It is easy to criticise my conduct now. It would have been difficult to act otherwise at the time. I am speaking of the evening after my walk with Mrs. Lascelles, of the next day when it rained, and now of my third night at the hotel. The sky had cleared. The glass was high. There was a finer edge than ever on the silhouetted mountains against the stars. It appeared that Bob and Mrs. Lascelles had talked of taking their lunch to the Findelen Glacier on the next fine day, for he came up and reminded her of it as she sat with me in the glazed veranda after dinner. I had seen him standing alone under the stars a few minutes before: so this was the result of his cogitation. But in his manner there was nothing studied, much less awkward, and his smile even included me, though he had not spoken to me alone all day.
"Oh, no, I hadn't forgotten, Mr. Evers. I am looking forward to it," said my companion, with a smile of her own to which the most jealous swain could not have taken exception.
Bob Evers looked hard at me.
"You'd better come, too," he said.
"It's probably too far," said I, quite intending to play second fiddle next day, for it was really Bob's turn.
"Not for a man who has been up to the Cricket-ground," he rejoined.
"But it's dreadfully slippery," put in Mrs. Lascelles, with a sympathetic glance at my sticks.
"Let him get them shod like alpenstocks," quoth Bob, "and nails in his boots; then they'll be ready when he does the Matterhorn!"
It might have passed for boyish banter, but I knew that it was something more; the use of the third person changed from chaff to scorn as I listened, and my sympathetic resolution went to the winds.
"Thank you," I replied; "in that case I shall be delighted to come, and I'll take your tip at once by giving orders about my boots."
And with that I resigned my chair to Bob, not sorry for the chance; he should not be able to say that I had monopolised Mrs. Lascelles without intermission from the first. Nevertheless, I was annoyed with him for what he had said, and for the moment my actions were no part of my scheme. Consequently I was thus in the last mood for a familiarity from Quinby, who was hanging about the door between the veranda and the hall, and who would not let me pass.
"That's awfully nice of you," he had the impudence to whisper.
"What do you mean?"
"Giving that poor young beggar another chance!"
"I don't understand you."
"Oh, I like that! You know very well that you've gone in on the military ticket and deliberately cut the poor youngster—"
I did not wait to hear the end of this gratuitous observation. It was very rude of me, but in another minute I should have been guilty of a worse affront. My annoyance had deepened into something like dismay. It was not only Bob Evers who was misconstruing my little attentions to Mrs. Lascelles. I was more or less prepared for that. But here were outsiders talking about us—the three of us! So far from putting a stop to the talk, I had given it a regular fillip: here were Quinby and his friends as keen as possible to see what would happen next, if not betting on a row. The situation had taken a sudden turn for the worse. I forgot the pleasant hours that I had passed with Mrs. Lascelles, and began to wish myself well out of the whole affair. But I had now no intention of getting out of the glacier expedition. I would not have missed it on any account. Bob had brought that on himself.
And I daresay we seemed a sufficiently united trio as we marched along the pretty winding path to the Findelen next morning. Dear Bob was not only such a gentleman, but such a man, that it was almost a pleasure to be at secret issue with him; he would make way for me at our lady's side, listen with interest when she made me spin my martial yarns, laugh if there was aught to laugh at, and in a word, give me every conceivable chance. His manners might have failed him for one heated moment overnight; they were beyond all praise this morning; and I repeatedly discerned a morbid sporting dread of giving the adversary less than fair play. It was sad to me to consider myself as such to Catherine's son, but I was determined not to let the thought depress me, and there was much outward occasion for good cheer. The morning was a perfect one in every way. The rain had released all the pungent aromas of the mountain woods through which we passed. Snowy height came in dazzling contrast with a turquoise sky. The toy town of Zermatt spattered the green hollow far below. And before me on the narrow path went Bob Evers in a flannel suit, followed by Mrs. Lascelles and her red parasol, though he carried her alpenstock with his own in readiness for the glacier.
Thither we came in this order, I at least very hot from hard hobbling to keep up; but the first breath from the glacier cooled me like a bath, and the next like the great drink in the second stanza of the Ode to a Nightingale. I could have shouted out for pleasure, and must have done so but for the engrossing business of keeping a footing on the sloping ice with its soiled margin of yet more treacherous moraine. Yet on the glacier itself I was less handicapped than I had been on the way, and hopped along finely with my two shod sticks and the sharp new nails in my boots. Bob, however, was invariably in the van, and Mrs. Lascelles seemed more disposed to wait for me than to hurry after him. I think he pushed the pace unwittingly, under the prick of those emotions which otherwise were in such excellent control. I can see him now, continually waiting for us on the brow of some glistening ice-slope, leaning on his alpenstock and looking back, jet-black by contrast between the blinding hues of ice and sky.
But once he waited on the brink of some unfathomable crevasse, and then we all three cowered together and peeped down; the sides were green and smooth and sinister, like a crack in the sea, but so close together that one could not have fallen out of sight; yet when Bob loosened a lump of ice and kicked it in we heard it clattering from wall to wall in prolonged diminuendo before the faint splash just reached our ears. Mrs. Lascelles shuddered, and threw out a hand to prevent me from peering farther over. The gesture was obviously impersonal and instinctive, as an older eye would have seen, but Bob's was smouldering when mine met it next, and in the ensuing advance he left us farther behind than ever. But on the rock where we had our lunch he was once more himself, bright and boyish, careless and assured. So he continued till the end of that chapter. On the way home, moreover, he never once forged ahead, but was always ready with a hand for Mrs. Lascelles at the awkward places; and on the way through the woods, nothing would serve him but that I should set the pace, that we might all keep together. Judge therefore of my surprise when he came to my room, as I was dressing for the absurdly early dinner which is the one blot upon Riffel Alp arrangements, with the startling remark that we "might as well run straight with one another."
"By all means, my dear fellow," said I, turning to him with the lather on my chin. He was dressed already, as perfectly as usual, and his hands were in his pockets. But his fresh brown face was as grave as any judge's, and his mouth as stern. I went on to ask, disingenuously enough, if we had not been "running straight with each other" as it was.
"Not quite," said Bob Evers, dryly; "and we might as well, you know!"
"To be sure; but don't mind if I go on shaving, and pray speak for yourself."
"I will," he rejoined. "Do you remember our conversation the night you came?"
"More or less."
"I mean when you and I were alone together, before we turned in."
"Oh, yes. I remember something about it."
"It would be too silly to expect you to remember much," he went on after a pause, with a more delicate irony than heretofore. "But, as a matter of fact, I believe I said it was all rot that people talked about the impossibility of being mere pals with a woman, and all that sort of thing."
"I believe you did.'"
"Well, then, that was rot. That's all."
I turned round with my razor in mid-air,
"My dear fellow!" I exclaimed.
"Quite funny, isn't it?" he laughed, but rather harshly, while his mountain bronze deepened under my scrutiny.
"You are not in earnest, Bob!" said I; and on the word his laughter ended, his colour went.
"I am," he answered through his teeth. "Are you?"
Never was war carried more suddenly into the enemy's country, or that enemy's breath more completely taken away than mine. What could I say? "As much as you are, I should hope!" was what I ultimately said.
The lad stood raking me with a steady fire from his blue eyes.
"I mean to marry her," he said, "if she will have me."
There was no laughing at him. Though barely twenty, as I knew, he was man enough for any age as we faced each other in my room, and a man who knew his own mind into the bargain.
"But, my dear Bob," I ventured to remonstrate, "you are years too young—"
"That's my business. I am in earnest. What about you?"
I breathed again.
"My good fellow," said I, "you are at perfect liberty to give yourself away to me, but you really mustn't expect me to do quite the same for you."
"I expect precious little, I can tell you!" the lad rejoined hotly. "Not that it matters twopence so long as you are not misled by anything I said the other day. I prefer to run straight with you—you can run as you like with me. I only didn't want you to think that I was saying one thing and doing another. As a matter of fact I meant all I said at the time, or thought I did, until you came along and made me look into myself rather more closely than I had done before. I won't say how you managed it. You will probably see for yourself. But I'm very much obliged to you, whatever happens. And now that we understand each other there's no more to be said, and I'll clear out."
There was, indeed, no more to be said, and I made no attempt to detain him; for I did see for myself, only too clearly and precisely, how I had managed to precipitate the very thing which I had come out from England expressly to prevent.
PRAYERS AND PARABLES
I had quite forgotten one element which plays its part in most affairs of the affections. I mean, of course, the element of pique. Bob Evers, with the field to himself, had been sensible and safe enough; it was my intrusion, and nothing else, which had fanned his boyish flame into this premature conflagration. Of that I felt convinced. But Bob would not believe me if I told him so; and what else was there for me to tell him? To betray Catherine and the secret of my presence, would simply hasten an irrevocable step. To betray Mrs. Lascelles, and her secret, would certainly not prevent one. Both courses were out of the question upon other grounds. Yet what else was left?
To speak out boldly to Mrs. Lascelles, to betray Catherine and myself to her?
I shrank from that; nor had I any right to reveal a secret which was not only mine. What then was I to do? Here was this lad professedly on the point of proposing to this woman. It was useless to speak to the lad; it was impossible to speak to the woman. To be sure, she might not accept him; but the mere knowledge that she was to have the chance seemed enormously to increase my responsibility in the matter. As for the dilemma in which I now found myself, deservedly as you please, there was no comparing it with any former phase of this affair.
"O, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive!"
