"You understand, fourth row on the left, next the gang-way? Tell him a lady wishes particularly to speak to him between the acts. Then bring him to me here."
"Yes, madam, I quite understand," the young person replied, with much intelligence, scenting something in the shape of an adventure.
Poppy moved across and sat down on one of the wide divans, and so doing began to know, once more, how very tired she was. A new tiredness seemed, indeed, to have been added to the original one. That first was, at worst, bored and irritable. This was of a different, a more sad and intimate character.
"I feel as if I had been beaten all over," she said to herself. "Well, perhaps that's just what it is. I have been beaten. I wish I could sleep. Oh! dear, oh! dear, how I wish I could sleep."
Her thought fell away into the vague, the inarticulate, though she did not sleep. Still there was a temporary suspension of volition, of conscious mental activity, which, in a degree, rested her. Persons, passing now and again, looked with curiosity at the brilliant figure, and inscrutable eyes in the dead-white face. The smart box-keeper, moved by some instinct of pity, came back more than once, finally offering one of those unwholesome-looking cups of coffee and boxes of chocolate of which so few have the requisite audacity to partake. Poppy roused herself sufficiently to reject these terrible delicacies, while smiling at the conveyor of them. Then she relapsed into the vague again, and waited, just waited.
"There's the end of the act, madam," the young woman remarked at last encouragingly.
"All right," Poppy answered. "Go straight away and bring the gentleman here to me. I'm in a hurry. I want to get home."
The glass doors of the exits swished back and forth, letting out the confused stir and murmur of the house, letting out a crowd of men as well. And the aspect the said crowd presented to Poppy's overstrained nerves and exalted sensibility was repulsive. For it suggested to her a flight of gigantic black locusts, strong-jawed, pink-faced, and white-breasted, driven forth by a common hunger, rather cruelly active and intent. Her sense of humour was in abeyance, as was her usually triumphant common sense; so that her thought, going behind appearances and the sane interpretation of them, declined to that fundamental region in which the root laws of animal life become hideously bare and distinct. Out of the deep places of her own womanhood a hatred towards this crowd of men arose; that secular enmity which exists between the sexes asserting itself and, for the time being, obscuring both reason and justice. For upon what, as she asked herself bitterly, when all is said and done, do these male human locusts pasture, save on the souls and bodies of women, finding a garden before them, and, too often, leaving but a desert behind? Sex as sex became abhorrent to her, its penalties unpardonable, its pleasures as loathsome as its sins.
But from the black-coated throng the trim figure of the box-keeper just then detached itself; and a moment later Poppy, looking up, beheld Dominic Iglesias standing before her.
"You sent for me, so I have come," Iglesias said, for Poppy St. John, usually so voluble, just now appeared speechless.
From the moment he had become aware of her presence in the theatre, Dominic had been sensible that she presented herself under a new aspect. Of the many different Poppys he had seen, this was by far the most powerful and dramatic. She stood out from the rest of the audience as some splendid tropic flower stands out from a thick-set mass of foliage, conspicuous in form and colour and in promise. There were handsome women, smart women, beautifully dressed women in plenty, but Poppy did not shade in with all these, making but part of a general effect. She remained unique, solitary; and this not merely on account of her vivid raiment. The effect of her told upon the mind quite as much as upon the sight. Yet she did not look out of place. She looked, indeed, preeminently at home. Out of doors, in the country sunshine, she had struck Dominic as a slight creature, unreal and fictitious. Here, amid highly artificial and conventional surroundings, she seemed to him the most natural and vital being present, retaining the completeness of her individuality, the energy and mystery of it alike, almost aggressively evident and untouched. Iglesias ceased to consider her in relation to his and her broken friendship, or in relation to that which he so reluctantly divined of her private life. He contemplated her in herself, finding an element of things primitive in her, which commanded his admiration, though it failed, so far, to touch his heart. And if this was the impression he received seeing her at a comparative distance, that impression was greatly intensified seeing her now at close quarters. The contrast between the subtle softness and the flare—as of a conflagration—of her dress, the weariness of her attitude, and the unfathomable melancholy of her eyes, stirred him profoundly.
"Yes," she answered quietly, almost coldly, "I know I sent. This was about the last place I should have expected to run across you. I flattered myself I was safe enough here. I didn't wish to meet you one little bit. Still, when I did see you, I wanted you. You're the most plaguey impossible person to rid oneself of somehow"—her voice and manner softened a little—"so I sent for you. I don't know why, because now I've got you I seem to have changed my mind. I have nothing to say."
"I can easily go," Iglesias remarked gravely.
"No, no, no," she replied, "why should you hurry? I'm sure those two freaks you're herding—the beetle turned hind-side before and the withered leaf—can't be frantically interesting. And I like to look at you. I never saw you before in evening dress, and you're more grand seigneur than ever. But something's happened to you. I can't tell off-hand what it is, whether you've come on or gone back. But you're altered."
"I have had an illness," Iglesias said simply; "and I have been very unhappy."
"Neither of those are good enough," Poppy answered. "The alteration is right inside you, in your soul. But you're well again now?" she added.
"Yes, I am well again now."
"And you're no longer unhappy?"
"No," he said. "I am sad, for life is sad; but I am no longer unhappy."
"That's a nice distinction," Poppy put in, with a rather scornful inflection. "What's cured your unhappiness? Not an affair of the heart? Please don't tell me it's anything to do with a woman, for I warn you I'm awfully off the affections to-night."
"You can make yourself quite easy on that point," Dominic said with a lift of the head, his native pride asserting itself.
"Ah! that's more like old times!" Poppy's voice softened again, so did the expression of her face. "Suppose you sit down, dear lunatic. This wait is a long one, I know. Dot Parris told me it was. Let the freaks play about together for a little. It will do them good. And I find I wanted you rather more than I knew at first. I'm beginning to have something to say after all. Words, only words, perhaps; still it's a soulagement to sit here with you like this." The corners of Poppy's mouth drooped and quivered. "I'm having an infernally bad time; and there's worse ahead."
"I am sorry. I am grieved," Iglesias said. For the charm had begun to work again, and friendship, as he began to know, although broken- winged, was very far from dead.
"We won't talk about that," she put in, "or I might make a fool of myself. Dear man, I think I'd better go home. I'm awfully tired. Still, I'm better for seeing you." She stood up. "Just help me on with my coat. Thanks—that's right. Oh! I say, there are the freaks on the prowl, looking for you!" Poppy's tragic eyes turned naughty, malicious, gay even for a moment. "What sport!" she said—"unhappy freaks! The withered leaf has intentions. I see that. She'd like to eat me without salt. Don't marry her—promise me you won't. Ah! heavenly, heavenly," she cried. "I need no promises, bless you. Your face is quite enough. Wretched withered leaf! But look here," she went on, as she gathered the soft warm garment about her, "I'm tired of your incognito. Give me your card. I may want you again. So let me have your name and address."
And Iglesias giving it to her as she requested, she studied it for a minute silently. Then she turned away.
"I want nothing more. Don't come down with me. One of the boys will get me a hansom. I'd rather be alone; so just go back to your flabbergasted freaks, beloved and no-longer-nameless one," she said.
Thin sunshine slanted in through the lace curtains of the dining-room window. Encouraged thereby, the parrot preened its feathers, making little snapping and clicking noises meanwhile with its tongue and beak. The grass of the Green, seen between the black stems of the encircling trees, glittered with hoarfrost, while the houses on the opposite side of it looked flat and featureless owing to the interposing veil of bluish mist. Tradesmen's carts clattered by at a sharp trot, the defined sound of them breaking up the all-pervading murmur of London, and dying out into it again as they passed. At the street corner, some twenty yards away, a German band discoursed doubtfully sweet music, the trombone making earnest efforts to keep the rest of the instruments up to their work by the emission of loud and reproachful tootings. It was a pleasant and cheery morning as December mornings go, yet constraint reigned at the Lovegrove breakfast-table.
The day of Serena's oft-discussed departure had dawned. A few hours hence she would remove herself and her boxes to her cousin Lady Samuelson's residence in Ladbroke Square. This should have proved a source of regret to her host and hostess; and they were conscience- stricken, confessing to themselves—though not to one another, since each accredited the other with more laudable sentiments than his or her own—that relief rather than regret did actually possess them. A secret from one another, and that a slightly discreditable one, was so foreign to the experience of the excellent couple that it lay heavy upon their hearts. Each, moreover, was aware of shame in the presence of Serena, as in that of a person upon whom they had inflicted an injury. Hence constraint, which the sunshine was powerless to dissipate.
"May I pass you the eggs, or bacon, or both, Serena?" George Lovegrove inquired, his childlike blue eyes meanwhile humbly imploring pardon for his lack of sorrow at her impending departure. Serena's manner was stiff and abstracted. This, combined with the rustling of her petticoats, filled him with anxiety. Was it possible that she knew?
"Thank you, George, only an egg. Not that one, please, it is much too large. I prefer the smallest. I am not feeling hungry."
"I should never call you much of a breakfast-eater, Serena," Mrs. Lovegrove observed in her comfortable purring voice, from behind the tea urn. She was desirous to pacify her guest. "Now I am rather hearty myself in the morning, always have been so. I do not know whether it is a good thing or not, as a habit. Still, I think to-day you should force yourself a little. You should always make provision against a journey. And then no doubt you are rather fatigued with packing and getting home so late from the theatre. I am pleased to think you had an outing your last night here, Serena. Georgie tells me the play was very comical."
