Helena's Path/Chapter 5
THE BEGINNING OF WAR.
An enviable characteristic of Lord Lynborough's was that, when he had laid the fuse, he could wait patiently for the explosion. (That last word tends to recur in connection with him.) Provided he knew that his adventure and his joke were coming, he occupied the interval profitably—which is to say, as agreeably as he could. Having launched the padlock—his symbolical ultimatum—and asserted his right, he spent the morning in dictating to Roger Wilbraham a full, particular, and veracious account of his early differences with the Dean of Christ Church. Roger found his task entertaining, for Lynborough's mimicry of his distinguished opponent was excellent. Stabb meanwhile was among the tombs in an adjacent apartment.
This studious tranquillity was disturbed by the announcement of a call from Mr. Stillford. Not without difficulty he had persuaded the Marchesa to let him reconnoitre the ground—to try, if it seemed desirable, the effect of a bit of "bluff"—at any rate to discover, if he could, something of the enemy's plan of campaign. Stillford was, in truth, not a little afraid of a lawsuit!
Lynborough denied himself to no man, and received with courtesy every man who came. But his face grew grim and his manner distant when Stillford discounted the favourable effect produced by his appearance and manner—also by his name, well known in the county—by confessing that he called in the capacity of the Marchesa's solicitor.
"A solicitor?" said Lynborough, slightly raising his brows.
"Yes. The Marchesa does me the honour to place her confidence in me; and it occurs to me that, before this unfortunate dispute—"
"Why unfortunate?" interrupted Lynborough with an air of some surprise.
"Surely it is—between neighbours? The Castle and the Grange should be friends." His cunning suggestion elicited no response. "It occurred to me," he continued, somewhat less glibly, "that, before further annoyance or expense was caused, it might be well if I talked matters over with your lordship's solicitor."
"Sir," said Lynborough, "saving your presence—which, I must beg you to remember, was not invited by me—I don't like solicitors. I have no solicitor. I shall never have a solicitor. You can't talk with a non-existent person."
"But proceedings are the natural—the almost inevitable—result of such a situation as your action has created, Lord Lynborough. My client can't be flouted, she can't have her indubitable rights outraged——"
"Do you think they're indubitable?" Lynborough put in, with a sudden quick flash of his eyes.
For an instant Stillford hesitated. Then he made his orthodox reply. "As I am instructed, they certainly are."
"Ah!" said Lynborough dryly.
"No professional man could say more than that, Lord Lynborough."
"And they all say just as much! If I say anything you don't like, again remember that this interview is not of my seeking, Mr. Stillford."
Stillford waxed a trifle sarcastic. "You'll conduct your case in person?" he asked.
"If you hale me to court, I shall. Otherwise there's no question of a case."
This time Stillford's eyes brightened; yet still he doubted Lynborough's meaning.
"We shouldn't hesitate to take our case into court."
"Since you're wrong, you'd probably win," said Lynborough, with a smile. "But I'd make it cost you the devil of a lot of money. That, at least, the law can do—I'm not aware that it can do much else. But as far as I'm concerned, I should as soon appeal to the Pope of Rome in this matter as to a law-court—sooner in fact."
Stillford grew more confidently happy—and more amazed at Lynborough.
"But you've no right to—er—assert rights if you don't intend to support them."
"I do intend to support them, Mr. Stillford. That you'll very soon find out."
"By force?" Stillford himself was gratified by the shocked solemnity which he achieved in this question.
"If so, your side has no prejudice against legal proceedings. Prisons are not strange to me——"
"What?" Stillford was a little startled. He had not heard all the stories about Lord Lynborough.
"I say, prisons are not strange to me. If necessary, I can do a month. I am, however, not altogether a novice in the somewhat degrading art of getting the other man to hit first. Then he goes to prison, doesn't he? Just like the law! As if that had anything to do with the merits!"
Stillford kept his eye on the point valuable to him. "By supporting your claim I intended to convey supporting it by legal action."
"Oh, the cunning of this world, the cunning of this world, Roger!" He flung himself into an armchair, laughing. Stillford was already seated. "Take a cigarette, Mr. Stillford. You want to know whether I'm going to law or not, don't you? Well, I'm not. Is there anything else you want to know? Oh, by the way, we don't abstain from the law because we don't know the law. Permit me—Mr. Stillford, solicitor—Mr. Roger Wilbraham, of the Middle Temple, Esquire, barrister-at-law. Had I known you were coming, Roger should have worn his wig. No, no, we know the law—but we hate it."
