IT was Nettleship's match; or rather, the University match that cricketers persist in calling Nettleship's, because it is generally held to have been Nettleship's long score (and apparently nothing else) that ultimately won the game for Oxford. It was the second day of the match, and the luncheon interval, which occurred shortly after Nettleship had gone in.
The day was gorgeous, as those who were up at Lord's will remember; and the dresses of the ladies were in keeping with the day, as half a dozen newspapers observed next morning. Never, it was agreed, had the well-appointed ground in St. John's Wood presented a fairer spectacle than during that interval. A perfect galaxy of beauty floated before your eyes across the trim green sward; behind you the dainty picnic was already in full swing on the tops of the handsome drags; and over all shone the hot June sun. So the papers said, and not without truth. Personally, however, it is more than likely that you took little or no interest in these phenomena. You knew them by heart as well as the descriptive gentlemen who reported them, at long range, from Fleet Street. More probably you spent the time in those exceptionally delightful recognitions which come but once a year, and at Lord's; where you have the annual opportunity of offering a good cigar to your old house-master (who had you flogged for smoking in your study), and of patronising the snob you used to fag for. You and some other fellow strolled about the ground together, sought out the old set, and criticised them horribly; and, no doubt, among other objects, you drew his attention to one of the players who was lunching in a landau, and was somewhat conspicuous, being the only one of the twenty-two, so far as could be seen, who preferred this sort of discomfort to the regular thing under cover. 'That's Nettleship,' you said; 'he's in, you know.' And of course the other fellow said pointedly that he could see that Nettleship was having his innings, and laughed; and you laughed too, indulgently, but drew nearer, to stare at the man who seemed already to have collared the Cambridge bowling.
All Oxford knew Nettleship by sight, and probably so did most Cambridge men. He had played the three previous years at Lord's, and though he had been a disappointment in those three matches, no one who had seen him in the field was likely to forget him; not so much because he was the finest cover-point in either team, but almost entirely on account of his good looks, which were not at all of the conventional order. His jet-black hair was a sheer anachronism in its length and curliness, and would have been considered extremely bad form in anybody but Nettleship. Also, his pale face was vexatiously deprived of the moustache which might at least have modernised him; but then his features were notably of a classic cast. So, at least, they had seemed when Nettleship played his first match at Lord's as a freshman. They were now, it was remarked, a trifle sharp and angular. In short—though it was the face of a determined, persevering poet, at least looking the part, rather than that of a born athlete—it was a face that every one knew. Even the ladies at Lord's, who notoriously never look at the cricket, except to furnish their annual supply of high-class 'comic copy' in the form of artless comment—even the ladies knew Mr. Nettleship by sight, and really watched the game if he fielded close to the ropes. As for the men of his time, it has been hinted that they judged him by no ordinary standard of 'form,' though they may have regarded him as a dangerous and even impossible model. It may be added that they did not even speak of him in the ordinary way. It is Brown of Oriel, Jones of Brasenose, Robinson of New. It was Nettleship of the 'Varsity—Nettleship of Oxford. And Nettleship of Oxford was having his innings, it was observed; and the reference was not so much to the thirty or forty runs he had already made, and the hundred he was possibly good for, as to the fact that Nettleship was calmly eating salmon mayonnaise by the side of one of the loveliest girls on the ground, on the apex of whose parasol flaunted a dark blue knot.
The landau patronised by the celebrated Oxonian was a new one, though in point of existence the crest upon the door was a good deal newer. The liveries of footman and page were also very new, and their wearers were at any rate new to London (which was plain from their behaviour). In fact, Nettleship of the 'Varsity was with painfully new people. Their name was M'Ilwraith; old M'Ilwraith was one of the newest of the new M.P.'s; and their town house was an institution whose age in weeks could be reckoned on the fingers of two hands.
Nettleship finished his salmon mayonnaise as regardless of the world's eyes as though he were still at the wicket.
'Let me take your plate,' said the lovely girl at his side; and Nettleship let her, or at any rate did not attempt to prevent her until too late. Then he apologised, of course, but coolly.
'Elaine!' said the girl's mother with some severity. 'That is Thomas's business. Thomas!'
Thomas, the page, arose somewhat flushed from a playful bear-fight with the Masters M'Ilwraith under the carriage, and was within an ace of spilling the remains of the mayonnaise over Miss M'Ilwraith's dress, in his self-consciousness.
'That boy is quite unbearable,' said Mrs. M'Ilwraith with irritation. 'Mr Nettleship,' she continued, in tones that were artificially hospitable but unmistakably cold, 'what dare we offer you? My eldest boy has told me such terrible tales about training, that really one does not know, you know.'
There was a moral wheeze in the lady's voice that Nettleship's ear detected with the celerity and certainty of a stethoscope. At once he became alert and attentive. He wanted nothing more—not that cricket demanded any particular training, like the Sports—but what might he get for Mrs. M'Ilwraith? Oyster patties, salad, strawberries, an ice, champagne? He must be allowed to make himself useful, he protested; and for some minutes Mrs. M'Ilwraith received more assiduous attention at his hands than she had ever seen him pay her daughter, or any other woman, young or old. This, of course, may have been diplomacy in Nettleship. His eyes were blue, and keen, and searching; his smile had of late taken a cynical curl; and indeed there were diplomatic potentialities in every corner of his mobile, clear-cut countenance. But there was enough of careless candour in his smiling glance—enough to be largely genuine.
This glance, too, was levelled exclusively at the elder lady. Nor could it have done any violence to his optic nerves to contemplate Mrs. M'Ilwraith closely and long, for, as elderly ladies go, she was among the very prettiest. Stout she undoubtedly was, but her hair was still golden, almost, and her own entirely; while her complexion had resolutely refused to grow any older some thirty years ago, and had carried out its independent resolve without the aid of a single cosmetic. She was dimpled, too, with sympathetic, poetical dimples not in complete harmony with her present character, though they had very well suited those idyllic and comparatively humble days in which Mrs. M'Ilwraith had read her 'Tennyson' to such practical purpose as to christen every child out of the well-loved volume. In addition to these lingering charms of a simple girlhood, there was her later, more worldly, but scarcely less pleasing attribute of being always thoroughly well dressed in the best possible taste. This, of course, was greatly en évidence to-day; while, as usual, her face offered a choice study in comfortable serenity. As for Elaine Milwraith, she was precisely what it was plain that her mother had been at Elaine's age; only prettier, you would have said; and less shallow, I happen to know.