The hackneyed lines sprang unbidden, as though to augment my punishment; then suddenly I reflected that it was not in my own interest I had begun to practise my deceit; and the thought of Catherine braced me up, perhaps partly because I felt that it should. I put myself back into the fascinating little room in Elm Park Gardens. I saw the slender figure in the picture hat, I heard the half-humorous and half-pathetic voice. After all, it was for Catherine I had undertaken this ridiculous mission; she was therefore my first and had much better be my only consideration. I could not run with the hare after hunting with the hounds. And I should like to have seen Catherine's face if I had expressed any sympathy with the hare!
No; it was better to be unscrupulously stanch to one woman than weakly chivalrous toward both; and my mind was made up by the end of dinner. There was only one chance now of saving the wretched Bob, or rather one way of setting to work to save him; and that was by actually adopting the course with which he had already credited me. He thought I was "trying to cut him out." Well, I would try!
But the more I thought of him, of Mrs. Lascelles, of them both, the less sanguine I felt of success; for had I been she (I could not help admitting it to myself), as lonely, as reckless, as unlucky, I would have married the dear young idiot on the spot. Not that my own marriage (with Mrs. Lascelles) was an end that I contemplated for a moment as I took my cynical resolve. And now I trust that I have made both my position and my intentions very plain, and have written myself down neither more of a fool nor less of a knave than circumstances (and one's own infirmities) combined to make me at this juncture of my career.
The design was still something bolder than its execution, and if Bob did not propose that night it was certainly no fault of mine. I saw him with Mrs. Lascelles on the terrace after dinner; but I had neither the heart nor the face to thrust myself upon them. Everything was altered since Bob had shown me his hand; there were certain rules of the game which even I must now observe. So I left him in undisputed possession of the perilous ground, and being in a heavy glow from the strong air of the glacier, went early to my room; where I lay long enough without a wink, but quite prepared for Bob, with news of his engagement, at every step in the corridor.
Next day was Sunday, and chiefly, I am afraid, because there was neither blind nor curtain to my dormer-window, and the morning sun streamed full upon my pillow, I got up and went to early service in the little tin Protestant Church. It was wonderfully well attended. Quinby was there, a head taller than anybody else, and some sizes smaller in heads. The American bridegroom came in late with his "best girl." The late Vice Chancellor, with the peeled nose, and Mr. Belgrave Teale, fit for Church Parade, or for the afternoon act in one of his own fashion-plays, took round the offertory bags, into which Mr. Justice Sankey (in race-course checks) dropped gold. It was not the sort of service at which one cares to look about one, but I was among the early comers, and I could not help it. Mrs. Lascelles, however, was there before me, whereas Bob Evers was not there at all. Nevertheless, I did not mean to walk back with her until I saw her walking very much alone, a sort of cynosure even on the way from church, though humble and grave and unconscious as any country maid. I watched her with the rest, but in a spirit of my own. Some subtle change I seemed to detect in Mrs. Lascelles as in Bob. Had he really declared himself overnight, and had she actually accepted him? A new load seemed to rest upon her shoulders, a new anxiety, a new care; and as if to confirm my idea, she started and changed colour as I came up.
"I didn't see you in church," she remarked, in her own natural fashion, when we had exchanged the ordinary salutations.
"I am afraid you wouldn't expect to see me, Mrs. Lascelles."
"Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't, but I suppose," added Mrs. Lascelles, as her rich voice fell into a pensive (but not a pathetic) key, "I suppose it is you who are much more surprised at seeing me. I can't help it if you are, Captain Clephane. I am not really a religious person. I have not flown to that extreme as yet. But it has been a comfort to me, sometimes; and so, sometimes, I go."
It was very simply said, but with a sigh at the end that left me wondering whether she was in any new need of spiritual solace. Did she already find herself in the dilemma in which I had imagined her, and was it really a dilemma to her? New hopes began to chase my fears, and were gaining upon them when a flannel suit on the sunlit steps caused a temporary check: there was Bob waiting for us, his hands in his pockets, a smile upon his face, yet in the slope of his shoulders and the carriage of his head a certain indefinable but very visible attention and intent.
"Is Mrs. Evers a religious woman?" asked my companion, her step slowing ever so slightly as we approached.
"Not exactly; but she knows all about it," I replied.
"And doesn't believe very much? Then we shouldn't hit it off," exclaimed Mrs. Lascelles, "for I know nothing and believe all I can! Nevertheless, I'm not going to church again to-day."
The last words were in a sort of aside, and I afterwards heard that Bob and Mrs. Lascelles had attended the later service together on the previous Sunday; but I guessed almost as much on the spot, and it put out of my head both the unjust assumption of the earlier remark, concerning Catherine, and the contrast between them which Mrs. Lascelles could hardly afford to emphasise.
"Let's go somewhere else instead—Zermatt—or anywhere else you like," I suggested, eagerly; but we were close to the steps, and before she could reply Bob had taken off his straw hat to Mrs. Lascelles, and flung me a nod.
"How very energetic!" he cried. "I only hope it's a true indication of form, for I've got a scheme: instead of putting in another chapel I propose we stroll down to Zermatt for lunch and come back by the train."
Bob's proposal was made pointedly to Mrs. Lascelles, and as pointedly excluded me, but she stood between the two of us with a charming smile of good-humoured perplexity.
"Now what am I to say? Captain Clephane was in the very act of making the same suggestion!"
Bob glared on me for an instant in spite of Eton and all his ancestors.
"We'll all go together," I cried before he could speak. "Why not?"
Nor was this mere unreasoning or good-natured impulse, since Bob could scarcely have pressed his suit in my presence, while I should certainly have done my best to retard it; still, it was rather a relief to me to see him shake his head with some return of his natural grace.
"My idea was to show Mrs. Lascelles the gorge," said Bob, "but you can do that as well as I can; you can't miss it; besides, I've seen it, and I really ought to stay up here, as a matter of fact, for I'm on the track of a guide for the Matterhorn."
We looked at him narrowly with one accord, but he betrayed no signs of desperate impulse, only those of "climbing fever," and I at least breathed again.
"But if you want a guide," said I, "Zermatt's full of them."
"I know," said he, "but it's a particular swell I'm after, and he hangs out up here in the season. They expect him back from a big trip any moment, and I really ought to be on the spot to snap him up."
So Bob retired, in very fair order after all, and not without his laughing apologies to Mrs. Lascelles; but it was sad to me to note the spurious ring his laugh had now; it was like the death-knell of the simple and the single heart that it had been my lot, if not my mission, to poison and to warp. But the less said about my odious task, the sooner to its fulfilment, which now seemed close at hand.
It was not in fact so imminent as I supposed, for the descent into Zermatt is somewhat too steep for the conduct of a necessarily delicate debate. Sound legs go down at a compulsory run, and my companion was continually waiting for me to catch her up, only to shoot ahead again perforce. Or the path was too narrow for us to walk abreast, and you cannot become confidential in single file; or the noise of falling waters drowned our voices, when we stood together on that precarious platform in the cool depths of the gorge, otherwise such an admirable setting for the scene that I foresaw. Then it was a beautiful walk in itself, with its short tacks in the precipitous pine-woods above, its sudden plunge into the sunken gorge below, its final sweep across the green valley beyond; and it was all so new to us both that there were impressions to exchange or to compare at every turn. In fine, and with all the will in the world, it was quite impossible to get in a word about Bob before luncheon at the Monte Rosa, and by that time I for one was in no mood to introduce so difficult a topic.
But an opportunity there came, an opportunity such as even I could not neglect; on the contrary, I made too much of it, as the sequel will show. It was in the little museum which every tourist goes to see. We had shuddered over the gruesome relics of the first and worst catastrophe on the Matterhorn, and were looking in silence upon the primitive portraits of the two younger Englishmen who had lost their lives on that historic occasion. It appeared that they had both been about the same age as Bob Evers, and I pointed this out to my companion. It was a particularly obvious remark to make; but Mrs. Lascelles turned her face quickly to mine, and the colour left it in the half-lit, half-haunted little room, which we happened to have all to ourselves.
"Don't let him go up, Captain Clephane; don't let him, please!"
"Do you mean Bob Evers?" I asked, to gain time while I considered what to say; for the intensity of her manner took me aback.
"You know I do," said Mrs. Lascelles, impatiently; "don't let him go up the Matterhorn to-night, or to-morrow morning, or whenever it is that he means to start."
"But, my dear Mrs. Lascelles, who am I to prevent that young gentleman from doing what he likes?"
"I thought you were more or less related?"
"Rather less than more."
"But aren't you very intimate with his mother?"
I had to meet a pretty penetrating look.
"I was once."
"Well, then, for his mother's sake you ought to do your best to keep him out of danger, Captain Clephane."
It was my turn to repay the look which I had just received. No doubt I did so with only too much interest; no doubt I was equally clumsy of speech; but it was my opportunity, and something or other must be said.
"Quite so, Mrs. Lascelles; and for his mother's sake," said I, "I not only will do, I have already done, my best to keep the lad out of harm's way. He is the apple of her eye; they are simply all the world to one another. It would break her heart if anything happened to him—anything—if she were to lose him in any sense of the word."
I waited a moment, thinking she would speak, prepared on my side to be as explicit as she pleased; but Mrs. Lascelles only looked at me with her mouth tight shut and her eyes wide open; and I concluded—somewhat uneasily, I will confess—that she saw for herself what I meant.
