Has no writer ever dealt with the dramatic aspect of the unopenedenvelope? I cannot recall such a passage in any of my authors, and yetto my mind there is much matter for philosophy in what is always theexpressionless shell of a boundless possibility. Your friend may runafter you in the street, and you know at a glance whether his news is tobe good, bad, or indifferent; but in his handwriting on thebreakfast-table there is never a hint as to the nature of hiscommunication. Whether he has sustained a loss or an addition to hisfamily, whether he wants you to dine with him at the club or to lend himten pounds, his handwriting at least will be the same, unless, indeed,he be offended, when he will generally indite your name with a studiousprecision and a distant grace quite foreign to his ordinary caligraphy.
These reflections, trite enough as I know, are nevertheless inevitableif one is to begin one's unheroic story in the modern manner, at thelatest possible point. That is clearly the point at which a waiterbrought me the fatal letter from Catherine Evers. Apart even from itsimmediate consequences, the letter had a _prima facie_ interest, of noordinary kind, as the first for years from a once constantcorrespondent. And so I sat studying the envelope with a curiosity toopiquant not to be enjoyed. What in the world could so obsolete a friendfind to say to one now? Six months earlier there had been a certainopportunity for an advance, which at that time could not possibly havebeen misconstrued; when they landed me, a few later, there was anotherand perhaps a better one. But this was the last summer of the latecentury, and already I was beginning to get about like a lamplighter onmy two sticks. Now, young men about town, on two walking-sticks, in theyear of grace 1900, meant only one thing. Quite a stimulating thing inthe beginning, but even as I write, in this the next winter but one, anational irritation of which the name alone might prevent you fromreading another word.
Catherine's handwriting, on the contrary, was still stimulating, ifindeed I ever found it more so in the foolish past. It had not alteredin the least. There was the same sweet pedantry of the Attic _e_, thesame superiority to the most venial abbreviation, the same inconsistentforest of exclamatory notes, thick as poplars across the channel. Thepresent plantation started after my own Christian name, to wit "DearDuncan!!" Yet there was nothing Germanic in Catherine's ancestry; it wasonly her apologetic little way of addressing me as though nothing hadever happened, of asking whether she might. Her own old tact and charmwere in that tentative burial of the past. In the first line she had allbut won my entire forgiveness; but the very next interfered with theeffect.
"You promised to do anything for me!"
I should be sorry to deny it, I am sure, for not to this day do I knowwhat I did say on the occasion to which she evidently referred. But wasit kind to break the silence of years with such a reference? Was it evenquite decent in Catherine to ignore my existence until I could be of useto her, and then to ask the favour in her first breath? It was true, asshe went on to remind me, that we were more or less connected after all,and at least conceivable that no one else could help her as I could, ifI would. In any case, it was a certain satisfaction to hear thatCatherine herself was of the last opinion. I read on. She was in adifficulty; but she did not say what the difficulty was. For oneunworthy moment the thought of money entered my mind, to be ejected thenext, as the Catherine of old came more and more into the mental focus.Pride was the last thing in which I had found her wanting, and herletter indicated no change in that respect.
"You may wonder," she wrote just at the end, "why I have never sent youa single word of inquiry, or sympathy, or congratulation!!Well--suppose it was 'bad blood'!! between us when you went away! Mind,_I_ never meant it to be so, but suppose it was: could I treat the dearold you like that, and the Great New You like somebody else? You haveyour own fame to thank for my unkindness! _I_ am only thankful theyhaven't given you the V.C.!! _Then_ I should _never_ have dared--noteven now!!!"
I smoked a cigarette when I had read it all twice over, and as I crushedthe fire out of the stump I felt I could as soon think of lighting itagain as I should have expected Catherine Evers to set a fresh match tome. That, I was resolved, she should never do; nor was I quite coxcombenough to suspect her of the desire for a moment. But a man who has oncemade a fool of himself, especially about a woman somewhat older thanhimself, does not soon get over the soreness; and mine returned with thevery fascination which made itself felt even in the shortest littleletter.
