably balanced by his tardiness toward a too-credulous shoemaker."] and kindly time had armed him with the benumbing, impenetrable indifference of the confessed failure. He was abstractedly courteous to servants, and he would not, you felt, have given even to an emperor his undivided attention. For the rest, the former wastrel had turned miser, and went noticeably shabby as a rule, but this morning he was trimly clothed, for he was returning homeward from the quarter-sessions at Winstead.
"Dreamer!" said the Earl. "I do not wonder that you grow fat."
The Duke smiled up at him. "Confound you, Harry!" said he, "I had just overreached myself into believing I had made what the world calls a mess of my career and was supremely happy. There are disturbing influences abroad to-day." He waved his hand toward the green-and-white gardens. "Old friend, you permit disreputable trespassers about Halvergate. 'See you not Goldy-locks there, in her yellow gown and green sleeves? the profane pipes, the tinkling timbrels?' Spring is at her wiles yonder,—Spring, the liar, the queen-cheat, Spring that tricks all men into happiness."
"'Fore Gad," the Earl capped his quotation, "if the heathen man could stop his ears with wax against the singing woman of the sea, then do you the like with your fingers against the trollop of the forest."
"Faith, time seals them firmlier than wax. You and I may sit snug now with never a quicker heart-beat for all her lures. Yet I seem to remember,—once a long while ago when we old fellows were somewhat sprier,—I, too, seem to remember this Spring-magic."
"Indeed," observed the Earl, seating himself ponderously, "if you refer to a certain inclination at that period of the year toward the likeliest wench in the neighborhood, so do I. 'Tis an obvious provision of nature, I take it, to secure the perpetuation of the species. Spring comes, and she sets us all a-mating—humanity, partridges, poultry, pigs, every blessed one of us she sets a-mating. Propagation, Jack—propagation is necessary, d'ye see; because," the Earl conclusively demanded, "what on earth would become of us if we didn't propagate?"
"The argument is unanswerable," the Duke conceded. "Yet I miss it,—this Spring magic that no longer sets the blood of us staid fellows a-fret."
"And I," said Lord Brudenel, "do not. It got me into the deuce of a scrape more than once."
"Yours is the sensible view, no doubt....Yet I miss it. Ah, it is not only the wenches and the red lips of old years,—it is not only that at this season lasses' hearts grow tender. There are some verses—" The Duke quoted, with a half-guilty air:
"Now I loiter, and dream to the branches swaying In furtive conference,—high overhead— Atingle with rumors that Winter is sped And over his ruins a world goes Maying.
"Somewhere—impressively,—people are saying Intelligent things (which their grandmothers said), While I loiter, and dream to the branches swaying In furtive conference, high overhead."
"Verses!" The Earl snorted. "At your age!"
"Here the hand of April, unwashed from slaying Earth's fallen tyrant—for Winter is dead,— Uncloses anemones, staining them red: And her daffodils guard me in squads,—displaying Intrepid lances lest wisdom tread Where I loiter and dream to the branches' swaying—
"Well, Harry, and to-day I cannot do so any longer. That is what I most miss,—the ability to lie a-sprawl in the spring grass and dream out an uncharted world,—a dream so vivid that, beside it, reality grew tenuous, and the actual world became one of childhood's shrug-provoking bugbears dimly remembered."
"I do not understand poetry," the Earl apologetically observed. "It appears to me unreasonable to advance a statement simply because it happens to rhyme with a statement you have previously made. And that is what all you poets do. Why, this is very remarkable," said Lord Brudenel, with a change of tone; "yonder is young Humphrey Degge with Marian. I had thought him in bed at Tunbridge. Did I not hear something of an affair with a house-breaker—?"
Then the Earl gave an exclamation, for in full view of them Lord Humphrey Degge was kissing Lord Brudenel's daughter.
"Oh, the devil!" said the Earl. "Oh, the insolent young ape!"
"Nay," said the Duke, restraining him; "not particularly insolent, Harry. If you will observe more closely you will see that Marian does not exactly object to his caresses—quite the contrary, I would say, I told you that you should not permit Spring about the premises."
The Earl wheeled in an extreme of astonishment. "Come, come, sir! she is your betrothed wife! Do you not intend to kill the fellow?"
"My faith, why?" said his Grace of Ormskirk, with a shrug. "As for betrothals, do you not see that she is already very happily paired?"
In answer Brudenel raised his hands toward heaven, in just the contention of despair and rage appropriate to parental affection when an excellent match is imperilled by a chit's idiocy.
