"God forbid!" he said sternly. "Dear saint and martyr, she is safe from all misreading at last. She is dead."
He stood a moment trying to choke down his anger before addressing her again.
"It is time I should go," he said presently. "I think we have talked enough."
But Poppy St. John presented a singular appearance. All the audacity had departed from her. She sat huddled together, looking very small and desolate; her eyes—the one noble feature of her face—swimming with tears.
"No, no; don't go," she cried in tones of childlike entreaty. "Why should you go? I like you, and I meant no harm. I've had the beastliest day, and meeting you was a let-up. You did me good somehow. Cappadocia was quite right in taking to you. I only wanted to know about you because—well, you are different. Pshaw, don't tell me. I know what I am talking about. You're straight. You're good right through."
The words were poured forth so rapidly that Iglesias hardly gathered the exact purport of them. But one thing was clear to him—namely, that this frivolous and meretricious being must be human after all, since she could suffer.
"Don't go," she repeated. "I'm miserable. I'll explain. I'll tell you. Just sit down again. It would be awfully kind. You see, I've been expecting a friend. It was all-important I should see him to-day, because there were things to be said. I've been awake half the night screwing up my courage to saying them. And then he never turned up. I got nerves waiting hour after hour—anybody would, waiting like that. And I began to imagine every kind of pestilent disaster."
Poppy swallowed a little and dabbed her pocket-handkerchief against her eyes.
"I shall be all right in a minute," she went on. "Do sit down, please. You say you're nobody and have nothing to do, so you can't very well be in a hurry. I am like this sometimes. It's awfully silly, but I can't help it. Some rotten trifle sets me off, and then I can't stop myself. I begin to go over all my worst luck.—Doesn't it occur to you there's no earthly good in standing? It obliges me to talk loud, and it's stupid to take all Barnes Common into our confidence. Thanks; that's very nice of you.—Well, you see when I'm like his, the flood-gates of memory are opened—which sounds pretty enough, but the prettiness is strictly limited to the sound for most of us, at least as far as my experience goes. The water is generally a bit dirty, and there are too many dead things floating about in it; and, when they reel by, as the current takes them, they turn and seem to struggle and come half alive."
She paused, hitching the embroidered dragons up about her shoulders.
"That is why I put on this scarf to-day. It was given me by a man who was awfully fond of me before—I married. He bought it in the bazaar at Peshawur, and sent it home to me just as he was starting on one of those little frontier wars the accounts of which they keep out of the English papers. And he was killed, poor dear old boy, in some footy little skirmish. And this is all I've got left of him."
Poppy spread out the ends of the scarf for Mr. Iglesias' inspection.
"It must have cost a lot of money. The stones are real, you see; and that gold thread is tremendously heavy. Just feel the weight. It was all his people's doing. They didn't consider me smart enough for him—or rather for themselves. They weren't anybody in particular, but they were climbing. The society microbe had bitten them badly. So they bundled him off to India. What another pair of shoes it would have been for me if he'd lived! At least it seems so to me when I'm down on my luck, as I am to-day. But after all, I don't know." Poppy began to be impudent, to laugh again, though somewhat brokenly. "Sometimes I don't believe one can count on any of you men till you are well dead, and then you're not much use, you know, faithful or unfaithful."
She dabbed her eyes once more and looked at Mr. Iglesias, smiling ruefully.
"Life's a pretty rotten business, at times, all round, isn't it?" she said. "You must have found it so with that thirty years' drudgery in a city bank. By the way, what bank was it?"
And Dominic Iglesias, touched by that very human story, attracted, in spite of himself, by the frankness of his companion, a little shaken by the novelty of the whole situation, answered mechanically:
"The bank? Oh, yes! Messrs. Barking Brothers & Barking of Threadneedle Street."
For a moment Poppy sat silent, her mouth round as an O. Then she drew her open hand down sharply behind poor Willie Onions, and shot the small dog, in a sitting position, off the bench on to the rough grass. His fringed legs stuck out stiff as sticks, while his enormous lappets of ears flew up and back, giving him the most wildly demented appearance during this brief inglorious flight through space.
"Catch birds!" she cried, "catch birds, I tell you! Think of your figure. My good child, take exercise or you'll be as round as a tub!"
She clapped her hands encouragingly, but the little animal, half-scared, half-offended, came closer, fawning upon her trailing string-coloured skirts. Poppy leaned down, resting her elbows upon her knees, and napped at the unhappy Onions with her handkerchief.
"Go away, you silly billy. Have a little decent pride, can't you? Don't bestow attentions when they're unwelcome." Then she addressed herself to Mr. Iglesias, but without looking up. "I beg your pardon, all this must seem rather abrupt. But sometimes one's duty to one's family takes one on the jump, as you may say; and one repairs neglect right away also on the jump. But—but—there's one thing I should like to know—when I told you my name just now—Poppy St. John, Mrs. St. John—you remember?"
"I remember," he said.
"Well, didn't it convey—didn't it mean anything special to you?"
"I am afraid not," Iglesias answered. "You must pardon my ignorance, since I have lived very much out of the world. I know nothing of society."
"So much the better. The world is a vastly overrated place, and society is about the biggest fraud going." She left off teasing the little dog, sat bolt upright, and looked full at Dominic Iglesias, her eyes serious, redeeming all the insignificance of her features and those little doubtful details of the general effect of her. "Don't make any mistake about either of them," she said. "Let the world and society alone as you value your peace of mind and independence. They're dead sea fruit to all outsiders such as—well—you and me. I hate them; only they've got me, and will have me in some form or other till the end, I suppose. But you are different, and I warn you"—Poppy's voice took on an odd inflection of mingled bitterness and tenderness—"they are not a bit adapted for a beautiful, innocent, uncrowned king like you."
She got up as she spoke, gathering her trailing skirts about her, and called sharply to the little dogs.
"The dew is rising," she said, "and Cappadocia's a regular cry-baby if she gets her feet wet. I must take her home. There's my card. You see the address? You can come when you like, only let me know the day beforehand, because I should be sorry to have people with me or to be out. Cappadocia 'll want you. So shall I. You do me good. I'll play quite fair, I promise you. Good-night."
The sun stood in a triumph of crimson and gold, which passed into the fine blue of a belt of earth mist. Eastward the sky blushed, too, but with brazen blushes, tarnished by the breath of the great city—the pure blue of the earth mist exchanged for the murk of coal smoke and the thousand and one exhalations of steaming streets, public-houses and restaurants. Poppy St. John walked slowly along the footpath, her figure dyed by the effulgence of the skies to the crimson and gold of her name. About her shoulders the embroidered dragons glittered as she moved, while the two tiny spaniels trotted humbly at her heels. For a brief space she showed absolutely resplendent. Then suddenly an interposing terrace of smart much-be-balconied and beflowered little houses shut off the sunset; and in their rather vulgar shadow Dominic Iglesias, watching, beheld her transformed into the unsubstantial, in a way fictitious, Lady of the Windswept Dust and of the footlights once again.
That weekly ceremony—well known to Trimmer's Green—Mrs. Lovegrove's afternoon at-home, was in progress. She wore her black satin gown, and her white Maltese lace fichu, just to give it a touch of summer lightness. It must be added that she was warm and uncomfortable, having conscientiously superintended preparations in respect of commissariat in the overheated atmosphere of the basement; hurried upstairs—the imagined tinkle of the front-door bell perpetually in her ears—to pull her stays in at the waist and project herself into the aforementioned official garments—a very trying process on a June day to a person of ample contours and what may be described as the fluidic temperament. Later she had cooled off, or tried so to cool—for on such occasions there is invariably some window-blind, ornament, or piece of furniture actively in need of straightening—sitting in her somewhat fog-stained and sun-faded drawing-room during that evil period of waiting in which the intending hostess first suffers acute mortification because she is "quite sure nobody will come," and then gets hot all over from the equally agitating certainty that everybody she has ever known will appear simultaneously, and that there will be neither cakes nor conversation enough to go round.
But this disquieting and oft-repeated preface to the afternoon's festivity was now happily over. And the good lady, oblivious of discomfort and a slightly disorganised complexion, sat purring with satisfaction upon her best Chesterfield sofa, Dr. Giles Nevington beside her. "Pleasure, not business, to-day, Mrs. Lovegrove. For once I am going to make no demands on my faithful and able coadjutor. This call is a purely friendly one—no subscription lists of any sort or description in my pocket," the clergyman had said in his resonant bass when clasping her hand.—A large, dark, clean-shaven man of forty, a studied effect of geniality and benevolence about him, slightly tempered, perhaps, by cold and watchful blue-grey eyes, fixed—so said his detractors—with unswerving determination upon the shovel-hat, apron, and gaiters of the Anglican episcopate.