"I dare say it was," Serena replied. "Of course George would be a much better judge of that than I am. Mamma was always very particular what we heard and saw when we were children, and I know I am inclined to think things vulgar which other people only find amusing."
"I did not remark any vulgarity, and do not think Mr. Iglesias would countenance anything of that kind in the presence of a lady. He would ascertain beforehand the nature of the piece to which he invited any lady"—this from George Lovegrove tentatively.
"Oh! of course I don't say there was anything vulgar. I should not like to commit myself to an opinion. I really have been to the theatre very seldom. Mamma never encouraged our going. And then, of course, old Dr. Colthurst, the rector of St. Jude's at Slowby, whose church we always attended, disapproved of the theatre. He had great influence with mamma. And he thought it wicked."
"Indeed," Mrs. Lovegrove commented. "I should be sorry to think that, as so many go. But he may have come across the evils of it personally. He had a son, an artist, who was very wild, I believe. And I remember to have heard our dear vicar speak of Dr. Colthurst as stern, but a true Protestant and a very grand preacher."
"I dare say he was—I don't mean that his son was wild—I know nothing about that, of course, but that Dr. Colthurst was a great preacher."
Serena spoke abstractedly, inspecting the yolk of her poached egg meanwhile as though on the watch for unpleasant foreign bodies.
"But," she continued, "I cannot, of course, be expected to remember his sermons, though I may have been taken to hear him. I suppose I certainly was taken, but I was quite too much of a child to remember. Susan remembers them, but then Susan was so very much older."
She ceased to contemplate her egg, and looked up at her hostess.
"Susan must be very nearly your age, Rhoda; or she may be a year or eighteen months younger. Yes, judging by the difference between her age and mine, she must be quite eighteen months younger. Of course, now, Susan thinks going to the play wicked. I often wonder whether that is not partly because she dislikes sitting still and listening when other people are doing something. Susan likes to take part in everything herself. I often wonder what she would do in church if it was not for the responses and the singing. I am sure she would never sit out a service where the congregation did not join in. Susan cannot bear a choral service. She calls it un-English and Romanising. I do not dislike it—I mean I do not dislike a choral service. But then I do not consider the theatre wicked. I am not prejudiced against it, as Susan is. Still, I cannot deny that I think you do hear very odd things and see very over-dressed people at the theatre."
Serena looked severely at her host, thereby heightening the anxiety which possessed him. For once again, as so often during the past eight or ten hours, a picture presented itself perplexing and fascinating to his mental vision—namely, that of his dear and honoured friend, the grave and stately Dominic Iglesias, helping an unknown lady, of remarkably attractive personal appearance, on with a wonderful black velvet garment—doing so in the calmest way in the world, too, as though it were an event of chronic occurrence—while the frills and furbelows of her voluminous skirts flowed in rosy billows about his feet. What did the picture portend, George Lovegrove asked himself, and still more, what did Serena suppose it portended?
"Do you, indeed?" Mrs. Lovegrove put in, in amiable response to her guest's last remark. She was sensible of being hurt by the allusion to her age. But then Serena was going, and she knew that fact did not distress her as deeply as it might have done. She therefore rose superior to wounded feelings. "It's many years since I've been much of a playgoer," she continued, "and people tell me it's all a good deal changed, and not for the better. I suppose the dressing nowadays is sadly extravagant. I am sure I don't know, and I should always be timid of condemning anybody or their amusements. But there, as I always do say, if you want to keep a happy mind there is so much it is well to be ignorant of."
"I wonder if it is—I mean I wonder if it is well to be ignorant of things," Serena said reflectively. "Of course, if people think you are willing to be ignorant, it encourages them in deceiving you. I think it is very wrong to be deceitful. Sooner or later it is sure to come out, and then it is very difficult to forgive people. Indeed, I am not sure it is right to forgive them."
With difficulty George Lovegrove restrained a groan. His food was as ashes in his mouth; his tea as waters of bitterness.
"Oh! I should be sorry to go as far as that, Serena," Mrs. Lovegrove remonstrated. "If you give way to unforgiving feelings you can never tell quite where they may carry you. But as I was going to say, though I am not much of a playgoer, I was very pleased to have Mr. Iglesias invite me. Only, as I explained to him, I am very liable to find the seats too narrow for comfort in places of amusement, and the atmosphere is often so very close, too. He was most polite and sympathising; but then that's Mr. Iglesias all over. He always is the perfect gentleman."
Serena paused, her fork arrested in mid-transit to her mouth.
"I am not sure that I agree with you, Rhoda," she said. "I am not sure whether I think Mr. Iglesias is really polite, or whether he only appears to be so because it suits his purpose. Of course you and George know him far better than I do. Perhaps you understand—I cannot pretend that I understand him. I may be wrong, but I often wonder whether there is not a good deal which is rather insincere about Mr. Iglesias."
After throwing which bomb, Serena gave her whole attention to her breakfast. Usually George Lovegrove would have waxed valiant in defence of his friend, but a guilty conscience held him tongue-tied. Not so Rhoda; strive as she might, those allusions to her age still rankled. And, under cover of protest against injustice to the absent, she paid off a little of her private score, to her warm satisfaction.
"Well, I am sure," she cried, "I never could have credited that anybody could question Mr. Iglesias's genuineness! I would sooner doubt Georgie, that I would, and fear him deceitful."
Again the good man came near groaning. It was as though the wife planted a poignard in his heart.
"And after you playing the piano to him so frequently the few days Mr. Iglesias stopped here, and seeming so comfortable together and friendly, and his inviting us all to the theatre! Really, I must say I do think you sadly changeable, Serena, that I do."
"No, I am not changeable, Rhoda," the other lady declared, both voice and colour rising slightly. "Nobody ever accused me of being changeable before, and I do not like it. I do not think you are at all justified in making such an accusation. But I am observant. I always have been so. Even Susan allows that I am very observant. I cannot help being so, and I do not wish to help it. I think it is much safer. It helps you to find out who you can really trust. And, of course, I observed a great deal that happened last night. I felt from the first that I owed it to myself to be particularly on my guard, because certain insinuations had been made—you know, Rhoda, you have made them more than once yourself—and some people might have thought that things had gone rather far when Mr. Iglesias was stopping here. I believe Mrs. Porcher and that dreadful Miss Hart did think it. I do not say that things did go far; I only say that people might naturally think that they had. On several occasions Mr. Iglesias' conduct did seem very marked. And, of course, nothing could be more odious to me than to be placed in a false position. One cannot be too careful, especially with foreigners. Mamma always warned us against foreigners when we first came out. I never had any experience of foreigners until I met Mr. Iglesias, here at your house. But, I am sorry to say, I believe now mamma was perfectly right."
As she ended her harangue, Serena with a petulant movement of her thin hands pushed her plate away from the table edge, leaving a vacant space before her. This was as a declaration of war. She scorned further subterfuge. She announced a demonstration. A bright spot of colour burned on either cheek, her small head, on its long stalk of neck, was carried very erect. It was one of those pathetic moments when—the merciless revelations of the morning sunshine notwithstanding—this slim, faded, middle-aged spinster appeared to recapture, and that very effectively, the charm and promise of her vanished youth. Excited by foolish anger, animated by a sense of insult wholly misplaced and imaginary, she became a very passably pretty person, the immature but hopeful Serena of eighteen looking forth from the eyes of the narrow-souled disappointed Serena of eight- and-forty.
"Of course, George may have some explanation of what happened last night," she went on, speaking rapidly. "If he has, I think it would be only fair that he should offer it to me. I took for granted he would do so this morning as soon as we met; or that he would send you to me, Rhoda, to explain if he felt too awkward about speaking himself. But as you both are determined to ignore what happened, I am forced to speak. I dare say it would be much more convenient to you, knowing you have made a mistake, to pass the whole thing over in silence. But I really cannot consent to that. If Mr. Iglesias meant nothing all along, then I think he has behaved disgracefully. If he did mean something at first, and then"—the speaker gasped—"changed his mind, he might at least have given some hint. He ought to have refused to stop here, of course."
"He did refuse," George Lovegrove faltered. This was really dreadful, far worse than anything he had anticipated—and he had not a notion what it was safe to say. "I do wish females' minds were a little less ingenious," he commented to himself. "They see such a lot which would never have entered my head, for instance."
"Still, Mr. Iglesias came," cried the belligerent Serena.
"Yes, I over-persuaded him. He was very unwilling, very so indeed, saying that staying out was altogether foreign to his practice. But I pointed out to him that you and the wife might feel rather mortified if he omitted to come, having taken such an interest in his illness and—"
If you made use of my name, George, you took a great liberty."
"I am very distressed to hear you say that, Serena. Both the wife and I certainly supposed you wished him to come."
He looked imploringly at his spouse, asking support. But for once the large kindly countenance failed to beam responsive. A plaintive expression overspread its surface. Then the unhappy man stared despondently out into the misty morning sunshine, plastering down his shiny hair with a moist and shaky hand. Even the wife turned against him, making him feel an outcast at his own breakfast-table. He could have wept.
"I have been so very guarded throughout," Serena resumed, "that it is impossible you should have the slightest excuse for using my name. But, of course, if you have done so, my position is more than ever odious. There is nothing for me to do but to go. Fortunately I am going—and I am thankful. If I had followed my own inclinations, I should have gone long ago. Then I should have been spared all this, and nothing would have been said. Now all sorts of things may be said, because, of course, it must all look very odd. It shows how foolish it is to allow one's judgment to be overruled. I stayed entirely to oblige Rhoda. And I cannot but see I have been trifled with."
