* * * * *
Not for a very long time, but yet, at last, and all alone, among the readers on the chairs, deep in a Tauchnitz volume even here as in the Alps; more daintily yet not less simply dressed, in pink muslin and a big black hat; and blessed here as there with such blooming health, such inimitable freshness, such a general air of well-being and of deep content, as almost to disgust me after my whole week's search and my own hourly qualms.
So I found Mrs. Lascelles in the end, and so I saw her until she looked up and saw me; then the picture changed; but I am not going to describe the change.
"Well, really!" she cried out.
"It has taken me all the week to find you," said I, as I replaced my hat.
Her eyes flashed again.
"Has it, indeed! And now you have found me, aren't you satisfied? Pray have a good look, Captain Clephane. You won't find anybody else!"
Her meaning dawned on me at last.
"I didn't expect to, Mrs. Lascelles."
"Am I to believe that?"
"You must do as you please. It is the truth. Mrs. Lascelles, I have been all the week looking for you and you alone."
I spoke with some warmth, for not only did I speak the truth, but it had become more and more the truth at every stage of my journey since Brigues. Mrs. Lascelles leant back in her chair and surveyed me with less anger, but with the purer and more pernicious scorn.
"And what business had you to do that?" she asked calmly. "How dare you, I should like to know?"
"I dared," said I, "because I owed you a debt which, I felt, must be paid in person, or it would never be paid at all. Mrs. Lascelles, I owed and do owe you about the most abject apology man ever made! I have followed you all this way for no other earthly reason than to make it, in all sincere humility. But it has taken me more or less since Tuesday morning; and I can't kneel here. Do you mind if I sit down?"
Mrs. Lascelles drew in the hem of her pink muslin, with an all but insufferable gesture of unwilling resignation. I took the next chair but one, but, leaning my elbow on the chair-back between us, was rather the gainer by the intervening inches, which enabled me to study a perfect profile and the most wonderful colouring as I could scarcely have done at still closer range. She never turned to look at me, but simply listened while the band played, and people passed, and I said my say. It was very short: there was so little that she did not know. There was the excitement about Bob, his subsequent reappearance, our scene in his room and my last sight of him in the morning; but the bare facts went into few words, and there was no demand for details. Mrs. Lascelles seemed to have lost all interest in her latest lover; but when I tried to speak of my own hateful hand in that affair, to explain what I could of it, but to extenuate nothing, and to apologise from my heart for it all, then there was a change in her, then her blood mounted, then her bosom heaved, and I was silenced by a single flash from her eyes.
"Yes," said she, "you could let him think you were in earnest, you could pose as his rival, you could pretend all that! Not to me, I grant you! Even you did not go quite so far as that; or was it that you knew that I should see through you? You made up for it, however, the other night. That I never, never, never shall forgive. I, who had never seriously thought of accepting him, who was only hesitating in order to refuse him in the most deliberate and final manner imaginable—I, to have the word put into my mouth—by you! I, who was going in any case, of my own accord, to be told to go—by you! One thing you will never know, Captain Clephane, and that is how nearly you drove me into marrying him just to spite you and his miserable mother. I meant to do it, that night when I left you. It would have served you right if I had!"
She did not rise. She did not look at me again. But I saw the tears standing in her eyes, one I saw roll down her cheek, and the sight smote me harder than her hardest word, though more words followed in broken whispers.
"It wasn't because I cared ... that you hurt me as you did. I never did care for him ... like that. It was ... because ... you seemed to think my society contamination ... to an honest boy. I did care for him, but not like that. I cared too much for him to let him marry me ... to contaminate him for life!"
I repudiated the reiterated word with all my might. I had never used it, even in my thoughts; it had never once occurred to me in connection with her. Had I not shown as much? Had I behaved as though I feared contamination for myself? I rapped out these questions with undue triumph, in my heat, only to perceive their second edge as it cut me to the quick.
