The Heart of a Womanскачать книгу бесплатно
But to all outward appearance perfect calm, correct demeanour, the attitude and tone of voice prescribed by the usages of this so-called society.
"Lou," he said, "it is not fair to tempt me. I should be a miserable cur if I held you to your word. I am a penniless beggar – a wastrel now, without a profession, without prospects, soon to be without friends."
He seemed to take pleasure in recalling his defects, and she let him ramble on; women who are neither psychological puzzles nor interesting personalities have a way of listening patiently whilst a tortured soul eases its burden by contemplating its own martyrdom.
"I am a penniless beggar," he reiterated. "I have no right to ask any woman to share my future dull and humdrum existence. A few thousands is all I have. I think that Edie will marry soon and then I can go abroad – I must go abroad – I must do something – "
"We'll do it together, Luke."
"I feel," he continued, rebellious now and wrathful, all the primary instincts alive in him of self-preservation and the desire to destroy an enemy, "I feel that if I stayed in England I should contrive to be even with that blackguard. His rights? By God! I would never question those. The moment I knew that he was Uncle Arthur's son I should have been ready to shake him by the hand, to respect him, to stand aside as was his due. But his attitude! – the influence he exercises over Uncle Rad! – his rancour against us all! Jim and Edie! what had they done to be all turned out of the house like a pack of poor relations – and poor Uncle Rad – "
He checked himself, for she had put a hand on his coat sleeve.
"Luke, it is no use," she said.
"You are right, Lou! and I am a miserable wretch. If you only knew how I hate that man – "
"Don't," she said, "let us think of him."
"How can I help it? He robs me of you."
"No," she rejoined, "not that."
Her hand still rested on his arm, and he took it between both his. The couples in front of them all down the length of stairs paid no heed to them, and through the hum of voices, from a distant room beyond, came softly wafted on the hot, still air the strains of the exquisite barcarolle from the "Contes d' Hoffmann."
Louisa smiled confidently, proudly. He held her hand and she felt that his – hot and dry – quivered in every muscle at her touch. The commonplace woman had opened the magic book of Love. She had turned its first pages, the opening chapters had been simple, unruffled, uncrumpled by the hand of men or of Fate. But now at last she read the chapter which all along she knew was bound to reach her ken. The leaves of the book were crumpled; Fate with cruel hand had tried to blur the writing; the psychological problem of to-day – the one that goes by the name of "modern woman" – would no doubt ponder ere she tried to read further; she would analyze her feelings, her thoughts, her sensations; she would revel over her own heartache and delight in her own soul agony.
But simple-minded, conventional Louisa did none of these things. She neither ruffled her hair, nor dressed in ill-made serge clothes; her dress was perfect and her hand exquisitely gloved. She did nothing out of the way; she only loved one man altogether beyond herself, and she understood his passionate love for her, and all that troubled him in this world in which they both lived.
"I love that barcarolle, don't you?" she said after awhile.
"I did not hear it," he replied.
"It's no use, Lou," he said under his breath. "You must despise me for being a drivelling fool, but I have neither eyes nor ears now. I would give all I have in the world to lie down there on the floor now before you and to kiss the soles of your feet."
"How could I despise you, Luke, for that?"
"Put your hand on my knee, just for a moment, Lou. I think I shall go mad if I don't feel your touch."
She did as he asked her, and he was silent until the last note of the barcarolle died away in a softly murmured breath.
"What a cowardly wretch I am," he said under cover of the wave of enthusiastic applause which effectually covered the sound of his voice to all ears save hers. "I think I would sell my soul for a touch of your hand, and all the while I know that with every word I am playing the part of a coward. If Colonel Harris heard me he would give me a sound thrashing. A dog whip is what I deserve."
"I have told you," she rejoined simply, "that father does not wish our engagement to be broken off. He sticks to your cause and will do so through thick and thin. He still believes that this Philip is an impostor, and thinks that Lord Radclyffe has taken leave of his senses."
She spoke quite quietly, matter-of-factly now, pulling, by her serene calm, Luke's soul back from the realms of turbulent sensations to the prosy facts of to-day. And he – in answer to her mute dictate and with a movement wholly instinctive and mechanical – drew himself upright, and passed his hand over his ruffled hair, and the jeopardized immaculateness of shirt front and cuffs.