Rhoda Lovegrove, however, was very far from being among the detractors. She relished this gracious speech enormously. She also approved the attitude of her husband at this juncture; since, with praiseworthy tact, he engaged the attention of her two other guests, a Mrs. Ballard and her daughter. These ladies were rich, the younger had pretensions both to beauty and fashion; but their present was, alas! stained by Noncomformity, their past contaminated by association with retail trade. At the entrance of the vicar, remembering these sad defects, George Lovegrove rose to the occasion. Gently, but firmly, he pranced round them heading them towards the doorway.
"Who are those?" Dr. Nevington inquired, with some interest. "Not parishioners, I fancy."
"Not in any true sense," Mrs. Lovegrove replied. "Dissenters, and I am sorry to say rather spiteful against the Church."
The clergyman leaned back and crossed his legs comfortably.
"Ah! well, poor human nature! A touch of jealousy perhaps," he remarked.
Mrs. Lovegrove beamed.
"Very likely—still I should be just as well pleased not to continue their acquaintance. I don't like to hear things that are disrespectful. I should have ceased to call, but relatives of theirs are old friends of Mr. Lovegrove's mother's family."
"Quite so, quite so," the other returned. Even when silent the sound of him seemed to encompass him, as the roll of a drum seems to salute you when merely beholding that instrument. His speech filled all the room, flowing forth into every corner, sweeping upward in waves to the very cornice. The feminine members of his congregation found this most beautiful; having, indeed, been known to declare that did he preach in Chinese, they would still receive edification and spiritual benefit.— "Quite so," he repeated, "the breaking of old family ties is certainly to be avoided. And then, moreover, we should always guard against any appearance of harshness or illiberality in dealing with Christians from whom we have reason to differ in minor questions of doctrine or practice. We must never forget that the Nonconformists, though they went out from us, do remain the brethren of all right-minded Churchmen in a very special sense, since they have the great lessons of the Reformation at heart. I could wish that certain parties within the Church were animated by the same manly and intelligent intolerance of idolatry and superstition as the majority of the dissenters whom I meet. Personally I should welcome greater freedom of intercourse, and a frequent interchange of pulpits."
"We know who'd be the gainers," Mrs. Lovegrove put in gracefully.
"Ah! well, I am prepared to believe that the gain might not be exclusively on one side."
Mrs. Lovegrove folded her fat hands, purring almost audibly. He seemed to her so very wise and good.
"That's so like you, Dr. Nevington," she said. "As I always tell Mr. Lovegrove, we have a great responsibility in having you for our pastor and friend. You are a standing rebuke to many of us, being so wide-minded yourself."
"Hardly that, hardly that," he answered with becoming modesty. "In my humble way I do strive towards unity, that is all. Even towards the Church of Rome I would extend a friendly and helpful hand. We cannot, of course, go to her, yet she should never be discouraged from coming to us.—But here is your good husband back again—ceased to be unevenly yoked with the unbeliever, eh, Lovegrove?"
"I was glad you took them away, Georgie," Mrs. Lovegrove put in. "Still I'm sorry for you, for the vicar's been talking so nobly. You've missed such a lot."
"Ah, hardly that. I have merely been giving your dear good wife a little lecture on Christian charity. How is Mrs. Nevington? Thank you, wonderfull well, earnest and energetic as ever. I do not know how I could meet the demands of this large parish without her."
"A true helpmeet," purred Mrs. Lovegrove.
"Truly so—and specially in all questions of organisation. She is altogether my superior in administrative capacity. Indeed, it is an understood thing between us that I relieve her of what may be called the bad third of her marriage vow. If she will love and honour, I assure her I am ready to obey. A capital working rule for husbands—eh, Lovegrove?— always supposing they have found the right woman, as you and I have."
In the midst of this delicious badinage the hostess had to rise to receive further guests. Conflicting emotions struggled within her ample bosom—namely, regret at leaving that thrice happy sofa, and satisfaction that others should behold the glory thereon so visibly enthroned.
"How d'ye do, Mrs. Porcher? How d'ye do, Miss Hart?" she said. "Very kind of you to come and call. Only a few friends as yet, but perhaps that's just as pleasant this warm afternoon. Dr. Nevington, as you see, and at his very best"—she lowered her voice discreetly. "So at home, so full of great thoughts, and yet so comical—quite a privilege for all to hear him talk."
Encouraged by recent commendation, George Lovegrove again rose with praiseworthy tact to the occasion. It may be stated in passing that, in person, he was below the middle height, a thick oblong man, his figure, indeed, not unsuggestive of a large carapace, from the four corners of which sprouted short arms and legs. His face was round, fresh-coloured, and clean to the point of polish. His yellowish grey hair, well flattened and shining, grew far back on his forehead. And this, combined with small blue eyes, clear as a child's, a slight inward squint to them, produced an effect of permanent and innocent surprise not devoid of pathos. In character he was guileless and humble-minded. The spectacle of cruelty or injustice would, however, rouse him to the belligerent attitude of the proverbial brebis enrage. He believed himself to be very happy—an added touch of pathos perhaps—and was pained and surprised if it was brought home to him that others found life a less comfortable and kindly invention than he himself did. Hence reports of suicides worried him sadly. He would always have returned a verdict of temporary insanity, this being to him the only explanation conceivable of a voluntary exit from our so excellent present form of existence. Yet George Lovegrove was not without his little secret sorrow—who indeed is? A deep-seated regret for nonexistent small Lovegroves possessed him, the instinct of paternity being strong in him. He loved children, and, when alone, often lingered beside perambulators in Kensington Gardens fondly observing their contents. Yet not for ten thousand pounds sterling would he have admitted this weakness, lest in doing so he should hurt "the wife's feelings." And it was in obedience to consideration for the said feelings that he now threw himself gallantly into the breach. For, after acting as appreciative chorus to an interlude of sonorous trifling on the part of the clergyman with the newcomers, he adroitly—under promise of showing her recent additions to his collection of picture postcards—detached Miss Eliza Hart from the neighbourhood of the sofa and conveyed her to the farther side of the room. Mrs. Porcher, neat, pensive, and sentimental, could be trusted to play the part of attentive listener; but the great Eliza, as he knew by experience, was liable to develop dangerous energy, to get a little above herself, shake her leonine mane of upstanding sandy hair, and become altogether too talkative, not to say loud, for such distinguished company. Personally he had a soft spot in his heart for Eliza. But, if she put herself forward, he feared for "the wife's feelings," therefore did he skilfully detach her.
And he had reason to congratulate himself on this manoeuvre, for Eliza undoubtedly was in a frolicsome humour.
"Yes," she remarked, contemplating the portrait of a celebrated actress. "That is very taking and stylish; and it is just what I should like to have done with my Peachie." This graceful sobriquet was generally understood to bear testimony to the excellence of Mrs. Porcher's complexion. "Now, if we wanted a gentleman guest or two more at any time, a picture postcard of her like this, just slightly tinted, in answer to inquiries?"
Miss Hart, her head on one side, looked playfully at Mr. Lovegrove.
"What about a subsequent summons for over-crowding?" he chuckled. The whole breadth of the room, well understood, was between him and the wife's feelings, not to mention the august presence beside her upon the sofa.
"No doubt that has to be thought of!" Eliza nodded sagely. "But is she not looking sweeter than ever to-day? Do not pretend you have not noticed it, Mr. Lovegrove. There's no deceiving me! I know you."
Like all mild and moral men, Lovegrove flushed with delight at any suggestion that he was a gay dog, a dashing blade. His good, honest face took on a higher polish than ever.
"You are too clever by half, Miss Hart."
"Well, somebody has to keep their wits about them, with such a love as Peachie to care for. I dressed her myself to-day. 'The pearl-grey gown if you like,' I said, 'but not a scrap of black with it. Just a touch of colour at the throat, please.' 'No, dear Liz,' she said, 'it would call for remark, since I have never done so since I lost Major Porcher.' But there, Mr. Lovegrove, I insisted. For why she should go on wearing complimentary mourning all her life for a wretch that nearly broke her heart and ruined her, passes me. 'Forget the serpent,' I said, 'and put on a little turquoise tulle pompom.' Now just look at her!"
"Rather dangerous for some people, is it not?" Lovegrove inquired quite slyly.