Marian and Lord Humphrey Degge were mounting from the scrap of forest that juts from Pevis Hill, like a spur from a man's heel, between Agard Court and Halvergate. Their progress was not conspicuous for celerity. Now they had attained to the tiny, elm-shadowed plateau beyond the yew-hedge, and there Marian paused. Two daffodils had fallen from the great green-and-yellow cluster in her left hand. Humphrey Degge lifted them, and then raised to his mouth the slender fingers that reached toward the flowers. The man's pallor, you would have said, was not altogether due to his recent wound.
She stood looking up at him, smiling a little timidly, her teeth glinting through parted lips, her eyes star-fire, her cheeks blazoning gules in his honor; she seemed not to breathe at all. A faint twinge woke in the Duke of Ormskirk's heart. Most women smiled upon him, but they smiled beneath furtive eyes, sometimes beneath rapacious eyes, and many smiled with reddened lips which strove, uneasily, to provoke a rental; how long was it he wondered, simply, since any woman had smiled as Marian smiled now, for him?
"I think it is a dream," said Marian.
From the vantage of the yew-hedge, "I would to Heaven I could think so, too," observed her father.
The younger people had passed out of sight. But from the rear of the hedge came to the Duke and Lord Brudenel, staring blankly at each other across the paper-littered table, a sort of duet. First tenor, then contralto, then tenor again,—and so on, with many long intervals of silence, during which you heard the plashing of the fountain, grown doubly audible, and, it might be, the sharp, plaintive cry of a bird intensified by the stillness.
"I think it is a dream," said Marian....
"What eyes you have, Marian!"
"But you have not kissed the littlest finger of all. See, it is quite stiff with indignation."
"They are green, and brown, and yellow—O Marian, there are little gold specks in them like those in eau de Dantzig! They are quite wonderful eyes, Marian. And your hair is all streaky gold-and-brown. You should not have two colors in your hair, Marian. Marian, did any one ever tell you that you are very beautiful?"
Silence. "Pee-weet!" said a bird. "Tweet?"
And Marian replied: "I am devoted to Dorothy, of course, but I have never admired her fashion of making advances to every man she meets. Yes, she does."
"Nay, 'twas only her money that lured me, to do her justice. It appeared so very sensible to marry an heiress.... But how can any man be sensible so long as he is haunted by the memory of your eyes? For see how bright they are,—see, here in the water. Two stars have fallen into the fountain, Marian."
"You are handsomer so. Your nose is too short, but here in the fountain you are quite handsome—"
"I wonder how many other women's fingers you have kissed—like that. Ah, don't tell me, Humphrey! Humphrey, promise me that you will always lie to me when I ask you about those other women. Lie to me, my dear, and I will know that you are lying and love you all the better for it.... You should not have told me about Dorothy. How often did you kiss all of Dorothy's finger-tips one by one, in just that foolish, dear way?"
"But who was this Dorothy you speak of, Marian? I have forgotten. Oh, yes—we quarrelled—over some woman,—and I went away. I left you for a mere heiress, Marian. You! And five days, ago while I lay abed, wounded, they told me that you, were to marry Ormskirk. I thought I would go mad.... Eh, I remember now. But what do these things matter? Is it not of far greater importance that the sunlight turns your hair to pure topaz?"
"Ah, my hair, my eyes! Is it these you care for? You would not love me, then, if I were old and ugly?"
"Eh,—I love you."
There was a longer silence now. "Tweet!" said a bird, pertly.
Then Marian said, "Let us go to my father."
"To tell him—?"
"Why, that I love you, I suppose, and that I cannot marry Jack, not even to be a duchess. Oh, I did so much want to be a duchess! But when you came back to me yonder in the forest, somehow I stopped wanting anything more. Something—I hardly know—something seemed to say, as you came striding through the dead leaves, laughing and so very pale,—something seemed to say, 'You love him'—oh, quite audibly."
"Audibly! Why, the woods whispered it, the birds trilled it, screamed it, the very leaves underfoot crackled assent. Only they said, 'You love her—the girl yonder with glad, frightened eyes, Spring's daughter.' Oh, I too, heard it, Marian! 'Follow,' the birds sang, 'follow, follow, follow, for yonder is the heart's desire!"
The Duke of Ormskirk raised his head, his lips sketching a whistle. "Ah! ah!" he muttered. "Eureka! I have recaptured it—the message of April."
When these two had gone the Duke flung out his hands in a comprehensive gesture of giving up the entire matter. "Well," said he, "you see how it is!"
"I do," Lord Brudenel assented. "And if you intend to sit patient under it, I, at least, wear a sword. Confound it, Jack, do you suppose I am going to have promiscuous young men dropping out of the skies and embracing my daughter?" The Earl became forceful in his language.
"Harry,—" the Duke began.
"The fellow hasn't a penny—not a stick or a stiver to his name! He's only a rascally, impudent younger son—and even Venour has nothing except Agard Court yonder! That—that crow's nest!" Lord Brudenel spluttered. "They mooned about together a great deal a year ago, but I thought nothing of it; then he went away, and she never spoke of him again. Never spoke of him—oh, the jade!"