Catherine wrote from the old address in Elm Park Gardens, and she wantedme to call as early as I could, or to make any appointment I liked. Itherefore telegraphed that I was coming at three o'clock that afternoon,and thus made for myself one of the longest mornings that I can rememberspending in town. I was staying at the time at the Kensington PalaceHotel, to be out of the central racket of things, and yet more or lessunder the eye of the surgeon who still hoped to extract the last bulletin time. I can remember spending half the morning gazing aimlessly overthe grand old trees, already prematurely bronzed, and the other half inlimping in their shadow to the Round Pond, where a few little townriddenboys were sailing their humble craft. It was near the middle of August,and for the first time I was thankful that an earlier migration had notbeen feasible in my case.
In spite of my telegram Mrs. Evers was not at home when I arrived, butshe had left a message which more than explained matters. She waslunching out, but only in Brechin Place, and I was to wait in the studyif I did not mind. I did not, and yet I did, for the room in whichCatherine certainly read her books and wrote her letters was also thescene of that which I was beginning to find it rather hard work toforget as it was. Nor had it changed any more than her handwriting, orthan the woman herself as I confidently expected to find her now. I haveoften thought that at about forty both sexes stand still to the eye, andI did not expect Catherine Evers, who could barely have reached thatrubicon, to show much symptom of the later marches. To me, here in herden, the other year was just the other day. My time in India was littlebetter than a dream to me, while as for angry shots at either end ofAfrica, it was never I who had been there to hear them. I must have comeby my sticks in some less romantic fashion. Nothing could convince methat I had ever been many days or miles away from a room that I knew byheart, and found full as I left it of familiar trifles and poignantassociations.
That was the shelf devoted to her poets; there was no addition that Icould see. Over it hung the fine photograph of Watts's "Hope," an ironicemblem, and elsewhere one of that intolerably sad picture, his "Paoloand Francesca": how I remembered the wet Sunday when Catherine took meto see the original in Melbury Road! The old piano which was nevertouched, the one which had been in St. Helena with Napoleon's doctor,there it stood to an inch where it had stood of old, a sort ofgrand-stand for the photographs of Catherine's friends. I descried myown young effigy among the rest, in a frame which I recollected givingher at the time. Well, I looked all the idiot I must have been; andthere was the very Persian rug that I had knelt on in my idiocy! I couldafford to smile at myself to-day; yet now it all seemed yesterday, noteven the day before, until of a sudden I caught sight of that otherphotograph in the place of honour on the mantelpiece. It was one byHills and Sanders, of a tall youth in flannels, armed with along-handled racket, and the sweet open countenance which Robin Evershad worn from his cradle upward. I should have known him anywhere and atany age. It was the same dear, honest face; but to think that this giantwas little Bob! He had not gone to Eton when I saw him last; now I knewfrom the sporting papers that he was up at Cambridge; but it was left tohis photograph to bring home the flight of time.
Certainly his mother would never have done so when all at once the dooropened and she stood before me, looking about thirty in the ample shadowof a cavalier's hat. Simply but admirably gowned, as I knew she wouldbe, her slender figure looked more youthful still; yet in all this therewas no intent; the dry cool smile was that of an older woman, and I wasprepared for greater cordiality than I could honestly detect in thegreeting of the small firm hand. But it was kind, as indeed her wholereception of me was; only it had always been the way of Catherine thecorrespondent to make one expect a little more than mere kindness, andof Catherine the companion to disappoint that expectation. Herconversation needed few exclamatory points.
"Still halt and lame," she murmured over my sticks. "You poor thing, youare to sit down this instant."
And I obeyed her as one always had, merely remarking that I was gettingalong famously now.
"You must have had an awful time," continued Catherine, seating herselfnear me, her calm wise eyes on mine.
