The Current of Things
THE CURRENT OF THINGS
By Edgar Fawcett
AT Oxford, where he was not unpopular and was always a good deal observed in his goings and comings, they used to say of him that he veiled behind languor an immense egotism. This annoyed his constant friend, Thaxton, who insisted that no libel could be more factitious.
But not a few of the other Balliol men treated Thorpe Thaxton's defensive stand as the merest snobbish pose. Of course, he had his motives. Money was a huge power nowadays, and this Thaxton fellow could hold his own well enough, past a doubt, as eldest son of a hugely rich Birmingham cutler. Nevertheless, blood and title were always dear to these new Croesuses. Old England wasn't quite hopelessly vulgarized yet. The upstarts knew a gentleman—or a lady. And Adalbert Hereward had a sister, pretty and rather poor.
"It's all such rubbish!" Thorpe said, while he sat one afternoon in a corner of the ancient Mitre Inn, eating Scotch scones and drinking deep draughts of tea with a Balliol man of his own year. "You tell me, Brownynge, that they think this about us, think that about us, and think the other thing. Rot, dear boy! I've no more 'ambitions'—absurd word!—with respect to Adalbert than if he were a Turkish Grand Vizier. He knows it, I know it, and we both disdain the idea. It's merely a friendship on both sides." Here Thorpe, in a mood of peculiar confidence, threw back his head and laughed. "He's an incessant amusement to me; he's wondrously attractive. I mean the way in which he lets himself drift."
"Lets himself drift?" said Brownynge, who at once thought of a boat on the near Isis, and didn't at all understand. He was rather ugly of visage and build himself. He envied Thaxton his tall, straight frame, short crop of brown curls, and face that seemed, even on the dreariest day, somehow to have the sun in it.
"He's a fatalist. I suppose one would call him that. He never tries, he never objects, he takes everything for granted."
"But he tried in the boat race last year."
"Not much. Not at all, in fact. By nature he's enormously muscular. His crew won; he never cared; he forgot all about it the next day."
"But if he takes any prize, this graduating term, in Greek?"
"He adores Greek; he's drenched with it. He won't recollect, however, five or six days after his possible triumph, whether he's been crowned with laurels or—ashes. And that's what all you men call—" pursued Thorpe, with a big gulp of the scalding tea that he loved on a damp Oxford day—"affectation! It's nothing of the sort; it's simply Adalbert. Now look here, Brownynge," and Thorpe suddenly buttonholed his companion, "I don't ask you to tell me what they're saying about my friend's behavior at the Armitages', but you must know as well as I do that Miss Cecilia is no match for him."
Miss Cecilia Armitage was certainly six years older than Adalbert Hereward. The Armitage family were poor folk, of good descent, who had lived in Oxford for many generations. Proctors, deans and dons were like leaves, rather than branches, of the genealogical tree, and it was said that they had not had for fifty years a single daughter of their house unable to construe the first six books of the Iliad at sight.
"Miss Cecilia," it had got about, "may be able thus to construe the first six books, but she certainly has no such compromised appearance." Beyond doubt she was engaging; and when, quite near his hour of graduation, Adalbert had distinctly failed to propose to her, everybody blamed Thorpe Thaxton.
But the latter, one day, almost shouted to Adalbert his distress. "They're putting it all on me," rang his complaint. "If you love the girl, why on earth don't you tell her so?"
Adalbert nodded rather vaguely, pulling at the end of his pointed blond beard, and surveying Thorpe with his big eyes of drowsy blue. "My dear Thorpe," he said, "do you really think it's in the current of things?"
"Not a bit. I know you well enough to tell you so, and by all means I should advise your breaking off at once with Cecilia Armitage. You're not cut out for one another at all. She hasn't a penny, and you, as you've told me——"
"Have only twelve hundred pounds a year," finished Adalbert, behind a yawn. He put his hand, the next moment, on Thorpe's arm. "Dear old chap! I won't propose. But how about fate?"
Thorpe suppressed a laugh. "Damn your 'fate!' Hasn't a fellow free will?"
"Oh, has he?" And then Thorpe remembered how immensely Adalbert had read the German and French philosophers—Kant, Hegel, Comte, Descartes, and many another.
"Oh, if you're going to talk like that!" he exclaimed. "Well, all I've got to answer is, slip away from Oxford and leave the affair in my hands."