"But you were playing a part," retorted Mrs. Lascelles. "You don't deny it. Are you proud of it, that you rub it in? Or are you going to begin denying it now?"
Unfortunately, that was impossible. Tt was too late for denials. But, driven into my last corner, as it seemed, I relapsed for the moment into thought, and my thoughts took the form of a rapid retrospect of all the hours that this angry woman and I had spent together. I was introduced to her again by poor Bob. I recognised her again by the light of a match, and accosted her next morning in the strong sunshine. We went for our first walk together. We sat together on the green ledge overlooking the glaciers, and first she talked about herself, and then we both talked about Bob, and then Bob appeared in the flesh and gave me my disastrous idea. Then there was the day on the Findelen that we had all three spent together. Then there was the walk home from early church (short as it had been), the subsequent expedition to Zermatt and back, with its bright beginning and its clouded end. Up to that point, at all events, they had been happy hours, so many of them unburdened by a single thought of Bob Evers and his folly, not one of them haunted by the usual sense of a part that is played. I almost wondered as I realised this. I supposed it would be no use attempting to express myself to Mrs. Lascelles, but I felt I must say something before I went, so I said:
"I deny nothing, and I'm proud of nothing, but neither am I quite so ashamed as perhaps I ought to be. Shall I tell you why, Mrs. Lascelles? It may have been an insolent and an infamous part, as you imply; but I enjoyed playing it, and I used often to forget it was a part at all. So much so that even now I'm not so sure that it was one! There—I suppose that makes it all ten times worse. But I won't apologise again. Do you mind giving me that stick?"
I had rested the two of them against the chair between us. Mrs. Lascelles had taken possession of one, with which she was methodically probing the path, for there had been no time to draw their Alpine teeth. She did not comply with my request. She smiled instead.
"I mind very much," her old voice said. "Now we have finished fighting, perhaps you will listen to the Meistersinger—for it is worth listening to on that band—and try to appreciate Baden while you are here. There are no more trains for hours."
The wooded hills rose over the bandstand, against the bright blue sky. The shadow of the colonnade lay sharp and black beyond our feet, with people passing, and the band crashing, in the sunlight beyond. That was Baden. I should not have found it a difficult place to appreciate, a week or so before; even now it was no hardship to sit there listening to the one bit of Wagner that my ear welcomes as a friend, and furtively to watch my companion as she sat and listened too. You will perceive by what train of associations my eyes soon fell upon the Tauchnitz volume which she must have placed without thinking on the chair between us. I took it up. Heavens! It was one of the volumes of Browning's Poems. And back I sped in spirit to a green ledge overlooking the Gorner Glacier, to think what we had said about Browning up there, but only to remember how I had longed to be to Mrs. Lascelles what Catherine Evers had been to me. There were some sharp edges to the reminiscence, but I turned the pages while they did their worst, and so cut myself to the heart upon a sharper than them all. It was in a poem I remembered, a poem whose title pained me into glancing farther. And see what leapt to meet me from the printed page:
"And I,—what I seem to my friend, you see: What I soon shall seem to his love, you guess: What I seem to myself, do you ask of me? No hero, I confess."
True, too true; no hero, indeed; anything in the wide world else! But that I should read it there by the woman's side! And yet, even that was no such coincidence; had we not talked about the poet, had I not implied what Catherine thought of him, what everybody ought to think?
Of a sudden a strange thrill stirred me; sidelong I glanced at my companion. She had turned her head away; her cheek was deeply dyed. She knew what I was doing; she might divine my thoughts. I shut the book lest she should see the vile title of a thing I had hitherto liked. And the Prizelied crashed back into the ear.
It was the middle of November when I was shown once more into the old room at the old number in Elm Park Gardens. There was a fire, the windows were shut, and the electric light was a distinct improvement when the maid put it on; otherwise all was exactly as I had left it in August, and so often pictured it since. There was "Hope," presiding over the shelf of poets, and here "Paolo and Francesca," reminiscent as ever of Melbury Road, upon a wet Sunday, years and years ago. The day's Times and the week's Spectator were not less prominent than the last new problem novel; all three lay precisely where their predecessors had always lain; and my own dead self stood in its own old place upon the piano which had been in St. Helena with Napoleon. It is vanity's deserts to come across these unnecessary memorials of a decently buried boyhood; there is always something stultifying about them, and I longed to confiscate this one of me.