Stillford was jubilant at a substantial gain—the appeal to law lay within the Marchesa's choice now; and that was in his view a great advantage. But he was legitimately irritated by Lynborough's sneers at his profession.
"So do most of the people who belong to—the people to whom prisons are not strange, Lord Lynborough."
"Apostles—and so on?" asked Lynborough airily.
"I hardly recognize your lordship as belonging to that—er—er—category."
"That's the worst of it—nobody will," Lynborough admitted candidly. A note of sincere, if whimsical, regret sounded in his voice. "I've been trying for fifteen years. Yet some day I may be known as St. Ambrose!" His tones fell to despondency again. "St. Ambrose the Less, though—yes, I'm afraid the Less. Apostles—even Saints—are much handicapped in these days, Mr. Stillford."
Stillford rose to his feet. "You've no more to say to me, Lord Lynborough?"
"I don't know that I ever had anything to say to you, Mr. Stillford. You must have gathered before now that I intend to use Beach Path."
"My client intends to prevent you."
"Yes?—Well, you're three ablebodied men down there—so my man tells me—you, and the Colonel, and the Captain. And we're three up here. It seems to me fair enough."
"You don't really contemplate settling the matter by personal conflict?" He was half amused, yet genuinely stricken in his habits of thought.
"Entirely a question for your side. We shall use the path." Lynborough cocked his head on one side, looking up at the sturdy lawyer with a mischievous amusement. "I shall harry you, Mr. Stillford—day and night I shall harry you. If you mean to keep me off that path, vigils will be your portion. And you won't succeed."
"I make a last appeal to your lordship. The matter could, I believe, be adjusted on an amicable basis. The Marchesa could be prevailed upon to grant permission——"
"I'd just as soon ask her permission to breathe," interrupted Lynborough.
"Then my mission is at an end."
"I congratulate you."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Well, you've found out the chief thing you wanted to know, haven't you? If you'd asked it point-blank, we should have saved a lot of time. Good-bye, Mr. Stillford. Roger, the bell's in reach of your hand."
"You're pleased to be amused at my expense?" Stillford had grown huffy.
"No—only don't think you've been clever at mine," Lynborough retorted placidly.
So they parted. Lynborough went back to his Dean, Stillford to the Marchesa. Still ruffled in his plumes, feeling that he had been chaffed and had made no adequate reply, yet still happy in the solid, the important fact which he had ascertained, he made his report to his client. He refrained from openly congratulating her on not being challenged to a legal fight; he contented himself with observing that it was convenient to be able to choose her own time to take proceedings.
Lady Norah was with the Marchesa. They both listened attentively and questioned closely. Not the substantial points alone attracted their interest; Stillford was constantly asked—"How did he look when he said that?" He had no other answer than "Oh—well—er—rather queer." He left them, having received directions to rebarricade the gate as solidly and as offensively as possible; a board warning off trespassers was also to be erected.
Although not apt at a description of his interlocutor, yet Stillford seemed to have conveyed an impression.
"I think he must be delightful," said Norah thoughtfully, when the two ladies were left together. "I'm sure he's just the sort of a man I should fall in love with, Helena."
As a rule the Marchesa admired and applauded Norah's candour, praising it for a certain patrician flavour—Norah spoke her mind, let the crowd think what it would! On this occasion she was somehow less pleased; she was even a little startled. She was conscious that any man with whom Norah was gracious enough to fall in love would be subjected to no ordinary assault; the Irish colouring is bad to beat, and Norah had it to perfection; moreover, the aforesaid candour makes matters move ahead.
"After all, it's my path he's trespassing on, Norah," the Marchesa remonstrated.
They both began to laugh. "The wretch is as handsome as—as a god," sighed Helena.
"You've seen him?" eagerly questioned Norah; and the glimpse—that tantalising glimpse—on Sandy Nab was confessed to.
The Marchesa sprang up, clenching her fist. "Norah, I should like to have that man at my feet, and then to trample on him! Oh, it's not only the path! I believe he's laughing at me all the time!"
"He's never seen you. Perhaps if he did he wouldn't laugh. And perhaps you wouldn't trample on him either."
