The Heart of a Womanскачать книгу бесплатно
NOTHING REALLY TANGIBLE
They walked up the gravelled walk under the chestnut trees, whereon the leaf buds, luscious looking, with their young green surface delicately tinged with pink, looked over ready to burst into fan-shaped fulness of glory. The well-kept paths, the orderly flower beds, and smoothly trimmed lawns looked all so simple, so obvious beside the strange problem which fate had propounded to these two young people walking up and down side by side – and with just a certain distance between them as if that problem was keeping them apart.
And that intangible reality stood between them, causing in Luke a vague sense of shamefacedness, as if he were guilty toward Louisa, and in her a feeling of irritation against the whole world around her, for having allowed this monstrous thing to happen – this vague shadow on life's pathway, on the life of the only man who mattered.
People passed them as they walked: the curious, the indifferent: men with bowler hats pulled over frowning brows, boys with caps carelessly thrust at the back of their heads, girls with numbed fingers thrust in worn gloves, tip-tilted noses blue with cold, thin, ill-fitting clothes scarce shielding attenuated shoulders against the keen spring blast.
Just the humdrum, every-day crowd of London: the fighters, the workers, toiling against heavy odds of feeble health, insufficient food, scanty clothing, the poor that no one bothers about, less interesting than the unemployed labourer, less picturesque, less noisy, they passed and had no time to heed the elegantly clad figure wrapped in costly furs, or the young man in perfectly tailored coat, who was even now preparing himself for a fight with destiny, beside which the daily struggle for halfpence would be but a mere skirmish.
Instinctively they knew – these two – the society girl and the easy-going wealthy man – that it was reality with which they would have to deal. That instinct comes with the breath of fate: a warning that her decrees are serious, not to be lightly set aside, but pondered over; that her materialized breath would not be a phantom or a thing to be derided.
Truth or imposture? Which?
Neither the man nor the girl knew as yet, but reality – whatever else it was.
They walked on for awhile in silence. Another instinct – the conventional one – had warned them that their stay in the park had been unduly prolonged: there were social duties to attend to, calls to make, luncheon with Lord Radclyffe at Grosvenor Square.
So they both by tacit consent turned their steps back toward the town.
A man passed them from behind, walking quicker than they did. As he passed, he looked at them both intently, as if desirous of arresting their attention. Of course he succeeded, for his look was almost compelling. Louisa was the first to turn toward him, then Luke did likewise: and the passer-by raised his hat respectfully with a slight inclination of head and shoulders that suggested foreign upbringing.
Once more convention stepped in and Luke mechanically returned the salute.
"Who was that?" asked Louisa, when the passer-by was out of ear shot.
"I don't know," replied Luke.
"I thought it was some one you knew. He bowed to you."
"No," she said, "to you, I think. Funny you should not know him."
But silence once broken, constraint fled with it. She drew nearer to Luke and once more her hand sought his coat sleeve, with a light pressure quickly withdrawn.
"Now, Luke," she said, abruptly reverting to the subject, "how do you stand in all this?"
"Yes. What does Lord Radclyffe say?"
"He laughs the whole thing to scorn, and declares that the man is an impudent liar."
"He saw," she asked, "the first letter? The one that came from St. Vincent?"
"Yes. Mr. Warren and I did not think we ought to keep it from him."
"Of course not," she assented. "Then he said that the letter was a tissue of lies?"
"From beginning to end."
"He refused," she insisted, "to believe in the marriage of your uncle Arthur out there in Martinique?"
"He didn't go into details. He just said that the whole letter was an impudent attempt at blackmail."
"And since then?"
"He has never spoken about it."
"Until to-day?" she asked.
"He hasn't spoken," he replied, insisting on the word, "even to-day. Two or three times I think letters came for him in the same handwriting. Mr. Warren did not open them, of course, and took them straight to Uncle Rad. They always bore foreign postmarks, some from one place, some from another; but Uncle Rad never referred to them after he had read them, nor did he instruct Mr. Warren to reply. Then the letters ceased, and I began to forget the whole business. I didn't tell you, because Uncle Rad told me not to talk about the whole thing. It was beneath contempt, he said, and he didn't want the tittle-tattle to get about."
"Then," she asked, "what happened?"
