Helena's Path/Chapter 9

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CHAPTER IX.

LYNBOROUGH DROPS A CATCH.

"Something has happened!" (So Lynborough records the same evening.) "I don't know precisely what—but I think that the enemy is at last in motion. I'm glad. I was being too successful. I had begun to laugh at her—and that only. I prefer the admixture of another element of emotion. All that ostensibly appears is that I have lost five shillings to Roger. 'You did it?' I asked. 'Certainly,' said Roger. 'I went at my ease and came back at my ease, and——' I interrupted, 'Nobody stopped you?' 'Nobody made any objection,' said Roger. 'You took your time,' says I. 'You were away three hours!' 'The water was very pleasant this afternoon,' says Roger. Hum! I hand over my two half-crowns, which Roger pockets with a most peculiar sort of smile. There that incident appears to end—with a comment from me that the Marchesa's garrison is not very alert. Another smile—not less peculiar—from Roger! Hum!

"Then Cromlech! I trust Cromlech as myself—that is, as far as I can see him. He has no secrets from me—that I know of; I have none from him—which would be at all likely to interest him. Yet, soon after Roger's return, Cromlech goes out! And they had been alone together for some minutes, as I happen to have observed. Cromlech is away an hour and a half! If I were not a man of honour, I would have trained the telescope on to him. I refrained. Where was Cromlech? At the church, he told me. I accept his word—but the church has had a curious effect upon him. Sometimes he is silent, sulky, reflective, embarrassed—constantly rubbing the place where his hair ought to be—not altogether too civil to me either. Anon, sits with a fat happy smile on his face! Has he found a new tomb? No; he'd tell me about a new tomb. What has happened to Cromlech?

"At first sight Violet—the insinuating one—would account for the phenomena. Or Norah's eyes and lashes? Yet I hesitate. Woman, of course, it is, with both of them. Violet might make men pleased with themselves; Norah could make them merry and happy. Yet these two are not so much pleased with themselves—rather they are pleased with events; they are not merry—they are thoughtful. And I think they are resentful. I believe the hostile squadron has weighed anchor. In these great results, achieved so quickly, demanding on my part such an effort in reply, I see the Marchesa's touch! I have my own opinion as to what has happened to Roger and to Cromlech. Well, we shall see—to-morrow is the cricket match!"

"Later. I had closed this record; I was preparing to go to bed (wishing to bathe early to-morrow) when I found that I had forgotten to bring up my book. Coltson had gone to bed—or out—anyhow, away. I went down myself. The library door stood ajar; I had on my slippers; a light burned still; Cromlech and Roger were up. As I approached—with an involuntary noiselessness (I really couldn't be expected to think of coughing in my own house and with no ladies about)—I overheard this remarkable, most significant, most important conversation:

"Cromlech: 'On my soul, there were tears in her eyes!'

"Roger: 'Stabb, can we as gentlemen——?'

"Then, as I presume, the shuffle of my slippers became audible. I went in; both drank whisky-and-soda in a hurried fashion. I took my book from the table. Naught said I. Their confusion was obvious. I cast on them one of my looks; Roger blushed, Stabb shuffled his feet. I left them.

"'Tears in her eyes!' 'Can we as gentlemen——?'

"The Marchesa moves slowly, but she moves in force!"

It is unnecessary to pursue the diary further; for his lordship—forgetful apparently of the bourne of bed, to which he had originally destined himself—launches into a variety of speculations as to the Nature of Love. Among other questions, he puts to himself the following concerning Love: (1) Is it Inevitable? (2) Is it Agreeable? (3) Is it Universal? (4) Is it Wise? (5) Is it Remunerative? (6) Is it Momentary? (7) Is it Sempiternal? (8) Is it Voluntary? (9) Is it Conditioned? (10) Is it Remediable? (11) Is it Religious? (There's a note here—"Consult Cromlech")—(12) May it be expected to survive the Advance of Civilization? (13) Why does it exist at all? (14) Is it Ridiculous?