"Blood-poisoning," said I. "It nearly knocked me out, but I'm glad tosay it didn't quite."
Indeed, I had never felt quite so glad before.
"Ah! that was too hard and cruel; but I was thinking of the day itself,"explained Catherine, and paused in some sweet transparent awe of one whohad been through it.
"It was a beastly day," said I, forgetting her objection to the epithetuntil it was out. But Catherine did not wince. Her fixed eyes were fullof thought.
"It was all that here," she said. "One depressing morning I had atelegram from Bob, 'Spion Kop taken'--"
"So Bob," I nodded, "had it as badly as everybody else!"
"Worse," declared Catherine, her eye hardening; "it was all I could doto keep him at Cambridge, though he had only just gone up. He would havegiven up everything and flown to the Front if I had let him."
And she wore the inexorable face with which I could picture her standingin his way; and in Catherine I could admire that dogged look and all itspelt, because a great passion is always admirable. The passion ofCatherine's life was her boy, the only son of his mother, and she awidow. It had been so when he was quite small, as I remembered it with apinch of jealousy startling as a twinge from an old wound. More thanever must it be so now; that was as natural as the maternal embargo inwhich Catherine seemed almost to glory. And yet, I reflected, if all thewidows had thought only of their only sons--and of themselves!
"The next depressing morning," continued Catherine, happily oblivious ofwhat was passing through one's mind, "the first thing I saw, the firsttime I put my nose outside, was a great pink placard with 'Spion KopAbandoned!' Duncan, it was too awful."
"I wish we'd sat tight," I said, "I must confess."
"Tight!" cried Catherine in dry horror. "I should have abandoned it longbefore. I should have run away--hard! To think that you didn't--that'squite enough for me."
And again I sustained the full flattery of that speechless awe which wasyet unembarrassing by reason of its freedom from undue solemnity.
"There were some of us who hadn't a leg to run on," I had to say; "I wasone, Mrs. Evers."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Catherine, then." But it put me to the blush.
"Thank you. If you really wish me to call you 'Captain Clephane' youhave only to say so; but in that case I can't ask the favour I had madeup my mind to ask--of so old a friend."
Her most winning voice was as good a servant as ever; the touch of scornin it was enough to stimulate, but not to sting; and it was the samewith the sudden light in the steady intellectual eyes.
"Catherine," I said, "you can't indeed ask any favour of me! There youare quite right. It is not a word to use between us."
Mrs. Evers gave me one of her deliberate looks before replying.
"And I am not so sure that it is a favour," she said softly enough atlast. "It is really your advice I want to ask, in the first place at allevents. Duncan, it's about old Bob!"
The corners of her mouth twitched, her eyes filled with a quainthumorous concern, and as a preamble I was handed the photograph which Ihad already studied on my own account.
"Isn't he a dear?" asked Bob's mother. "Would you have known him,Duncan?"
"I did know him," said I. "Spotted him at a glance. He's the same oldBob all over."
I was fortunate enough to meet the swift glance I got for that, for insheer sweetness and affection it outdid all remembered glances of thepast. In a moment it was as though I had more than regained the lostground of lost years. And in another moment, on the heels of thediscovery, came the still more startling one that I was glad to haveregained my ground, was thankful to be reinstated, and strangely,acutely, yet uneasily happy, as I had never been since the old days inthis very room.
Half in a dream I heard Catherine telling of her boy, of his Etontriumphs, how he had been one of the rackets pair two years, and in theeleven his last, but "in Pop" before he was seventeen, and yet as simpleand unaffected and unspoilt with it all as the small boy whom Iremembered. And I did remember him, and knew his mother well enough tobelieve it all; for she did not chant his praises to organ music, butrather hummed them to the banjo; and one felt that her own demurehumour, so signal and so permanent a charm in Catherine, would have beenthe saving of half-a-dozen Bobs.
"And yet," she wound up at her starting-point, "it's about poor old BobI want to speak to you!"