"Ah, but I would!" She tossed her head impatiently. "Well, if you want to meet him. I expect you can do it—on my path to-morrow!"
This talk left the Marchesa vaguely vexed. Her feeling could not be called jealousy; nothing can hardly be jealous of nothing, and even as her acquaintance with Lynborough amounted to nothing, Lady Norah's also was represented by a cipher. But why should Norah want to know him? It was the Marchesa's path—by consequence it was the Marchesa's quarrel. Where did Norah stand in the matter? The Marchesa had perhaps been constructing a little drama. Norah took leave to introduce a new character!
And not Norah alone, as it appeared at dinner. Little Violet Dufaure, whose appealing ways were notoriously successful with the emotionally weaker sex, took her seat at table with a demurely triumphant air. Captain Irons reproached her, with polite gallantry, for having deserted the croquet lawn after tea.
"Oh, I went for a walk to Fillby—through Scarsmoor, you know."
"Through Scarsmoor, Violet?" The Marchesa sounded rather startled again.
"It's a public road, you know, Helena. Isn't it, Mr. Stillford?"
Stillford admitted that it was. "All the same, perhaps the less we go there at the present moment——"
"Oh, but Lord Lynborough asked me to come again and to go wherever I liked—not to keep to the stupid road."
Absolute silence reigned. Violet looked round with a smile which conveyed a general appeal for sympathy; there was, perhaps, special reference to Miss Gilletson as the guardian of propriety, and to the Marchesa as the owner of the disputed path.
"You see, I took Nellie, and the dear always does run away. She ran after a rabbit. I ran after her, of course. The rabbit ran into a hole, and I ran into Lord Lynborough. Helena, he's charming!"
"I'm thoroughly tired of Lord Lynborough," said the Marchesa icily.
"He must have known I was staying with you, I think; but he never so much as mentioned you. He just ignored you—the whole thing, I mean. Wasn't it tactful?"
Tactful it might have been; it did not appear to gratify the Marchesa.
"What a wonderful air there is about a—a grand seigneur!" pursued Violet reflectively. "Such a difference it makes!"
That remark did not gratify any of the gentlemen present; it implied a contrast, although it might not definitely assert one.
"It is such a pity that you've quarrelled about that silly path!"
"Oh! oh! Miss Dufaure!"—"I say come, Miss Dufaure!"—"Er—really, Miss Dufaure!"—these three remonstrances may be distributed indifferently among the three men. They felt that there was a risk of treason in the camp.
The Marchesa assumed her grandest manner; it was mediæval—it was Titianesque.
"She exhibited it to her guests."
"Fortunately, as it seems, Violet, I do not rely on your help to maintain my fights in regard to the path. Pray meet Lord Lynborough as often as you please, but spare me any unnecessary mention of his name."
"I didn't mean any harm. It was all Nellie's fault."
The Marchesa's reply—if such it can be called—was delivered sotto voce, yet was distinctly audible. It was also brief. She said "Nellie!" Nellie was, of course, Miss Dufaure's dog.
Night fell upon an apparently peaceful land. Yet Violet was an absentee from the Marchesa's dressing-room that night, and even between Norah and her hostess the conversation showed a tendency to flag. Norah, for all her courage, dared not mention the name of Lynborough, and Helena most plainly would not. Yet what else was there to talk about? It had come to that point even so early in the war!
Meanwhile, up at Scarsmoor Castle, Lynborough, in exceedingly high spirits, talked to Leonard Stabb.
"Yes, Cromlech," he said, "a pretty girl, a very pretty girl if you like that petite insinuating style. For myself I prefer something a shade more—what shall we call it?"
"Don't care a hang," muttered Stabb.
"A trifle more in the grand manner, perhaps, Cromlech. And she hadn't anything like the complexion. I knew at once that it couldn't be the Marchesa. Do you bathe to-morrow morning?"
"And get my head broken?"
"Just stand still, and let them throw themselves against you, Cromlech. Roger!—Oh, he's gone to bed; stupid thing to do—that! Cromlech, old chap, I'm enjoying myself immensely."
He just touched his old friend's shoulder as he passed by: the caress was almost imperceptible. Stabb turned his broad red face round to him and laughed ponderously.
"Oh, and you understand!" cried Lynborough.
"I have never myself objected to a bit of fun with the girls," said Stabb.
Lynborough sank into a chair murmuring delightedly, "You're priceless, Cromlech!"