The Private Life, Lord Beaupré, The Visits/The Private Life
THE PRIVATE LIFE
THE PRIVATE LIFE
We talked of London, face to face with a great bristling, primeval glacier. The hour and the scene were one of those impressions which make up a little, in Switzerland, for the modern indignity of travel—the promiscuities and vulgarities, the station and the hotel, the gregarious patience, the struggle for a scrappy attention, the reduction to a numbered state. The high valley was pink with the mountain rose, the cool air as fresh as if the world were young. There was a faint flush of afternoon on undiminished snows, and the fraternizing tinkle of the unseen cattle came to us with a cropped and sunwarmed odor. The balconied inn stood on the very neck of the sweetest pass in the Oberland, and for a week we had had company and weather. This was felt to be great luck, for one would have made up for the other had either been bad. The weather certainly would have made up for the company; but it was not subjected to this tax, for we had by a happy chance the fleur des pois: Lord and Lady Mellifont, Clare Vawdrey, the greatest (in the opinion of many) of our literary glories, and Blanche Adney, the greatest (in the opinion of all) of our theatrical. I mention these first, because they were just the people whom in London, at that time, people tried to "get." People endeavored to "book" them six weeks ahead, yet on this occasion we had come in for them, we had all come in for each other, without the least wire-pulling. A turn of the game had pitched us together, the last of August, and we recognized our luck by remaining so, under protection of the barometer. When the golden days were over—that would come soon enough—we should wind down opposite sides of the pass and disappear over the crest of surrounding heights. We were of the same general communion, we participated in the same miscellaneous publicity. We met, in London, with irregular frequency; we were more or less governed by the laws and the language, the traditions and the shibboleths of the same dense social state. I think all of us, even the ladies, "did" something, though we pretended we didn't when it was mentioned. Such things are not mentioned indeed in London, but it was our innocent pleasure to be different here. There had to be some way to show the difference, inasmuch as we were under the impression that this was our annual holiday. We felt at any rate that the conditions were more human than in London, or that at least we ourselves were. We were frank about this, we talked about it: it was what we were talking about as we looked at the flushing glacier, just as some one called attention to the prolonged absence of Lord Mellifont and Mrs. Adney. We were seated on the terrace of the inn, where there were benches and little tables, and those of us who were most bent on proving that we had returned to nature were, in the queer Germanic fashion, having coffee before meat.
The remark about the absence of our two companions was not taken up, not even by Lady Mellifont, not even by little Adney, the fond composer, for it had been dropped only in the briefest intermission of Clare Vawdrey's talk. (This celebrity was "Clarence" only on the title-page.) It was just that revelation of our being after all human that was his theme. He asked the company whether, candidly, every one hadn't been tempted to say to every one else, "I had no idea you were really so nice." I had had, for my part, an idea that he was, and even a good deal nicer, but that was too complicated to go into then, besides it is exactly my story. There was a general understanding among us that when Vawdrey talked we should be silent, and not, oddly enough, because he at all expected it. He didn't, for of all abundant talkers he was the most unconscious, the least greedy and professional. It was rather the religion of the host, of the hostess, that prevailed among us; it was their own idea, but they always looked for a listening circle when the great novelist dined with them. On the occasion I allude to there was probably no one present with whom, in London, he had not dined, and we felt the force of this habit. He had dined even with me; and on the evening of that dinner, as on this Alpine afternoon, I had been at no pains to hold my tongue, absorbed as I inveterately was in a study of the question which always rose before me, to such a height, in his fair, square, strong stature.
This question was all the more tormenting that he never suspected himself (I am sure) of imposing it, any more than he had ever observed that every day of his life every one listened to him at dinner. He used to be called "subjective" in the weekly papers, but in society no distinguished man could have been less so. He never talked about himself; and this was a topic on which, though it would have been tremendously worthy of him, he apparently never even reflected. He had his hours and his habits, his tailor and his hatter, his hygiene and his particular wine, but all these things together never made up an attitude. Yet they constituted the only attitude he ever adopted, and it was easy for him to refer to our being "nicer" abroad than at home. He was exempt from variations, and not a shade either less or more nice in one place than in another. He differed from other people, but never from himself (save in the extraordinary sense which I will presently explain), and struck me as having neither moods nor sensibilities nor preferences. He might have been always in the same company, so far as he recognized any influence from age or condition or sex: he addressed himself to women exactly as he addressed himself to men, and gossiped with all men alike, talking no better to clever folk than to dull. I used to feel a despair at his way of liking one subject—so far as I could tell—precisely as much as another: there were some I hated so myself. I never found him anything but loud and cheerful and copious, and I never heard him utter a paradox or express a shade or play with an idea. That fancy about our being "human" was, in his conversation, quite an exceptional flight. His opinions were sound and second-rate, and of his perceptions it was too mystifying to think. I envied him his magnificent health.
Vawdrey had marched, with his even pace and his perfectly good conscience, into the flat country of anecdote, where stories are visible from afar like windmills and signposts; but I observed after a little that Lady Mellifont's attention wandered. I happened to be sitting next her. I noticed that her eyes rambled a little anxiously over the lower slopes of the mountains. At last, after looking at her watch, she said to me: "Do you know where they went?"
"Do you mean Mrs. Adney and Lord Mellifont?"
"Lord Mellifont and Mrs. Adney." Her ladyship's speech seemed—unconsciously indeed—to correct me, but it didn't occur to me that this was because she was jealous. I imputed to her no such vulgar sentiment; in the first place because I liked her, and in the second because it would always occur to one quickly that it was right, in any connection, to put Lord Mellifont first. He was first—extraordinarily first. I don't say greatest or wisest or most renowned, but essentially at the top of the list and the head of the table. That is a position by itself, and his wife was naturally accustomed to see him in it. My phrase had sounded as if Mrs. Adney had taken him; but it was not possible for him to be taken—he only took. No one, in the nature of things, could know this better than Lady Mellifont. I had originally been rather afraid of her, thinking her, with her stiff silences and the extreme blackness of almost everything that made up her person, somewhat hard, even a little saturnine. Her paleness seemed slightly gray, and her glossy black hair metallic, like the brooches and bands and combs with which it was inveterately adorned. She was in perpetual mourning, and wore numberless ornaments of jet and onyx, a thousand clicking chains and bugles and beads. I had heard Mrs. Adney call her the queen of night, and the term was descriptive if you understood that the night was cloudy. She had a secret, and if you didn't find it out as you knew her better, you at least perceived that she was gentle and unaffected and limited, and also rather submissively sad. She was like a woman with a painless malady. I told her that I had merely seen her husband and his companion stroll down the glen together about an hour before, and suggested that Mr. Adney would perhaps know something of their intentions.
Vincent Adney, who, though he was fifty years old, looked like a good little boy on whom it had been impressed that children should not talk before company, acquitted himself with remarkable simplicity and taste of the position of husband of a great exponent of comedy. When all was said about her making it easy for him, one couldn't help admiring the charmed affection with which he took everything for granted. It is difficult for a husband who is not on the stage, or at least in the theatre, to be graceful about a wife who is; but Adney was more than graceful—he was exquisite, he was inspired. He set his beloved to music; and you remember how genuine his music could be—the only English compositions I ever saw a foreigner take an interest in. His wife was in them, somewhere, always; they were like a free, rich translation of the impression she produced. She seemed, as one listened, to pass laughing, with loosened hair across the scene. He had been only a little fiddler at her theatre, always in his place during the acts; but she had made him something rare and misunderstood. Their superiority had become a kind of partnership, and their happiness was a part of the happiness of their friends. Adney's one discomfort was that he couldn't write a play for his wife, and the only way he meddled with her affairs was by asking impossible people if they couldn't.
