Dominic Iglesias, holding her hand, bent low and kissed it.
"I will serve you perfectly, God helping me, as long as I live," he said.
Five minutes later Mrs. Porcher, supported by the outraged and sympathetic Eliza, watched, through the aperture afforded by the rising hinge of the dining-room door, an unknown lady, escorted by Mr. Iglesias, sweep in whispering skirts and costly sables across the hall.
Passing out and down the white steps, Poppy, usually so light of foot and deft of movement, stumbled, and but for Iglesias' prompt assistance would have fallen headlong. At that same moment de Courcy Smyth, slovenly in dress, with shuffling footsteps, crossed the road, and then slunk aside, his arm jerked up queerly almost as though warding off a blow.
"No, no, I'm not hurt, not in the least hurt," Poppy said breathlessly, in response to Iglesias' inquiry. "But it's given me a bad fright. I'll go straight home. Put me into the first hansom you see.—No, I'll go by myself. I'd far rather. I give you my word I'm not hurt; but I've a lot of things to think about—I want to be alone. I want to be quiet. Come soon. I was very happy. Good-bye— good-night."
A featureless landscape of the brand of ugliness peculiar to the purlicus of a great city, to that intermediate region where the streets have ended and the country has not yet fairly begun. A waste of cabbagefields—the dark lumpy earth between the rows of yellowish stumps strewn with ill-smelling refuse of decaying leaves—seen through the rents in a broken, unkempt, quickset hedge. Running parallel with the said hedge, shiny blacktarred palings, shutting off all view of the river. Between these barriers, a long stretch of drab- coloured high road, flanked by slightly raised footpaths, a verge of coarse weedy grass to them in which a litter of rags, torn posters, and much other unloveliness found harbourage. To the northwest and north, a sky piled to the zenith with mountainous swiftly moving clouds, inky, blue-purple, wildly white, from out the torn bosoms of which rushed, now and again, flurrying showers of hail and sleet driven by a shrieking wind. March was in the act of asserting its proverbial privilege of "going out like a lion"; but the lion, as seen in this particular perspective, was a frankly ignoble and ill- conditioned beast.
And Poppy St. John, heading up against wind and weather along the left-hand footpath, felt frankly ignoble and ill-conditioned, too. Her poor soul, which had made such valiant efforts to spread its wings and fly heavenward—a form of exercise sadly foreign to its habit— crawled, once more, soiled and mud-bespattered, along the common thoroughfare of life. At this degradation, her heart overflowed with bitterness and disgust, let alone the blind rage which possessed her, as of some trapped creature frustrated in escape. She had broken gaol, as she fondly imagined, and secured liberty. Not a bit of it! In the hour of reconciliation, of sweetest security, she met her gaoler face to face and heard the key grind in the lock.
Save for the occasional passing of a market waggon, or high-shouldered scavenger's cart, the road was deserted. Once a low-hung two-wheeled vehicle rattled by, on which, insufficiently covered by sacking, lay a dead horse, the great head swinging ghastly over the slanting tail- board, the legs sticking out stark in front. A man, perched sideways on the carcass, swore at the rickety crock he was driving, and lashed it under the belly with a short-handled heavy-thonged whip. He was collarless, and the scarlet and orange handkerchief, knotted about his throat, had got shifted, the ends of it streaming out behind him as he lifted his arm and swayed his whole body madly using his whip. Poppy shut her eyes, sickened by the sound and sight. Just then a scourging storm of sleet struck her, causing her to turn her back and pause, where a curve in the range of paling offered some slight shelter. For strong though she was, and well furnished against the inclement weather in a thick coaching coat, buttoned up to her chin and down to her feet, her cloth cap tied on with a thick veil, the stinging wind and sleet were almost more than she could face. Her depression was not physical merely, but moral likewise. For over and above her personal and private sources of trouble, it was a day and place whereon evil deeds seemed unpleasantly possible. The swearing driver and dangling head of the dead horse had served to complete her discomfiture; and presently, the storm slackening a little, hearing footsteps behind her, she wheeled round, her chin bravely in the air, but her heart galloping with nervous fright, while her fingers closed down on the butt of the small silver-plated revolver which rested in the right- hand waist pocket of her long coat.
De Courcy Smyth was close beside her. Poppy set her lips together and braced herself to endure the coming wretchedness. It was some years since she had had speech of him—some years, indeed, since she had seen him, save during that brief moment, twenty-four hours previously, as she descended the steps of Cedar Lodge. Even in his most prosperous days he had been unattractive in person, at once untidy and theatrical in dress. Now Poppy registered a distinct deterioration in his appearance. His puffy face, red-rimmed eyes, and shambling gait were odious to her. She noted, moreover, that he was poorly clad. His grey felt hat was stained and greasy; his ginger-coloured frieze overcoat threadbare at the elbows, thin and stringy in the skirts. The soles of his brown boots were splayed, the upper leathers seamed and cracked. This might denote poverty. It might, also, only denote carelessness and sloth. In any case, it failed to move her to pity, provoking in her uncontrollable irritation; so that, forgetful of diplomacy, stirred by memories of innumerable kindred provocations in the past, Poppy spoke without preamble, asking him sharply as he joined her:
"Have you no better clothes than that?"
Smyth paused before answering, looking her up and down furtively yet deliberately, wiping the wet of his beard and face, meanwhile, with a frayed green silk pocket-handkerchief.
"It offends your niceness that your husband should dress like a tramp, does it?" he said hoarsely. "And pray whose fault is it that he is reduced to doing so? Judging by your own costume, you can easily remove that cause of offence if you choose. It does not occur to you, perhaps, that while you live on the fat of the land I, but for the charity of strangers—which it is loathsome to me to accept—should not have enough to pay for the food I eat or for the detestable garret in which I both work and sleep? Under these circumstances I am scarcely prepared to call in a fashionable tailor to replenish my wardrobe, lest its meagreness should, on the very rare occasions on which I have the honour of meeting you, offer an unpleasing reflection upon your own super-elegance."
To these observations, delivered with a somewhat hysterical volubility, Poppy made no direct reply. Surely it was cruel, cruel, that at this juncture, when she had so honestly striven to refuse the evil and choose the good, this recrudescence of all that was most hateful to her should take place? Moreover, now as always, just that modicum of truth underlay Smyth's exaggerated accusations and perverted statements which made them as difficult to combat as they were exasperating to listen to. For a minute or so Poppy could not trust herself to speak, lest she should give way to foolish invective. His looks, manner, intonation, the phrases he employed were odiously familiar to her. She fought as in a malicious dream, to which the squalor of the surrounding landscape offered an only too appropriate setting. Turning, she walked slowly in the direction whence she had come—namely, in that of Barnes village and Mortlake. There the quaint riverside houses would afford some shelter and sense of comradeship.
"I am sorry to make you come farther out," she said, with an attempt at civility.
"That is unexpectedly considerate," he commented.
"But it is impossible to talk in the teeth of this wind," she continued, "and I imagine we're neither of us particularly keen to prolong our interview."
"Excuse me, speak for yourself," Smyth interrupted. "I find it decidedly interesting to meet my wife again. She has gone up in the world, and climbed the tree of fashion in the interval. I have gone down in the world, as every scholar and gentleman, every man with brains and high standards of art and culture, is bound to go down sooner or later, in this hideous age of blatant commercialism and Mammon rampant. I don't quarrel with it. I would far rather be one of the downtrodden, persecuted minority. But, just on that account, my wife is all the more worth contemplating, since she offers a highly instructive object-lesson in the advantages which accrue from allying oneself with the victorious majority. See—"
A rush of wind and flurry of cold rain rendered the concluding words of his tirade inaudible. It was as well, for Poppy was growing wicked, anger dominating every more humane and decent feeling in her.
"Look here," she said, when the storm had somewhat abated. "I know that sort of talk as well as my old shoe. Haven't I listened to it for hours? For goodness' sake, quit it. It doesn't wash. Let us come to the point at once without all this idiotic brag and gassing. You wrote me a letter shouting danger and ruin. What did it mean? Anything real, or merely a melodramatic blowing off of steam? Tell me. Let us have it out and have finished with it. What do you want?"
The softening medium of a gauze veil failed to hide the fact that Poppy's expression was distinctly malignant, her great eyes full of sombre fury, her red lips tense. Smyth backed away from her against the palings in genuine alarm.
"I—I believe you'd like to murder me," he said.