"Hard on our gentlemen, you mean? Well, perhaps it is. But then they always have the sight of me to put up with.—No compliments, thank you. I have my eyesight and my toilet-glass, and they have let me know I was no Venus ever since I can remember. It would not do to depress our gentlemen too much. They might leave, and then wherever would Cedar Lodge be?"
Miss Hart became suddenly serious and confidential. "And that reminds me," she went on. "I wanted to have a private word with you to-day about a certain gentleman."
"Who may be?" the good George inquired.
"You can guess, can't you? Your own candidate."
The lady nodded.
"Peachie must be spared anxiety, therefore I speak, Mr. Lovegrove. Something is going on, and she is getting worried. You cannot approach the person to whom we are alluding as you can either of our others. Rather stand-offish, even now after nearly eight years that he has been with us. Between you and me and the bedpost, Mr. Lovegrove, I am just a wee bit nervous of that person. So if you could hint, quite in confidence, what his plans may be for the future it would' be really friendly."
"Dear me, dear me! Plans? I do not quite follow you, Miss Hart. Nothing wrong with him, I trust?"
"That is just what we cannot find out. No spying, of course, Mr. Lovegrove. Neither Peachie nor I would descend to such meanness. Our gentlemen have perfect liberty. We would scorn to put questions. But it is close on a week now since the person we are alluding to has been to the City."
"Bless me! You surprise me. He cannot have left Barking Brothers & Barking?"
The great Eliza shook her leonine mane.
"I believe that is just exactly what he has done."
"You do surprise me. I can hardly credit it. Nearly a week, and he as punctual and regular as clockwork! I must run over this evening and catch him. Something must be wrong. And yet why has he not been here? Dear me. Miss Hart, you——"
But the end of the sentence was lost in the bass notes issuing from the presence upon the sofa.
"Truly, the prosperity of the nation," Dr. Nevington was saying, "of this dear old England of ours that we so love, is wholly bound up with the prosperity of her national Church. I use the word prosperity in a plain, manly, straightforward sense. Personally I should rejoice to see the bonds of Church and State drawn closer. It could not fail to make for the welfare of both. Then, among other benefits, we should see the poverty of many members of my cloth, which is now a crying scandal—"
"You do hear very sad tales from the country districts, certainly," sighed Mrs. Lovegrove.
"The state of affairs is more than sad, it is iniquitous. And therefore the Church must assert herself. The individual minister must assert himself, and claim a higher scale of remuneration. Help yourself, show push and principle, cultivate practical aims—that is what I preach to young men reading for Holy Orders. We have no place in these days for visionaries and dreamers. We want men who march with the times, who are interested in politics, and can make themselves felt."
So did the great voice roll on and outward. Very beautiful to the listeners in sound—though, in sense, it may be questioned whether it conveyed very definite ideas to them—but highly embarrassing to the house-parlourmaid, whose feminine tones quite failed to make headway against the volume of it. With the consequence that Dominic Iglesias was left standing in the shadow of the doorway unheeded.
He was aware, and that not without surprise, how much these few days of freedom and leisure had quickened his perceptions. His mental attitude had changed. His demand had ceased to be moderate. Hence he suffered a hundred offences to taste and sensibility hitherto unknown, or at least unregistered. He knew when a woman was plain, when a conversation was vapid or vulgar, a manner pretentious, a speech lacking in sincerity. Consciously he stood aside, no longer out of humility or indifference, but critically observant, challenging things however familiar, and passing judgment upon them. For example, the unlovely character of Mrs. Lovegrove's drawing-room engrossed his attention—the dirty-browns and tentative watery blues of it, the multiplicity of flimsy, worthless, little ornaments revealing a most lamentable absence of artistic perception. In that fine booming clerical voice he detected a kindred absence of delicate perception, a showiness born of very inadequate conception of relative values. Indeed, the voice and the sentiments given forth by it, in as far as he caught the drift of them, raised a definite spirit of antagonism in him. The voice seemed to trample. Dominic Iglesias was taken with an inclination—very novel in him—to trample, too. He crossed the room, an added touch of gravity and dignity in his aspect and manner.
The clergyman gazed at him with some curiosity, while Mrs. Lovegrove surged up off the sofa.
"Mr. Iglesias! Well, of all people! Whoever would have expected to see you at this early hour of the day?"
"Talk of a certain gentleman and that gentleman appears," Miss Eliza Hart whispered. Then wagging her finger at her host, "Now don't you forget that little question of mine. Find out his intentions, just, as you may say, under the rose. But there's Peachie signalling to go."
In the ensuing interval of farewells, which were slightly protracted owing to friskiness on the part of the fair Eliza, Iglesias found himself standing beside the clergyman. The latter still regarded him with curiosity. But, whatever his faults, not his worst enemy could accuse Dr. Nevington of being a respecter of persons unless he was well assured beforehand whom such persons might be. He therefore turned to Iglesias with the easy air of patronage not uncommon to his cloth, as one who should say: "My good sir, don't be afraid. I am a man of the world as well as a Christian. I will handle you gently. I won't hurt you."
"I think I caught a foreign name," he remarked. "You are paying a visit to London? I hope our capital makes an agreeable impression upon you."
"The visit has been of such long duration," Iglesias answered, "that impressions have, I am afraid, become slightly blurred by usage."
"Ah! indeed—no doubt that happens in some measure to all of us. I am to understand that you are a resident?"
"In this district?"
Again he assented.
"Indeed. Really, I wish I had known it sooner. It always gives me pleasure to meet persons of another nationality than my own. Intercourse with them makes for liberality of view. It often dispels anti-English prejudice. I am always glad to be helpful to strangers."
"You are very kind," Iglesias said with gravity.
"Not at all—not at all. I hold very practical views not only regarding the duties of the Englishman to the alien, but of the pastor towards his flock. But I find it almost impossible, I regret to say, to become personally acquainted with all my parishioners. My curates are capital young fellows—earnest, active, go-ahead. But in a large area such as this there is always a shifting population with which the clergy, however energetic, find it difficult to keep in touch. We are obliged to discriminate between dwellers and sojourners. As soon as any person is proved to be a bona fide dweller my curates pass his or her name on to me, and either I or my wife call in due course."
Dominic Iglesias permitted himself to smile.
"An excellent system, no doubt," he remarked.
"I find it works very well on the whole. But no system is infallible. There must be occasional oversights, and you have been the victim of one. I mention this to disabuse your mind of the idea of any intentional neglect. Well, Mrs. Lovegrove, and so our good friends Mrs. Porcher and Miss Hart have gone—estimable women both of them in their own line. I ought to be running away, too, and I have just been having a word with your other guest here, Mr.——"
"Iglesias," Dominic put in coldly. He was in a state of pretty high displeasure. To hear his name mispronounced might, he felt, precipitate a catastrophe.
"Iglesias?—ah! yes, thank you—I have been explaining to Mr. Iglesias our system of parochial visiting and quoting our well-known joke about the dwellers and sojourners. You remember it? He has, I regret to find, been counted among the latter, while he has qualified as one of the former. The mistake must be remedied. Well, good-by to you, Mrs. Lovegrove; I shall see your good husband on my way downstairs. Good-day to you, Mr. Iglesias. I shall hope to meet you again."
And with that he, and the encompassing sound of him, moved towards the door. Mrs. Lovegrove subsided upon the sofa. The supreme glory had departed, yet an afterglow from the effulgence of it remained in her beaming face as she looked up at Mr. Iglesias.
"It was a good fairy that brought you in so early to-day," she said. "Really, I am pleased you should have had the chance to meet Dr. Nevington. And I could see he was quite taken with you, by the way he began to talk before I had the chance to introduce you. But that's the vicar all over! He never is one to stand upon ceremony."
"So I can believe," Dominic said.
"You saw it? Ah, part of his thoughtfulness, wanting to put everybody at their ease. And I'm sure if there's one thing more disheartening than another, it is to have two of your friends standing up side by side, as stiff as a couple of pokers, without so much as a word. I know I am too ready to enter into conversation with strangers; but if there is a thing I cannot bear, it's any appearance of coolness."
She passed her handkerchief round her forehead and across her lips. She was marshalling her energies for a daring effort.
"Very warm, is it not?" she remarked, perhaps superfluously. Then she came to the point. "I know you are not very much of a churchgoer, Mr. Iglesias."
"I am afraid not"—he paused a moment. "You see, I was born and brought up in another faith."