"As for the Matterhorn," I went on, "that, I believe, is not such a very dangerous exploit in these days. There are permanent chains and things where there used to be polished precipices. It makes the real mountaineers rather scornful; anyone with legs and a head, they will tell you, can climb the Matterhorn nowadays. If I had the legs I'd go with him, like a shot."
"To share the danger, I suppose?"
"And the sport."
"Ah," said Mrs. Lascelles, "and the sport, of course! I had forgotten that!"
Yet I did not perceive that I had been found out, for nothing was further from my mind than to prolong the parable to which I had stooped in passing a few moments before. It had served its purpose, I conceived. I had given my veiled warning; it never occurred to me that Mrs. Lascelles might be indulging in a veiled retort. I thought she was annoyed at the hint that I had given her. I began to repent of that myself. It had quite spoilt our day, and so many and long were the silences, as we wandered from little shop to little shop, and finally with relief to the train, that I had plenty of time to remember how much we had found to talk about all the morning.
But matters were coming to a head in spite of me, for Bob Evers waylaid us on our return, and, with hardly a word to Mrs. Lascelles, straightway followed me to my room. He was pale with a suppressed anger which flared up even as he closed my door behind him, but though his honest face was now in flames, he still kept control of his tongue.
"I want you to lend me one of those sticks of yours," he said, quietly; "the heaviest, for choice."
"What the devil for?" I demanded, thinking for the moment of no shoulders but my own.
"To give that bounder Quinby the licking he deserves!" cried Bob: "to give it him now at once, when the post comes in, and there are plenty of people about to see the fun. Do you know what he's been saying and spreading all over the place?"
"No," I answered, my heart sinking within me. "What has he been saying?"
The colour altered on Bob's face, altered and softened to a veritable blush, and his eyes avoided mine.
"I'm ashamed to tell you, it makes me so sick," he said, disgustedly. "But the fact is that he's been spreading a report about Mrs. Lascelles; it has nothing on earth to do with me. It appears he only heard it himself this morning, by letter, but the brute has made good use of his time! I only got wind of it an hour or two ago, of course quite by accident, and I haven't seen the fellow since; but he's particularly keen on his letters, and either he explains himself to my satisfaction or I make an example of him before the hotel. It's a thing I never dreamt of doing in my life, and I'm sorry the poor beast is such a scarecrow; but it's a duty to punish that sort of crime against a woman, and now I'm sure you'll lend me one of your sticks. I am only sorry I didn't bring one with me."
"But wait a bit, my dear fellow," said I, for he was actually holding out his hand: "you have still to tell me what the report was."
"Divorce!" he answered in a tragic voice. "Clephane, the fellow says she was divorced in India, and that it was—that it was her fault!"
He turned away his face. It was in a flame.
"And you are going to thrash Quinby for saying that?"
"If he sticks to it, I most certainly am," said Bob, the fire settling in his blue eyes.
"I should think twice about it, Bob, if I were you."
"My dear man, what else do you suppose I have been thinking of all the afternoon?"
"It will make a fresh scandal, you see."
"I can't help that."
And Bob shut his mouth with a self-willed snap.
"But what good will it do?"
"A liar will be punished, that's all! It's no use talking, Clephane; my mind is made up."
"But are you so sure that it's a lie?" I was obliged to say it at last, reluctantly enough, yet with a wretched feeling that I might just as well have said it in the beginning.
"Sure?" he echoed, his innocent eyes widening before mine. "Why, of course I'm sure! You don't know what pals we've been. Of course I never asked questions, but she's told me heaps and heaps of things; it would fit in with some of them, if it were true."
Then I told him that it was true, and how I knew that it was true, and my reason for having kept all that knowledge to myself until now. "I could not give her away even to you, Bob, nor yet tell you that I had known her before; for you would have been certain to ask when and how; and it was in her first husband's time, and under his name."
It was a comfort to be quite honest for once with one of them, and it is a relief even now to remember that I was absolutely honest with Bob Evers about this. He said almost at once that he would have done the same himself, and even as he spoke his whole manner changed toward me. His face had darkened at my unexpected confirmation of the odious rumour, but already it was beginning to lighten toward me, as though he found my attitude the one redeeming feature in the new aspect of affairs. He even thanked me for my late reserve, obviously from his heart, and in a way that went to mine on more grounds than one. It was as though a kindness to Mrs. Lascelles was already the greatest possible kindness to him.
"But I am glad you have told me now," he added, "for it explains many things. I was inclined to look upon you, Duncan—you won't mind my telling you now—as a bit of a deliberate interloper! But all the time you knew her first, and that alters everything. I hope to out you still, but I sha'n't any longer bear you a grudge if you out me!"
I was horrified.
"My dear fellow," I cried, "do you mean to say this makes no difference?"
"It does to Quinby. I must keep my hands off him, I suppose, though to my mind he deserves his licking all the more."
"But does it make no difference to you? My good boy, can you at your age seriously think of marrying a woman who has been married twice already, and divorced once?"
"I didn't know that when I thought of it first," he answered, doggedly, "and I am not going to let it make a difference now. Do you suppose I would stand away from her because of anything that's past and over? Do they stand away from us for—that sort of thing?"
Of course I said that was rather different, with as much conviction as though the ancient dogma had been my own.
"But, Duncan, you know it's the very last thing you're dreaming of doing yourself!"
And again I argued, as feebly as you please, that it was quite different in my case—that I was a good ten years older than he, and not my mother's only son.
Bob stiffened on the spot.
"My mother must take care of herself," said he; "and I," he added, "I must take care of myself, if you don't mind. And I hope you won't, for you've been most awfully good to me, you know! I never thought so until these last few minutes; but now I sha'n't forget it, no matter how it all turns out!"
Well, I made a belated attempt to earn my young friend's good opinion. I kept out of his way after dinner, and went in search of Quinby instead. I felt I had a crow of my own to pluck with this gentleman, who owed to my timely intervention a far greater immunity than he deserved. It was in the little billiard-room I found him, pachydermatously applauding the creditable attempts of Sir John Sankey at the cannon game, and as studiously ignoring the excellent shots of an undistinguished clergyman who was beating the judge. Quinby made room for me beside him, with a civility which might have caused me some compunction, but I repaid him by coming promptly to my point.
"What's this report about Mrs. Lascelles?" I asked, not angrily at all, for naturally my feeling in the matter was not so strong as Bob's, but with a certain contemptuous interest, if a man can judge of his own outward manner from his inner temper at the time.
Quinby favoured me with a narrow though a sidelong look; the room was very full, and in the general chit-chat, punctuated by the constant clicking of the heavy balls, there was very little danger of our being overheard. But Quinby was careful to lower his voice.
"It's perfectly true," said he, "if you mean about her being divorced."
"Yes, that was what I heard; but who started the report?"
"Who started it. You may well ask! Who starts anything in a place like this? Ah, good shot, Sir John, good shot!"
"Never mind the good shots, Quinby. I really rather want to talk to you about this. I sha'n't keep you long."
"Talk away, then. I am listening."
"Mrs. Lascelles and I are rather friends."
"So I can see."
"Very well, then, I want to know who started all this. It may be perfectly true, as you say, but who found it out? If you can't tell me I must ask somebody else."
The ruddy Alpine colouring had suddenly become accentuated in the case of Quinby.
"As a matter of fact," said he, "it was I who first heard of it, quite by chance. You can't blame me for that, Clephane."
"Of course not," said I encouragingly.
"Well, unfortunately I let it out; and you know how things get about in an hotel."
"It was unfortunate," I agreed. "But how on earth did you come to hear?"
Quinby hummed and hawed; he had heard from a soldier friend, a man who had known her in India, a man whom I knew myself, in fact Hamilton the sapper, who had telegraphed to Quinby to secure me my room. I ought to have been disarmed by the coincidence; but I recalled our initial conversation, about India and Hamilton and Mrs. Lascelles, and I could not consider it a coincidence at all.
"You don't mean to tell me," said I, aping the surprise I might have felt, "that our friend wrote and gave Mrs. Lascelles away to you of his own accord?"
But Quinby did not vouchsafe an answer. "Hard luck, Sir John!" cried he, as the judge missed an easy cannon, leaving his opponent a still easier one, which lost him the game. I proceeded to press my question in a somewhat stronger form, though still with all the suavity at my command.
"Surely," I urged, "you must have written to ask him about her first?"
"That's my business, I fancy," said Quinby, with a peculiarly aggressive specimen of the nasal snigger of which enough was made in a previous chapter, but of which Quinby himself never tired.
"Quite," I agreed; "but do you also consider it your business to inquire deliberately into the past life of a lady whom I believe you only know by sight, and to spread the result of your inquiries broadcast in the hotel? Is that your idea of chivalry? I shall ask Sir John Sankey whether it is his," I added, as the judge joined us with genial condescension, and I recollected that his proverbial harshness toward the male offender was redeemed by an extraordinary sympathy with the women. Thereupon I laid a general case before Sir John, asking him point-blank whether he considered such conduct as Quinby's (but I did not say whose the conduct was) either justifiable in itself or conducive to the enjoyment of a holiday community like ours.
"It depends," said the judge, cocking a critical eye on the now furious Quinby. "I am afraid we most of us enjoy our scandal, and for my part I always like to see a humbug catch it hot. But if the scandal's about a woman, and if it's an old scandal, and if she's a lonely woman, that quite alters the case, and in my opinion the author of it deserves all he gets."