"So I should," Poppy answered. "I should very much like to kill you. And I've the wherewithal here, in my pocket, and there's no one on the road. But you needn't be anxious. I'm not going to murder you. The consequences to myself would be too inconvenient."
As she spoke she thought of yesterday, of the renewal of her friendship with Dominic Iglesias, and of all that he stood for to her in things pure, lovely, and of good report. A sob rose in her throat, for nothing, after all, is so horrible as to feel wicked; nothing so hard to forgive as that which causes one to feel so. Poppy walked on again slowly.
"What do you want?" she repeated miserably. "Be straight with me for once, if you can, de Courcy, and tell me plainly—if there's anything to tell. What is it you want?"
"I have my chance at last," he said hurriedly, "of fame, and success, and recognition—of bringing those who have despised me to their knees. I thought I was safe. But yesterday I found that you—yes, you —come into the question, that you may stand between me and the realisation of my hopes—more than hopes, a certainty, unless you play some scurvy trick on me. I had to have your promise, and there was no time to lose—so I wrote."
Poppy looked at him contemptuously.
"What does all that mean?—more money?" she asked. "Haven't you grown ashamed of begging yet? I raised your allowance last year, and it's being paid regularly—Ford & Martin have sent me on your receipts. To give it you at all is an act of grace, for you've no earthly claim on me, and you know it. From the day I married you I never cost you a farthing; I've paid for everything myself, down to every morsel of bread I put into my mouth. You, talked big about your income beforehand, when you knew you were up to your eyes in debt. Well, in debt you may stay, as far as I am concerned. I'll give you that seventy-five a year if you'll keep clear of me; but I won't give you a penny more, for the simple reason that I shan't have it to give. It'll be an uncommonly close shave in any case—I have myself to keep."
"Yourself to keep?" Smyth snarled. "Since when have you taken to wholesale lying, my pretty madam? That is a new development."
"I'm not lying," Poppy blazed out. "I am speaking honest, sober truth."
Smyth laughed. It was not an agreeable sound.
"Is not that a little too brazen?" he asked. "Even with such a negligible quantity as a deserted husband, it is a mistake to overplay the part."
Then, frightened by her expression, he slunk aside again. But Poppy did not linger. Slowly, steadily, she walked on down the rain-lashed footpath.
"For God's sake tell me what you want—tell me what you want," she cried, "and let me get away from all this rottenness."
"You do not believe in me," Smyth replied sullenly, "and that is why it is so difficult to speak to you about this matter. You have always depreciated my powers and scoffed at my talents. No thanks to you I have any self-confidence left."
"All right, all right," Poppy said. "We can miss out the remainder of that speech. I know it by heart. Come to the point—what do you want?"
"I was just filling in the sketch of the third act."
Poppy shrugged her shoulders and raised her hands with a despairing gesture.
"Oh, heavens," she ejaculated, "a play again! Are you mad? You know, just as well as I do, every manager Mill refuse it unread."
"It will be unnecessary to approach any manager. I go straight to the public this time. I have the promise of money to meet the expenses of two matinees at least. I have no scruple in accepting—it is an investment, and an immensely profitable one—for I know the worth of my own work. It is great, nothing less than great—"
"Of course," Poppy said. "But pray where do I come in?" Then she paused. Suddenly she pieced the bits of the puzzle together, saw and understood. Misery, deeper than any she had yet experienced, overflowed in her. "Ah, it is you, then, you who are bleeding Dominic Iglesias," she cried. "Robbing him by appeals to his charity and lying assurances of impossible profits. You shall not do it. I will put a stop to it. You shall not, you shall not!"
"Why?" Smyth inquired. "Do you want all his money yourself?"
"You dirty hound," Poppy said under her breath.
"I did not know of your connection with him till yesterday," Smyth continued—in proportion as Poppy lost herself, he became cool and astute—"though we have lived in the same house for the last eighteen months. I supposed you to be in pursuit of larger game than superannuated bank-clerks. However, your modesty of taste, combined with your charming attitude towards me, might, as I perceived, lead to complications. I ascertained how long you had been at Cedar Lodge yesterday. Then I wrote to you."
Poppy stood still in the wind and wet, listening intently.
"For once," he went on exultantly, "it is my turn to give orders, my fine lady, and yours to obey. If you interfere, in the smallest degree, between Iglesias and me, I will call his attention to certain facts, the appearance of which is highly discreditable to him. He will pay to save his reputation, if he ceases to pay out of charity—not that it is charity. He is making an investment of which, as a business man, he fully appreciates the worth. If you interfere I will make his position a vastly uncomfortable one. The women who keep Cedar Lodge are as jealous as cats. It would not require much blowing to make that fire burst into a very lively flame, I promise you."
"You live there, then?" Poppy said absently. "You live there?" live there?"
"Yes," he answered. "Does that offend your niceness, too? Do you consider the place too good for me? You need not distress yourself. I have only one room, a small one—on the second floor immediately above your friend's handsome sitting-room, but only half the size of it. The floors are old. I can gather a very fair sense of any conversation taking place below."
Poppy moved on again.
"May I inquire what you propose to do?" Smyth asked presently—"warn your mature commercial admirer and compel me, in self-protection, to blast his reputation, or hold your tongue like a reasonable woman?"
They had reached the end of the tarred palings. Upon the left the quaintly irregular bow-windowed rose-and-ivy-covered houses of Barnes Terrace—no two of them alike in height or in architecture—fronted the road. Upon the right was the river, dull-coloured and wind- tormented. A cargo of bricks, supplying a strong note of red in the otherwise mournful landscape, was being unloaded from a barge; carts backed down the slip to within easy distance of the broad bulwarkless deck, horses shivering as they stood knee-deep in the water. The bricks grated together when the men, handling them, tossed them across. With long-drawn thunderous roar and shriek, a train, heading from Kew Station, rushed across the latticed iron-built railway bridge. Poppy waited, watching the progress of it, watching the unloading of the barge. The one perfectly pure and beautiful gift which life had given her was utterly profaned, so it seemed to her; that which she held dearest and best hopelessly entangled with that which to her was most degrading and abhorrent. And what to do? To be silent was to be disloyal. To speak was to expose Dominic Iglesias to dishonour and disgust far deeper than that which loss of money could inflict. Poppy weighed and balanced, clear that her thought must be wholly for him, not letting anger sway her judgment. Of two evils she must choose that which, for him, was least.
"I will not give you away. I will say nothing," she said at last.
"You swear you will not?"
"Yes, I swear," Poppy said.
"I want it in writing."
"Very well, you shall have it in writing, witnessed if you like," she answered. "The precious document shall be posted to you to-night. Now are you satisfied, you contemptible animal? Have you humbled me enough?"
But Smyth came close to her, pushing his face into hers. He was shaking with excitement, hysterical with mingled fear and relief.
"I am not ungenerous, my dear girl," he whispered. "I am willing to condone the past—to take you back, to acknowledge you as my wife and let you share my success. There is a part in the new play which might have been written for you. You could become world-famous in it. I am not ungenerous, I am willing to make matters up."
"Do you want me to murder you, after all?" Poppy asked. "If you try me much further, I tell you plainly, I can't answer for myself. Therefore, as you value your life, let me alone. Get out of my sight."
During the watches of the ensuing night, amid bellowings of wind in the chimneys, long-drawn complaint of the great cedar tree, rattle of sleet, and those half-heard whisperings and footsteps—as of inhabitants long since departed—which so often haunt an old house through the hours of dark, Dominic Iglesias' mind, for cause unknown, was busied with reminiscences of the firm of Barking Brothers & Barking, and the many years he had spent in its service. He had no wish to think of these things. They came unbidden, pushing themselves upon remembrance. All manner of details, of little histories and episodes connected both with the financial and human affairs of the famous banking-house, occurred to him. And from thoughts of all this, but transmogrified and perverted, when, towards dawn, the storm abating, he at length fell asleep, his dreams were not exempt. For through them caracoled, in grotesque and most irregular inter-relation, those august personages, the heads of the firm, along with his fellow-clerks, living and dead, that militant Protestant, good George Lovegrove, and the whole personnel of the establishment, down to caretaker, messenger-boys, porters and the like. Never surely had been such wild doings in that sedate and reputable place of business—doings in which gross absurdity and ingenious cruelty went hand in hand; while, by some queer freak of the imagination, poor Pascal Pelletier, of hectic and pathetic memory, appeared as leader of the revels, at which the Lady of the Windswept Dust, sad-eyed, inscrutable of countenance, her dragon-embroidered scarf drawn closely about her shoulders, looked on.