"No, no, Serena, not that—never that," her host cried distractedly. "If I have been in the wrong, I apologise from my heart. But trifling never entered my thoughts. How could it do so, with all the respect I have for you and Susan? I may have been clumsy, but I acted for the best."
"I am afraid I cannot agree," she retorted. "It is useless to apologise. I am sorry to tell you so, George, for I have trusted you until now; but I do feel, and I am afraid I always shall feel, I have been very unkindly treated by you and Rhoda."
She rose, rustling as she spoke, the parrot, meanwhile, leaving off preening its feathers, regarding her, its head very much on one side, with a wicked eye.
"No, please leave me to myself," she said. "I do not want anybody to help me, and if I do I shall ring for the maids. I want to compose myself before I go to Lady Samuelson's. After all this unpleasantness, it is much better for me to be alone."
"Good-bye, girlie, poor old girlie. Hi! p'liceman, bring a four- wheeler," shrieked the parrot, as Serena opened and closed the dining- room door, flapping wildly in the sunshine till the sand and seed husks on the floor of its cage arose and whirled upwards in a crazy little cloud.
George Lovegrove, who had risen to his feet, sank back into his chair, resting his elbows on the table and covering Ids face with his hands.
"I would rather have forfeited my pension," he murmured. "I would rather have lost a hundred pounds."
Then raising his head he gazed imploringly at his wife. And this time her tender heart could not resist the appeal. He had not been open with her, but she relented, giving him opportunity to retrieve his error. Moreover—but that naturally was a very minor consideration— she was bursting with curiosity.
"Georgie," she asked solemnly, "whatever did happen last night?"
"Mr. Iglesias met a lady friend. She sent for him to talk to her, in the lobby, between the acts," he answered, the red deepening in his clean fresh-coloured face.
"Not any of that designing Cedar Lodge lot?"
"Oh! dear no, not all," he replied, his childlike eyes full of gratitude. He blessed the magnanimity of the wife. But speedily embarrassment supervened. He found this subject singularly difficult to deal with. "Not at all of their class. I confess it did surprise me, for though I have always taken it for granted Dominic belonged to a higher circle by birth than that in which we have known him, I had no idea he had such aristocratic acquaintances. His looks and manner in public, last night, made him seem fitted for any company. Still, I was surprised."
"Did he not introduce you?"
"No. I cannot say he had a convenient opportunity, and the lady may not have wished it. I could fancy she might hold herself a little above us. But, between ourselves, I believe that was what so upset Serena."
"I am of opinion Mr. Iglesias is just as well without Serena," Mrs. Lovegrove declared. "I suppose she cannot help it, but her temper is sadly uncertain. I begin to fear she would be very exacting in marriage. But was the lady young, Georgie?"
The good man blushed furiously.
"Yes, under thirty, I should suppose, and very striking to look at. Serena had called my attention to her already. She thought her over- dressed. I am no judge of that, but I could see she was very beautiful."
"Oh! Georgie dear!" This in high protest. For the speaker belonged to that section of the British public in which puritanism is even yet deeply ingrained, with the dreary consequence that beauty, whether of person or in art, is suspect. To admit its existence trenches on immodesty; to speak of it openly is to skirt the edges of licence.
George Lovegrove, however, had developed unaccustomed boldness.
"So she was, my dear," he repeated, not squinting in the least for once. "She was beautiful, dark and splendid, with eyes that looked right through you, mocking and yet mournful. They made a noble couple, she and Dominic, notwithstanding the disparity of age. As they stood there together I felt honoured to see them both. And if Dominic Iglesias is to have friends with whom we are unacquainted—though I do not deny the thing hurt me a little at first—I am glad they should be so handsome and fine. It seems to me fitting, and as if he was in his true sphere at last."
A silence followed this profession of faith, during which Mrs. Lovegrove's face presented a singular study. She stared at her husband in undisguised amazement, while the corners of her mouth and her large soft cheeks quivered.
"Well, I should never have expected to hear you talk so, Georgie," she said huskily. "It seems unlike you somehow, almost as though you were despising your own flesh and blood."
"No, no," he answered, "I could never do that. I could never be so forgetful of all I owe to my own family and to yours, Rhoda. I am under deep obligations to both. But it would be dishonest to deny that I set a wonderfully high value on Dominic Iglesias' regard, and have done so ever since we were boys together at school. To me Dominic has always stood by himself, I knowing how superior he was to me in mind and in all else, so that it has been my truest honour and privilege to be admitted to intimacy with him. But the difference between us never came home to me as it did when I saw him in other company last night. He is fitted for a higher position than he has ever filled yet—we all used to allow that in old days at the bank—or for any society we can offer him. So, though I felt humiliated in a measure, I felt glad. For I can grudge him nothing in the way of new friends, even though they may be differently placed to ourselves and should come between him and me a little, making our intercourse less frequent and easy than in the past. From my heart I wish him the very best that is going, although it should be rather detrimental to myself."
Mrs. Lovegrove's cheeks still quivered, but the expression of her face was unresponsive once more, not to say obstinate. Jealousy, indeed, possessed her. For the first time in her whole experience she realised her husband as an individual, as a human entity independent of herself. To contemplate him otherwise than in the marital relation was a shock to her. She felt deserted, a potential Ariadne on Naxos. Hence jealousy, resentment, cruel hurt.
"Well, to be sure, what a long story!" she cried, in tones approaching sarcasm, "and all about someone who is no relation, too! Whatever possesses you, Georgie? You aren't a bit like yourself. It seems to me this morning everybody's bewitched." She heaved herself up out of her chair. "I shall go and try to make it up with Serena," she continued. "It is only Christian charity to do so; and, poor thing, I can well understand she may have had cause enough for mortification now I have made out what really did take place last night."
Usually, left alone in the dining-room, George Lovegrove would have proceeded methodically to do a number of neat little odd jobs, humming softly the while funny, shapeless little tunes to himself in the fulness of his guileless content. He would have piled up the fire with small coal and dust, thus keeping it alight but saving fuel till luncheon-time, when one skilful stir with the poker would produce a cheerful blaze. Then he would have proceeded to the little conservatory opening off his box of a sanctum at the back of the house—containing his roller-top desk, his papers, Borough Council and parish reports, his magazines, his best and second-best overcoats hung on pegs against the wall along with his silk hat. In the conservatory, still humming, he would have smoked his morning pipe, feeding the gold-fish in the small square glass tank—a tiny fountain in the centre of which it pleased him to set playing—and later carefully examining the ferns and other pot-plants in search of green-fly, scale, or blight. But to-day the innocent routine of his life was rudely broken up. He had no heart for his accustomed tidy potterings, but lingered aimlessly, fingering the gold watch-chain strained across the convex surface of his waistcoat, sand looking pitifully enough between the lace curtains out on to the Green.
The sun had climbed the sky, burning up the hoarfrost and mist, so that the houses opposite had become clearly discernible. Presently he beheld a tall, upright figure emerge from the front door of Cedar Lodge. For a moment Mr. Iglesias stood at the head of the flight of immaculately white stone steps, rolling up his umbrella and putting on his gloves preparatory to setting forth on his morning walk. And, watching him, a wave of humility and self-depreciation swept over George Lovegrove's gentle and candid soul, combined with an aching or regret that destiny had not seen fit to deal with him rather otherwise than it actually had. He felt a great longing that he, too, were possessed of a stately presence, brains, breeding, and handsome looks. There stirred in him an almost impassioned craving for romance, for escape from the interminable respectabilities and domesticities of English middle-class suburban life. He went a step further, rebelling against the feminine atmosphere which surrounded him, in which "feelings" so constantly usurped the place of actions, and suppositions that of fact. Then, the vision of a beautiful woman with a strange rose-scarlet dress, in whose eyes sorrow struggled with mocking laughter, once again assailed him. Who she might be, and what her history, he most emphatically knew not; yet that she breathed a keener and more tonic air than that to which he was habituated, that feelings in her case did not stand for actions, or suppositions for fact, he was fully convinced.
"Poor old chappie, take a brandy and soda. Got the hump?"—this, shrilly, from the parrot hanging head downwards from the roof of its cage.
At the sound of that at once unhuman and singularly confidential voice close beside him, George Lovegrove gave a guilty start.
"Yes, the wife is quite right," he said, half aloud. "If you want to keep a happy mind there is very much of which it is as well to be ignorant."
Then shame covered him, for in his recent meditations and apprehensions had he not come very near turning traitor, and being, in imagination at all events, subtly unfaithful to that same large kindly comfortable wife?
Two months had passed, and February was about to give place to March— two months empty of outward event for Dominic Iglesias, but big with thought and consolidation of purpose. He had been more than ever solitary during this period, for his acquaintance, even to the faithful George Lovegrove, stood aloof. But Dominic hardly noticed this. Though solitary, he had not been lonely, since his mind was absorbed in question, in pursuit, in the consciousness of deepening conviction. For the recognition not merely of religion, but of Christianity, as a supreme factor in earthly existence, which had come to him in the dreary December twilight, as, broken in health and in spirit, he gazed upon the carven picture of Calvary, had proved no fugitive experience. It remained by him, entracing his imagination and satisfying both his heart and his intelligence; so that he looked back upon the hour of his despair thankfully, seeing in it the starting- point of a journey the prosecution of which promised not only to be the main occupation of his remaining years here in time, but, the river of death once crossed, to stretch onward and onward through realms, at present inconceivable, of beauty, of knowledge, and of love. And so, for the moment, solitude was sweet to him, leaving him free of petty cares and anxieties—he moving forward, ignorant of the gossip which in point of fact surrounded him, innocent of the feminine plots and counterplots of which his blameless bachelorhood was at once the provoking cause and the object; while in his eyes—though of this, too, he was ignorant—dwelt increasingly reflection of that mysterious and lovely light which, let obstinately purblind man deny it as he may, lies forever along the far horizon, for comfort of godly wayfarers and as beacon of the elect.