'You say you are living in town now?' said Mrs. M'Ilwraith.
'For the last few months,' Nettleship replied. 'Since I got back from my globe trot.'
'Then how does it happen that you are playing for your College still?'
'For his University,' Elaine suggested.
'Oh, we are allowed to play four seasons, don't you know?' Nettleship explained. 'It wasn't my intention to play this year, and I haven't been up once this term; but they bothered me about the London matches, and I suppose I was too keen, myself, to refuse.'
At this moment an elephantine young man rolled up to the carriage and leant heavily upon the door. He was very stout indeed, and extremely like Mrs. M'Ilwraith in face. In fact, he was her eldest boy. But those terrible tales of training mentioned by that lady were evidently not her son's personal experiences.
'Ned, my boy,' cried this young man, slapping Nettleship heavily upon the shoulder, 'you're drinking nothing! Thomas—champagne for Mr. Nettleship.'
'Arthur,' said Nettleship, 'I don't want any.'
Arthur insisting, however, he took the glass, put it once to his lips, and seized an early opportunity of surreptitiously conveying it over the far side of the carriage into the hands of young Launcelot M'Ilwraith, who shared it (unfairly) with the still younger Enoch Arden M'Ilwraith; who flung the dregs in the footman's face.
The bell for clearing the ground was now likely to ring at any moment. Luncheon, so far as Nettleship was concerned, was long over. He took the opportunity, however, before going back to the pavilion, afforded by Arthur's whispering into his mother's ear the names of some nobles on a neighbouring drag, in fulfilment of a solemn charge delivered before leaving home—Nettleship took this opportunity to turn and speak to Elaine.
'What ages it is since we met!' he said, looking at her critically.
'It is just a year and a half,' Elaine said simply.
He, for his part, had no idea when it was; he would not have owned to one in any case; but Elaine's long memory did not displease him, and he answered with a laugh:
'Is it really all that? I say, Elaine, how old we are all getting! You must be—let me see—twenty—what?'
'How ridiculous you are! Twenty's a year away still. I'm nineteen on Friday, as you might know if you—if——'
'Friday! Oho, your birthday's on Friday!' whistled Nettleship—as though, until the other year, he had not sent her presents, regularly as the calendar, on that day. 'You ought to celebrate it, Elaine, in Sussex Square.'
'What is that, Mr. Nettleship?' said Mrs. M'Ilwraith sharply. Her face, however, did not for a moment lose its serenity. That was its way.
'I made so bold as to suggest a birthday party in Elaine's honour,' said Nettleship, with the coolness of an old-established family friend.
Arthur, having detected his small brothers in the act of opening a fresh bottle of champagne in their inferno under the carriage, was engaged in brotherly chastisement, so he did not hear what followed.
'A party!' cried Mrs. M'Ilwraith, taken aback for the moment, but yet able promptly to press her daughter's foot with her own. 'Oh, I see, an "At Home," a Reception. And all because of a birthday! Why, really, Mr. Nettleship—the children are not children now!'
'It appears not,' said Nettleship, rising as the bell rang in the pavilion; 'when they were I was "Ned" to you all!' And with a somewhat cold smile, and a short leave-taking, he was gone.
A thousand glances followed his retreating form, in the jacket that was no longer dark blue, but honourably faded. It was its fourth and last appearance at Lord's on this great occasion. A thousand tongues talked 'Nettleship' for the moment. It was his last chance in the 'Varsity match. He had never done anything in it before. Yet he was the best bat in the eleven; he had begun well; he did look like rising to the occasion this time, and coming off at last.
But in the new landau Elaine ventured at once upon a mild remonstrance with her mother.
'How very odd of you not to tell him about Friday evening, mamma! You implied an untruth, even if you didn't tell one.'
'If it was only "a lie which is half a truth,"’ said Mrs. M'Ilwraith blandly, remembering a phrase but entirely forgetting the context; 'if it was only that, my dear, I am sorry. It shows that I need practice. Don't look absurd, Elaine! Town life would be unbearable without the fib—the little, necessary fib. I settled that before we left the country.'
'But why on earth not ask him, when we know him so well?'
'Why on earth? Every reason on earth,' smiled Mrs. M'Ilwraith, in perfect good-humour. 'Must I remind you of some of them? Well, then, they are losing money, the Nettleships, as fast as ever they can. Before long they will fail; nothing can prevent it. Your father has reason to know this. Your father saw reason to cease doing business with them at least a year ago. This young man has no longer any prospects. Why did he hurry home from abroad, after six months, when he went for eighteen, if it was not that supplies ceased? Yes, all the sons had a few thousands from their mother, I know that; but it is the merest pittance, and goodness knows what he is doing for a living in town, or how he dare be playing here. These are a few of the reasons on earth; and they are reasons enough for our not going out of our way to ask him to the house. Because a young man has a room in the Temple, Elaine, it doesn't follow—Elaine! you are not listening! Why, the girl is clapping her hands like a lunatic! What is it? '
'Ned hit two fourers the first over!' Elaine replied, without taking her sparkling eyes from the game.
'Ned, indeed!' said Mrs. M'Ilwraith. But it was obviously of no use to say more just then, when Elaine was so shamefully excited. Mrs. M'Ilwraith subsided into composed silence. After all, it was not so very hard to get into town ways; and, really, when one tried, it came quite natural to show the cold shoulder to one's oldest country friends. … Ned, indeed!
