"Mrs. and Miss Ballard, please, mum"—this from the house-parlourmaid.
Mrs. Lovegrove arose with alacrity, retail trade and nonconformity alike forgiven.
"I am afraid Miss Hart grows very spiteful," she said to herself. "I wish she would go. I should be vexed to have her outsit Serena.—Well, Mrs. Ballard, very pleased, I am sure, to see you"—this aloud—"and your daughter, too. The spring is coming on nicely, is it not? Quite warm this afternoon, walking? I dare say it is. You and my husband's cousin, Miss Lovegrove, have met, I believe? Miss Ballard, Miss Lovegrove.—Are you going, Miss Hart? Kind regards to Mrs. Porcher, and sincere hopes she may soon lose her neuralgia. Very trying complaint, Mrs. Ballard, is it not?—and very prevalent, so they tell me, this year.—Why, you're never going to leave, too, Serena? You'll come again, or Georgie will be so troubled."
But Serena held out small hope of her reappearance.
"Of course I should be glad to see George, but I could not bind myself to anything, Rhoda. You see, Lady Samuelson"—the Ballard ladies, mother and daughter, looked at one another, fluttered and impressed—"Lady Samuelson," Serena repeated, her voice rising a little, "has such a number of engagements, and of course if she wishes to take me with her I cannot refuse. At home she always likes me to help entertain. I really have very little time to call my own, and so I should not feel justified in making any promise. Of course it was just a chance my being able to come to-day. You can tell George I am sorry not to have seen him. I should like him to know that I am sorry."
"You are very kind, Serena," the other said humbly.
"I think Rhoda has improved," Serena said to herself, as she walked across Trimmer's Green between the black iron railings. "I think she has more sense of my position than she did. I wonder whether she thinks that if Mr. Iglesias had proposed I should have accepted him. Of course she thinks I was very badly treated. I think her manner shows that. Certainly she took his part rather against that odious Miss Hart. But I don't believe she really sided with him. I think she only appeared to do so to snub Miss Hart. Of course if she had stayed, I should have had to stay, too. I should have owed it to myself to do so. But, as she went, there was no object in staying; and it was wiser to seem quite indifferent about seeing George. I hope he won't attempt to call upon me at Lady Samuelson's! I should hardly think he would presume to do that. I must tell the butler, if a gentleman calls, to say I am not at home. If it was only George it would not so much matter, but I could not run the chance of having Lady Samuelson and Rhoda meet. It would not do at all to have Rhoda climbing into society through me. I think it is too bad to have people make use of you like that. And Rhoda has no tact. I see I must be on my guard with George and Rhoda. I wonder whether I had better tell Susan Mr. Iglesias has become a Roman Catholic? Of course she would think I had had a great escape; but in any case that does not excuse him. He behaved very badly. I don't believe for an instant he ever took any notice of Mrs. Porcher. I believe that is an entire invention. I wonder if the lady who called is the same lady we saw at the theatre—"
And so on, and so on, all the way home by the Uxbridge Road, and Netting Hill, and then northward to the august retirement of Lady Samuelson's large corner house in Ladbroke Square. For a deeply injured person Serena had really enjoyed herself very much.
The burden of August, dense and heavy, lay upon London. Radiating outward in lifeless and dull-glaring sunshine, it involved the nearer suburbs; so that Dominic Iglesias, sitting on a bench beside the roadway crossing Barnes Common, notwithstanding the hour—past six o'clock—and the open space surrounding him, found the atmosphere hardly less oppressive than that of the streets. The great world, which plays, had departed. The little world, outnumbering the great by some five or six millions, which works, remained. And Dominic Iglesias, since he too worked, remained likewise, sharing with it the burden of the August heat and languor; and sharing also, to-day being Sunday, its weekly going forth over the face of the scorched and sun-seared land seeking rest, and, too often, finding none.
For the past two months he had seen Poppy St. John but seldom, nor had he heard from her. Whether by accident or by design he knew not, she had rarely been at home on those occasions when he had been free to call. For the last three weeks she had been away up the river, so he understood, with her friend Dot Parris—alias Miss Charlotte Colthrust. A blight seemed to Iglesias to have fallen upon his and her friendship, ever since the day of his return to Messrs. Barking Brothers & Barking; and his discovery, or rather divination, of the relation in which de Courcy Smyth stood to her. While her husband remained nameless, an unknown quantity, Dominic deplored the fact of her marriage, but as an abstraction. So soon as that fact had acquired in his mind—whether rightly or wrongly—a name and local habitation, now that he was liable to meet it daily incarnate—and that in most unsavoury shape—liable to be constantly reminded of its near neighbourhood, to witness a thousand and one unpleasing peculiarities of speech, habit, and manner, unlooked-for emotions arose in Iglesias, and those of a character of which he was by no means proud. Resentment took him, indignation, strange movements of jealousy and hatred; all very natural, no doubt, but decidedly bad for the soul. It was idle for him to remind himself that his belief regarding de Courcy Smyth was based upon supposition, upon circumstantial evidence which might prove merely coincident. He could not rid himself of that belief, nor of the emotional consequences of it; and these so vexed him that he questioned whether it would not be better to remove from Cedar Lodge and seek a domicile uninfected by the perpetual provocation of the man's presence. But it was not easy to give a plausible reason to his hostess for any immediate change of residence; nor was it easy, in the present stress of business at the bank, to find time or energy for house-hunting. The atmosphere of Cedar Lodge had become inimical. His rooms had ceased to be a place of security and repose. Yet whither should he go? The great wilderness of London seemed vastly inhospitable when it came to the question of selecting a new dwelling-place.
Meanwhile, he was grievously conscious of the growing estrangement between himself and Poppy St. John, which he connected, in some way, with this haunting yet unspoken suspicion of her relation to de Courcy Smyth—a suspicion which tended to rob intercourse of all spontaneity by introducing into it a spirit of embarrassment and constraint. He would have given so very much to know the truth and be able to reckon finally with it; but he judged it unpermissible that he should approach the ugly subject first. It was Poppy's affair, her private and unlovely property. While she elected to keep silence, therefore, it would be disloyal for him to speak. Still it distressed him, adding to his mental and emotional unrest. The happiness might have gone out of their intercourse, yet there were times when he wearied for sight and for speech of her more than he quite cared to admit. George Lovegrove still held aloof. Dominic rallied his faith in the divine purpose, rallied his obedience to the divine ruling, fixed his eyes more patiently upon the promise of the far horizon; yet it must be owned he felt very friendless and sad at heart.
To-day, driven in part by that friendliness, he had come out on the chance of gaining some news of Poppy. Disappointment, however, awaited him. For the discreet Phillimore, though receiving him graciously, reported her mistress resident at home again, it is true, but gone into town on business, probably theatrical, and unlikely to return until late. Therefore Dominic had walked on to Barnes Common, and finding the uncomfortable bench by the roadside—whereon Cappadocia, the toy spaniel, had sought his protection more than a year ago—untenanted, had sat down there to meditate. Cedar Lodge was no longer a refuge. He preferred to keep away from it as long as might be. Perhaps, too, as the sun dropped the air would grow cooler, and the southeasterly draught, parched and scorching as from the mouth of a furnace, which huffled at times only to fall dead, might shift to some more merciful quarter. A coppery haze hung over London, above which the rusty white summits of a range of cumulus cloud towered into the thick grey-blue of the upper sky. Possibly the cloud harboured thunder and the refreshment of rain amid its giant crags and precipices. On the chance of such refreshment he would stay.
For in good truth he needed refreshment, and that speedily, being very tired, fagged by long hours in the City, by heavy responsibilities, by the burden of the airless August heat, let alone those more intimate causes of disturbance already indicated. Iglesias could not disguise from himself that the close application to business was beginning to tell injuriously upon his health. This same morning, coming back from early Mass, passing through the flagged passage which leads from Kensington Palace Green into Church Street, he had become so faint from exhaustion, that reaching—and not without difficulty—his former home in Holland Street, he had summoned the neat bald-headed little caretaker and asked permission to enter the house and rest. The ground-floor rooms were cool and dusky, sheltered by closed shutters from the summer sun. Only the French-window of the back dining-room stood open, on to the flight of wrought-iron steps leading down into the garden. Beside it the caretaker, not without husky coughings, placed a kitchen chair for Iglesias and fetched him a glass of water.
"I could wish I had something better to offer you, sir," he said, "but I am an abstainer by habit myself; and I have no liquor of any kind, unfortunately, in the house."