At this Quinby burst out, with an unrestrained heat that did not lower him in my estimation, though the whole of his tirade was directed exclusively against me. I had been talking "at" him, he declared. I might as well have been straightforward while I was about it. He, for his part, was not afraid to take the responsibility for anything he might have said. It was perfectly true, to begin with. The so-called Mrs. Lascelles, who was such a friend of mine, had been the wife of a German Jew in Lahore, who had divorced her on her elopement with a Major Lascelles, whom she had left in his turn, and whose name she had not the smallest right to bear. Quinby exercised some restraint in the utterances of these calumnies, or the whole room must have heard them, but even as it was we had more listeners than the judge when my turn came.
"I won't give you the lie, Quinby, because I am quite sure you don't know you are telling one," said I; "but as a matter of fact you are giving currency to two. In the first place, this lady is Mrs. Lascelles, for the major did marry her; in the second place, Major Lascelles is dead."
"And how do you know?" inquired Quinby, with a touch of genuine surprise to mitigate an insolent disbelief.
"You forget," said I, "that it was in India I knew your own informant. I can only say that my information in all this matter is a good deal better than his. I knew Mrs. Lascelles herself quite well out there; I knew the other side of her case. It doesn't seem to have struck you, Quinby, that such a woman must have suffered a good deal before, and after, taking such a step. Or I don't suppose you would have spread yourself to make her suffer a little more,"
And I still consider that a charitable view of his behaviour; but Quinby was of another opinion, which he expressed with his offensive little laugh as he lifted his long body from the settee.
"This is what one gets for securing a room for a man one doesn't know!" said he.
"On the contrary," I retorted, "I haven't forgotten that, and I have saved you something because of it. I happen to have saved you no less than a severe thrashing from a stronger man than myself, who is even more indignant with you than I am, and who wanted to borrow one of my sticks for the purpose!"
"And it would have served him perfectly right," was the old judge's comment, when the mischief-maker had departed without returning my parting shot. "I suppose you meant young Evers, Captain Clephane?"
"I did indeed, Sir John. I had to tell him the truth in order to restrain him."
The old judge raised his eyebrows.
"Then you hadn't to tell him it before? You are certainly consistent, and I rather admire your position as regards the lady. But I am not so sure that it was altogether fair toward the lad. It is one thing to stand up for the poor soul, my dear sir, but it would be another thing to let a nice boy like that go and marry her!"
So that was the opinion of this ripe old citizen of the world! It ought not to have irritated me as it did. It would be Catherine's opinion, of course; but a dispassionate view was not to be expected from her. I had not hitherto thought otherwise, myself; but now I experienced a perverse inclination to take the opposite side. Was it so utterly impossible for a woman with this woman's record to make a good wife to some man yet? I did not admit it for an instant; he would be a lucky man who won so healthy and so good a heart; thus I argued to myself with Mrs. Lascelles in my mind, and nobody else. But Bob Evers was not a man, I was not sure that he was out of his teens, and to think of him was to think at once with Sir John Sankey and all the rest. Yes, yes, it would be madness and suicide in such a youth; there could be no two opinions about that; and yet I felt indignant at the mildest expression of that which I myself could not deny.
Such was my somewhat chaotic state of mind when I had fled the billiard-room in my turn, and put on my overcoat and cap to commune with myself outside. Nobody did justice to Mrs. Lascelles; it was terribly hard to do her justice; those were perhaps the ideas that were oftenest uppermost. I did not see how I was to be the exception and prove the rule; my brief was for Bob, and there was an end of it. It was foolish to worry, especially on such a night. The moon had waxed since my arrival, and now hung almost round and altogether dazzling in the little sky the mountains left us. Yet I had the terrace all to myself; the magnificent voice of our latest celebrity had drawn everybody else in doors, or under the open drawing-room windows through which it poured out into the glorious night. And in the vivid moonlight the very mountains seemed to have gathered about the little human hive upon their heights, to be listening to the grand rich notes that had some right to break their ancient silence.
"If doughty deeds my lady please, Right soon I'll mount my steed; And strong his arm, and fast his seat, That bears frae me the meed. I'll wear thy colours in my cap, Thy picture at my heart; And he that bends not to thine eye Shall rue it to his smart!"
It was a brave new setting to brave old lines, as simple and direct as themselves, studiously in keeping, passionate, virile, almost inspired; and the whole so justly given that the great notes did not drown the words as they often will, but all came clean to the ear. No wonder the hotel held its breath! I was standing entranced myself, an outpost of the audience underneath the windows, whose fringe I could just see round the uttermost angle of the hotel, when Bob Evers ran down the steps, and came toward me in such guise that I could not swear to him till the last yard.
"Don't say a word," he whispered excitedly. "I'm just off!"
"Off where?" I gasped, for he had changed into full mountaineering garb, and there was his greased face beaming in the moonlight, and the blue spectacles twinkling about his hat-band, at half-past nine at night.
"Up the Matterhorn!"
"At this time of night?"
"It is a bit late, and that's why I want it kept quiet. I don't want any fuss or advice. I've got a couple of excellent guides waiting for me just below by the shoemaker's hut. I told you I was on their tracks. Well, it was to-night or never as far as they were concerned, they are so tremendously full up. So to-night it is, and don't you remind me of my mother!"
I was thinking of her when he spoke; for the song had swung through a worthy refrain into another verse, and now I knew it better. It was Catherine who had introduced me to all my lyrics; it was to Catherine I had once hymned this one in my unformed heart.
"But I thought," said I, as I forced myself to think, "that everybody went up to the Cabane overnight, and started fresh from there in the morning?"
"Most people do, but it's as broad as it's long," declared Bob, airily, rapidly, and with the same unwonted excitement, born as I thought of his unwonted enterprise. "You have a ripping moonlight walk instead of a so-called night's rest in a frowsy hut. We shall get our breakfast there instead, and I expect to start fresher than if I had slept there and been knocked up at two o'clock in the morning. That's all settled, anyhow, and you can look for me on top through the telescope after breakfast. I shall be back before dark, and then—"
"Well, what then?" I asked, for Bob had made a significant and yet irresolute pause, as though he could not quite bring himself to tell me something that was on his mind.
"Well," he echoed nonchalantly at last, as though he had not hesitated at all, "as a matter of fact, to-morrow night I am to know my fate. I have asked Mrs. Lascelles to marry me, and she hasn't said no, but I am giving her till to-morrow night. That's all, Clephane. I thought it a fair thing to let you know. If you want to waltz in and try your luck while I'm gone, there's nothing on earth to prevent you, and it might be most satisfactory to everybody. As a matter of fact, I'm only going so as to get over the time and keep out of the way."
"As a matter of fact?" I queried, waving a little stick toward the lighted windows. "Listen a minute, and then tell me!"
And we listened together to the last and clearest rendering of the refrain—
"Then tell me how to woo thee, Love; O tell me how to woo thee! For thy dear sake, nae care I'll take, Tho' ne'er another trow me!"
"What tosh!" shouted Bob (his mother should have heard him) through the applause. "Of course I'm going to take care of myself, and of course I meant to rush the Matterhorn while I'm here, but between ourselves that's my only reason for rushing it to-night."
Yet had he no boyish vision of quick promotion in the lady's heart, no primitive desire to show his mettle out of hand, to set her trembling while he did or died? He had, I thought, and he had not; that shining face could only have reflected a single and candid heart. But it is these very natures, so simple and sweet-hearted and transparent, that are least to be trusted on the subject of their own motives and emotions, for they are the soonest deceived, not only by others but in themselves. Or so I venture to think, and even then reflected, as I shook my dear lad's hand by the side parapet of the moonlit terrace, and watched him run down into the shadows of the fir-trees and so out of my sight with two dark and stalwart figures that promptly detached themselves from the shadows of the shoemaker's hut. A third figure mounted to where I now sat listening to the easy, swinging, confident steps, as they fell fainter and fainter upon the ear; it was the shoemaker himself who had shod my two sticks with spikes and my boots with formidable nails; and we exchanged a few words in a mixture of languages which I should be very sorry to reproduce.
"Do you know those two guides?" is what I first asked in effect.
"Very well, monsieur."
"Are they good guides?"
"The very best, monsieur."
THE LAST WORD
"Is that you?"
It was an hour or so later, but still I sat ruminating upon the parapet, within a yard or two of the spot where I had first accosted Bob Evers and Mrs. Lascelles. I had retraced the little sequence of subsequent events, paltry enough in themselves, yet of a certain symmetry and some importance as a whole. I had attacked and defended my own conduct down to that hour, when I ought to have been formulating its logical conclusion, and during my unprofitable deliberations the night had aged and altered (as it were) behind my back. There was no more music in the drawing-room. There were no more people under the drawing-room windows. The lights in all the lower windows were not what they had been; it was the bedroom tiers that were illuminated now. But I did not realise that there was less light outside until I awoke to the fact that Mrs. Lascelles was peering tentatively toward me, and putting her question in such an uncertain tone.
"That depends who I am supposed to be," I answered, laughing as I rose to put my personality beyond doubt.
"How stupid of me!" laughed Mrs. Lascelles in her turn, though rather nervously to my fancy. "I thought it was Mr. Evers!"
I had hard work to suppress an exclamation. So he had not told her what he was going to do, and yet he had not forbidden me to tell her. Poor Bob was more subtle than I had supposed, but it was a simple subtlety, a strange chord but still in key with his character as I knew it.
"I am sorry to disappoint you," said I. "But I am afraid you won't see any more of Bob Evers to-night."
"What do you mean?" asked Mrs. Lascelles, suspiciously.
