Helena's Path/Chapter 6
EXERCISE BEFORE BREAKFAST.
"Life—" (The extract is from Lynborough's diary, dated this same fourteenth of June)—"may be considered as a process (Cromlech's view, conducting to the tomb)—a programme (as, I am persuaded, Roger conceives it, marking off each stage thereof with a duly guaranteed stamp of performance)—or as a progress—in which light I myself prefer to envisage it. Process—program—progress; the words, with my above-avowed preference, sound unimpeachably orthodox. Once I had a Bishop ancestor. He crops out.
"Yet I don't mean what he does. I don't believe in growing better in the common sense—that is, in an increasing power to resist what tempts you, to refrain from doing what you want. That ideal seems to me, more and more, to start from the wrong end. No man refrains from doing what he wants to do. In the end the contradiction—the illogicality—is complete. You learn to want more wisely—that's all. Train desire, for you can never chain it.
"I'm engaged here and now on what is to all appearance the most trivial of businesses. I play the spiteful boy—she is an obstinate peevish girl. There are other girls too—one an insinuating tiny minx, who would wheedle a backward glance out of Simon Stylites as he remounted his pillar—and, by the sun in heaven, will get little more from this child of Mother Earth! There's another, I hear—Irish!—And Irish is near my heart. But behind her—set in the uncertain radiance of my imagination—lies her Excellency. Heaven knows why! Save that it is gloriously paradoxical to meet a foreign Excellency in this spot, and to get to most justifiable, most delightful, loggerheads with her immediately. I have conceived Machiavellian devices. I will lure away her friends. I will isolate her, humiliate her, beat her in the fight. There may be some black eyes—some bruised hearts—but I shall do it. Why? I have always been gentle before. But so I feel toward her. And therefore I am afraid. This is the foeman for my steel, I think—I have my doubts but that she'll beat me in the end.
"When I talk like this, Cromlech chuckles, loves me as a show, despises me as a mind. Roger—young Roger Fitz-Archdeacon—is all an incredulous amazement. I don't wonder. There is nothing so small and nothing so great—nothing so primitive and not a thing so complex—nothing so unimportant and so engrossing as this 'duel of the sexes.' A proves it a trifle, and is held great. B reckons it all-supreme, and becomes popular. C (a woman) describes the Hunter Man. D (a man) descants of the Pursuit by Woman. The oldest thing is the most canvassed and the least comprehended. But there's a reputation—and I suppose money—in it for anybody who can string phrases. There's blood-red excitement for everybody who can feel. Yet I've played my part in other affairs—not so much in dull old England, where you work five years to become a Member of Parliament, and five years more in order to get kicked out again—but in places where in a night you rise or fall—in five minutes order the shooting-squad or face it—boil the cook or are stuffed into the pot yourself. (Cromlech, this is not exact scientific statement!) Yet always—everywhere—the woman! And why? On my honour, I don't know. What in the end is she?
"I adjourn the question—and put a broader one. What am I? The human being as such? If I'm a vegetable, am I not a mistake? If I'm an animal, am I not a cruelty? If I'm a soul, am I not misplaced? I'd say 'Yes' to all this, save that I enjoy myself so much. Because I have forty thousand a year? Hardly. I've had nothing, and been as completely out of reach of getting anything as the veriest pauper that ever existed—and yet I've had the deuce of a fine existence the while. I think there's only one solid blunder been made about man—he oughtn't to have been able to think. It wastes time. It makes many people unhappy. That's not my case. I like it. It just wastes time.
"That insinuating minx, possessed of a convenient dog and an ingratiating manner, insinuated to-day that I was handsome. Well, she's pretty, and I suppose we're both better off for it. It is an introduction. But to myself I don't seem very handsome. I have my pride—I look a gentleman. But I look a queer foreign fish. I found myself envying the British robustness of that fine young chap who is so misguided as to be a lawyer.
"Ah, why do I object to lawyers? Tolstoy! I used to say—or, at the risk of advanced intellects not recognizing one's allusions, one could go further back. But that is, in the end, all gammon. Every real conviction springs from personal experience. I hate the law because it interfered with me. I'm not aware of any better reason. So I'm going on without it—unless somebody tries to steal my forty thousand, of course. Ambrose, thou art a humbug—or, more precisely, thou canst not avoid being a human individual!"