Mrs. M'Ilwraith raised her eyes to the box of the vehicle. There sat Enid, the second Miss M'Ilwraith, and by her side a most satisfactory young man. These two were really delightfully engrossed in one another. They were in a planet of their own, from which it seldom occurred to them to turn their heads and look down. The young man was enormously wealthy, though lineally of small account. But everything was not to be compassed at once. There should be no taint of trade in Elaine's bargain, not even of successful trade. The idea of 'Ned!'
The hot afternoon wore on, and the fieldsmen's shadows became longer and narrower every over. Launcelot, Enoch, and their friend the page snored happily under the axle-trees. As for Mrs. M'Ilwraith, she had become inured to rounds of applause that did not in the least excite her curiosity, and was herself on the point of dozing, when a peculiarly long and loud uproar induced her to open her eyes. She opened them upon the strangely pale face of Elaine.
'Whatever is the matter?' cried Mrs. M'Ilwraith.
'Hush!' Elaine whispered. 'He's out! Wait a moment! There!'
Mrs. M'Ilwraith had descried the figure of young Nettleship walking slowly from the wicket, with bent shoulders—after the first outburst, in dead silence. But as he neared the densely crowded pavilion the shouting and clapping of hands burst forth again with redoubled enthusiasm. Elaine clapped too, clapped wildly, and the pink was back in her face.
'Dear me, it must be something quite out of the way to make all this fuss about,' said Mrs. M'Ilwraith, perceiving at last that the occasion was a great one. 'In whose honour, pray, is all this din?'
'In Ned's—Ned's!' cried Elaine, still clapping furiously. 'See, the other side are clapping too! Oh, I do hope it is a hundred—it must be a hundred—it can't be short of a hundred!'
But it was—by one run. Nettleship's memorable score was exactly ninety-nine!
Sympathy at once made itself felt in a fresh and touching roar. But as for Elaine, tears sprang into her fine, flashing eyes; she leant back in the landau, and the match interested her no more.
Her mother appeared to be thinking. At last she said:
'Has he distinguished himself so very much, my dear?'
A pause. 'Then,' said Mrs. M'Ilwraith naively, 'why don't he come back and sit with us?'
'He might, perhaps,' answered Elaine, 'if he had distinguished himself less.' And for a moment her wishes were at variance.
'Elaine,' said her mother, after another and a longer pause, 'will there be anything about him in the papers to-morrow?'
'And people will talk about him?'
'Of course, mamma—as the hero of the match!'
'Elaine,' said Mrs. M'Ilwraith at last (it was just as they were going), 'send Mr. Nettleship a card this evening—for Friday, you know!'
So many men get a hundred runs in the University match, that it would be superfluous to describe the variety of congratulations—from excited clergymen and hardened Old Blues, from hoary veterans and beardless boys—which assailed Nettleship in the pavilion. Of late years 'centuries' in first-class cricket have become so terribly common, and at least one century in the University match so entirely inevitable, that Nettleship was rather glad than otherwise to have fallen just short of the commonplace three figures. He had achieved a record all to himself, for ninety-nine is the rarest of scores, and has never before or since been made in the Oxford and Cambridge matches. Indeed, Nettleship would have been perfectly contented but for the tiresome expressions of sympathy, on account of that one run short, which mingled largely with the praises buzzing in his ears. The popular commiseration savoured of strained sentiment, for it could not have been more demonstrative if he had got no runs at all, and it bored Nettleship supremely; in fact, it had a good deal to do with his leaving the ground when he did, half an hour before play ceased, there being no danger of Oxford having to field again that evening.
He tried to get away unobserved; but the penalties of a public personality are inexorable, and the invitations and questions that pelted him between the pavilion and the gates were a little trying. Nettleship refused the invitations, ignored the questions, and eventually rattled off alone in a hansom.
Speeding towards the City in that hansom, the young man underwent a swift transfiguration. His head drooped in dejection, his pointed features grew sensibly sharper, his eyes filled with bitterness; and an ugly distortion—a mere parody of a smile, and a poor one—froze upon his lips. Two pictures, both of himself, were in his mind. Lord's cricket-ground was the background of the one, an ill-furnished room in the Temple that of the other. His back was turned upon the first, his face was set towards the second; and the iron was deep in his soul. He had carried off the honours of this afternoon pretty coolly, if not (from purely physical causes) exactly in cold blood; yet, looking at him now, one would have taken him for a young man denied all his life the happiness of a single triumphal hour. In point of fact, Nettleship was to be pitied; but not at his own computation. For young men are the worst judges of their own hardships; and this one was driving to chambers in the Temple, not to a garret—driving, too, not walking—and had an income upon which it was quite possible to live in tolerable comfort, dress decently, and occasionally even to drink wine at meals. What was impossible for Nettleship was to live as he had been accustomed to live; as he considered Nature had intended him to live from the first; as all the men he had been playing with to-day lived. But, misery being purely a matter of comparison, even this qualified form of it was in Nettleship's case considerable, not to say grievous.
The hansom was half-way to the Temple when, apparently on a sudden impulse, the fare knocked violently with his knuckles upon the trap overhead. A square of blue sky was stamped for a moment in the roof of the cab, and then hidden by a sun-flayed ear and whiskered cheek. Into that ear Nettleship pronounced the name of a celebrated emporium of fashionable virtu and saleable conceits in metal and fabric. Three minutes later he was in the artistic precincts of the shop itself, asking for the manager by name, and giving his own. The manager came forward at once.
'Ah!' said he, 'about your curios; follow me, sir.'
Nettleship did so. They paused before a table, artistic in itself, upon which a number of Asiatic curios were effectively arranged.
'Here they are, sir, and in advantageous position, as I think you will admit. But I am sorry to say their number is undiminished—undiminished, sir, by so much as a single spear-head. I told you my fears frankly, I think, at the first; so far, I regret to say, they have been realised. There is no sale for curios now. They have gone out. They are not the Craze, sir. You know what the Craze is now, sir; and two Crazes cannot be co-existent. I am perfectly frank—they must be done to death one at a time, sir, seniores priores.' Nettleship smiled. 'Now, a year ago it would have been different. We would have speculated in these things then, sir—for they are very pretty things indeed, Mr. Nettleship—we would have nothing to do with them at all, not even on the present terms, if they were not such exceedingly pretty things. But, as it is, we dare not speculate in them; as it is, the speculation must be yours, sir.'