Yet it must not be supposed that the outset of Iglesias' spiritual journey was wholly serene, free from obstacle or hesitation, from risk of untoward selection, or rejection, of the safe way. Many roads, and those bristling with contradictory signposts, presented themselves. Noisy touts, each crying up his own special mode and means of conveyance, rushed forth at every turn.
Modern Protestantism, as he encountered it in the pages of popular newspapers and magazines, at Mrs. Porcher's dinner-table, or in the good Lovegroves' drawing-room, had small attraction for him, since it appeared to advance chiefly by negations stated with rather blatant self-sufficiency and self-conceit. It might tend to the making of respectable municipal councillors; but, in his opinion, it was idle to pretend that it tended to the making of saints—and for the saints, those experts in the divine science, Iglesias confessed a weakness. Of spirituality it showed, to his seeing, as little outward evidence as of philosophy or of art. The phrases of piety might still be upon the lips of its votaries; but the attitude and aspirations engendered by piety were unfortunately dead. Its system of ethics was frankly utilitarian. Its goal, though hidden from the simple by a maze of high-sounding sentiment, was Rationalism pure and simple. Its god was not the creator of the visible universe, of angels and archangels, dominions, principalities, and powers, of incalculable natural and supernatural forces, but a jerky loose-jointed pasteboard divinity, the exclusive possession, since it is the exclusive invention, of the Anglo-Saxon race, through whose gaping mouth any and every self- elected prophet was free to shout, as heaven-descended truth, in the name of progress and liberty, whatever political or social catchword chanced to be the fashion of the hour.
Nor did the neo-mystics, whose utterances are also sown broadcast in contemporary literature and who are so lavish with their offers of divine enlightenment, please Iglesias any better. For his mind, thanks to his Latin ancestry, was of the logical order, while a business training and long knowledge of affairs had taught him the value of method, giving him an unalterable reverence for fact, and impressing upon him the existence of law, absolute and immutable, in every department of nature and of human activity—law, to break which is to destroy the sequence of cause and effect, and so procure abortion. Therefore this new school of thinkers—if one can dignify by the name of thinkers persons of so vague and topsy-turvy a mental habit— nourishing themselves upon the windy meat of secular and time-exploded fallacies, upon the temple-sweepings of all the religions, oriental and occidental, old and new, combined with ill-attested marvels of modern physical and psychological experiment, were far from commending themselves to his calm and patient judgment. Such excited persons, as a slight acquaintance with history proves beyond all question, have existed in every age; and, suffering from chronic mental dyspepsia, have ever been liable to mistake the rumblings of internal flatulence for the Witness of the Spirit. In their current pronouncements Iglesias met with a wearisome passion for paradox, and an equally wearisome disposition to hail all eccentricity as genius, all hysteria as inspiration. While in their exaltation of the "sub-conscious self" —namely, of those blind movements of instinct and foreboding common to the lower animals and to savage or degenerate man alike—as against the intellect and the reasoned action of the will, he saw a menace to human attainment, to civilisation—in the best meaning of that word— to right reason and noble living, which it would be difficult to overestimate. These good people, while pouring contempt on the body, and even denying its existence, in point of fact thought and talked about little else. All of which struck him as not only very tiresome and very silly, but very dangerous. Modern Protestantism might eventuate in Rationalism, in a limiting of human endeavour exclusively to the end of material well-being. But this worship of the pseudo- sciences, this tinkering at the accepted foundations and accepted decencies of the social order, this cultivation of intellectual and moral chaos, could, for the vast majority of its professors at all events, eventuate only in the mad-house. And to the mad-house, whether by twentieth-century esoteric airship or occult subway, Dominic Iglesias had not the very smallest desire to go.
For he had no ambition to be "on time" and up-to-date, to electrify either himself or his contemporaries by an exhibition of mental smartness. He merely desired, earnestly yet humbly, to be given grace to find the road—however archaic in the eyes of the modern world that road might be—which leads to the light on the far horizon and beyond to the presence of God. The more he meditated on these things the more inconceivable it became to him but that this road veritably existed; and that, not by labour of man, but by everlasting ordinance of God. It was absurd, in face of a state of being so complex, so highly organised, so universally subjected to law, as the one in which he found himself, that a matter of such supreme importance as the channel of intercourse between the soul and its Maker should have been left to haphazard accident or blundering of lucky chance. And so, having supplemented his researches in print, by listening to the discourses of many teachers, from one end of London to the other in lecture-hall, chapel, and church, having even stood among the crowds which gather around itinerant preachers in the Park, Dominic found his thought fixing itself with deepening assurance upon the communion in which he had been born and baptised, which his father, in the interests of the revolutionary propaganda, had so bitterly repudiated, and from which his mother, broken by the tyranny of circumstance and bodily weakness, had lapsed.
Outside that communion he beheld only weltering seas of prejudice and conflicting opinion, heard only the tumult of confused and acrimonious contest. Within he beheld the calm of fearlessly wielded authority and of loyal obedience; heard the awed silence of those who worship being glad. For the Catholic Church, as Iglesias began to understand, is something far greater than any triumphant example of that which can be attained by cooperation and organisation. It is not an organisation, but an organism; a Living Being, perfectly proportioned, with inherent powers of development and growth; ever-existent in the Divine Mind before Time was; recipient and guardian of the deepest secrets, the most sacred mysteries of existence; endlessly adaptable to changing conditions yet immutably the same. Hence it is that Catholicism presents no questionable historic pedigree and speaks with no uncertain voice. Claiming not only to know the road the soul must tread would it reach the far horizon, but to be the appointed warden of that same road and sustainer of it, she points with proud confidence to the vast multitude which, under her guidance, has joyfully trodden it—a multitude as diverse in gifts and estate, as in age and race—as proof of the authenticity of her mission to the toiling and sorrowful children of men.
Yet, since unconditional surrender must ever strike a pretty shrewd blow at the roots both of personal pride and worldly caution, Dominic Iglesias hesitated to take the final step and declare himself. To one who has long lived outside the creeds, and that not ungodly, still less bestially, it is no light matter to subject attitude of mind and daily habit to distinct rule. Not only does the natural man rebel against the apparent limiting of his personal freedom, but the conventional and sophisticated man fears lest agreement should, after all, spell weakness, while indifferentism—specially in outward observances—argues strength. A certain shyness, moreover, withheld Iglesias, a not unadmirable dread of being guilty of ostentation. It was so little his custom to obtrude himself, his opinions, and his needs upon the attention of others, that he was scrupulous and diffident in the selection of time and place. The affair, however, decided itself, as affairs usually do when the intention of those undertaking them is a sincere one—and thus.
The tide of war had begun to turn. Earlier in the week had come the news of General Cronje's surrender, after the three days' shelling of his laager at Paardeberg. Hence satisfaction, not only of victory but of compassion, since a sense of horror had weighed on the hearts of even the least sentimental at thought of the stubborn thousands, penned in that flaming rat-trap of the dry river-bed, ringed about by sun-baked rock and sand and death-belching guns. To-day came news of the relief of long-beleaguered Ladysmith, and London was shaken by emotion, under the bleak moisture-laden March sky, the air thick with the clash of joy-bells, buildings gay with riotous outbreak of many- coloured flags, the streets vibrant with the tread and voices of surging crowds.
Iglesias, who early that afternoon had walked Citywards to see the holiday aspect of the town and glean the latest war news, growing somewhat weary on his homeward journey of the humours of his fellow- citizens—which became beery and boisterous as the day drew on—turned in at the open gates of the Oratory, in passing along the Brompton Road. His purpose was to gain a little breathing space from the jostling throng, by standing at the head of the steps under the wide portico of the great church. Looking westward, above the wedge of mean and ill-assorted houses that marks the junction of the Fulham and the Cromwell Roads—the muddy pavements of which, far as the eye carried, were black with people—the yellowish glare of a pallid sunset spread itself across the leaden dulness of the sky. The wan and sickly light touched the architrave and columns of the facade of the great church, bringing this and the statue of the Blessed Virgin which surmounts it into a strange and phantasmal relief—a building not material and of this world, but rather of a city of dreams. To Iglesias it appeared as though there was an element of menace in that cold and melancholy reflection of the sunset. It produced in him a sense of insecurity and distrust, which the roar of the traffic and horseplay of the crowd were powerless to counteract. London, the monstrous mother, in this hour of her rejoicing showed singularly unattractive. Her features were grimed with soot, her dull-hued garments foul with slush, her gestures were common, her laughter coarse. His soul revolted from the sight and sound of her; revolted against the fate which had bound him so closely to her in the past, and which bound him still. The spirit of her infected even the sky above her, painting it with the sad colours of perplexity and doubt. He stepped farther back under the portico, moved by desire to escape from the too insistent thought and spectacle of her. Doing so, he became aware of music reaching him faintly from behind the closed doors of the church, fine yet sonorous harmonies supporting the radiant clarity of a boy's voice.