The water, however, was pleasantly cold, and Dominic drank it thankfully. He could have fancied there was virtue in it—the virtue of things blessed by long-ago mother-love. And, thinking of that, his eyes filled with tears as he looked out over the small neglected garden. Of the once glorious laburnum there remained only an unsightly stump, but jasmine still clothed the enclosing walls, the dark green of its straggling shoots starred here and there with belated white blossoms. About the lip of the empty stone basin, vigorously chirruping, sparrows came and went, while in the far corner a grove of starveling sunflowers lifted their brown and yellow-rayed faces towards the light. Dominic, resting gratefully in the cool semi-darkness of the empty room, until the faintness which had attacked him was passed, found the place very gentle, soothing, and sweet. The sadder memories had died out here, so he noted. Only gracious and tender ones remained. He wished he could stay on indefinitely. As the years multiply, and the chequered story of them lengthens, it is comforting to dwell in a place where, once on a time, one had been greatly loved.
Dominic turned to the waiting caretaker, who regarded him with mingled solicitude, admiration, and deference.
"So the house is still unlet?" he said.
"Yes, sir, and is likely to remain so, I apprehend. The lease, as I understand, falls in a very few years hence, and the landlord is unwilling to make any outlay on the house, which will probably then be pulled down; while no tenant, I opine, would be willing to rent a residence so wanting in modern decoration and modern conveniences. Weeks pass, sir, without any persons calling to view."
"Yet the rent is low?" Iglesias said.
"Very low for so genteel a district—I am a native of Kensington, 'the royal village,' myself, sir—and no premium is asked."
Now, sitting on the uneasy bench upon the confines of Barnes Common—while the little many-millioned world, which works, in gangs, and groups, and amatory couples, and somewhat foot-weary family parties, sauntered by—that same oppression of faintness came over Dominic Iglesias, along with a great nostalgia for the cool, dusky, low-ceilinged rooms, and the neglected yet still bravely blossoming garden of the little house in Holland Street.
"It would be pleasant to spend one's last days and draw one's last breath there," Iglesias said to himself; "when the sum of endeavour is complete, when the last cable has been sent, the last column of figures balanced and audited, when the ledgers are closed and one's work being fairly finished one is free to sit still and listen—not fearfully, but with reverent curiosity—for the footsteps of Death and the secrets he has in his keeping."
And there he paused, for the scorched dusty land and pale dense sky, even the rusty white summits of the great range of cloud, slowly, slowly climbing high heaven—even the light dresses of passing women and children—went suddenly black, indistinct, and confused to his sight, so that he seemed to be falling through some depth of dark and untenanted space, while the dust, thick, stifling, clinging, fell with him, encircling, enveloping him with a horror of suffocation, of crushing, impalpable, yet unescapable, dead weight.
Then out of the darkness, out of the dust, in voluminous dusty drab motor veil and dusty drab motor coat, the Lady of the Windswept Dust herself came towards him, bringing consolation and help.
"You are coming round, dear man. You really look better. What you wanted was a sensible Christian meal. For, I tell you, you were most uncommonly done, and it was a near shave whether I should get you home here without having to call on the populace for assistance. Don't go and worry now. You were superb as usual, with enough personal dignity to supply a whole dynasty, and have some left over for washing-day into the bargain. You should give lessons in the art of majestic collapse—not that you did collapse, thank goodness! But you came precious near it.—Yes, I mean it, I mean it, dear man"—Poppy nodded her head at him, leaned across the corner of the table and patted his arm with the utmost friendliness. "I want to terrify you into being more careful. There are plenty of people one could jolly well spare; but you're not among them. So lay that to heart, or I shan't have an easy moment. And then as to personal dignity, if you will excuse my entering into details of costume, in that grey top-hat, grey frock-coat, et cetera, et cetera, you looked more fit for the Ascot Royal Enclosure than for Barnes Common on a broiling August Sunday. The populace eyed you with awe.—Don't be offended, there's a dear. You can't help being very smart and very beautiful; and you oughtn't to want to help it even if you could, since it gives me so much pleasure. Your tailor's a gem. But how he must love you, must be ready to dress you free of cost for the simple joy of fitting on."
The little dinner had been excellent. The clear soup hot, and the ninety-two Ayala, extra dry, chilled to a nicety—and so with the rest of the menu. Glass, silver, china, were set forth daintily upon the fine white damask, under the glow of scarlet-shaded candles. The double doors connecting the small drawing-room and dining-room stood open; this, combined with the fact that lights were limited to the dinner-table, giving an agreeable effect of coolness and of space. While, as arrayed in a crisp black muslin gown—the frills and panels of it painted with shaded crimson roses and bronze-green leaves—Poppy St. John ministered to her guest, chattered to, and rallied him, her eyes were extraordinarily dark and luminous, and her voice rich in soft caressing tones. Never had she appeared more engaging, more natural and human, never stronger yet more tenderly gay. Dominic Iglesias yielded himself up gladly, gratefully, to the charm of the woman and to the comfort of his surroundings. Temperate in all things, he was temperate in enjoyment. Yet he was touched, he was happy. Life was very sweet to him in this hour of relief from physical distress, of renewed friendship, and of pretty material circumstance.
"It was such a mercy I had a decent meal to offer you," Poppy went on. "Often the commissariat department is a bit sketchy on Sunday, in—well, in these days of the cleaned slate. But you see, Lionel Gordon, of the Twentieth Century Theatre, was to tell me, this afternoon, what decision he had come to about the engagement I have been spelling to get. He is an appalling mongrel, three-parts German Jew and one part Scotchman—sweet mixture of the Chosen and Self-Chosen people! He never was pretty, and increasing years have not rendered his appearance more enticing; but he's the cleverest manager going, on either side of the Atlantic, and he doesn't go back on his word once given, as too many of them do. Well, he was to let me know; and to tell the truth, beloved lunatic, I was rather keen about this engagement. I knew if he did not give it me I should be a little hipped, and should stand in need of support and consolation; while, if he did, I should be rather expansive, and should want suitably to celebrate the event. So I ordered a good dinner to be ready in either case"—Poppy laughed gently. "Queer thing the artist," she said, "with its instinct of falling back on creature comforts. Whatever happens, good luck or bad luck, it always eats."
"And they gave you the engagement?" Iglesias inquired.
Poppy nodded her head in assent.
"Yes, dear man, Lionel gave it me. He'd have been a fool if he hadn't, for he knows who I am and what training I've had. And then Fallowfeild has made things easy. He's a thundering good friend, Fallowfeild is; and in view of late events—once I had told him to go, I wouldn't, of course, take a penny of Alaric's—I had no conscience about letting Fallowfeild be useful. He was lovely about it. I shall only draw a nominal salary for the first six months until I have proved myself. What I want is my opportunity; and money matters being made easy helped materially. Both the Chosen and Self-Chosen People have a wonderfully keen eye to the boodle, bless their little hearts and consciences!"
She paused, leaning her elbows on the table and looking sideways at Iglesias, her head thrown back.
"I am dreadfully glad to have you here to-night," she went on, "because you see it's a turning-point. I have pretty well climbed the ridge and reached the watershed. The streams have all started running in the other direction—towards the dear old work and worry, the envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, and all the fun, too, and good comradeship, and ambition, and joy, of the theatre. Can you understand, I at once adore and detest it, for it's a terribly mixed business. Already I keep on seeing the rows of pinky-white faces rising, tier above tier, up to the roof, which turn you sick and give you cold shivers all down your spine when you first come on. And then I go hot with the fight against their apathy or opposition, the glorious fight to conquer and hold an audience, and bend its emotions and its sympathies, as the wind bends the meadow grass, to one's will."
Poppy stretched out her hand across the corner of the table again, laying it upon Iglesias' hand. Her eyes danced with excitement, yet her voice shook and the words came brokenly.
"But, dearly beloved, I have your blessing on this new departure, haven't I?" she asked. "After all, it's you, just simply you, that sends me back to an honest life and to my profession. So I should like to have your blessing—that, and your prayers."
"Can you doubt that you have them," Iglesias answered, and his voice, too, shook, somewhat, "now and always, dearest of friends?"
For a little minute Poppy sat looking full at him, he looking full at her. Then, with a sort of rush, she rose to her feet.
"Come along, this won't do," she said. "Sentiment strictly prohibited. It's not wholesome for you after the nasty turn you had on Barnes Common—and it's not particularly wholesome for me either, though for quite other reasons. Moreover, it's fiendishly hot in here. So see, dear man, you're not going just yet. I telephoned to the Bell Inn stables for a private hansom to be on hand about ten thirty for you. Meanwhile, you're to take it easy and rest. It is but five steps upstairs, and that won't tire you. Come up into the cool and have your coffee on the balcony."
And so it came about that Dominic Iglesias followed Poppy St. John upstairs—she moving rapidly, in a way defiantly—followed her into a bedchamber, where a subtle sweetness of orris-root met him; and a fantastic brightness of gaslight and moonlight, coming in through open windows, chequered the handsome dark-polished brass-inlaid furniture, the green silk coverlet and hangings, the dimly patterned ceiling and walls. Without hesitation or apology, Poppy walked straight through this apartment, and passed out on to the white-planked and white-railed balcony.