Lady Mellifont, after looking across at him a moment, remarked to me that she would rather not put any question to him. She added the next minute: "I had rather people shouldn't see I'm nervous."
"Are you nervous?"
"I always become so if my husband is away from me for any time."
"Do you imagine something has happened to him?"
"Yes, always. Of course I'm used to it."
"Do you mean his tumbling over precipices—that sort of thing?"
"I don't know exactly what it is; it's the general sense that he'll never come back."
She said so much and kept back so much that the only way to treat the condition she referred to seemed the jocular. "Surely he'll never forsake you!" I laughed.
She looked at the ground a moment. "Oh, at bottom I'm easy."
"Nothing can ever happen to a man so accomplished, so infallible, so armed at all points," I went on, encouragingly.
"Oh, you don't know how he's armed!" she exclaimed, with such an odd quaver that I could account for it only by her being nervous. This idea was confirmed by her moving just afterwards, changing her seat rather pointlessly, not as if to cut our conversation short, but because she was in a fidget. I couldn't know what was the matter with her, but I was presently relieved to see Mrs. Adney come towards us. She had in her hand a big bunch of wild flowers, but she was not closely attended by Lord Mellifont. I quickly saw, however, that she had no disaster to announce; yet, as I knew there was a question Lady Mellifont would like to hear answered, but did not wish to ask, I expressed to her immediately the hope that his lordship had not remained in a crevasse.
"Oh, no; he left me but three minutes ago. He has gone into the house." Blanche Adney rested her eyes on mine an instant—a mode of intercourse to which no man, for himself, could ever object. The interest, on this occasion, was quickened by the particular thing the eyes happened to say. What they usually said was only, "Oh, yes, I'm charming, I know, but don't make a fuss about it. I only want a new part—I do, I do!" At present they added, dimly, surreptitiously, and of course sweetly—for that was the way they did everything: "It's all right; but something did happen. Perhaps I'll tell you later." She turned to Lady Mellifont, and the transition to simple gayety suggested her mastery of her profession. "I've brought him safe; we had a charming walk."
"I'm so very glad," returned Lady Mellifont, with her faint smile, continuing vaguely, as she got up, "he must have gone to dress for dinner. Isn't it rather near?" She moved away, to the hotel, in her leave-taking, simplifying fashion, and the rest of us, at the mention of dinner, looked at each other's watches, as if to shift the responsibility of such grossness. The head-waiter, essentially, like all head-waiters, a man of the world, allowed us hours and places of our own, so that in the evening, apart under the lamp, we formed a compact, an indulged little circle. But it was only the Mellifonts who "dressed" and as to whom it was recognized that they naturally would dress: she in exactly the same manner as on any other evening of her ceremonious existence (she was not a woman whose habits could take account of anything so mutable as fitness); and he, on the other hand, with remarkable adjustment and suitability. He was almost as much a man of the world as the head-waiter, and spoke almost as many languages; but he abstained from courting a comparison of dress-coats and white waistcoats, analyzing the occasion in a much finer way into black velvet and blue velvet and brown velvet, for instance, into delicate harmonies of necktie and subtle informalities of shirt. He had a costume for every function and a moral for every costume; and his functions and costumes and morals were ever a part of the amusement of life—a part at any rate of its beauty and romance—for an immense circle of spectators. For his particular friends indeed these things were more than an amusement; they were a topic, a social support, and of course, in addition, a subject of perpetual suspense. If his wife had not been present before dinner they were what the rest of us probably would have been putting our heads together about.
Clare Vawdrey had a fund of anecdote on the whole question: he had known Lord Mellifont almost from the beginning. It was a peculiarity of this nobleman that there could be no conversation about him that didn't instantly take the form of anecdote, and a still further distinction that there could apparently be no anecdote that was not on the whole to his honor. If he had come into a room at any moment, people might have said frankly, "Of course we were telling stories about you!" As consciences go, in London, the general conscience would have been good. Moreover, it would have been impossible to imagine his taking such a tribute otherwise than amiably, for he was always as unperturbed as an actor with the right cue. He had never in his life needed the prompter—his very embarrassments had been rehearsed. For myself, when he was talked about I always had an odd impression that we were speaking of the dead—it was with that peculiar accumulation of relish. His reputation was a kind of gilded obelisk, as if he had been buried beneath it; the body of legend and reminiscence, of which he was to be the subject, had crystallized in advance.
This ambiguity sprang, I suppose, from the fact that the mere sound of his name and air of his person, the general expectation he created, were, somehow, too exalted to be verified. The experience of his urbanity always came later; the prefigurement, the legend paled before the reality. I remember that on the evening I refer to the reality was particularly operative. The handsomest man of his period could never have looked better, and he sat among us like a bland conductor controlling by an harmonious play of arm an orchestra still a little rough. He directed the conversation by gestures as irresistible as they were vague; one felt as if without him it wouldn't have had anything to call a tone. This was essentially what he contributed to any occasion—what he contributed above all to English public life. He pervaded it, he colored it, he embellished it, and without him it would scarcely have had a vocabulary; certainly it would not have had a style, for a style was what it had in having Lord Mellifont. He was a style. I was freshly struck with it as, in the salle à manger of the little Swiss inn, we resigned ourselves to inevitable veal. Confronted with his form (I must parenthesize that it was not confronted much), Clare Vawdrey's talk suggested the reporter contrasted with the bard. It was interesting to watch the shock of characters from which, of an evening, so much would be expected. There was, however, no concussion—it was all muffled and minimized in Lord Mellifont's tact. It was rudimentary with him to find the solution of such a problem in playing the host, assuming responsibilities which carried with them their sacrifice. He had, indeed, never been a guest in his life; he was the host, the patron, the moderator at every board. If there was a defect in his manner (and I suggest it under my breath), it was that he had a little more art than any conjunction—even the most complicated—could possibly require. At any rate, one made one's reflections in noticing how the accomplished peer handled the situation, and how the sturdy man of letters was unconscious that the situation (and least of all he himself as part of it) was handled. Lord Mellifont poured forth treasures of tact, and Clare Vawdrey never dreamed he was doing it.
Vawdrey had no suspicion of any such precaution, even when Blanche Adney asked him if he saw yet their third act—an inquiry into which she introduced a subtlety of her own. She had a theory that he was to write her a play, and that the heroine, if he would only do his duty, would be the part for which she had immemorially longed. She was forty years old (this could be no secret to those who had admired her from the first), and she could now reach out her hand and touch her uttermost goal. This gave a kind of tragic passion—perfect actress of comedy as she was—to her desire not to miss the great thing. The years had passed, and still she had missed it; none of the things she had done was the thing she had dreamed of, so that at present there was no more time to lose. This was the canker in the rose, the ache beneath the smile. It made her touching—made her sadness even sweeter than her laughter. She had done the old English and the new French, and had charmed her generation; but she was haunted by the vision of a bigger chance, of something truer to the conditions that lay near her. She was tired of Sheridan and she hated Bowdler; she called for a canvas of a finer grain. The worst of it, to my sense, was that she would never extract her modern comedy from the great mature novelist, who was as incapable of producing it as he was of threading a needle. She coddled him, she talked to him, she made love to him, as she frankly proclaimed; but she dwelt in illusions—she would have to live and die with Bowdler.