The man was voluble, and knew his business. Considering everything, there was a pinch of humour in the situation. Nettleship smiled again, not entirely in bitterness.
'There has been no inquiry at all about the things, then?' said Nettleship, preparing to leave the shop.
'None to my knowledge. But stay: I will make sure before you go.'
The manager left him. In less than a minute he returned.
'There has been an inquiry, after all—and a good deal of interest shown—about this.' He took up a small bronze water-vase, delicately traced with strange figures. It was the one thing in his collection that Nettleship had supposed to be of real value, though he had kept tobacco in it until the day it occurred to him to make money out of his curios.
'But,' said Nettleship, 'nothing came of it, you say?'
'No, because we named your price. It will never go at fifty guineas, sir; it's too tall altogether.'
Nettleship looked coldly at the man of business: he had a keen eye for Crazes, no doubt, but what was he to know about the antique art of India? On the other hand, Nettleship himself was completely ignorant of that subject. He had only some chance acquaintance's word for it, out in India, that this little vase was a valuable property. Nettleship looked at the man of business very coldly indeed.
'Look here,' he said slowly, and in the preternaturally calm tones in which one might warn a fellow-creature of one's immediate intention of throwing him through the window. 'Look here: next time any one asks, let it go for thirty!'
Without another word he stalked from the shop. The hansom rattled on until it stopped at Middle Temple Lane. There Nettleship got out, walked into Brick Court, and up the stone stairs to his chambers. For the next hour he lounged in a chair, thinking the vagrant thoughts that are encouraged, if not inspired, by the smoking of several cigarettes at a sitting. Naturally, in his case, they were not the pleasantest thoughts in the world; yet, when he got up and stretched himself, and went out to dine, his mood had improved. It was then eight o'clock. He returned at five minutes to nine; so that his dinner, wherever he got it, could not have been a very elaborate affair. Dropping once more into his armchair, he abandoned himself to further thought. Possibly his thoughts were of a more concentrated character than before, for a single cigarette sustained them. The long summer twilight went through all its mellow gradations, and finally deepened into complete darkness, before the young man at last rose and lit the lamp. This done, he carried the lamp to a pedestal desk, and sitting down at the desk drew up his chair close. There was now an appearance of settled purpose in his manner, and his face was full of cool determination; it wore, in fact, the identical expression which the Cambridge bowlers of that year have such good reason to remember.
Nettleship had not sat down to write, however. Unlocking a drawer in the left-hand pedestal, he took out of it handfuls of photographs of various sizes, which he heaped together on the flat part of the desk, close to the lamp. Without more ado he proceeded deliberately to sort the photographs, throwing most of them carelessly on one side, but picking out one in twenty, or so, and placing it carefully on the slope in front of him. So might the modern Paris approach his invidious task, without embarrassment, the fatal apple already packed up and ticketed for the Parcels Post; for the photographs were nearly all of the other sex. But there were evidences that this was no selection of the fairest. In the first place, the greatest beauties of the civilised world were tossed aside without a moment's thought; in the second, the selected photographs were all of one woman, in the various stages of her girlhood. The conclusion was manifestly foregone. The chosen woman was Elaine M'Ilwraith.
Her photographs he now arranged in one long row on the slope of the desk, in chronological order, from left to right. To the disinterested philosopher the series would have offered interesting illustrations of the respective improvements in photography and the female dress during late years, quite apart from the graduated coming forth of a most attractive flower of girlhood. Nettleship's reflections, however, were to the point. He shifted the lamp from the left side of the desk to the right, and turned up the wick. The strongest rays now fell upon the latest photographs. Upon these young Nettleship gazed long and thoughtfully. The act was sentimental; but the expression of the actor was nothing of the kind. It was not even a tender expression; nor was it, on the other hand, coldly calculating—altogether; it was merely thoughtful. Edward Nettleship was making up his mind.
He did make up his mind at last, and put together the photographs of Elaine, and restored them to the drawer—where, by the way, they no longer kept theatrical company, or any company but their own. One of Elaine's photographs, however—the latest and the best—was kept out. It was a full-length portrait in fancy dress, with an expansive hat, a milk-pail, a milking-stool, and other pretty properties; and this really charming picture was stuck up forthwith on the chimneypiece.
Nettleship had made up his mind at last, once and for all, and for good. The words upon his lips as he blew out the lamp were indicative of an uncompromising attitude.
'She would have liked it well enough once,' he said; 'she will have to lump it now. The fool of a woman!'
But this, as it happened, was scarcely kind to the lady alluded to, seeing that an invitation card for her 'At Home' on Friday was even then gravitating towards Nettleship's letter-box.
'Where did this come from?' said Elaine to Enid.
It was Friday evening, at the new house in Sussex Square. The first carriage might arrive at any moment. As yet the two girls had the drawing-room to themselves, and were delicately disarranging the room in a truly enlightened spirit; though there was in it a newness, a stiffness, and a pervading sense of Tottenham Court Road that only the hand of time could soften. The subject of Elaine's inquiry, however, whencesoever it had come, was not—it was safe to bet—of that thoroughfare. And indeed, as Enid explained, it had come from quite another quarter, that afternoon, on approval.
'Approval!' said Elaine, with a slight and pardonable sneer. 'Does that mean that it is to be paraded to-night, and to-morrow returned as unsuitable? It has happened before, you know.'
'Perhaps it is to happen again. I don't know. I only know that, as we drove back from the Park, mamma declared she must get something pretty for the room; so we went to Labrano's, and this little oddity took her fancy. It is pretty, isn't it?—and it looks well by itself on this absurd little table. Well, you know mamma's way—her town way. I heard her say, "Mr. M'Ilwraith is a great judge of Eastern work—quite his hobby, in fact—but it seems an enormous price. I really cannot decide until he sees it." So it ended in our bringing it away with us in the carriage.'