The dome of the sky was immense and had become perfectly clear, the great clouds having boiled up during the afternoon only to sink away and vanish at sunset, as is their wont in seasons of drought. North and east the glare of London pulsed along the horizon; and above it the stars were faint, since the radiant first-quarter moon rode high, drenching roadway and palings, the stretch of the polo-ground, the shrubberies and grove of giant elms, with white light blotted and barred, here and there, by black shadow. The air was still, but less oppressive, the cruelty of sun-heat having gone out of it and only a suavity remaining. The facade of the terrace of smirking, self-conscious, much-be-flowered and be-balconied little houses had taken on a certain worth of picturesqueness, suggestive of the bazaar of some far-away Oriental city rather than of a vulgar London suburb, the summer night even here producing an exquisiteness of effect and making itself very sensibly felt. Poppy silently motioned her guest to the further of the two cane deck-chairs set in the recess, arranged a cushion at his back, drew up a little mother-of-pearl inlaid table beside him, poured coffee into two cups. Then she moved across to the rail of the balcony, and stood there, her head thrown back, her hands clasped behind her, facing the moonlight, which covered her slender rounded figure from head to foot as with a pale transparent veil of infinite tenuity. Iglesias could see the rise and fall of her bosom, the flutter of her eyelids, the involuntary movement of her lips as she pressed them together, restraining, as might be divined, words to which she judged it wiser to deny utterance.
And this hardly repressed excitement in Poppy's bearing and aspect, along with the peculiar scene and circumstances in which he found himself, worked profoundly upon Dominic Iglesias. In passing through that scented, half-discovered, fantastically lighted bedchamber and stepping out into the magic of the night, he had stepped out, in imagination, into regions dreamed of in earlier years—when reading poetry or hearing music,—but never fairly entered, still less enjoyed, since all the duties and obligations of his daily life militated against and even forbade such enjoyment. The weariness of his work in the City, the petty annoyances he suffered at Cedar Lodge, the haunting disgust of de Courcy Smyth's presence, fell away from him, becoming for the time as though they were not. He never had been, nor was he now, in any degree self-indulgent or a sentimentalist. The appeal of the present somewhat enchanted hour was to the intellect and the spirit, rather than sensuous, still less sensual. Nevertheless, an almost passionate desire of earthly beauty took him—of the beauty of things seen, of things plastic, beauty of the human form; beauty of far-distant lands and the varied pageant of their aspect and history; of great rivers flowing seaward; of tombs by the wayside; of the glorious terror of the desert's naked face; of languorous fountain-cooled gardens, close hid in the burning heart of ancient cities; beauty of sound, beauty of words and phrases, above all, of the eternal beauty of youth and the illimitable expectation and hope of it.
And it was out of all this, out of the mirage of these vast elusive prospects and apprehensions, that he answered Poppy St. John, as with serious eyes yet smiling lips she turned, and coming across the white floor sat down beside him, saying:
"How goes it, Dominic? Are you rested?"
"Yes," he answered, "I am rested. And more than that, I am alive and awake, strangely awake and full of vision—thanks to you."
Poppy's expression sweetened, becoming protective, maternal. She leaned back in her chair and folded her hands in her lap; yet there was still a certain tension in her expression, an intensity as of inward excitement in her gaze.
"Tell me things, then," she said, "tell me things about yourself, if the gift of seeing is upon you.—There's no one to overhear. The neighbours on both sides are away for the holidays, thank the powers! and their houses stand empty. While the voices and footsteps down in the road only make us more happily alone. So tell me things, Dominic. I am a trifle stirred up with all this affair of the theatre, and you always quiet me. I'm really a very good child. I deserve a treat. And there are things I dreadfully want to know."
"Alas! there is so absurdly little to tell," Iglesias answered, "that, here and now, in face of my existing sense of life and of vision, I am humbled by my own ignorance and poverty of achievement. That poverty, I suppose, is all the more apparent to me, because twice to-day I have been—so I judge, at least—within measurable distance of bidding farewell to this astonishingly wonderful world and the fashion of it. It comes home to me how little I have seen, how little I have profited, how little I know. I would have liked to leave it; it would be more seemly to do so, having profited more largely by my sojourn here."
Iglesias paused, excitement which his natural sobriety disapproved gaining him, too, through that ache of unrealised beauty. For a moment he struggled with it as with a rising tide, then resigned himself.
"And yet," he added, "in other respects I should not be sorry to hear the hour strike, for curiosity of the unknown is very strong in me. Opportunity may have been narrow, and one may have been balked of high endeavour and rich experience, by lack of talent and by adverse circumstances; but in the supreme, the crowning experience, that of death and all which, for joy or sorrow, lies beyond it, even the most obscure, the most uncultured and untravelled must participate."
"Don't be in too great a deuce of a hurry to satisfy that curiosity, dear man," Poppy put in. "You must contrive to exercise patience for a little while yet, please; always remembering that it is entirely superfluous to run to catch a train which is bound not to start until you are on board of it. And then, too, you see—well, there's me, after all, and I want you."
Iglesias' face grew keen, as he looked at her through that encompassing whiteness of moonlight.
"I am glad of that," he said very quietly, "because you are to me, dear friend, what no other human being has ever yet been. The saddest thing that could happen to me, save loss of faith, would be that you should cease to want me. I only pray God, if it is not self-seeking, that you may continue to want me as long as I live."
"But your religion?" she asked, a point of jealousy pricking her.
"My religion forbids sin, whether of body or mind; forbids violation of the eternal spiritual proportion, by any placing of the creature before the Creator in a man's action or in his heart. But my religion enjoins love and stimulates it; since only through loving can we fulfil the highest possibility of our nature, which is to grow into the likeness of Almighty God."
"You believe that?" Poppy asked again.
"I do more," Iglesias said. "I know it."
Then both fell silent, having reached the place where words hinder rather than help thought. And, as it happened, just then the stillness was sensibly broken up, and the magic of the night encroached upon by the passing of a couple of char-a-bancs in the road below, loaded up with trippers faring homewards from a day's outing at Hampton Court. The tired teams jog-trotted haltingly. The wheels whispered hoarsely in the muffling dust; and voices mingled somewhat plaintively in the singing of a then popular khaki sing—"The Soldiers of the Queen." Hearing all of which, as the refrain died away Londonwards up the great suburban road, the compelling drama and pathos of life as the multitude lives it—stupidly, without ideas, without any conscious nobility of purpose, yet with a certain blundering and clumsy heroism—took Poppy St. John by the throat. Those who stand aside from that democratic everyday drama, rejecting alike the common joys and common sorrows of it, have need—so it seemed to her—to account for and justify themselves lest they become suspect. Therefore she looked at Dominic Iglesias intently, questioningly, hesitated a moment, and then spoke.
"Still I don't understand you, in your determined detachment of attitude. Tell me, if you are not afraid of love, why have you never married?" she said.
And he, divining to an extent that which inspired her question, smiled at her somewhat proudly as he answered.
"Be under no misapprehension, dear friend. I am a perfectly normal piece of flesh and blood, with a man's normal passions, and his natural craving for wife, and child, home, family, and the like. But during my mother's lifetime I was bound to other service than that of marriage."
"But in these years since her death?" Poppy asked.
"There is a time for everything, as the Preacher testifies, a due and proper time which must be observed if life is to be a reasoned progress, not a mere haphazard stumbling from the weakness of childhood to the incapacity of old age. And, can anything be more objectionably at variance with that wise teaching than the spectacle of amorous uxorious efflorescence in a man of well over fifty?"
Poppy permitted herself a lively grimace.
"All the same you have sacrificed yourself, as usual," she said.
"Not so very greatly, perhaps," Iglesias replied, with a soberly humorous expression. "For I have always been very exacting and have asked very much. I am culpably fastidious. My tastes are far beyond my means, my desires out of all reasonable relation to my station and my merits. And it should be remembered that my circle of acquaintances has been a very limited one, until quite recently—I do not wish to appear more glaringly arrogant or discourteous than I actually am. I had my ideal. It happened that I failed to realise it; and I am very impatient of compromise in matters of intimate and purely personal import. In respect of them I hold I have an unqualified right to consult my own tastes. It has always been easier to me to go without than to accept a second-best."
"In point of fact no woman was good enough! Poor brutes!"
Poppy mused a little, with averted face.
"How beastly cheap they'd all feel—I've not forgotten the undulating and aspiring withered leaf—if they knew how mightily they all fell short!" she added naughtily. Suddenly she looked round at Dominic Iglesias. Her eyes were as stars, but her lips trembled. "Bless me, but you've extensively original methods of conveying information! It's lucky for me I've a steady head. So—so it comes to this—I reign all alone?" she said.