Dominic arose from his brief uneasy slumbers anxious and unrefreshed. The phantasmagoria of his dream had been so living, so vivid, that it was difficult to throw off the impression produced by it. Moreover, he was slightly ashamed to find that, the restraining power of the will removed, his mind was capable of creating scenes of so loose and heartless a character. He was displeased with himself, distressed by this outbreak of the undisciplined and unregenerate "natural man" in him. Later, coming into his sitting-room, he unfortunately found matters awaiting him by no means calculated to obliterate displeasing impressions or promote suavity and peace.
For the pile of letters and circulars lying beside his plate upon the breakfast-table was topped by a note directed in de Courcy Smyth's nervous and irritable hand. Dominic opened it with a curious sense of reluctance. Only last week he had lent the man ten pounds; and here was another demand, couched in terms, too, so bullying, so almost threatening, that Dominic's back stiffened considerably.
Smyth requested, or rather commanded, that fifty pounds should be delivered to him without delay. "It was conceivable that Mr. Iglesias had not that amount by him in notes. But, since he had really nothing to do, it would be a little occupation for him to go and procure them." Smyth insisted the money should be paid in a lump sum, adding that, his time being as valuable as Iglesias' was worthless, he could not reasonably be expected to waste it in perpetual letters respecting a subject so essentially uninteresting and distasteful to him as that of ways and means. Such correspondence annoyed him, and put him off his work; and, as it clearly was very much to Iglesias' interest that the play should be finished as soon as possible, it was advisable that he should accede to Smyth's present request without parley and pay up at once.
Reading this mandatory epistle, Dominic was gravely displeased and hurt. Poppy St. John had warned him against the insatiable and insolent greed of persons of this kidney. He had discounted her speech somewhat, supposing it infected with such prejudice as the recollection of private wrongs will breed even in generous natures. Now he began to fear her strictures had been just. The egoism of the unsuccessful is a moral disease, destructive of all sense of proportion. Those suffering from it must be reckoned as insane; not sick merely, but actually mad with self-love. Smyth, to gain his play a hearing, would beggar him—Iglesias—without scruple or regret. But Dominic had no intention of being beggared in this connection. Thrice-sacred charity is one story; the encouragement of the unlimited borrower, the fostering of so colossal a selfishness quite another. A point had been reached where to accede to Smyth's demands was culpable, a consenting, indeed, to wrongdoing. Here then was occasion for careful consideration. Iglesias gravely laid the offensive missive aside, and proceeded to eat his breakfast before opening the rest of his letters. In the intervals of the meal he glanced at the contents of the morning paper.
The war news was unimportant. A skirmish or two, leaving a few more women's lives maimed and hearts desolate. A lie or two of continental manufacture, tending to blacken the fair fame of the most humane and good-tempered army which, in all probability, ever took the field. A shriek or two from soft-handed sentimentalists at home, who—for reasons best known to themselves—are ardent patriots of every country save their own. Such items formed too permanent a part of the daily menu, during the year of grace 1900, to excite more than passing notice. At the bottom of the column a paragraph of a more unusual character attracted Iglesias' attention. It announced it had authority for stating that Alarmist rumours, current regarding the unstable financial position of a certain well-known and highly respected London bank, were grossly exaggerated. No doubt the losses suffered by the bank in question had been severe, owing to its extensive connection with land and mining property in South Africa, and the disorganisation of business in that country consequent upon the war. The said losses were, however, of a temporary character, and had by no means reached the disastrous proportions commonly reported. Granted time, and a reasonable amount of patience on the part of persons most nearly interested, the storm would be successfully weathered, and the bank would resume the leading position which it had so long and honourably enjoyed. No names were given, but Iglesias had small difficulty in supplying them. It appeared to him that Barking Brothers must be in considerable straits or they would never, surely, put forth disclaimers of this description. His mind went back upon the dreams which had left such disquieting impressions upon his mind. In the light of that newspaper paragraph they took on an almost prophetic character. Absently he turned over the rest of the pile of letters, selected one, the handwriting upon the envelope of which was at once well-known and perplexing to his memory, opened it, and turned to the signature to find that of no less a personage than Sir Abel Barking himself.
During the next quarter of an hour Dominic Iglesias lived hard in thought, in decision, in struggle with personal resentment bred by remembrance of scant courtesy and ingratitude meted out to him. He learned that Messrs. Barking Brothers & Barking's embarrassments did, in point of fact, skirt the edge of ruin. Their affairs were in apparently inextricable confusion, owing to Reginald Barking's reckless speculations, while, to add to the general confusion, that strenuous young man had broken down utterly from nervous verstrain, and was, at the present time, incapable of the slightest mental or physical exertion. Things were at a deadlock. "Under these terrible circumstances," Sir Abel Barking wrote, "I turn to you, my good friend, as a person intimately acquainted with the operation of our firm. Your experience may be of service to us in this crisis, and, in virtue of the many benefits you have received from us in the past, I unhesitatingly claim your assistance. In my own name and that of my partners, I offer to reinstate you in your former position, but with enlarged powers. It has always been my endeavour, as you are well aware, to reward merit and to treat those in our employment with generosity and consideration. You will be glad, I am sure, to embrace this opportunity of repaying, in some small measure, your debt towards me and mine." More followed to the same effect. Neither the taste of the writer nor his manner of expression was happy. Of this Dominic was quite sensible. Patronage, especially after his period of independence, was far from agreeable to him. Yet behind the verbiage, the platitudes and bombastic phrases, his ear detected a very human cry of fear and cry for help. Should he accede, doing his best to allay that fear and render that help?
He rose, still holding the wordy letter in his hand, and paced the room. Of his own ability to render effective help, were he allowed freedom of action, Iglesias entertained little doubt—always supposing that the situation did not prove even worse than he had present reason for supposing. It was not difficult to see how the trouble had come about. The senior partners, lulled into false security by lifelong prosperity, had grown supine and inert. Sooner, in their opinion, might the stars fall from heaven than the august house of Barking prove unsound of foundation or capable of collapse! To hint at this, even as a remote possibility, was little short of blasphemous. Their amiable nephew, meanwhile, had regarded them as a flock of silly fat geese eminently fitted for plucking. He let them complacently hiss and cackle, congratulate themselves upon their worldly wisdom and conspicuous modernity, while, all the time, silently, diligently, relentlessly plucking. Now, awakening suddenly to the fact of their nudity, they were in a terrible taking; scandalised, flustered, very sore, poor birds, and quite past recollecting that feathers grow again if the system is sound and the cuticle health. To Iglesias these purse-proud, self-righteous, middle-aged gentlemen presented a spectacle at once pathetic and humorous in their present sad plight. A calm head and clear judgment might do much to ameliorate their position, and a calm head and cool judgment he was confident of possessing. Only was he, after all, disposed to place these useful possessions at their service?
For in the last nine months Dominic Iglesias' habits and outlook had changed notably. The values were altered. It would be far harder to return to the monotonous routine of business life now—even though a fine revenge, a delicate heaping of coals of fire, accompanied that return—than it had been to part company with it last year. Loneliness, the emptiness induced by absence of definite employment, no longer oppressed him. Holy Church had cured all that, giving him a definite place, and definite purpose, beautiful duties of prayer and worship, the restrained, yet continuous, excitement of the pushing forward of soul and spirit upon the fair, strange, daily, hourly journey towards the far horizon and the friendship of Almighty God. His retirement had become very dear to him, since it afforded scope for the conscious prosecution of that journey. Dominic's state of mind, in short, was that of the lover who dreads any and every outside demand which may, even momentarily, distract his attention from the object of his love. Threadneedle Street, the glass and mahogany walled corridors, and the moral atmosphere of them—money-getting and of this world conspicuously worldly—were not these ironically antagonistic to the journey upon which he had set forth and the habit of mind necessary to the successful prosecution of it? There was Poppy St. John, too, and the closer relation of friendship into which he had just entered with her. This must not be neglected. And, thinking of her, he could not but think of that younger son of the great banking-house, Alaric Barking, and his dealings with her—enjoying her as long as it suited him to do so, leaving her as soon as his passion cooled and a more advantageous social connection presented itself. Towards the handsome young soldier Iglesias was, it must be owned, somewhat merciless. Why should he go to the rescue of this young libertine's family, and indirectly facilitate his marriage, and increase its promise of happiness, by helping to secure him an otherwise vanishing fortune? Let him pay the price of his illicit pleasures and become a pauper. Such a consummation Dominic admitted he, personally, could face with entire resignation.