Then Iglesias understood that he was presented here and immediately with the moment of final choice. Delay was dishonourable, since it was nothing less than a shirking of the obligations which his convictions had created. So there, on the one hand—for so the whole matter pictured itself to his seeing—was London, the type, as she is in fact the capital, of the modern world—of its ambitions, material and social, of its activities, of its amazing association of pleasure and misery, of the rankest poverty and most plethoric wealth—at once formless, sprawling, ugly, vicious, while magnificent in intelligence, in vitality, in display, as in actual area and bulk. On the other hand, and in the eyes of the majority phantasmal as a city of dreams, was Holy Church, austere, restrictive, demanding much yet promising little save clean hands and a pure heart, until the long and difficult road is traversed which—as she declares—leads to the light on the far horizon and beyond to the presence of God.
"If one could be certain of that last, then all would be simple and easy," Iglesias said to himself, looking out over the turbulence of the streets to the pallid menace of the western sky. "But it is in the nature of things, that one cannot be certain. Certainty, whether for good or evil, can only come after the event. One must take the risk. And the risk is great, almost appallingly great."
For just then there awoke and cried in him all the repressed and frustrated pride of a man's life—lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, overweening ambition of power and place, of cruelty even, of gross licence and debauch. For the moment he ceased to be an individual, limited by time and circumstances, and became, in desire, the possessor of the passions and reckless curiosity of the whole human race. So that, in imagination he suffered unexampled temptations; and, in resisting them, flung aside unexampled allurements of grandeur and conceivable delight. Not what actually was, or ever had been, possible to and for him, Dominic Iglesias, bank-clerk, assailed him with provocative vision and voice; but the whole pageant of earthly being, and the inebriation of it. Nothing less than this did he behold, and drink of, and, in spirit, repudiate and put away forever, as at last he pulled open the heavy swing doors and passed into the church.
Within all was dim, mist and incense smoke obscuring the roof of the great dome, the figures of the kneeling congregation far below showing small and dark. Only the high altar was ablaze with many lights, in the centre of which, high-uplifted, encircled by the golden rays of the monstrance, pale, mysterious, pearl of incalculable price, showed the immaculate Host.
Quietly yet fearlessly, as one who comes by long-established right, Dominic walked the length of the nave, knelt devoutly on both knees, prostrating himself as, long ago, in the days of early childhood his mother had taught him to do at the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Now, after all these years—and a sob rose in his throat— he seemed to feel her hand upon his shoulder, the gentle pressure of which enjoined deepest reverence. Then rising, he took his place in the second row of seats on the gospel side, and remained there, through the concluding acts of the ceremonial, until the silent congregation suddenly finds voice—penetrated by austere emotion—in recitation of the Divine Praises.
Some minutes later he knelt in the confessional, laying bare the secrets of his heart.
Thus did Dominic Iglesias cast off the bondage of that monstrous mother, London-town, cast off the terror of those unbidden companions, Loneliness and Old Age, using and, taking the risks, humbly reconcile himself to Holy Church.
Good George Lovegrove wandered solitary in Kensington Gardens. He had chosen the lower path running parallel with Kensington Gore, which leads, between flowerborders and thickset belts of shrubbery, from the Broad Walk to the railings enclosing the open space around the Albert Memorial. This path, being sheltered and furnished with many green garden seats, is specially nurse and baby haunted, and it was to see the babies, whether sturdily on foot or seated in their little carriages, that George Lovegrove had come hither, being sad. Thrushes sang lustily from the treetops. The flowerborders grew resplendent with polyanthus, crocus yellow, purple, and white, with early daffodils, and the heaven blue of scilla sibirica. Above, here and there a froth of almond or cherry blossom overspread the dark twigs and branches, while a ruddiness of burgeoning buds flushed the great elms. But babies of position, looking like tiny pink-faced polar bears, still wore their long leggings and white furs, the March wind being treacherous. They galloped, trumpeting, the clean air and merry sunshine going to their heads in the most inebriating fashion. It was early, moreover, so that they were full of the energy of a good night's sleep, of breakfast, and of comfortable nursery warmth. And George Lovegrove stepped among them carefully, watching their gambols moist-eyed, nervously anxious lest his quaintly solid figure should obstruct the erratic progress of toy-horse, or hoop, or ball. He craved for notice, for even the veriest scrap of friendly recognition, yet was too diffident to attempt any direct intercourse with these delectable small personages, who, on their part, were royally indifferent to his existence so long as he did not get in their way. This he clearly perceived, yet for it bore them no ill-will, preferring, as does every truly devout lover, to worship the beloved from a respectful distance rather than not worship at all.
And it was thus, even as a large and dusky elephant picking its way very gently through a flock of skippeting and lively lambs, that Mr. Iglesias, entering the sheltered walk from the far end, first caught sight of him. To Dominic, it must be admitted, babies, song-birds, burgeoning buds and blossoms, alike presented themselves as but elements in the setting of the outward scene—a scene sweet enough had one leisure to contemplate it, touched by the genial vernal influence, witness to nature's undying youth. But his appreciation of that sweetness was just now cursory and indirect. His thought was absorbed and eager, penetrated by apprehension of matters lying above and beyond the range of ordinary human speech. For he was in that exalted interval of a many hours' fast when the spiritual intelligence is wholly alive and awake, the body becoming but the vesture of the soul —a vesture without impediment or weight, a beautifully negligible quantity in the general scheme of existence. Later reaction sets in. The claims of the body become dominant; and the exalted moment is too often paid for sorrowfully enough in sluggish brain and irritated nerves. Dominic, however, had not reached that stage of the tragi-comedy of the marriage of flesh and spirit. He was happy, with the white unearthly happiness of those who have been admitted to the Sacred Mysteries. And it was not without a sense of shock, as of rough descent to common things, of pity and of regret, that he recognised good George Lovegrove cruising thus, elephantine, among the roystering babes. Then Iglesias checked himself sternly. To humble themselves, remembering their own great unworthiness, to come down from the Mount of Transfiguration to the dwellers in the plain, and be gentle and human towards them—this surely is the primary duty of those who have assisted at the Divine Sacrament? And so Iglesias went forward and hailed his old school-fellow in all tenderness and friendship, causing the latter to raise his eyes from pathetic contemplation of those charming but wholly self-absorbed small human animals, and look up.
"Dominic!" he cried. "Well, to be sure, you do surprise me. Who would have expected to meet you out at this hour of the morning? I do congratulate myself. I am pleased," he said. His honest face beamed, his fresh colour deepened. As a girl at the unlooked-for advent of her lover, he grew confused and shy. And Iglesias warmed towards him. Whimsical in appearance, simple-minded, not greatly skilled in any sort of learning, yet he had a heart of gold—about that there could be no manner of doubt.
"Turn back then, and let us walk together," Iglesias said affectionately. "It is a long while since we have had a quiet talk— that is, of course, if you have no particular business which calls you to town."
"I have no business of any description," he answered. "And between ourselves, Dominic, since I lost my seat on the borough council, I have had too much time on my hands, I think. It is beginning to be quite a trouble with me."
"Is life too softly padded, too dead-level easy and comfortable?" Iglesias inquired. "Are you beginning to quarrel a little with your blessings?"
George Lovegrove became very serious.
"Yes," he said, "I am afraid you are right. As usual you have laid your finger on the spot. I do reproach myself for unthankfulness often. I know I have a good home, and everything decent and respectable about me; more so, indeed, than a man in my position has any right to expect. And yet I regret the old days in the city, Dominic, that I do. I should enjoy to be back at my old desk at the bank—just the little snap of anxiety in the morning as to whether one would catch the 'bus; the long ride through the streets with one's morning paper; the turning out with the other clerks—good fellows all of them, on the whole, were they not?—to get a snack of lunch. And then the coming home at night, with some trifling present or dainty to please the wife; and a look round the greenhouse and garden afterwards in your lounge suit; and hearing and retailing all the day's news, and talking of the good time coming when you would retire and be quite the independent gentleman; and the half-day on Saturday, too, taking some nice little outing to Richmond or Kew, or an exhibition or something of the sort, and then the Sunday's rest."
He hesitated and sighed, looking wistfully at the white-clad babies.
"If one had two or three of those little people of one's own it might be very different—though I would never breathe a word of such a thought to the wife. Females are so easily upset; and if it raises regrets in us men, it must be much more trying for them, poor things, to be childless. But where was I? Yes, well now the good time has come—and I feel a criminal in saying so, but it appears to me to be growing stale already, Dominic. It was better in anticipation than in fact. I am an ungrateful fellow, that I am, I know it; but sometimes I am inclined to ask myself whether all the things we set such fond hopes on are not like that."
"No, not all," Iglesias answered, with a certain subdued enthusiasm. "There are things—a few—which never grow stale. One may build on them as on a foundation of rock. If they ever seem to fail us, to be shaken and overthrown, it is an evil delusion, and the cause lies not in them but in ourselves. It is we who fail, who are shaken and overthrown through palsied will and feebleness of faith. They remain forever inviolate."
"I suppose so," the other man said timidly. He was unused to such vehemence of assertion on the part of his friend. He wondered to what it could refer. His thought, carrying back to the evening at the theatre, played around visions of distinguished amours. Then he steadied himself to heroic resolve.