It is not to be inferred that Lord Lynborough answers these questions. He is, like a wise man, content to propound them. If, however, he had answered them, it might have been worth while to transcribe the diary.

"Can we as gentlemen——?"—Roger had put the question. It waited unanswered till Lynborough had taken his book and returned to record its utterance—together with the speculations to which that utterance gave rise. Stabb weighed it carefully, rubbing his bald head, according to the habit which his friend had animadverted upon.

"If such a glorious creature——" cried Roger.

"If a thoroughly intelligent and most sympathetic woman——" said Stabb.

"Thinks that she has a right, why, she probably has one!"

"At any rate her view is entitled to respect—to a courteous hearing."

"Lynborough does appear to have been a shade—er——"

"Ambrose is a spoiled child, bless him! She took a wonderful interest in my brasses. I don't know what brought her to the church."

"She waited herself to let me through that beastly gate again!"

"She drove me round herself to our gates. Wouldn't come through Scarsmoor!"

They both sighed. They both thought of telling the other something—but on second thoughts refrained.

"I suppose we'd better go to bed. Shall you bathe to-morrow morning?"

"With Ambrose? No, I shan't, Wilbraham."

"No more shall I. Good night, Stabb. You'll—think it over?"

Stabb grunted inarticulately. Roger drew the blind aside for a moment, looked down on Nab Grange, saw a light in one window—and went to bed. The window was, in objective fact (if there be such a thing), Colonel Wenman's. No matter. There nothing is but thinking makes it so. The Colonel was sitting up, writing a persuasive letter to his tailor. He served emotions that he did not feel; it is a not uncommon lot.

Lynborough's passing and repassing to and from his bathing were uninterrupted next morning. Nab Grange seemed wrapped in slumber; only Goodenough saw him, and Goodenough did not think it advisable to interrupt his ordinary avocations. But an air of constraint—even of mystery—marked both Stabb and Roger at breakfast. The cricket match was naturally the topic—though Stabb declared that he took little interest in it and should probably not be there.

"There'll be some lunch, I suppose," said Lynborough carelessly. "You'd better have lunch there—it'd be dull for you all by yourself here, Cromlech."

After apparent consideration Stabb conceded that he might take luncheon on the cricket ground; Roger, as a member of the Fillby team, would, of course, do likewise.

The game was played in a large field, pleasantly surrounded by a belt of trees, and lying behind the Lynborough Arms. Besides Roger and Lynborough, Stillford and Irons represented Fillby. Easthorpe Polytechnic came in full force, save for an umpire. Colonel Wenman, who had walked up with his friends, was pressed into this honourable and responsible service, landlord Dawson officiating at the other end. Lynborough's second gardener, a noted fast bowler, was Fillby's captain; Easthorpe was under the command of a curate who had played several times for his University, although he had not actually achieved his "blue." Easthorpe won the toss and took first innings.

The second gardener, aware of his employer's turn of speed, sent Lord Lynborough to field "in the country." That gentleman was well content; few balls came his way and he was at leisure to contemplate the exterior of the luncheon tent—he had already inspected the interior thereof with sedulous care and high contentment—and to speculate on the probable happenings of the luncheon hour. So engrossed was he that only a rapturous cheer, which rang out from the field and the spectators, apprised him of the fact that the second gardener had yorked the redoubtable curate with the first ball of his second over! Young Woodwell came in; he was known as a mighty hitter; Lynborough was signalled to take his position yet deeper in the field. Young Woodwell immediately got to business—but he kept the ball low. Lynborough had, however, the satisfaction of saving several "boundaries." Roger, keeping wicket, observed his chief's exertions with some satisfaction. Other wickets fell rapidly—but young Woodwell's score rapidly mounted up. If he could stay in, they would make a hundred—and Fillby looked with just apprehension on a score like that. The second gardener, who had given himself a brief rest, took the ball again with an air of determination.