'Hobby, indeed!' cried Elaine scornfully. 'When had papa any hobby but one? But it appears to be an article in the London creed—at least, in mamma's interpretation of it—to tell stories whenever you possibly can. I must say, I congratulate her on the ease with which she embraces the new faith. At least she has the courage of her inventions.'
'Hasn't she! But let us leave the vase where it is, for it is really very pretty——'
'And no doubt valuable; which makes it meaner still. Yes, it can stay there—but, hush!'
For at that moment Mr. M'Ilwraith entered the room. As his daughter had truly observed, he had but one hobby—and that was political, which made him a dangerous man to meet in quiet corners. He talked of nothing else. Allowances could perhaps be made for him on the plea that he was so very new to St. Stephen's; but those best acquainted with him found it hard to make them. A new Bill, which affected Mr. M'Ilwraith's sympathies as a politician no less than his personal interests as an employer of labour, was then intermittently before the House; and, naturally enough, his head was full of it. It was a fine head, a magnificent head, but he ran fearful risks with it: it was quite distended with that Bill. Even now, in the absence of men of his own weight, the poltroon fell upon his defenceless daughters, and assaulted them with his last night's speech. No. They had not read it. They confessed they had not, and hung their heads.
'Ah!' said Mr. M'Ilwraith kindly. 'No time, I see; an exceptional day, I suppose. Well, well, we'll say no more about it at present. The Times is still intact, I daresay; you have laid it aside for a quiet time perhaps. Good! You will find the report of my speech full—satisfactorily full, I may say—though not verbatim. I could wish it had been verbatim. But you will read it, girls, before you go to bed, and we will discuss it at breakfast; when I shall be able to give you, word for word—for my memory is luckily a good one—all that they saw necessary to exclude.'
'You are not going to-night, papa?' Enid ventured.
'To the House? Yes, late—in time for the division. I must do that in deference to my constituents. Personally, however, there is nothing of any interest to me going on to-night. What is the division about, you ask, Elaine? Ireland, my girl, Ireland. Now, what is far more important in my eyes——'
Mr. M'Ilwraith took his foot from the stirrup, in the very act of remounting, on the entrance, at this point, of his wife. His wife's want of appreciation or sympathy where his nearest and dearest projects were concerned was notorious, and damaging to the dignity of the senator. She had even been known (while her husband was speaking) to point to one of her ears and snap her fingers at the other, simultaneously, in pantomimic illustration of the velocity with which his best periods passed in and out of her cranium. There was no occasion, however, to stable the trusty animal just yet. Already there were sounds upon the stairs, and old M'Ilwraith smelt the blood of Englishmen to whom resistance and escape would be alike impossible.
Once started, the influx of guests seemed never to abate during the remainder of the evening. Following the very oldest precedents, Mrs. M'Ilwraith had laid herself out for lions, and not without success. There were some entirely tame lions from Westminster, colleagues of her husband—whom they sedulously shunned all the evening. There was the wife of an illustrious lion—Professor Josling—who regretted that that eminent antiquary could not himself be present. There was a fearful and wonderful lion from the Chinese Legation, who was so scandalously guyed, behind his back, by the well-bred Enoch Arden (instigated by the bold Launcelot), that Thomas, the page, disgraced himself with the coffee-tray, and received notice that very night. Then there was the athletic lion captured at Lord's, a literary cub from Fleet Street, and an artistic whelp from Chelsea. To crown all, a professional lion—with a high-class satirical entertainment, free from vulgarity—was due at eleven.
As the evening advanced, Mrs. M'Ilwraith might have been seen moving about among the nobodies of her party and whispering into their private ears interesting personalities concerning the somebodies. For the time being, in fact, she became a kind of verbal paragraphist of the evening press; and as she was, if possible, rather more inaccurate than her prototype, the listener was either distracted or entertained, according to his—or, more generally, her—intelligence.
'That, my dear Mrs. Smythe, is Mrs. Josling, wife of the celebrated antiquary. He is busy with the proofs of a new book, so was prevented from coming—much to his disgust, he sends me word. Proofs, you know—so like these terrible professors—they are for ever proving what nobody wants to know, you know! … And that is our delightful oddity, Mr. Ling-Lung—Chinese Embassy, you know. Shall I introduce you? No? Then let me whisper: he came in those lovely garments at my special request! … You know Mr. Nettleship, of course? No? Dear me, I thought everybody knew Mr. Nettleship. He is the champion cricketer of England; bowled ninety-nine of the Cambridge wickets at Lord's the other day. Ninety-nine, poor man! So near and yet so far! We had a carriage on the ground, and he lunched with us during the match, you know.'
Having thus displayed her knowledge of the national game, Mrs. M'Ilwraith raised her pince-nez with a view to pointing out its doughty exponent. He was nowhere to be seen. Mrs. M'Ilwraith steered a zigzag course down the room, but could not find him. Elaine was missing too. A sudden dread entered the lady's breast.
The windows of the room were tall, narrow, three in number, and opened each upon a small balcony of the most useless type. They were wide open on account of the excessively warm weather; for the same reason the blinds were up; and soft Oriental curtains (from Labrano's) alone—and but partially—excluded the zephyrs of Sussex Square. Naturally enough, among the silky fabrics of window number three, innocently contemplating the night, Mrs. M'Ilwraith discovered the missing pair. Their backs, of course, were alone presented; but Mrs. M'Ilwraith instantly identified Elaine's dress, and tapped her daughter on the shoulder with her fan, in unconscious imitation of the business between the smart detective and the discomfited villain in the fifth act.
Elaine started, of course; nevertheless, the radiance could not and would not at once forsake her face when she turned and confronted her mother. Mrs. M'Ilwraith spoke not a word. Her blue eyes glittered upon Nettleship's cool face for one instant; the next, she turned, as abruptly as was possible in a woman of her size, and sailed away with her prize. The little incident was quickly over, and attracted no notice, owing to forethought in the choice of windows.