It is difficult to be cursory over this charming woman, who was beautiful without beauty and complete with a dozen deficiencies. The perspective of the stage made her over, and in society she was like the model off the pedestal. She was the picture walking about, which to the artless social mind was a perpetual surprise—a miracle. People thought she told them the secrets of the pictorial nature, in return for which they gave her relaxation and tea. She told them nothing and she drank the tea; but they had, all the same, the best of the bargain. Vawdrey was really at work on a play; but if he had begun it because he liked her, I think he let it drag for the same reason. He secretly felt the atrocious difficulty— knew that from his hand the finished piece would have received no active life. At the same time, nothing could be more agreeable than to have such a question open with Blanche Adney, and from time to time he put something very good into the play. If he deceived Mrs. Adney, it was only because in her despair she was determined to be deceived. To her question about their third act he replied that before dinner he had written a magnificent passage.
"Before dinner?" I said. "Why, cher maître, before dinner you were holding us all spellbound on the terrace."
My words were a joke, because I thought his had been; but for the first time that I could remember I perceived a certain confusion in his face. He looked at me hard, throwing back his head quickly, the least bit like a horse who has been pulled up short. "Oh, it was before that," he replied, naturally enough.
"Before that you were playing billiards with me," Lord Mellifont intimated.
"Then it must have been yesterday," said Vawdrey.
But he was in a tight place. "You told me this morning you did nothing yesterday," the actress objected.
"I don't think I really know when I do things." Vawdrey looked vaguely, without helping himself, at a dish that was offered him.
"It's enough if we know," smiled Lord Mellifont.
"I don't believe you've written a line," said Blanche Adney.
"I think I could repeat you the scene." Vawdrey helped himself to haricots verts.
"Oh, do! oh, do!" two or three of us cried.
"After dinner, in the salon; it will be an immense régal," Lord Mellifont declared.
"I'm not sure, but I'll try," Vawdrey went on.
"Oh, you lovely man!" exclaimed the actress, who was practising Americanisms, being resigned even to an American comedy.
"But there must be this condition," said Vawdrey: "you must make your husband play."
"Play while you're reading? Never!"
"I've too much vanity," said Adney.
Lord Mellifont distinguished him. "You must give us the overture before the curtain rises. That's a peculiarly delightful moment."
"I sha'n't read—I shall just speak," said Vawdrey.
"Better still; let me go and get your manuscript," the actress suggested.
Vawdrey replied that the manuscript didn't matter; but an hour later, in the salon, we wished he might have had it. We sat expectant, still under the spell of Adney's violin. His wife, in the foreground on an ottoman, was all impatience and profile, and Lord Mellifont, in the chair—it was always the chair, Lord Mellifont's—made our grateful little group feel like a social science congress or a distribution of prizes. Suddenly, instead of beginning, our tame lion began to roar out of tune—he had clean forgotten every word. He was very sorry, but the lines absolutely wouldn't come to him; he was utterly ashamed, but his memory was a blank. He didn't look in the least ashamed—Vawdrey had never looked ashamed in his life; he was only imperturbably and merrily natural. He protested that he had never expected to make such a fool of himself, but we felt that this wouldn't prevent the incident from taking its place among his jolliest reminiscences. It was only we who were humiliated, as if he had played us a premeditated trick. This was an occasion, if ever, for Lord Mellifont's tact, which descended on us all like balm. He told us, in his charming, artistic way, his way of bridging over arid intervals (he had a débit—there was nothing to approach it in England—like the actors of the Comédie Française), of his own collapse on a momentous occasion, the delivery of an address to a mighty multitude, when, finding he had forgotten his memoranda, he fumbled on the terrible platform, the cynosure of every eye, fumbled vainly in irreproachable pockets for indispensable notes. But the point of his story was finer than that of Vawdrey's pleasantry; for he sketched with a few light gestures the brilliancy of a performance which had risen superior to embarrassment—had resolved itself, we were left to divine, into an effort recognized at the moment as not absolutely a blot on what the public was so good as to call his reputation.
"Play up—play up!" cried Blanche Adney, tapping her husband, and remembering how, on the stage, a contretemps is always drowned in music. Adney threw himself upon his fiddle, and I said to Clare Vawdrey that his mistake could easily be corrected by his sending for the manuscript. If he would tell me where it was I would immediately fetch it from his room. To this he replied, "My dear fellow, I'm afraid there is no manuscript."
"Then you've not written anything?"
"I'll write it to-morrow."
"Ah, you trifle with us!" I said, in much mystification.
Vawdrey hesitated an instant. "If there is anything, you'll find it on my table."
At this moment one of the others spoke to him, and Lady Mellifont remarked audibly, as if to correct gently our want of consideration, that Mr. Adney was playing something very beautiful. I had noticed before that she appeared extremely fond of music; she always listened to it in a hushed transport. Vawdrey's attention was drawn away, but it didn't seem to me that the words he had just dropped constituted a definite permission to go to his room. Moreover, I wanted to speak to Blanche Adney; I had something to ask her. I had to await my chance, however, as we remained silent awhile for her husband, after which the conversation became general. It was our habit to go to bed early, but there was still a little of the evening left. Before it quite waned I found an opportunity to tell the actress that Vawdrey had given me leave to put my hand on his manuscript. She adjured me, by all I held sacred, to bring it immediately, to give it to her; and her insistence was proof against my suggestion that it would now be too late for him to begin to read; besides which, the charm was broken—the others wouldn't care. It was not too late for her to begin; therefore I was to possess myself, without more delay, of the precious pages. I told her she should be obeyed in a moment, but I wanted her first to satisfy my just curiosity. What had happened before dinner, while she was on the hills with Lord Mellifont?
"How do you know anything happened?"
"I saw it in your face when you came back."
"And they call me an actress!" cried Mrs. Adney.
"What do they call me?" I inquired.
"You're a searcher of hearts—that frivolous thing, an observer."
"I wish you'd let an observer write you a play!" I broke out.
"People don't care for what you write; you'd break any run of luck."
"Well, I see plays all around me," I declared; "the air is full of them to-night."
"The air? Thank you for nothing! I only wish my table-drawers were."
"Did he make love to you on the glacier?" I went on.
She stared; then broke into the graduated ecstasy of her laugh. "Lord Mellifont, poor dear? What a funny place! It would indeed be the place for our love!"
"Did he fall into a crevasse?" I continued.
Blanche Adney looked at me again as she had done for an instant when she came up, before dinner, with her hands full of flowers. "I don't know into what he fell. I'll tell you to-morrow."
"He did come down, then?"
"Perhaps he went up," she laughed. "It's really strange!"
"All the more reason you should tell me to-night."
"I must think it over; I must puzzle it out."
"Oh, if you want conundrums, I'll throw in another," I said. "What's the matter with the master?"
"The master of what?"
"Of every form of dissimulation. Vawdrey hasn't written a line."
"Go and get his papers, and we'll see."
"I don't like to expose him," I said.
"Why not, if I expose Lord Mellifont?"
"Oh, I'd do anything for that," I conceded. "But why should Vawdrey have made a false statement? It's very curious."
"It's very curious," Blanche Adney repeated, with a musing air and her eyes on Lord Mellifont. Then, rousing herself, she added: "Go and look in his room."
"In Lord Mellifont's?"