Lord Lynborough completed the entry in his diary—he was tolerably well aware that he might just as well not have written it—and cast his eyes toward the window of the library. The stars were bright; a crescent moon decorated, without illuminating, the sky. The regular recurrent beat of the sea on the shore, traversing the interval in night's silence, struck on his ear. "If God knew Time, that might be His clock," said he. "Listen to its inexorable, peaceable, gentle, formidable stroke!"
His sleep that night was short and broken. A fitful excitement was on his spirit: the glory of the summer morning wooed his restlessness. He would take his swim alone, and early. At six o'clock he slipped out of the house and made for Beach Path. The fortified gate was too strong for his unaided efforts. Roger Wilbraham had told him that, if the way were impeded, he had a right to "deviate." He deviated now, lightly vaulting over the four-foot-high stone wall. None was there to hinder him, and, with emotions appropriate to the occasion, he passed Nab Grange and gained the beach. When once he was in the water, the emotions went away.
They were to return—or, at any rate, to be succeeded by their brethren. After he had dressed, he sat down and smoked a cigarette as he regarded the smiling sea. This situation was so agreeable that he prolonged it for full half-an-hour; then a sudden longing for Coltson's coffee came over him. He jumped up briskly and made for the Grange gate.
He had left it open—it was shut now. None had been nigh when he passed through. Now a young woman in a white frock leant her elbows comfortably on its top rail and rested her pretty chin upon her hands. Lady Norah's blue eyes looked at him serenely from beneath black lashes of noticeable length—at any rate Lynborough noticed their length.
Lynborough walked up to the gate. With one hand he removed his hat, with the other he laid a tentative hand on the latch. Norah did not move or even smile.
"I beg your pardon, madam," said Lynborough, "but if it does not incommode you, would you have the great kindness to permit me to open the gate?"
"Oh, I'm sorry; but this is a private path leading to Nab Grange. I suppose you're a stranger in these parts?"
"My name is Lynborough. I live at Scarsmoor there."
"Are you Lord Lynborough?" Norah sounded exceedingly interested. "The Lord Lynborough?"
"There's only one, so far as I'm aware," the owner of the title answered.
"I mean the one who has done all those—those—well, those funny things?"
"I rejoice if the recital of them has caused you any amusement. And now, if you will permit me——"
"Oh, but I can't! Helena would never forgive me. I'm a friend of hers, you know—of the Marchesa di San Servolo. Really you can't come through here."
"Do you think you can stop me?"
"There isn't room for you to get over as long as I stand here—and the wall's too high to climb, isn't it?"
Lynborough studied the wall; it was twice the height of the wall on the other side; it might be possible to scale, but difficult and laborious; nor would he look imposing while struggling at the feat.
"You'll have to go round by the road," remarked Norah, breaking into a smile.
Lynborough was enjoying the conversation just as much as she was—but he wanted two things; one was victory, the other coffee.
"Can't I persuade you to move?" he said imploringly. "I really don't want to have to resort to more startling measures."
"You surely wouldn't use force against a girl, Lord Lynborough!"
"I said startling measures—not violent ones," he reminded her. "Are your nerves good?"
"Excellent, thank you."
"You mean to stand where you are?"
"Yes—till you've gone away." Now she laughed openly at him. Lynborough delighted in the merry sound and the flash of her white teeth.
"It's a splendid morning, isn't it?" he asked. "I should think you stand about five feet five, don't you? By the way, whom have I the pleasure of conversing with?"
"My name is Norah Mountliffey."
"Ah, I knew your father very well." He drew back a few steps. "So you must excuse an old family friend for telling you that you make a charming picture at that gate. If I had a camera—Just as you are, please!" He held up his hand, as though to pose her.
"Am I quite right?" she asked, humouring the joke, with her merry mischievous eyes set on Lynborough's face as she leaned over the top of the gate.
"Quite right. Now, please! Don't move!"
"Oh, I've no intention of moving," laughed Norah mockingly.
She kept her word; perhaps she was too surprised to do anything else. For Lynborough, clapping his hat on firmly, with a dart and a spring flew over her head.
Then she wheeled round—to see him standing two yards from her, his hat in his hand again, bowing apologetically.