"Not in a fix, I hope?"
"I hope not, Duncan."
Catherine was serious now.
"That depends on what you mean by mischief."
Catherine was more serious still.
"Well, there are several brands, but only one or two that reallypoison--unless, of course, a man is very poor."
And my mind harked back to its first suspicion, of some financialembarrassment, now conceivable enough; but Catherine told me her boy wasnot poor, with the air of one who would have drunk ditchwater ratherthan let the other want for champagne.
"It is just the opposite," she added: "in little more than a year, whenhe comes of age, he will have quite as much as is good for him. You knowwhat he is, or rather you don't. I do. And if I were not his mother Ishould fall in love with him myself!"
Catherine looked down on me as she returned from replacing Bob'sphotograph on the mantelpiece. The humour had gone out of her eye; inits place was an almost animal glitter, a far harder light than hadaccompanied the significant reference to the patriotic impulse which shehad nipped in the bud. It was probably only the old, old look of thelioness whose whelp is threatened, but it was something new to me inCatherine Evers, something half-repellent and yet almost wholly fine.
"You don't mean to say it's that?" I asked aghast.
"No, I don't," Catherine answered, with a hard little laugh. "He's notquite twenty, remember; but I am afraid that he is making a fool ofhimself, and I want it stopped."
I waited for more, merely venturing to nod my sympathetic concern.
"Poor old Bob, as you may suppose, is not a genius. He is far too nice,"declared Catherine's old self, "to be anything so nasty. But I alwaysthought he had his head screwed on, and his heart screwed in, or I neverwould have let him loose in a Swiss hotel. As it was, I was only tooglad for him to go with George Kennerley, who was as good at work atEton as Bob was at games."
In Catherine's tone, for all the books on her shelves, the pictures onher walls, there was no doubt at all as to which of the two an Eton boyshould be good at, and I agreed sincerely with another nod.
"They were to read together for an hour or so every day. I thought itwould be a nice little change for Bob, and it was quite a chance; hemust do a certain amount of work, you see. Well, they only went at thebeginning of the month, and already they have had enough of each other'ssociety."
"You don't mean that they've had a row?"
Catherine inclined a mortified head.
"Bob never had such a thing in his life before, nor did I ever knowanybody who succeeded in having one with Bob. It does take two, youknow. And when one of the two has an angelic temper, and tact enough fortwenty--"
"You naturally blame the other," I put in, as she paused in visibleperplexity.
"But I don't, Duncan, and that's just the point. George is devoted toBob, and is as nice as he can be himself, in his own sober, honest,plodding way. He may not have the temper, he certainly has not the tact,but he worships Bob and has come back quite miserable."
"Then he has come back, and you have seen him?"
"He was here last night. You must know that Bob writes to me every day,even from Cambridge, if it's only a line; and in yesterday's letter hementioned quite casually that George had had enough of it and was offhome. It was a little too casual to be quite natural in old Bob, andthere are other things he has been mentioning in the same way. If anyinstinct is to be relied upon it is a mother's, and mine amounted almostto second sight. I sent Master George a telegram, and he came in lastnight."
"Not a word! There was bad blood between them, but that was all I couldget out of him. Vulgar disagreeables between Bob, of all people, and hisgreatest friend! If you could have seen the poor fellow sitting whereyou are sitting now, like a prisoner in the dock! I put him in thewitness-box instead, and examined him on scraps of Bob's letters to me.It was as unscrupulous as you please, but I felt unscrupulous; and thepoor dear was too loyal to admit, yet too honest to deny, a singlething."
"And?" said I, as Bob's mother paused again.
"And," cried she, with conscious melodrama in the fiery twinkle of hereye--"and, I know all! There is an odious creature at the hotel--awidow, if you please! A 'ripping widow' Bob called her in his firstletter; then it was 'Mrs. Lascelles'; but now it is only 'some people'whom he escorts here, there, and everywhere. _Some_ people, indeed!"