"Philip de Mountford," he said simply, "is no impostor, Lou. He has been perfectly straightforward; and Mr. Dobson for one, who has seen all his papers, thinks that there is no doubt whatever that he is Uncle Arthur's son. His clerk – Mr. Downing – went out to Martinique, you know, and his first letters came a day or two ago. All inquiries give the same result, and Downing says that it is quite easy to trace the man's life, step by step, from his birth in St. Pierre, past the dark days of the earthquake and the lonely life at Marie-Galante. Mrs. de Mountford was a half-caste native, as we all suspected, but the marriage was unquestionably legal. Downing has spoken to people in Martinique and also in Marie-Galante, who knew her and her son, or at any rate, of them. I cannot tell you everything clearly, but there are a great many links in a long chain of evidence, and so far Mr. Dobson and his clerk have not come across a broken one. That the Mrs. de Mountford who died at Marie-Galante was Uncle Arthur's wife, and that Philip is his son, I am afraid no one can question. He has quite a number of letters in his possession which Uncle Arthur wrote after he had practically abandoned wife and child. I think it was the letters that convinced Uncle Rad."
"Lord Radclyffe," she remarked dryly, "has taken everything far too much for granted."
"He is convinced, Lou – and that's all about it."
"He is," she retorted more hotly than was her wont, "acting in a cruel and heartless manner. Even if this Philip is your uncle Arthur's son, even if he is heir to the peerage and the future head of the family, there was no reason for installing him in your home, Luke, and turning you and the others out of it."
"I suppose," rejoined Luke philosophically, "the house was never really our home. What Uncle Rad gave freely, he has taken away again from us. I don't suppose that we have the right to complain."
"But what will become of you all?"
"We must scrape along. Frank must have his promised allowance or he'll never get along in the service, and five hundred pounds a year is a big slice out of a thousand. Jim, too, spends a great deal. Uncle Rad never stinted him with money, for it was he who wanted Jim to be in the Blues. Now he may have to exchange into a less expensive regiment. I think Edie will marry soon – Reggie Duggan has been in love with her for the past two years – she may make up her mind now."
"But you, Luke?"
He did not know if he ought to tell her of his plans. The ostrich farm out in Africa – the partnership offered to him by a cousin of his mother's who was doing remarkably well, but who was getting old and wanted the companionship of one of his kind. It was a living anyway – but a giving up of everything that had constituted life in the past – and the giving up of his exquisite Lou. How could he ask her to share that life with him? – the primitive conditions, the total absence of luxuries, the rough, every-day existence?
And Lou, so perfectly dressed, so absolutely modern and dainty, waited on hand and foot —
But she insisted, seeing that he was hesitating and was trying to keep something from her.
"What about you, Luke?"
He had not time to reply, for from the hall below a shrill voice called to them both by name.
"Mr. de Mountford, Miss Harris, the young people want to dance. You'll join in, won't you?"
Already he was on his feet, every trace of emotion swept away from his face, together with every crease from his immaculate dress clothes, and every stray wisp of hair from his well-groomed head. Not a man, torn with passion, fighting the battle of life against overwhelming odds, casting away from him the hand which he would have given his last drop of blood to possess – only the man of the world, smiling while his very soul was being wrung – only the puppet dancing to the conventional world's tune.
"Dancing?" he said lightly: "Rather – Lady Ducies may I have this first waltz? No? – Oh! I say that's too bad. The first Lancers then? Good! Lou, may I have this dance?"
And the world went on just the same.
AND THERE ARE SOCIAL DUTIES TO PERFORM
The first November fog.
The world had wagged on its matter-of-fact way for more than six months now, since that day in April when Philip de Mountford – under cover of lies told by Parker – had made his way into Lord Radclyffe's presence: more than five months since the favoured nephew had been so unceremoniously thrust out of his home.
Spring had yielded to summer, summer given way to autumn, and already winter was treading hard on autumn's heels. The autumn session had filled London with noise and bustle, with political dinner parties and monster receptions, with new plays at all the best theatres, and volumes of ephemeral literature.
And all that was – to-night – wrapped in a dense fog, the first of the season, quite a stranger, too, in London, for scientists had asserted positively that the era of the traditional "pea-souper" was over; the metropolis would know it no more.