"Peters doesn't seem to remember that I also bowl," reflected Lord Lynborough.

The next moment he was glad of this omission. Young Woodwell was playing for safety now—his fifty loomed ahead! Lynborough had time for a glance round. He saw Stabb saunter on to the field; then—just behind where he stood when the second gardener was bowling from the Lynborough Arms end of the field—a wagonette drove up. Four ladies descended. A bench was placed at their disposal, and the two menservants at once began to make preparations for lunch, aided therein by the ostler from the Lynborough Arms, who rigged up a table on trestles under a spreading tree.

Lord Lynborough's reputation as a sportsman inevitably suffers from this portion of the narrative. Yet extenuating circumstances may fairly be pleaded. He was deeply interested in the four ladies who sat behind him on the bench; he was vitally concerned in the question of the lunch. As he walked back, between the overs, to his position, he could see that places were being set for some half-dozen people. Would there be half-a-dozen there? As he stood, watching, or trying to watch, young Woodwell's dangerous bat, he overheard fragments of conversation wafted from the bench. The ladies were too far from him to allow of their faces being clearly seen, but it was not hard to recognize their figures.

The last man in had joined young Woodwell. That hero's score was forty-eight, the total ninety-three. The second gardener was tempting the Easthorpe champion with an occasional slow ball; up to now young Woodwell had declined to hit at these deceivers.

Suddenly Lynborough heard the ladies' voices quite plainly. They—or some of them—had left the bench and come nearer to the boundary. Irresistibly drawn by curiosity, for an instant he turned his head. At the same instant the second gardener delivered a slow ball—a specious ball. This time young Woodwell fell into the snare. He jumped out and opened his shoulders to it. He hit it—but he hit it into the air. It soared over the bowler's head and came travelling through high heaven toward Lord Lynborough.

"Look out!" cried the second gardener. Lynborough's head spun round again—but his nerves were shaken. His eyes seemed rather in the back of his head, trying to see the Marchesa's face, than fixed on the ball that was coming toward him. He was in no mood for bringing off a safe catch!

Silence reigned, the ball began to drop. Lynborough had an instant to wait for it. He tried to think of the ball and the ball only.

It fell—it fell into his hands; he caught it—fumbled it—caught it—fumbled it again—and at last dropped it on the grass! "Oh!" went in a long-drawn expostulation round the field; and Lynborough heard a voice say plainly:

"Who is that stupid clumsy man?" The voice was the Marchesa's.

He wheeled round sharply—but her back was turned. He had not seen her face after all!

"Over!" was called. Lynborough apologized abjectly to the second gardener.

"The sun was in my eyes, Peters, and dazzled me," he pleaded.

"Looks to me as if the sun was shining the other way, my lord," said Peters dryly. And so, in physical fact, it was.

In Peters' next over Lynborough atoned—for young Woodwell had got his fifty and grown reckless. A one-handed catch, wide on his left side, made the welkin ring with applause. The luncheon-bell rang too—for the innings was finished. Score 101. Last man out 52. Jim (office-boy at Polytechnic) not out 0. Young Woodwell received a merited ovation—and Lord Lynborough hurried to the luncheon tent. The Marchesa, with an exceedingly dignified mien, repaired to her table under the spreading oak.

Mr. Dawson had done himself more than justice; the repast was magnificent. When Stillford and Irons saw it, they became more sure than ever what their duty was, more convinced still that the Marchesa would understand. Colonel Wenman became less sure what his duty was—previously it had appeared to him that it was to lunch with the Marchesa. But the Marchesa had spoken of a few sandwiches and perhaps a bottle of claret. Stillford told him that, as umpire, he ought to lunch with the teams. Irons declared it would look "deuced standoffish" if he didn't. Lynborough, who appeared to act as deputy-landlord to Mr. Dawson, pressed him into a chair with a friendly hand.