Slipping away from Oxford meant for Adalbert a rather glorious retreat. Collegiate honors of no mean import were connected with his departure There were those who affirmed that except for his "laziness" he might have reaped even higher honors. But poor Thaxton had to face the brunt of a wrathful and aggrieved household, which he did with all the tact he could muster—by no means a meagre amount.
"Why on earth," said Thorpe afterward to his friend, when they were in London together, "did you make Cecilia Armitage believe you cared for her?"
"But I didn't At least, I didn't mean to, dear Thorpe. The whole thing, you see, has simply happened. I do so regret having bored you! You were what they call in philosophy, my friend, an incident force. That is, you happened, too. Everything happens. You've heard me speak before now about the current of things."
"Oh, haven't I!" grimaced Thorpe.
"Well, it's so interesting to stand on the bank, as one might say, and watch. We all do stand on the bank and watch. That is, metaphorically."
"Quite so," muttered Thorpe; "and practically we're all in the swim."
"Oh, yes. We're all part of the inevitable, of course. We can't help being in the swim." Here Adalbert looked full at his companion, with that placid sweetness which fascinated both sexes in almost equal degree. "For example, I am smoking this cigarette. Untold millions of years ago it became a necessity that I should smoke this cigarette, and knock off its ash, just as I am doing now, with the nail of my little finger."
Thorpe gave a tired sigh. He had heard a good deal of talk in precisely the same vein from the same source, and though it had once amused him, it had now lost much of its old savor.
On a table at his elbow was a note from one of Adalbert's aunts. He took it up, waved the open pages a moment, and then let it fall.
"Here," he said, "is the pleasant invitation from Mrs. Cavendish Dudley for you to spend with her a week or two at her charming Broadstairs home. If there is any adorable place within a hundred miles of London it is Broadstairs. You can go or not go, just as you please. "
"It seems that I can," gently corrected Adalbert. "But remember, my dear Thorpe, that what one does one does. One can never do two things at the same time. Hence, if I go to Broadstairs I cannot possibly prove that causes and effects dating back through measureless reaches of time have not compelled me to become Aunt Cynthia's guest."
Adalbert went to stay with his aunt, and Thorpe soon received an invitation to join him at the delightful sea-fronting villa.
"My dear Mr. Thaxton," said Mrs. Dudley, soon after Thorpe's arrival, "I do so want to ask you what are your feelings with respect to my poor dead sister's son. Adalbert strikes me as a most talented and brilliant man."
"He undoubtedly is," answered Thorpe.
"Yet so indolent."
"Indolent hardly describes him, Mrs. Dudley. Adalbert, to be quite frank with you, is a man victimized by the idea of fatalism. He is possessed of the belief that it is needless to do anything. He has convinced himself that, since all events are certain to occur in regular sequence, we should merely yield ourselves, passively acquiescent, to their power. Hence he has a sworn dislike of struggle, and a firm faith in letting himself drift, as he calls it, with the current."
Mrs. Dudley gave a great sigh. "Oh, I've more than guessed it. I've even realized it," she pensively murmured. "And I have such ambitions for him, Mr. Thorpe! Everything I possess will go to him some day. He has taken the place of that son I lost in earlier years. I am now a childless widow, as you know. My love for this strange yet fascinating nephew of mine has become the one sole passion of my life." She fingered, fleetingly, a lapel of Thorpe's coat. "You're asking yourself, of course, what an old woman like me has to do with a passion."
"Ah, dear lady," replied Thorpe, admiring her slenderness and grace, as though they were qualities of some flower touched by earliest frosts of Autumn, "I am asking myself, on the contrary, why so beautiful a passion should be thrown away on our eccentric and incorrigible Adalbert."
"Pray don't tell me that I throw it away," Mrs. Dudley protested. They stood together beside a big, broad-paned window of her charming house. Below them the Channel glittered, like an immense mirror that some imp of the air had dashed suddenly into millions of shining shards. A Mid-summer evening cloud of the most ethereal lilac hung over the huge, bulging cliffs that rear their chalky dignities between Broadstairs and Ramsgate. "You might as well say to Nature that she squanders recklessly the beauty of a divine afternoon like this! I can't credit it; I won't. Nothing is lost, in my philosophy. Everything has its meaning and its future permanence somewhere! All, of course, however, is mystery. My love for Adalbert is a mystery to myself. And yet I feel its essence thrill me like some pungent fragrance. Of course, his fatalism is true enough. Who can sensibly refute it? We are, all of us, puppets. Do you remember Tennyson's bitter lines in 'Maud?'—bitter, but true:
"We are puppets, Man in his pride and Beauty fair in her flower;
Do we move ourselves or are moved by an unseen hand at a game?