"Yes—so George has told me. But I am sure none of us would ever be so illiberal as to throw that up against you. The vicar has been talking so beautifully about Christian charity; and we all know it was a thing you could not help. It was your misfortune, anybody would understand that, not your fault. Too, it's all over long ago and forgotten."
Dominic looked rather hard at her; but it was clear her words were innocent of any intention of offence.
"I suppose it is," he said sadly, Old Age and Loneliness laying their hands upon him, for some reason, very sensibly once again.
"Not that that's anything to be otherwise than thankful for," she added, with a slightly misplaced effort at consolation. "Of course anyone must feel how providential it is to be saved from all those terrible false doctrines and practices—not that I know anything about them. There's so much, don't you think, it is so much better not to know anything about. Then one feels more at liberty to speak."
Mr. Iglesias smiled.
"I am not sure that the matter had occurred from exactly that point of view before."
"Really now, and a clever person like you!" Mrs. Lovegrove passed her handkerchief across her forehead again. "George has a wonderful opinion of your cleverness, you know. And that is why I have always wished you and the vicar could be brought together. I have—yes, I own to it—I have been afraid sometimes you were a little unsettled about religion, and that it might unsettle Georgie, too. But I knew if you once met the vicar that would all be set right. As I often say to George, let anybody just see Dr. Nevington and then they will begin to have an inkling of all they miss in not hearing him in the pulpit."
But here, perhaps fortunately, the master of the house trotted back. He, too, beamed. He was filled with innocent rejoicing. Had he not successfully protected the wife's feelings, and was not Iglesias—who remained to him a wonderful being, stirring whatever element of romance might be resident in his guileless nature—present in person?
"Why, what's the meaning of this, Dominic?" he chuckled. "You've turned over a new leaf, gadding round to at-home days! Where's Threadneedle Street? What's come over you?"
"Threadneedle Street and I have agreed to part company."
"What, for good? Never?" this from both husband and wife.
"Yes, for good," Iglesias said.
Mr. Lovegrove ceased to beam. He became anxious again, and consequently solemn.
"Well, you do surprise me," he said. "Nothing gone wrong, I trust? Not any unpleasantness happened?"
"None," Iglesias answered. In breaking the news to these kindly but rudimentary souls he had determined to treat it very lightly. "I have come to the conclusion that I have worked long enough. It is a mistake to risk dying in harness. You retired, Lovegrove, three years ago. I am going to look about me a little and see what the rest of the world is doing."
"You'll miss the bank, and feel a little strange at first. Georgie did, though he had his home to interest him," Mrs. Lovegrove remarked.
"Undoubtedly George was more fortunate than I am," Iglesias replied, in his most courtly manner.
"Not but that all that could be easily remedied," she added, with a touch of archness. Then Mr. Iglesias thought it time to depart. In the hall his host held him, literally by the buttonhole, looking up with squinting blue eyes into his face.
"It's all rather sudden, Dominic," he said. "I do not want to intrude upon your confidence; but if there is anything behind, anything in which I can help?"
Mr. Iglesias shook his head.
"Nothing, my good old friend," he said.
"The wife's right, you know. You'll miss the bank, the regular hours, and the occupation. She's quite right. I did at first."
"I know. But already I have pretty well got through that phase, I think."
"Ah, you have a bigger mind than mine. You can rise to a wider view. Change affects a commonplace man like myself most. I was dreadfully lost at first—more than the wife knew. Females are very sensitive, and it would have hurt her to know all I felt. If the Almighty is good enough to give a man a faithful woman to look after him, he can't be too scrupulous in sparing her pain—at least, so I think." Suddenly his tone changed. "But you are not going to leave us, Dominic?—you are not going to move, I do hope?"
He was mindful of his promise to Eliza Hart, but he was also mindful of himself. It had occurred to him for how very much in the interest and pleasure of his life Dominic Iglesias really stood.
"Why, should you regret my going? Should you miss me?" the other asked, struck by his tone.
"Miss you," he said, "and after a friendship covering forty years! I know you are my superior in every way. I know I am not on your level. All the advantage is on my side in our friendship, always has been. But that is just where it is. Why, you know, Dominic—next to the wife of course—all along you have been the best thing I had."
Then it came to Iglesias, looking down at him, that among the many millions of his fellow-mortals, this whimsical childlike being stood nearest to him in sympathy and in love. The thought moved him strangely, at once deepening his sense of isolation and lessening the load of it.
"In that case I will not move. I will stay here, at Trimmer's Green," he said.
When Mr. Lovegrove reentered the sun-faded drawing-room his wife greeted him in these words:
"Well, I have been thinking it all over, Georgie, and we shall only be doing our duty by Mr. Iglesias if we send for your cousin Serena. For my part, I don't trust Mrs. Porcher. Did you see that fly-away blue bow? Those who seem so soft are often the deepest. And widows have all sorts of little cunning ways with them." She rose from the thrice happy sofa. "I was gratified to have Dr. Nevington and Mr. Iglesias meet. But we certainly will have to send for Serena," she said.
Mr. Iglesias crossed Trimmer's Green in the dusty sunshine. He had engaged to stay; and, indeed, he asked himself what person, what objects or interests there were to take him else-whither? Nevertheless, the promise seemed, somehow, a limiting of possibility and of hope. It was destiny. London, very evidently, having got him, did not mean to let him go. And London was not attractive this evening, but blouzy and jaded from the heat. He passed on into the great thoroughfare and turned eastward, absorbed in thought. Children cried. A pungent scent of over-ripe fruit came from barrows in the roadway and open doors of green-grocers' shops. Tempers appeared to be on edge. Workmen, pouring out from a big block of flats under construction on the left, jostled him in passing, not in insolence, but simply in inattention. Their language was starred with sanguinary adjectives. The noise of the traffic was loud. Iglesias turned up one of the side streets leading on to Campden Hill. It was quieter here and the air was a trifle purer. Halfway up the hill he hesitated. There was a shrine to be visited in these regions—in it stood an altar of the dead. And above that altar, in Iglesias' imagination, hung the picture of a woman, beautiful, and, to him, infinitely sad.
He turned eastward again and made his way into Holland Street. He rarely had the courage to go back there. He had never reentered the house. But this evening he was taken by the desire to look on it all once again. For he was still pursued by the disquieting question as to whether he had shirked the possibilities of his life, or had sacrificed them to a higher duty than any duty of personal development. If the latter, however barren of active happiness both past and present, he would be in his own eyes justified, and desolation would cease to have in it any flavour of self- contempt. Perhaps this dwelling-place of his childhood, youth, and what should have been the best of his manhood, might help to answer the question and set his doubts at rest.
A board—"To Let"—was up on the narrow iron balcony of the dining-room. Iglesias rang, and after brief parley with the caretaker—a neat bald- headed little old man, in carpet slippers and a well-brushed once-smart brown check suit, altogether too capacious for his attenuated person—was admitted.
"The place is quite empty save for my bits of sticks in the basement, sir," he said. "You are at liberty to go where you please. I am afflicted with the asthma and am glad to avoid mounting the stairs." He ended up with a husky little cough. So Iglesias passed through the vacant house unattended.
He received a pathetic yet agitating impression. The rooms were even smaller than he had supposed. They were gloomy, too, from the worn paint of the high wainscots and discoloration of the low ceilings. All the windows were shut and the atmosphere was close and faint. The corners were thick with crouching shadows, merely awaiting the cover of night, as it seemed to Iglesias, to take definite shape, stand upright, and come forth to possess and people all the house. Even now it belonged so sensibly to them that his own reverent footsteps sounded to him harshly intrusive upon the bare, uneven floors. At intervals, downstairs in the basement, he could hear the little old caretaker's husky cough.
And it was strange to him to consider what those crouching shadows might represent. Not the ghosts of human beings—in such he had small belief— but an aftermath of human emotions, purposes, and passions, formulated or endured in this apparently so innocent place. To his knowledge the origins of revolution had seethed here. The walls had listened to details of political intrigue, of projected assassination, to vehement declarations of undying hate. Of the men who had plotted and dreamed here, uplifted in spirit by the magic of terrible ideas, none were left. One by one they had gone out into the silence to meet death, swift-handed or heartlessly lingering, as the case might be. And what had they actually accomplished? he asked himself. Had their death, often as must be surmised of a sufficiently hideous sort, really advanced the cause of humanity and helped on the birth of that Golden Age, in which Justice shall reign alongside Peace? Or had these men merely wasted themselves, adding to the sum total of human confusion and wrong; and wasted the hearts and happiness of those allied to them by ties of friendship and of blood, leaving the second generation to repair, in so far as it might, the ruin which their violence had worked? Dominic Iglesias could not say. But this at least, though it savoured of reproach, he could not disguise from himself—namely, that out of the intemperate heat and fierceness of these men's thought and action had come, as a necessary consequence, the narrow opportunities and cold isolation of his own.