Colonel Harris was in town with his sister, Lady Ryder, and Louisa, and swearing at London weather in true country fashion. He declared that fogs paralyzed his intellect that he became positively imbecile, not knowing how to fight his way in the folds of such a black pall. Taxicab drivers he mistrusted; in fact, he had all an old sportsman's hatred of mechanically propelled vehicles, whilst he flatly refused to bring valuable horses up to town, to catch their death of cold whilst waiting about in the fog.
So Luke had promised to pilot the party as far as the Danish Legation, where they were to dine to-night. This was the only condition under which Colonel Harris would consent to enter one of those confounded motors.
Colonel Harris had remained loyal to the core to Luke and to his fortunes. It is a way old sportsmen have, and he had never interfered by word or innuendo in Louisa's actions with regard to her engagement. His daughter was old enough, he said, to know her own mind. She liked Luke, and it would be shabby to leave him in the lurch, now that the last of the society rats were scurrying to leave the sinking ship. They were doing it, too, in a mighty hurry. The invitations which the penniless younger son received toward the end of the London season were considerably fewer than those which were showered on him at its beginning before the world had realized that Philip de Mountford had come to stay, and would one day be Earl of Radclyffe with a rent roll of eighty thousand pounds a year, and the sore need of a wife.
It had all begun with the bridge parties. Luke would no longer play, since he could no longer afford to lose a quarter's income at one sitting. Uncle Rad used to shrug indifferent shoulders at such losses, and place blank checks at the dear boy's disposal. Imagine then how welcome Luke was at bridge parties, and how very undesirable now.
Then he could no longer make return for hospitable entertainments. He had no home to which to ask smart friends. Lord Radclyffe though a monster of ill-humour, gave splendid dinner parties at which Luke was quasi host. Now it was all give and no take; and the givers retired one by one, quite unregretted by Luke, who thus was spared the initiative of turning his back on his friends. They did the turning, quite politely but very effectually. Luke scarcely noticed how he was dropping out of his former circle. He was over-absorbed and really did not care. Moreover his dress clothes were getting shabby.
To-night at the Langham, when he arrived at about seven o'clock so as to have an undisturbed half hour with Lou, Colonel Harris greeted him with outstretched hand and a cordial welcome.
"Hello, Luke, my boy! how goes it with you?"
Louisa said nothing, but her eyes welcomed him, and she drew him near her, on to the sofa in front of the fire, and allowed her hand to rest in his, for she knew how he loved the touch of it. People were beginning to say that Louisa Harris was getting old: she never had been good-looking, poor thing, but always smart, very smart – now she was losing her smartness, and what remained?
She had come up to town this autumn in last autumn's frocks! and the twins were after all being chaperoned by their aunt. Would that absurd engagement never be broken off? Fancy Louisa Harris married to a poor man! Why, she did not know how to do her hair, and dresses were still worn fastened at the back, and would be for years to come! Louisa Harris and no French maid! Cheap corsets and cleaned gloves! It was unthinkable.
Perhaps the engagement was virtually broken off – anyhow the wedding could never take place.
Unless Philip de Mountford happened to die.
But it did not look as if the engagement was broken off. Not at any rate on this raw November evening, when there was a dense fog outside, but a bright, cheery fire and plenty of light in the little sitting room at the Langham, and Luke sat on the sofa beside Louisa, and plain Louisa – in last autumn's gown – looking at him with her candid, luminous eyes.
"How is Lord Radclyffe?" asked Colonel Harris.
"Badly," replied Luke, "I am afraid. He looks very feeble, and his asthma I know must bother him. He was always worse in foggy weather."
"He ought to go to Algeciras. He always used to."
"I know," assented Luke dejectedly.
"Can't something be done? Surely, Luke, you haven't lost all your influence with him."
"Every bit, sir. Why, I hardly ever see him."
"Hardly ever see him?" ejaculated Colonel Harris, and I am afraid that he swore.
"I haven't been to Grosvenor Square for over six weeks. I am only allowed to see him when Philip is out, or by special permission from Philip. I won't go under such conditions."
"How that house must have altered!"
"You wouldn't know it, sir: All the old servants have gone, one after the other; they had rows with Philip and left at a month's notice. I suppose he has no idea how to set about getting new ones – I know I shouldn't! There's only a man and his wife, a sort of charwoman who cleans and cooks, and the man is supposed to look after Uncle Rad; but he doesn't do it, for he is half seas over most of the time."