"A week ago a letter came with a London postmark on it. The address and letter were both type-written, and the latter covered four sheets of paper, and was signed Philip de Mountford. Bar the actual story of the marriage and all that, the letter was almost identical to the first one which came from St. Vincent. Mr. Warren had opened it, for it looked like a business one, and he waited for me in his office to ask my opinion about it. Of course we had to give it to Uncle Rad. It had all the old phrases in it about blood being thicker than water, and about longing for friendship and companionship, and all that. There was no hint of threats or demand for money or anything like that."
"Of course not," she said. "Whilst Lord Radclyffe is alive, the young man has no claim."
"Only," he rejoined, "that of kinship."
"Lord Radclyffe need not do anything for him."
Already there was a note of hostility in Louisa's even voice. The commonplace woman was donning armour against the man who talked of usurping the loved one's privileges.
"I wish," he insisted, "that I could have got the letter from Uncle Rad to show you. It was so simple and so sensible. All he asks is just to see Uncle Rad personally, to feel that he has kindred in the world. He knows, he says, that, beyond good-will, he has no claim now. As a matter of fact, he has something more substantial than that, for Uncle Arthur had a little personal property, about fifteen thousand pounds, which he left to us four children – Jim and Frank and Edie and me, and which I for one wouldn't touch if I knew for certain that this Philip was his son."
"But," she argued, "you say that the man does not speak of money."
She hated the talk about money: for she had all that contempt for it which women have who have never felt the want of it. It would have been so simple if the intruder had only wanted money. She would not have cared a little bit if Luke had none, or was not going to have any. It was his right which she would not hear of being questioned; his right in Lord Radclyffe's affections, in his household, and also his rights in the future when Lord Radclyffe would be gone.
"You are sure," she insisted, "that he does not want money?"
"I don't think," he replied, "that he does, just now. He seems to have a little; he must have had a little, since he came over from St. Vincent and is staying at a moderately good hotel in London. No. He wants to see Uncle Rad, because he thinks that, if Uncle Rad saw him, blood would cry out in response. It appears that now he has lodged all his papers of identification with a London lawyer – a very good firm, mind you – and he wants Uncle Rad's solicitor to see all the papers and to examine them. That seems fair to me, doesn't it to you?"
"Very fair indeed," she mused.
"What I mean," he added with great conviction, "is that if those papers weren't all right, he wouldn't be so anxious for Uncle Rad's solicitors to have a look at them, would he?"
And after awhile she reiterated more emphatically.
"I must say," he concluded, "that the whole thing simply beats me."
"But what does Lord Radclyffe say now?"
"How do you mean nothing?"
"Just what I say. He won't talk about the thing. He won't discuss it. He won't answer any question which I put to him. 'My dear boy, the man is a palpable, impudent impostor, a blackmailer' and that's all I can get out of him."
"He won't see the man?"
"Won't hear of it."
"And won't he let his solicitor – Mr. Dobson, isn't it? – meet the other lawyer?"
"He says he wouldn't dream of wasting old Dobson's time."
"Then what's going to happen?"
"I don't see," he said, "what is going to happen."
"Won't you have a talk about it all with Mr. Dobson, and see what he says?"
"I can't very well do that. Strictly speaking it's none of my business – as yet. I couldn't consult Uncle Rad's lawyers, without Uncle Rad's consent."
"Another one then."
He shrugged his shoulders, obviously undecided what to do. He had thought very little about himself or his future in all this: his thoughts had dwelt mostly on Lord Radclyffe – father, mother, brother, sister to them all. Bless him! And then he had thought of her. He looked round him with eyes that scarcely saw, for they really were turned inward to his own simple soul, and to his loving heart. Right up against that very simplicity of soul, a duty stood clear and uncompromising. A duty yet to be performed, the real aim and end of all that he had said so far. But he did not know how best to perform such a duty.
Simple souls – unlike the complex psychological phenomena of modern times – are apt to be selfless, to think more of the feelings of others, than of analyzing their own various sensations; and Luke knew that what he considered his duty would not be quite so obvious to Louisa, and that by fulfilling it he would give her pain.
JUST AN OBVIOUS DUTY
But it was she who gave him an opening.
"Luke," she said, "it's all very well, but the matter does concern you in a way; far more so, in fact, than it does Lord Radclyffe. Nothing can make any difference to Lord Radclyffe, but if what this young man asserts is all true, then it will make a world of difference to you."
"I know that. That's just the trouble."
"You were thinking of yourself?"
"No. I was thinking of you."
"Yes," he said now very abruptly, quite roughly and crudely, not choosing his words lest they helped to betray what he felt, and all that he felt. "If what this man says is true, then I am a penniless nonentity whom you are not going to marry."
