Helena's Path/Chapter 10
IN THE LAST RESORT!
It will have been perceived by now that Lord Lynborough delighted in a fight. He revelled in being opposed; the man who withstood him to the face gave him such pleasure as to beget in his mind certainly gratitude, perhaps affection, or at least a predisposition thereto. There was nothing he liked so much as an even battle—unless, by chance, it were the scales seeming to incline a little against him. Then his spirits rose highest, his courage was most buoyant, his kindliness most sunny.
The benefit of this disposition accrued to the Marchesa; for by her sudden counterattack she had at least redressed the balance of the campaign. He could not be sure that she had not done more. The ladies of her party were his—he reckoned confidently on that; but the men he could not count as more than neutral at the best; Wenman, anyhow, could easily be whistled back to the Marchesa's heel. But in his own house, he admitted at once, she had secured for him open hostility, for herself the warmest of partisanship. The meaning of her lunch was too plain to doubt. No wonder her opposition to her own deserters had been so faint; no wonder she had so readily, even if so scornfully, afforded them the pretext—the barren verbal permission—that they had required. She had not wanted them—no, not even the Colonel himself! She had wanted to be alone with Roger and with Stabb—and to complete the work of her blandishments on those guileless, tender-hearted, and susceptible persons. Lynborough admired, applauded, and promised himself considerable entertainment at dinner.
How was the Marchesa, in her turn, bearing her domestic isolation, the internal disaffection at Nab Grange? He flattered himself that she would not be finding in it such pleasure as his whimsical temper reaped from the corresponding position of affairs at Scarsmoor.
There he was right. At Nab Grange the atmosphere was not cheerful. Not to want a thing by no means implies an admission that you do not want it; that is elementary diplomacy. Rather do you insist that you want it very much; if you do not get it, there is a grievance—and a grievance is a mighty handy article of barter. The Marchesa knew all that.
"She did a thing more disconcerting still."
The deserters were severely lashed. The Marchesa had said that she did not expect Colonel Wenman; ought she to have sent a message to say that she was pining for him—must that be wrung from her before he would condescend to come? She had said that she knew the custom with regard to lunch at cricket matches; was that to say that she expected it to be observed to her manifest and public humiliation? She had told Miss Gilletson and the girls to please themselves; of course she wished them to do that always. Yet it might be a wound to find that their pleasure lay in abandoning their friend and hostess, in consorting with her arch-enemy, and giving him a triumph.
"Well, what do you say about Wilbraham and Stabb?" cried the trampled Colonel.
"I say that they're gentlemen," retorted the Marchesa. "They saw the position I was in—and they saved me from humiliation."
That was enough for the men; men are, after all, poor fighters. It was not, however, enough for Lady Norah Mountliffey—a woman—and an Irishwoman to boot!
"Are you really asking us to believe that you hadn't arranged it with them beforehand?" she inquired scornfully.
"Oh, I don't ask you to believe anything I say," returned the Marchesa, dexterously avoiding saying anything on the point suggested.
"The truth is, you're being very absurd, Helena," Norah pursued. "If you've got a right, go to law with Lord Lynborough and make him respect it. If you haven't got a right, why go on making yourself ridiculous and all the rest of us very uncomfortable?"
It was obvious that the Marchesa might reply that any guest of hers who felt himself or herself uncomfortable at Nab Grange had, in his or her own hand, the easy remedy. She did not do that. She did a thing more disconcerting still. Though the mutton had only just been put on the table, she pushed back her chair, rose to her feet, and fled from the room very hastily.
Miss Gilletson sprang up. But Norah was beforehand with her.
"No! I said it. I'm the one to go. Who could think she'd take it like that?" Norah's own blue eyes were less bright than usual as she hurried after her wounded friend. The rest ate on in dreary conscience-stricken silence. At last Stillford spoke.
"Don't urge her to go to law," he said. "I'm pretty sure she'd be beaten."
"Then she ought to give in—and apologise to Lord Lynborough," said Miss Gilletson decisively. "That would be right—and, I will add, Christian."
"Humble Pie ain't very good eating," commented Captain Irons.
Neither the Marchesa nor Norah came back. The meal wended along its slow and melancholy course to a mirthless weary conclusion. Colonel Wenman began to look on the repose of bachelorhood with a kinder eye, on its loneliness with a more tolerant disposition. He went so far as to remember that, if the worst came to the worst, he had another invitation for the following week.
The Spirit of Discord (The tragic atmosphere now gathering justifies these figures of speech—the chronicler must rise to the occasion of a heroine in tears), having wrought her fell work at Nab Grange, now winged her way to the towers of Scarsmoor Castle.
