Tancred/Chapter XV



THEY are talking about it,' said Lord Eskdale to the duchess, as she looked up to him with an expression of the deepest interest. 'He asked St. Patrick to introduce him to her at Deloraine House, danced with her, was with her the whole evening, went to the breakfast on Saturday to meet her, instead of going to Blackwall to see a yacht he was after.'

'If it were only Katherine,' said the duchess, 'I should be quite happy.'

'Don't be uneasy,' said Lord Eskdale; 'there will be plenty of Katherines and Constances, too, before he finishes. The affair is not much, but it shows, as I foretold, that, the moment he found something more amusing, his taste for yachting would pass off.' 'You are right, you always are.' What really was this affair, which Lord Eskdale held lightly? With a character like Tancred, everything may become important. Profound and yet simple, deep in self-knowledge yet inexperienced, his reserve, which would screen him from a thousand dangers, was just the quality which would insure his thraldom by the individual who could once effectually melt the icy barrier and reach the central heat. At this moment of his life, with all the repose, and sometimes even the high ceremony, on the surface, he was a being formed for high-reaching exploits, ready to dare everything and reckless of all consequences, if he proposed to himself an object which he believed to be just and great. This temper of mind would, in all things, have made him act with that rapidity, which is rashness with the weak, and decision with the strong. The influence of woman on him was novel. It was a disturbing influence, on which he had never counted in those dreams and visions in which there had figured more heroes than heroines. In the imaginary interviews in which he had disciplined his solitary mind, his antagonists had been statesmen, prelates, sages, and senators, with whom he struggled and whom he vanquished.

He was not unequal in practice to his dreams. His shyness would have vanished in an instant before a great occasion; he could have addressed a public assembly; he was capable of transacting important affairs. These were all situations and contingencies which he had foreseen, and which for him were not strange, for he had become acquainted with them in his reveries. But suddenly he was arrested by an influence for which he was unprepared; a precious stone made him stumble who was to have scaled the Alps. Why should the voice, the glance, of another agitate his heart? The cherubim of his heroic thoughts not only deserted him, but he was left without the guardian angel of his shyness. He melted, and the iceberg might degenerate into a puddle.

Lord Eskdale drew his conclusions like a clever man of the world, and in general he would have been right; but a person like Tancred was in much greater danger of being captured than a common-place youth entering life with second-hand experience, and living among those who ruled his opinions by their sneers and sarcasms. A malicious tale by a spiteful woman, the chance ribaldry of a club-room window, have often been the impure agencies which have saved many a youth from committing a great folly; but Tancred was beyond all these influences. If they had been brought to bear on him, they would rather have precipitated the catastrophe. His imagination would have immediately been summoned to the rescue of his offended pride; he would have invested the object of his regard with supernatural qualities, and consoled her for the impertinence of society by his devotion.

Lady Constance was clever; she talked like a married woman, was critical, yet easy; and having guanoed her mind by reading French novels, had a variety of conclusions on all social topics, which she threw forth with unfaltering promptness, and with the well-arranged air of an impromptu. These were all new to Tancred, and startling. He was attracted by the brilliancy, though he often regretted the tone, which he ascribed to the surrounding corruption from which he intended to escape, and almost wished to save her at the same time. Sometimes Tancred looked unusually serious; but at last his rare and brilliant smile beamed upon one who really admired him, was captivated by his intellect, his freshness, his difference from all around, his pensive beauty and his grave innocence. Lady Constance was free from affectation; she was frank and natural; she did not conceal the pleasure she had in his society; she conducted herself with that dignified facility, becoming a young lady who had already refused the hands of two future earls, and of the heir of the Clan-Alpins.

A short time after the déjeûner at Craven Cottage, Lord Montacute called on Lady Charmouth. She was at home, and received him with great cordiality, looking up from her frame of worsted work with a benign maternal expression; while Lady Constance, who was writing an urgent reply to a note that had just arrived, said rapidly some agreeable words of welcome, and continued her task. Tancred seated himself by the mother, made an essay in that small talk in which he was by no means practised, but Lady Charmouth helped him on without seeming to do so. The note was at length dispatched, Tancred of course still remaining at the mother's side, and Lady Constance too distant for his wishes. He had nothing to say to Lady Charmouth; he began to feel that the pleasure of feminine society consisted in talking alone to her daughter.

While he was meditating a retreat, and yet had hardly courage to rise and walk alone down a large long room, a new guest was announced. Tancred rose, and murmured good-morning; and yet, somehow or other, instead of quitting the apartment, he went and seated himself by Lady Constance. It really was as much the impulse of shyness, which sought a nook of refuge, as any other feeling that actuated him; but Lady Constance seemed pleased, and said in a low voice and in a careless tone, ''Tis Lady Bran-cepeth; do you know her? Mamma's great friend;' which meant, you need give yourself no trouble to talk to any one but myself.