She turned to me quickly. "That would be a way!"
"A way to what?"
"To find out—to find out!" She spoke gayly and excitedly, but suddenly checked herself. "We're talking nonsense," she said.
"We're mixing things up, but I'm struck with your idea. Get Lady Mellifont to let you."
"Oh, she has looked!" Mrs. Adney murmured, with the oddest dramatic expression. Then, after a movement of her beautiful uplifted hand, as if to brush away a fantastic vision, she exclaimed, imperiously: "Bring me the scene—bring me the scene!"
"I go for it," I answered; "but don't tell me I can't write a play."
She left me, but my errand was arrested by the approach of a lady who had produced a birthday-book—we had been threatened with it for several evenings—and who did me the honor to solicit my autograph. She had been asking the others, and she couldn't decently leave me out. I could usually remember my name, but it always took me some time to recall my date, and even when I had done so I was never very sure. I hesitated between two days, and I remarked to my petitioner that I would sign on both if it would give her any satisfaction. She said that surely I had been born only once; and I replied of course that on the day I made her acquaintance I had been born again. I mention the feeble joke only to show that, with the obligatory inspection of the other autographs, we gave some minutes to this transaction. The lady departed with her book, and then I became aware that the company had dispersed. I was alone in the little salon that had been appropriated to our use. My first impression was one of disappointment: if Vawdrey had gone to bed I didn't wish to disturb him. While I hesitated, however, I recognized that Vawdrey had not gone to bed. A window was open, and the sound of voices outside came in to me; Blanche was on the terrace with her dramatist, and they were talking about the stars. I went to the window for a glimpse—the Alpine night was splendid. My friends had stepped out together; the actress had picked up a cloak; she looked as I had seen her look in the wing of the theatre. They were silent awhile, and I heard the roar of a neighboring torrent. I turned back into the room, and its quiet lamplight gave me an idea. Our companions had dispersed—it was late for a pastoral country and we three should have the place to ourselves. Clare Vawdrey had written his scene—it was magnificent; and his reading it to us there, at such an hour, would be an episode intensely memorable. I would bring down his manuscript and meet the two with it as they came in.
I quitted the salon for this purpose; I had been in Vawdrey's room and knew it was on the second floor, the last in a long corridor. A minute later my hand was on the knob of his door, which I naturally pushed open without knocking. It was equally natural that in the absence of its occupant the room should be dark; the more so as, the end of the corridor being at that hour unlighted, the obscurity was not immediately diminished by the opening of the door. I was only aware at first that I had made no mistake and that, the window-curtains not being drawn, I was confronted with a couple of vague, starlighted apertures. Their aid, however, was not sufficient to enable me to find what I had come for, and my hand, in my pocket, was already on the little box of matches that I always carried for cigarettes. Suddenly I withdrew it with a start, uttering an ejaculation, an apology. I had entered the wrong room; a glance prolonged for three seconds showed me a figure seated at a table near one of the windows—a figure I had at first taken for a travelling-rug thrown over a chair. I retreated, with a sense of intrusion; but as I did so I became aware, more rapidly than it takes me to express it, in the first place that this was Vawdrey's room, and in the second that, most singularly, Vawdrey himself sat before me. Checking myself on the threshold I had a momentary feeling of bewilderment, but before I knew it I had exclaimed: "Hullo! is that you, Vawdrey?"
He neither turned nor answered me, but my question received an immediate and practical reply in the opening of a door on the other side of the passage. A servant, with a candle, had come out of the opposite room, and in this flitting illumination I definitely recognized the man whom, an instant before, I had to the best of my belief left below in conversation with Mrs. Adney. His back was half turned to me, and he bent over the table in the attitude of writing, but I was conscious that I was in no sort of error about his identity. "I beg your pardon; I thought you were downstairs," I said; and as the personage gave no sign of hearing me I added, "If you're busy I won't disturb you." I backed out, closing the door—I had been in the place, I suppose, less than a minute. I had a sense of mystification, which however deepened infinitely the next instant. I stood there with my hand still on the knob of the door, overtaken by the oddest impression of my life. Vawdrey was at his table, writing, and it was a very natural place for him to be; but why was he writing in the dark, and why hadn't he answered me? I waited a few seconds for the sound of some movement, to see if he wouldn't rouse himself from his abstraction—a fit conceivable in a great writer—and call out: "Oh, my dear fellow, is it you?" But I heard only the stillness, I felt only the starlighted dusk of the room, with the unexpected presence it enclosed. I turned away, slowly retracing my steps, and came confusedly down-stairs. The lamp was still burning in the salon, but the room was empty. I passed round to the door of the hotel and stepped out. Empty too was the terrace. Blanche Adney and the gentleman with her had apparently come in. I hung about five minutes; then I went to bed.
I slept badly, for I was agitated. On looking back at these queer occurrences (you will see presently that they were queer), I perhaps suppose myself more agitated than I was; for great anomalies are never so great at first as after we have reflected upon them. It takes us some time to exhaust explanations. I was vaguely nervous—I had been sharply startled; but there was nothing I could not clear up by asking Blanche Adney, the first thing in the morning, who had been with her on the terrace. Oddly enough, however, when the morning dawned—it dawned admirably—I felt less desire to satisfy myself on this point than to escape, to brush away the shadow of my stupefaction. I saw the day would be splendid, and the fancy took me to spend it, as I had spent happy days of youth, in a lonely mountain ramble. I dressed early, partook of conventional coffee, put a big roll into one pocket and a small flask into the other, and, with a stout stick in my hand, went forth into the high places. My story is not closely concerned with the charming hours I passed there—hours of the kind that make intense memories. If I roamed away half of them on the shoulders of the hills, I lay on the sloping grass for the other half and, with my cap pulled over my eyes (save a peep for immensities of view), listened, in the bright stillness, to the mountain bee and felt most things sink and dwindle. Clare Vawdrey grew small, Blanche Adney grew dim, Lord Mellifont grew old, and before the day was over I forgot that I had ever been puzzled. When in the late afternoon I made my way down to the inn there was nothing I wanted so much to find out as whether dinner would not soon be ready. To-night I dressed, in a manner, and by the time I was presentable they were all at table.
In their company again my little problem came back to me, so that I was curious to see if Vawdrey wouldn't look at me the least bit queerly. But he didn't look at me at all; which gave me a chance both to be patient and to wonder why I should hesitate to ask him my question across the table. I did hesitate, and with the consciousness of doing so came back a little of the agitation I had left behind me, or below me, during the day. I wasn't ashamed of my scruple, however: it was only a fine discretion. What I vaguely felt was that a public inquiry wouldn't have been fair. Lord Mellifont was there, of course, to mitigate with his perfect manner all consequences; but I think it was present to me that with these particular elements his lordship would not be at home. The moment we got up, therefore, I approached Mrs. Adney, asking her whether, as the evening was lovely, she wouldn't take a turn with me outside.
"You've walked a hundred miles; had you not better be quiet?" she replied.
"I'd walk a hundred miles more to get you to tell me something."
She looked at me an instant, with a little of the queerness I had sought, but had not found, in Clare Vawdrey's eyes. "Do you mean what became of Lord Mellifont?"
"Of Lord Mellifont?" With my new speculation I had lost that thread.
"Where's your memory, foolish man? We talked of it last evening."
"Ah, yes!" I cried, recalling; "we shall have lots to discuss." I drew her out to the terrace, and before we had gone three steps I said to her: "Who was with you here last night?"