Nettleship continued in solitude his survey of the night. He was in no way put out; but he did not immediately step back into the light of the room. When he did, however, his step was a thought jaunty, his smile bordered upon insolence, and his hands were in his pockets. He became at once aware that something of interest was taking place at the other end of the room. A small crowd was surrounding somebody, reminding Nettleship, in a small way, of the crowd by St. Clement Danes when the converted cannibal is swallowing the lighted fusees. With a somewhat similar amount of curiosity he approached this crowd. On his way he saw his host lead off the ill-starred Chinaman to political execution in the study. A moment later he heard the silvery tones of his hostess proceeding from the centre of the little crowd.
'Indeed, and indeed, you make too much of my modest little heirloom, dear Mrs. Josling!'
'If the Professor were here, he would make a good deal more of it,' that lady stoutly rejoined. 'But you must really allow me to obtain a simple impression, with this pencil and piece of paper, of such delicate and utterly fantastic tracery. He shall see what that is like, at all events.'
There was a pause. Nettleship raised himself to his full height, and saw an intellectual-looking lady carefully pencilling a piece of paper held closely over a spherical surface. He was mildly interested.
'And this has really been in your family for a century, Mrs. M'Ilwraith?' some one asked.
'Since the Battle of Plassey,' said Mrs. M'Ilwraith glibly. 'My grandfather fought there.'
'That's perfectly true,' thought Nettleship. 'I have heard of it often enough. But I never before heard of any heirloom. What can it be?'
He drew himself up once more to his full height, which it was his bad habit not to make the most of. And then he saw what it was—and would have whistled aloud had he not been a thoroughly cool-headed fellow. For the cynosure of all eyes—the heirloom of the M'Ilwraiths—the spoil of Plassey—was nothing more nor less than the Indian vase of bronze lately in Nettleship's own possession, and but three days ago on sale at Labrano's!
'And still they come!' cried Mrs. M'Ilwraith, smiling—under the public eye—quite sweetly upon the famous cricketer. 'Look at it, Mr. Nettleship? Of course you may! With pleasure! But really, it is too absurd! To think that our wretched little heirloom should attract so much attention!'
Nettleship did look at it—with exaggerated interest; with unnecessary elaboration; in every light and upon every side; at ridiculous length. His lingering manner was in itself calculated to attract attention. Mrs. M'Ilwraith began to feel uncomfortable.
'Do you know, Mrs. M'Ilwraith,' he said at last, with great distinctness, I' cannot remember ever once to have seen this most interesting curio up North?'
Mrs. M'Ilwraith explained, with a strange mixture of hot and cold in her manner, that she had kept it under lock and key while the children were young. And then, with a sudden determination to carry it off serenely, in spite of her feelings, Mrs. M'Ilwraith laughed. It was a nervous, unsuccessful laugh; nor was there any apparent reason for a laugh at all.
But Nettleship had already attracted the attention that was so undesirable; and this was doubled in an instant when the young man deliberately raised the bronze vase to his nose, and sniffed it suspiciously.
'Why,' he exclaimed, looking round upon the company, 'it smells of tobacco!'
'Impossible!' said poor Mrs. M'Ilwraith, forcing another laugh. But this time her laughter was worse than unsuccessful and nervous; it was hysterical.
'Oh, but it does, though,' chuckled Nettleship, putting the vase into his hostess's trembling hands; 'try it! It's tobacco or nothing. What's more, I recognise the brand. It's Callender's Honeydew Mixture. I smoke it myself.'
Mrs. M'Ilwraith turned white as a sheet; but she was not the woman to faint, and Nettleship knew it.
'I never knew before,' went on the forward young man, humorously, 'that Mr. M'Ilwraith smoked Calender's Honeydew Mixture!'
It was here put forward by several persons, who considered Nettleship's manner offensive, that Mr. M'Ilwraith did not smoke at all, but, on the other hand, cordially detested tobacco in any shape or form. Nettleship knew this also; he had known it from his boyhood. Moreover, he was perfectly aware that his manner was offensive; and, at a glance of agonised appeal from Mrs. M'Ilwraith, he had the wit at last to change the subject. And this he did so deftly that the lady experienced in her first moments of relief an emotion of gratitude towards her torturer. In the same way, perhaps, the mediævals loved the thumbscrew-man when he slackened off on their renunciation of the faith. We hear, it is true, only of those who never, never renounced; but no doubt there was an unpretentious majority that did.
The entry of the distinguished entertainer, however, set Mrs. M'Ilwraith free to begin hating young Nettleship for the rest of her natural life. Still, her presence of mind was shattered for the evening; she had not even enough left to prevent Elaine and Nettleship sitting together during the entertainment. And this is a portion of the whispered conversation that took place between the pair.
'I shall have to win your mother next.'
'I wish I thought you could, Ned.'
'I believe I can, though only by scoring off her first.'
'Then do, Ned, do! Don't mind me a little bit.'
'Well, I don't mean to in this case, my darling. The fact is, I see my way to scoring off her as it is—with absolute certainty!'
If he had seen his way to scoring off the fiend himself (in the shape of the Demon Bowler) with absolute certainty (and on a bad wicket), he could not have mentioned it with greater exultation.
At eleven o'clock the following morning Nettleship strode into Labrano's. He was waited upon by the manager with surprising alacrity.
'I have good news for you, sir; good news at last, Mr. Nettleship.'
'Have you, indeed! 'said Nettleship coldly. The man's congratulatory tone would have been offensive to him under any circumstances.
'Well, I think I have, sir. That little Indian vase has been taken by a lady customer, on approval——'
'On approval, eh?' cried Nettleship.
'Well, yes; but you may rely upon it that it is in safe hands; and I may tell you that I have every reason to believe they will keep it, and pay the price.'
'There you are mistaken. They will neither keep it nor will they pay the price. You must get it back from them at once. Money will not buy it now!'
'I have had a narrow escape,' continued Nettleship. 'I have discovered that that simple-looking vase is absolutely priceless.'