"Yes, dear friend, save for my love for my mother—such as the throne is or ever has been—you reign alone," Iglesias answered quietly.
Poppy rested her elbows upon her knees, dropped her face into her hands, and sat thus bowed together in the whiteness of the moonlight.
"Ah, dear!" she murmured presently, brokenly, "I've got my answer. It's better and—worse, than I expected. All the same I'm content—that's to say, the best of me is—royally, consummately content.—Thank you a thousand times, thrice-beloved and very most exceedingly unworldy-wise one," she said.
Then for a while both were silent, wrapped about by, and resting in, the magic of the summer night. When Poppy roused herself at last to speak, it was in a different key, studiously matter-of-fact.
"Look here, dear man, do you in the least realise how extremely far gone you were when I arrived to you on Barnes Common this evening? Because I tell you plainly I didn't in the very least like it. In my opinion it is high time you gave up dragging that Barking Brothers & Barking cart."
"I shall give up doing so very soon," Iglesias replied. "Just now I am acting as manager. Sir Abel is at Marienbad, and the other partners are out of town."
"I like that—lazy animals!" Poppy said.
"But the situation is in process of righting itself—has practically righted itself already."
"Thanks to you."
"In part, no doubt. There was a disposition to panic, which rendered it exceedingly difficult to get accurate and definite information at first. However, I arrived at the necessary data with patience and diplomacy, and was able to draw out a clear detailed statement. This proved so far satisfactory that Messrs. Gommee, Hills, Murray & Co. and Pavitt's Bank have considered themselves justified in undertaking to finance Barking Brothers until business in South Africa has resumed its ordinary course."
"Then the elderly plungers are saved?"
"Yes, I believe, practically they are saved," Iglesias said. "And, therefore, as soon as Sir Abel has finished his cure and returns I shall retire."
Poppy rose, clapping her hands together with irritation.
"Sir Abel's cure be hanged!" she cried. "What do I care about his idiotic old liver or his gout, or anything else. Let him pay the price of steadily over-eating himself for more than half a century. I've no use for him. What I have a use for is you, dear man; more than ever now, don't you see," her voice softened, became caressing, "after our recent little explanation. And you shan't kill yourself. I won't have it. I won't allow it. Therefore be reasonable, my good dear. Put away your mania of self-immolation—or keep it exclusively for my benefit. Write and tell the Barking man to hurry up with his liver and his gout. Tell him you're being sweated to death dragging his rotten old banking cart, and that he's just got to come home and set you free, and get between the shafts and do the dragging and sweating himself.—Ah, there's the hansom. You must go. I'd no notion it was so late."
And so it came about that, once more, Dominic Iglesias followed the Lady of the Windswept Dust into the faintly scented bedchamber, where fantastic brightness of gaslight and moonlight chequered the polished surfaces of the dark furniture, the green silk coverlet and hangings, the dimly-patterned ceiling and walls. His instinct was to pass on, as quickly as might be, to the secure commonplace of the landing without. But half-way across the room, at the foot of the low-pillared and brass-inlaid bedstead, Poppy St. John stopped, and turned swiftly, barring his passage with extended arms.
"Stay a minute, for probably we shall never meet in this poor little house again, best beloved one," she said. "It is too far out. I must move into town. Lionel puts the play into rehearsal next week, and I must live near the theatre. And then, too—well, you know, since I've made up my mind, it's best to clean the slate even in respect of one's dwelling-place. Memories stick, stick like a leech; and they raise emotions of a slightly disturbing character sometimes. I am sure of myself; and yet I know it's safest to make a clean sweep of whatever reminds me of all the forbidden dear damned lot. I regret nothing—don't imagine that. I'm keen on my work. The artist, after all, is the strongest thing in me. I'm quite happy, now I have made up my mind. My nose is in the air. I can look creation in the face without winking an eyelid. I can respect myself. And I'm tremendously grateful to Lionel Gordon for taking me on spec, and to Fallowfeild for greasing the creature's Caledonian-Teutonic-Hebraic palm for me. Still—still—you can imagine, can't you, that, take it all round, it's not precisely a Young Woman's Christian Association blooming picnic party for me just at present?"
Poppy dashed her hand across her eyes, half laughing, half sobbing.
"Ah, love me, Dominic, love me, in your own way, the clean way—that's all I ask, all that I want—only love me always," she said.
She laid her hands on Iglesias' shoulders and threw back her head. And he, holding her, bending down kissed her white face, soft heavy hair, over-red lips, her tragic and unfathomable eyes—which looking on the evil and measuring the very actual immediate delights of it, still had courage, in the end, to reject it and choose the good—kissed them reverently, gravely, proudly, with the chastity and chivalry of perfect friendship.
"Ah! that's better. I'm better. Bless you; don't be afraid. I'll play fair to the finish—only keep well. Quit that rotten old bank.—Now go, dear man, go," Poppy said.
During the past six weeks events had galloped. To Iglesias it appeared that changes were in course of arriving in battalions. He neither hailed nor deplored them, but met them with a stoical patience. To realise them clearly, in all their bearings, would have been to add to the sense of fatigue from which he too constantly suffered. More than sufficient to each day was the labour thereof. So he looked beyond, to the greater repose and freedom which, as he trusted, lay ahead.
Upon the morning immediately in question he had closed his work at the bank. Sir Abel's demeanour had been characteristic. His clothes, it is true, still hung loosely upon him. His library chair and extensive writing-table appeared a world too big. For he was shrunken and had become an old man. Yet, though signs of chastening thus outwardly declared themselves, in spirit he had regained tone and returned to his former high estate. Along with the revival of financial security had come a revival of pomposity, an addiction to patronage in manner and platitudes in speech. He had ceased to be humble and human, self-righteous self-complacency again loudly announcing itself.
"So you propose to retire, you ask to be relieved of your duties, my good friend?" he asked of Iglesias, who had requested the favour of an interview in his private room. "Let us, then, congratulate ourselves upon the fact that I have returned from my sojourn upon the continent with so far renovated health that I feel equal to meeting the arduous responsibilities of my position unaided; and am not, consequently, compelled, out of a sense of duty either to myself or to my colleagues, to offer any objection to your retirement. Before we part I should, however, wish to place it clearly on record that my confidence, both in the soundness of my own judgment and in our capacity, as capitalists, to meet any strain put upon our resources, was not misplaced. This no one can, I think, fail to admit. Our house emerges from this period of trial with the hall-mark of public sympathy and esteem upon it. And, in this connection, it is instructive to note the working of the law of compensation. This war, for example, which to the ordinary mind might have appeared an unmixed evil, since it threatened to jeopardise our position among the leading financiers of the capital of the civilised world, has, in the event, served, not only to consolidate our position, but to unmask the practices of that unscrupulous and self-seeking member of our firm, my unhappy nephew Reginald, and afford us legitimate excuse for his removal. We appeared to touch on disaster; but, by that very means, we have been enabled to rid ourselves of a canker. Still this must remain a painful subject."
Sir Abel became pensive, fixing his gaze, the while, upon the portrait adorning the wall over against him. To an acute observer the said portrait had always been subtly ironical. Now it had become coarsely so—a merciless caricature of the shrivelled old gentleman whom it represented, and to whom it bore much the same resemblance as a balloon soaring skywards, fully inflated, bears to that same object with half the gas let out of it in a condition of flabby and wobbling semi-collapse.
"A painful subject," he repeated nobly—"I refrain from enlarging upon it, and pass to other matters. As to the part you yourself have borne in the history of our recent anxieties, Iglesias, I feel I cannot do less than tender you the thanks of myself and my co-partners. I do not disguise from you that a tendency existed to criticise my action in summoning you, to dub your business methods antiquated, and question your ability to march with the times. But these objections proved, I am happy to think, unfounded. The faith I reposed in you has been justified. And I may tell you, in confidence, that, should the occasion for doing so arise, my colleagues will in future have as little hesitation in calling upon your services as I should have myself."
The speaker paused, as for applause. And Dominic, who had remained standing during this prolonged oration—no suggestion having been made on the present occasion that he should be seated—proceeded to acknowledge the peculiar compliment just paid him, with somewhat sardonic courtesy.
"Your words are extremely reassuring, Sir Abel," he remarked calmly.
The gentleman addressed regarded him sharply for a moment, as though doubtful of the exact purport of his words. Then, suspicion of covert sarcasm being clearly inadmissible, Sir Abel spoke again in his largest platform manner, although the tones of his voice, like his person, were shrunken, docked of the fulness of their former rotundity and unction.