After making herself very agreeable, Lady Constance took up a book which was at hand, and said, 'Do you know this?' And Tancred, opening a volume which he had never seen, and then turning to its titlepage, found it was 'The Revelations of Chaos,' a startling work just published, and of which a rumour had reached him.

'No,' he replied; 'I have not seen it.'

'I will lend it you if you like: it is one of those books one must read. It explains everything, and is written in a very agreeable style.'

'It explains everything!' said Tancred; 'it must, indeed, be a very remarkable book!'

'I think it will just suit you,' said Lady Constance. 'Do you know, I thought so several times while I was reading it.'

'To judge from the title, the subject is rather obscure,' said Tancred.

'No longer so,' said Lady Constance. 'It is treated scientifically; everything is explained by geology and astronomy, and in that way. It shows you exactly how a star is formed; nothing can be so pretty! A cluster of vapour, the cream of the Milky Way, a sort of celestial cheese, churned into light, you must read it, 'tis charming.'

'Nobody ever saw a star formed,' said Tancred.

'Perhaps not. You must read the "Revelations;" it is all explained. But what is most interesting, is the way in which man has been developed. You know, all is development. The principle is perpetually going on. First, there was nothing, then there was something; then, I forget the next, I think there were shells, then fishes; then we came, let me see, did we come next? Never mind that; we came at last. And the next change there will be something very superior to us, something with wings. Ah! that's it: we were fishes, and I believe we shall be crows. But you must read it.'

'I do not believe I ever was a fish,' said Tancred. 'Oh! but it is all proved; you must not argue on my rapid sketch; read the book. It is impossible to contradict anything in it. You understand, it is all science; it is not like those books in which one says one thing and another the contrary, and both may be wrong. Everything is proved: by geology, you know. You see exactly how everything is made; how many worlds there have been; how long they lasted; what went before, what comes next. We are a link in the chain, as inferior animals were that preceded us: we in turn shall be inferior; all that will remain of us will be some relics in a new red sandstone. This is development. We had fins; we may have wings.'

Tancred grew silent and thoughtful; Lady Bran-cepeth moved, and he rose at the same time. Lady Charmouth looked as if it were by no means necessary for him to depart, but he bowed very low, and then bade farewell to Lady Constance, who said, 'We shall meet to-night.'

'I was a fish, and I shall be a crow,' said Tancred to himself, when the hall door closed on him. 'What a spiritual mistress! And yesterday, for a moment, I almost dreamed of kneeling with her at the Holy Sepulchre! I must get out of this city as quickly as possible; I cannot cope with its corruption. The acquaintance, however, has been of use to me, for I think I have got a yacht by it. I believe it was providential, and a trial. I will go home and write instantly to Fitz-Heron, and accept his offer. One hundred and eighty tons: it will do; it must.'

At this moment he met Lord Eskdale, who had observed Tancred from the end of Grosvenor Square, on the steps of Lord Charmouth's door. This circumstance ill prepared Lord Eskdale for Tancred's salutation.

'My dear lord, you are just the person I wanted to meet. You promised to recommend me a servant who had travelled in the East.'

'Well, are you in a hurry?' said Lord Eskdale, gaining time, and pumping.

'I should like to get off as soon as practicable.' 'Humph!' said Lord Eskdale. 'Have you got a yacht?' 'I have.'

'Oh! So you want a servant?' he added, after a moment's pause.

'I mentioned that, because you were so kind as to say you could help me in that respect.'

'Ah! I did,' said Lord Eskdale, thoughtfully. 'But I want a great many things,' continued Tancred. 'I must make arrangements about money; I suppose I must get some letters; in fact, I want generally your advice.'

'What are you going to do about the colonel and the rest?'

'I have promised my father to take them,' said Tancred, 'though I feel they will only embarrass me. They have engaged to be ready at a week's notice; I shall write to them immediately. If they do not fulfil their engagement, I am absolved from mine.'

'So you have got a yacht, eh?' said Lord Eskdale. 'I suppose you have bought the Basilisk?'


'She wants a good deal doing to her.'

'Something, but chiefly for show, which I do not care about; but I mean to get away, and refit, if necessary, at Gibraltar. I must go.'

'Well, if you must go,' said his lordship, and then he added, 'and in such a hurry; let me see. You want a firstrate managing man, used to the East, and letters, and money, and advice. Hem! You don't know Sidonia?'

'Not at all.'

'He is the man to get hold of, but that is so difficult now. He never goes anywhere. Let me see, this is Monday; to-morrow is post-day, and I dine with him alone in the City. Well, you shall hear from me on Wednesday morning early, about everything; but I would not write to the colonel and his friends just yet.'