The shopman whistled, and turned red.
'So I must ask you, if you please, to send a special messenger for it at once, in a hansom. My good sir, I'll pay you for the trouble and expense at your own figure—only send off your messenger at once.'
But the tradesman's confusion had nothing to do with the young man's request. It was simply accounted for by an overwhelming sense of a marvellous bargain missed—through an imperfect knowledge of Eastern relics, and an exaggerated, narrow-minded, imbecile regard for Craze.
The request, indeed, was immediately complied with. In the course of an hour the messenger returned with the vase, and brought word from Mrs. M'Ilwraith that her custom ceased from that hour. Nettleship paid up as liberally for the trouble as the dignity of Messrs. Labrano would permit, jumped into the emissary's hansom, and drove off to the Temple with his treasure. He entered his chambers in high glee; the prospect of the score looked even rosier than when he had left them an hour ago.
That was on the Saturday. Nettleship waited patiently until the following Tuesday, which was Mrs. M'Ilwraith's day for receiving callers. At half-past four to the minute on the Tuesday afternoon he presented himself in Sussex Square.
Even as he was announced, the flowing speech of Mrs. Professor Josling fell upon his ears; and Nettleship scented the vase. He was received with flawless outward serenity, sat down modestly in an obscure corner (which, however, commanded a fine view of his hostess's face), and flattered Mrs. Josling with a peculiarly earnest attention as that lady resumed her interrupted narration.
'Well. as I was saying, I was prepared to interest my husband with my little reproduction of the tracery; but I did not expect to administer a galvanic shock, my dear Mrs. M'Ilwraith. He pushed back his proofs, and said—indeed, I don't know what he didn't say. He is so excitable, the Professor—and nervous, and almost irritable—when he is busy with proofs. The artistic temperament, Mrs. M'Ilwraith; for, as you know, the Professor is a man of letters as well as a scientist. But above all he is a virtuoso; and my crude reproduction absorbed him at the time to the exclusion of all other subjects. At first I could learn nothing. He was lost in rapt contemplation of the design. But at last he told me that your vase must be a very valuable possession indeed; that he only knew of one other like it in existence, and that in the British Museum. The quaint figures on the vase, he says, probably represent scenes in the life of Gautama Buddha, which would complete the resemblance to the Museum vase. But, to be quite sure, he would like above all things to see the vase itself. He desired me to tell you this, and to crave, on his behalf, the favour of permission to call quietly one afternoon and thoroughly examine the vase.'
Poor, miserable Mrs. M'Ilwraith! To be asked a favour by the renowned Professor Josling, and such a favour; to have Professor Josling inviting himself to her house, in the most delightful, unceremonious, and friendly fashion; and to be powerless to say him yea or nay, or to do anything but sit in her chair and gasp for breath! It was a terrible punishment for a few harmless tarradiddles such as were every day demanded from the most virtuous by the exigencies of town life!
'He would have accompanied me this afternoon,' added Mrs. Josling, 'but for his book; he is sending the final sheets of the revise to the printers this evening.'
That he had not come that afternoon was a small mercy, if he was bent upon coming sooner or later; but Mrs. M'Ilwraith had never felt so thankful for anything in her life as for the Professor's present pressing engagements. She shuddered as she figured in her mind the scene she had escaped. She glanced towards the door in apprehension, dreading, even yet, to see him enter at any moment. An acquiescent smile of ghastly serenity froze upon her lips; she wrenched and wrung her fingers with such quiet violence that the diamonds on one hand must have cut the flesh of the other had the hands been less plump.
'And so, my dear Mrs. M'Ilwraith—if you are certain that he will not bother you—if you are quite sure he will not be in your way—if you are positive that it will not weary you to entertain for one short hour, if as much, an old and ardent enthusiast—why then, might we say one afternoon this week?'
Mrs. M'Ilwraith bowed. For the life of her she could not melt or modify or in any way alter the horrid grin that had settled upon her rigid countenance.
'To-morrow,' suggested Mrs. Josling, whose manner was an ingenious blend of persistency and condescension, 'to-morrow, perhaps, would not do?'
Then at last, and with a desperate effort, Mrs. M'Ilwraith loosened her tongue. Mrs. Josling was begged to understand that to-morrow afternoon would, as it happened, do beautifully. The Professor would be only too welcome, at whatever hour he chose to come. As for Mrs. M'Ilwraith, her feelings had temporarily prevented her from expressing herself; she apologised for the weakness; but, indeed, nobody could tell what a pride and a pleasure it was to think that her simple little relic should attract the attention of so distinguished a connoisseur. The last sentence almost stuck in her throat half-way; it was helped out only by a tremendous resolve to be taken with sudden sickness that very night, and ordered off to the country by her physician the next day.
So the Professor's visit was arranged. And Nettleship, sitting like a mouse in his obscure corner, admired Mrs. M'Ilwraith for the first time in his life, and determined to make amends in the future for the torture he was inflicting upon her in the present. Nor did he add to the latter by contributing a single word to this part of the conversation. On the contrary, when Mrs. Josling was seen with pince-nez levelled inquiringly at the little plush table that supported the vase no longer, it was young Mr. Nettleship, and no one else, who adroitly decoyed the lady's attention, and came to the rescue for a second time with a felicitous change of subject. Thereafter the conversation gradually drifted into safer channels. And presently, one by one, the people went, until there was nobody left but young Mr. Nettleship in his quiet corner. Then he, too, got up to go, and bent over his hostess with impassive face and outstretched hand. But Mrs. M'Ilwraith refused his hand, or rather, did not raise her own to meet it, but looked him full in the face, and said—
'Do not go just yet. Enid, my love, I hear your brothers making a dreadful noise in the schoolroom; go to them.' Enid went. Elaine had already gone. 'Now, Mr. Nettleship, sit down there; I want to have a little chat with you.'