"You are talking nonsense, Luke, and you know it," was all she said. And she said it very quietly, very decisively. He was talking nonsense, of course, for, whatever happened or didn't happen, there was one thing in the world that was absolutely, undeniably impossible, and that was that she should not marry Luke.
Whilst she Louisa Harris, plain, uninteresting, commonplace Louisa Harris was of this world, her marriage with Luke must be. People, in this present day, matter-of-fact world, didn't have their hearts wrenched out of them; they were not made to suffer impossible and unendurable tortures; then why should she Louisa Harris, be threatened with such a cataclysm?
"I am not," he was saying rather tonelessly, "talking nonsense, Lou. I have thought all that over. It's over eight days since that letter came; eight times twenty-four hours since I seemed in a way to see all my future through a thick, black cloud, and I've had time to think. I saw you too, through that thick, black cloud – I saw you just as you are, exquisite, beautiful, like a jewel that should forever remain in a perfect setting. I – "
He broke off abruptly, and, mechanically, his hand went up to his forehead and eyes. Where was he? He gave a sudden, quaint laugh.
"What a drivelling fool you must think me, Lou."
She looked straight at him, pure of soul, simple of heart, with a passion of tenderness and self-abnegation as yet dormant beneath the outer crust of a conventional education and of commonplace surroundings, but with the passion there nevertheless. And it was expressed in the sudden, strange luminosity of her eyes – I would not have you think that they were tears – as they met and held his own.
They didn't say anything more just then. People of their type and class in England do not say much, you know, under such circumstances. They have been drilled not to: drilled and drilled from childhood upward, from the time when, after a fall and a cut lip or broken tooth, the tears have to be held back, lest the words "snivel" or "cry-baby" be mentioned. But quietude does not necessarily mean freedom from pain. A cut lip hurts worse when it is not wetted with tears.
It was only the shadow that was hovering over these two as yet: nothing really tangible. And the shadow was not between them. She would not let it come between them. If it covered him, it should wrap her too. The commonplace woman had no fear of its descent, only as far as it affected him.
"Nothing," she said after awhile, "could make a difference to our marriage, Luke. Except, of course, if you ceased to care."
"Or you, Lou," he suggested meekly.
"Do you think," she retorted, "that I should? Just because you had no money?"
"Not," he owned, "because of that. But I should be such a nonentity. I have no real profession, and there are the others. Jim in the Blues costs a fearful lot a year, and Frank in the diplomatic service must have his promised allowance. I have read for the bar, but beyond that what am I?"
"Your uncle's right hand," she retorted firmly, "his agent, his secretary, his factotum, all rolled into one. You manage his estates, his charities, his correspondence. You write his speeches and control his household. Lord Radclyffe – every one says it in London – would not be himself at all without Luke de Mountford behind him."
"That's not what I mean, Lou."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that – "
He paused a moment then added with seeming irrelevance:
"We all know that Uncle Rad is a curious kind of man. If this story turns out to be true, he would still say nothing, but he would fret and fret and worry himself into his grave."
"The story," she argued obstinately, "will not turn out to be true. It's not like you, Luke, to jump at conclusions, or to be afraid of a nightmare."
"I am not afraid," he rejoined simply. "But I must look at possibilities. Yes, dear," he continued more forcibly, "it is possible that this story is true. No good saying that it is impossible: improbable if you like, but not impossible. Look at it how you like, you must admit that it is not impossible. Uncle Arthur may have married in Martinique; he was out there in 1881; he may have had a son; his telling no one about his marriage is not to be wondered at; he was always reticent and queer about his own affairs. This Philip may possibly be Uncle Rad's sole and rightful heir, and I may possibly be a beggar."
She uttered an exclamation of incredulity. Luke, a beggar! Luke the one man in all the world, different from every other man! Luke ousted by that stranger upstart!
God hath too much sense of humour to allow so ridiculous a Fate to work her silly caprice.
"And," she said with scorn, "because of all these absurd possibilities you talk of breaking off your engagement to me. Do you care so little as all that, Luke?"
He did not reply, but continued to walk beside her, just a yard or so apart from her, turning his steps in the direction of the gates, toward the Albert Bridge, their nearest way home. She – meekly now, for already she was sorry – turned to look at him. Something in his attitude, the stoop of the shoulders, usually so square and erect, the hands curiously clasped behind his back, told her that her shaft – very thoughtlessly aimed – had struck even deeper than it should.