"Last night?" she repeated, as wide of the mark as I had been.
"At ten o'clock—just after our company broke up. You came out here with a gentleman; you talked about the stars."
She stared a moment; then she gave her laugh. "Are you jealous of dear Vawdrey?"
"Then it was he?"
"Certainly it was."
"And how long did he stay?"
"You have it badly. He stayed about a quarter of an hour—perhaps rather more. We walked some distance; he talked about his play. There you have it all; that is the only witchcraft I have used."
"And what did Vawdrey do afterwards?"
"I haven't the least idea. I left him and went to bed."
"At what time did you go to bed?"
"At what time did you? I happen to remember that I parted from Mr. Vawdrey at ten twenty-five," said Mrs. Adney. "I came back into the salon to pick up a book, and I noticed the clock."
"In other words, you and Vawdrey distinctly lingered here from about five minutes past ten till the hour you mention?"
"I don't know how distinct we were, but we were very jolly. Ou voulez-vous en venir?" Blanche Adney asked.
"Simply to this, dear lady: that at the time your companion was occupied in the manner you describe, he was also engaged in literary composition in his own room."
She stopped short at this, and her eyes had an expression in the darkness. She wanted to know if I challenged her veracity; and I replied that, on the contrary, I backed it up—it made the case so interesting. She returned that this would only be if she should back up mine; which, however, I had no difficulty in persuading her to do, after I had related to her circumstantially the incident of my quest of the manuscript—the manuscript which, at the time, for a reason I could now understand, appeared to have passed so completely out of her own head.
"His talk made me forget it—I forgot I sent you for it. He made up for his fiasco in the salon: he declaimed me the scene," said my companion. She had dropped on a bench to listen to me, and, as we sat there, had briefly cross-examined me. Then she broke out into fresh laughter. "Oh, the eccentricities of genius!"
"They seem greater even than I supposed."
"Oh, the mysteries of greatness!"
"You ought to know all about them, but they take me by surprise."
"Are you absolutely certain it was Mr. Vawdrey?" my companion asked.
"If it wasn't he, who in the world was it? That a strange gentleman, looking exactly like him, should be sitting in his room at that hour of the night and writing at his table in the dark," I insisted, "would be practically as wonderful as my own contention."
"Yes, why in the dark?" mused Mrs. Adney.
"Cats can see in the dark," I said.
She smiled at me dimly. "Did it look like a cat?"
"No, dear lady; but I'll tell you what it did look like—it looked like the author of Vawdrey's admirable works. It looked infinitely more like him than our friend does himself," I declared.
"Do you mean it was somebody he gets to do them?"
"Yes, while he dines out and disappoints you."
"Disappoints me?" murmured Mrs. Adney, artlessly.
"Disappoints me—disappoints every one who looks in him for the genius that created the pages they adore. Where is it in his talk?"
"Ah, last night he was splendid," said the actress.
"He's always splendid, as your morning bath is splendid, or a sirloin of beef, or the railway service to Brighton. But he's never rare."
"I see what you mean."
"That's what makes you such a comfort to talk to. I've often wondered—now I know. There are two of them."
"What a delightful idea!"
"One goes out, the other stays at home. One is the genius, the other's the bourgeois, and it's only the bourgeois whom we personally know. He talks, he circulates, he's awfully popular; he flirts with you—"
"Whereas it's the genius you are privileged to see!" Mrs. Adney broke in. "I'm much obliged to you for the distinction."
I laid my hand on her arm. "See him yourself. Try it, test it, go to his room."
"Go to his room? It wouldn't be proper!" she exclaimed, in the tone of her best comedy.
"Anything is proper in such an inquiry. If you see him, it settles it."
"How charming—to settle it!" She thought a moment, then she sprang up. "Do you mean now?"
"Whenever you like."
"But suppose I should find the wrong one?" said Blanche Adney, with an exquisite effect.
"The wrong one? Which one do you call the right?"
"The wrong one for a lady to go and see. Suppose I shouldn't find—the genius?"
"Oh, I'll look after the other," I replied. Then, as I happened to glance about me, I added, "Take care, here comes Lord Mellifont."
"I wish you'd look after him," my interlocutress murmured.
"What's the matter with him?"
"That's just what I was going to tell you."
"Tell me now; he's not coming."
Blanche Adney looked a moment. Lord Mellifont, who appeared to have emerged from the hotel to smoke a meditative cigar, had paused, at a distance from us, and stood admiring the wonders of the prospect, discernible even in the dusk. We strolled slowly in another direction, and she presently said," My idea is almost as droll as yours."
"I don't call mine droll; it's beautiful."
"There's nothing so beautiful as the droll," Mrs. Adney declared.
"You take a professional view. But I'm all ears." My curiosity was indeed alive again.
"Well then, my dear friend, if Clare Vawdrey is double (and I'm bound to say I think that the more of him the better), his lordship there has the opposite complaint: he isn't even whole."
We stopped once more, simultaneously. "I don't understand."
"No more do I. But I have a fancy that if there are two of Mr. Vawdrey, there isn't so much as one, all told, of Lord Mellifont."
I considered a moment, then I laughed out. "I think I see what you mean!"
"That's what makes you a comfort. Did you ever see him alone?"
I tried to remember. "Oh yes; he has been to see me."
"Ah, then he wasn't alone."
"And I've been to see him, in his study."
"Did he know you were there?"
"Naturally—I was announced."
Blanche Adney glanced at me like a lovely conspirator. "You mustn't be announced!" With this she walked on.
I rejoined her, breathless. "Do you mean one must come upon him when he doesn't know it?"
"You must take him unawares. You must go to his room—that's what you must do."
If I was elated by the way our mystery opened out, I was also, pardonably, a little confused. "When I know he's not there?"
"When you know he is."
"And what shall I see?"
"You won't see anything!" Mrs. Adney cried as we turned round.
We had reached the end of the terrace, and our movement brought us face to face with Lord Mellifont, who, resuming his walk, had now, without indiscretion, overtaken us. The sight of him at that moment was illuminating, and it kindled a great backward train, connecting itself with one's general impression of the personage. As he stood there smiling at us and waving a practised hand into the transparent night (he introduced the view as if it had been a candidate and "supported" the very Alps), as he rose before us in the delicate fragrance of his cigar and all his other delicacies and fragrances, with more perfections, somehow, heaped upon his handsome head than one had ever seen accumulated before, he struck me as so essentially, so conspicuously and uniformly the public character that I read in a flash the answer to Blanche Adney's riddle. He was all public and had no corresponding private life, just as Clare Vawdrey was all private and had no corresponding public one. I had heard only half my companion's story, yet as we joined Lord Mellifont (he had followed us—he liked Mrs. Adney; but it was always to be conceived of him that he accepted society rather than sought it), as we participated for half an hour in the distributed wealth of his conversation, I felt with unabashed duplicity that we had, as it were, found him out. I was even more deeply diverted by that whisk of the curtain to which the actress had just treated me than I had been by my own discovery; and if I was not ashamed of my share of her secret any more than of having divided my own with her (though my own was, of the two mysteries, the more glorious for the personage involved), this was because there was no cruelty in my advantage, but on the contrary an extreme tenderness and a positive compassion. Oh, he was safe with me, and I felt moreover rich and enlightened, as if I had suddenly put the universe into my pocket. I had learned what an affair of the spot and the moment a great appearance may be. It would doubtless be too much to say that I had always suspected the possibility, in the background of his lordship's being, of some such beautiful instance; but it is at least a fact that, patronizing as it sounds, I had been conscious of a certain reserve of indulgence for him. I had secretly pitied him for the perfection of his performance, had wondered what blank face such a mask had to cover, what was left to him for the immitigable hours in which a man sits down with himself, or, more serious still, with that intenser self, his lawful wife. How was he at home, and what did he do when he was alone? There was something in Lady Mellifont that gave a point to these researches—something that suggested that even to her he was still the public character, and that she was haunted by similar questionings. She had never cleared them up; that was her eternal trouble. We therefore knew more than she did, Blanche Adney and I; but we wouldn't tell her for the world, nor would she probably thank us for doing so. She preferred the relative grandeur of uncertainty. She was not at home with him, so she couldn't say; and with her he was not alone, so he couldn't show her. He represented to his wife and he was a hero to his servants, and what one wanted to arrive at was what really became of him when no eye could see. He rested, presumably; but what form of rest could repair such a plenitude of presence? Lady Mellifont was too proud to pry, and as she had never looked through a keyhole she remained dignified and unassuaged.