But there was a photograph on the chimney-piece that interested me keenly; it was evidently the very latest of Bob Evers, and I studied it with a painful curiosity. Was the boy really altered, or did I only imagine it from my secret knowledge of his affairs? To me he seemed graver, more sedate, less angelically trustful in expression, and yet something finer and manlier withal: to confirm the idea one had only to compare this new one with the racket photograph now relegated to a rear rank. The round-eyed look was gone. Had I here yet another memorial of yet another buried boyhood? If so, I felt I was the sexton, and I might be ashamed, and I was.
"Looking at Bob? Isn't it a dear one of him? You see—he is none the worse!"
And Catherine Evers stood smiling as warmly, as gratefully, as she grasped my hand; but with her warmth there was a certain nervousness of manner, which had the odd effect of putting me perversely at my ease; and I found myself looking critically at Catherine, really critically, for I suppose the first time in my life.
"He is playing foot-ball," she continued, full as ever of her boy. "I had a letter from him only this morning. He had his colours at Eton, you know (he had them for everything there), but he never dreamt of getting them at Cambridge, yet now he really thinks he has a chance! They tried him the other day, and he kicked a goal. Dear old Bob! If he does get them he will be a Blue and a half, he says. He writes so happily, Duncan! I have so much to be thankful for—to thank you for!"
Yes, Catherine was good to look at; there was no doubt of it; and this time she was not wearing any hat. Discoursing of the lad, she was animated, eager, for once as exclamatory as her pen, with light and life in every look of the thin intellectual face, in every glance of the large, intellectual eyes, and in every intonation of the keen dry voice. A sweet woman; a young woman; a woman with a full heart of love and sympathy and tenderness—for Bob! Yet, when she thanked me at the end, either upon an impulse, or because she thought she must, her eyes fell, and again I detected that slight embarrassment which was none the less a revelation, to me, in Catherine Evers, of all women in the world.
"We won't speak of that," I said, "if you don't mind. I am not proud of it."
Catherine scanned me more narrowly. I knew her better with that look. "Then tell me about yourself, and do sit down," she said, drawing a chair near the fire, but sitting on the other side of it herself. "I needn't ask you how you are. I never saw you looking so well. That comes of going right away and not hurrying back. I think you were so wise! But, Duncan, I am sorry to see both sticks still! Have you seen your man since you came back?"
"I'm afraid there's no more soldiering for me."
Catherine seemed more than sorry and disappointed; she looked quite indignant with the eminent specialist who had finally pronounced this opinion. Was I sure he was the very best man for that kind of thing? She would have a second opinion, if she were me. Very well, then, a third and fourth! If there was one man she pitied from the bottom of her heart, it was the man without a profession or an occupation of some kind. Catherine looked, however, as though her pity were almost akin to horror.
"I have a trifle, luckily," I said. "I must try something else."
Catherine stared into the fire, as though thinking of something else for me to try. She seemed full of apprehension on my account.
"Don't you worry about me," I went on. "I came here to talk about somebody else, of course."
Catherine almost started.
"I've told you about Bob," she said, with a suspicious upward glance from the fire.
"I don't mean Bob," said I, "or anything you may think I did for him or you. I said just now that I didn't want to speak of it and no more I do. Yet, as a matter of fact, I do want to speak to you about the lady in that case."
Catherine's face betrayed the mixed emotions of relief and fresh alarm.
"You don't mean to say the creature—? But it's impossible. I heard from Bob only this morning. He wrote so happily!"
I could not help smiling at the nature and quality of the alarm.