"I am so sorry, dear," she said gently.
His look forgave her, even before the words were fully out of her mouth, but with characteristic reticence, he made no reply to her taunt. Strangely enough she was satisfied that he should say nothing. The look, which did not reproach even whilst it tried to conceal the infinite depth of the wound so lightly dealt, had told her more than any words could do. Whatever Luke decided to do, it would be from a sense of moral obligation, that desire for doing the right thing – in the worldly sense of the term – which is inherent in Englishmen of a certain class. No sentiment save that of a conventional one of honour would be allowed to sway her destiny and his.
Conventionality – that same strained sense of honour and duty – decreed that under certain mundane circumstances a man and woman should not mate. Differences of ancestry, of parentage, of birth and of country, divergence of taste, of faith, of belief – all these matter not one jot. But let the man be beggared and the woman rich, and convention steps in and says, "It shall not be!"
These two bowed to that decree: unconventional, in so far that they both made the sacrifice out of the intense purity of their sentiment to one another. They made an absolutely worldly sacrifice for a wholly unworldly motive. Luke would as soon have thought of seeing Louisa in a badly fitting serge frock, and paying twopence for a two-mile ride in an omnibus, as he would expect to see a diamond tiara packed in a card-board box, it would be unfair on the jeweller who had made the tiara thus to subject it to rough treatment; and it would be equally unfair on the Creator of Louisa to let her be buffeted about by the cruder atoms of this world.
Louisa only thought of Luke and that perhaps he would feel happier in his mind if she allowed him to make this temporary sacrifice.
There is such wonderful balm in self-imposed sacrifice.
"What," she asked simply, "do you want me to say, Luke?"
"Only that – that you won't give me up altogether unless – "
Here he checked himself abruptly. Was there ever an Englishman born who could talk sentiment at moments such as this? Luke was no exception to that rule. There was so much that he wanted to say to Louisa, and yet the very words literally choked him before he could contrive to utter them.
"Don't," she said quietly, "let us even refer to such things, Luke. I do not believe in this shadow, and I cannot even understand why you should worry about it. But whatever happens, I should never give you up. Never. We will put off fixing the day of our wedding; since we have made no announcement this won't matter at all: but I only agree to this because I think that it is what you would like. I fancy that it would ease your mind. As for breaking our engagement in the future – in case the worst happens – well it shall not be with my consent, Luke, unless you really cease to care."
They had reached the gate close to the bridge. Life pulsated all round them, the life of the big city, callous, noisy, and cruel. Omnibuses, cabs, heavy vans, rattled incessantly past them. People jostled one another, hurrying and scurrying, pigmies and ants adding their tiny load of work, of care, of sorrow to the titanic edifice of this living world.
Louisa's last words remained unanswered. Luke had, by his silence, said everything there was to say. They stood on the pavement for a moment, and Luke hailed a passing taxicab.
At the corner opposite, an omnibus pulled up on its way westward. A man stepped off the curb ready to enter it. Louisa caught his eye, and he raised his hat – the man who had passed them in the park just now.
JUST A DISAGREEABLE OLD MAN
The luncheons at Grosvenor Square were always rather dull and formal, but Louisa did not mind that very much. She was used to dull and formal affairs: they were part and parcel of her daily life. London society is full of it. The dull and formal dominate; the others – vulgar if more lively – were not worth cultivating.
Then, she almost liked Lord Radclyffe, because he was so fond of Luke. And even then "almost" was a big word. No one – except Luke – could really like the old man. He was very bad tempered, very dictatorial, a perfect tyrant in his own household. His opinions no one dared contradict, no one cared to argue with him, and his advanced Tory views were so rabid that he almost made perverts from the cause, of all those whom he desired to convince.
And even these were few, for Lord Radclyffe had no friends and very few acquaintances. He had a strange and absolute dislike for his fellow men. He did not like seeing people, he hated to exchange greetings, to talk or to mingle with any crowd that was purely on pleasure bent. He went up to the House and made speeches – political, philanthropic, economic speeches – which Luke prepared for him, and which he spoke without enthusiasm or any desire to please. This he did, not because he liked it or took any interest in things political, philanthropic or economic, but only because he considered that a man in his position owed certain duties to the State – duties which it would be cowardly to shirk.
But he really cared nothing for the thoughts of others, for their opinions, their joys, or their sorrows. He had schooled himself not to care, to call philanthropy empty sentiment, politics senseless ambition, economics grasping avarice.скачать книгу бесплатно