Catherine smiled unmercifully. I relied upon my nod.
"I needn't tell you," she went on, "that the creature is at least twentyyears older than my baby, and not at all nice at that. George didn'ttell me, mind, but he couldn't deny a single thing. It was about herthat they fell out. Poor George remonstrated, not too diplomatically, Idaresay, but I can quite see that my Bob behaved as he was never knownto behave on land or sea. The poor child has been bewitched, neithermore nor less."
"He'll get over it," I murmured, with the somewhat shaky confidence bornof my own experience.
Catherine looked at me in mild surprise.
"But it's going on now, Duncan--it's going on still!"
"Well," I added, with all the comfort that my voice would carry, andwhich an exaggerated concern seemed to demand: "well, Catherine, itcan't go very far at his age!" Nor to this hour can I yet conceive asounder saying, in all the circumstances of the case, and with one'sknowledge of the type of lad; but my fate was the common one ofcomforters, and I was made speedily and painfully aware that I had nowindeed said the most unfortunate thing.
Catherine did not stamp her foot, but she did everything else requiredby tradition of the exasperated lady. Not go far? As if it had not gonetoo far already to be tolerated another instant longer than wasnecessary!
"He is making a fool of himself--my boy--my Bob--before a wholehotelful of sharp eyes and sharper tongues! Is that not far enough forit to have gone? Duncan, it must be stopped, and stopped at once; but Iam not the one to do it. I would rather it went on," cried Catherinetragically, as though the pit yawned before us all, "than that hismother should fly to his rescue before all the world! But a friend mightdo it, Duncan--if--"
Her voice had dropped. I bent my ear.
"If only," she sighed, "I had a friend who would!"
Catherine was still looking down when I looked up; but the droop of theslender body, the humble angle of the cavalier hat, the faint flushunderneath, all formed together a challenge and an appeal which were themore irresistible for their sweet shamefacedness. Acute consciousness ofthe past
I even fancied
some penitence for a wrong byno means past undoing, were in every sensitive inch of her, as she sat asuppliant to the old player of that part. And there are emotions ofwhich the body may be yet more eloquent than the face; there was thefigure of Watts's "Hope" drooping over as she drooped, not more lissomand speaking than her own; just then it caught my eye, and on the spotit was as though the lute's last string of that sweet masterpiece hadvibrated aloud in Catherine's room.
My hand shook as I reached for my trusty sticks, but I cannot say thatmy voice betrayed me when I inquired the name of the Swiss hotel.
"The Riffel Alp," said Catherine--"above Zermatt, you know."
"I start to-morrow morning," I rejoined, "if that will do."
Then Catherine looked up. I cannot describe her look. Transfigurationwere the idle word, but the inadequate, and yet more than one wouldscatter the effect of so sudden a burst of human sunlight.
"Would you really go?" she cried. "Do you mean it, Duncan?"
"I only wish," I replied, "that it were to Australia."
"But then you would be weeks too late."
"Ah, that's another story! I may be too late as it is."
Her brightness clouded on the instant; only a gleam of annoyance piercedthe cloud.
"Too late for what, may I ask?"
"Everything except stopping the banns."
"Please don't talk nonsense, Duncan. Banns at nineteen!"
"It is nonsense, I agree; at the same time the minor consequences willbe the hardest to deal with. If they are being talked about, well, theyare being talked about. You know Bob best: suppose he is making a foolof himself, is he the sort of fellow to stop because one tells him so? Ishould say not, from what I know of him, and of you."
"I don't know," argued Catherine, looking pleased with her compliment."You used to have quite an influence over him, if you remember."
"That's quite possible; but then he was a small boy, now he is a grownman."
"But you are a much older one."
"Too old to trust to that."
"And you have been wounded in the war."