"As physically, so morally, spiritually, socially," he said to himself, "the younger generation pays the debts contracted by the generation immediately preceding it. Justice, indeed, reigns already, always has done so—. justice of a rather tremendous sort. But peace?—Peace is still very much to seek, both for the individual and the race."
Iglesias visited his mother's bed-chamber. He visited his former nursery. Then he visited the drawing-room, the heart of this very pathetic shrine where the altar of his dead was, almost visibly set up. To this room, during the many years of his mother's mental illness, he had come back daily after work; and had ministered to her, suiting his speech to her passing humour, trying to distract her brooding melancholy, and to soothe and amuse her as though she was an ailing child. Thank God, there was nothing ugly to remember regarding her. She had never been harsh or unlovely in her ways. Still, the strain of constant intercourse with her had been very great—how great Iglesias had hardly realised until now, as he stood in the centre of the room reconstructing its former appearance in thought and replacing its familiar furnishings.
There to the left of the further window, overlooking the garden, she had always sat, so that the light might fall upon her needlework—very fine Irish lace, in the making of which nearly all her waking hours were spent. She had learned the beautiful art as a young girl in her convent school; and her skill in it was great. In those sad later years when her mind was clouded the intricate designs and endless variety of delicate and ingenious stitches had come to have symbolic meanings for her full of mystic significance. In them she poured forth her soul, as another might pour it forth in music, finding there an imaginative language far surpassing, in its subtlety of suggestion, articulate speech. There were deserts of net, of spider's web fineness, to be laboriously traversed; hills of difficulty to be climbed, whence far horizons disclosed themselves; dainty flower-gardens, crossed by open paths, and hedged about with curves, sinuous and full of pretty impediments. And there were, to her, vaguely agitating and even fearful things in this lacework also—confusions of outline, broken purposes, multiplicity of opposing intentions, struggle of good and evil powers in the intricacies of some rich arabesque; or monotonous repetitions of design which distressed her as with the terrors of imprisonment and of unescapable fate. She was filled with feverish anxiety until such portions of her self-imposed task were completed. Then she would be very glad. And Iglesias, glancing up silently from the pages of his newspaper or book, would see the sorrow pass out of her face as she leaned back in her chair and softly laughed. And he would perceive that, in the achievement of those countless but carefully ordered stitches, she had also achieved some mysterious victory of the spirit which, for a time at least, would give her freedom of soul and content. As a boy he had been rather jealous of her lacemaking, declaring that it was dearer to her than he himself was. But as he grew more experienced, more chastened, and, it must be added, more sad, he had come to understand that it veritably was as speech to her—though speech which he could but rarely interpret—expressing all that she could not, or dared not, otherwise express, all the poetry of her sweet, broken nature, its denied aspirations in religion, its tortured memories of danger and of love.
Now, standing in the centre of the empty room, and looking at the place beside the window where she habitually sat, Iglesias seemed to see once more, as he had so often seen in the past, her fine-drawn profile and softly waved upturned hair, her head and shoulders draped in a black mantilla, the lines of which followed those of her figure as she bent over her work. He could see the long delicate white hands moving rhythmically, with the assurance of perfected skill, over the web in its varying degrees of whiteness from the filmy transparency of the net foundation to the opacity of the closely wrought pattern. Those hands, in their ceaseless and exquisite industry, had troubled his imagination at times. For too often it had seemed as though they alone were really alive, intelligent, sentient, the rest of the woman dead. The impression was so vivid even yet—though Iglesias knew it to be subjective only, projected by the vividness of remembrance—that instinctively he crossed the room, laid his left hand upon the moulding of the high wainscot, leaned over the vacant space which appeared to hold her image, and spoke gently to her, so that the moving hands might find rest for a moment, while she recognised and greeted him, looking up.
There had always been a pause before the words of greeting came, while her consciousness travelled back, hesitatingly, to the actual and material world around her from the world of emotion and phantasy in which her spirit lived. There was a pause now, a prolonged silence, broken at last by the husky cough of the little old caretaker downstairs. The vacant space remained vacant. Nevertheless Dominic Iglesias received both recognition and greeting, and from these derived inward assurance that all was well—that he was justified of his past action, that he had not shirked the possibilities of his life, but sacrificed them to a higher duty than any individual and private one. The present might be empty of purpose and pleasure, the future lacking in promise and in hope; yet to him one perfect thing had been granted—namely, a human relationship of unsullied beauty, notwithstanding all its sadness, from first to last.
"And in the strength of that meat, one should surely be able to go many days!" he said, as he straightened himself up. "Thank God, I never failed her. How far she realised it or not, is but a small matter. I am obscure, perhaps as things now stand wholly superfluous, still I have, at all events, never grasped personal advantage at the expense of a fellow- creature's heart."
Yet, even so, the longing for sympathy and companionship oppressed him as never before. The sight of this place had stirred his affections and his spiritual sense. His soul cried out for some language in which to express itself—even though it were a language of symbol only, such as his mother had found in her lacemaking. How barren and vapid a thing was the exterior life, as all those whom he knew understood and lived it—his co- lodgers, his fellow-clerks, the good Lovegroves, his late employer, Sir Abel Barking, even, as he divined, that sonorous Protestant clergyman whom he had met this afternoon—as against the interior life, suggestion of which this vacant shadow-haunted house of innumerable memories presented to his mind! Was there any method by which the interior and exterior life could be brought into sane and fruitful relation, so that the former might sensibly permeate and dignify the latter?
The comfortable inward conviction, just vouchsafed him, that he was justified of his own past action, merely emphasised his consciousness that he was still very much adrift, with no definite port to steer for. He had, perhaps unwisely, promised George Lovegrove that he would stay on at Trimmer's Green, but what, after all, did that amount to? Even the exterior life was second-hand enough there; the interior life, as he judged, practically non-existent. And so his staying must be ennobled by some purpose beyond that of stepping across to smoke an after-dinner pipe with the good, affectionate Lovegrove man, or attending his estimable wife's "at homes." During the last ten days Mr. Iglesias had striven, with rare, pathetic diligence, to cultivate amusement. True, the oak palings had shut him out from Ranelagh; but, with that and a few other exceptions, amusement, as practised in great cities, is merely a matter of cash. Therefore he had dined at smart restaurants, had sampled theatres and music halls, had sat in the Park and watched the world and— in their more decent manifestations—the flesh and the devil drive by. He had to admit that unfortunately all this left him cold, had bored rather than entertained him. He had not felt out of place socially. His natural dignity and detachment of mind were alike too strong for that; but he had arrived at the conclusion that you must have learned the rudiments of the art of amusement in early youth if you are to practise it with satisfaction to yourself in middle-age. And he very certainly had not learned the rudiments—not, anyhow, according to the English fashion. He had been aware, during these social excursions, that he was a good deal stared at and even commented on. At first he supposed this arose from some peculiarity of his dress or manner. Then he understood that the cause of this unsolicited attention bore a more flattering character, and in this connection certain remarks made by the Lady of the Windswept Dust occurred to his mind. But, Mr. Iglesias' pride being greatly in excess of his vanity—when the first moment of half-humorous surprise was passed— he found that these tributes to his personal appearance afforded him more displeasure than pleasure. He turned from them with a movement of annoyance, and turned from those places in which they were liable to manifest themselves likewise. No, indeed, it was something other than this he had to find, something lying far deeper in the needs of human nature, if the emptiness of his days was to be filled and the hunger of his heart and spirit satisfied!
Pondering which things he went down the creaking stairs of the house in Holland Street, Kensington, leaving the empty and, to him, sacred rooms to the crouching shadows. He had had his answer from the one person whom he had perfectly loved. And surely, in justifying the past, that answer gave promise of hope for the future? The way would be made clear, the method would declare itself. Let him have patience, only patience, as she, his mother, had had when traversing deserts and climbing Difficulty Hill in her lacework; and to him, also, should far horizons be disclosed.
In the narrow hall the neat little old caretaker met him, huskily coughing.
"The rent is low, sir," he said, "and the landlord is asking no premium. If you should wish further particulars, or to inspect the offices——"
But Mr. Iglesias put a couple of half-crowns into his hand.
"No," he answered, "I do not propose to take the house. Persons who were dear to me lived here once; and so I wanted to see it. As long as it is unlet I may come back from time to time."