"Well, the great point is to forget all this. And I want my Adalbert to forget it!" She paused, and her gray-green eyes, flashing over Thorpe's face, made him remember that she had been called, in other days, the most winsome girl of her time while at Windsor as lady of honor to the Queen. "And I am bent on trying to make Adalbert forget it! You are his best friend, and you can aid me."
Thorpe gave an astonished start. "Aid you, Mrs. Dudley? How?"
"In this way: I want Adalbert to wake himself up. I want him to go into the House of Commons. Oh, don't look so very amazed! I can manage. One of my intimate friends, Lord Maltravers, would aid me handsomely, beyond a doubt. But that would come afterward."
"You mean," laughed Thorpe, "after you succeeded in the waking up."
"Yes; we must effect that first."
"Ah, you are incredulous. But let me go on. You really do like my nephew?"
"I'm his devoted friend."
"To-morrow my niece, Lady Isabel Orrow, is coming here. Adalbert and Isabel have often met before. They are not in the least related. Lady Isabel is the daughter of my husband's step-sister, who married the Earl of Grantham. Isabel, between you and me, dotes on Adalbert."
"You've heard him speak of her, no doubt?"
"I understand. Not with the vaguest hint that they had ever flirted. But they have—desperately. Isabel is just one-and-twenty, and very pretty. No, that doesn't describe her; but you shall see her to-morrow and judge for yourself. She is just the match I desire for Adalbert. She has twelve thousand pounds a year and a fine home in Surrey, besides. All her people are dead, and I do what I can for her as chaperon in the London season—that is, when she chooses to leave her country home, of which she is very fond."
"And how about Adalbert?" asked Thorpe. "Is she very fond of him as well?"
"Ah, who can read a girl's heart? But I am certain he interests her. I am certain, too, that the prospect of this visit fills her with furtive pleasure. But then, there is another point." Mrs. Dudley's eyes drooped, and into her under-lip there came a sad little quiver. "She's enormously angry at him."
"Oh, for his neglect. Besides, it has reached her that he has been having an affair with some girl at Oxford. But she would be angrier still if she had heard him yesterday, when I mentioned to him that she was coming."
"What did he say?" smiled Thorpe; "one of his fatalistic things?"
"Precisely. It was this: 'Isabel Orrow coming to stay here, eh? How nice! Do you know, aunt, that I have a feeling I shall marry Isabel one of these days? I'm really fond of her, and unless the bends of life should lead us apart, I am more than half convinced that we shall drop, before long, into matrimonial concord. However, my dear aunt, I confess that I don't like her title, though it's merely one of courtesy. I don't like the "Mr. and Lady Isabel Hereward" which it would involve. However, that would prove a decree, like everything else, of the unavoidable. Or, rather, it would prove so if our marriage came to pass.'"
"Exquisite!" laughed Thorpe.
"How can you!" Mrs. Dudley protested.
"Oh, I mean that it so exquisitely represents him." And through Thorpe's mind were rushing memories of similar declarations made with respect to Miss Armitage.
He could not help recounting this entire Oxford episode, and when he had done so he found his interlocutress in literal shudders. "But I don't think he really cared a farthing for the girl," supplemented Thorpe. "You see, these Armitages all laid siege to him. And Adalbert, to use his own words, merely let himself drift."
Mrs. Dudley was pale and agitated when he had finished. "My foolish insensate boy!" she exclaimed. The dying daylight revealed covert tears on her lashes. "That is the way he will go on! Some day a woman—well, heaven knows how odious a woman!—will trick him and trap hin past all aid of mine."
"Not if I am there," said Thorpe with loyalty in every accent.
Mrs. Dudley caught one of his hands. The next instant she stooped and excitedly kissed it
"You dear fellow! I don't wonder Adalbert is so fond of you. Forgive his adoring old aunt. He must be saved. I can see that you'll help me. You say that youll 'be there.' But you can't be there always. You're here now, however—and she comes to-morrow. You remember what I said about waking him up? It's you, it's you, with your handsome face, your winning manners, and—pardon me, but I must be brutal for a minute—your prospective big Birmingham fortune—who can wake him up, and send all this fatuity of 'fatalism' to the four winds."