Dinner had passed off quite as Lynborough anticipated; he had enjoyed himself exceedingly. Whenever the temporary absence of the servants allowed, he had rallied his friends on their susceptibility to beauty, on their readiness to fail him under its lures, on their clumsy attempts at concealment of their growing intimacy, and their confidential relations, with the fascinating mistress of Nab Grange. He too had been told to take his case into the Courts or to drop his claim—and had laughed triumphantly at the advice. He had laughed when Stabb said that he really could not pursue his work in the midst of such distractions, that his mind was too perturbed for scientific thought. He had laughed lightly and good-humouredly even when (as they were left alone over coffee) Roger Wilbraham, going suddenly a little white, said he thought that persecuting a lady was no fit amusement for a gentleman. Lynborough did not suppose that the Marchesa—with the battle of the day at least drawn, if not decided in her favour—could be regarded as the subject of persecution—and he did recognize that young fellows, under certain spells, spoke hotly and were not to be held to serious account. He was smiling still when, with a forced remark about the heat, the pair went out together to smoke on the terrace. He had some letters to read, and for the moment dismissed the matter from his mind.
In ten minutes young Roger Wilbraham returned; his manner was quiet now, but his face still rather pale. He came up to the table by which Lynborough sat.
"Holding the position I do in your house, Lord Lynborough," he said, "I had no right to use the words I used this evening at dinner. I apologise for them. But, on the other hand, I have no wish to hold a position which prevents me from using those words when they represent what I think. I beg you to accept my resignation, and I shall be greatly obliged if you can arrange to relieve me of my duties as soon as possible."
Lynborough heard him without interruption; with grave impassive face, with surprise, pity, and a secret amusement. Even if he were right, he was so solemn over it!
The young man waited for no answer. With the merest indication of a bow, he left Lynborough alone, and passed on into the house.
"Well, now!" said Lord Lynborough, rising and lighting a cigar. "This Marchesa! Well, now!"
Stabb's heavy form came lumbering in from the terrace; he seemed to move more heavily than ever, as though his bulk were even unusually inert. He plumped down into a chair and looked up at Lynborough's graceful figure.
"I meant what I said at dinner, Ambrose. I wasn't joking, though I suppose you thought I was. All this affair may amuse you—it worries me. I can't settle to work. If you'll be so kind as to send me over to Easthorpe to-morrow, I'll be off—back to Oxford."
"Cromlech, old boy!"
"Yes, I know. But I—I don't want to stay, Ambrose. I'm not—comfortable." His great face set in a heavy, disconsolate, wrinkled frown.
Lord Lynborough pursed his lips in a momentary whistle, then put his cigar back into his mouth, and walked out on to the terrace.
"This Marchesa!" said he again. "This very remarkable Marchesa! Her riposte is admirable. Really I venture to hope that I, in my turn, have very seriously disturbed her household!"
He walked to the edge of the terrace, and stood there musing. Sandy Nab loomed up, dimly the sea rose and fell, twinkled and sank into darkness. It talked too—talked to Lynborough with a soft, low, quiet voice; it seemed (to his absurdly whimsical imagination) as though some lovely woman gently stroked his brow and whispered to him. He liked to encourage such freaks of fancy.
Cromlech couldn't go. That was absurd.
And the young fellow? So much a gentleman! Lynborough had liked the terms of his apology no less than the firmness of his protest. "It's the first time, I think, that I've been told that I'm no gentleman," he reflected with amusement. But Roger had been pale when he said it. Imaginatively Lynborough assumed his place. "A brave boy," he said. "And that dear old knight-errant of a Cromlech!"
A space—room indeed and room enough—for the softer emotions—so much Lynborough was ever inclined to allow. But to acquiesce in this state of things as final—that was to admit defeat at the hands of the Marchesa. It was to concede that one day had changed the whole complexion of the fight.
"Cromlech shan't go—the boy shan't go—and I'll still use the path," he thought. "Not that I really care about the path, you know." He paused. "Well, yes, I do care about it—for bathing in the morning." He hardened his heart against the Marchesa. She chose to fight; the fortune of war must be hers. He turned his eyes down to Nab Grange. Lights burned there—were her guests demanding to be sent to Easthorpe? Why, no! As he looked, Lynborough came to the conclusion that she had reduced them all to order—that they would be whipped back to heel—that his manœuvres (and his lunch!) had probably been wasted. He was beaten then?
He scorned the conclusion. But if he were not—the result was deadlock! Then still he was beaten; for unless Helena (he called her that) owned his right, his right was to him as nothing.
"I have made myself a champion of my sex," he said. "Shall I be beaten?"
In that moment—with all the pang of forsaking an old conviction—of disowning that stronger tie, the loved embrace of an ancient and perversely championed prejudice—he declared that any price must be paid for victory.
"Heaven forgive me, but, sooner than be beaten, I'll go to law with her!" he cried.
A face appeared from between two bushes—a voice spoke from the edge of the terrace.
"I thought you might be interested to hear——"
"Yes, it's me—to hear that you've made her cry—and very bitterly."