"I suppose it is," he repeated, "and that makes my conduct appear all the more discreditable to me. My circumstances are too comfortable and easy. It is just that. And so I take to fretting over trifles and seeing slights and unkindness where none were intended." He looked up at Iglesias, his squinting eyes full of apology and admiration. "Yes, I am sadly poor-spirited and I have no excuse. I have been nursing a sense of injury towards those to whom I have most occasion for gratitude—the wife and you. Dominic, believe me I am heartily ashamed of myself."
"Come, come," Iglesias answered, brought very much back to earth, yet touched and softened. "My dear friend, you of all men have small cause for self-reproach. In every relation of life—and our knowledge of one another dates back to early youth—I have found you perfect in loyalty and unselfish kindness."
George Lovegrove walked on for a moment in silence. He had to clear his throat once or twice before he could command his voice.
"Praise from you is very encouraging," he managed to say at last. "But I am afraid I do not deserve it. I have felt mortified lately sometimes, and I am afraid envious. I—but after your last words I am more than ever ashamed to own it—I have fancied that you were becoming distant and that an estrangement was growing up between us. Of course I have always understood, though we happened to be school- fellows and in the same employment afterward, that your position and mine were different. And I want you to know that I would never be a clog on you, Dominic"—he spoke with an admirably simple dignity— "believe me, I never would be that. Lately I have been troubled by the thought that I had extracted a promise from you to remain at Trimmer's Green. Now I beg of you most earnestly not to let that promise, given in a moment of generous indulgence, weigh with you in the slightest, if circumstances have arisen which point at your residing in a more fashionable part of the town."
"But why should I want to go to a more fashionable part of London?" Iglesias asked, smiling.
"Well, you see," the other returned, his face growing furiously red, "it came to my knowledge, unexpectedly, that you have acquaintances in quite another walk of life to ours—the wife's and mine, I mean. And it would pain me deeply, very deeply, Dominic, that any promise given to me, regarding your place of residence, should stand between you and mixing as freely with those acquaintances as you might otherwise do."
They had come to the place where the sheltered pathway is crossed by the Broad Walk—the upward trend of which showed blond, in the sunshine, against the brilliant green of the grass and the dark boles of the great trees bordering it. Here Iglesias paused. He was not altogether pleased.
"I do not quite follow you," he said coldly. Then looking at the guileless and faithful being beside him, he softened once more. Was it not only more just, but more honourable, to treat this matter with candour? "You are alluding to the lady who was good enough to send for me the night you and Miss Lovegrove went with me to the play?"
"Yes," the excellent George assented in a strangled voice. He wanted to know badly. He was agonised by fear of having committed an indiscretion offensive to his idol.
"Set your mind quite at rest on that point then, my dear friend. Her world is not my world and never will be. In it I should be very much out of place."
Iglesias moved forward again, crossing the Broad Walk and making towards the small iron gate, at the lower corner of the Gardens, which opens on to Kensington High Street. But he walked slowly, becoming conscious that he grew tired and spent. The glory of the spirit dominant was departing, the tyranny of the body dominant beginning to reassert itself. His features contracted slightly. He felt unreasoningly sad.
George Lovegrove walked beside him in silence, his eyes downcast, his heart stirred by vague tumultuous sympathy, his modest nature at once inflamed and abashed, recognising in his companion the hero of an exalted and tragic romance.
"Well, he looks it. It suits his character and appearance," he said to himself, adding aloud—for the very life of him he could not help it— "But she was very beautiful, Dominic."
"Yes," Iglesias answered, "she is beautiful and very clever and—very unhappy."
The good George's heart positively thumped against his ribs. "And to think of all the plans the wife and I have been making!" he said to himself.
"If she wants me, she will send for me," Iglesias continued quietly, "and I shall go to her at once, as I went that evening, without hesitation or delay, wherever she may be. But," he added, "it becomes increasingly improbable that she will send for me. I have not seen her or heard from her since that night. And so, my dear friend, you perceive that your kindly fears of having circumscribed my liberty of choice in respect of a place of residence are quite unfounded. I have no reason for leaving Cedar Lodge or altering my accustomed habits."
Iglesias smiled affectionately, as dismissing the whole matter.
"And now," he continued, "that little misunderstanding being cleared up, will you mind my turning into the restaurant just here, in High Street, for a cup of coffee and a roll? I have not breakfasted yet."
Whereupon George Lovegrove pranced before him, incoherent in kindly remonstrance and advice.
"At 11 A. M., and after your severe indisposition at Christmas, too, out walking on an empty stomach! It is positively suicidal. Where have you been to?" he cried.
"To Mass," Iglesias answered, still smiling, though with something of a fighting light in his eyes and a lift of his head.
His companion stared at him in blank amazement.
"To what?" he said.
"To Mass," Iglesias repeated. "I have been waiting for a suitable opportunity to speak to you of this, George. I, too, have felt the weight of enforced leisure. It has not been a particularly cheerful experience; but it has given me time to read, and still more to think, with the consequence that I have returned to the faith of my childhood. I have made my peace with the Church."
They continued to walk slowly onward; but George Lovegrove drew away to the further side of the path as though contact might be dangerous, as though infection was hanging about. He kept his eyes averted, his head bent.
"You do surprise me," he said at last. "I had not the slightest inkling that you were contemplating such a step. I give you my word, you have fairly taken away my breath. I do not seem to be able to grasp it, that you, whom I have always looked up to as so mentally superior, so independent in your thought, should have become a Romanist—for that is your meaning, I take it, Dominic?"
"Yes, that is my meaning," Iglesias answered.
"You do surprise me," George Lovegrove said again presently, and in a lamentable voice. "My mind refuses to grasp it. I would rather have lost five hundred pounds than have heard this. I declare I am fairly unmanned. I have never received a greater shock."
Iglesias remained silent. He was weary and sad. But he straightened himself, trying to keep his gaze fixed steadily upon the far horizon where dwells the everlasting light.
"It is presumptuous in me to criticise your action, perhaps," his companion continued. "I never did such a thing before, having always hesitated to set up my views against yours; but I cannot but fear you have made a sad mistake. And if you were contemplating any change of this kind, why did you not come into our own national English Church?"
"Very much because it is English and national, I think," he answered. "In my opinion there is an inherent falsity of conception in subjecting our approach to the Absolute to restrictions imposed by country or by race, if these can, by any means, be avoided. Why hamper yourself with a late, expurgated, and mutilated edition, when the original, in all its splendour and historic completeness, bearing the sign-manual of the Author, is there ready to your hand?"
Again Iglesias spoke with subdued but unmistakable enthusiasm. The two friends had just reached the iron gate leading into High Street. Here George Lovegrove stopped. He still kept carefully at a distance, averting his eyes as from some distressing, even disgraceful, sight, while his good honest face worked with emotion.
"I think if you will kindly excuse me, I will go no farther," he faltered. "What you say may be true—I am sure I don't know. It is all beyond me. But I should prefer not to talk any more about it until I have accustomed myself to the thought of this change in you. Nothing does come between people like religion," he added with unconscious irony. "So I think, if you will kindly excuse me, I will just go away, Dominic."
And, without more ado, he turned back into the Gardens.
The small polar bears, meanwhile, satiated with exercise, air, and light, had begun to grow restive and fretty. Their stomachs cried cupboardwards, and they were disposed to filch each other's toy horses and hoops, and use each other's small persons as targets for balls, thrown as bombs in a fashion far from polite. Anxious maids and nurses hunted them homewards, not without slight asperity on the one part, on the other occasional squealings and free fights. But upon the babies, engaging even in naughtiness, George Lovegrove had ceased to bestow any attention. He went forward blindly, cruising among them and their attendants and smart little carriages, elephantine, careless where he placed his feet, to the obstruction of traffic and heightening of general annoyance, as sorrowful a man as any would need to meet. For it seemed to him things had gone wrong, just then, past all hope of setting right. His idol, light of his eyes and joy of his guileless heart, has fallen from his high estate, discovering capacity of playing the most discreditable and soul-harrowing pranks. Prejudice is myriad-lived here on earth; and in George Lovegrove all the bigotry, all the semi-superstitious, terror fostered by the accumulated ignorance which generations of Protestant forefathers have bequeathed to the English middle-class, reared itself, not only stubborn, but militant. His thought travelled back to those barbarities of rougher ages which are, in point of fact, more common to the secular than to the religious criminal code; but which Protestant teachers, even yet, find it convenient to put down wholly to the account of the Catholic Church. Practically ignorant of the spoliation and persecution practised under Henry the Eighth—of blessed domestic memory—of the further persecution which disfigured the "spacious days of great Elizabeth," not to mention the long and shameful history of the Penal Laws, he fixed his mind upon lurid legends of the reign of unhappy Mary Tudor, illustrated by prints in Fox's Book of Martyrs; upon inquisitorial tortures, the very thought of which—even out of doors in the pleasant spring sunshine—made him break into a heavy sweat, and which, by some grotesque perversion of ideas, he believed to be not only the necessary outcome of, but vitally essential to, the practice of the Faith. Against this hideous background he set the calm and stately figure of his beloved friend Iglesias—seeing him no longer as the faithful comrade of more than half a lifetime, but as a foreign being, an unknown quantity, a worshipper of graven images, a participant in blasphemous rites, a believer, in short, in just all that which sound, respectable, and godly British common sense cast forth, with scorn and contumely, close on four centuries back. He was frightened. His everyday, comfortable, jog-trot, little odd and end of a local parochial suburban middle-class world was literally turned upside down and inside out.