And yet—yet—on closer examination were not these reasons against undertaking the work offered him based upon personal disinclination, personal animosity, rather than upon plain right and wrong, and, consequently, were they not insufficient to justify abstention and refusal? That earlier dream of his, on the night following his dismissal last year, came back to him, with its touching memories of the narrow town garden behind the old house in Holland Street, Kensington—the golden laburnum, the shallow stone basin beloved of sooty sparrows, poor, dear Pascal Pelletier and his Huntley & Palmer's biscuit-box infernal machine and very crude methods of adjusting the age-old quarrel between capital and labour. On that occasion the lonely little boy, though at risk of grave injury to himself, had not hesitated to save the ill-favoured chunk-faced grey cat—which bore in speech and appearance so queer a likeness to Sir Abel Barking—from the ugly fate awaiting it. He had gathered it tenderly in his arms, pitying and striving to heal it. Was the child, by instinct, finer, nobler, more self-forgetful, than the man in the full possession of reason, instructed in the divine science, fortified by the example and merits of the saints? That would, indeed, be a melancholy conclusion. And so it occurred to him, not merely as conceivable but as incontestable, that the road to the far horizon, instead of leading in the opposite direction to the city banking-house, for him, at this particular juncture, led directly into and through it; so that to refuse would be to stray from the straight path and risk the obscuring of the blessed light by a cowardly and selfish lust of the immediate comfort of it.
He would go and help those distracted plucked geese to grow new feathers. Only to do so meant time, labour, unremitting application, a wholesale sacrifice of leisure; so he must see Poppy St. John first.
"I did not call yesterday," Iglesias said, "in consequence of your prohibitory telegram. But to-day I have come early and without permission, first because I was anxious to assure myself you were really unhurt, and secondly because something has occurred regarding which I wish to consult you. I must have your sanction before taking action in respect of it."
Entering from the blustering wind and keen, fitful sunshine without, the little drawing-room struck Iglesias as both stuffy and dingy. And Poppy, standing in the centre of it, huddled in a black brocade tea-gown, a sparse pattern of bluey mauve rosebuds upon it, which hung in limp folds from her bosom to her feet, concealing all the outline of her figure, came perilously near looking dingy likewise. The garment, cut square at the neck, had long seen its first youth. The big outstanding black ribbon bow between her shoulders and that upon her breast was creased and crumpled. Beneath the masses of her dark hair her face looked almost unnaturally small, sallow and bloodless, while her eyes were enormous—dusky dwelling-places, as it seemed to her visitor, of some world-old sorrow. Her face did not light up, neither did she make any demonstration of gladness or greeting, but stood, one toy spaniel tucked under either arm, their forelegs lying along her wrists, their fringed paws resting upon her palms. Dominic had a conviction she had snatched up the little dogs on hearing his voice, and held them so as to render it impossible for him to take her hand. Less than ever, looking upon her, had he any mercy for Alaric Barking. Less than ever did the prospect of spending weeks, perhaps months, in shoring up the imperilled fortunes of that young gentleman's family prove alluring to him.
"You were hurt," he broke out, almost fiercely. "You are suffering, and, worse, you are unhappy. It makes me very angry to see you thus. I wish I could reach those who are guilty of having distressed and injured you."
Poppy's face went a shade paler, and alarm mingled with the sorrow in her eyes, but she made a courageous effort to patter as usual.
"You'd give them the what for, dear man, wouldn't you?" she said. "But you would have to go way back in the ages for that, and get behind the seed-sowing of which this gay hour is the harvest. Still, I love to see you ferocious. It is very flattering to me, and it's mightily becoming to you. Don't snore, Cappadocia. Manners, my good child, manners. All the same, I wasn't hurt slipping on those gorgeous white steps of yours. Upon my honour, I wasn't. But I had to go out yesterday afternoon, and I got caught in one of those infernal hailstorms. It was altogether too cold for comfort, and I feel a bit cheap this morning in consequence. That's why I put on this odious gown. I always try to dress for the part, and the part just now is dismality. From the start this gown has been a disappointment. I counted on the roses fading pink, but the beasts faded blue instead. I feel as if I was dressed in a bruise, and that's appropriate—for I also feel as if I had been beaten all over. Merely the hail—I give you my word. Nothing more than that. I'm never ill." Poppy paused, dropped the little dogs on the floor. They cowered against her, looking up woefully at her. "No, I don't want you," she said. "You're heavy. I'm tired of you."
Then she blew her nose, and, over the top of her hand-kerchief, looked full at Iglesias for the first time.
"Well, what is it? What do you want my sanction for?"
Without waiting for his answer she swept aside, knelt down, crouching over the fire, extending both hands to the heat of it, while her open sleeves falling back showed her arms bare to the elbow.
"Tell me, and, if you don't mind, shove along. I own I am a trifle jumpy—only the weather—but I need humouring, so shove along, there's a good dear," she said.
Whereupon, in as few words as possible, Dominic unfolded to her the contents of Sir Abel Barking's letter. As she listened, Poppy raised herself, turned round, stood upright, her hands clasped behind her.
"Oh! that's it, is it?" she said. She looked less bloodless, more animated, more natural. "I'm not altogether surprised. The poor old lads have found out the cuckoo in their nest at last, have they? Alaric had a notion Reginald Barking—not a nice person Reginald—I saw him once and he looked a cross between a pair of forceps and a bag of shavings—I didn't trust him—you don't, do you? Alaric had a notion this precious cousin was making hay of the whole show. But it was utterly useless for him to intervene. In the eyes of the elder generation he is the original dog with a bad name, only fit for hanging."
Poppy paused, took a long breath, smiled a little.
"What do you think? Is it a very bad business?"
"I cannot tell till I have gone into details," Iglesias replied. He was slightly put about by the lady's change of demeanour, by the interest she displayed, by the alteration in her expression and bearing.
"And they howl to you to save the sinking ship?" Poppy continued lightly. "Shall you go?"
"That is the question I have come to ask you."
"To ask me?" she said. "But, heart alive, dear man, where do I come in?"
"My duty to you stands before every other duty," Iglesias answered gravely. "Those who have caused you sorrow and injured you, are my enemies. How can it be otherwise? A member of this family—I do not choose to name him—has, in my opinion, played a detestable part by you; therefore only with your sanction, freely given, can I consent to be helpful to his relatives."
The colour leaped into Poppy's cheeks, the light into her eyes, her lips parted in pretty laughter; yet she still kept her hands clasped behind her back.
"Ah! I see—I see," she cried. "But how did you contrive to get left behind, most beloved lunatic, and be born five or six centuries out of your time into this shouting, pushing, modern world which knows not chivalry? Do you imagine this is the fashion most men treat women? Here I am laughing, yet I could cry that you should come to me—me, of all people—on such a lovely, fine, fanciful errand."
"My conduct appears to me perfectly obvious and simple," Iglesias replied rather coldly.
"I know it does, my dear, and there's the pathetic splendour of it," Poppy declared, soft mothering tones in her voice. "All the same we must keep our heads screwed on the right way. So, tell me, will it be of any personal advantage to you to help pull these elderly plungers out of the quagmire?"
"At least they will make it worth your while by paying up handsomely?"
"No doubt they will make me some offer, but I shall decline it," Iglesias said. "I draw a pension. I will continue to do so. That is just. I have a right to it in virtue of my past work. But I shall refuse to accept any salary over and above that. I shall make it a condition that I give my services. And that which I give I give, whether it be to king or to beggar. To make profit out of my giving would be intolerable to me."
Poppy mused, her head bent, pushing away the tiny dogs with her foot as they fawned upon her.
"Don't bother! you little miseries," she said, "don't bother! I'm busy now. I've no use for you." Presently she glanced up at Mr. Iglesias, who held himself proudly, as he stood waiting before her. "Do you care for these barking people? Is it a question of affection between any of them and you?"
"I am afraid not," he answered. "Ours has been a purely business connection throughout. How should it be otherwise? The social interval between employers and employed is not easily bridged."
"Stuff-a-nonsense!" Poppy put in scornfully. "They might feel honoured to tie your shoe."