The Duke of Ormskirk considered the affair, a mild amusement waking in his plump face.
"Old friend," said he, at length, "it is my opinion that we are perilously near to being a couple of fools. We planned this marriage, you and I—dear, dear, we planned it when Marian was scarcely out of her cradle! But we failed to take nature into the plot, Harry. It was sensible—Oh, granted! I obtained a suitable mistress for Ingilby and Bottreaux Towers, a magnificent ornament for my coach and my opera-box; while you—your pardon, old friend, if I word it somewhat grossly,—you, in effect, obtained a wealthy and not uninfluential husband for your daughter. Nay, I think you are fond of me, but that is beside the mark; it was not Jack Bulmer who was to marry your daughter, but the Duke of Ormskirk. The thing was as logical as a sale of bullocks,—value for value. But now nature intervenes, and"—he snapped his fingers,—"eh, well, since she wants this Humphrey Degge, of course she must have him."
Lord Brudenel mentioned several penalties which he would voluntarily incur in case of any such preposterous marriage.
"Your style," the Duke regretfully observed, "is somewhat more original than your subject. You have a handsome daughter to barter, and you want your price. The thing is far from uncommon. Yet you shall have your price, Harry. What estate do you demand of your son-in-law?"
"What the devil are you driving at?" said Lord Brudenel.
Composedly the Duke of Ormskirk spread out his hands. "You have, in effect, placed Marian in the market," he said, "and I offer to give Lord Humphrey Degge the money with which to purchase her."
"Tis evident," the Earl considered, "that you are demented!"
"Because I willingly part with money? But then I have a great deal of money. I have money, and I have power, and the King occasionally pats me upon the shoulder, and men call me 'your Grace,' instead of 'my Lord,' as they do you. So I ought to be very happy, ought I not, Harry? Ah, yes, I ought to be entirely happy, because I have had everything, with the unimportant exception of the one thing I wanted."
But Lord Brudenel had drawn himself erect, stiffly. "I am to understand, then, from this farrago, that on account of the—um—a—incident we have just witnessed you decline to marry my daughter?"
"I would sooner cut off my right hand," said the Duke, "for I am fonder of Marian than I am of any other living creature."
"Oh, very well!" the Earl conceded, sulkily. "Umfraville wants her. He is only a marquis, of course, but so far as money is concerned, I believe he is a thought better off than you. I would have preferred you as a son-in-law, you understand, but since you withdraw—why, then, let it be Umfraville."
Now the Duke looked up into his face for some while. "You would do that! You would sell Marian to Umfraville—[Footnote: "Whose entrance blushing Satan did deny Lest hell be thought no better than a sty."] to a person who unites the continence of a partridge with the graces of a Berkshire hog—to that lean whoremonger, to that disease-rotted goat! Because he has the money! Why, Harry, what a car you are!"
Lord Brudenel bowed, "My Lord Duke, you are to-day my guest. I apprehend you will presently be leaving Halvergate, however, and as soon—as that regrettable event takes place, I shall see to it a friend wait upon you with the length of my sword. Meanwhile I venture to reserve the privilege of managing my family affairs at my own discretion."
"I do not fight with hucksters," the Duke flung at him, "and you are one. Oh, you peddler! Can you not understand that I am trying to buy your daughter's happiness?"
"I intend that my daughter shall make a suitable match," replied the Earl, stubbornly, "and she shall. If Marian is a sensible girl—and, barring to-day, I have always esteemed her such,—she will find happiness in obeying her father's mandates: otherwise—" He waved the improbable contingency aside.
"Sensible! Faith, can you not see, even now, that to be sensible is not the highest wisdom? You and I are sensible as the world goes,—and in God's name, what good does it do us? Here we sit, two miserable and empty-veined old men squabbling across a deal-table, breaking up a friendship of thirty years. And yonder Marian and this Humphrey Degge—who are within a measurable distance of insanity, if their conversation be the touchstone,—yet tread the pinnacles of some seventh heaven of happiness. April has brought them love, Harry. Oh, I concede their love is folly! But it is all folly, Harry Heleigh. Purses, titles, blue ribbons, and the envy of our fellows are the toys which we struggle for, we sensible men; and in the end we find them only toys, and, gaining them, we gain only weariness. And love, too, is a toy; but, gaining love, we gain, at least, a temporary happiness. There is the difference, Harry Heleigh."
"Oh, have done with your, balderdash!" said Lord Brudenel. He spoke irritably, for he knew his position to be guaranteed by common-sense, and his slow wrath was kindling at opposition.