"And however will the wife take it—however will she take it?" he mourned to himself. "To think we have been harbouring a Papist in disguise! I dare not contemplate her feelings. She will be upset. I must keep it from her as long as possible. And Serena, too, and Susan! I don't know how I can face them. Females are so very eloquent when put out. Of course I have known there was something wrong for a long time past. I saw there was a change in him, and felt there was some cause of coldness; but it never entered my head it could be as bad as this. Oh! my poor, dear friend. Oh! my poor Dominic, perhaps I have been overattached to you and this comes as a judgment. It would be hard enough to have anything break up our friendship, but this folly, this dreadful doting apostasy—"
He walked on blindly along the sheltered path between the flower- borders, deaf to remonstrant nurses and scornful, beautiful babes clothed in spotless white.
"If anything must come between us I would rather it was a woman," he mourned, "ten thousand times rather, whoever and whatever she was, than this."
It happened on the afternoon of that same day that Eliza Hart, in pursuance of her domestic avocations, had occasion to go into Mr. Farge's room on the first floor to lay out a new coverlet on his bed. When, as thus, compelled to enter the apartments of either of the gentlemen guests of the establishment it was her practice to leave the door half open, as a concession to propriety in the abstract and a testimony to her own discretion in the concrete. The handsome mahogany doors of Cedar Lodge, unhappily painted white by some vandal of a former inhabitant, being heavy were hung on a rising hinge. Hence, when half open, a space of some three inches was left between the back of the door and the jamb, through which it was easy to get a good view of the hall or the landing unobserved. Little Mr. Farge professed a warm predilection for gay colours, and Eliza had selected the new bedspread with an eye to this fact. It was of bright raspberry-red cotton twill, enriched with a broad printed border in a flowing design of lemon-yellow tulips and bottle-green leaves. The salesman, in exhibiting it to her, had described it as "very chaste and pleasing." Eliza herself qualified it as "tasty"; and had just disposed it, much to her own satisfaction, upon the young man's bed, when her attention was arrested by the tones of an unknown feminine voice in the hall below. Shortly afterwards she heard Frederick, the valet's large footsteps hurtling upstairs at a double, followed by a prolonged and leisurely whispering of silken skirts. Here, clearly, was a matter into which, for the reputation of Cedar Lodge, it was desirable to look without delay. Eliza, therefore, moved to the near side of the door, and, through the three-inch aperture afforded by the rising hinge, raked the landing with a vigilant eye.
The door of Mr. Iglesias's sitting-room immediately opposite stood open. In the doorway Frederick indulged in explanatory gesticulation. While, slowly ascending the last treads of the stairs, was a lady of unmistakable elegance, arrayed in a large black hat with drooping plumes to it, a sable cape—the price of which, Eliza felt assured, ran easily into three figures—and a black cloth dress in the cut of which she read the last word of contemporary fashion. Arrived at the stair-head the intruder stood still, calmly surveying her surroundings, presenting, as she turned her head, a pale face, very red lips, and eyes—so at least it appeared to the vigilant orbs of Eliza—quite immodestly large and lustrous, melancholy and somehow extremely impertinent, too. Then Mr. Iglesias emerged from his sitting-room, an expression upon his countenance which startled Eliza. She very certainly had never seen it before. For a moment the lady looked up at him, as though silently asking some question. Then she patted him lightly upon the back, and passed into the sitting-room hand in hand with him, while Frederick with his best flourish closed the door.
"Well, of all the things!" cried Eliza, half aloud; and, oblivious both of discretion and of the new raspberry-red cotton twill coverlet, she backed, and sat, plump, upon the edge of the bed. Just then, as she asserted in subsequently recounting this remarkable incident, you might have knocked her down with a feather.
"Of all the things!" she repeated, after an interval of breathless amazement. "And how long has this been going on, I should like to know? So that is the reason of a certain gentleman's iciness, and his stand-offish high-mightiness. Well, I never! And poor darling Peachie, so trustful and confiding all the time; not that she need fear comparison with anybody.—Bah! the serpent."
Nevertheless she was deeply impressed, and fell into a vein of furious speculation as to who this unlooked-for smart lady might be. Then, suddenly remembering the highly compromising nature of her own existing position sitting not only in the lively little Farge's bed- chamber, but actually upon his bed, she rose with embarrassment and haste, and made her way downstairs to the offices—treading circumspectly in dread of creaking boards—to interview Frederick. But from that functionary she obtained scant information.
"Zee lady she ask for Mr. Iglesias. I tell her I go to find him. I put her in zee drawing-room."
"Quite right, Frederick,"—this encouragingly from Eliza.
"But she no stay zere. She come again out quick. She not any name, not any visiting card give; only write somezing, very fast, on a piece of paper and screw it togezzer. Zen she not wait till I return, but behind me upstairs chase."
So there was nothing for it, as the great Eliza perceived, but to retire to the drawing-room, and—Mrs. Porcher happened to be out—note the hour and, with the door discreetly half open, await the descent of the intruder from the floor above.
"I can just catch darling Peachie, too," she said to herself, "and draw her aside. To meet such a person unexpectedly, on the stairs or in the hall, would be enough to make her turn quite faint."
Poppy St. John laid her hands lightly on Mr. Iglesias' shoulders and smiled at him. She looked very young, yet very worn; and the corners of her mouth shook.
"If you were anybody else," she said, "I believe I should give you a kiss. But I am not going to, so don't be nervous, dear man. I'll be perfectly correct, I promise you—only I had to come. I have been good, absolutely tiptop beastly good, I tell you. I have washed the slate. It is as clean as a vacuum, as the inside of an exhausted receiver. And I feel as dull as empty space before the creation got started."
Poppy shivered a little, putting one hand over her eyes, and resting her head with its great black hat and sweeping plumes against Mr. Iglesias' chest. And Iglesias quietly put his arm round her, supporting her. The day had been full of experiences. This last, though of a notably different complexion to the rest, promised to be by no means the least searching and surprising. Iglesias steadied himself to take it quite calmly, in his stride; yet his jaw grew rigid and his face blanched in dread of that which might be coming.
"I have sent Alaric Barking about his business," Poppy continued hoarsely. "Sent him back to his soldiering, helped to cart him off to that rotten hole, South Africa. He is a smart officer, and he'll make a name, if he don't get shot. And he won't get shot—I should feel it in my bones if he was going to, and I don't feel it. I broke with him more than a month ago. But I had to see him again to say good-bye, this morning, before he sailed."
Poppy moved a step or two away, turning her back on Iglesias.
"And it hurt a jolly lot more than I expected. I don't suppose I am in love"—she looked around inquiringly at him, as though expecting him to solve the complicated problem of her affections. "It's not likely at this time of day, is it? But I was fonder of Alaric than I quite knew. He is a good sort, and we have had some ripping times together. He had become a sort of habit, you know; and when you have knocked about a lot, as I have, you get rather sick at the notion of any change."
She stood, looking down, leisurely unbuttoning and pulling off her long gloves.
"I don't know that I should have made up my mind to sack him in the end, but that I wanted to please Fallowfeild."
Mr. Iglesias became very tall. His expression was hard, his eyes alight. This the lady noted. She returned and patted him gently on the back again.
"There, there, don't sail off on a wrong tack, my beloved fire-eater. Fallowfeild was quite right. The game was up, really it was; and he wanted me to walk out, like the gentlemanlike dog, so as to avoid being kicked out. I always knew the break was bound to come some time; and it's a long sight pleasanter to break than to be broken with, don't you think so?—You see, Alaric has formed a virtuous attachment." Poppy's lips took a cynical twist. "It was time, high time, he should, if he meant to go in for that line of business at all. The young lady is a niece of Fallowfeild's—a pretty little girl, really quite pretty—I saw her that night we were both at the play—all new, and pink and white, and well-bred, and ingenue, and in every respect perfectly suitable."
Poppy looked mutinously, even mischievously, at Dominic Iglesias.
"Poor, dear old Alaric," she said. "I don't quarrel with him. His elder brother's no children, and there are pots and pots of money. That he should want to marry, and that his people should press it on him, is perfectly natural, and obvious, and proper."
"But," Dominic asked fiercely, "if this young man, Captain Barking, proposes to marry, why has he not married you—always supposing you were willing to entertain his suit?"
Poppy flung her long gloves upon the table, unhooked her sable cape and sent it flying to join them.
"Pou-ah! I'm hot!" she exclaimed. "I think I'll sit down, if you have no objection. Yes, that chair, thanks—it looks excellently comfortable. By the way, you've got an uncommonly nice lot of things in this room. I am going to make a tour of inspection presently. It pleases me frightfully to see where you live and look at your possessions." She stared absently at the furniture and pictures.—"But about my marrying Alaric Barking," she continued. "Well, you see—you see, dear man, there is an inconvenient little impediment in the shape of a husband."
As she finished speaking Poppy folded her hands in her lap. She sat perfectly still, her lips pressed together, watching Mr. Iglesias over her shoulder but without turning her head. He had crossed the room and stood at one of the tall narrow windows, looking out into the bright windy afternoon.