"Any attempt to ignore differences of wealth and station, which others are pleased to remember, would be unbecoming," he continued. "Nor do I relish condescension on the part of my social betters. It does not suit me. I prefer to remain within my own borders. Still, there is the tie of long association with these merchant princes and their undertakings, and this, I own, influences me strongly. It would be shocking to me to witness the failure or ruin of those with whom I have been in daily intercourse. Then, too, there is a certain challenge in the present position which appeals to the fighting instinct in me. If not altogether by nature, still by habit I am a business man. Affairs interest me, and consequently the more embarrassed and apparently hopeless the existing state of things is, the greater would be my satisfaction in mastering the intricacies of it and reducing them to order. These practical matters are not without very real excitement and drama to those who have the habit of handling them." Iglesias paused, and then added quietly, "But I am contented enough as I am, and should not voluntarily have touched business again had there not been another consideration over and above those I have enumerated—namely, the plain obligation of right doing, whether the said doing be congenial to one or not. This obligation is supreme, or should be so, in the case of one who, like myself, has bound himself by definite acts of obedience and self-dedication."
His expression had changed, taking on something of exaltation. He no longer looked at Poppy, but away to the far horizon and the light thereon resident.
And the Lady of the Windswept Dust was quick to realise this, though upon what fair unseen object the eyes of his spirit did, in fact, rest she was ignorant. Against it the vanity inherent in her womanhood rebelled. She was piqued and jealous of the unnamed, unknown object which absorbed his attention more than she herself and her friendship did. From the first Iglesias had appealed to her very various nature in a threefold manner. To the artist in her he appealed by the clearness of his individuality, his finish of person and of feature, his gravity and poise—these last taking their rise not in insensibility, but in reasoned will, in passionate emotion held, as she had learned, austerely in check. He appealed to the motherhood in her by his unworldliness, by his ignorance of base motives, thus making her attitude towards him protective; she instinctively trying to stand between him and a naughty world, to stand, too, between him and her own too often naughty self. He appealed to the child in her by the exotic and foreign elements in him, which captivated her fancy, endowing him with an effect of mystery, making him seem to hail from some region of legend and high romance. But the events of the last few days had been far from beneficial to Poppy St. John. They had demoralised her, so that the artistic, maternal, and childlike aspects of her nature were alike overlaid by the bitterness, the cynicism, the recklessness engendered by her unhappy childless marriage and the irregular life she had led. Poppy's feet were held captive in the quicksands of the things of sense; her outlook was concrete and gross. Finer instincts lit up but momentary flickering fires in her, speedily dying out into the gloom begotten by the deplorable scene of yesterday with her husband, and shame at the conspiracy of silence into which, as the lesser of the two evils presented to her, she had entered, remembrances of which, on his first arrival, had made her feel unworthy and a traitor in the presence of Iglesias. This demoralisation worked in her to rebellion against just all that which, in her happier moods, rendered Iglesias delightful to her. His exaltation, his calm, the mystery which so delicately surrounded him, the very distinction of his appearance irritated her, so soon as she became conscious that she was no longer the sole object of his thoughts. She was pushed by a bad desire to force from him a more complete self-revelation, to cheapen him in some way and break him up.
"Dominic Iglesias," she cried suddenly and imperatively, "you are a trifle too empyrean. I don't quite believe in you. Be more ordinary, more vulgarly human. For who are you, after all? What are you?" she said.
And he, his thoughts recalled from a great distance, regarded her questioningly and as without immediate recognition. Her voice was harsh, and the transition was so abrupt from the radiant land of the spirit to the dingy realities of Poppy's drawing-room, her tired, black, bluey-mauve patterned tea-gown, and her absurdly artificial little dogs. It took him some few seconds to adjust himself. Then he smiled in apology, and spoke very courteously and gently.
"Who am I, what am I, dear friend? Why this, I think—a commonplace, very ordinary person who, long ago, in early childhood, by mournful accident, for which it would be an impiety to hold those on whom he was dependent responsible, lost his sight. Through all the years which men count, and rightly, the best of life—when courage is high and the hand strong, and opportunity fertile, circumstance as a block of precious many-coloured marble out of which to carve fine fortune for ourselves and those we love—he wandered in darkness, insecure of footing, missing the very end and object for which earthly existence has been bestowed upon us mortals. He was sad and homesick for that which he had not; yet ignorant of the nature of his own loss, disposed to blame the constitution of things, rather than his own incapacity, for that which he suffered."
"And then?" Poppy put in sharply. Listening, she had started to mock, the cynic and worldling being hot in her, but, looking at the speaker, somehow, she dared not mock.
"And then—recently—since I have known you in short, it has pleased Almighty God by degrees to restore my sight."
Poppy regarded him intently, her singular eyes wide with question and with doubt, her lips pressed together.
"I see—you have got religion," she said. "But do you seriously mean to tell me that I—I—have had anything to do with that?"
"Yes," Iglesias answered. "You have had much to do with it. First by love—for your friendship woke up my heart. Then by sorrow"—he paused, divided by the desire to spare her and to tell her the whole of his thought—"sorrow, when I came to know you better and value your character and gifts at their true worth, because I saw noble things put to ignoble uses, which of all pitiful sights is perhaps the most profoundly pitiful."
Silence followed, broken only by minute and reproachful snorings on the part of Cappadocia and her spouse. The little dogs, sensible of neglect, had become the victims of wounded self-love, that most primitive, as it is the most universal, of passions throughout all grades of living things. Poppy meanwhile turned her head aside, unable or unwilling to speak. Again she blew her nose with complete disregard of the unromantic quality of that action, then said huskily:
"I have cleaned the slate. I shall keep it clean." Her voice grew steadier. A touch of malice came into her expression. "I like compliments, and you have paid me about the biggest I ever had. It will take a little time to digest. So I think—I think, dear man, I will not stand in the way of your going back to the City, and saving the sinking ship—that is, if the work won't be too hard for you?"
"No," he answered, touched by her more gracious aspect, yet slightly confused. "I have had nearly a year's holiday and rest; I am quite equal to work. But I am afraid the hours must necessarily be long, and that my opportunities of coming to see you will not be very frequent."
"Perhaps that's just as well," she said, "while I am still in process of digesting the big compliment."
Then impulsively she swept up to him and laid her hands on his shoulders, looking him full in the face.
"See here, you thrice dear innocent, since you have mentioned that terrible word 'love,' the complexion of our relation has changed somewhat. Don't you understand, made as I am, I must fight seven devils within me if I'm to continue to play fair with you, as I swore I would? And so, just because you are so very much to me, I had best not see you too often until I have settled down into my new scheme of life. In a sense Alaric was a safeguard. That safeguard's gone."
She moved a step back, letting her hands fall at her sides, while her eye grew hard and dark.
"And there are other reasons, brutal, unworthy, sordid reasons, why it is wiser that you should not come here often at present. They did not exist—at least I had not the faintest conception that they did—when we last met. They have rushed into hateful prominence since. Don't ask me—I cannot tell you. You must trust me, and you must not let my silence alienate you. I can't be explicit, but I give you my word I am perfectly straight. And you must not let your religion alienate you either. By the way, what form of faith is it?"
"The faith of my own people," Dominic answered. "The faith of the Catholic Church."
"Then I am not so afraid I shall lose you," she said, "for that's the only brand of religion I've ever come across which isn't too nice to reckon with human nature as it really is. It can save sinners, just because it knows how to make saints—and it has made them out of jolly unpromising material at times, there's the comfort of it."
She held out her hand in farewell.
"Good-bye till next time. You've done me good, as you always do. Now, I am going to re-study some of my old parts, just to get the hang of the whole show again."
But the door once shut, she flung herself down on the broad settee, while the tiny dogs, whimpering, crowded upon her lap.
"Poppy St. John, you're not such a bad lot after all," she cried. "But oh! oh! oh! it's beastly rough to be so young, and have gone so far, and know so much. There, Willie Onions, don't snivel. It's both superfluous and unpleasant." She sat up and wiped her eyes. "Upon my honour, I think it was just as well I gave Phillimore the little revolver last night, to lock up in the plate chest," she said.
It followed that Dominic Iglesias walked on across the common to Barnes Station and travelled Citywards, solaced and uplifted in spirit, yet greatly troubled by the idea of those newly arrived complications at which the Lady of the Windswept Dust had hinted. He did not permit himself to inquire what they might be. Doubtless she knew best—in her social sense he had great confidence—so he acquiesced in her silence about them. Still, as he reflected, it is not a little lamentable that even friendship, the angelic relation between man and woman, should be thus beset by perils from within and pitfalls without. Where lay the fault—with over-civilisation and the improper proprieties resultant therefrom? Or was it of far more ancient origin, resident in the very foundations of human nature? Woman, eternally the vehicle of man's being, eternally the inspiration of quite three-fifths of his action; yet, at the same time, the eternal stumbling block and danger to the highest of his moral and intellectual attainment! Mr. Iglesias smiled sadly and soberly to himself as the train rolled on into Waterloo. In any case she remains the most astonishing of God's creatures. It would be dull enough here on earth without her, though, to employ one of Poppy's characteristic phrases, "it's most infernally risky" with!