"Really," murmured Thorpe, while the enkindled eyes of his hostess brought a warm flush to his face, "I do not, Mrs. Dudley, understand you in the least."
"I know, I know," swept on the other. "But you shall, presently. Now, listen. As you love Adalbert—and I am confident you do love him—only listen."
She spoke for some time, ardently, with extreme entreaty and appeal. The longer Thorpe listened the more serious grew his countenance.
"But you can't mean," he at length blurted out, "that Lady Isabel Orrow would consent to let me flirt with her—or seem as if I were doing so—in order that Adalbert may receive what you call the rousing dirk-thrust of jealousy?"
Mrs. Dudley threw up both hands. Then she answered him, with mounting color and almost a touch of temper: "Have I dreamed of insinuating anything so absurd? Of course not! Above all things, Isabel must not even remotely suspect. My plan is to have you pour attentions upon her. This may bore you, but I hardly think it will. Wait till you've seen her."
"Don't you forget that it may bore her?" inquired Thorpe, with a kind of merry modesty.
"You're delightful," approved his hearer. "But then, you can afford to undervalue your attentions." Here she squared herself, and looked challenging inquiry at him. "Now, for the sake of our Adalbert's future, will you join me in my momentous plan?"
"Yes," assented the other, after a little silence. Then, breaking into laughter, he added: "But how will it be 'joining you,' dear Mrs. Dudley? Surely I shall stand quite alone in the affair—playing the heroic hypocrite, and running the chance of having myself haughtily snubbed."
Mrs. Dudley scanned with new attention his fresh, comely face. She even let her eyes slip along the lines of his trim and virile figure. "Oh, there's no such danger. Besides, you can withdraw if it threatens. Because a woman is in love with one man, it doesn't mean that she will treat another with scorn—especially if he's nice. And you—well, you'll do admirably. There—is it a compact? If so, shake hands on it."
They shook hands on it, and the next day Lady Isabel arrived.
She was driven from the station by Adalbert in one of his aunt's smart traps. It was then rather late in the afternoon, and Thaxton did not meet her until just before dinner. When he came into the drawing-room he heard an entrancing voice saying, as if equally to his friend and hostess:
"It is so pleasant to be near the sea once more! My Dormdreeme has one sad drawback—it's untranslatable. I sometimes do so wish that I could touch an electric button and change it, with all its green acres, from inland Surrey to seabound Kent."
"Electricity will do everything in time," said Adalbert. "Ah, Thorpe, here you are, old chap." Then he looked at his aunt, who promptly said:
"Mr. Thaxton Thorpe, Lady Isabel Orrow;" and very soon they were all four seated at dinner.
"You must like Mr. Thaxton ever so much, Isabel," said Adalbert, sipping his sherry. "Everybody does. He hasn't an enemy in the world, and he's legions of friends."
"Come, come, Adalbert," chided his aunt. "Good wine, you know."
"Really," said Thorpe to Lady Isabel, "my alleged vast popularity is like one of those poor, disreputable quack medicines which has only a single supporter."
"He means me," said Adalbert, with a demure levity quite his own. "There's something spectacular, however, in Thorpe's mendacity."
"Ho, ho!" said Thorpe; "there's a nice, gargoylish kind of insult!"
"I'll apologize, and call it self-effacement. He tells us he's a quack medicine. Well, I've tried him, and found him highly beneficial."
Thorpe had been quietly studying Lady Isabel, and had acquired an enduring picture for the gallery of his future memories. It had eyes, this picture, whose vivacious darkness contrasted strikingly with the waves of blond hair. But the master artist that painted it had lavished his craft on the flexile mouth, so small, yet with a wealth of witcheries of mutable expression. It never occurred to Thorpe that Lady Isabel was beautiful. He had merely begun to feel that she was, perhaps, full of moods, fancies, dreams, that it would be charming to discover, like soft silks or antique jewels hidden away in some locked and lacquered cabinet. The keys to this cabinet—how reluctantly might she surrender them, one by one! "That doubt, engendered mysteriously by her outward personality," thought Thorpe—"with what tricksy sort of lure it invested her!"
The weather stayed brilliant and tranquil. Lady Isabel smiled with delight next morning when Adalbert announced, during breakfast, that Thorpe's steam yacht was in the little harbor near by, at Ramsgate, and would lend its sumptuous accommodations to anyone desirous of enjoying them.