The old man shuffled his slippered feet upon the bare boards, looking with mild ecstasy at the coins.
"And you will be most welcome, sir," he said. "Your generosity happens to be of great assistance to me—not that I wish it repeated. I am not grasping, sir, but I am grateful. I have a taste in literature which my reduced circumstances do not allow me to gratify. I see the prospect of many hours' enjoyment before me. I thank you."
And so it came about that a more tranquil spirit, touched with sober gladness, possessed Dominic Iglesias as, leaving that house of many memories, he pursued his way down Church Street and, passing into Kensington High Street opposite St. Mary Abbot's Church, turned eastward once again. A few doors short of the gateway leading into Palace Gardens was an unpretentious Italian restaurant where he proposed to dine. For it grew late. He had spent longer than he had supposed in wordless prayer before the altar of his dead. The remembrance of the book-loving little caretaker's gratitude remained by him pleasantly, softening his humour towards all his fellow-men. Simple kindness has great virtue, uplifting to the heart. To Iglesias it seemed those five shillings had been eminently well invested.
The streets were clearer now; and he walked slowly, enjoying the cooler air born of the sunset, and drawing from the leafy spaces of Kensington Gardens and the park. Presently he became aware of a figure, not altogether unfamiliar, threading its way among the intermittent stream of pedestrians along the pavement a few paces ahead. His eyes followed it reluctantly. In his present peaceful humour its aspect struck a jarring note. Soiled white flannel trousers, a short blue boating coat, a soft grey felt hat, tennis shoes, a shambling and uncertain gait as of one who neither knows nor cares whither he is going or why he goes—the whole effect purposeless, slovenly, inept.
Then followed a little scene which caused Iglesias to further slacken his pace. For the seedy figure, reaching the open door of the restaurant, hesitated, standing between the clipped bay trees set in green tubs which flanked the entrance on either hand. Stepped aside, craning upward to see over the yellow silk curtains drawn across the lower half of the windows. Moved back to the door and stood there undecided. Finally, as a smiling waiter, napkin on arm, came forward, the man crushed his hat down on his forehead, forced his hands deep into his trouser pockets and turned away with an audible oath. This brought him face to face with Mr. Iglesias, who recognised in him his fellow-lodger, Mr. de Courcy Smyth.
"What, you!" he exclaimed snarlingly, while his pasty face flamed. "There seems no escape from our dear Cedar Lodge to-night."
Then with an uneasy laugh he made an effort to recover himself.
"Really, I beg your pardon, Mr. Iglesias," he continued, "but my nerves are villainously on edge. I have just met those two young idiots, Farge and Worthington, waltzing home arm in arm like a pair of demented turtle- doves. Having to associate with such third-rate commercial fellows and witness their ebullitions of mutual admiration makes a man of education, like myself, utterly sick. I came out this evening to get free of the whole Cedar Lodge lot. You did the same, I suppose. Pray don't let me frustrate your purpose. I sympathise with it. I will remove myself."
The splotchy red had died out of the speaker's face. Notwithstanding the warmth of the evening he stood with his shoulders raised and his knees a little bent, as a poorly clad man stands in a chill wind on a wintry day. Iglesias observed his attitude, and in his present mood it influenced him more than the surly greeting had done.
"I intended to dine here," he said quietly. "So, I fancy, did you."
"Oh! I have changed my mind, thank you," Smyth answered.
"In consequence of my arrival, I am afraid?"
"No, I had other reasons."
"In any case I should be very glad if you would reconsider your decision and remain," Dominic said. "I am, as you see, alone, and I have not often the pleasure of meeting you. I shall be very happy if you will stay and dine with me, as my guest."
Smyth gave an odd, furtive look at the open door of the restaurant and the row of white tables within. A light had come into his pale blue eyes, making them uncomfortably like those of some half-starved animal.
"I am at a loss to know why I should accept hospitality from you," he remarked, at once cringingly and insolently.
"Simply because you would give me pleasure by doing so. I should value your society."
"I am not in evening dress."
"Nor am I," Dominic answered, with admirable seriousness. There was something pitiful to him in the conflict, obviously going forward in the other's mind, between hunger and reluctance to incur an obligation. He cut it short with gentle authority. "There is a vacant table in the corner where we can talk free from interruption. Let us go in and secure it."
At the beginning of the meal the conversation was intermittent, the burden of supporting it lying with Mr. Iglesias. But, as course followed course, hot and succulent, while the chianti at once steadied his circulation and stimulated his brain, de Courcy Smyth became talkative, not to say garrulous. Finally he began to assert himself, to swagger, thereby laying bare the waste places of his own nature.
"You may think I was hard on Farge and Worthington just now, Mr. Iglesias," he said. "I own they disgust me; not only in themselves, but as examples of certain modern tendencies which are choking the life out of me and such men as me. You business people are on the up grade just now, and you know it. Whoever goes under, you are safe to do yourselves most uncommonly well. I don't mean anything personal, of course. I am just stating a self-evident fact. Commerce is in the air—you all reek of success. And so even shopwalkers, like Worthington, and that thrice odious puppy Farge, grow sleek, and venture to spread themselves in the presence of their betters—in the presence of a scholar and a gentleman, who is well connected and has received a classical education, like myself."
Smyth paused, turning sideways to the table, leaning his elbow on it, crossing his legs and staring gloomily down the long room.
"But what do they know or care about scholarship?" he continued. "What they do know is that the spirit of this unspeakably vulgar age is with them and their miserable huckstering. They know that well enough and act upon it, though they are too illiterate to put it into words—know that trade is in process of exploding learning, of exploiting literature and art to its own low purposes, in process of scaling Olympus, in short, and ignominiously chucking out the gods."
Dominic Iglesias had listened to this astonishing tirade in silence. The man was evidently suffering from feelings of bitter injury, also he was his—Iglesias'—guest. Both pity and hospitality engaged him to endurance. But there are limits. And at this point professional dignity and a lingering loyalty towards the house of Barking Brothers & Barking enjoined protest.
"No doubt we live in times of commerce, rather than in those of chivalry," he remarked. "Still, I venture to think your condemnation is too sweeping. One should discriminate surely between trade and finance."
"Only as one discriminates between a little dog and a big one. The little dog is the easier to kick. I can't get at the Rothschilds and Rockefellers; and so I go for the Farges and Worthingtons," Smyth answered. "In principle I am right. Trade, commerce, finance, juggle with the names as you like, it all comes back to the same thing in the end, namely, the murder of intellect by money. Comes back to the worship of Mammon, chosen ruler of this contemptible fin de siecle, and safe to be even more tyrannously the ruler of the coming century. What hope, I ask you, is left for us poor devils of literary men? None, absolutely none. Just in proportion as we honour our calling and refuse to prostitute our talents we are at a discount. The powers that be have no earthly use for us. We have not the ghost of a chance."
He altered his position, looking quickly and nervously at his host.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "For the moment I forgot you were on the other side, among the conquerors, not the conquered. Probably this conversation does not interest you in the least."
"On the contrary, it interests me very deeply," Dominic replied gravely.
"All the same, out of self-respect I ought to hold my tongue about it, I suppose. For I have accepted the position, Mr. Iglesias. I have learned to do that. Only on each fresh occasion that it is brought home to me— and it has been brought home abominably clearly to-night—my gorge rises at it. And it ought to be so. For it is an outrage—you yourself must admit—that a man who started with excellent prospects and with the consciousness of unusual talents—of genius, perhaps—should be ruined and broken, while every miserable little counter-jumper——"
He leaned his elbows on the table, hiding his face in his hands, and his shoulders shook.
"For I have talent," he cried, in a curiously thin voice. "Before God I have. They may refuse to publish me, refuse to play me, force me to pick up scraps of hack-work on fourth-rate papers to earn a bare subsistence— at times hardly that. Yet all the same, no supercilious beast of an editor or actor-manager—curse the whole stinking lot—shall rob me of my faith in myself—of my belief that I am great—if I had justice, nothing less than that, I tell you, nothing less than great."