Nettleship took the low chair pointed out to him; it was almost at the lady's feet. He had counted on something of this sort, but not on a manner quite so calm and unruffled. After all, she was a wonderful woman—a woman capable of coping with the occasion, perhaps. It was quite possible that to score off such a woman might prove a more difficult task than it had appeared at first sight. But Nettleship had never in all his life either feared or despised the bowling before going in. He went in now on his mettle.
Mrs. M'Ilwraith opened the attack by coming to the point in the very first sentence.
'About this vase. You know something about it, Mr. Nettleship; more than I do, it would appear. Tell me what you know.'
Nettleship drew up his shoulders an inconsiderable fraction of an inch.
'I never heard you speak of it before last night. You kept your heirloom so dark, Mrs. M'Ilwraith.' He was beginning with confidence, but with caution—the bases upon which most scores are built.
'Indeed! I will not ask you not to be impertinent. I will merely ask you where you saw it before.'
'Why, Mrs. M'Ilwraith, I can't remember your ever showing it to me before in all my life,' exclaimed Nettleship.
Mrs. M'Ilwraith tried a plainer ball.
'You know, as well as I do, that one cannot always tell the truth in trifles.'
'I know that one does not.'
'Very well. You will readily understand it when I tell you that this stupid vase is no heirloom at all.'
'I understand that perfectly. But—but which vase?'
He swung about in his chair, with half-closed eyes and craning neck, looking for what was not there. It was an effective stroke.
'The vase is no longer in my house,' said Mrs. M'Ilwraith. 'You knew that too.'
Nettleship glanced at her swiftly. 'Did you only get it on approval?'
The lady started. 'What makes you think that?'
'Perhaps I go to Labrano's now and then.'
'Do you?' demanded Mrs. M'Ilwraith plainly. And indeed the indirect stage was past.
'That is where you saw it?'
'One of the places.'
'One of the places! Did you know the owner, then?'
'Yes, I did.'
'Then who is the owner?'
'You wish to know?'
'I have asked you.'
'Well, then, I am the owner myself. I came by the vase in India. Labrano was trying to sell it for me.'
They were sitting near a window. The sun had sunk behind the opposite houses, and the soft summer light made their faces soft—all but the eyes. They were watching one another like duellists. Mrs. M'Ilwraith was a woman, after all, capable at least of grappling with an emergency. She showed it now.
'It was you, then,' said she, 'who made Labrano send for it in haste last Saturday? You had a motive in that. It was you who tortured me the other night, when you discovered my trifling untruth. You had also a motive in that, I do you the credit of supposing. You had also a motive in stopping this afternoon until every one else was gone. Shall I tell you your motives? I will. But I will first make you easy on one point—they shall not succeed! I would die rather than forgive you for—for the other night!'
For the first time her calmness was shaken. The last words trembled with subdued ferocity.
Nettleship smiled. But the bowling had become uncommonly good. Mrs. M'Ilwraith continued:
'Your motives may be compressed into one word—"Elaine."’
'Ah!' said Nettleship, 'Elaine! I want to marry Elaine, and Elaine wants to marry me Why should you object?'
The policy was startling, insolent, risky—everything but unwise.
Mrs. M'Ilwraith smiled her scornful answer, and only observed:
'You must have told the story briefly.'
'It was an old story retold—that takes less time,' replied Nettleship.
'Retold in vain, Edward Nettleship.'
The game was slow for a while after that.
'How about the Professor?' said Nettleship at last.
'I am laid up when he comes—sudden indisposition. I leave town the following day at my doctor's urgent advice.'
'Such a thousand pities!' murmured Nettleship to himself.
'Are you referring to yourself and Elaine?' inquired Mrs. M'Ilwraith sweetly.
'Oh dear no. I was thinking of Professor Josling. The poor old chap will be so awfully cut up. After looking forward to his quiet afternoon with you—soaking in his favourite subject, and talking shop to a good listener, for once, and generally boring you to his heart's content. He is counting upon an hour's real sympathy, you may depend upon it; for clever men's wives never appreciate them, as you know, Mrs. M'Ilwraith. Poor old chap! It is hard lines on him.'
The picture of Mrs. M'Ilwraith and Professor Josling in close confabulation over the vase, and presently over the five-o'clock teapot, and of the firm founding of an intimate friendship with that eminent man, proved quite irresistible. Mrs. M'Ilwraith closed her eyes and gloated over the splendid impossibility for one weak, yearning, despairing minute. And during that minute Nettleship felt that he had collared the bowling at last, and might safely force the game.
'There is,' he continued accordingly, in an altered tone, 'another thing to consider—the Professor's curiosity. He means getting a sight of the vase, and, like the indelicate little boy, he won't be happy, you know, till he does get it. If you went away, he'd apply to Mr. M'Ilwraith straight. Then the cat would be out of the bag—and the Professor out of your visiting list!'
With a sudden sob Mrs. M'Ilwraith raised her hands to her face. 'Then what am I to do?' she wailed.
Nettleship bounded from his chair, knelt before her, took her hands in his, and looked earnestly in the wretched lady's face.
'Give me Elaine—for my Indian vase!'
Oh, beyond all doubt it was the most infamous, impudent price ever quoted in even our marriage market. … And yet—Mrs. M'Ilwraith bowed her head.
The game was won.
'You rule Mr. M'Ilwraith in such matters with an absolute rule, do you not?' said Ned, a few minutes later.
Mrs. M'Ilwraith confessed to that.
'Then we must approach him together. I have not time to go to the Temple and dress and come back. May I stop as I am? Thank you. Then we'll back each other up after dinner, and together we'll carry our point in five minutes; and then I'll bring the what's-its-name in the morning. Is it agreed?'
Again Mrs. M'Ilwraith bowed her head.
'I have scored,' said Ned to Elaine, in the private moment that was granted them before he left the house. 'I was a brute about it, I know; but I scored.'
'You generally do,' Elaine returned, with liquid eyes.
'Ah! But it was a better score than that the other day, if that's what you're driving at. Better bowling, I assure you.'
He paused, surveyed the lovely girl before him, inwardly congratulated himself for a lucky rascal, and added with the utmost candour—
'And a better match, too!'