The Heart of a Womanскачать книгу бесплатно
"You'll know more by then."
"I shall know all there is to know."
"Luke," she said, "you are not afraid?"
It was the second time she had put the question to him, but this time its purport was a very different one. He understood it nevertheless, for he replied simply:
"Only for you."
"Why for me?"
"Because, Lou, you are just all the world to me – and a man must feel a little afraid when he thinks he may lose the world."
"Not me, Luke," she said, "you would not lose me – whatever happened."
"Let me get you a cab."
He was English, you see, and could not manage to say anything just then. The floodgates of sentiment might burst asunder now with the slightest word uttered that was not strictly commonplace. Louisa understood, else she had not loved him as she did. It never occurred to her to think that he was indifferent. Nay more! his sudden transition from sentiment to the calling of a cab – from sentiment to the trivialities of life pleased her in its very essence of incongruity.
"I said I would walk," she reminded him, smiling.
Then she gave him her hand. It was still gloveless and he took it in his, turning the palm upward so that he might bury his lips in its delicately perfumed depths. His kiss almost scalded her flesh, his lips were burning hot. Passion held in check will consume with inward fire, whilst its expression often cools like the Nereid's embrace.
He went to the door with her and watched her slender, trim figure walking rapidly away until it disappeared round the corner of the Square.
When he turned back into the hall, he found himself face to face with Lord Radclyffe. Not Uncle Rad – but an altogether different man, an old man now with the cynical lines round the mouth accentuated and deepened into furrows, the eyes hollow and colourless, the shoulders bent as if under an unbearable load.
"Uncle Rad," said Luke speaking very gently, forcing his voice to betray nothing of anxiety or surprise, "can I do anything for you?"
But even at sight of his nephew, of the man who had hitherto always succeeded in dissipating by his very presence every cloud on the misanthrope's brow, even at sight of him Lord Radclyffe seemed to shrink within himself, his face became almost ashen in its pallor, and lines of cruel hardness quite disfigured his mouth.
"I want to be alone to-day," he said dryly. "Tell them to send me up some tea in the afternoon. I'll go to my room now – I shan't want any dinner."
"But, sir, won't you – ?"
"I want to be alone to-day," the old man reiterated tonelessly, "and to be left alone."
"Very well, sir."
Lord Radclyffe walked slowly toward the staircase. Luke – his heart torn with anxiety and sorrow – saw how heavy was the old man's step, how listless his movements. The younger man's instinct drew him instantly to the side of the elder. He placed an affectionate hand on his uncle's shoulder.
"Uncle Rad," he said appealingly, "can't I do anything for you?"
Lord Radclyffe turned and for a moment his eyes softened as they rested on the face he loved so well.
His wrinkled hand sought the firm, young one which lingered on his shoulder. But he did not take it, only put it gently aside, then said quietly:
"No, my boy, there's nothing you can do, except to leave me alone."
Then he went up stairs and shut himself up in his own room, and Luke saw him no more that day.
WHICH TELLS OF THE INEVITABLE RESULT
And now a month and more had gone by, and the whole aspect of the world and of life was changed for Luke. Not for Louisa, because she, woman-like, had her life in love and love alone. Love was unchanged, or if changed at all it was ennobled, revivified, purified by the halo of sorrow and of abnegation which glorified it with its radiance.
For Luke the world had indeed changed. With the advent of Philip de Mountford that spring afternoon into the old house in Grosvenor Square, life for the other nephew – for Luke, once the dearly loved – became altogether different.
That one moment of softness, when Lord Radclyffe – a bent and broken old man – went from the library up the stairs to his own room, determined to be alone, and gently removed Luke's affectionate hand from his own bowed shoulders, that one moment of softness was the last that passed between uncle – almost father – and nephew. After that, coldness and cynicism; the same as the old man had meted out to every one around him – save Luke – for years past. Now there was no exception. Coldness and cynicism to all; and to the intruder, the new comer, to Philip de Mountford, an unvarying courtesy and constant deference that at times verged on impassive submission.
And the change, I must own, did not come gradually. Have I not said that only a month had gone by, and Arthur's son, from the land of volcanoes and earthquakes, had already conquered all that he had come to seek? He who had been labelled an impostor and a blackmailer took – after that one interview – his place in the old man's mind, if not in his heart. Heaven only knows – for no one else was present at that first interview – what arguments he held, what appeals he made. He came like a thief, bribing his way into his uncle's presence, and stayed like a dearly loved son, a master in the house.
