- chapter: THE PRINCESS PASSES CHAPTER I "Woman Disposes"
|chapter 2 >||chapter 31 >>|
THE PRINCESS PASSES
To the wild wood and the downs,
To the silent wilderness."
-PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY.
"To your happiness," I said, lifting my glass, and looking the girl in the eyes. She had the grace to blush, which was the least that she could do, for a moment ago she had jilted me.
The way of it was this.
I had met her and her mother the winter before at Davos, where I had been sent after South Africa, and a spell of playing fast and loose with my health--a possession usually treated as we treat the poor, whom we expect to have always with us. Helen Blantock had been the success of her season in London, had paid for her triumphs with a breakdown, and we had stopped at the same hotel.
The girl's reputation as a beauty had marched before her, blowing trumpets. She was the prettiest girl in Davos, as she had been the prettiest in London; and I shared with other normal, self-respecting men the amiable weakness of wishing to monopolise the woman most wanted by others. During the process I fell in love, and Helen was kind.| | 2
Lady Blantock, a matron of comfortable rotundity of figure and a placid way of folding plump, white hands, had, however, a contradictorily cold and watchful eye, which I had feared at first; but it had softened for me, and I accepted the omen. In the spring, when my London tyrant had pronounced me "sound as a bell," I had proposed to Helen. The girl said neither yes nor no, but she had eyes and a smile which needed no translation, so I kissed her (it was in a conservatory at a dance) and was happy--for a fortnight.
Then came this bidding to dinner. Lady Blantock wrote the invitation, of course, but it was natural to suppose that she did it to please her daughter. It happened to be my birthday, and I fancied that Helen had kept the date in mind. Besides, the selection of the guests had apparently been made with an eye to my pleasure.
There was Jack Winston, who had lately married an American heiress, not because she was an heiress, but because she was adorable; there was the heiress herself, néeMolly Randolph, whom I had known through Winston's letters before I saw her lovely, laughing face; there was Sir Horace Jerveyson, the richest grocer in the world, whom I suspected Lady Blantock of actually regarding as a human being, and a suitable successor to the late Sir James. Besides these, there was only myself, Montagu Lane; and I believed that the dinner had been arranged with a view to my claims as leading man in the love drama of which Helen Blantock was leading lady, the other characters in the scene merely being "on" as our "support." If this idea argued conceit, I was punished.
It was with the entrée that the blow fell, and I | | 3 had a curious, impersonal sort of feeling that on every night to come, should I live for a hundred years, each future entrée of each future dinner would recall the sensation of this moment. Something inside me, that was myself yet not myself, chuckled, at the thought, and made a note to avoid entrées.
We had been asking each others' plans for August. Molly and Jack had said that they were going to Switzerland to try the new Mercédès, which had been given as a wedding present to the girl by a school friend of that name, and of many dollars.
Then, solely to be civil, not because I wanted to know, I asked Sir Horace Jerveyson what he meant to do. Hardly did I even expect to hear his answer, for I was looking at Helen, and she was in great beauty. But the man's words jumped to my ears.
"Miss Blantock and I are going to Scotland," answered the grocer, in his fat voice, which might have been oiled with his own bacon. I stared incredulously. "Together," he informatively added.
Lady Blantock laughed nervously. "I suppose we might as well let this pass for an announcement?" she twittered. "Nell and Sir Horace have been engaged a whole day. It will be in the Morning Post to-morrow. Really, it has been so sudden that I feel quite dazed."
It was at this point that I drank to the girl's happiness, looking straight into her eyes.
I have a dim impression that the grocer, who no doubt mistook her blush for maiden pride of conquest, essayed to make a speech, and was tactfully suppressed by the future mother-in-law. I am sure, though, that it was Helen who presently asked, in | | 4 pink-and-white confusion, if I, too, were bound for Scotland. "But, of course you are," she added.
"No," I said. "I've been planning to take a walking tour as soon as this tiresome season is over. I shall run across to France and wander for a while. Eventually, I shall end up at Monte Carlo. A friend whom I rather want to meet, will arrive there, at her villa, in October."
I knew that Jack Winston would understand, for he had not been the only one last winter who had written letters. But Jack was of no importance to me at the instant. I was talking at Helen, and she, too, would understand. I hoped that, in understanding, she would suffer a pang, a small, insignificant, poor relation of the pang inflicted upon me.