Lady Isabel adored yachting in good weather. She had enjoyed quite a long talk with Thorpe the evening before, while Adalbert drowsed, or seemed to drowse, over the Fortnightly in a distant corner, and had concluded that previous quick-whispered words from Mrs. Dudley were true. He was every inch a gentleman. Moreover, he was personable in a way that impressed a girl more and more as he talked. Adalbert must be correct about his popularity. Then, too, hadn't her young cousin, Yorke Orme, said to her at Dormdreeme, only last week (he himself being an Oxonian undergraduate), that there was no better fellow in the whole town than Thorpe Thaxton, and that his detractors were spurred by the merest spite?
"It isn't my yacht at all, Lady Isabel," said Thorpe, with smiling candor. "It belongs to my uncle, who has lent it to me for the Summer, as he is seeking health in the Austrian Tyrol just now. I couldn't possibly afford to keep up the Fornarina, and our mischievous Adalbert well knows it. However, I am her temporary owner, and should be pleased if you would all three take a sail with me this afternoon. My man will have the order despatched to Ramsgate in no time."
The Fornarina was in readiness not long afterward, and the perfect weather promised an ideal cruise, Thorpe's uncle was a man who loved his steam yacht as some men love their favorite horse. Wealth had given him the power of caressing her into a condition of faultless mechanism, allied to a luxury of service that discipline could ill surpass.
"Was the Channel ever so lovely?" said Mrs. Dudley, seating herself on the clean, even deck at her nephew's side. "This, Adalbert, is one of the fascinating things that riches can do. We come of a race, you and I, that used to call riches vulgar. But we must reverse our old verdicts. These new millionaires are so often refined. They buy refinement, like everything else. Look at Thorpe Thaxton now as he paces the deck arm-in-arm with Isabel; who would dream that he comes of a class which we once treated as oafs and clods?"
"True," said Adalbert, throwing aside his magazine. "But then that part of the inevitable has for decades been so clear."
"Oh, the inevitable!" sighed his aunt. "You're always thinking of it!"
"Really, dear Aunt Cynthia, is there anything else to think of?"
"Lots, Adalbert, lots!"
"How so? The inevitable is life."
"Oh, is it?" Here Mrs. Dudley looked at the rosy little pointed nails of one hand as if she had the intention of tearing off a couple of them. But her nephew's gaze roamed away to a huge, receding chalk cliff, washed along its base by sunny liquid amethyst, while his kinswoman proceeded:
"Take those two, now. They're both young, both handsome. Suppose they fell in love with each other. It wouldn't be at all a bad match in the eyes of the world, as the world goes at present. Lady Isabel Thaxton hasn't at all a plebeian sound. His grandfather, they say, was a retail ironmonger, but Lady Agnes Throop's brewer husband has a grandfather, they also say, who kept a public-house in Leeds."
"God bless my soul!" Uttering this rather dramatic apostrophe with much quietude, Adalbert slowly reared himself in his chair.
"Ah," thought Mrs. Dudley, in unconscious quotation, "a hit—a palpable hit. You told me once," she hurried on, aloud, and with much veiled vehemence, "that you had a feeling Isabel and yourself would ultimately marry."
"So I did—so I did."
"But you never thought that some sudden change would take her from you. You imagined that she was safely awaiting you there at Dormdreeme, like a sleeping beauty, for you to go and wake at any moment."
"Perhaps—perhaps." Adalbert had risen from his chair. As he advanced toward Lady Isabel and her companion, Mrs. Dudley called after him:
"The inevitable, remember, is something that we poor mortals can rebel against, even while we tell ourselves that we can't. The whole thing is a mighty mystery, Addie, my boy; but effort, and not apathy, is the best help for it."
There were other enchanting sails on the Fornarina as days glided along. Lady Isabel chose always to go; sometimes Mrs. Dudley did not feel equal to going, but insisted that Adalbert should take her place, and sometimes Adalbert refused to go because of real or assumed laziness, and she went—always very reluctantly on these occasions.
About a week later there appeared at the Broadstairs villa an exceedingly smart vehicle, to which were attached a pair of sleek roans of good breed and style. But the carriage had room for only two, and although Adalbert drove out in it with Thorpe the first day after its arrival (the whole pretty and proper thing being another avuncular loan), Lady Isabel, on the following day and several days that succeeded it, graciously assumed his place. People meanwhile came in for tea on certain afternoons; golf was played on neighboring links; dances were held at this or that near residence; the light yet accentuated movement of the English Summer seaside kept up its brisk, unassuming, conventional course. Gossip, that bee that hums everywhere, even while it does not sting, had begun its murmuring about Mrs. Dudley's ears.