His Grace of Ormskirk rose to his feet, all tension. In the act his hand struck against the open despatch-box; afterward, with a swift alteration of countenance, he overturned this box and scattered the contents about the table. For a moment he seemed to forget Lord Brudenel; quite without warning Ormskirk flared into rage.
"Harry Heleigh, Harry Heleigh!" he cried, as he strode across the terrace, and caught Lord Brudenel roughly by the shoulder, "are you not content to go to your grave without killing another woman? Oh, you dotard miser!—you haberdasher!—haven't I offered you money, an isn't money the only thing you are now capable of caring for? Give the girl to Degge, you huckster!"
Lord Brudenel broke from the Duke's grasp. Brudenel was asplutter with anger. "I will see you damned first. You offer money,—I fling the money in your fat face. Look you, you have just insulted, me, and now you offer—money! Another insult. John Bulmer, I would not accept an affront like this from an archangel. You are my guest, but I am only flesh and blood. I swear to you this is the most deliberate act of my life." Lord Brudenel struck him full upon the cheek.
"Pardon," said the Duke of Ormskirk. He stood rigid, his arms held stiff at his sides, his hands clenched; the red mark showed plain against an ashy countenance. "Pardon me for a moment." Once or twice he opened and shut his eyes like an automaton. "And stop behaving so ridiculously. I cannot fight you. I have other matters to attend to. We are wise, Harry,—you and I. We know that love sometimes does not endure; sometimes it flares up at a girl's glance, quite suddenly, and afterward smoulders out into indifference or even into hatred. So, say we, let all sensible people marry for money, for then in any event you get what you marry for,—a material benefit, a tangible good, which does no vanish when the first squabble, or perhaps the first gray hair, arrives. That is sensible; but women, Harry, are not always sensible—"
"Draw, you coward!" Lord Brudenel snarled at him. The Earl had already lugged out his ineffectual dress sword, and would have been, as he stood on guard, a ludicrous figure had he not been rather terrible. His rage shook him visibly, and his obstinate mouth twitched and snapped like that of a beast cornered. All gray he was, and the sun glistened on his gray tye-wig as he waited. His eyes were coals.
But Ormskirk had regained composure. "You know that I am not a coward," the Duke said, equably. "I have proven it many times. Besides, you overlook two details. One is that I have no sword with me, I am quite unarmed. The other detail is that only gentlemen fight duels, and just now we are hucksters, you and I, chaffering over Marian's happiness. So I return to my bargaining. You will not sell Marian's happiness to me for money? Why, then—remember, we are only hucksters, you and I,—I will purchase it by a dishonorable action. I will show you a woman's letters,—some letters I was going to burn romantically before I married—Instead, I wish you to read them."
He pushed the papers lying upon the table toward Lord Brudenel. Afterward Ormskirk turned away and stood looking over the ivy-covered balustrade into the gardens below. All white and green and blue the vista was, and of a monastic tranquillity, save for the plashing of the fountain behind the yew-hedge. From the gardens at his feet irresolute gusts brought tepid woodland odors. He heard the rustling of papers, heard Lord Brudenel's sword fall jangling to the ground. The Duke turned.
"And for twenty years I have been eating my heart out with longing for her," the Earl said. "And—and I thought you were my friend, Jack."
"She was not your wife when I first knew her. But John Bulmer was a penniless nobody,—so they gave her to you, an earl's heir, those sensible parents of hers. I never saw her again, though—as you see,—she wrote to me sometimes. And her parents did the sensible thing; but I think they killed her, Harry."
"Killed her?" Lord Brudenel echoed, stupidly. Then on a sudden it was singular to see the glare in his eyes puffed out like a candle. "I killed her," he whispered; "why, I killed Alison,—I!" He began to laugh. "Now that is amusing, because she was the one thing in the world I ever loved. I remember that she used to shudder when I kissed her. I thought it was because she was only a brown and thin and timid child, who would be wiser in love's tricks by and by. Now I comprehend 'twas because every kiss was torment to her, because every time I touched her 'twas torment. So she died very slowly, did Alison,—and always I was at hand with my kisses, my pet names, and my paddlings,—killing her, you observe, always urging her graveward. Yes, and yet there is nothing in these letters to show how much she must have loathed me!" he said, in a mild sort of wonder. He appeared senile now, the shrunken and calamitous shell of the man he had been within the moment.
The Duke of Ormskirk put an arm about him. "Old friend, old friend!" said he.
"Why did you not tell me?" the Earl said. "I loved you, Jack. I worshipped her. I would never willingly have seen you two unhappy."