"I wonder he didn't tell you," I replied, to gain time in which to decide how to make the best use of such an unforeseen opportunity.
"Well, he didn't; so please will you, Captain Clephane?"
"Bob Evers," said I, with befitting gravity, "is climbing the Matterhorn at this moment."
"At least he has started."
"When did he start?"
"An hour or more ago, with a couple of guides."
"He told you, then?"
"Only just as he was starting."
"Was it a sudden idea?"
"More or less, I think."
I waited for the next question, but that was the last of them. Just then the interloping cloud floated clear of the moon, and I saw that my companion was wrapped up as on the earlier night, in the same unconventional combination of rain-coat and golf-cape; but now the hood hung down, and the sudden rush of moonlight showed me a face as full of sheer perplexity and annoyance as I could have hoped to find it, and as free from deeper feeling.
"The silly boy!" exclaimed Mrs. Lascelles at last. "I suppose it really is pretty safe, Captain Clephane?"
"Safer than most dangerous things, I believe; and they are the safest, as you know, because you take most care. He has a couple of excellent guides; the chance of getting them was partly why he went. In all human probability we shall have him back safe and sound, and fearfully pleased with himself, long before this time to-morrow. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lascelles," I continued with the courage of my opportunity, "it is a very good chance for me to speak to you about our friend Bob. I have wanted to do so for some little time."
"Have you, indeed?" said Mrs. Lascelles, coldly.
"I have," I answered imperturbably; "and if it wasn't so late I should ask for a hearing now."
"Oh, let us get it over, by all means!"
But as she spoke Mrs. Lascelles glanced over the shoulder that she shrugged so contemptuously, toward the lights in the bedroom windows, most of which were wide open.
"We could walk toward the zig-zags," I suggested. "There is a seat within a hundred yards, if you don't think it too cold to sit, but in any case I needn't keep you many minutes. Bob Evers," I continued, as my suggestion was tacitly accepted, "paid me the compliment of confiding in me somewhat freely before he started on this hare-brained expedition of his."
"So it appears."
"Ah, but he didn't only tell me what he was going to do; he told me why he was doing it," said I, as we sauntered on our way side by side. "It was difficult to believe," I added, when I had waited long enough for the question upon which I had reckoned.
"He said he had proposed to you."
And again I waited, but never a word.
"That child!" I added with deliberate scorn.
But a further pause was broken only by my companion's measured steps and my own awkward shuffle.
"That baby!" I insisted.
"Did you tell him he was one, Captain Clephane?" asked Mrs. Lascelles, dryly, but drawn so far at last.
"I spared his feelings. But can it be true, Mrs. Lascelles?"
"It is true."
"Is it a fact that you didn't give him a definite answer?"
"I don't know what business it is of yours," said Mrs. Lascelles, bluntly; "and since he seems to have told you everything, neither do I know why you should ask me. However, it is quite true that I did not finally refuse him on the spot."
This carefully qualified confirmation should have afforded me abundant satisfaction. I was over-eager in the matter, however, and I cried out impetuously:
"But you will?"
"Refuse the boy!"
We had reached the seat, but neither of us sat down. Mrs. Lascelles appeared to be surveying me with equal resentment and defiance. I, on the other hand, having shot my bolt, did my best to look conciliatory.
"Why should I refuse him?" she asked at length, with less emotion and more dignity than her bearing had led me to expect. "You seem so sure about it, you know!"
"He is such a boy—such an utter child—as I said just now." I was conscious of the weakness of saying it again, and it alone, but my strongest arguments were too strong for direct statement.
This one, however, was not unfruitful in the end.
"And I," said Mrs. Lascelles, "how old do you think I am? Thirty-five?"
"Of course not," I replied, with obvious gallantry. "But I doubt if Bob is even twenty."
"Well, then, you won't believe me, but I was married before I was his age, and I am just six-and-twenty now."
It was a surprise to me. I did not doubt it for a moment; one never did doubt Mrs. Lascelles. It was indeed easy enough to believe (so much I told her) if one looked upon the woman as she was, and only difficult in the prejudicial light of her matrimonial record. I did not add these things. "But you are a good deal older," I could not help saying, "in the ways of the world, and it is there that Bob is such an absolute infant."
"But I thought an Eton boy was a man of the world?" said Mrs. Lascelles, quoting me against myself with the utmost readiness.
"Ah, in some things," I had to concede. "Only in some things, however."
"Well," she rejoined, "of course I know what you mean by the other things. They matter to your mind much more than mere age, even if I had been fifteen years older, instead of five or six. It's the old story, from the man's point of view. You can live anything down, but you won't let us. There is no fresh start for a woman; there never was and never will be."
I protested that this was unfair. "I never said that, or anything like it, Mrs. Lascellcs!"
"No, you don't say it, but you think it!" she cried back. "It is the one thing you have in your mind. I was unhappy, I did wrong, so I can never be happy, I can never do right! I am unfit to marry again, to marry a good man, even if he loves me, even if I love him!"
"I neither say nor think anything of the kind," I reiterated, and with some slight effect this time. Mrs. Lascelles put no more absurdities into my mouth.
"Then what do you say?" she demanded, her deep voice vibrant with scornful indignation, though there were tears in it too.
"I think he will be a lucky fellow who gets you," I said, and meant every word, as I looked at her well in the moonlight, with her shining eyes, and curling lip, and fighting flush.
"Thank you, Captain Clephane!"
And I thought I was to be honoured with a contemptuous courtesy; but I was not.
"He ought to be a man, however," I went on, "and not a boy, and still less the only child of a woman with whom you would never get on."
"So you are as sure of that," exclaimed Mrs. Lascelles, "as of everything else!" It seemed, however, to soften her, or at least to change the current of her thoughts. "Yet you get on with her?" she added with a wistful intonation.
I could not deny that I got on with Catherine Evers.
"You are even fond of her?"
"Then do you find me a very disagreeable person, that she and I couldn't possibly hit it off, in your opinion?"
"It isn't that, Mrs. Lascelles," said I, almost wearily. "You must know what it is. You want to marry her son—"
Mrs. Lascelles smiled.
"Well, let us suppose you do. That would be quite enough for Mrs. Evers. No matter who you were, how peerless, how incomparable in every way, she would rather die than let you marry him at his age. I don't say she's wrong—I don't say she's right. I give you the plain fact for what it is worth: you would find her from the first a clever and determined adversary, a regular little lioness with her cub, and absolutely intolerant on that particular point."
I could see Catherine as I spoke, the Catherine I had seen last, and liked least to remember; but the vision faded before the moonlit reality of Mrs. Lascelles, laughing to herself like a great, naughty, pretty child.
"I really think I must marry him," she said, "and see what happens!"
"If you do," I answered, in all seriousness, "you will begin by separating mother and son, and end by making both their lives miserable, and bringing the last misery into your own."
And either my tone impressed her, or the covert reminder in my last words; for the bold smile faded from her face, and she looked longer and more searchingly in mine than she had done as yet.
"You know Mrs. Evers exceedingly well," Mrs. Lascelles remarked.
"I did years ago," I guardedly replied.
"Do you mean to say," urged my companion, "that you have not seen her for years?"
I did not altogether like her tone. Yet it was so downright and straightforward, it was hard to be the very reverse in answer to it, and I shied idiotically at the honest lie. I had quite lost sight both of Bob and his mother, I declared, from the day I went to India until now.
"You mean until you came out here?" persisted Mrs. Lascelles.
"Until the other day," I said, relying on a carefully affirmative tone to close the subject. There was a pause. I began to hope I had succeeded. The flattering tale was never finished.
"I believe," said Mrs. Lascelles, "that you saw Mrs. Evers in town before you started."
It was too late to lie.
"As a matter of fact," I answered easily, "I did."
I built no hopes on the pause which followed that. Somehow I had my face to the moon, and Mrs. Lascelles had her back. Yet I knew that her scrutiny of me was more critical than ever.
"How funny of Bob never to have told me!" she said.
"Told you what?"
"That you saw his mother just before you left."
"I didn't tell him," I said at length.
"That was funny of you, Captain Clephane."
"On the contrary," I argued, with the impudence which was now my only chance, "it was only natural. Bob was rather raw with his friend Kennerley, you see. You knew about that?"
"And why they fell out?"
"Well, he might have thought the other fellow had been telling tales, and that I had come out to have an eye on him, if he had known that I happened to see his mother just before I started."
There was another pause; but now I was committed to an attitude, and prepared for the worst.
"Perhaps there would have been some truth in it?" suggested Mrs. Lascelles.
"Perhaps," I agreed, "a little."
The pause now was the longest of all. It had no terrors for me. Another cloud had come between us and the moon. I was sorry for that. I felt that I was missing something. Even the fine upstanding figure before me was no longer sharp enough to be expressive.
"I have been harking back," explained Mrs. Lascelles, eventually. "Now I begin to follow. You saw his mother, you heard a report, and you volunteered or at least consented to come out and keep an eye on the dear boy, as you say yourself. Am I not more or less right so far, Captain Clephane?"
Her tone was frozen honey.
"More or less," I admitted ironically.
"Of course, I don't know what report that other miserable young man may have carried home with him. I don't want to know. But I can guess. One does not stay in hotel after hotel without getting a pretty shrewd idea of the way people talk about one. I know the sort of things they have been saying here. You would hear them yourself, no doubt, Captain Clephane, as soon as you arrived."
I admitted that I had, but reminded Mrs. Lascelles that the first person I had spoken to was also the greatest gossip in the hotel. She paid no attention to the remark, but stood looking at me again, with the look that I could never quite see to read.