One day she seized her chance for a private chat with Adalbert. She joined him as he strolled through the breezy, park-like space that formed, with its winding paths, its manifold scattered benches, its delicious, lawny lapses islanded by flower-beds, and its magnificent marine frontage, the fairest feature of Broadstairs.
Mrs. Dudley went straight to the point. "Adalbert, I really think that Isabel feels you are neglecting her."
"Did she tell you so?" he inquired, brusquely, with one of his rare frowns.
"Tell me? Mercy, no! That wouldn't be at all like Isabel. Come, now, would it?"
"No, I fancy not. But she doesn't realize any neglect. She's quite satisfied with affairs as they are. She's thoroughly absorbed in Thorpe."
Mrs. Dudley suppressed a wrathful sigh. "Will you ever, in your life," she exclaimed, "really love any woman?"
"I?" His eyes, full of an unaccustomed gloom, were fixed on the lady's face as he answered: "I'm in love with Isabel. I had always imagined—but you remember what I told you, not so long ago."
"Yes—I remember—of course," managed Mrs. Dudley, in agitation. "And you are in love with Isabel?"
"Never so much as now. I adore her."
"You say it very coldly."
"How shall I say it? With wavings of both arms and with gnashings of teeth? That isn't my way."
"I don't ask you to be ludicrous—of course not. But you leave her constantly with him! You don't make an effort."
"An effort? how?" He looked again at his aunt, and shook his head as if in soft negation. "Dear Aunt Cynthia, you quite disregard the current of things. Millions and millions of years ago——'
"Hush, Adalbert!" And Mrs. Dudley caught his wrist. "Your 'current of things' and your 'millions and millions of years ago' appeal to me now with a terrible familiarity. Perhaps they appeal guiltily, self-accusingly, as well. I've a confession to make you. Listen." And then she plunged into the most unrestrained avowal of her plot with Thorpe Thaxton.
Adalbert's face had brightened somewhat when she finished. "It's a masquerade, then, between those two?"
"It's a masquerade on Thaxton's part—that I dare swear!" They were near the noise of the waves now, and Mrs. Dudley could confidently louden her voice, besides intensifying her language.
"But Isabel? what of her?"
"Would any woman resist such an opportunity of making a man jealous?"
More than half as if speaking to himself, Adalbert now murmured: "Of course, it might be in the current of things that Isabel became a victim to your curious plot."
"All, all," here lamented Mrs. Dudley, "has turned out so differently from what I expected and hoped! I—I thought to rouse you; I have merely set you drifting more on that abominable 'current of things!' I foresaw stimulation; I have obtained only fresh lethargy. But now the whole secret is unbosomed. Surely now you'll be jealous!"
"Jealousy," said Adalbert, in chill, descriptive monotone, "is the brittlest of all stuccoes employed by sentimentalism."
"Still, Mr. Thaxton isn't in love with Isabel," forlornly urged his aunt "He's—he's merely the acquiescing puppet of my little plot. He's——"
But her voice ended in a scream, as she pointed to a smallish sailboat that was being buffeted by one of those squalls that lurk, tigerish, along the treacherous Channel coast.
"Oh, look! they will be lost!" she cried.
"Isabel—Thaxton! I'd forbidden her. She wanted to go with him in that shell. I recognize it—I saw it yesterday while you were gone to town. Yes—yes—I can see Isabel, too—and he's doing his best with the sail—but he can't right her—she'll be over in a minute more—she's driving inland! You see, you see, Adalbert—and yet——"
But there was no Adalbert. She spoke to the air. Presently a great crowd gathered about her. There was talk of "the boats" on every side, and she remembered the splendid rescuing forces all along the coast Meanwhile, the fragile craft was driven, toppling, curtseying, standing now on its bow, now on its stern, nearer and nearer to rocks that would splinter it into matchwood if it so much as grazed them.
Somebody who had a glass cried: "Look! there's a man swimming: straight toward the boat!"
Then someone else: "It's Mr. Hereward, Mrs. Dudley's nephew. I saw him run down and jump into the water."