But once inside the bank, such far-ranging meditations gave place to considerations immediate and concrete, Iglesias' whole mind being focussed to arrive at the facts of the case. And this was far from easy. For alarm stalked those usually self-secure and self-complacent rooms and glass and mahogany-walled corridors; men looking up from their desks as he, Iglesias, passed, with anxious faces, or moving with hushed footsteps as though someone lay sick to death within the house. In Sir Abel Barking's private room the drama reached its climax, panic sitting there sensibly enthroned. Her chill presence had visibly affected Sir Abel, causing the contrast between the overblown portrait upon the wall and the subject of it to be ironical to the point of cruelty. For Sir Abel was aged and shrivelled. His clothes hung loose upon him. Hardly could he rally his tongue to the enunciation of a single platitude even of the most obviously staring sort. The mighty, indeed, were fallen and the weapons of wealth-getting perished! Yet never had Iglesias felt so drawn in sympathy towards his late employer, for the spectre of possible ruin had made Sir Abel almost humble, almost human.
"I am obliged to you for responding to my summons so promptly—yes, sit down, my good friend, sit down," he said. "It is necessary that I should converse with you at some length, and I refuse to keep you standing. Our present position is inexplicable to me. Granting that my nephew Reginald is unworthy of the trust we reposed in his ability and probity, there was still our own judgment in reserve, and our own unquestioned capacity to meet any strain upon our resources. That our confidence in these last was misplaced is still incredible to me. I am completely baffled. The past few months, indeed, with their reiterated discovery of difficulty and of loss, have been a terrible tax upon my fortitude. Veteran financier though I am, I own to you, Iglesias, there have been moments when I feared that I, too, should give way. Only my sense of the duty I owe to my own reputation has supported me." Sir Abel turned sideways in his chair. His eyes sought the derisive portrait upon the wall, contemplation of which appeared to reanimate his self-confidence somewhat, for he continued in his larger manner, "Nor has the sting of private anxiety been lacking. My younger son has been called away to the seat of war under circumstances of a peculiarly affecting character. My earnest hopes for his future, in the shape of a very desirable marriage, touched on fulfilment—."
But here Iglesias intervened. For his temper began to rise at the mention of the loves of Alaric Barking. If the springs of Christian charity, just now welling up so sweetly within him, were not to run incontinently dry, the conversation, he felt, must be steadied down to themes of other import. So he civilly but definitely requested Sir Abel to "come to Hecuba," and to Hecuba the poor man, haltingly yet very obediently, came. He and his ex-head-clerk seemed, indeed, to have changed places, so that, before the end of the interview, Iglesias began to measure himself as never before, to realise his own business acumen, his quickness of apprehension, his grasp of the issues presented to him and his own fearlessness of judgment. Whatever the upshot as to the eventual saving of the credit of Messrs. Barking Brothers & Barking, Iglesias became increasingly confident of his own power, and quietly satisfied in the exercise of it.
And so it happened that, although tired in brain and body, his mind weighted with thought, as were his arms with bundles of papers—which he carried home for more leisurely inspection—Iglesias came rapidly up the white steps of Cedar Lodge that night. He was buoyant in spirit, content with his day's work, keenly interested in the development of it. Using his latchkey he entered the square panelled hall silently—with results, for revels were in progress within.
Dinner was over. Mrs. Porcher and the great Eliza, linked arm in arm, stood near the dining-room door watching, while those two gay young sparks, Farge and Worthington, inspired by memories of a recent visit to the Hippodrome, played at lions. It was a simple game, still it gave pleasure to the players. Clad in an easy-fitting dark blue "lounge suit," with narrow white cross-bar lines on it, an aged and faded orange sheep-skin hearthrug thrown gallantly across his shoulders, Farge, on all fours, with the mildest roarings imaginable, made rushes from under the dinner-table at the devoted Worthington, who withstood his fiery onslaught with lungings and brandishings of that truly classic weapon, the humble necessary umbrella. At each rush the ladies backed and tittered, clinging together with the most engagingly natural semblance of terror.
"Ha! caitiff wretch, beware!" declaimed Worthington nobly. "Only across my prostrate corse shall you reach your innocent victims. Say, Charlie boy," he added in a hurried aside, "I didn't poke you in the eye by mistake just now, did I?"
"Wurra—wurra—wurra," roared Farge. "Never touched me, Bert, by a couple of inches—wurra."
But there the would-be ferocious animal paused, squatted upon its haunches, pointing its finger dramatically towards the front door, thus causing the whole company to wheel round and gaze nervously in the direction indicated.
"Oh, Mr. Iglesias, how you did startle me!" Mrs. Porcher cried plaintively, laying her hand upon her heart.
"Pardon me," he answered. "I had no idea the hall was occupied or I would have rung instead of letting myself in. I must apologise further for being so late, and for not having telephoned that I should be unable to be back in time for dinner."
"We all know that there are counter-attractions, which may easily account for unpunctuality," Miss Hart put in, with a toss of her head.
"Hush, hush, dear Liz," murmured Mrs. Porcher, while the two young men made round eyes at each other, and de Courcy Smyth, leaning against the balusters on the landing of the half-flight, announced his presence by a sarcastic laugh.
Mr. Iglesias looked from one to another in surprise. He had been thinking so very little—perhaps, as he told himself, insolently little—about all these good people for some time past. Now he became aware of a hostile atmosphere. For cause unknown he was in disgrace with them all. Possibly they resented his indifference, possibly they were justified in so doing. Hence he did not feel angry, but merely sorry and perplexed. He addressed his hostess with increased courtliness of bearing.
"I hope I have not caused you inconvenience, Mrs. Porcher," he said. "I was summoned suddenly upon business to the City this morning. The business in question proved more complicated than I had anticipated, and I was detained by it till late. This leads me to tell you, if you will forgive my troubling you with personal matters, that I shall be compelled to go to the City daily for some weeks to come. I shall not, therefore, be able to give myself the pleasure of joining you at luncheon, or probably at dinner, either."
"Indeed," Mrs. Porcher remarked. "This is rather unexpected, Mr. Iglesias."
"To me wholly unexpected," he answered, "and in some respects unwelcome; but it is unavoidable, unfortunately."
He bowed gravely to the two ladies and, ignoring the rest of the little company, went on his way upstairs. At the half-flight Smyth stood aside to let him pass; then, after a moment's hesitation, followed him.
"Mr. Iglesias," he said, "may I be permitted so far to presume upon our acquaintance as to remind you that you received a letter from me this morning requiring an answer?"
Dominic paused at the stair-head.
"Yes, I received it," he replied coldly.
"And you condescended to read it, so I venture to imagine, notwithstanding that you were summoned on important business to the City. We are all impressed by that interesting fact—vastly impressed by it, needless to state. I specially so, of course, since commerce in all its branches, as you know, commands my profoundest admiration and respect. Literature and art are but as garbage compared with it—no one ever recognised that gratifying truth more thoroughly than I do myself. Still, the shopkeeper—I beg your pardon, financier I should have said—is not wholly exempted, by the ideal character of his calling, from keeping his promises even to poor devils of scholars and literary men such as myself."
Smyth swaggered, his hands in his trouser pockets, his glance at once impertinent and malevolent, his manner easy to the point of insolence.
"I venture to remind you of my letter, therefore, and I may add I shall feel obliged if you'll just hand me over those notes without delay."
"I read your letter," Iglesias answered. "It required consideration."
"Oh! did it, really? I supposed that I had expressed myself with perfect lucidity. But if any point appeared to you to need explanation, I am disengaged at the present time—I am quite willing to explain." "Thank you," Iglesias answered, "no explanation is necessary on your part, I believe, though perhaps a little is on mine. I must ask you to remember that I promised to help you within reasonable relation to my means. What constitutes a reasonable relation it is for me to judge, since I alone know what my means are. I regret to tell you that your last demand greatly exceeded that reasonable relation. I am therefore reluctantly obliged to refuse it."
"To refuse it?" Smyth exclaimed incredulously.