"Forgive me for getting between you and the sunshine for a moment," he said. "But I thought I could still do five feet five; and you weren't standing upright either. I've done within an inch of six feet, you know. And now I'm afraid I must reluctantly ask you to excuse me. I thank you for the pleasure of this conversation." He bowed, put on his hat, turned, and began to walk away along Beach Path.
"You got the better of me that time, but you've not done with me yet," she cried, starting after him.
He turned and looked over his shoulder: save for his eyes his face was quite grave. He quickened his pace to a very rapid walk. Norah found that she must run, or fall behind. She began to run. Again that gravely derisory face turned upon her. She blushed, and fell suddenly to wondering whether in running she looked absurd. She fell to a walk. Lynborough seemed to know. Without looking round again, he abated his pace.
"Oh, I can't catch you if you won't stop!" she cried.
"My friend and secretary, Roger Wilbraham, tells me that I have no right to stop," Lynborough explained, looking round again, but not standing still. "I have only the right to pass and repass. I'm repassing now. He's a barrister, and he says that's the law. I daresay it is—but I regret that it prevents me from obliging you, Lady Norah."
"Well, I'm not going to make a fool of myself by running after you," said Norah crossly.
Lynborough walked slowly on; Norah followed; they reached the turn of the path towards the Grange hall door. They reached it—and passed it—both of them. Lynborough turned once more—with a surprised lift of his brows.
"At least I can see you safe off the premises!" laughed Norah, and with a quick dart forward she reduced the distance between them to half a yard. Lynborough seemed to have no objection; proximity made conversation easier; he moved slowly on.
"Flew over her head."
Norah seemed defeated—but suddenly she saw her chance, and hailed it with a cry. The Marchesa's bailiff—John Goodenough—was approaching the path from the house situated at the south-west corner of the meadow. Her cry of his name caught his attention—as well as Lynborough's. The latter walked a little quicker. John Goodenough hurried up. Lynborough walked steadily on.
"Stop him, John!" cried Norah, her eyes sparkling with new excitement. "You know her Excellency's orders? This is Lord Lynborough!"
"His lordship! Aye, it is. I beg your pardon, my lord, but—I'm very sorry to interfere with your lordship, but——"
"You're in my way, Goodenough." For John had got across his path, and barred progress. "Of course I must stand still if you impede my steps, but I do it under protest. I only want to repass."
"Lynborough laid the sturdy fellow on the grass."
"You can't come this way, my lord. I'm sorry, but it's her Excellency's strict orders. You must go back, my lord."
"I am going back—or I was till you stopped me."
"Back to where you came from, my lord."
"I came from Scarsmoor and I'm going back there, Goodenough."
"Where you came from last, my lord."
"No, no, Goodenough. At all events, her Excellency has no right to drive me into the sea." Lynborough's tone was plaintively expostulatory.
"Then if you won't go back, my lord, here we stay!" said John, bewildered but faithfully obstinate.
"Just your tactics!" Lynborough observed to Norah, a keen spectator of the scene. "But I'm not so patient of them from Goodenough."
"I don't know that you were very patient with me."
"Goodenough, if you use sufficient force I shall, of course, be prevented from continuing on my way. Nothing short of that, however, will stop me. And pray take care that the force is sufficient—neither more nor less than sufficient, Goodenough."
"I don't want to use no violence to your lordship. Well now, if I lay my hand on your lordship's shoulder, will that do to satisfy your lordship?"
"I don't know until you try it."
John's face brightened. "I reckon that's the way out. I reckon that's law, my lord. I puts my hand on your lordship's shoulder like that——"
He suited the action to the word. In an instant Lynborough's long lithe arms were round him, Lynborough's supple lean leg twisted about his. Gently, as though he had been a little baby, Lynborough laid the sturdy fellow on the grass.
For all she could do, Norah Mountliffey cried "Bravo!" and clapped her hands. Goodenough sat up, scratched his head, and laughed feebly.
"Force not quite sufficient, Goodenough," cried Lynborough gaily. "Now I repass!"
He lifted his hat to Norah, then waved his hand. In her open impulsive way she kissed hers back to him as he turned away.
By one of those accidents peculiar to tragedy, the Marchesa's maid, performing her toilet at an upper window, saw this nefarious and traitorous deed!
"Swimming—jumping—wrestling! A good morning's exercise! And all before those lazy chaps, Roger and Cromlech, are out of bed!"
So saying, Lord Lynborough vaulted the wall again in high good humour.