"Her parents would have done as you planned to do,—they would have given their daughter to the next richest suitor. I was nobody then. So the wisdom of the aged slew us, Harry,—slew Alison utterly, and left me with a living body, indeed, but with little more. I do not say that body has not amused itself. Yet I too, loved her, Harry Heleigh. And when I saw this new Alison—for Marian is her mother, face, heart, and soul,—why, some wraith of emotion stirred in me, some thrill, some not quite forgotten pulse. It seemed Alison come back from the grave. Love did not reawaken, for youth's fervor was gone out of me, yet presently I fell a-dreaming over my Madeira on long winter evenings,—sedate and tranquil dreams of this new Alison flitting about Ingilby, making the splendid, desolate place into a home. Am old man's fancies, Harry,—fancies bred of my loneliness, for I am lonely nowadays. But my dreams, I find, were not sufficiently comprehensive; for they did not anticipate April,—and nature,—and Lord Humphrey Degge. We must yield to that triumvirate, we sensible old men. Nay, we are wise as the world goes, but we have learned, you and I, that to be sensible is not the highest wisdom. Marian is her mother in soul, heart, and feature. Don't let the old tragedy be repeated, Harry. Let her have this Degge! Let Marian have her chance of being happy, for a year or two...."
But Lord Brudenel had paid very little attention. "I suppose so," he said, when the Duke had ended. "Oh, I suppose so. Jack, she was always kind and patient and gentle, you understand, but she used to shudder when I kissed her," he repeated, dully,—"shudder, Jack." He sat staring at his sword lying there on the ground, as though it fascinated him.
"Ah, but,—old friend," the Duke cried, with his hand upon Lord Brudenel's shoulder, "forgive me! It was the only way."
Lord Brudenel rose to his feet. "Oh, yes! why, yes, I forgive you, if that is any particular comfort to you. It scarcely seems of any importance, though. The one thing which really matters is that I loved her, and I killed her. Oh, beyond doubt, I forgive you. But now that you have made my whole past a hideous stench to me, and have proven the love I was so proud of—the one quite clean, quite unselfish thing in my life, I thought it, Jack,—to have been only my lust vented on a defenceless woman,—why, just now, I have not time to think of forgiveness. Yes, Marian may marry Degge if she cares to. And I am sorry I took her mother away from you. I would not have done it if I had known."
Brudenel started away drearily, but when he had gone a little distance turned back.
"And the point of it is," he said, with a smile, "that I shall go on living just as if nothing had happened, and shall probably live for a long, long time. My body is so confoundedly healthy. How the deuce did you have the courage to go on living?" he demanded, enviously. "You loved her and you lost her. I'd have thought you would have killed yourself long ago."
The Duke shrugged. "Yes, people do that in books. In books they have such strong emotions—"
Then Ormskirk paused for a heart-beat, looking down into the gardens. Wonderfully virginal it all seemed to Ormskirk, that small portion of a world upon the brink of renaissance: a tessellation of clean colors, where the gravelled walkways were snow beneath the sun, and were in shadow transmuted to dim violet tints; and for the rest, green ranging from the sober foliage of yew and box and ilex to the pale glow of young grass In the full sunlight; all green, save where the lake shone, a sapphire green-girdled. Spring triumphed with a vaunting pageant. And in the forest, in the air, even in the unplumbed sea-depths, woke the mating impulse,—irresistible, borne as it might seem on the slow-rising tide of grass that now rippled about the world. Everywhere they were mating; everywhere glances allured and mouth met mouth, while John Bulmer went alone without any mate or intimacy with anyone.
Everywhere people were having emotions which Ormskirk envied. He had so few emotions nowadays. Even all this posturing and talk about Alison Heleigh in which he had just indulged began to savor somehow of play-acting. He had loved Alison, of course, and that which he had said was true enough—in a way,—but, after all, he had over-colored it. There had been in his life so many interesting matters, and so many other women too, that the loss of Alison could not be said to have blighted his existence quite satisfactorily. No, John Bulmer had again been playing at the big emotions which he heard about and coveted, just as at this very moment John Bulmer was playing at being sophisticated and blase... with only poor old Harry for audience....
"A great deal of me did die," the Duke heard this John Bulmer saying,—"all, I suppose, except my carcass, Harry. And it seemed hardly worth the trouble to butcher that also."
"No," Lord Brudenel conceded, "I suppose not. I wonder, d'ye know, will anything ever again seem really worth the trouble of doing it?"
The Duke of Ormskirk took his arm. "Fy, Harry, bid the daws seek their food elsewhere, for a gentleman may not wear his heart upon his sleeve. Empires crumble, and hearts break, and we are blessed or damned, as Fate elects; but through it all we find comfort in the reflection that dinner is good, and sleep, too, is excellent. As for the future—eh, well, if it mean little to us, it means a deal to Alison's daughter. Let us go to them, Harry."
IN THE SECOND APRIL
As Played at Bellegarde, in the April of 1750
"This passion is in honest minds the strongest incentive that can move the soul of man to laudable accomplishments. Is a man just? Let him fall in love and grow generous. It immediately makes the good which is in him shine forth in new excellencies, and the ill vanish away without the pain of contrition, but with a sudden amendment of heart."