"Yes, to refuse it," Iglesias said calmly. "When your play is ready for production I am prepared to bear the cost of two representations, as I have already told you. But I am not prepared to make you unlimited advances meanwhile. To do so would be no kindness to you—"
"Wouldn't it?" Smyth broke out excitedly. "No kindness to me? Do you imagine I want kindness, that I would accept or even tolerate kindness from any man, and particularly from you? I offer you a magnificent investment, and you speak to me as though I was a beggar asking alms in the street. No kindness to me? This high moral tone does not become you in the very least, let me tell you, Mr. Iglesias. Do you suppose I am such a stoneblind ass as not to see what has been happening. Doesn't it occur to you that I hold your reputation in my two hands?"
"My reputation?" Iglesias repeated, a very blaze of pride and indignation in his eyes.
Smyth backed hastily away from him, with a livid face and shaking knees.
"No, no, Mr. Iglesias," he protested. "I was a fool to say that. But I am utterly beaten by work and by worry. I do not deny that you have behaved handsomely to me. But persistent injustice and cruelty have soured me. Is it wonderful? And then to-night those blatant young idiots, Farge and Worthington, have set my nerves on edge by their imbecility and conceit, till I really am not accountable for what I say. I had better go. We can talk of this at another time. I dare say I can manage for a day or two, though it will not be easy to do so. However, I am accustomed to rubbing shoulders with every created description of undeserved indignity and wretchedness. I will go. Good-night."
Iglesias entered his sitting-room, turned up the gas, and looked round at the orderly aspect of the place with a movement of relief. He ranged the bundles of papers upon the table. If he was to master their contents he would have to work far into the night, and the day had been a long one, full of application and of very varied emotions. He stood for a little space thinking of it all. The return to his familiar quarters at the bank had affected him less than he had expected. He had not felt it as a return to slavery.
"Thanks to the Church," he said gratefully, "which confers on her members the only perfect freedom, namely, freedom of soul, freedom of heavenly citizenship."
Then he thought of Poppy—thought very tenderly of that strangely captivating woman of many moods! How clever she was, how accurately she knew the ways of men! Her warnings regarding his dabbling in matters theatrical, for instance, and charities to unsuccessful playwrights.—And at that point Dominic Iglesias drew himself up short. For, in a flash, the truth came to him that Poppy St. John's hated "jackal of a husband" was none other than his fellow-lodger, de Courcy Smyth, whose shuffling footsteps he heard even now, nervelessly crossing and recrossing the floor of the room immediately above.
"I could not write, Rhoda, because of course I could not be sure beforehand whether, when I came to London, I should really wish to see you and George again or not." This from Serena, loftily and with rustlings. "But as Lady Samuelson was driving in this direction to-day, and offered to drop me here if I could find my own way back, I thought I had better come, as I knew it was your afternoon at home."
"And I am sure for my part I am very pleased to have you come," Mrs. Lovegrove replied, leading the way towards the seat of honour upon the Chesterfield sofa. "I always do hold with letting bygones be bygones, particularly as between relatives, when there has been any little unpleasantness. And perhaps your calling will cheer poor Georgie up. He is very tenacious of your and Susan's affection, is Georgie."
Here the speaker proceeded to swallow rather convulsively, pressing her handkerchief against her lips.
"Perhaps I should be wiser to keep it all to myself," she added, not without agitation. "But the sight of you does bring up so much. And I am sorry to tell you, Serena, things are not as happy as they used to be in this house."
The office of ministering angel was not, it must be conceded, exactly native to Serena, her sympathies being restricted, the reverse of acute. But, at a push, "curiosity has been known to supply the place of sympathy very passably; and of curiosity Serena had always a large stock at the service of her friends and acquaintance.
"I wonder why," she therefore observed in reply to her hostess's concluding remark—"I mean I wonder why things should not be as happy as they used to be?"
"I trace the commencement of it all to the time when you were visiting here last November—not that I mean you were in any way to blame—"
Serena interrupted with spirit:
"No, pray do not connect anything which occurred then with me, Rhoda. I think it would be most misplaced. After all that I have had to go through I really should have thought it only delicate on your part never to refer to what took place during my visit. I certainly should have hesitated about coming here to-day if I had supposed either you or George would have referred to it.—What dreadfully bad taste of Rhoda!" she added mentally. "I believe I had better go. That would mark my displeasure, and teach her to be more guarded with me in future. But then perhaps she has something to say which I really ought to know. Perhaps it would be a mistake to go. Perhaps I had better stay. I do not want to be too harsh with Rhoda."
The truth being that she actually itched to hear more. For, to Serena, her wholly imaginary love episode with Mr. Iglesias represented the most vivid of all the very limited experiences of her life. Her affections had not been engaged, since she possessed no affections in any vital sense of that word. But she had been flattered and excited.
She had seemed to herself to occupy a most interesting position, demanding infinite tact. During the months which had elapsed she had rehearsed the history of every incident, of every hour of intercourse, with Dominic Iglesias, a thousand times; weighing each word, discounting every look of his, indulging in unlimited speculation and analysis, until the proportions of that which had occurred were magnified beyond all possibility of recognition, let alone of sane relation to fact. To herself, therefore, Serena had become the heroine of an elaborate intrigue. This greatly increased her importance in her own eyes; and, though she was studiously silent regarding the subject save in indirect allusion, the said self-importance, reacting upon those about her, gained both for herself and her opinions a degree of consideration to which she was unaccustomed and which she highly relished. Never had Serena presented so bold a front to her philanthropic and very possessive elder sister. Never had she enjoyed so much attention in the small and rigidly select circle of Slowby society, in which she and Miss Susan moved. Serena spoke with authority upon all subjects, on the strength of a purely fictitious affair of the heart. She is not the first woman who has made capital out of the non-existent in this kind, nor will she probably be the last! Nevertheless, she was very far from admitting the great benefit which Mr. Iglesias had so unconsciously conferred upon her. She regarded herself as a deeply injured person—irreparably injured, but for her own diplomacy, admirable caution, knowledge of the world and self-respect.
"I am well aware it is a trying subject to approach," Mrs. Lovegrove replied, with praiseworthy mildness. "And I am far from blaming you for turning from it, Serena. I am sure it has weighed sadly on my mind and on George's, too. Not that he has said much, but I could see how he felt; and then a great deal has come out since. That is why I am so gratified to have you call here to-day, and so will Georgie be. He has taken it dreadfully to heart finding how we have all been taken in, and seeing how wrong it must put him with you and with Susan."
"It is very proper that you should say that, Rhoda," the other observed with condescension. "I think you owe it to me to express regret. I should have been sorry if George had proved indifferent, for I have been very careful in what I have told Susan. Of course, I might have spoken strongly. I think anyone would admit I should have been quite justified in doing so. But I wished to spare George. Mamma was very much attached to him, and of course he was constantly with us in old days, before his marriage."
It was significant of the wife's humble state that she received this thrust without a murmur.
"Poor Georgie was too upset to tell even me for a long time," she continued somewhat irrelevantly, "and you may judge by that how badly he felt. He knew how shocked I should be, and that I should take it as such an insult to the dear vicar, after all his kindness, that any friend of ours whom he had talked to in this house should turn Romanist."
"Who? What?" cried Serena. She had determined to maintain a superior and impassive attitude, but at this point curiosity became rampant, refusing further circumlocution or delay.
"Why, Mr. Iglesias, to be sure," Mrs. Lovegrove answered, hardly restraining evidences of satisfaction. The news was lamentable, no doubt; but to have it miss fire in the recital of it would have made it ten times more lamentable still. "And the worst of it was," she continued, refreshed by the effect upon her hearer, "he kept it dark for we don't in the least know how long. He mentioned no dates, and poor Georgie was too upset to ask him. Of course it is well known how double Romanists are always taught to be—not that I was ever acquainted with any. You never meet them out, I am glad to think, where we visit. Still, that Mr. Iglesias, who was quite one of ourselves, as you may say, so intimate and always appearing the perfect gentleman, so open and honest—"
"Ah! there you are wrong, Rhoda," the other lady put in with decision, while making a violent effort to recover her impassivity and superiority. "You and George may be surprised, but I am not. I always had my suspicions of Mr. Iglesias. I told you so more than once. At the time you and George were annoyed. Now you see I was right. I am seldom mistaken. Even Susan admits I am very observant. After his extraordinary behaviour to me I should not be surprised at anything which Mr. Iglesias might do." She paused, breathless but triumphant. "Have you seen him since all this came out, Rhoda?"