"Good God!" murmured Colonel Harris.
"They have shut up all the rooms, except the library where Uncle Rad and Philip have their meals when they are at home. But they lunch and dine at their club mostly."
"What club do they go to? I called in at the Atheneum last night, thinking to find Radclyffe there, but the hall porter told me that he never went there now."
"No. He and Philip have joined some new club in Shaftesbury Avenue – The Veterans' I think it is called."
"Some low, mixed-up kind of place! Old Radclyffe must be out of his senses!"
"He likes it, so he tells me, because people don't come and bother him there."
"I should think not indeed. I wouldn't set foot in such a place."
"He goes there most evenings, and so does Philip – and it's so bad for Uncle Rad to be out late these foggy nights."
"You ought to make an effort and stop it, Luke."
"I have made many efforts, sir. But, as a matter of fact, I had made up my mind to make a final one to-night. Uncle Rad ought to go abroad, and I thought I would try to impress this on Philip. He can't be a bad man."
"Oh! can't he?" was Colonel Harris's muttered comment.
"At any rate, if I have no influence, he has, and he must exert it and get Uncle Rad down to Algeciras or anywhere he likes so long as it is well south."
Luke paused awhile, his face flushed with this expression of determination which must have caused his pride many a bitter pang. Then he resumed more quietly:
"It's rather humiliating, isn't it, to go to that man as a suppliant?"
"Don't go as a suppliant, my boy. You must insist on your uncle being properly looked after."
Colonel Harris thought all that sort of thing so easy. One always does before one has had a genuine tussle with the unpleasant realities of life; to the good country squire with an assured position, an assured income, assured influence, it seemed very easy indeed to insist. He himself never had to insist; things occurred round him and at his word, as it were, of themselves.
But Louisa, knowing how matters stood, made no suggestion. She knew that Luke would do his best, but that that best was of little avail now; as Philip de Mountford arranged so it would all come about.
Friends and well-wishers could but pray that the intruder was not a bad man, and that he had his uncle's health at heart.
She gave the signal to go, saying simply,
"We mustn't be late for dinner, father, must we?"
And she rose to go, held back by the hand, by Luke's fervent insistence.
He could not accustom himself to part from her, as he often had to do. It seemed absurd, but undeniable. He was supremely happy in her company, and snatched as much of it as ever he could; but the wrench was always awful and Louisa – subtly comprehensive – was conscious of the terrible pain which she gave him at every parting. She felt the repercussion of it in all her nerves, although her sound common-sense condemned the sensation as unreal.
To-night the feeling was even stronger than it had ever been before. At her first suggestion that it was time to go, an elusive current passed from him to her. He had been holding her hand, and his had been cool and only slightly on the quiver from time to time when her own fingers pressed more markedly against his. But now, all at once it seemed as if a sudden current of lava had penetrated his veins; his hand almost scorched her own, and though visibly it did not move, yet she felt the pulses throbbing and trembling beneath the flesh. The look of misery in his face made her own heart ache though she tried to smile with easy gaiety.
"To-morrow we go to the Temple Show together; don't forget, Luke."
Her words seemed to recall him from another world, and he quickly enough pulled himself together and helped her on with her cloak. Colonel Harris with the gentle tactfulness peculiar to kind hearts had loudly announced that he would be waiting in the hall.
"Anything the matter, Luke?" she asked as soon as her father had gone from the room.
He contrived to smile and to look unconcerned.
"Not particularly," he replied.
"You seem different to-night, somehow."
"I can't explain. But you are not yourself."
"Myself more than ever. My adoration for you is more uncontrolled – that is all."
She wrapped herself up in her furs, for it was silence that gave the best response. And then he said quite calmly:
"Will you go first. I'll switch off the light."
"Father will be waiting down stairs," she rejoined.
Then she went past him and out through the door, and he had to go back to the mantel-piece where one of the electric light switches was. He turned off the light; the room remained in darkness save where the dying embers of the fire threw a red glow on the sofa where she had sat with him, and the footstool on which her evening shoe had rested.
And the conventional man of the world, schooled from childhood onward to discipline and self-control, fell on both knees against that mute footstool, and leaning forward he pressed his burning lips against the silk cushions of the sofa, which still bore the impress and the fragrance of her exquisite shoulders.
Then he, too, went out of the room.
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