"The hotel may be full of wounded officers; if not I might get a littleunworthy purchase there. In any case I'll go. I should have to gosomewhere before many days. It may as well be to that place as toanother. I have heard that the air is glorious; and I'll keep an eye onRobin, if I can't do anything else."
"That's enough for me," cried Catherine, warmly. "I have sufficientfaith in you to leave all the rest to your own discretion and good senseand better heart. And I never shall forget it, Duncan, never, never! Youare the one person he wouldn't instantly suspect as an emissary, besidesbeing the only one I ever--ever trusted well enough to--to take at yourword as I have done."
I thought myself that the sentence might have pursued a bolder coursewithout untruth or necessary complications. Perhaps my conceit was on ascale with my acknowledged infirmity where Catherine was concerned. ButI did think that there was more than trust in the eyes that now meltedinto mine; there was liking at least, and gratitude enough to inspireone to win infinitely more. I went so far as to take in mine the hand towhich I had dared to aspire in the temerity of my youth; nor shall Ipretend for a moment that the old aspirations had not already mounted totheir old seat in my brain. On the contrary, I was only wonderingwhether the honesty of voicing my hopes would nowise counterbalance thecaddishness of the sort of stipulation they might imply.
"All I ask," I was saying to myself, "is that you will give me anotherchance, and take me seriously this time, if I prove myself worthy in theway you want."
But I am glad to think I had not said it when tea came up, and saved adangerous situation by breaking an insidious spell.
I stayed another hour at least, and there are few in my memory whichpassed more deliciously at the time. In writing of it now I feel that Ihave made too little of Catherine Evers, in my anxiety not to make toomuch, yet am about to leave her to stand or to fall in the reader'sopinion by such impression as I have already succeeded in creating inhis or her mind. Let me add one word, or two, while yet I may. Abaron's daughter
though you might have known Catherine some timewithout knowing that
, she had nevertheless married for mere love as avery young girl, and had been left a widow before the birth of her boy.I never knew her husband, though we were distant kin, nor yet herselfduring the long years through which she mourned him. Catherine Evers wasbeginning to recover her interest in the world when first we met; butshe never returned to that identical fold of society in which she hadbeen born and bred. It was, of course, despite her own performances, afold to which the worldly wolf was no stranger; and her trouble hadturned a light-hearted little lady into an eager, intellectual,speculative being, with a sort of shame for her former estate, and anundoubted reactionary dislike of dominion and of petty pomp. Of her ownhigh folk one neither saw nor heard a thing; her friends were thepowerful preachers of most denominations, and one or two only painted orwrote; for she had been greatly exercised about religion, and somewhatsolaced by the arts.
Of her charm for me, a lad with a sneaking regard for the pen, even whenI buckled on the sword, I need not be too analytical. No doubt about herkindly interest, in the first instance, in so morbid a curiosity as asubaltern who cared for books and was prepared to extend his graciouspatronage to pictures. This subaltern had only too much money, and ifthe truth be known, only too little honest interest in the career intowhich he had allowed himself to drift. An early stage of that careerbrought him up to London, where family pressure drove him on a day toElm Park Gardens. The rest is easily conceived. Here was a woman, stillyoung, though some years older than oneself; attractive, intellectual,amusing, the soul of sympathy, at once a spiritual influence and thebest companion in the world; and for a time, at least, she had taken aperhaps imprudent interest in a lad whom she so greatly interestedherself, on so many and various accounts. Must you marvel that theyoung fool mistook the interest, on both sides, for a more intensefeeling, of which he for one had no experience at the time, and that hefell by his mistake at a ridiculously early stage of his career?
It is, I grant, more surprising to find the same young man playing HarryEsmond
at due distance
to the same Lady Castlewood after years inIndia and a taste of two wars. But Catherine's room was Catherine'sroom, a very haunt of the higher sirens, charged with noble promptingsand forgotten influences and impossible vows. And you will please bearin mind that as yet I am but setting forth, from this rarefiedatmosphere, upon my invidious mission.