Dominic Iglesias drew himself up, sitting very still, his lips rigid, not from defect, but from excess of sympathy. The restaurant was empty now, save for a man, four tables down, safely ensconced behind the pink pages of an evening paper, and for a couple, at the far end, in the window—a young Frenchwoman, whose coquettish hat and trim rounded figure were silhouetted against the yellow silk curtain, and a precocious black- haired youth, with a skin like pale, pink satin, round eyeglasses and an incipient moustache. His attention was entirely occupied with the young woman; hers entirely occupied with herself. And of this Dominic Iglesias was glad. For the matter immediately in hand was best conducted without witnesses. He found it strangely engrossing, strangely moving. However vain, however madly exaggerated even, de Courcy Smyth's estimate of himself, there could be no question but that his present emotion was as actual and genuine as his past hunger had been. The man was utterly spent in body and in spirit. Offensive in speech, slovenly in person, yet these distasteful things added to, rather than detracted from, Iglesias' going out of sympathy towards him. He had rarely been in contact with a fellow- creature in such abandonment of distress. It was terrible to witness; yet it gave him a sense of fellowship, of nearness, even of power, which had in it an element of deep-seated satisfaction. While he waited for the moment when it should become clear to him how to act, his thought travelled back to the Lady of the Windswept Dust. He saw, not her over- red lips, but her serious eyes; saw her tearful and in a way broken, for all her light speech, her fanciful garments, and her antics with her absurd little dogs amid the sweetness of sunshine and summer breeze on Barnes Common. She was far enough away, so he judged, in sentiment and circumstance from the embittered and poverty-haunted man sitting opposite to him. Yet though superficially so dissimilar, they were alike in this, that both had dared to reveal themselves, passing beyond conventional limits in intercourse with him, Iglesias. Both had cried out to him in their distress. And then, thinking of that recently visited altar of the dead, thinking of the one perfect relationship he had known—his relationship to his mother—it came to him as a revelation that not participation in the pride of life and the splendour of it—still less association in mere pleasure and amusement—forms the cement which binds together the units of humanity in stable and consoling relationship; but association in sorrow, the cry for help and the response to that cry, whether it be help to the staying of the hunger of the heart and of the intellect, or simply to the staying of that baser yet very searching hunger of overstrained nerves and an empty stomach. The revelation was partial. Iglesias groped, so to speak, in the light of it uncertain and dazzled. But he received it as real—an idea the magnitude of which, in inspiration and application, he was as yet by no means equal to measure. Still he believed that could he but yield himself to it, and, in yielding, master it, it would carry him very far, teaching him that language of the spirit which he desired to acquire; and hence placing in his hand that earnestly coveted key to an adjustment between the exterior and interior life, the life of the senses and the life of the spirit, which must needs eventuate, manward and godward alike, in triumphant harmony.
Meanwhile there sat de Courcy Smyth, blear-eyed, sandy-red bearded, unsavoury, trying, poor wretch, to rally whatever of manhood was left in him and swagger himself out of his fit of hysteria. The Latin, however dignified, is instinctively more demonstrative than the Anglo-Saxon. Iglesias leaned across the table and laid his hand on the other man's shoulder.
"Wait a little," he said. "Drink your coffee and smoke. We need not hurry to move."
There was a pause, during which Smyth obediently swallowed his coffee, swallowed his chasse of cognac.
"I have made an egregious ass of myself," he said sullenly.
"No, no," Iglesias answered. "You have honoured me by taking me into your confidence. It rests with me to see that you never have cause to regret having done so."
"I believe you mean that."
"Certainly I mean it," Iglesias answered.
Smyth's hands trembled as he took a cigar and held a match to it.
"I am unaccustomed to meeting with kindness," he said in a low voice. Then recovering himself somewhat, he began to speak volubly again. "Of course I understand it all well enough. They are simply afraid of my work, those beasts of editors and playwrights. It is too big for them, they dare not face it and the consequences of it. It is strong stuff, Mr. Iglesias, strong stuff with plenty of red blood in it, and with scholarship, too. And so they pigeon-hole my stories and drames in self-defence, knowing that if these once reached the public, either in print or in action, their own fly-blown anaemic productions would be hissed off the stage or would ruin the circulation of the periodical which inserted them. It is all jealousy, I tell you, Mr. Iglesias, rank, snakish jealousy, bred by self-interest out of fear—a truly exalted parentage!"
He shifted his position restlessly, again setting his elbows upon the table and fingering the broken bread upon the cloth.
"At times, when I can rise above the immediate injustice and cruelty which pursue me," he went on, "I glory in my martyrdom. I range myself alongside those heroes of literature and art, who, because they were ahead of the age in which they lived, were scorned and repudiated by their contemporaries; but they found their revenge in the worship of succeeding generations. My time will come just as theirs did. It must—I tell you it must. I know that. I am safe of eventual recognition; but I want it now, while I am alive, while I can glut myself with the joy of it. I want to see the men who lord it over me, just because they have influence and money, who affect to despise me because they are green with envy and fear of me, brought to their knees, flattened so that I can wipe my boots on them. And—and"—he looked full at Dominic Iglesias, spreading out both hands across the narrow table, his pale prominent eyes blood-shot, his face working—"I want to see someone else—a woman— brought to her knees also. I want to make her feel what she has lost— curse her!—and have her come back whining."
"And if she did come back," Iglesias asked, almost sternly, "what would you do? Forgive her?"
De Courcy Smyth's hands dropped with a queer little thud on the table.
"I don't know. I suppose so. If she wanted to she could always get round me." Then he turned on Iglesias with hysterical violence. "But what do you know? Why do you ask that? Are you among her patrons? I trusted you. I believed you were a gentleman in feeling—and it is a dirty trick to get me in here and fill me up with food and liquor, when you must have seen my nerves were all to pieces, and then spring this upon me. Oh! hell!" he cried, "is there no comfort anywhere? Is everyone a traitor?"
And seeing his utter abjectness, Iglesias' heart went out to the unhappy man in immense and unqualified pity.
"I am grieved," he said gently, "if I have pained you unnecessarily. But truly I have sprung nothing upon you. How could I do so? I know nothing whatever of your circumstances save that which you yourself have told me during the last hour."
"Then why did you ask that question about—about her?"
"Because," Dominic answered, "I am ready to fight for you, in as far as you will allow me to do so; but I do not fight against women."
"You must have had uncommonly little experience of them then," Smyth answered with a sneer.
To this observation Mr. Iglesias deemed it superfluous to make any answer. A silence followed. The restaurant was empty, but for the waiters, who stood in a little knot about the door amusing themselves by watching the movement of the street. Looking round to make sure no one was within hearing, Smyth rose unsteadily to his feet.
"You meant what you said just now, Mr. Iglesias—that you were ready to fight for me?" he asked ungently yet cringingly.
"Certainly I meant it," Dominic replied, "the proviso I have made being respected."
"Yes, yes, of course—but what do you understand by fighting for me? Money?"
Dominic had risen, too. He remained for a moment in thought.
"Within reasonable relation to my means, yes," he said.
"I only want my chance," the other asserted. "The rest will follow as a matter of course. You would risk nothing, Mr. Iglesias. It would be an investment, simply an investment. The play is not finished yet—I have been too disheartened and disgusted recently to be able to work at it. But it is great, I tell you, great. When it is done will you give me my chance, and take a theatre for me and finance a couple of matinees?"
Again Dominic Iglesias thought for a moment, and again, driven by that strange necessity of fellowship—though knowing all the while he was putting his hand to a very questionable adventure—he replied in the affirmative.
On that same evening, and at the same hour at which Dominic Iglesias bound himself to the practical assistance of a personally unsavoury and professionally unsuccessful playwright, a conversation was in progress between two persons of more exalted social station in the drawing-room of a pleasant house in Chester Square. The said drawing-room, mid-Victorian in aspect, was decorated in white and gold and unaggressive green. The ground of the chintz was very white, sprinkled over with bunches of shaded mauve roses unknown to horticulture. Lady Constance Decies' tea- grown was white and mauve also. For she was still in half-mourning for her father, the late Lord Fallowfeild, who had died some eighteen months previously at a very venerable age, and with a touching modesty as though his advent in another world might savour of intrusion. He had always been a humble-minded man. He remained so to the last.
The windows stood open to the balcony. And the effect of the woman, and of the soft lights and colours surrounding her, was reposeful. For at the age of fifty Lady Constance, though stately, was a mild and very gentle person upon whom the push of the modern world had laid no hand. All the active drama of her life had been crowded into a few weeks of the early summer of her eighteenth year; since which, now remote, period she had enjoyed a tranquil existence, happy in the love of her husband and the care of her children. Her pretty brown hair was beginning to turn grey upon the temples. Her eyes, set remarkably far apart, had a certain vagueness and a great innocence of expression. She was naturally timid, and cared but little for any society beyond that of her near relations. To-night she was particularly content, mildly radiant even, thanks to the presence of her favourite brother, the present Lord Fallowfeild, and his avowed admiration of her younger daughter—a maiden of nineteen, who stood before her, with shining eyes, in all the delicate splendour of a spotless ball-dress.