It is a thing unexplained by science why the miserable hours of our lives should be fifty times the length of happy hours, though stupid clocks, seeing nothing beyond their own hands, record both with the same measurement. If we had sat at this prettily decorated dinner table in the Carlton restaurant (I had thought it pretty at first, so I give it the benefit of the doubt) through the night into the next day, while other people ate breakfast and even luncheon, the moments could not have dragged more heavily. But when it appeared that we must have reached a ripe old age--those of us who had been young with the evening--Lady Blantock thought we might have coffee in the "palm court." We had it, and by rising at last, sweet Molly Winston saved me from doing the musicians a mischief. "Lord Lane, you promised to let us drop you, in the car," she said to me. "Oh, I don't mean to 'drop you' literally. Our auto has no naughty ways. I hope we are not carrying you off too soon."
Too soon! I could have kissed her. "Angel," I murmured, when we were out of the hotel, for in reality there had been no engagement. "Thank you--and good-bye." I wrung her hand, and she gave a funny little squeak, for I had forgotten her rings.
"What! Aren't you coming?" asked Jack.
"We really want you," said Molly. "Please let us take you home with us--to supper."
"We've just finished dinner," I objected weakly.
"That makes no difference. Eating is only an incident of supper. It's a meal which consists of conversation. Look, here's the car. Isn't she a beauty? Can you resist her? Such a dear darling of a girl gave her to me, a girl you would love. Can you resist Mercédès?"
"I could resist anything if I could resist you. But seriously, though you're very good, I think I'll walk to the Albany, and--and go to bed."
"What nonsense! As if you would. You're quite a clever actor, Lord Lane, and might deceive a man, but--I'm a woman. Jack and I want to talk to you about--about that walking tour."
It would have been ungracious to refuse, since she had set her heart upon a rescue. The chauffeur who had brought round the motor surrendered his place to Molly, whom Jack had taught to drive the new car, and I was given the seat of honour beside her. By this time the streets were comparatively clear of traffic, and we shot away as if we had been propelled from a catapult, Molly contriving to combine a rippling flow of words with intricate tricks of steering, in an extraordinary fashion which I would defy any male expert to imitate without committing suicide and murder.| | 6
I was a determined enemy of motor cars, as Jack knew, and thus far had avoided treachery to my favourite animal by never setting foot in one. But to-night I was past nice distinctions, and besides, I rather hoped that Molly and her Mercédès would kill me. My nerves were too numb to tell my brain of any remarkable sensations in the new experience, but I remember feeling cheated out of what I had been led to expect when without any tragic event Molly stopped the car before their house in Park Lane--another and bigger wedding present.
It was a brand-new toy bestowed by millionaire Chauncey Randolph on his one fair daughter. Jack and Molly Winston had been married in New York in June (when I would have been best man had it not been for Helen), had spent their honeymoon somewhere in the bride's native country, and had come "home" to England only a little more than a fortnight ago. Jack's father, Lord Brighthelmston, had furnished the house as his gift to the bride, and as he is a famous connoisseur and collector, his taste, combined with Lady Brighthelmston's management, had resulted in perfection. Already I had been taken from cellar to attic and shown everything, so that to-night there was no need to admire.
We went into the dining-room; why, I do not know, unless that sitting round a table in the company of friends opens the heart and loosens the tongue. I have reason to believe that on the table there were things to eat, and especially to drink, but we gave them the cut direct, though I recall vaguely the fizz of soda shooting from the syphon, and afterwards holding a glass in my hand.
"Do you mind my saying what I think of Lady Blantock and her daughter?" inquired Molly, with | | 7 the meek sweetness of a coaxing child. "Perhaps I oughtn't, but it would be a relief to my feelings."
"I wonder if it would to mine?" I remarked impersonally, addressing the ancient tapestry on an opposite wall.
"Let's try, and see," persisted Molly. "Calculating Cats! There, it's out. I wouldn't have eaten their old dinner, except to please you. I've known them only thirteen days, but I could have said the same thing when I'd known them thirteen minutes. Indeed, I'm not sure I didn't say it to Jack. Did I, or did I not, Lightning Conductor?"
"You did," replied the person addressed, answering with a smile to the name which he had earned in playing the part of Molly Randolph's chauffeur, in the making of their love story.
"Women always know things about each other--the sort of things the others don't want them to know," Molly went on; "but there's no use in our warning men who think they are in love with Calculating Cats, because they would be certain we were jealous. Of course I shouldn't say this to you, Lord Lane, if you hadn't taken me into your confidence a little--that night of my first London ball."
"It was the night I proposed to Nell," I said, half to myself.
"Sir Horace Jerveyson was at the ball, too."
"Talking to Lady Blantock."
"And looking at Miss Blantock. I noticed, and--I put things together."
"Who would ever have thought of putting those two together?"
"I did. I said to myself and afterwards to Jack--may I tell you what I said?"| | 8
"Please do. If it hurts, it will be a counter-irritant."