And Luke was shut out once and for all from Lord Radclyffe's mind and heart. Can you conceive that such selfless affection as the older man bore to the younger can live for a quarter of a century and die in one hour? Yet so it seemed. Luke was shut out from that innermost recess in Uncle Rad's heart which he had occupied, undisputed, from childhood upward. Now he only took his place amongst the others; with Jim and Edie and Frank, children of the younger brother, of no consequence in the house of the reigning peer.
Luke with characteristic pride – characteristic indolence, mayhap, where his own interests were at stake – would not fight for his rightful position – his by right of ages, twenty years of affection, of fidelity, and comradeship.
The day following the first momentous interview, Lord Radclyffe spent in lawyers' company – Mr. Davies in Finsbury Court, then Mr. Dobson in Bedford Row. The latter argued and counselled. Though papers might be to all appearances correct and quite in order, there was no hurry to come to a decision. But Lord Radclyffe – with that same dictatorial obstinacy with which he had originally branded the claimant as an impostor and a blackmailer – now clung to his reversed opinion. Convinced – beyond doubt, apparently – that Philip de Mountford was his brother Arthur's son, he insisted on acknowledging him openly as his heir, and on showering on him all those luxuries and privileges which Luke had enjoyed for so many years.
Indignant and mentally sore, Jim and Edie protested with all the violence of youth, violence which proved as useless as it was ill-considered. Luke said nothing, for he foresaw that the end was inevitable. He set about making a home for his younger brothers and sister to be ready for them as soon as the cataclysm came, when Philip de Mountford, usurping every right, would turn his cousins out of the old home.
Frank, absent at Santiago – a young attach? out at his first post – had been told very little as yet. Luke had tried to break the news to him in a guarded letter, which received but the following brief and optimistic answer:
"Why, old man! what's the matter with you? worrying over such rubbish? Take my advice and go to Carlsbad. Your liver must be out of order."
But the catastrophe came, nevertheless; sooner even than was expected. Edie's language grew very unguarded in Philip's presence, and Jim – "in the Blues" – did not watch over his own manners when the new cousin was in the house.
One evening when Luke was absent – as was very often the case now – and the family gathering consisted of Lord Radclyffe – sullen and morose; Philip, pleasantly condescending; and Jim and Edie, snubbed and wrathful, a difference in political opinion between the young people set a spark to the smouldering ashes.
Philip – still pleasantly condescending – did not say much that evening, though he had been called a cad and an upstart, and told to go back to his nigger relations; but the next morning Jim and Edie received a curt admonition from Lord Radclyffe, during which they were told that if such a disgraceful exhibition of impertinence occurred again, they would have to go and pitch their tent elsewhere.
They brought their grievance to Luke; told him all that they had treasured up in their rebellious young hearts against the usurper, and much that they had hitherto kept from the elder brother, who already, God knows! had a sufficient load of disappointment to bear.
What could Luke do but promise that Jim and Edie should in future have a house of their own, wherein neither usurper nor upstarts would have access, and where they could nurse their wrath in peace and unsnubbed.
For the first time since many, many days Luke was alone with his uncle in the library. Philip was out, and Lord Radclyffe was taken unawares.
What Luke would never have dreamed of doing for himself he did for his brothers and sister; he made appeal to his uncle's sense of right, of justice, and of mercy.
"Uncle Rad," he said, "you have told us all so often that this should be a home for us all. It doesn't matter about me, but the others – Jim and Edie – they haven't offended you, have they?"
Lord Radclyffe was fretful and irritable. When Luke first came in, it had almost seemed as if he would order him to go. Such an old man he looked – sour and morose – his clothes hung more loosely than before on an obviously attenuated frame. He seemed careworn and worried, and Luke's heart, which could not tear itself away from the memories of past kindness, ached to see the change.
"Would you," he asked insistently, "would you rather we went away, Uncle Rad?"
The old man shifted about uneasily in his chair. He would not meet Luke's eyes any more than he would take his hand just now.
"Jim and Edie," he said curtly, "are very ill-mannered, and Philip feels – "
He passed his tongue over his lips which were parched and dry. A look – it was a mere flash – almost of appeal passed from his eyes to Luke.
"Then," said Luke simply, "it is this – this Philip whom Jim and Edie have offended? Not you, Uncle Rad?"
"Philip is your uncle Arthur's son," rejoined Lord Radclyffe, speaking like a fretful child in a thin voice that cracked now and again. "He will be the head of the family presently – "
"Not," interposed Luke earnestly, "before many years are past, I trust and pray for all our sakes, Uncle Rad – "
"The sooner," continued the old man, not heeding the interruption, "those young jackanapes learn to respect him, the better it will be for them."