For here it was in plain English, at last, that underlying secret thing which he had known yet dreaded to know. It begot in him an immense regret and inevitable repulsion at admitted wrongdoing. He made no attempt to juggle with the meaning of her words. Yet, along with them, came a feeling of gladness that Poppy St. John would remain Poppy St. John still; and a movement of hope—intimate and very tender—since in this tragic hour of her history she had come directly to him, asking comfort and sympathy. Dominic, cut to the quick by the defection of the heretofore ever-faithful George Lovegrove, hailed with a peculiar thankfulness this mark of confidence and trust. Sinful, greatly erring, still the Lady of the Windswept Dust had returned to him; and thereat he soberly, yet very deeply, rejoiced. In truth, the sharp-edged breath of persecution he had encountered this morning, while paining him, had braced him to high endeavour. The Catholic Church, so he argued, must indeed be a mighty and living power since men fear her so much. And this power he felt to be behind him, sustaining him, inciting him to noble undertakings—he strong in virtue of her strength, fearless through the courage of her saints, able with the energy of their accumulated merit and their prayers. Again, as on his way home that morning from hearing Mass, the spirit was dominant, his whole nature and outlook purified and exalted by the Divine Indwelling. To fail any human creature calling on him for help would be contemptible, and even dastardly, in one blessed as he himself was. Thus his relation to Poppy St. John fell into line. He could afford to love and serve her well, since he loved and purposed, in all things, to serve Almighty God best.
These meditations occupied but a few moments, yet Poppy's patience ran short.
"Dominic Iglesias," she cried suddenly, sharply, "I am tired of waiting."
He crossed the room and stood in front of her, serious but light of heart.
"See here, it is all right between us?" she asked imperatively.
"Yes, all is perfectly right between us," he answered. "Your coming gives me the measure of your faith in me. I am grateful and I am very glad."
"Ah!" Poppy said softly.
She sat forward in her chair, making herself small, patting her hands together, palm to palm, between her knees, and swaying a little as she spoke.
"You see," she went on, "to be quite honest, I didn't break with Alaric simply to enable him to marry and live happy ever after. Nor did I do it exclusively to please Fallowfeild. It would take a greater fool than I am to be as altruistic as all that. I always like to have my run for my money. I—I did it more to get you back."
She paused and raised her head, looking full at him.
"And I have got you back?" she said.
"Yes," he answered, smiling. "I ask nothing better than to come back."
"Do you mean that you are prepared to take everything on trust—after what I have just told you—without wanting explanations?"
"Friendship has no need of explanations," Iglesias said, with a touch of grandeur—"that is, as I understand friendship. It accepts what is given without question, or cavilling as to much or to little, leaving the giver altogether free. Friendship, as I understand it, should have honourable reticences, not only of speech but of thought; wise economies of proffered sympathy. In its desire of service it should never approach too near or say the word too much; since, if it is to flourish and obtain the grace of continuance, it must be rooted in reverence for the individuality of the person dear to it. This is my belief." His bearing was courtly, his expression very gentle. "Therefore rest assured that whatever confidence you repose in me is sacred. Whatever confidence you withhold from me is sacred likewise."
Poppy mused a little, a smile on her lips and an enigmatic look in her singular eyes.
"You're beautiful, dear man," she murmured. "You're very beautiful. You're worth chucking the devil over for; but you'll take a jolly lot of living up to. So see here, you're bound to look me up pretty constantly just at first, for I tell you life is not going to be exactly a toy-shop for me for some little time to come. You hear? You promise?"
"I promise," Iglesias returned.
"And there's another thing," she continued rather proudly, "a thing men too often blunder over—with the very best intentions, bless them, only they do blunder, and that leads to ructions. Please put the question of money out of your head once and for all. I have a certain amount of my own, nothing princely well understood, but quite possible to live on. It was to prevent his playing ducks and drakes with it that I finally left the jackal of a fellow whom I married. Well, I have that, and I have made a little more, one way and another."—Poppy permitted herself a wicked grimace.—"Poor old Alaric used to tell me I was a great financier wasted, that I should have been invaluable as partner in their family banking concern—that's more than he'll ever be, poor chap, unless marriage makes pretty sweeping changes in him. Some of my sources of income naturally are cut off through the cleaning of the slate. For I have been tiptop beastly good—indeed I have, as I told you! No more cards, and oh dear, no more racing. But no doubt Cappadocia will contribute in the way of puppies. Noblesse oblige—she realises her duty towards posterity, does Cappadocia. So I shall scrape along quite tidily. And then, as long as I keep my voice and my figure, at a push there's always my profession.—You hadn't arrived at the fact that I had a profession? Such is fame, dear man, such is fame. Why, I started as a child-actress at thirteen; and went on till the jackal made that impossible, like virtue, and self- respect, and a decent home, and a few kindred trifles in favour of which every clean-minded woman has, after all, a strongish prejudice."
Poppy's voice shook. She had much ado to maintain an indifferent and matter-of-fact manner. Iglesias drew up a chair and sat down beside her. She put out her hand, taking his and holding it quietly.
"There, that's better," she said. "I feel babyish. I should like a good square cry. But I won't have one. Don't be afraid. The motto is 'No snivelling, full steam ahead.'—But as to the stage, I'm not sure that won't prove the solution of most difficulties in the end. Sometimes it pulls badly at my heartstrings, and I shouldn't be half sorry for an excuse for taking to it again. It's a rotten profession for a man, and not precisely a soul-saving one for a woman. But it gives you your opportunity; and, at bottom, I suppose that's the main thing one asks of life—one's opportunity. Too, your art is your art; and if it is bred in you, you sicken for it. I was awfully glad that night to see you at the play, though in a way it shocked me. It seemed incongruous. Tell me, do you really care for the theatre?"
"To a moderate extent I do," Dominic answered. She wanted, so he divined, to give a lighter tone to the conversation. He tried to meet her wishes.—"I am not a very ardent playgoer, I am afraid. But at the present time I happen to be involved indirectly in theatrical enterprise. I am interested in the production of a play, which I am assured will prove a remarkable success."
"You're not financing it?" Poppy asked sharply.
"Within certain limits I am," he answered, smiling. "An appeal was made to me for help which it would have been cruel to refuse."
Poppy's expression had become curiously sombre, not to say stormy. She got up and began to roam about the room.
"I hope to goodness the limits are clearly defined, and very narrow ones, then," she exclaimed. "For my part I don't believe in talent which can't find a market in the ordinary course of business. I grant you managers sometimes put a play on which is no good; and sometimes cripple what might be a fine play by doctoring it, in deference to the rulings of that archetype of all maiden aunts and incarnation of British hypocrisy, the censor; but they very rarely, in my experience, reject a play which has money in it. Why should they? Poor brutes, they are not exactly surfeited with masterpieces. The play which requires private backing, though a record-breaker in the opinion of its author, is usually rubbish in that of the public. And the public, take it all round, is very fairly level-headed and just; you must not judge it by the stupidities of the censor. He represents only an extreme section of it, if at this time of day he really represents anybody—a section which does the screaming sitting sanctimoniously at home, getting its information at second-hand through the papers, and never darkens the doors of a play-house at all. Moreover, you must remember that the public is master. There is no getting behind its verdict."
Poppy's peregrinations had brought her back beside Mr. Iglesias again. She patted him on the shoulder.
"See here, my beloved no-longer-nameless one," she said. "Be advised. Learn wisdom. For I tell you I've been through that gate if ever a woman has. The jackal—I wish to heaven we could keep him out of our talk, but, for cause unknown, he persistently obtrudes himself—he invariably does so when I'm hipped and edgy—well, you see, he was an unappreciated genius in the way of a dramatist, from which fact I derived first-hand acquaintance with the habits of the species. What I don't know about those animals is not worth knowing. They're just simply vermin, I tell you. Their utter unprofitableness is only equalled by their lunatic vanity. They imagine the whole world, lay and professional, is in league to balk and defraud them. So don't touch them, I entreat you, as you value your peace of mind and your pocket. They'll bleed you white and never give you a penn'orth of thanks—more likely turn on you and make out, somehow or other, you are responsible for the failure of their precious productions.—Now let's try to forget them, and talk of pleasanter subjects. These obtrusions of the jackal always bring me bad luck. I'm downright scared at them.—Tell me about your goods, your books and your pictures. And show me something which belonged to your mother—that is, if it wouldn't pain you to do so. I should like to hold something she had touched in my hands. It would be comforting, somehow. And just set that door wider open, there's a dear. I want to have a look into the other room and see where you sleep."
For the ensuing half hour Poppy was an enchanting companion, wholly womanly, gentle and delicate; eager, too, with the pretty spontaneous eagerness of a child, at the recital of stories and exhibition of treasures beloved by her companion. The lonely cedar tree, lamenting its exile as the wind swept through the labyrinth of its dry branches, moved her almost to tears.
"It is tragic," she said; "still, I am glad you have it. It's very much in the picture, and lifts the sentiment of the place out of the awful suburban rut. It's a little symbolic of you yourself, too, Dominic—there's style, and poetry, and breeding about it. Only, thank the powers, you differ from it mightily in this, that its best days are over, while you are but in the flower of your age. And your rooms are delightful—they're like you, too.—The rest of the house? My dear soul, the manservant ushered me into a drawing-room, when I arrived, the colours of which were simply frantic. I bolted. If I'd stayed another five minutes they'd have given me lockjaw.—Now I must go." She smiled very sweetly upon Mr. Iglesias. "I'm better, ten thousand times better," she said. "When I came I was rather extensively nauseated by my own virtuous actions. Now it's all square between them and me. I'm good right through, I give you my word I am. If only it'll last!"
Poppy's lips quivered, and she looked Iglesias rather desperately in the face.
"Never fear," he answered, "but that it will last."
"Still you'll come and see me often, very often, till I settle down into the running? It will be beastly heavy going—must be, I'm afraid —for a long while yet."