Next instant the small vessel reeled terribly. The mast broke, and she went over, as a great wave submerged her. For a brief space she was invisible. Then her bottom appeared, like the belly of a big dead fish, and two heads were seen close to its glassy bulge. A hollowing of the water disclosed, for less time than it takes to draw one good breath, two human forms, buoyed there somehow—woman and man.
"It's Mr. Hereward!"
"What a jolly fine thing to do!"
"Where's the other—Mr. Thaxton?"
"I saw the boom strike him. Perhaps it stunned him, and he's drowned."
"See! Hereward's got hold of some rope. He's keeping Lady Isabel up with his other hand."
"Where are the boats—the boats?"
"He can't hold her like that very long."
"The boats—the boats! They're being driven in on the rocks. … Ah!"
The English can kill with much lurid success, it has been judged, both on land and at sea; but this fact, if true, does not prevent them from saving life all along the cliffs and coves of their wonderful island with a speed, skill and quiet splendor of mercy for which no praise would prove too ample.
From higher vantages than those on which this clamorous group had gathered other eyes had witnessed the abrupt drama of peril and pain. Other minds had worked with alert intelligence. A big, seaworthy barge had been almost magically manned by eight sturdy rowers, and ploughed its path, with amazing fleetness, through swinging surges toward the place of the disaster. Adalbert afterward confessed that if help had come a few seconds later he must have loosened his hold on that fortuitous rope, flung across the overturned sailboat by some strange agency of its reversal, and have dropped, exhausted, with his cherished charge.
The body of Thorpe Thaxton was found several hours later with a heavy bruise on the brow. This injury had doubtless caused the immediate death of a notably good swimmer.
Horror laid a dismal spell that night on Broadstairs, where Mrs. Dudley had long been much beloved, and where her guest, so cruelly lost, had won many friends. No one had disliked Adalbert, though few had found him very approachable. But now the whole place rang with his heroism. In a milder form, his aunt, through weary and torturing hours, had potent proof of it. The strain and shock had more than prostrated Lady Isabel. What had first been thought hysteria turned into actual delirium.
Two doctors were with her till past midnight, and then a third was wired for from London. Meanwhile, other telegrams had to be sent to Birmingham, and horrified answers from relatives there to be received. And all this time he rose, a thrilling and sheeted shape, from the floor of that chamber which he had so lately quitted in heartiest plenitude of health. But for Adalbert, sympathetic, aidful, self-collected, Mrs. Dudley told herself that she believed she would go mad—as Lady Isabel seemed then to have really done.
For the latter a long and fierce illness followed. Her kinswoman remained with her through it all. Adalbert went to Birmingham, where the funeral was held, and where he had to face the anguish of two broken-hearted parents and a little bevy of bereaved brothers and sisters as well. Returning to Broadstairs, he found Lady Isabel yet so ill that seeing her was quite out of the question. It was weeks later when they met—in early October, at his aunt's house in Knightsbridge.
It had rained steadily for eight or nine days, in that mournful, lachrymose fashion peculiar to Autumnal London. But to-day was brilliant with sunshine and full of dry yet tepid winds. While Adalbert waited in one of the upper rooms he unclosed a window and let the soft-pulsing airs fan his forehead. Who does not know, if he knows London at all well, those unique Knightsbridge houses whose rear windows, with their tiers of trellised balconies, look down on the umbrageous majesties of Hyde Park? To-day the moist earth of Rotten Row and the Lady's Mile scintillated below the newly arrived sunlight, and those sombre browns and ochres of the splendid English elms and oaks gained keener tints from their long baths of rain and mist.
Adalbert had met his aunt on the previous evening. As she now glided into the room and took his hand he saw that her face was shadowed oddly. He gave her a startled look.
While they stood together in the bay window, which made a deep alcove with its curves of cushioned seats, veritable embankments of amber velvet, Mrs. Dudley still held his hand.
"She can't come yet. She's hardly seen a soul, you know, since her illness. I didn't want to keep you waiting an age. She was dressing when it came over her."
"What came over her?"
"Oh, a sort of nervous fit. She will wear black, you know, for him——"
"Yes, you told me."
"—and perhaps the sight of a new black frock did it. Anyway, she grew tearful and trembly."
"Poor girl! So I can't see her to-day? Very well—we'll put it off."
"No—she doesn't want that. Only she would rather have a little more time."
"She shall have all the time she wants," he said. "I'll lounge here in this bay window with a book. I'll stay till dark—till midnight, if she desires."