"Yes, darling, you look very sweet," she said. "Just lean down—the lace has got caught in the flowers on your berthe. That's right. Don't keep your father too late."
"And in all things be discreet"—this from Lord Fallowfeild. "It's been my motto through life, as your mother knows. And you couldn't have a brighter example of the excellent results of it than myself. Good-night, my dear. Enjoy yourself," and he patted her on the cheek, avoiding the kiss which she in all innocence proffered him. "Pretty child, Kathleen, uncommonly pretty," he continued as the door closed behind the graceful figure. "It strikes me, Con, your girls have all the good looks of the family in the younger generation, with the exception of Violet Aldham. But she's getting pinched, a bit pinched and witch-like. Then she makes up too much. I have no prejudice against a woman's improving upon nature where nature's been niggardly. But it is among the things that'll keep. It's a mistake to begin it too early. In my opinion Violet has begun it too early—might quite well have given herself another ten years' grace.—Maggie's girls are gawky, you know; and, between ourselves, so terribly flat, poor things, both fore and aft. Upon my word, I'm not surprised they don't marry."
"I am afraid Maggie feels it a good deal," said Lady Constance. Satisfaction mingled with pity in her soul. The disabilities of other women's children are never wholly distressing to a tender mother's heart. "You see, she's so anxious the girls should not marry the bishop's chaplains; and yet really they hardly see any other young men. I think it is a very difficult position, that of a bishop's wife."
Lord Fallowfeild smiled, settling himself back in the corner of the wide sofa and crossing his long legs. He had thought more deeply on a good many subjects than the majority of his acquaintance supposed; with the consequence that he occasionally surprised his fellow-peers by the acuteness of his observations in debate. Lord Fallowfeild, it may be added, took his recently acquired office of hereditary legislator with a commendable mixture of humour and seriousness.
"Their position is an anomalous one," he said; "and an anomalous position is inevitably a difficult one—ought to be SO; in my opinion. But that's not to the point. We were talking, not about the episcopal ladies, but about this little business of Kathleen's. So you believe Lady Sokeington has views and intentions?"
"I know that she has. But you see, Shotover," Lady Constance went on, returning to the name which that gentleman had rendered somewhat notorious in earlier years by a record in sport, in debts, in amours, and in irresistible sweetness of temper—"I want to be quite sure he is really good. Because the affair has not gone very far yet and it might be put a stop to—at least I hope and think it might—without making darling Kathleen too dreadfully unhappy. You do believe he really is good?"
Lord Fallowfeild leaned forward and rubbed a hardly perceptible atom of fluff off his left trouser leg just above the ankle.
"My dear Con," he answered, "you are very charming, but you are a trifle embarrassing, too, you know. Haven't you learned, even at this time of day, that very few men in our world are good in a good woman's sense of the word?"
Lady Constance's smooth forehead puckered into fine little lines.
"Shotover, dear," she said, "you're not getting embittered, I hope?"
"Me? Bless you, no, never in life!" he returned, smiling very reassuringly at her. "Don't worry yourself under that head. I quarrel with nobody and nothing, not even the consequences of my past iniquities. It is a very just world, take it all round, and has been kinder to me than I deserve."
"Oh! but you do nothing, you—you are what—you won't think me rude, Shotover?—what the boys call 'very decent' now."
Lady Constance spoke hurriedly, her colour rising in the most engaging manner.
"As decent as I know how, you dear soul," he said, taking her hand in his. "But that makes no difference to one's knowledge of one's own ways, in the past, or of the ways of other men."
"But Alaric Barking?"
"Neither better nor worse than the rest."
Then Lord Fallowfeild shut his small and beautiful mouth very tight, as though he would be glad to avoid further cross-questioning. Lady Constance's forehead remained puckered.
"It's dreadfully difficult when one's girls grow up," she said plaintively. "One can be comfortable about them, poor darlings, and enjoy them when they are in the nursery—even in the schoolroom, though governesses are worrying. They know so much about quantities of subjects which seem to me not to matter. One never refers to them in ordinary conversation; and if one should be obliged to it is so easy to ask somebody to tell one. And yet they manage to make me feel dreadfully uncomfortable and ignorant because I know nothing about them. But when they grow up——"
"Who, the governesses?" Lord Fallowfeild inquired. "I never supposed they stood in need of that process—thought they started out of the egg all finished, as you might say, and ran about at once like chickens."
"No, no, the girls, poor darlings," Lady Constance replied. "One does get dreadfully anxious about them, Shotover, really one does—specially if one has escaped something very frightening oneself and has been very happy—lest they should fall in love with the wrong people, or lest they should be anything which one did not know beforehand and then everything should turn out dreadful. I should be so miserable. I don't think I could bear it. I know it is wrong to say that, because if one was really good, one would accept whatever God sent without murmuring. So I could for myself, I think. In any case I should earnestly try to. But for the children it is so much harder. If they were unhappy I should feel ashamed of having had them—as if I'd done something horribly selfish; because, you see, there can be nothing so delightful as having children."
She looked at Lord Fallowfeild in the most pathetic manner, the corners of her mouth a-shake. And he took her hand and held it again, touched by the sincerity of her confused utterance, and the great mother-love resident in her. Touched, perhaps, by the age-old problem of man and maid, also.
"Dear little Con, dear little Con," he said, "I'm awfully sorry you should be worried, but I'm afraid we've got to look facts in the face. And it's no kindness for me to lie to you about these matters. I don't pretend to say what's right or what's wrong; I only say what it is. We can't make society, and the ways of it, all over again even to save Kathleen a heartache. I don't want to seem a brute, but she must just take her chance along with the rest of you. Marriage always has been a confounded uncertain business, and will always remain so, I suppose. The sort of remedies excited persons suggest to mitigate the dangers of it are a good deal worse than the disease, in my opinion. Every woman has to take her chance. Every man has to take his, too, you know—and the chance strikes some of us as such an uncommonly poor one, that, upon my honour, it seems safest to wash one's hands of it altogether."
"But you're not unhappy, Shotover, dear? You're not lonely?" Lady Constance inquired anxiously.
"Abominably so sometimes, Con. But I manage, oh! I manage. I have my consolations"—he smiled at her, perhaps a trifle shamefacedly. "But now about Kathleen," he went on, "as I say, she must take her chance along with the rest of you, poor little dear. After all, you took your chance when you married Decies, and it has not turned out so badly, you know."
Lady Constance became radiant once more, as some mild-shining summer moon emerging from behind temporarily obscuring clouds.
"Oh! but then," she said, "of course that was so entirely different."
Lord Fallowfeild patted her hand, his head bent, looking at her somewhat merrily.
"Was it, my dear, was it?—I wonder," he said.
She withdrew her head with a certain dignity. Notwithstanding her softness and tenderness, there were occasions—even with those she loved best—when Lady Constance could delicately mark her displeasure.
"I think you are a little embittered, Shotover," she asserted.
He leaned back, still smiling, and shaking his head at her.
"Old and wise—unpleasantly old, and not quite such a fool as I used to be, that's all," he answered.
For a time there was silence, both brother and sister thinking their own thoughts. Then the latter spoke. Like many gentle persons, she was persistent. She always had been so.
"I should be so grateful if you would tell me, because I think I ought to know, and then I should try to turn the course of darling Kathleen's affections before it all becomes too pronounced. Is there any entanglement, anything amounting to what one calls an impediment, in— well—you understand—against Alaric Barking?"
Lord Fallowfeild got up, took a turn across the room, came back, and stood in front of her.
"I wish you wouldn't, Con," he said. "Upon my soul, I wish you wouldn't. It's a nasty thing for an old man, who has gone the pace in his day pretty thoroughly, to give away a lad who may have made a slip just at the start, and who is doing his best to get his feet again and run straight. Alaric Barking's a good fellow. I like him. I never have been and never shall be partial to that family. Your sister Louisa cried up their virtues and their confounded solvency, in the old days, till she made them a positive nuisance. She's not a happy way of inculcating a moral economic lesson, hasn't Louisa. But I own I'm fond of this boy. He's far the best of the whole lot—gentlemanlike, and a sportsman, and good-looking—unusually so for one of that family—and, my dear, he's downright honestly in love with Kathleen. I've watched him—did so when he was down at Ranelagh one day last month with her and Victoria Sokeington—and I know the real thing when I see it."