"It has ever been my effort to reward merit by encouragement," he replied. "And, were testimony to the wisdom of my practice, in this particular, needed, I should point, I candidly tell you, my good friend, to the excellent results of my recent demand upon your cooperation and support." He leaned sideways in his chair, assuming the posture of the portrait, conscious of having really said a very handsome thing indeed to his ex-head-clerk. "For," he added, "I sincerely believe in the worth of example. It is hardly too much to assert that a generous and high-minded employer eventually stamps the employed with a reflection, at least, of his own superior qualities."
Again he paused. But truth to tell, Dominic Iglesias had not only grown very weary of discourse and discourser, but somewhat impatient also. He had hoped better things of the man after the nasty shaking fortune had recently given him. Consequently he was disappointed; for it was very effectually borne in upon him that only absence of feathers makes for grace in a goose. Once the nudity of the foolish bird covered, it hisses, and that loudly, to the old tune. Hence, in the interests of Christian charity, he agreed with himself to cut short the interview, lest anger should get the better of toleration.
"I think we have now discussed all questions calling for your personal attention, Sir Abel," he said, "and all documents and correspondence relating to affairs during your absence have been placed in your hands. If therefore you have nothing further to ask me, I need not encroach any longer upon your valuable time."
With that, after a brief pause, he moved towards the door; but the other man, half rising from his chair, called after him.
"Iglesias, your attention for one moment—that matter of a salary?"
"I supposed I had made my terms perfectly clear, Sir Abel," Dominic remarked coldly.
"No doubt, in the first instance. But should you have reconsidered your decision, and should you think the pension you enjoy an insufficient remuneration, I am empowered to make you the offer, in addition, of a fixed salary for the past six months."
Listening to which tardy and awkward recognition of his own rather princely dealings, Mr. Iglesias' temper began to rise, his jaw to grow rigid, and his eyes dangerously alight.
"I am not in the habit of changing my mind, Sir Abel," he said. "I proposed to make you a free gift of my time and such experience as I may possess. Nothing has occurred to alter or modify that intention. There are circumstances, into which I do not choose to enter, which would render it extremely distasteful to me to accept anything—over and above my pension—from yourself or from any member of your family or firm."
Here Sir Abel, who had been standing, sagged down, half-empty-balloon-like, into his chair. Again he eyed Iglesias sharply, doubtful of the exact purport of his speech. But again suspicion of covert sarcasm, still more of covert rebuke, being to him quite inconceivable, he rejoined with a condescension which he could not but feel was altogether praiseworthy:
"Enough, enough, my good friend. That is sufficient. I will detain you no longer; but will merely add that I commend your reticence while appreciating the sentiments which dictate your refusal. These it is easy to interpret. They shall not be forgotten, since they constitute a very suitable acknowledgment of the advantages and benefits which have accrued to you during you long association with my partners and myself."
Later, journeying westward upon the 'bustop, Dominic Iglesias meditated in a spirit of humorous pity upon the above conversation. He was very glad he had not lost his temper. Eyes blinded by self-worship, an inpenetrable hide, these things, too, have their uses in time—very practical uses, which it would be silly to ignore. Why, then, be angry? The truly wise man, as Dominic told himself with a somewhat mournful smile, learns to leave such time-wise fools as Sir Abel Barking to Almighty God for chastisement, because—if it can be said without irreverence—the Almighty alone has wit enough to deal with them. And, for his comfort on lower levels, he reminded himself that though the house of Barking might show him scant gratitude, and attribute its financial resurrection to its own inherent virtue, this was not the opinion held by outsiders. The manager of Pavitt's Bank, and certain members of Goome, Hills, Murray & Co., had congratulated Iglesias, personally, upon his admirable conduct of affairs during the crisis, and assured him of the high respect they had conceived for his judgment, his probity, and business acumen. In this there was satisfaction of a silent but deep-seated sort—satisfaction of pride, since he had accomplished that which he had set forth to accomplish: satisfaction of honour through unbiassed and unsolicited commendation. With that satisfaction he bade himself rest thankfully content, while turning his thoughts to other and more edifying subjects.
And, in this connection, it was inevitable that a former journeying westward upon a 'bustop should occur to him, with its strange record of likeness and unlikeness in circumstance and outlook. Then, as now, somewhat outworn in mind and in health, he had closed a period of labour and faced new conditions, new habits, unaccustomed freedom and leisure. But now on matters of vital, because of eternal, importance, his mind was at rest. Loneliness and on-coming old age had ceased to disquiet him. The ship of his individual fate no longer drifted rudderless or risked danger of stranding, but steered steadily, fearlessly, towards the promise of a secure and lovely harbourage. The voyage might be long or short. At this moment Dominic supposed himself indifferent in the matter, since he believed—not presumptuously, but through the outreaching of a great faith—that the end was certain. And meditating, just now, upon that gracious conviction, while the red-painted half-empty omnibus fared onward down Piccadilly, a sense of the unusual graciousness of things immediate and visible took hold on him.
For to-day the monstrous mother, London-town, wore a pensive and delicate aspect. The tender melancholy of early autumn was upon her, she looking etherealised and even youthful, as does a penitent cleansed from the soil of past transgressions by fasting and tears. No doubt she would sin again and befoul herself, for the melting moods of a great city are transient; yet for the moment she showed very meek and mild. The atmosphere was clear, with the exquisite clarity which follows abundant and welcome rain after a spell of heat and drought. The trees, somewhat sparse in foliage, were distinct with infinite gradations of blonde, golden, and umber tints, as of burnished metal, against their black branches and stems. The endless vista of grey and red buildings, outlined finely yet without harshness, towered up into a thin, sad, blue sky overspread with long-drawn shoals and islands, low-shored and sinuous, of pale luminous cloud. Upon the grey pavements the bright-coloured dress of a woman—mauve, green, or pink—took on a peculiar value here and there, amid the generality of darkly clad pedestrians. And in the traffic, too, the white tilt of a van or rather barbaric reds and yellows of the omnibuses, stood away from the sombre hues of the mass of vehicles. The air, as Iglesias met it—he occupying the seat on the right immediately behind that of the driver—was soft, yet with a perceptible freshness of moisture in it; a cool, wistful wind seeming to hail from very far, the wings of it laden less with hopeful promise than with rare unspoken farewells, gentle yet penetrating regrets; so that Dominic, even while welcoming the refreshment of it, was moved in spirit with impressions of impending finality as though it spoke to him of things finished, laid aside, not wholly without sorrow relinquished and—so far as outward seeming went—forgot.
Involuntarily his eyes filled with tears. Then he reproached himself. Of what had he to complain? The will must indeed be weak, the spiritual vision reprehensively clouded, if these vague voices of nature could so disturb the serenity of the soul. Thus he reasoned with himself, almost sternly. But, just then, the flaming rose-scarlet bill on the knife-board of a passing omnibus attracted his attention, along with the announcement, in big letters, which it set forth. To-night the Twentieth Century Theatre opened its winter season with a new piece by that admirable but all too indolent and intermittent dramatist, Antony Hammond; and in it Poppy St. John played the leading lady's part.
Opposite St. Mary Abbott's church Mr. Iglesias lighted down from the 'bustop. His eyes were still dazzled by those flaming bills.—Lionel Gordon was advertising handsomely. The knife-board of every second omnibus displayed them, now he came to look.—His thought turned in quickened interest towards the Lady of the Windswept Dust and all that the said advertisements stood for in her case. He had seen her a few days ago, after rehearsal, and she had warned him off being present tonight.
"It's all going like hot cakes, dear man," she had said gaily, "still, as you love me, don't come. I should be more nervous of you than ninety dozen critics. I shall want you badly, all the same, don't doubt that; and I shall play to you, all the while, though you're not there. But—don't you understand?—if I actually saw you it might come between me and my part. I shouldn't be sure who I really was, and that would make me as jumpy as a sick cat. You shall know—I'll wire to you directly the show's over; but I'd best have my first round quite alone with the public. And then a first night is always a bit jungly—not quite fair on the play or the company, or the audience either for that matter. A play's the same as a ship, if there's any real art in it. It needs time to find itself. So just wait, like a lamb, till we've all shaken into place, and I'm quite at home in the saddle."