"Jim and Edie have been a little spoiled by your kindness, sir. They are finding the lesson a little hard to learn. Perhaps they had better go and study elsewhere."
Lord Radclyffe made no reply. Silence was full of potent meaning; of submission to another's more dominant personality, of indifference to everything save to peace and quiet.
Suppressing a sigh of bitter disappointment, Luke rose to go.
"Then," he said, "the sooner I make all arrangements the better. There's only the agreement for the flat to sign and we can move in next week."
"Where's the flat?" queried the old man hesitatingly.
"In Exhibition Road, Kensington, close to the park. Edie loves the park, and it won't be far from barracks for Jim."
"But you've no furniture. How will you furnish a flat? Don't go yet," continued Lord Radclyffe seeing that Luke was preparing to take his leave. "Philip won't be here till tea time."
"I am afraid, sir, that I don't care to steal a few minutes of your company, just when Philip is absent. I would rather not see you at all than see you on sufferance."
"You are very obstinate and tiresome – and you make it so difficult for me. I want to hear about the furniture – and how you are going to manage."
"Lou is helping Edie to get what is wanted," replied Luke, smiling despite the heavy weight of disappointment in his heart. It was pitiable to see the old man's obvious feeling of relief in the absence of the man who was exercising such boundless influence over him.
"But have you money, Luke?" he asked.
"Not overmuch, sir, but enough."
"The fifteen thousand pounds your father left you?"
"Yes. And that's about all."
"And the fifteen thousand pounds from your uncle Arthur?"
"I don't know about that, sir. I think that should go back to Uncle Arthur's son."
"Nonsense, nonsense!" retorted Lord Radclyffe querulously. "I've talked to Dobson about that. Your uncle Arthur left that money to you – and not to his son. He had his own reasons for doing this. Dobson thinks so too."
"It is very kind of Mr. Dobson to trouble about my affairs but – "
"The money was left to you," persisted the old man, "and to Jim and Edie and Frank."
"They will do whatever they like with their share, but I could not touch a penny of Uncle Arthur's money."
"What will you do?"
"I don't know yet, uncle. I have only had a month in which to think of so much – and there was the new flat to see to."
Lord Radclyffe rose and shuffled toward Luke. He dropped his voice, lest the library walls had ears.
"I'll not forget you, Luke – presently – when I am gone – and that won't be long – I'll provide for you – my will – "
"Don't, Uncle Rad, for God's sake," and the cry was wrung from a heart overburdened with pity and with shame.
And without waiting to take more affectionate leave, Luke hurried from the room.
LIFE MUST GO ON JUST THE SAME
They met at dances and at musical At Homes, for the world wagged just as it had always done, and here – don't you think? – lies the tragedy of the commonplace. Luke and Louisa, with the whole aspect of life changed for them, with a problem to face of which hitherto they had no conception, and the solution of which meant a probing of soul and heart and mind – Luke and Louisa had to see the world pass them by the same as heretofore, with laughter and with tears, with the weariness of pleasure, and the burdens of disappointment.
The world stared at them – curious and almost interested – searching wounds that had only just begun to ache, since indifferent hands had dared to touch them. And convention said: "Thou shalt not seem to suffer; thou shalt pass by serene and unmoved; thou shalt dance and sing and parade in park or ball room; thou art my puppet and I have nought to do with thy soul."
So Luke and Louisa did as convention bade them, and people stared at them and asked them inane questions that were meant to be delicate, but were supremely tactless. People too wondered what they meant to do, when the engagement would be duly broken off, or what Colonel Harris's – Louisa's father – attitude would be in all this. Somehow after the first excitement consequent on Lord Radclyffe's open acknowledgment of the claimant things had tamed off somewhat; Luke de Mountford looked just the same as before, although awhile ago he had been heir to one of the finest peerages in England and now was a penniless son of a younger son. I don't know whether people thought that he ought to look entirely different now, or whether he should henceforth wear shabby dress clothes and gloves that betrayed the dry cleaner; certain it is that when Luke entered a reception room, a dozen lips were ready – had they dared or good-breeding allowed – to frame the question:
"Well, and what are you going to do now?"
"Do tell us how it feels to find one's self a beggar all of a sudden."
Enterprising hostesses made great attempts to gather all parties in their drawing rooms. With strategy worthy of a better cause they man?uvred to invite Philip de Mountford and Lord Radclyffe, and Luke and Louisa – all to the same dinner party – promising themselves and their other guests a subtle enjoyment at sight of these puppets dancing to rousing tunes, beside which the most moving problem play would seem but tame entertainment.
But Philip de Mountford – though as much sought after now as Luke had been in the past – declined to be made a show of for the delectation of bored society women; he declined all invitations on his own and Lord Radclyffe's behalf.