DUKE OF ORMSKISK.
DUC DE PUYSANGE, a true Frenchman, a pert, railing fribble, but at bottom a man of parts.
MARQUIS DE SOYECOURT, a brisk, conceited rake, and distant cousin to de Puysange.
CAZAIO, captain of brigands.
DOM MICHEL FREGOSE, a lewd, rascally friar.
GUITON, steward to de Puysange.
PAWSEY, Ormskirk's man.
ACHON, a knave.
MICHAULT, another knave.
DUCHESSE DE PUYSANGE.
CLAIRE, sister to de Puysange, a woman of beauty and resolution, of a literal humor.
ATTENDANTS, BRIGANDS, and DRAGOONS; and, in the Proem, LORD HUMPHREY DEGGE and LADY MARIAN HELEIGH.
First at Dover, thence shifting to Bellegarde-en-Poictesme and the adjacent country.
IN THE SECOND APRIL
PROEM:—More Properly an Apologue, and Treats of the Fallibility of Soap
The Duke of Ormskirk left Halvergate on the following day, after participation in two dialogues, which I abridge.
Said the Duke to Lord Humphrey Degge:
"You have been favored, sir, vastly beyond your deserts. I acquiesce, since Fate is proverbially a lady, and to dissent were in consequence ungallant. Shortly I shall find you more employment, at Dover, whither I am now going to gull my old opponent and dear friend, Gaston de Puysange, in the matter of this new compact between France and England. I shall look for you at Dover, then, in three days' time."
"And in vain, my Lord Duke," said the other.
Now Ormskirk raised one eyebrow, after a fashion that he had.
"Because I love Marian," said Lord Humphrey, "and because I mean to be less unworthy of Marian than I have been heretofore. So that I can no longer be your spy. Besides, in nature I lack aptitude for the trade. Eh, my Lord Duke, have you already forgotten how I bungled the affair of Captain Audaine and his associates?"
"But that was a maiden effort. And as I find—at alas! the cost of decrepitude,—the one thing life teaches us is that many truisms are true. 'Practice makes perfect' is one of them. And faith, when you come to my age, Lord Humphrey, you will not grumble at having to soil your hands occasionally in the cause of common-sense."
The younger man shook his head. "A week ago you would have found me amenable enough to reason, since I was then a sensible person, and to be of service to his Grace of Ormskirk was very sensible,—just as to marry Miss Allonby, the young and beautiful heiress, was then the course pre-eminently sensible. All the while I loved Marian, you understand. But I clung to common-sense. Desperately I clung to common-sense. And yet—" He flung out his hands.
"Yes, there is by ordinary some plaguy yet," the Duke interpolated.
"There is," cried Lord Humphrey Degge, "the swift and heart-grappling recollection of the woman you gave up in the cause of common-sense,—roused by some melody she liked, or some shade of color she was wont to wear, or by hearing from other lips some turn of speech to which she was addicted. My Lord Duke, that memory wakes on a sudden and clutches you by the throat, and it chokes you. And one swears that common-sense—"
"One swears that common-sense may go to the devil," said his Grace of Ormskirk, "whence I don't say it didn't emanate! And one swears that, after all, there is excellent stuff in you! Your idiotic conduct, sir, makes me far happier than you know!"
After some ten paces he turned, with a smile. "In the matter of soiling one's hands—Personally I prefer them clean, sir, and particularly in the case of Marian's husband. Had it been I, he must have stuck to prosaic soap; with you in the role there is a difference. Faith, Lord Humphrey, there is a decided difference, and if you be other than a monster of depravity you will henceforth, I think, preserve your hands immaculate."
To Marian the Duke said a vast number of things, prompted by a complaisant thrill over the fact that, in view of the circumstances, his magnanimity must to the unprejudiced appear profuse and his behavior tolerably heroic.
"These are very absurd phrases," Marian considered, "since you will never love anyone, I think—however much you may admire the color of her eyes,—one-quarter so earnestly as you will always marvel at John Bulmer. Or perhaps you have only to wait a little, Jack, till in her time and season the elect woman shall come to you, just as she comes to all men,—and then, for once in your existence, you will be sincere."
"I go, provisionally, to seek this paragon at Dover," said his Grace of Ormskirk, and he lifted her fingers toward his smiling lips; "but I shall bear in mind, my dear, even in Dover, that sincerity is a devilishly expensive virtue."
It was on the thirteenth day of April that they signed the Second Treaty of Dover, which not only confirmed its predecessor of Aix-la-Chapelle, but in addition, with the brevity of lightning, demolished the last Stuarts' hope of any further aid from France. And the French ambassador subscribed the terms with a chuckle.