"And then," she went on, "you found out who it was, and you remembered all about me, and your worst fears were confirmed. That must have been an interesting moment. I wonder how you felt.... Did it never occur to you to speak plainly to anybody?"
"I wasn't going to give you away," I said, stolidly, though with no conscious parade of virtue.
"Yet, you see, it would have made no difference if you had! Did you seriously think it would make much difference, Captain Clephane, to a really chivalrous young man?" I bowed my head to the well-earned taunt. "But," she went on, "there was no need for you to speak to Mr. Evers. You might have spoken to me. Why did you not do that?"
"Because I didn't want to quarrel with you," I answered quite honestly; "because I enjoyed your society too much myself."
"That was very nice of you," said Mrs. Lascelles, with a sudden although subtle return of the good-nature which had always attracted me. "If it is sincere," she added, as an apparent afterthought.
"I am perfectly sincere now."
"Then what do you think I should do?" she asked me, in the soft new tone which actually flattered me with the idea that she was making up her mind to take my advice.
"Refuse this lad!"
"And then?" she almost whispered.
I hesitated. I found it hard to say what I thought, hard even upon myself. We had been good friends. I admired the woman cordially; her society was pleasant to me, as it always had been. Nevertheless, we had just engaged in a duel of no friendly character; and now that we seemed of a sudden to have become friends again, it was the harder to give her the only advice which I considered compatible alike with my duty and the varied demands of the situation. If she took it as she seemed disposed to do, the immediate loss would be mine, and I foresaw besides a much more disagreeable reckoning with Bob Evers than the one now approaching an amicable conclusion. I should have to stay behind to face the music of his wrath alone. Still, at the risk of appearing brutal I made my proposal in plain terms; but, to minimise that risk, I ventured to take the lady's hand and was glad to find the familiarity permitted in the same friendly spirit in which it was indulged.
"I would have no 'and then,'" I said, "if I were you. I should refuse him under such circumstances that he couldn't possibly bother you, or himself about you, again. Now is your opportunity."
"Is it?" she asked, a thrilling timbre in her low voice. And I fancied there was a kindred tremor in the firm warm hand within mine.
"The best of opportunities," I replied, "if you are not too wedded to this place, and can tear yourself away from the rest of us." (Her hand lay loose in mine.) "Mrs. Lascelles, I should go to-morrow morning" (her hand fell away altogether), "while he is still up the Matterhorn and I shouldn't let him know where I—shouldn't give him a chance of finding out—"
A sudden peal of laughter cut me short. I could not have believed it came from my companion. But no other soul was near us, though I looked all ways. It was the merriest laughter imaginable, only the merriment was harsh and hard.
"Oh, thank you, Captain Clephane! You are too delicious! I saw it coming; I only wondered whether I could contain myself until it came. Yet I could hardly believe that even you would commit yourself to that finishing touch of impudence! Certainly it is an opportunity, his being out of the way. You were not long in making use of it, were you? It will amuse him when he comes down, though it may open his eyes. I shall tell him everything, so I give you warning. Every single thing, that you have had the insolence to tell me!"
She had caught up her skirts from the ground, she had half turned away from me, toward the hotel. The false merriment had died out of her. The true indignation remained, ringing in every accent of the deep sweet voice, and drawn up in every inch of the tall straight figure. I do not remember whether the moon was hid or shining at the moment. I only know that my lady's eyes shone bright enough for me to see them then and ever after, bright and dry with a scorn that burnt too hot for tears; and that I admired her even while she scorned me, as I had never thought to admire any woman but one, but this woman least of all.
So we both stood, intent, some seconds, looking our last upon each other if I was wise. Then I lifted my hat, and offered my congratulations (more sincere than they sounded) to her and Bob.
"Did I tell you why he is going up?" I added. "It is to pass the time until he knows his fate. If only we could let him know it now!"
Mrs. Lascelles glanced toward the mountain, and my eyes followed hers. A great cloud hid the grim outstanding summit.
"If only you had prevented him from going!" she cried back at me in a last reproach; and to me her tone was conclusive, it rang so true, and so invidiously free from the smaller emotions which it had been my own unhappiness to inspire. It was the real woman who had spoken out once more, suddenly, perhaps unthinkingly, but obviously from her heart. And as she turned, I followed her very slowly and without a word; for now was I surely and deservedly undone.
THE LION'S MOUTH
It was a chilly morning, with rather a high wind; from the haze about the mountains of the Zermatt valley, which were all that I could see from my bedroom window, it occurred to me that I might look in vain for the Matterhorn from the other side of the hotel. It was still visible, however, when I came down, a white cloud wound about its middle like a cloth, and the hotel telescope already trained upon its summit from the shelter of the glass veranda.
"See anybody?" I asked of a man who sat at the telescope as though his eye was frozen to the lens. He might have been witnessing the most exciting adventure, where the naked eye saw only rock and snow, and cold grey sky; but he rose at last with a shake of the head, a great gaunt man with kind keen eyes, and the skin peeled off his nose.
"No," said he, "I can't see anybody, and I'm very glad I can't. It's about as bad a morning for it as you could possibly have; yet last night was so fine that some fellows might have got up to the hut, and been foolish enough not to come down again. But have a look for yourself."
"Oh, thanks," said I, considerably relieved at what I heard, "but if you can't see anybody I'm sure I can't. You have done it yourself, I daresay?"
The gaunt man smiled demurely, and the keen eyes twinkled in his flayed face. He was, indeed, a palpable mountaineer.
"What, the Matterhorn?" said he, lowering his voice and looking about him as if on the point of some discreditable admission. "Oh, yes, I've done the Matterhorn, back and front and both sides, with and without guides; but everybody has, in these days. It's nothing when you know the ropes and chains and things. They've got everything up there now except an iron staircase. Still, I should be sorry to tackle it to-day, even if they had a lift!"
"Do you think guides would?" I asked, less reassured than I had felt at first.
"It depends on the guides. They are not the first to turn back, as a rule; but they like wind and mist even less than we do. The guides know what wind and mist mean."
I now understood the special disadvantages of the day and realised the obvious dangers. I could only hope that either Bob Evers or his guides had shown the one kind of courage required by the occasion, the moral courage of turning back. But I was not at all sure of Bob. His stimulus was not that of the single-minded, level-headed mountaineer; in his romantic exaltation he was capable of hailing the very perils as so many more means of grace in the sight of Mrs. Lascelles; yet without doubt he would have repudiated any such incentive, and that in all the sincerity of his simple heart. He did not know himself as I knew him.
My fears were soon confirmed. Returning to the glass veranda, after the stock breakfast of the Swiss hotel, with its horseshoe rolls and fabricated honey, I found the telescope the centre of an ominous crowd, on whose fringe hovered my new friend the mountaineer.
"We were wrong," he muttered to me. "Some fools are up there, after all."
"How many?" I asked quickly.
"I don't know. There's no getting near the telescope now, and won't be till the clouds blot them out altogether."
I looked out at the Matterhorn. The loincloth of cloud had shaken itself out into a flowing robe, from which only the brown skull of the mountain protruded in its white skull-cap.
"There are three of them," announced a nasal voice from the heart of the little crowd. "A great long chap and two guides."
"He can't possibly know that," remarked the mountaineer to me, "but let's hope it is so."
"They're as plain as pike-staffs," continued Quinby, whose bent blond head I now distinguished, as he occupied the congenial post of Sister Anne. "They seem stuck.... No, they're getting up on to the snow-slope, and the front man's cutting steps."
"Then they're all right for the present," said the mountaineer. "It's the getting down that's ticklish."
"You can see the rope blowing about between them ... what a wind there must be ... it's bent out taut like a bow, you can see it against the snow, and they're bending themselves more than forty-five degrees to meet it."
"All very well going up," murmured the mountaineer: there was a sinister innuendo in the curt comments of the practical man.
I turned into the hall. It, however, was quite deserted. I had hoped I might see something of Mrs. Lascelles; she was not one of those in the glass veranda. I now looked in the drawing-room, but neither was she there. Returning to the empty hall, I passed a minute peering through the locked glass door of the pigeon-holes in which the careful concierge files the unclaimed letters. There was nothing for me that I could discern, in the C pigeon-hole; but next door but one, under E, there lay on the very top a letter which caught my eye and more. It had not been through any post. It was a note directed to R. Evers, Esq., in a hand that I knew instinctively to be that of Mrs. Lascelles, though I had never seen it in my life before. It was a good hand, but large and bold and downright as herself.
The concierge stood in the doorway, one eye on the disappearing Matterhorn, one on the experts and others in animated conclave round the still inaccessible telescope. I touched the concierge on the arm.
"Did you see Mrs. Lascelles this morning?"
The man's eyes opened before his lips.
"She has gone away, sir."
"I know," I said, having indeed divined no less. "What train did she catch?"
"The first one from here. That also catches the early train from Zermatt."
"I am sorry," I said after a pause. "I hoped to see Mrs. Lascelles before she went; now I must write. She left you an address, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes, sir."
"I shall ask you for it later on. No letters for me, I suppose?"
"I will look again."
And I looked with him, over his shoulder; but there was nothing; and the note for Bob Evers now inspired me with a tripartite blend of curiosity, envy, and apprehension. I would have had a last word from the same hand myself; had it been never so scornful, this silent scorn was the harder sort to bear. Also I wanted much to know what her last word was to Bob—and dreaded more what it might be.