It may have been a fancy of mine that Blanche Adney drew out our companion, or it may be that the practical irony of our relation to him at such a moment made me see him more vividly; at any rate, he never had struck me as so dissimilar from what he would have been if we had not offered him a reflection of his image. We were only a concourse of two, but he had never been more public. His perfect manner had never been more perfect, his remarkable tact had never been more remarkable. I had a tacit sense that it would all be in the morning papers, with a leader, and also a secretly exhilarating one that I knew something that wouldn't be, that never could be, though any enterprising journal would give one a fortune for it. I must add, however, that in spite of my enjoyment—it was almost sensual, like that of a consummate dish—I was eager to be alone again with Mrs. Adney, who owed me an anecdote. It proved impossible, that evening, for some of the others came out to see what we found so absorbing: and then Lord Mellifont bespoke a little music from the fiddler, who produced his violin and played to us divinely, on our platform of echoes, face to face with the ghosts of the mountains. Before the concert was over I missed our actress, and glancing into the window of the salon, saw that she was established with Vawdrey, who was reading to her from a manuscript. The great scene had apparently been achieved, and was doubtless the more interesting to Blanche from the new lights she had gathered about its author. I judged it discreet not to disturb them, and I went to bed without seeing her again. I looked out for her betimes the next morning, and as the promise of the day was fair, proposed to her that we should take to the hills, reminding her of the high obligation she had incurred. She recognized the obligation and gratified me with her company; but before we had strolled ten yards up the pass she broke out with intensity: "My dear friend, you've no idea how it works in me! I can think of nothing else."
"Than your theory about Lord Mellifont?"
"Oh, bother Lord Mellifont! I allude to yours about Mr. Vawdrey, who is much the more interesting person of the two. I'm fascinated by that vision of his—what-do-you-call-it?"
"His alternative identity?"
"His other self; that's easier to say."
"You accept it, then, you adopt it?"
"Adopt it? I rejoice in it! It became tremendously vivid to me last evening.
"While he read to you there?"
"Yes, as I listened to him, watched him. It simplified everything, explained everything."
"That's indeed the blessing of it. Is the scene very fine?"
"Magnificent! and he reads beautifully."
"Almost as well as the other one writes!" I laughed.
This made my companion stop a moment, laying her hand on my arm. "You utter my very impression. I felt that he was reading me the work of another man."
"What a service to the other man!"
"Such a totally different person," said Mrs. Adney. We talked of this difference as we went on, and of what a wealth it constituted, what a resource for life, such a duplication of character.
"It ought to make him live twice as long as other people," I observed.
"Ought to make which of them?"
"Well, both; for after all they're members of a firm, and one of them couldn't carry on the business without the other. Moreover, mere survival would be dreadful for either."
Blanche Adney was silent a little; then she exclaimed: "I don't know—I wish he would survive!"
"May I, on my side, inquire which?"
"If you can't guess, I won't tell you."
"I know the heart of woman. You always prefer the other."
She halted again, looking round her. "Off here, away from my husband, I can tell you. I'm in love with him!"
"Unhappy woman, he has no passions," I answered.
"That's exactly why I adore him. Doesn't a woman with my history know that the passions of others are insupportable? An actress, poor thing, can't care for any love that's not all on her side; she can't afford to be repaid. My marriage proves that; marriage is ruinous. Do you know what was in my mind last night, all the while Mr. Vawdrey was reading me those beautiful speeches? An insane desire to see the author." And dramatically, as if to hide her shame, Blanche Adney passed on.
"We'll manage that," I returned. "I want another glimpse of him myself. But meanwhile please remember that I've been waiting more than forty-eight hours for the evidence that supports your sketch, intensely suggestive and plausible, of Lord Mellifont's private life."
"Oh, Lord Mellifont doesn't interest me."
"He did yesterday," I said.
"Yes, but that was before I fell in love. You blotted him out with your story."
"You'll make me sorry I told it. Come," I pleaded, "if you don't let me know how your idea came into your head I shall imagine you simply made it up."
"Let me recollect, then, while we wander in this grassy valley."
We stood at the entrance of a charming crooked gorge, a portion of whose level floor formed the bed of a stream that was smooth with swiftness. We turned into it, and the soft walk beside the clear torrent drew us on and on; till suddenly, as we continued and I waited for my companion to remember, a bend of the valley showed us Lady Mellifont coming towards us. She was alone, under the canopy of her parasol, drawing her sable train over the turf; and in this form, on the devious ways, she was a sufficiently rare apparition. She usually took a footman, who marched behind her on the highroads and whose livery was strange to the mountaineers. She blushed on seeing us, as if she ought somehow to justify herself; she laughed vaguely, and said she had come out for a little early stroll. We stood together a moment, exchanging platitudes, and then she remarked that she had thought she might find her husband.
"Is he in this quarter?" I inquired.
"I supposed he would be. He came out an hour ago to sketch.
"Have you been looking for him?" Mrs. Adney asked.
"A little; not very much," said Lady Mellifont.
Each of the women rested her eyes with some intensity, as it seemed to me, on the eyes of the other.
"We'll look for him for you, if you like," said Mrs. Adney.
"Oh, it doesn't matter. I thought I'd join him."
"He won't make his sketch if you don't," my companion hinted.
"Perhaps he will if you do," said Lady Mellifont.
"Oh, I dare say he'll turn up," I interposed.
"He certainly will, if he knows we're here!" Blanche Adney retorted.
"Will you wait while we search?" I asked of Lady Mellifont.
She repeated that it was of no consequence; upon which Mrs. Adney went on: "We'll go into the matter for our own pleasure."
"I wish you a pleasant expedition," said her ladyship, and was turning away, when I sought to know if we should inform her husband that she had followed him. She hesitated a moment; then she jerked out, oddly, "I think you had better not." With this she took leave of us, floating a little stiffly down the gorge.
My companion and I watched her retreat, then we exchanged a stare, while a light ghost of a laugh rippled from the actress's lips. "She might be walking in the shrubberies at Mellifont!"
"She suspects it, you know," I replied.
"And she doesn't want him to know it. There won't be any sketch."
"Unless we overtake him," I subjoined. "In that case we shall find him producing one, in the most graceful attitude, and the queer thing is that it will be brilliant."
"Let us leave him alone; he'll have to come home without it."