And in truth Dominic Iglesias had plenty to occupy his time and attention at this particular juncture, irrespective of Poppy's debut at the Twentieth Century Theatre. For tomorrow would close his connection with Cedar Lodge, as to-day had closed his connection with Messrs. Barking Brothers & Barking. The mind in hours of fatigue, when vitality is low and the power of concentration consequently deficient, has a tendency to work in layers, so to speak, one strain of thought overlying another. Hence it was that Iglesias' contemplation of those gaudy advertisements, and of their bearing upon Poppy's fortunes, failed to oust the premonitions of finality which had come to and somewhat perturbed him as he looked upon the pensive tearwashed face of London-penitent, cleansed by the breath of the wistful far-hailing autumn wind. Involuntarily, and notwithstanding his repudiation of them, he continued to question those premonitions and the clinging melancholy of them, asking whether they bore relation merely to the two not wholly unwelcome partings above indicated; or whether the foreboding induced by them did not find its source in some sentiment, some intuition of approaching change, far more intimate and profound than cessation of employment or alteration of dwelling-place. Then, as he walked on up Church Street another layer of thought presented itself. For he could not but call to mind how many hundred times he had trodden that pavement before close against the close-packed traffic, the high barrack-wall on the right hand, the row of modest shop-fronts on the left, on his way home to the little house in Holland Street. Once more that house was home to him. He would cross its familiar threshold to-day as master. Yet how differently to of old! How steep the hill was! How languid and spent he became in ascending it—slowly, deliberately, instead of with light-footed energy and indifference! And this made him ask himself, what if these premonitions of finality, of impending farewells, of compulsory relinquishment, had indeed a very special and definite significance, being sent to him as heralds of the approach of a common yet—to each individual being—unique and altogether tremendous change? What if that haunting curiosity of the unknown—concerning which he had spoken with Poppy St. John amid the white magic of the moonlight during the enchanted hour of his and her friendship—was to be satisfied very soon?
Iglesias drew himself up to his full height, fatigue and bodily weakness alike forgotten, and stood for a little space at the turn into Holland Street, hat in hand, facing the delicately chill wind and looking away into the fine perspective of sky overspread by shoals and islands of pale luminous cloud. Calmly—yet with the sharp amazement inevitable when things taken for granted, tacitly and nominally accepted throughout a lifetime, suddenly advance into the immediate foreground, becoming actual, tangible, imperative—he asked himself, was death so very near, then? At the church of the Carmelite Priory just above—the high slated roofs and slender iron crockets of which overtopped the parapets of the intervening houses—a bell tolled as the officiating priest, in giving the Benediction, elevated the sacred Host. And that note, at once austere and plaintive, striking across the hoarse murmur and trample of the streets, was very grateful to Dominic Iglesias. For it assured him of this, at least, that when for him the supreme hour did indeed strike and he was called upon to go forth alone—as every soul must go—to meet the impenetrable mystery which veils the close of the earthly chapter, he would not go forth unbefriended, but absolved, anointed, fortified, made ready—in so far as readiness for so stupendous an ordeal is possible—by the rites of Holy Church.
"Fiat misericordia tua Domine super nos: quemad-modum speravimus te. In te Domine speravi: non confundar in aeternum," he quoted half aloud.
And then could not forbear to smile, gravely and somewhat sadly, registering the deep pathos of the fact that the majestic hymn of praise and thanksgiving, dedicated by the use of Christendom throughout centuries to the celebration of highest triumph, still ends brokenly with a childlike sob of shrinking, of entreaty, and very human pain.
Meditating upon which, and upon much implied by it, not only of sorrow but of consolation for whoso is not afraid to understand, Iglesias moved onward. But so closely do things absurd and trivial jostle things august and of profound significance in daily happenings—he was speedily aroused from meditation and his attention claimed by example of quite another order of pathos to that suggested by the concluding verses of the Te Deum. Some little way ahead a brown-painted furniture van was backed against the curb. From the cave-like interior of it coatless white-aproned men bore a miscellaneous collection of goods—among others a battered dapple-grey rocking-horse with flowing mane and tail—across the yard-wide strip of garden, and in at the front door of a small old-fashioned house. Bass mats were strewn upon the pavement. Sheets of packing paper pirouetted down the roadway before the wind. While, standing in the midst of the litter, watching the process of unloading with perplexed and even agitated interest, was a whimsical figure—large of girth, short of limb, convex where the accredited lines of beauty demand, if not concavity, at least a refined flatness of surface.
The Latin, unlike the Anglo-Saxon, does not consider it necessary as soon as adolescence is past to extirpate his heart; or, failing successful performance of that heroic operation, strictly to limit the activities of it to his amours, legitimate or otherwise. Hence Dominic Iglesias felt no shame that the sight of his old plaything, or of his old school-fellow—now unhappily estranged from and suspicious of him—should provoke in him a great tenderness. Upon the battered rocking-horse his heart rode away to the dear sheltered happiness of childhood, while towards his former school-fellow it went forth in unmixed kindliness. For it appeared to him that for one who had so lately held converse with approaching death, it would be a very scandal of light-minded pettiness to nourish resentment against any fellow creature. In near prospect of the eternal judgment, private and temporal judgment can surely afford to declare a universal amnesty in respect of personal slights and injuries. Therefore, after but a moment's hesitation, he went on, laid his hand upon George Lovegrove's shoulder, and called him affectionately by name.
"Dominic!" the latter cried, and stood staring. "Well to be sure—you did surprise me! To think of meeting you just by accident to-day, like this!"
He grew furiously red, gladness and embarrassment struggling within him. Conscientiously he strove to be faithful to the menagerie of ignorances and prejudices which he misnamed his convictions. For here was the representative of the Accursed Thing—persecutor, enemy of truth, of patriotism, of marriage, worshipper of senseless idols; but, alas! how he loved that representative! How he honoured his intelligence, admired his person, coveted his companionship! Beholding Iglesias once again, George Lovegrove rejoiced as at the finding of lost treasure. Hence, perplexed, perspiring, lamentably squinting, yet with the innocent half-shy ecstasy of a girl looking upon her recovered lover, he gazed up into Mr. Iglesias' face.
"I give you my word I was never more taken aback in my life," he protested. "As it happened I was just thinking about old times, observing that some family is moving into your former house. But I had no notion of meeting you. Positively I am unable to grasp the fact. I have not a word to say to you, because I require to say so much. I know there is a great deal which needs explanation on my part. And then your calling me by my name, too! I declare it went right through me, as a voice from the grave might."
"Put aside explanations," Iglesias replied indulgently. "You are not going to quarrel with me any more—let that suffice."
"No, I cannot quarrel with you any more. I am sure I don't know whether it is unprincipled or not, but I cannot do it."
Regardless of observation, he pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his face.
"If it is unprincipled I must just let it go." he said, quite recklessly. "I cannot help myself. I give you my word, Dominic, I have held out as long as I could."
This appeal to Iglesias, as against himself, appeared to him abundantly unaffected and ingenuous.
"I cannot but believe you will find the consequences of renewed intercourse with me less damaging than you suppose," he answered, smiling.
"That is what the wife says," the other man stated. "She has veered round completely in her opinion, has the wife. I do not understand why, except that Mrs. Porcher and Miss Hart and she seem to have fallen out. The workings of females' minds are very difficult to follow, even after years of marriage, you know, Dominic. Opposition to one of their own sex will make them warmly embrace opinions you supposed were just those which they most strongly condemned. She has taken a very high tone, for some time past, about the Cedar Lodge ladies, has the wife. And when I came in, the evening of her last at-home day, I found her sadly upset at having heard from one of them that you were about to leave. She implied that I was to blame; whereas I can truthfully say my conduct throughout has been largely influenced by the fear of hurting her feelings." The speaker looked helplessly at Mr. Iglesias. "Of course we do not expect the same reticence in speech from females we require of ourselves. Still, such unfounded accusations are rather galling."
"I cannot be otherwise than very grateful to Mrs. Lovegrove for espousing my cause, you see," Iglesias replied. This confused and gentle being, struggling with the complexities of friendship, religious prejudice, and feminine methods and amenities, was wholly moving. "Circumstances have arisen which have made me decide to give up my rooms at Cedar Lodge. To-night is the last upon which I shall occupy them. But I do not wish Mrs. Lovegrove to be under any misapprehension regarding my hostess and her companion. I have nothing to complain of. During my long residence they have treated me with courtesy and consideration. I wish them nothing but good. Still the time has come, I feel, for leaving Cedar Lodge."
Here the worthy George's imagination indulged in wild flights. Visions of a hideous and rugged cell—of the sort known exclusively to serial melodrama—and of a beautiful woman, in voluminous rose-red skirts and a costly overcoat, presented themselves to him in amazing juxtaposition.
"Of course, I have forfeited all right to question you as to your plans, Dominic," he said hurriedly and humbly. "I quite realise that. I believed I was acting on principle in keeping away from you, all the more because it pained me terribly to do so. I believed I was being consistent. Now I begin to fear I was only obstinate and cowardly. Your kindness of manner has completely unmanned me. I see how superior you are in liberality to myself. And so it cuts me to the quick, more than ever, to part from you."
"Why should we part?" Iglesias asked.
"But you are going away. The wife told me she heard you were leaving London altogether; whether to—I hardly like to mention the supposition—to join some brotherhood or—or, to be married, she did not know."