So people had to be content to watch Luke and Louisa.
They were together at the Ducies' At Home. There was a crush, a Hungarian band from Germany, a Russian singer from Bayswater, a great many diamonds, and incessant gossip.
"Luke de Mountford is here – and Miss Harris. Have you seen them?"
"Oh, yes! we met on the stairs, and had a long chat."
"How do they seem?"
"Oh! quite happy."
"They don't care."
"Do they mean to break off the engagement?"
"I have heard nothing. Have you?"
"Louisa Harris has a nice fortune of her own."
"And Lord Radclyffe will provide for Luke."
"I don't think so. He practically turned him out of the house, you know."
"I know it for a positive fact. My sister has just got a new butler, who left Lord Radclyffe's service the very day Philip de Mountford first walked into the house."
"Old Parker, I remember him."
"He says Lord Radclyffe turned all the family out, bag and baggage. They were so insolent to Philip."
"Then it's quite true?"
"That this Philip is the late Arthur de Mountford's son?"
"Quite true, I believe. Lord Radclyffe openly acknowledges it. He is satisfied apparently."
"So are the lawyers, I understand."
"Oh! how do you do, Miss Harris? So glad to see you looking so well."
This, very pointedly, as Louisa, perfectly gowned, smiling serenely, ascended the broad staircase.
"I have not been ill, Lady Keogh."
"Oh, no! of course not. And how is Mr. de Mountford?"
"You can ask him yourself."
And Louisa passed on to make way for Luke. And the same remarks and the same question were repeated ad infinitum, until a popular waltz played by the Hungarian gentlemen from Germany drew the fashionable crowd round the musicians' platform.
Then Luke and Louisa contrived to make good their escape, and to reach the half-landing above the heads of numerous young couples that adorned the stairs. The hum of voices, the noise of shrill laughter, and swish of skirts and fans masked their own whisperings. The couples on the stairs were absorbed in their own little affairs; they were sitting out here so that they might pursue their own flirtations.
Luke and Louisa could talk undisturbed.
They spoke of the flat in Exhibition Road and of the furniture that Louisa had helped Edie to select.
"There are only a few odds and ends to get now," Louisa was saying, "coal scuttles and waste-paper baskets; that sort of thing. I hope you don't think that we have been extravagant. Edie, I am afraid, had rather luxurious notions – "
"Oh! I don't think she minds very much. Life at Grosvenor Square in the past month has not been over cheerful."
Then as Luke made no comment she continued in her own straightforward, matter-of-fact way – the commonplace woman facing the ordinary duties of life:
"Now that the flat is all in order, you can all move in whenever you like – and then, Luke, you must begin to think of yourself."
"Of you, Lou," he said simply.
"Oh! there's nothing," she said, "to think about me."
"There you are wrong, Lou, and you must not talk like that. Our engagement must be officially broken off. Colonel Harris has been too patient as it is."
"Father," she rejoined, "does not wish the engagement broken off."
"All these people," he said, nodding in the direction of the crowd below, "will expect some sort of announcement."
"Lou, you must take back your word."
"How does one take back one's word, Luke? Have you ever done it? I shouldn't know how to."
She looked at him straight, her eyes brilliant in the glare of the electric lamps, not a tear in them or in his, her face immovable, lest indifferent eyes happened to be turned up to where these two interesting people sat. Only a quiver round the lips, a sign that passion palpitated deep down within her heart, below the Bond Street gown and the diamond collar, the soul within the puppet.
She held his glance, forcing him into mute acknowledgment that his philosophy, his worldliness, was only veneer, and that he had not really envisaged the hard possibility of actually losing her.
Oh, these men of this awful conventional world! How cruel they can be in that proud desire to do what is right! – what their code tells them is right! – no law of God or nature that! – only convention, the dictates of other men! Hard on themselves, selfless in abnegation, but not understanding that the dearest gift they can bestow on a woman is the right for her to efface herself, the right for her to be the giver of love, of consolation, of sacrifice.
Commonplace, plain, sensible Louisa understood everything that Luke felt; those great luminous eyes of hers, tearless yet brilliant, read every line on that face drilled into impassiveness.
No one else could have guessed the precise moment at which softness crept into the hard determination of jaw and lips; no ear but hers could ever have perceived the subtle change in the quivering breath, from hard obstinacy that drew the nostrils together, and set every line of the face, to that in-drawing of the heavy air around caused by passionate longing which hammered at the super-excited brain, and made the sinews crack in the mighty physical effort at self-repression.скачать книгу бесплатно