"They have seen nothing more of each other, if that's what you fear," said I. "But what I do want to speak about is this creature, as you call her, and no one else. She has done nothing to deserve quite so much contempt. I want you to be just to her, Catherine."
I was serious. I may have been ridiculous. Catherine evidently found me so, for, after gauging me with that wry but humourous look which I knew so well of old, for which I had been waiting this afternoon, she went off into the decorous little fit of laughter in which it had invariably ended.
"Forgive me, Duncan dear! But you do look so serious, and you are so dreadfully broad! I never was. I hope you remember that? Broad minds and easy principles—the combination is inevitable. But, really though, Duncan, is there anything to be said for her? Was she a possible person, in any sense of the word?"
"Quite a probable person," I assured Catherine.
"But I have heard all sorts of things about her!"
"No, he never mentioned her."
"Nor me, perhaps?"
"Nor you, Duncan. I am afraid there may be just a drop of bad blood there! You see, he looked upon you as a successful rival. You wrote and told me so, if you remember, from some place on your way down from the mountains. Your letter and Bob arrived the same night."
"It was so clever of you!" pursued Catherine. "Quite brilliant; but I don't quite know what to say to your letting my baby climb that awful Matterhorn; in a fog, too!"
And there was real though momentary reproach in the firelit face.
"I couldn't very well stop him, you know. Besides," I added, "it was such a chance."
"Of getting rid of Mrs. Lascelles. I thought you would think it worth the risk."
"I do," declared Catherine, on due consultation with the fire. "I really do! Bob is all I have—all I want—in this world, Duncan; and it may seem a dreadful thing to say, and you mayn't believe it when I've said it, but—yes!—I'd rather he had never come home at all than come home married, at his age, and to an Indian widow, whose first husband had divorced her! I mean it, Duncan; I do indeed!"
"I am sure you do," said I. "It was just what I said to myself."
"To think of my Bob being Number Three!" murmured Catherine, with that plaintive drollery of hers which I had found irresistible in the days of old.
I was able to resist it now. "So those were the things you heard?" I remarked.
"Yes," said Catherine; "haven't you heard them?"
"I didn't need. I knew her in India years ago."
Catherine's eyes opened.
"You knew this Mrs. Lascelles?"
"Before that was her name. I have also met her original husband. If you had known him, you would be less hard on her."
Catherine's eyes were still wide open. They were rather hard eyes, after all. "Why did you not tell me you had known her, when you wrote?" she asked.
"It wouldn't have done any good. I did what you wanted done, you know. I thought that was enough."
"It was enough," echoed Catherine, with a quick return of grace. She looked into the fire. "I don't want to be hard upon the poor thing, Duncan! I know you think we women always are, upon each other. But to have come back married—at his age—to even the nicest woman in the world! It would have been madness ... ruination ... Duncan, T'm going to say something else that may shock you."
"Say away," said I.
Her voice had fallen. She was looking at me very narrowly, as if to measure the effect of her unspoken words.
"I am not so very sure about marriage," she went on, "at any age! Don't misunderstand me ... I was very happy ... but I for one could never marry again ... and I am not sure that I ever want to see Bob...."
Catherine had spoken very gently, looking once more in the fire; when she ceased there was a space of utter silence in the little room. Then her eyes came back furtively to mine; and presently they were twinkling with their old staid merriment.
"But to be Number Three!" she said again. "My poor old Bob!"
And she smiled upon me, tenderly, from the depths of her alter-egoism.
"Well," I said, "he never will be."
"God forbid!" cried Catherine.
"He has forbidden. It will never happen."
"Is she dead?" asked Catherine, but not too quickly for common decency. She was not one to pass such bounds.
"Not that I know of."
It was hard to repress a sneer.
"Then what makes you so sure—that he never could?"
"Well, he never will in my time!"
"You are good to me," said Catherine, gratefully.
"Not a bit good," said I, "or—only to myself ... I have been good to no one else in this whole matter. That's what it all amounts to, and that's what I really came to tell you. Catherine ... I am married to her myself!"