Mr. Iglesias shook his head, smiling sweetly and bravely.
"Oh! no, no, my dear fellow," he answered. "Rumour must have been rather unpardonably busy with my name. I fear I am about equally ill-fitted for monastic and for married life. The day of splendid ventures, whether of religion or of love, is over for me; and I shall die, as I have lived, a bachelor and a layman. Nor shall I cease to be your neighbour, for I am only returning here"—he pointed to the open door, in at which coatless white-aproned men carried that miscellaneous collection of furniture—"to the little old Holland Street house. Lately I have had a great craving upon me to be at home again—alone, save for one or two precious friendships; with leisure to read and to think; and, in as far as my poor mental powers permit, to become a humble student of the awe-inspiring philosophy—reconciling things natural and supernatural—of which the Catholic Church is the exponent, her creeds its textbook, her ceremonies and ritual the divinely appointed symbols of its secret truths." Iglesias' expression was exalted, his speech penetrated by enthusiasm. "It would be profitable and happy," he said, "before the final auditing of accounts, to be a little better versed in this wonderful and living wisdom."
And George Lovegrove stood watching him, bewildered, agitated, full of doubt and inquiry.
"Ah! it is all beyond me, quite beyond me," he exclaimed presently. "Mistaken or not, I see you are in touch with thoughts altogether outside my experience and comprehension. I supposed Romanism could only be held by uneducated and superstitious persons. I see I was wrong. I ask your pardon, Dominic. I see I quite undervalued it." Then his manner changed, quick perception and consequent distress seizing him. "Ah! but you are ill. That is the meaning of it all. You are ill. Now I come to observe you, I see how thin and drawn your face is. How shall I ever forgive myself for not finding that out sooner! I have differed from you and blamed you. I have sulked, and thought bitterly of you, and avoided you. I have even been envious, hearing how successfully you carried through affairs this anxious time at the bank. I have been a contemptibly mean-spirited individual. No, I can never forgive myself. I have found you again, only to lose you. You are in bad health. You have been suffering, and I never thought to inquire about that. I never knew it."
But Dominic Iglesias made effort to comfort him, speaking not uncheerfully, determining even to fight the fatigue and weakness which, as he could not but own, daily increased on him, if only for the sake of this faithful and simple adherent.
"Perhaps the sands are running rather low," he said; "but that does not greatly matter. The conditions are in process of alteration. Now that I am free of my City work, the strain is practically over. With care and quiet, the sands that remain in the glass may run very slowly. I have a peaceful time in prospect, here in my old home. When I left here, eight years ago, I could not make up my mind to part with any of our family belongings, so I warehoused all the contents of the house, save those which I took to furnish my rooms at Cedar Lodge. Now these half-forgotten possessions see the light once more. This in itself should constitute a staying of the running sands, a putting back of the hands of the clock. Then I have two good servants to care for me. I am fortunate in that. And your friendship is restored to me. I should be ungrateful if I did not live on for a while to enjoy all this kindly circumstance. So do not grieve. There are many after-dinner pipes to be smoked, many talks to be talked yet.—Come into the house, and see it as you used to know it when we both were young. Surely it is a good omen that you, my earliest friend, should be my first visitor when I come home?"
De Courcy Smyth was not drunk, but he had been drinking—persistently nipping, as his custom was in times of mental excitement, in the fallacious hope of keeping up courage and steadying irritable nerves. The series of moods usually resultant on such recourse to spirituous liquors, followed one another with clock-work regularity. He was alternately hysterically elated, preternaturally moral, offensively quarrelsome, maudlin to the point of tears. The first matinee of his long-promised play had prospered but very ill, notwithstanding large advertisement and free list. The second had prospered even worse. Mercifully disposed persons, slipping out between the acts, had been careful not to return. Less amiably disposed ones had remained to titter or hiss. Failure had been written in capital letters across the whole performance—and deservedly, in the estimation of every one save the unhappy author himself. The play had perished in the very act of birth.
But of this tragic termination to so many extravagant hopes Dominic Iglesias was still ignorant, as he entered the dismantled sitting-room at Cedar Lodge that same night a little after half-past ten o'clock. He had dined in the old house in Holland Street; served by Frederick, the German-Swiss valet, who, some weeks previously, hearing of his intended departure, had announced his intention of "bettering himself," had given Mrs. Porcher warning, and, in moving terms and three languages, implored employment of Iglesias, declaring that the other gentlemen resident at Cedar Lodge were "no class," their clothes utterly unworthy of his powers of brushing and folding.
Iglesias stayed on in Holland Street until late, the charm and gentleness of old associations, the sight of familiar objects, the gladness of restored friendship with George Lovegrove working upon him to thankfulness. He was tranquil in spirit, serene with the calm twilight serenity of the strong who have learned the secret of detachment, and, who, while welcoming all glad and gracious occurrences, have schooled themselves to resignation, and, in the affairs of this world, do neither greatly fear nor greatly hope. And it was in this spirit he had made his way back to Cedar Lodge and entered the square panelled sitting-room. But, the door closed, he paused, aware of some sinister influence, some unknown yet repulsive presence. The room was nearly dark, the gas being lowered to a pin-point on either side the mantelpiece. Dominic moved across to turn it up, and in so doing stumbled over an unexpected obstacle. De Courcy Smith, who had been dozing uneasily in the one remaining armchair, sat upright with an oath.
"What are you at, you swine!" he shouted. Then as the light shone forth he made an effort to recover himself.
"It's hardly necessary to announce your advent by kicking me, Mr. Iglesias," he said thickly, and without attempting to rise from his seat. "Not but that there is an appropriateness in that graceful form of introduction. Only a kick from the benevolent patron, who professed himself so charitably disposed towards me, was required to make up the sum of outrage which has been my portion to-day.—Have you seen the theatrical items in the evening papers?" With trembling hands he spread out a newspaper upon his knees. "See the way that dirty reptile, Percy Gerrard, who succeeded me upon The Daily Bulletin, has chopped me and my play to mincemeat, cut bits of live flesh out of me and fried them in filth, and washed down my wounds with the vitriol of hypocritical compassion and good advice? That is the style of recognition a really first-class work of art, fit to rank with the classics, with Wycherley, and Congreve, and Sheridan, or Lytton—for there are qualities of all these very dissimilar masters in my writing—gets from the present-day press. As I have told you all along, the critics and playwrights hate me because they fear me. I have never spared them. I have exposed them and their ignorance, and want of scholarship, in print. They know I spoke the truth. Their hatred is witness to my veracity. They have been nursing their venom for years. Now with one consent they pour it forth. It is a vile plot and conspiracy. They were sworn to swamp me, so they formed a ring. They did not care what they spent so long as they succeeded in crushing me. Every one has been bought, miserably, scandalously bought. This is the only conceivable explanation of the reception my play has met with. They got at the members of my company. My actors played better at first, better at rehearsal. Yesterday and to-day they have played like a row of wooden ninepins, of straw-stuffed scarecrows, of rot-stricken idiots! They missed their cues, and forgot their lines, or pretended to do so; and then had the infernal impertinence to giggle and gag, blast them! I heard them. I could have screamed. I tried to stop them; and the stage-manager swore at me in the wings, and the scene-shifters laughed. It was a hideous nightmare. The audience laughed—the sound of it is in my ears now, and it tortures me, for it was not natural laughter. It was not spontaneous—how could it be so? It was simply part of this iniquitous conspiracy to ruin me. It was hired mockery, bought and paid for, the mockery of subsidised traitors, liars, imbeciles, the inhuman mockery of grinning apes!"
He crushed the newspaper together with both hands, flung it across the room, and broke into hysterical weeping.
"For my play is a masterpiece," he wailed. "It is a work of genius. No other man living could have written it. Yet it is damned by a brainless public and vindictive press, while I know and they know—they must know, the fact is self-evident—that it is great, nothing less than great."
During this harangue Dominic Iglesias stood immovable, facing the speaker, but looking down, not at him, rigid in attitude, silent. Any attempt to stem the torrent of the wretched man's speech would have been futile. Dominic judged it kindest just to wait, letting passion tear him till, by force of its own violence, it had worn itself out. Then, but not till them, it might be helpful to intervene. Still the exhibition was a very painful one, putting a heavy strain upon the spectator. For be a fellow creature never so displeasing in nature and in habit, never so cankered by vanity and self-love, it cannot be otherwise than hideous to see him upon the rack. And that de Courcy Smyth was very actually upon the rack—a rack well deserved, may be, and of his own constructing, but which wrenched his every joint to the agony of dislocation nevertheless—there could be no manner of doubt. Coming as conclusion to the long day, to the peaceful evening—the thought of the Lady of the Windswept Dust, moreover, and her fortunes so eminently and presently just now in the balance, in his mind—the whole situation was horrible to Dominic Iglesias.