"He'd rather never come home. Oh, he'll find a public!"
"Perhaps he'll do it for the cows," Blanche Adney suggested; and as I was on the point of rebuking her profanity she went on, "That's simply what I happened to discover."
"What are you speaking of?"
"The incident of day before yesterday."
"Ah, let's have it, at last!"
"That's all it was—that I was like Lady Mellifont; I couldn't find him."
"Did you lose him?"
"He lost me—that appears to be the way of it. He thought I was gone."
"But you did find him, since you came home with him."
"It was he who found me. That again is what must happen. He's there from the moment he knows somebody else is."
"I understand his intermissions," I said, after a short reflection; "but I don't quite seize the law that governs them."
"Oh, it's a fine shade, but I caught it at that moment. I had started to come home. I was tired, and I had insisted on his not coming back with me. We had found some rare flowers—those I brought home—and it was he who had discovered almost all of them. It amused him very much, and I knew he wanted to get more; but I was weary and I quitted him. He let me go—where else would have been his tact?—and I was too stupid then to have guessed that from the moment I was not there no flower would be gathered. I started homeward, but at the end of three minutes I found I had brought away his penknife—he had lent it to me to trim a branch—and I knew he would need it. I turned back a few steps to call him, but before I spoke I looked about for him. You can't understand what happened then without having the place before you."
"You must take me there," I said.
"We may see the wonder here. The place was simply one that offered no chance for concealment—a great gradual hill-side, without obstructions or trees. There were some rocks below me, behind which I myself had disappeared, but from which, on coming back, I immediately emerged again."
"Then he must have seen you."
"He was too utterly gone, for some reason best known to himself. It was probably some moment of fatigue—he's getting on, you know, so that, with the sense of returning solitude, the reaction had been proportionately great, the extinction proportionately complete. At any rate, the stage was as bare as your hand."
"Could he have been somewhere else?"
"He couldn't have been, in the time, anywhere but where I had left him. Yet the place was utterly empty—as empty as this stretch of valley before us. He had vanished—he had ceased to be. But as soon as my voice rang out (I uttered his name), he rose before me like the rising sun."
"And where did the sun rise?"
"Just where it ought to—just where he would have been, and where I should have seen him, had he been like other people."
I had listened with the deepest interest, but it was my duty to think of objections. "How long a time elapsed between the moment you perceived his absence and the moment you called?"
"Oh, only an instant. I don't pretend it was long."
"Long enough for you to be sure?" I said.
"Sure he wasn't there?"
"Yes; and that you were not mistaken, not the victim of some hocus-pocus of your eyesight?"
"I may have been mistaken, but I don't believe it. At any rate, that's just why I want you to look in his room."
I thought a moment. "How can I, when even his wife doesn't dare to?"
"She wants to; propose it to her. It wouldn't take much to make her. She does suspect."
I thought another moment. "Did he seem to know?"
"That I had missed him? So it struck me, but he thought he had been quick enough."
"Did you speak of his disappearance?"
"Heaven forbid! It seemed to me too strange."
"Quite right. And how did he look?"
Trying to think it out again and reconstitute her miracle, Blanche Adney gazed abstractedly up the valley. Suddenly she exclaimed, "Just as he looks now!" and I saw Lord Mellifont stand before us with his sketch-block. I perceived, as we met him, that he looked neither suspicious nor blank; he looked simply, as he did always, everywhere, the principal feature of the scene. Naturally he had no sketch to show us, but nothing could better have rounded off our actual conception of him than the way he fell into position as we approached. He had been selecting his point of view; he took possession of it with a flourish of the pencil. He leaned against a rock; his beautiful little box of water-colors reposed on a natural table beside him, a ledge of the bank, which showed how inveterately nature ministered to his convenience. He painted while he talked, and he talked while he painted; and if the painting was as miscellaneous as the talk, the talk would equally have graced an album. We waited while the exhibition went on, and it seemed indeed as if the conscious profiles of the peaks were interested in his success. They grew as black as silhouettes in paper, sharp against a livid sky, from which, however, there would be nothing to fear till Lord Mellifont's sketch should be finished. Blanche Adney communed with me dumbly, and I could read the language of her eyes: "Oh, if we could only do it as well as that! He fills the stage in a way that beats us." We could no more have left him than we could have quitted the theatre till the play was over; but in due time we turned round with him and strolled back to the inn, before the door of which his lordship, glancing again at his picture, tore the fresh leaf from the block and presented it, with a few happy words, to Mrs. Adney. Then he went into the house; and a moment later, looking up from where we stood, we saw him, above, at the window of his sitting-room (he had the best apartments), watching the signs of the weather.
"He'll have to rest after this," Blanche said, dropping her eyes on her water-color.
"Indeed he will!" I raised mine to the window. Lord Mellifont had vanished. "He's already reabsorbed."
"Reabsorbed?" I could see the actress was now thinking of something else.
"Into the immensity of things. He has lapsed again; there's an entr'acte."
"It ought to be long." Mrs. Adney looked up and down the terrace, and at that moment the head-waiter appeared in the doorway. Suddenly she turned to this functionary with the question: "Have you seen Mr. Vawdrey lately?"
The man immediately approached. "He left the house five minutes ago for a walk, I think. He went down the pass; he had a book."
I was watching the ominous clouds. "He had better have had an umbrella."
The waiter smiled. "I recommended him to take one."
"Thank you," said Mrs. Adney; and the Oberkellner withdrew. Then she went on, to me, abruptly, "Will you do me a favor?"
"Yes, if you'll do me one. Let me see if your picture is signed."
She glanced at the sketch before giving it to me. "For a wonder it isn't."
"It ought to be, for full value. May I keep it awhile?"
"Yes, if you'll do what I ask. Take an umbrella and go after Mr. Vawdrey."
"To bring him to Mrs. Adney?"
"To keep him out—as long as you can."
"I'll keep him as long as the rain holds off."
"Oh, never mind the rain!" my companion exclaimed.
"Would you have us drenched?"
"Without remorse." Then, with a strange light in her eyes, she added, "I'm going to try."
"To see the real one. Oh, if I can get at him!" she broke out with passion.
"Try, try!" I replied. "I'll keep our friend all day."
"If I can get at the one who does it"—and she paused, with shining eyes—"if I can have it out with him I shall get my part!"
"I'll keep Vawdrey forever!" I called after her as she passed quickly into the house.
Her audacity was communicative, and I stood there in a glow of excitement, I looked at Lord Mellifont's water-color and I looked at the gathering storm; I turned my eyes again to his lordship's windows, and then I bent them on my watch. Vawdrey had so little the start of me that I should have time to overtake him—time even if I should take five minutes to go up to Lord Mellifont's sitting-room (where we had all been hospitably received), and say to him, as a messenger, that Mrs. Adney begged he would bestow upon his sketch the high consecration of his signature. As I again considered this work of art I perceived there was something it certainly did lack: what else then but so noble an autograph? It was my duty to suppy the deficiency without delay, and in accordance with this conviction I instantly re-entered the hotel. I went up to Lord Mellifont's apartments; I reached the door of his salon. Here, however, I was met by a difficulty of which my extravagance had not taken account. If I were to knock I should spoil everything; yet was I prepared to dispense with this ceremony? I asked myself the question, and it embarrassed me; I turned my little picture round and round, but it didn't give me the answer I wanted. I wanted it to say; "Open the door gently, gently, without a sound, yet very quickly; then you will see what you will see." I had gone so far as to lay my hand upon the knob when I became aware (having my wits so about me), that exactly in the manner I was thinkof—gently, gently, without a sound—another door had moved, on the opposite side of the hall. At the same instant I found myself smiling rather constrainedly upon Lady Mellifont, who, on seeing me, had checked herself on the threshold of her room. For a moment, as she stood there, we exchanged two or three ideas that were the more singular for being unspoken. We had caught each other hovering, and we understood each other; but as I stepped over to her (so that we were separated from the sitting-room by the width of the hall), her lips formed the almost soundless entreaty, "Don't!" I could see in her conscious eyes everything that the word expressed—the confession of her own curiosity and the dread of the consequences of mine. "Don't!" she repeated, as I stood before her. From the moment my experiment could strike her as an act of violence I was ready to renounce it; yet I thought I detected in her frightened face a still deeper betrayal—a possibility of disappointment if I should give way. It was as if she had said: "I'll let you do it, if you'll take the responsibility. Yes, with some one else, I'd surprise him. But it would never do for him to think it was I."