"For on this occasion, Jean," he observed, as he pushed the paper from him, "I think that honors are fairly even. You obtain peace at home, and in India we obtain assistance for Dupleix; good, the benefit is quite mutual; and accordingly, my friend, I must still owe you one requiting for that Bavarian business."
Ormskirk was silent until he had the churchwarden which he had just ignited aglow. "That was the evening I had you robbed and beaten by footpads, was it not? Faith, Gaston, I think you should rather be obliged to me, since it taught you never to carry important papers in your pocket when you go about your affairs of gallantry."
"That beating with great sticks," the Duc de Puysange considered, "was the height of unnecessity."
And the Duke of Ormskirk shrugged. "A mere touch of verisimilitude, Gaston; footpads invariably beat their victims. Besides, you had attempted to murder me at Aix, you may remember."
De Puysange was horrified. "My dear friend, when I set Villaneuve upon you it was with express orders only to run you through the shoulder. Figure to yourself: that abominable St. Severin had bribed your chef to feed you powdered glass in a ragout! But I dissented. 'Jean and I have been the dearest enemies these ten years past,' I said. 'At every Court in Europe we have lied to each other. If you kill him I shall beyond doubt presently perish of ennui.' So, that France might escape a blow so crushing as the loss of my services, St. Severin consented to disable you."
"Believe me, I appreciate your intervention," Ormskirk stated, with his usual sleepy smile; before this he had found amusement in the naivete of his friend's self-approbation.
"Not so! Rather you are a monument of ingratitude," the other complained. "You conceive, Villaneuve was in price exorbitant. I snap my fingers. 'For a comrade so dear,' I remark, 'I gladly employ the most expensive of assassins.' Yet before the face of such magnanimity you grumble." The Duc de Puysange spread out his shapely hands. "I murder you! My adored Jean, I had as lief make love to my wife."
Ormskirk struck his finger-tips upon the table. "Faith, I knew there was something I intended to ask of you, I want you to get me a wife."
"In fact," de Puysange observed, "warfare being now at an end, it is only natural that you should resort to matrimony. I can assure you it is an admirable substitute. But who is the lucky Miss, my little villain?"
"Why, that is for you to settle," Ormskirk said. "I had hoped you might know of some suitable person."
"Ma foi, my friend, if I were arbiter and any wife would suit you, I would cordially desire you to take mine, for when a woman so incessantly resembles an angel in conduct, her husband inevitably desires to see her one in reality."
"You misinterpret me, Gaston. This is not a jest. I had always intended to marry as soon as I could spare the time, and now that this treaty is disposed of, my opportunity has beyond doubt arrived. I am practically at leisure until the autumn. At latest, though, I must marry by August, in order to get the honeymoon off my hands before the convocation of Parliament. For there will have to be a honeymoon, I suppose."
"It is customary," de Puysange said. He appeared to deliberate something entirely alien to this reply, however, and now sat silent for a matter of four seconds, his countenance profoundly grave. He was a hideous man, [Footnote: For a consideration of the vexed and delicate question whether or no Gaston de Puysange was grandson to King Charles the Second of England, the reader is referred to the third chapter of La Vrilliere's De Puysange et son temps. The Duke's resemblance in person to that monarch was undeniable.] with black beetling eyebrows, an enormous nose, and an under-lip excessively full; his face had all the calculated ill-proportion of a gargoyle, an ugliness so consummate and merry that in ultimate effect it captivated.
At last de Puysange began: "I think I follow you. It is quite proper that you should marry. It is quite proper that a man who has done so much for England should leave descendants to perpetuate his name, and with perhaps some portion of his ability—no, Jean, I do not flatter,—serve the England which is to his heart so dear. As a Frenchman I cannot but deplore that our next generation may have to face another Ormskirk; as your friend who loves you I say that this marriage will appropriately round a successful and honorable and intelligent life. Eh, we are only men, you and I, and it is advisable that all men should marry, since otherwise they might be so happy in this colorful world that getting to heaven would not particularly tempt them. Thus is matrimony a bulwark of religion."
"You are growing scurrilous," Ormskirk complained, "whereas I am in perfect earnest."
"I, too, speak to the foot of the letter, Jean, as you will soon learn. I comprehend that you cannot with agreeability marry an Englishwoman. You are too much the personage. Possessing, as you notoriously possess, your pick among the women of gentle degree—for none of them would her guardians nor her good taste permit to refuse the great Duke of Ormskirk,—any choice must therefore be a too robustious affrontment to all the others. If you select a Howard, the Skirlaws have pepper in the nose; if a Beaufort, you lose Umfraville's support,—and so on. Hey, I know, my dear Jean; your affair with the Earl of Brudenel's daughter cost you seven seats in Parliament, you may remember. How am I aware of this?—why, because I habitually have your mail intercepted. You intercept mine, do you not? Naturally; you would be a very gross and intolerable scion of the pig if you did otherwise. Eh bien, let us get on. You might, of course, play King Cophetua, but I doubt if it would amuse you, since Penelophons are rare; it follows in logic that your wife must come from abroad. And whence? Without question, from France, the land of adorable women. The thing is plainly demonstrated; and in France, my dear, I have to an eyelash the proper person for you."