But Smyth's mood changed, his tears ceasing as incontinently as they had begun. He ceased to slouch and writhe, passed his hands across his blood-shot eyes, drew himself up in his chair, began to snarl, even to swagger.
"I forget myself, and forget you, too, Mr. Iglesias—which is annoying," he said; "for you are about the last person from whom I could expect, or should desire to receive, sympathy. Persons of my world, scholars and idealists, and persons of your world, money-grubbing materialists, can, in the nature of things, have very little in common. There is a great gulf fixed between them. I beg your pardon for having so far forgotten myself as to ignore that fact, and talked on subjects incomprehensible to you. What follows, however, will be more in your line, I imagine, and it is this which has made me come here to-night. You realise that your investment has turned out an unfortunate one? You have lost, irretrievably lost, your money."
"I was not wholly unprepared for that," Dominic answered. His temper was beginning to rise. Sodden with drink, maddened by failure, hardly accountable for his words or actions, still the man's tone was rather too offensive for endurance. "I had made full provision for such a contingency. I accept the loss. Pray do not let it trouble you."
"Oh! you accept it, do you? You were prepared for it?" Smyth broke in. "You can afford to throw way a cool three hundred pounds—the expenses will amount to that at least in the bulk. How very agreeable for you! Your late operations in the City must have been surprisingly profitable. I was not aware, until now, that we had the honour of numbering a millionaire among us at Cedar Lodge. But let me tell you this extremely superior tone does not please me, Mr. Iglesias. It smells of insult. I warn you, you had better be a little careful. Even a miserable persecuted pauper like myself can make it unpleasant for those who insult him. I must request you to remember that I am a gentleman by birth, and that I have the feelings of my class where my personal honour is concerned. Do you suppose I do not know perfectly well that the benevolent attitude you have seen fit to assume towards me has been a blind, from first to last; and that every penny you have advanced me until now, as well as the three hundred pounds, the loss of which you so amiably beg me not to let trouble me, is hush-money? Yes, hush-money, I repeat, the price of my silence regarding your intrigue with my wife—my wife who calls herself—"
"We will introduce no woman's name into this conversation, if you please," Iglesias interrupted sternly.
The limit of things pardonable had been passed. His face was white and keen as a sword. The weight of years and of failing health had vanished, burned up by fierce disgust and anger, as is mist by the sun-heat. He was young, arrogant in bearing, careless of consequence or of danger as some fifteenth-century finely bred fighting man face to face with his enemy and traducer, who, given honourable opportunity, he would kill or be killed by, without faintest scruple or remorse. And of this temper of mind his aspect was so eloquent that de Courcy Smyth, muddled with liquor though he was, seeing him, was seized with panic. He scrambled to his feet, flung himself behind the chair, clinging to the back of it for support.
"Don't look at me like that, you Spanish devil!" he whimpered. "You paralyse me. You hypnotise me. My brain is splitting. You're drawing the life out of me. I shall go mad. If you come a step nearer I'll make a scandal. I'll call for help. Ah! God in heaven, who's that?"
Only the housemaid entering, salver in hand, and leaving the door wide open behind her. Upon the landing with out, Farge and Worthington, in comic attitudes, stood at attention.
"A telegram for you, sir. Is the boy to wait?" she inquired, in a stifled voice. "She could hardly keep a straight face," as she reported downstairs subsequently, "that ridiculous Farge was so full of his jokes."
Iglesias tore open the yellow envelope and held the telegraph-form to the light.
"Glorious luck. Happy as a queen. Come to supper after performance to-morrow. Love. Poppy,"
His face softened.
"No answer," he said, and turned purposing to speak some word of mercy to wretched de Courcy Smyth. But the latter had slunk out at the open door, while Mr. Farge, in an ungovernable paroxysm of humour—levelled at the departing housemaid—effectually covered his retreat by cake-walking, with very high knee action, the length of the landing, playing appropriate dance-music, the while, upon an imaginary banjo in the shape of Worthington's new crook-handled walking stick.
For some time Dominic Iglesias heard shuffling, nerveless footsteps moving to and fro in the room overhead. Then Smyth threw himself heavily upon his bed. The wire-wove mattress creaked, and creaked again twice. Unbroken silence followed, and Iglesias breathed more easily, hoping the miserable being slept. For him, Iglesias, there was no sleep. His body was too tired. His mind too vividly and painfully awake. He lay down, it is true, since he did not care to remain in the dismantled sitting-room or occupy the chair in which de Courcy Smyth had sat. But, throughout the night, he stared at the darkness and heard the hours strike. At sunset the wind had dropped dead. In the small hours it began to rise, and before dawn to freshen, veering to another quarter. Softly at first, and then with richer diapason, the cedar tree greeted its mysterious comrade, singing of far-distant times and places, and of the permanence of nature as against the fitful evanescent life of man. That husky singing soothed Dominic Iglesias, and calmed him, assuring him that in the hands of the Almighty are all things, small and great, past, present, and to come. There is neither haste, nor omission, nor accident, nor oversight in the divine plan; but that plan is large beyond the possibility of human intellect to grasp or comprehend, therefore humble faith is also highest wisdom.
As the dawn quickened into day Dominic drew aside the curtain and looked out. Behind the dark branches, where they cleared the housetops and met the open sky, thrown wide upward to the zenith, was the rose-scarlet of sunrise, holding, as it seemed to him, at once the splendour of battle and the peace of crowned achievement and—was it but a pretty conceit or a truth of happiest import?—the colour of certain flaring omnibus knifeboard bills and the colour of a certain woman's name.
The narrow lane, running back at right angles to the great thoroughfare, was filled with blurred yellowish light and covered in with gloom, low-hanging and impenetrable. The high, blank buildings on either side of it looked like the perpendicular walls of a tunnel, the black roof they apparently supported being as solid and substantial as themselves. The effect thereby produced was suspect and prison-like, as of a space walled in and closed from open air and day. Outside the stage entrance of the Twentieth Century Theatre a small crowd had collected and formed up in two parallel lines across the pavement to the curb, against which a smart single brougham and some half a dozen four-wheelers and hansoms were drawn up. The crowd, which gathered and broke only to gather again, was composed for the main part of persons of the better artisan class, respectable, soberly habited, evidently awaiting the advent of relations employed within the theatre. There was also a sprinkling of showy young women, attended by undersized youths flashily dressed. On the fringes of it night-birds, male and female, of evil aspect, loitered, watchful of possible prey; while two or three gentlemen, correct, highly-civilised, stood smoking, each with the air of studied indifference which defies attempted recognition on the part of friend or foe.
And among these last Dominic Iglesias must be counted; though, in his case, indifference was not assumed but real. His surroundings were novel, it is true, and produced on him clear impressions both pictorial and moral; but those impressions were of his surroundings in and for themselves, rather than in any doubtfulness of their relation to himself. For his mind was occupied with problems painful in character and difficult of solution; and to the said problems, heightening the emotional strain of them, his surroundings—the sense of feverish life, of all-encompassing restless humanity; the figures anxious, degraded, of questionable purpose or merely frivolous, which started into momentary distinctness; the scraps of conversation, caught in passing, instinct with suggestion, squalid or passionate; along with the ceaseless tramp of footsteps, and tumult of the great thoroughfare just now packed with the turn-out of neighbouring places of entertainment—supplied a background penetratingly appropriate.
For a good half-hour Mr. Iglesias stood there. At intervals the doors of the stage entrance swung open, causing a movement of interest and comment among the crowd. One by one hansoms and four-wheelers, obtaining fares, rattled away over the stones. Yet the Lady of the Windswept Dust tarried. It grew late, and Iglesias greatly desired her coming, greatly desired to speak with her, and speaking to find approximate solution, at least, of some of the problems which lay so heavy upon his mind. Meanwhile, the crowd melted and vanished, leaving him alone in the blurred yellowish light beneath the low-hanging roof of impenetrable gloom, save for the haunting presence of some few of those terrible human birds of prey.
He was about to turn away also, not particularly relishing the remaining company, when, with a rush, Poppy was beside him, in stately garments of black velvet and glimmering tissue of silver; her head and shoulders draped with something of daring and magnificence, in her blue-purple jewelled dragon-embroidered scarf. She caught Iglesias' right hand in both of hers and held it a moment against her breast. And during that brief interval he registered the fact that, notwithstanding her beauty, the force of her personality and richness of her dress, she did not look out of place in this somewhat cut-throat alley, with the questionable sights and sounds of midnight London all about her; but vivid, exultant, true daughter of great cities, fearless manipulator of the very varied opportunities they offer, past-master, for joy and sorrow, in the curious arts they teach.