There remained the unexpected triumph of having got rid of my lady after all. That is not to be belittled even now. It is a triumph to succeed in any undertaking, more especially when one has abandoned one's own last hope of such success. The unpleasant character of this particular emprise made its eventual accomplishment in some ways the greater matter for congratulation in my eyes. At least I had done my part. I had come to hate it, but the thing was done, and it had been a fairly difficult thing to do. It was impossible not to plume oneself a little on the whole, but the feeling was a superficial one, with deeper and uneasier feelings underneath. Still, I had practically redeemed my impulsive promise to Catherine Evers; her son and this woman once parted, it should be easy to keep them apart, and my knowledge of the woman forbade me to deny the fullest significance to her departure. She had gone away to stay away—from Bob. She had listened to me the less with her ears, because her reason and her heart had been compelled to heed. To be sure, she saw the unsuitability, the impossibility, as clearly as we did. But it was I who, at all events, had helped to make her see it; wherefore I deserved well of Catherine Evers, if of no other person in the world.
Oddly enough, this last consideration afforded me least satisfaction; it seemed to bring home to me by force of contrast the poor figure that I must assuredly cut in the eyes of the other two, the still poorer opinion that they would have of me if ever they knew all. I did not care to pursue this train of thought. It was a subject upon which I was not prepared to examine myself; to change it, I thought of Bob's present peril, which I had almost forgotten as I lounged abstractedly in the empty hall. If anything were to happen to him, in the vulgar sense! What an irony, what poetic punishment for us survivors! And yet, even as I rehearsed the ghastly climax in my mind, I told myself that the mother would rather see him even thus, than married to a widow who had also been divorced; it was the younger woman who would never forgive me, or herself.
Disappointed faces met me on my next visit to the veranda. The little crowd there had dwindled to a group. I could have had the telescope now for as long as I liked: the upper part of the Matterhorn was finally and utterly effaced and swallowed up by dense white mist and cloud. My friend the mountaineer looked grave, but his disfigured face did not wear the baulked expression of others to which he drew my attention.
"It is like the curtain coming down with the man's head still in the lion's mouth," said he.
"I hope," said I devoutly, "that you don't seriously think there's any analogy?"
The climber looked at me steadily, and then smiled.
"Well, no, perhaps I don't think it quite so bad as all that. But it's no use pretending it isn't dangerous. May I ask if you know who the foolhardy fellow is?"
I said I did not know, but mentioned my suspicion, only begging my climbing friend not to let the name go any farther. It was in too many mouths already, in quite another connection, I was going on to explain; but the mountaineer nodded, as much as to warn me that even he knew all about that. It was Bob's office, however, to provide the hotel with its sensation while he remained, and he was not allowed to perform anonymously very long. His departure over night leaked out. I was asked if it was true. The flight of Mrs. Lascelles was the next discovery; desperate deductions were drawn at once. She had jilted the unlucky youth and sent him in utter recklessness on his intentionally suicidal ascent. Nobody any longer expected to see him come down alive; so much I gathered from the fragments of conversation that reached my ears; and never was better occupation for a bad day than appeared to be afforded by the discussion of the supposititious tragedy in all its imaginary details. As, however, the talk invariably abated at my approach, giving place to uncomplimentary glances in my direction, I could not but infer that public opinion had assigned me an unenviable part in the piece. Perhaps I deserved it, though not from their point of view.
The afternoon was at once a dreariness and a dread. There was no ray of sun without, no sort of warmth within. The Matterhorn never reappeared, but seemed the grimmer monster for this sinister invisibility. I gathered that there was real occasion for anxiety, if not for alarm, and I nursed mine chiefly in my own room until I heard the news when I went down for my letters. Bob Evers had walked in as though nothing had happened, and gone straight up to his room with a note that the concierge handed him. Some one had asked him whether it was he who had been up the Matterhorn in the morning, and young Evers had vouchsafed the barest affirmative compatible with civility. The sunburnt climber was my informant.
"And I don't mind telling you it is a relief to me," he added, "and to everybody, though I shouldn't wonder if there was a little unconscious disappointment in the air as well. I congratulate you, for I could see you were anxious, and I must find an opportunity of congratulating your young friend himself."
Meanwhile no such opportunity was afforded me, though I quite expected and was fully prepared for another visit from Bob in my room. I waited for him there until dinner-time, but he never came, and I was beginning to wish he would. It was like the wrapping of the Matterhorn in mist; it only widened the field of apprehension; and yet it was not for me to go to the boy. My unrest was further aggravated by a letter which I had just received from the boy's mother in answer to my first to her. It was not a very dreadful letter; but I only trusted that no evil impulse had caused Catherine to write in anything like the same strain to Bob; for neither was it a very charitable letter, nor one that a man could be glad to get from the woman whom he had set out on an enduring pinnacle. There was only this to be said for it, that years ago I had sought in vain for a really human weakness in Catherine Evers, and now at last I had found one. She was rather too human about Mrs. Lascelles.
I looked for Bob both at and after dinner, but we were never within speaking distance and I fancied he avoided even my eye. What had Mrs. Lascelles said? He looked redder and browner and rougher in the face, but I heard that he would hardly open his lips at table, that he was almost surly on the subject of his exploit. Everybody else appeared to me to be speaking of it, or of Bob himself; but I had him on my nerves and may well have formed an exaggerated impression about it all. Only I do not forget some of the things I did overhear that day, and night; and they now had the effect of sending me in search of Bob, since Bob would not come near me. "I will have it out with him," I grimly decided, "and then get out of this myself by the first train going." I had had quite enough of the place that had enchanted me up to the last four-and-twenty hours. I began to see myself back in Elm Park Gardens. There, at least, if also there alone, I should get some credit for what I had done.
It was no use looking for Bob upon the terrace now; yet I did look there, among other obvious places, before I could bring myself to knock at his door. There was a light in his room, so I knew that he was there, and he cried out admittance in so sharp a tone that I fancied he also knew who knocked. I found him packing in his shirt-sleeves. He received me with a stare in exact keeping with his tone. What on earth had Mrs. Lascelles said?
"Going away?" I asked, as a mere preliminary, and I shut the door behind me. Bob followed the action with raised eyebrows, then flung me the shortest possible affirmative, as he bent once more over the suit-case on the bed.
But in a few seconds he looked up.
"Anything I can do for you, Clephane?"
"That depends where you are going."
Bob went on packing with a smile. I guessed where he was going. "I thought there might be something pressing," he remarked, without looking up again.
"There is," said I. "There is something you can do for me on the spot. You can try to believe that I have not meant to be quite such a skunk as I may have seemed—to you," I was on the point of adding, but I stopped short of that advisedly, as I thought of Mrs. Lascelles also.
"Oh, that's all right," said Bob, in a would-be airy tone that carried its own contradiction. "All's fair, according to the proverb; I no more blame you than you would have blamed me. I hope, on the contrary, that I may congratulate you."
And he stood up with a look which, coupled with his words, made it my turn to stare.
"Indeed you may not," said I.
"Aren't you engaged to her?" he asked.
"Good God, no!" I cried. "What made you think so?"
"Everything!" exclaimed Bob, after a moment's pause of obvious bewilderment. "I—you see—I had a note from Mrs. Lascelles herself!"
"Yes?" said I, carefully careless, but I wanted more than ever to know that missive's gist.
"Only a few lines," Bob went on, ruefully; "they are the first thing I heard or saw when I got down, and they almost made me wish I'd come down with a run! Well, it's no use talking about it, I only thought you'd know. It was the usual smack in the eye, I suppose, only nicely put and all that. She didn't tell me where she was going, or why; she told me I had better ask you."
"But you wouldn't condescend."
Bob gave a rather friendly little laugh.
"I said I'd see you damned!" he admitted. "But of course I thought you were the lucky man. I still half believe you are!"
"Well, I'm not."
"Do you mean to say that she's refused you too?"
"She hasn't had the chance."
Bob's eyes opened to an infantile width.
"But you told me you were in earnest!" he urged.
"As much in earnest as you were, I believe was what I said."
"That's the same thing," returned Bob, sharply. "You may not think it is. I don't care what you think. But I'm very sorry you said you were in earnest if you were not."
And his tone convinced me that he was no longer commiserating himself; he was sorry on some new account, and the evident reality of his regret filled me in turn with all the qualms of a guilty conscience.
"Why are you sorry?" I demanded.
"Oh, not on my own account," said Bob. "I'm delighted, personally, of course."
"Then do you mean to say—you actually told her—I was as much in earnest as you were?"
Bob Evers smiled openly in my face; it was the only revenge he ever took; and even it was tempered by the inextinguishable sweetness of expression and the childlike wide-eyed candour which were Bob's even in the hour of his humiliation, and will be, one hopes, all his days.
"Not in so many words," he said, "but I am afraid I did tell her in effect. You see, I took you at your word. I thought it was quite true. I'm awfully sorry, Duncan. But it really does serve you right!"
I made no answer. I was looking at the suit-case on the bed. Bob seemed to have lost all interest in his packing. I turned to leave him without a word.
"I am awfully sorry!" he was the one to say again. I began to wonder when he would see all round the point, and how it would affect his feeling (to say nothing of his actions) when he did. Meanwhile it was Bob who was holding out his hand.
"So am I," I said, taking it.
And for once I, too, was not thinking about myself.