"Well, Jack had told me such heaps about you, you know, and he'd hinted that, while we were having our great romance on a motor car, you were having one on toboggans and skates at Davos, so I was interested. Then I saw her at the ball, and we were introduced. She was pretty, but--a prize white Persian kitten is pretty; also it has little claws. She liked you, of course, because you're young and good-looking. Besides, her father was knighted only because he discovered a new microbe or something, while you're a 'hearl,' as my new maid says."
"A penniless 'hearl,'" I laughed.
"You must have plenty of pennies, for you seem to have everything a man can want; but that is different from what a woman can want. I'm sure Helen Blantock and her mother had an understanding. I can hear Lady Blantock saying, 'Nell, dear, you may give Lord Lane encouragement up to a certain point, for it would be nice to be a countess; but don't let him propose yet. Who knows what may happen?' Then what did happen was Sir Horace Jerveyson, who has more pounds than you have pennies. Helen would console herself with the thought that the wife of a knight is as much 'Lady So-and-So' as a countess. I hate that grocerman, and as for Helen, you ought to thank heaven fasting for your escape."
"Perhaps I shall some day, but that day is not yet," I answered. "However, there is still Monte Carlo."
"Shall you drown your sorrows in roulette?" asked Molly, looking horrified.
"Who knows?"| | 9
"Don't let her misjudge you," cut in Jack. "Have you forgotten what I told you about the Italian Countess, Molly?"
"Oh, the Countess with whom Lord Lane used to flirt at Davos before he met Miss Blantock? Now I see. You said that you were going to Monte Carlo, on purpose to make Helen Blantock jealous."
"I'm afraid some spiteful idea of the sort was in my mind," I admitted. "But the Countess is fascinating, and if she would be kind, Monte Carlo might effect a cure of the heart, as Davos did of the lungs."
"I believe you're capable of marrying for pique. Oh, if I could prove to you that you aren't, and never have been, in love with Helen!"
"It would be difficult."
"I'll engage to do it, if you'll take my prescription."
"What is that?"
"Cheerful society and amusement. In other words, Jack's and my society, and a tour on our motor car."
"What, make a discord in the music of your duet?"
"Dear old boy, we want you," said Jack.
I was grateful. "I can't tell how much I thank you," I answered. "But I'm in no mood for companionship. The fact is, I'm stunned for the moment, but I fancy that presently I shall find out I'm rather hard hit."
"No, you won't, unless you mope," broke in Molly. "On the contrary, you'll feel it less every day."
"Time will show," said I. "Anyhow, I must dree my own weird--whatever that means. I don't | | 10 know, and never heard of anyone who did, but it sounds appropriate. I should like to do a walking tour alone in the desert, if it were not for the annoying necessity to eat and drink. I want to get away from all the people I ever knew or heard of--with the exceptions named."
"One would think you were the only person disappointed in love!" exclaimed Molly. "Why, I have a friend who has really suffered. Dear little Mercédès--"
Mrs. Winston stopped suddenly, drawing in her breath. She looked startled, as if she had been on the point of betraying a state secret; then her eyes brightened; she began abstractedly to trace a leaf on the damask tablecloth. "I have thought of just the thing for you," she said, apparently apropos of nothing. "Why don't you buy or hire a mule to carry your luggage, and walk from Switzerland down into Italy, not over the high roads, but do a pass or two, and for the rest, keep to the footpaths among the mountains, which would suit your mood?"
"The mule isn't a bad scheme," I replied. "A dirty man is an independent animal, but a clean man, or one whose aim is to be clean, is more or less helpless; If he has a weakness for a sponge bag,a clean shirt or two, and evening things to change into after a long tramp, he must go hampered by a caravan of beasts."
"One beast would do," said Molly practically, "unless you count the muleteer, and that depends upon his disposition."
"I suppose muleteers have dispositions," I reflected aloud.
"Mules have. I've met them n America. But | | 11 if you think my idea a bright one, reward it by going with Jack and me as far as Lucerne. There you can pick up your mule and your mule-man."
"'A picker-up of unconsidered trifles,'" I quoted dreamily. "Well, if you and Jack are willing to tool me out on your motor car as far as Lucerne, I should be an ungrateful brute to refuse. But the difficulty is, I want to turn a sulky back on my kind at once, while you two--"
"We're staring on the first," said Jack.
"What! No Cowes?"
"We wouldn't give a day on the car for a cycle of Cowes."
And so the plan of my consolation tour was settled, in the supreme court beyond which there is no appeal. But man can do no more than propose; and woman--even American woman--cannot invariably "dispose" to the extent of remaking the whole world of mules and men according to her whim.
|chapter 2 >||chapter 31 >>|