"Oh, no. He has called twice, but fortunately Georgie was out walking. He goes out walking a great deal now, does Georgie." The speaker heaved a voluminous sigh. Her satisfaction had been short-lived. "And I told the girl, if Mr. Iglesias asked for me, to say I was particularly engaged. He has written to Georgie. I know that—a long letter—but I have not been asked to read it."
Mrs. Lovegrove pressed her handkerchief against her lips again, agitation gaining her.
"After all these years of marriage, you know, Serena, it is a very cutting thing to have any concealment between me and Georgie. I should not mention it to you but that you were here when it commenced. I never supposed—no, never, never—there could be any coldness between him and me. When I have heard others speak of trouble with their husbands, I have always pitied the poor things from my heart, but held them mainly responsible. Now I think differently—"
"Miss Eliza Hart, mum." This shrilly from the little house-parlourmaid.
Serena rose as well as her hostess. Superiority counselled departure; curiosity urged remaining.
"Of course, I should feel justified in staying if Rhoda pressed me to do so," she said to herself. And Rhoda, in the very act of greeting her new guest, did press her to do so.
"Surely you are not leaving yet?" she said plaintively.
"It would hurt me not to have you stay to tea, and Georgie would be sadly disappointed to think he had missed you."
Thus admonished, Serena graciously consented to remain Miss Hart, as last arrival, being necessarily invited to assume the place of honour upon the sofa, Serena selected a chair at as great a distance from that historic article of furniture as the exigencies of conversation permitted. "I must show her that I stay not to see her, but solely on Georgie's account," she commented inwardly. "I have been very cold in manner. I think she must have observed that."
But the great Eliza was in a militant humour, not easily abashed. She had called with intentions, in the interests of which she plunged volubly into talk.
"You will excuse my coming without Peachie Porcher, Mrs. Lovegrove," she began. "She was all anxiety to come, too, fearing you might think her neglectful. But I prevented it. She overrates her strength, does Peachie, and to-day her neuralgia is cruel. 'I'll run across and account for you,' I said to her. 'You just lie down and take a nap, and let the housemaid bring you up a little something with your tea, and take it early.' 'It's not more nourishment I require, but less worry, Liz dear,' she said. And so it is, Mrs. Lovegrove."
"We all have our troubles, Miss Hart, and often unsuspected ones which call for silence."
The wife's large cheeks quivered ominously, while Serena rustled—but whether in sympathetic agreement with the sentiments expressed by the last speaker, or in protest against the presence of the former one, it would be difficult to determine.
"I wonder whether that is not best, Rhoda—I mean I wonder whether it is not best to be silent," she remarked reflectively. "I think people are not usually half cautious enough what they tell. So many disagreeables can be avoided if you are really on your guard. Mamma impressed that upon us when we were children. I am very careful, but I often think Susan is hardly careful enough. Most troubles arise through trusting other people too much."
"And that's poor darling Peachie all over," Miss Hart declared, with a fine appreciation of opportunity. "Too great trustfulness has been her worst fault, as I always tell her, the generous pet. Not that all our gentlemen are ungrateful, Mrs. Lovegrove. I would not have you suppose that. Poor Mr. Smyth, for instance, whom I'm afraid I have accused of being very surly and bearish at times, has come out wonderfully lately. But it must be a hard nature, indeed, which Peachie's influence would not soften. One such nature I am acquainted with." Eliza paused, looking from one to other of her hearers with much meaning. "But it is not the case with poor Mr. Smyth. He has yielded. Then there is the tie of an unfortunate domestic past between him and Peachie, which helps to bring them together.—Of course that means nothing to you, Mrs. Lovegrove."
The lady addressed swallowed convulsively.
"But all are not blessed with such good fortune as yours," the great Eliza continued. "Mr. Smyth has been very open with Peachie recently. He has some surprising tales to tell, knowing very well all that is going on in society. And that reminds me of a certain gentleman who does not live a thousand miles from here. Mr. Smyth has hinted at much that is very startling in that direction."
The speaker paused again.
"Would it be intrusive to ask whether you have been favoured with much of Mr. Iglesias' company during the last few weeks, Mrs. Lovegrove?" she added.
Ruddy mottlings bespread the wife's kindly countenance. Serena moved slightly upon her chair. She was conscious, of growing excitement.
"Perhaps not quite so much as formerly; but then Mr. Lovegrove has been out walking most evenings. The warmer weather always causes him to feel the need of exercise," the excellent woman returned, putting heroic restraint upon herself. "And I have been very occupied with the spring cleaning. I make it a duty to look into everything myself, you know, Miss Hart. Not but what my girls are very good. I think all the talk about trouble with the servants is very much exaggerated. Our cook, Fanny, has been with us quite a number of years. Still, I hold it is well for them to have a mistress's supervision if the cleaning is to be thorough. If you see to it yourself, then you can have nobody to blame. And so I have had frequently to deny myself to visitors."
She gave a sigh of relief, trusting she had loyally steered the conversation into safer channels. But the great Eliza was not thus to be thwarted.
"I asked on Peachie Porcher's account," she declared, "not on my own, Mrs. Lovegrove. It is all of less than no consequence to me, except for the sake of Cedar Lodge, how a certain gentleman spends his time. But Peachie's interests must be protected. With an establishment such as ours a good name is everything. 'You cannot be too particular; for any talk of fastness, and the place must go down,' as she says to me—"
But here, the wife's natural rectitude and sense of justice triumphed over prejudice and wounded sensibilities.
"I am sure I could never believe anyone would have occasion to accuse Mr. Iglesias of fastness," she said. "Of course, the change of religion is dreadful, particularly in one who should have known better, though a foreigner, having had the advantage of being brought up in England. Nobody can be more aware of that than myself and Mr. Lovegrove. It has been a sad grief to us"—her voice quavered—"and no doubt early rising and fish meals do make a lot of work and unpleasantness in a house-hold. But as to fastness, well, Miss Hart, I cannot find it in my conscience to agree to anything as bad as that."
With preternatural solemnity the great Eliza shook her head.
"Seeing is believing, Mrs. Lovegrove," she replied. "And when ladies call, dressed in the tiptop of the fashion! Very stylish, no doubt, but not quite the style Peachie Porcher can countenance, circumstanced as we are with our gentlemen guests. Then there is what Mr. Smyth hinted at subsequently, just in a friendly way. He did not say he was actually acquainted with the lady, but intimated that he could say very much more if he chose. No, Mrs. Lovegrove, I regret to speak, knowing how long you and a certain gentleman have been acquainted, but there can be no question Peachie Porcher's interests have been trifled with, and her affections also."
Here aggressive rustlings on the part of Serena arrested the flow of Miss Hart's eloquence.
"You spoke, I believe, Miss Lovegrove?" she inquired.
"No, I did not speak," Serena cried.—"Vulgar, designing person, what presumption!" she cried to herself. "Anyone would feel insulted by her manner. She thinks she has put me at a disadvantage. But she is mistaken. I know more than she supposes." She was greatly enraged; for, unreasonable though it may appear, if trifling were about on the part of Dominic Iglesias, Serena reserved to herself a monopoly in respect of it. Few things, perhaps, are more galling to a woman than the assertion that a Lovelace has been guilty of misleading attentions to others besides herself. If she is not the solitary object of his affections, let her at least be the solitary victim of his perfidy. And that Mrs. Porcher should aspire to share her role of betrayed one was, to Serena, a piece of unheard-of impertinence. She refused to bestow further attention upon Miss Hart, and turned haughtily to her hostess.
"Have you any idea when George will be in, Rhoda? I am quite willing to wait a reasonable time for him, but I cannot be expected to wait indefinitely. I must consider Lady Samuelson. It is a long distance to Ladbroke Square—of course Trimmer's Green is very far out—and I have to dress for dinner. Everything is very well done at Lady Samuelson's, and she makes a great point of punctuality. Of course it is no difficulty to me to be punctual. I was brought up to be so. Mamma was always extremely particular about our being in time. She said it was very rude to be late. I think it is rude, and so, of course, punctuality is quite natural to me. But I do object to being hurried; and so, unless George is likely to be in almost directly, I really must go, Rhoda."
"I should be very mortified to have you leave before he comes back. It would be a sore disappointment to Georgie to find you had been here and he had missed you," the good creature pleaded.
"And it's something quite new for Mr. Lovegrove to be out on your at-home day, isn't it?" Eliza put in, not without covert sarcasm. "I never remember to have known it happen before."