A STERN CHASE
Where had Bob been going, and where was he going now? If these were not the first questions that I asked myself on coming away from him, they were at all events among my last thoughts that night, and as it happened, quite my first next morning. His voice had reached me through my bedroom window, on the head of a dream about himself. I got up and looked out; there was Bob Evers seeing the suit-case into the tiny train which brings your baggage (and yourself, if you like) to the very door of the Riffel Alp Hotel. Bob did not like and I watched him out of sight down the winding path threaded by the shining rails. He walked slowly, head and shoulders bent, it might be with dogged resolve, it might be in mere depression; there was never a glimpse of his face, nor a backward glance as he swung round the final corner, with his great-coat over his arm.
In spite of my curiosity as to his destination, I made no attempt to discover it for myself, but on consideration I was guilty of certain inquiries concerning that of Mrs. Lascelles. They had not to be very exhaustive; she had made no secret of her original plans upon leaving the Riffel Alp, and they did not appear to have undergone much change. I myself left the same forenoon, and lay that night amid the smells of Brigues, after a little tour of its hotels, in one of which I found the name of Mrs. Lascelles in the register, while in every one I was prepared to light upon Bob Evers in the flesh. But that encounter did not occur.
In the early morning I was one of a shivering handful who awaited the diligence for the Furka Pass; and an ominous drizzle made me thankful that my telegram of the previous day had been too late to secure me an outside seat. It was quite damp enough within. Nor did the day improve as we drove, or the view attract me in the least. It was at its worst as a sight, and I at mine as a sightseer. I have as little recollection of my fellow-passengers; but I still see the page in the hotel register at the Rhone Glacier, with the name I sought written boldly in its place, just twenty-four hours earlier.
The Furka Pass has its European reputation; it would gain nothing from my enthusiastic praises, had I any enthusiasm to draw upon, or the descriptive powers to do it justice. But what I best remember is the time it took us to climb those interminable zig-zags, and to shake off the too tenacious sight of the hotel in the hollow where I had seen a signature and eaten my lunch. Now I think of it, there were two couples who had come so far with us, but at the Rhone Glacier they exchanged their mutually demonstrative adieux, and I thought the couple who came on would never have done waving to the couple who stayed behind. They kept it up for at least an hour, and then broke out again at each of our many last glimpses of the hotel, now hundreds of feet below. That was the only diversion until these energetic people went to see the glacier cave at the summit of the pass. I am glad to remember that I preferred refreshment at the inn. After that, night fell upon a scene whose desolation impressed me more than its grandeur, and so in the end we rattled into Andermatt: here was a huge hotel all but empty, with a perfect tome of a visitors' book, and in it sure enough the fine free autograph which I was beginning to know so well.
"Yes, sare," said the concierge, "the season end suddenly mit the bad vedder at the beginning of the veek. You know that lady? She has been here last night; she go avay again to-day, on to Goeschenen and Zuerich. Yes, sare, she shall be in Zuerich to-night."
I was in Zuerich myself the night after. I knew the hotel to go to, knew it from Mrs. Lascelles herself, whose experience of continental hotels was so pathetically extensive. This was the best in Switzerland, so she had assured me in one of our talks: she could never pass through Zuerich without making a night of it at the Baur au Lac. But one night of it appeared to be enough, or so it had proved on this occasion, for again I missed her by a few hours. I was annoyed. I agreed with Mrs. Lascelles about this hotel. Since I had made up my mind to overtake her first or last, it might as well have been a comfortable place like this, where there was good cooking and good music and all the comforts which I may or may not have needed, but which I was certainly beginning to desire.
What a contrast to the place at which I found myself the following night. It was a place called Triberg, in the Black Forest, which I had never penetrated before, and certainly never shall again. It seemed to me an uttermost end of the earth, but it was raining when I arrived, and the rain never ceased for an instant while I was there. About a dozen hotel omnibuses met the train, from which only three passengers alighted; the other two were a young married couple at whom I would not have looked twice, though we all boarded the same lucky 'bus, had not the young man stared very hard at me.
"Captain Clephane," said he, "I guess you've forgotten me; but you may remember my best gurl?"
It was our good-natured young American from the Riffel Alp, who had not only joined in the daily laugh against himself up there, but must needs raise it as soon as ever he met one of us again. I rather think his best girl did not hear him, for she was staring through the streaming omnibus windows into an absolutely deserted country street, and I feared that her eyes would soon resemble the panes. She brightened, however, in a very flattering way, as I thought, on finding a third soul for one or both of them to speak to, for a change. I only wished I could have returned the compliment in my heart.
"Captain Clephane," continued the young bridegroom, "we came down Monday last. Say, who do you guess came down along with us?"
"A friend of yours," prompted the bride, as I put on as blank an expression as possible.
I opened my eyes a little wider. It seemed the only thing to do.
"Captain Clephane," said the bridegroom, beaming all over his good-humoured face, "it was a lady named Lascelles, and it's to her advice we owe this pleasure. We travelled together as far as Loocerne. We guess we'll put salt on her at this hotel."
"So does the Captain," announced the bride, who could not look at me without a smile, which I altogether declined to return. But I need hardly confess that she was right. It was from Mrs. Lascelles that I also had heard of the dismal spot to which we were come, as her own ultimate objective after Switzerland. It was the only address with which she had provided the concierge at the Riffel Alp. All day I had regretted the night wasted at Zuerich, on the chance of saving a day; but until this moment I had been sanguine of bringing my dubious quest to a successful issue here in Triberg. Now I was no longer even anxious to do so. I did not desire witnesses of a meeting which might well be of a character humiliating to myself. Still less should I have chosen for such witnesses a couple who were plainly disposed to put the usual misconstruction upon the relations of any man with any woman.
My disappointment was consequently less than theirs when we drove up to as gloomy a hostelry as I have ever beheld, with the blue-black forest smoking wet behind it, to find that here also the foul weather had brought the season to a premature and sudden end, literally emptying this particular hotel. Nor did the landlord give us the welcome we might have expected on a hasty consideration of the circumstances. He said that he had been on the point of shutting up that house until next season and hinted at less profit than loss upon three persons only.
"But there's a fourth person coming," declared the disconsolate bride. "We figured on finding her right here!"
"A Mrs. Lascelles," her husband explained.
"Been and gone," said the landlord, grinning sardonically. "Too lonely for the lady. She has arrived last night, and gone away again this morning. You will find her at the Darmstaedterhof, in Baden-Baden, unless she changes her mind on the way."
I caught his grin. It had been the same story, at every stage of my journey; the chances were that it would be the same thing again at Baden-Baden. There may have been something, however, of which I was unaware in my smile; for I found myself under close observation by the bride; and as our eyes met her hand slipped within her husband's arm.
"I guess we won't find her there," she said. "I guess we'll just light out for ourselves, and wish the captain luck."
A stern chase is proverbially protracted, but on dry land it has usually one end. Mine ended in Baden on the fifth (and first fine) day, rather early in the afternoon. On arrival I drove straight to the Darmstaedterhof, and asked to see no visitors' books, for the five days had taken the edge off my finesse, but inquired at once whether a Mrs. Lascelles was staying there or not. She was. It seemed incredible. Were they sure she had not just left? They were sure. But she was not in; at my request they made equally sure of that. She had probably gone to the Conversationshaus, to listen to the band. All Baden went there in the afternoon, to listen to that band. It was a very good band. Baden-Baden was a very good place. There was no better hotel in Baden-Baden than the Darmstaedterhof; there were no such baths in the other hotels, these came straight from the spring, at their natural temperature. They were matchless for rheumatism, especially in the legs. The old Empress, Augusta, when in Baden, used to patronise this very hotel and no other. They could show me the actual bath, and I myself could have pension (baths excluded) for eight marks and fifty a day. If I would be so kind as to step into the lift, I should see the room for myself, and then with my permission they would bring in my luggage and pay the cab.
All this by degrees, from a pale youth in frock-coat and forage-cap, and a more prosperous personage with pince-nez and a paunch (yet another concierge and my latest landlord respectively), while I stood making up my mind. The closing proposition was of some assistance to me. I had no luggage on the cab, of which the cabman's hat alone was visible, at the bottom of a flight of steps, at the far end of the flagged approach. I had left my luggage at the station, but I only recollected the fact upon being recalled from a mental forecast of the interview before me to these exceedingly petty preliminaries.
There and then I paid off the cab and found my own way to this Conversationshaus. I liked the look of the trim, fresh town in its perfect amphitheatre of pine-clad hills, covered in by a rich blue sky from which the last clouds were exhaling like breath from a mirror. The well-drained streets were drying clean as in a black frost; checkered with sharp shadows, twinkling with shop windows, and strikingly free from the more cumbrous forms of traffic. If this was Germany, I could dispense with certain discreditable prejudices. I had to inquire my way of a policeman in a flaming helm; because I could not understand his copious directions, he led me to a tiny bridge within earshot of the band, and there refused my proferred coin with the dignity of a Hohenzollern. Under the tiny bridge there ran the shallowest and clearest of little rivers. Up the white walls of the houses clambered a deal of Virginia creeper, brought on by the rain, and now almost scarlet in the strong sunlight. Presently at some gates there was a mark to pay, or it may have been two; immediate admittance to an avenue of fascinating shops, with an inner avenue of trees, little tables under them, and the crash of the band growing louder at every yard. Eventual access to a fine, broad terrace, a fine, long facade, a bandstand, and people listening and walking up and down, people listening and drinking beer or coffee at more little tables, people listening and reading on rows of chairs, people standing to listen with all their ears; but not for a long time the person I sought.