"Well, she'll have the ladies with her, won't she?" said the Colonel, his last scruple vanishing before a large jug of hock-cup, artfully iced. The Nab Grange contingent fell to.

Just then—when they were irrevocably committed to this feast—the flap of the tent was drawn back, and Lady Norah's face appeared. Behind her stood Violet and Miss Gilletson. Lynborough ran forward to meet them.

"Here we are, Lord Lynborough," said Norah. "The Marchesa was so kind, she told us to do just as we liked, and we thought it would be such fun to lunch with the cricketers."

"The cricketers are immensely honoured. Let me introduce you to our captain, Mr. Peters. You must sit by him, you know. And, Miss Dufaure, will you sit by Mr. Jeffreys?—he's their captain—Miss Dufaure—Mr. Jeffreys. You, Miss Gilletson, must sit between Mr. Dawson and me. Now we're right—What, Colonel Wenman?—What's the matter?"

Wenman had risen from his place. "The—the Marchesa!" he said. "We—we can't leave her to lunch alone!"

Lady Norah broke in again. "Oh, Helena expressly said that she didn't expect the gentlemen. She knows what the custom is, you see."

The Marchesa had, no doubt, made all these speeches. It may, however, be doubted whether Norah reproduced exactly the manner, and the spirit, in which she made them. But the iced hock-cup settled the Colonel. With a relieved sigh he resumed his place. The business of the moment went on briskly for a quarter of an hour.

Mr. Dawson rose, glass in hand. "Ladies and gentlemen," said he, "I'm no hand at a speech, but I give you the health of our kind neighbour and good host to-day—Lord Lynborough. Here's to his lordship!"

"I—I didn't know he was giving the lunch!" whispered Colonel Wenman.

"Is it his lunch?" said Irons, nudging Stillford.

Stillford laughed. "It looks like it. And we can hardly throw him over the hedge after this!"

"Well, he seems to be a jolly good chap," said Captain Irons.

Lynborough bowed his acknowledgments, and flirted with Miss Gilletson; his face wore a contented smile. Here they all were—and the Marchesa lunched alone on the other side of the field! Here indeed was a new wedge! Here was the isolation at which his diabolical schemes had aimed. He had captured Nab Grange! Bag and baggage they had come over—and left their chieftainess deserted.

Then suddenly—in the midst of his triumph—in the midst too of a certain not ungenerous commiseration which he felt that he could extend to a defeated enemy and to beauty in distress—he became vaguely aware of a gap in his company. Stabb was not there! Yet Stabb had come upon the ground. He searched the company again. No, Stabb was not there. Moreover—a fact the second search revealed—Roger Wilbraham was not there. Roger was certainly not there; yet, whatever Stabb might do, Roger would never miss lunch!

P 309--Windsor mag v26 1907--Helena's Path.jpg

"He caught it—fumbled it—caught it again—fumbled it again."

Lynborough's eyes grew thoughtful; he pursed up his lips. Miss Gilletson noticed that he became silent.

He could bear the suspense no longer. On a pretext of looking for more bottled beer, he rose and walked to the door of the tent.

Under the spreading tree the Marchesa lunched—not in isolation, not in gloom. She had company—and, even as he appeared, a merry peal of laughter was wafted by a favouring breeze across the field of battle. Stabb's ponderous figure, Roger Wilbraham's highly recognizable "blazer," told the truth plainly.

Lord Lynborough was not the only expert in the art of driving wedges!

"Well played, Helena!" he said under his breath.

The rest of the cricket match interested him very little. Successful beyond their expectations, Fillby won by five runs (Wilbraham not out thirty-seven)—but Lynborough's score did not swell the victorious total. In Easthorpe's second innings—which could not affect the result—Peters let him bowl, and he got young Woodwell's wicket. That was a distinction; yet, looking at the day as a whole, he had scored less than he expected.