"Oh, you'll not have to wait more than a half-hour—be sure of that," Mrs. Dudley assured him, with a sigh and a laugh queerly mingled.
She returned to Lady Isabel.
"You've been seeing him, Aunt Cynthia," said the girl, dry-eyed now, and fairly composed. "Did you prepare him? Did you tell him what a wreck I shall look in this black gown?"
"I couldn't have said that, Isabel. You show your illness, of course. But anyone can see your youth and bloom already struggling through the change."
"You said something so strange to me," Lady Isabel announced, after a little silence, during which she gazed down on her thinned fingers, with their loose rings. "You said it early this morning. You wondered how I became engaged to Thorpe Thaxton."
"Did I, dear? Well, if it hurt you——"
"Now, don't talk that way, please," quavered Lady Isabel, with a real touch of the invalid's irritability. "You know, quite as well as I do, that there was a plot between yourself and my poor Thorpe!"
"A plot!" uttered Mrs. Dudley, aghast.
"Of course," pursued the girl, with plaintive positiveness. "A plot to make Adalbert—Adalbert the fatalist, as we grew to call him—jealous."
"He told you!" Here Mrs. Dudley recoiled a little. For an instant actual resentment against the dead pierced her.
"Told me!" At this Lady Isabel laughed in a melancholy way. "Poor dear! I had it out of him in no time! As if I didn't see through it all like a web of gossamer! As if——"
And then there came an ominous quivering of the throat, and fresh moisture gathered in the dulled yet still beautiful eyes. Mrs. Dudley caught both her hands and kissed them. She put an arm about the attenuated form and pressed it close to her bosom.
"Now, Belle, Belle, don't give way again! Of course you saw through it. What girl wouldn't have seen? It was only my folly that made me fancy he had deliberately told you, poor dear boy! There, now; you will master yourself and go down stairs. I see—you've conquered; you're going to be brave; you're going to fight it out and meet Adalbert."
"And say my say to him, God bless him! Yes! yes!"
"Oh, you need only say just that!" broke from Mrs. Dudley, as they left the room together. "'God bless you!' will be all he wishes. Indeed, he wishes nothing, except to see you once again!"
But when Hereward and she were face to face Lady Isabel said much more. She thanked him copiously, eagerly, passionately. "It was wonderful; it was lovely!" she cried, "He must be somewhere, blessing you for your sublime courage! He must be with us both now! He seems to put words in my mouth—words of infinite thanks, Adalbert—which I cannot interpret; which I can only stammer feebly! I——"
And then she broke down, sinking into a chair, mastered by grief. Mrs. Dudley, with quick, imploring gestures, waved Adalbert away. He went back into the enclosure of the bay window, and there his aunt joined him sooner than he expected.
"She is calmer now," said Mrs. Dudley. "She will see you soon again."
They stood for a while in the sunny, triangular space, with their eyes and not their lips holding converse. At length Mrs. Dudley said:
"You heard how she thanked you?"
"And your doing such a grand act, there at Broadstairs—oh, Adalbert, you don't call that mere fatalistic necessity?"
"Why not?" he answered. "What else was it? I simply drifted with the current of things."
"A turbulent current, my boy! What about your glorious bravery?"
Adalbert gave a light shrug, though his eyes were very thoughtful. "Millions and millions of years ago, dear aunt—" he began.
"It was ordained that you should frightfully risk your life for her? But suppose you had remained on shore and done nothing? How about your human will to do something superb, altruistic, for the woman whom you loved and the man whom you believed she loved? Was all your grandeur of self-surrender only in the 'current of things?'"
"If you call it that, why, yes. All—all."
Mrs. Dudley slapped him softly on one cheek. Then she kissed the place that she had slapped.
"But if Isabel—?" she began.
He lifted a forbidding hand.
"Don't speak of that."
"She's yet so young, Adalbert! And you saved her life! And you love her! And grief like this, at her age, very rarely lasts! Don't lose hope, for I somehow see in your face that you're inclined to despair!"
She was smoothing his temples with both hands, and at last she saw two large tears fall from his wistful eyes.
"Oh, Adalbert," she went on, in a voice rich with pitiful sweetness, "trust me, trust me, it may come; I am sure it will come!"
"Perhaps—in the current of things," he said.
And then they both laughed gently—she at his droll, changeless, philosophic obstinacy, he at the old, affectionate rebellion that it had always caused.