"We soon found Lord Mellifont," I observed, in allusion to our encounter with her an hour before, "and he was so good as to give this lovely sketch to Mrs. Adney, who has asked me to come up and beg him to put in the omitted signature."
Lady Mellifont took the drawing from me, and I could guess the struggle that went on in her while she looked at it. She was silent for some time; then I felt that all her delicacies and dignities, all her old timidities and pieties were fighting against her opportunity. She turned away from me and with the drawing went back to her room. She was absent for a couple of minutes, and when she reappeared I could see that she had vanquished her temptation; that even, with a kind of resurgent horror, she had shrunk from it. She had deposited the sketch in the room. "If you will kindly leave the picture with me, I will see that Mrs. Adney's request is attended to," she said, with great courtesy and sweetness, but in a manner that put an end to our colloquy.
I assented, with a somewhat artificial enthusiasm perhaps, and then, to ease off our separation, remarked that we were going to have a change of weather.
"In that case we shall go—we shall go immediately," said Lady Mellifont. I was amused at the eagerness with which she made this declaration, it appeared to represent a coveted flight into safety, an escape with her threatened secret. I was the more surprised, therefore, when, as I was turning away, she put out her hand to take mine. She had the pretext of bidding me farewell, but as I shook hands with her on this supposition I felt that what the movement really conveyed was: "I thank you for the help you would have given me, but it's better as it is. If I should know, who would help me then?" As I went to my room to get my umbrella I said to myself, "She's sure, but she won't put it to the proof."
A quarter of an hour later I had overtaken Clare Vawdrey in the pass, and shortly after this we found ourselves looking for refuge. The storm had not only completely gathered, but it had broken at the last with extraordinary rapidity. We scrambled up a hill-side to an empty cabin, a rough structure that was hardly more than a shed for the protection of cattle. It was a tolerable shelter however, and it had fissures through which we could watch the splendid spectacle of the tempest. This entertainment lasted an hour—an hour that has remained with me as full of odd disparities. While the lightning played with the thunder and the rain gushed in on our umbrellas, I said to myself that Clare Vawdrey was disappointing. I don't know exactly what I should have predicated of a great author exposed to the fury of the elements, I can't say what particular Manfred attitude I should have expected my companion to assume, but it seemed to me somehow that I shouldn't have looked to him to regale me in such a situation with stories (which I had already heard) about the celebrated Lady Ringrose. Her ladyship formed the subject of Vawdrey's conversation during this prodigious scene, though before it was quite over he had launched out on Mr. Chafer, the scarcely less notorious reviewer. It broke my heart to hear a man like Vawdrey talk of reviewers. The lightning projected a hard clearness upon the truth, familiar to me for years, to which the last day or two had added transcendent support—the irritating certitude that for personal relations this admirable genius thought his second-best good enough. It was, no doubt, as society was made, but there was a contempt in the distinction which could not fail to be galling to an admirer. The world was vulgar and stupid, and the real man would have been a fool to come out for it when he could gossip and dine by deputy. None the less my heart sank as I felt my companion practice this economy. I don't know exactly what I wanted; I suppose I wanted him to make an exception for me. I almost believed he would, if he had known how I worshipped his talent. But I had never been able to translate this to him, and his application of his principle was relentless. At any rate, I was more than ever sure that at such an hour his chair at home was not empty: there was the Manfred attitude, there were the responsive flashes. I could only envy Mrs. Adney her presumable enjoyment of them.
The weather drew off at last, and the rain abated sufficiently to allow us to emerge from our asylum and make our way back to the inn, where we found on our arrival that our prolonged absence had produced some agitation. It was judged apparently that the fury of the elements might have placed us in a predicament. Several of our friends were at the door, and they seemed a little disconcerted when it was perceived that we were only drenched. Clare Vawdrey, for some reason, was wetter than I, and he took his course to his room. Blanche Adney was among the persons collected to look out for us, but as Vawdrey came towards her she shrank from him without a greeting; with a movement that I observed as almost one of estrangement she turned her back on him and went quickly into the salon. Wet as I was, I went in after her; on which she immediately flung round and faced me. The first thing I saw was that she had never been so beautiful. There was a light of inspiration in her face, and she broke out to me in the quickest whisper, which was at the same time the loudest cry, I have ever heard: "I've got my part!"
"You went to his room—I was right?"
"Right?" Blanche Adney repeated. "Ah, my dear fellow!" she murmured.
"He was there—you saw him?"
"He saw me. It was the hour of my life!"
"It must have been the hour of his, if you were half as lovely as you are at this moment."
"He's splendid," she pursued, as if she didn't hear me. "He is the one who does it!" I listened, immensely impressed, and she added: "We understood each other."
"By flashes of lightning?"
"Oh, I didn't see the lightning then!"
"How long were you there?" I asked, with admiration.
"Long enough to tell him I adore him."
"Ah, that's what I've never been able to tell him!" I exclaimed, ruefully.
"I shall have my part—I shall have my part!" she continued, with triumphant indifference, and she flung round the room with the joy of a girl, only checking herself to say: "Go and change your clothes."
"You shall have Lord Mellifont's signature," I said.
"Oh, bother Lord Mellifont's signature! He's far nicer than Mr. Vawdrey," she went on, irrelevantly.
"Lord Mellifont?" I pretended to inquire.
"Confound Lord Mellifont!" And Blanche Adney, in her elation, brushed by me, whisking again through the open door. Just outside of it she came upon her husband; whereupon, with a charming cry of "We're talking of you, my love!" she threw herself upon him and kissed him.
I went to my room and changed my clothes, but I remained there till the evening. The violence of the storm had passed over us, but the rain had settled down to a drizzle. On descending to dinner I found that the change in the weather had already broken up our party. The Mellifonts had departed in a carriage and four, they had been followed by others, and several vehicles had been bespoken for the morning. Blanche Adney's was one of them, and on the pretext that she had preparations to make, she quitted us directly after dinner. Clare Vawdrey asked me what was the matter with her—she suddenly appeared to dislike him. I forget what answer I gave, but I did my best to comfort him by driving away with him the next day. Mrs. Adney had vanished when we came down; but they made up their quarrel in London, for he finished his play, which she produced. I must add that she is still, nevertheless, in want of the great part. I have a beautiful one in my head, but she doesn't come to see me to stir me up about it. Lady Mellifont always drops me a kind word when we meet, but that doesn't console me.