"Then we may consider the affair as settled," Ormskirk replied, "and should you arrange to have the marriage take place upon the first of August,—if possible, a trifle earlier,—I would be trebly your debtor."
De Puysange retorted: "Beyond doubt I can adjust these matters. And yet, my dear Jean, I must submit that it is not quite the act of a gentleman to plunge into matrimony without even inquiring as to the dowry of your future bride."
"It is true," said Ormskirk, with a grimace; "I had not thought of her portion. You must remember my attention is at present pre-empted by that idiotic Ferrers business. How much am I to marry, then, Gaston?"
"I had in mind," said the other, "my sister, the Demoiselle Claire de Puysange,—"
It was a day of courtesy when the minor graces were paramount. Ormskirk rose and accorded de Puysange a salutation fitted to an emperor. "I entreat your pardon, sir, for any gaucherie of which I may have been guilty, and desire to extend to you my appreciation of the honor you have done me."
"It is sufficient, monsieur," de Puysange replied. And the two gravely bowed again.
Then the Frenchman resumed, in conversational tones: "I have but one unmarried sister,—already nineteen, beautiful as an angel (in the eyes, at least, of fraternal affection), and undoubtedly as headstrong as any devil at present stoking the eternal fires below. You can conceive that the disposal of such a person is a delicate matter. In Poictesme there is no suitable match, and upon the other hand I grievously apprehend her presentation at our Court, where, as Arouet de Voltaire once observed to me, the men are lured into matrimony by the memories of their past sins, and the women by the immunity it promises for future ones. In England, where custom will permit a woman to be both handsome and chaste, I estimate she would be admirably ranged. Accordingly, my dear Jean, behold a fact accomplished. And now let us embrace, my brother!"
This was done. The next day they settled the matter of dowry, jointure, the widow's portion, and so on, and de Puysange returned to render his report at Marly. The wedding had been fixed by the Frenchman for St. Anne's day, and by Ormskirk, as an uncompromising churchman, for the twenty-sixth of the following July.
That evening the Duke of Ormskirk sat alone in his lodgings. His Grace was very splendid in black-and-gold, wearing his two stars of the Garter and the Thistle, for there was that night a ball at Lady Sandwich's, and Royalty was to embellish it. In consequence, Ormskirk meant to show his plump face there for a quarter of an hour; and the rooms would be too hot (he peevishly reflected), and the light would tire his eyes, and Laventhrope would button-hole him again about that appointment for Laventhrope's son, and the King would give vent to some especially fat-witted jest, and Ormskirk would apishly grin and applaud. And afterward he would come home with a headache, and ghostly fiddles would vex him all night long with their thin incessancy.
"Accordingly," the Duke decided, "I shall not stir a step until eleven o'clock. The King, in the ultimate, is only a tipsy, ignorant old German debauchee, and I have half a mind to tell him so. Meantime, he can wait."
The Duke sat down to consider this curious lassitude, this indefinite vexation, which had possessed him.
"For I appear to have taken a sudden dislike to the universe. It is probably my liver.
"In any event, I have come now to the end of my resources. For some twenty-five years it has amused me to make a great man of John Bulmer. Now that is done, and, like the Moorish fellow in the play, 'my occupation's gone.' I am at the very top of the ladder, and I find it the dreariest place in the world. There is nothing left to scheme for, and, besides, I am tired.
"The tiniest nerve in my body, the innermost cell of my brain, is tired to-night.
"I wonder if getting married will divert me? I doubt it. Of course I ought to marry, but then it must be rather terrible to have a woman loitering around you for the rest of your life. She will probably expect me to talk to her; she will probably come into my rooms and sit there whenever the inclination prompts her,—in a sentence, she will probably worry me to death. Eh well!—that die is cast!
"'Beautiful as an angel, and headstrong as a devil.' And what's her name?—Oh, yes, Claire. That is a very silly name, and I suppose she is a vixenish little idiot. However, the alliance is a sensible one. De Puysange has had it in mind for some six months, I think, but certainly I did not think he knew of my affair with Marian. Well, but he affects omniscience, he delights in every small chicane. He is rather droll. Yesterday he knew from the start that I was leading up to a proposal for his sister,—and yet there we sat, two solemn fools, and played our tedious comedy to a finish. Eh bien! as he says, it is necessary to keep one's hand in.