LADY SANDGATE, on a morning late in May, entered her drawing-room by the door that opened at the right of that charming retreat as a person coming in faced Bruton Street; and she met there at this moment Mr. Gotch, her butler, who had just appeared in the much wider doorway forming opposite the Bruton Street windows an apartment not less ample, lighted from the back of the house and having its independent connection with the upper floors and the lower. She showed surprise at not immediately finding the visitor to whom she had been called.
“But Mr. Crimble ———?”
“Here he is, my lady.” And he made way for that gentleman, who emerged from the back room; Gotch observing the propriety of a prompt withdrawal.
“I went in for a minute, with your servant’s permission,” Hugh explained, “to see your famous Lawrence — which is splendid; he was so good as to arrange the light.” The young man’s dress was of a form less relaxed than on the occasion of his visit to Dedborough; yet the soft felt hat that he rather restlessly crumpled as he talked marked the limit of his sacrifice to vain appearances.
Lady Sandgate was at once interested in the punctuality of his reported act. “Gotch thinks as much of my grandmother as I do — and even seems to have ended by taking her for his very own.”
“One sees, unmistakably, from her beauty, that you at any rate are of her line,” Hugh allowed himself, not without confidence, the amusement of replying; “and I must make sure of another look at her when I’ve a good deal more time.”
His hostess heard him as with a lapse of hope. “You hadn’t then come for the poor dear?” And then as he obviously hadn’t, but for something quite else: “I thought, from so prompt an interest, that she might be coveted —!” It dropped with a yearning sigh.
“You imagined me sent by some prowling collector?” Hugh asked. “Ah, I shall never do their work — unless to betray them: that I shouldn’t in the least mind! — and I’m here, frankly, at this early hour, to ask your consent to my seeing Lady Grace a moment on a particular business, if she can kindly give me time.”
“You’ve known then of her being with me?”
“I’ve known of her coming to you straight on leaving Dedborough,” he explained; “of her wishing not to go to her sister’s, and of Lord Theign’s having proceeded, as they say, or being on the point of proceeding, to some foreign part.”
“And you’ve learnt it from having seen her — these three or four weeks?”
“I’ve met her — but just barely — two or three times: at a ‘private view’ at the opera, in the lobby, and that sort of thing. But she hasn’t told you?”
Lady Sandgate neither affirmed nor denied; she only turned on him her thick lustre. “I wanted to see how much you’d tell.” She waited even as for more, but this not coming she helped herself. “Once again at dinner?”
“Yes, but alas not near her!”
“Once then at a private view? — when, with the squash they usually are, you might have been very near her indeed!”
The young man, his hilarity quickened, took but a moment for the truth. “Yes — it was a squash!”
“And once,” his hostess pursued, “in the lobby of the opera?”
“After ‘Tristan’— yes; but with some awful grand people I didn’t know.”
She recognised; she estimated the grandeur. “Oh, the Pennimans are nobody! But now,” she asked, “you’ve come, you say, on ‘business’?”
“Very important, please — which accounts for the hour I’ve ventured and the appearance I present.”
“I don’t ask you too much to ‘account,’” Lady Sandgate kindly said; “but I can’t not wonder if she hasn’t told you what things have happened.”
He cast about. “She has had no chance to tell me anything — beyond the fact of her being here.”
“Without the reason?”
“‘The reason’?” he echoed.
She gave it up, going straighter. “She’s with me then as an old firm friend. Under my care and protection.”
“I see”— he took it, with more penetration than enthusiasm, as a hint in respect to himself. “She puts you on your guard.”
Lady Sandgate expressed it more graciously. “She puts me on my honour — or at least her father does.”
“As to her seeing me”
“As to my seeing at least — what may happen to her.”
“Because — you say — things have happened?”
His companion fairly sounded him. “You’ve only talked — when you’ve met — of ‘art’?”
“Well,” he smiled, “‘art is long’!”
“Then I hope it may see you through! But you should know first that Lord Theign is presently due —”
“Here, back already from abroad?”— he was all alert.
“He has not yet gone — he comes up this morning to start.”
“And stops here on his way?”
“To take the train de luxe this afternoon to his annual Salsomaggiore. But with so little time to spare,” she went on reassuringly, “that, to simplify — as he wired me an hour ago from Dedborough — he has given rendezvous here to Mr. Bender, who is particularly to wait for him.”
“And who may therefore arrive at any moment?”
She looked at her bracelet watch. “Scarcely before noon. So you’ll just have your chance —”
“Thank the powers then!”— Hugh grasped at it. “I shall have it best if you’ll be so good as to tell me first — well,” he faltered, “what it is that, to my great disquiet, you’ve further alluded to; what it is that has occurred.”
Lady Sandgate took her time, but her good-nature and other sentiments pronounced. “Haven’t you at least guessed that she has fallen under her father’s extreme reprobation?”
“Yes, so much as that — that she must have greatly annoyed him — I have been supposing. But isn’t it by her having asked me to act for her? I mean about the Mantovano — which I have done.”
Lady Sandgate wondered. “You’ve ‘acted’?”
“It’s what I’ve come to tell her at last — and I’m all impatience.”
“I see, I see”— she had caught a clue. “He hated that — yes; but you haven’t really made out,” she put to him, “the other effect of your hour at Dedborough?” She recognised, however, while she spoke, that his divination had failed, and she didn’t trouble him to confess it. “Directly you had gone she ‘turned down’ Lord John. Declined, I mean, the offer of his hand in marriage.”
Hugh was clearly as much mystified as anything else. “He proposed there —?”
“He had spoken, that day, before — before your talk with Lord Theign, who had every confidence in her accepting him. But you came, Mr. Crimble, you went; and when her suitor reappeared, just after you had gone, for his answer —”
“She wouldn’t have him?” Hugh asked with a precipitation of interest.
But Lady Sandgate could humour almost any curiosity. “She wouldn’t look at him.”
He bethought himself. “But had she said she would?”
“So her father indignantly considers.”
“That’s the ground of his indignation?”
“He had his reasons for counting on her, and it has determined a painful crisis.”
Hugh Crimble turned this over — feeling apparently for something he didn’t find. “I’m sorry to hear such things, but where’s the connection with me?”
“Ah, you know best yourself, and if you don’t see any ——!” In that case, Lady Sandgate’s motion implied, she washed her hands of it.
Hugh had for a moment the air of a young man treated to the sweet chance to guess a conundrum — which he gave up. “I really don’t see any, Lady Sandgate. But,” he a little inconsistently said, “I’m greatly obliged to you for telling me.”
“Don’t mention it! — though I think it is good of me,” she smiled, “on so short an acquaintance.” To which she added more gravely: “I leave you the situation — but I’m willing to let you know that I’m all on Grace’s side.”
“So am I, rather! — please let me frankly say.”
He clearly refreshed, he even almost charmed her. “It’s the very least you can say! — though I’m not sure whether you say it as the simplest or as the very subtlest of men. But in case you don’t know as I do how little the particular candidate I’ve named ——”
“Had a right or a claim to succeed with her?” he broke in-all quick intelligence here at least. “No, I don’t perhaps know as well as you do — but I think I know as well as I just yet require.”
“There you are then! And if you did prevent,” his hostess maturely pursued, “what wouldn’t have been — well, good or nice, I’m quite on your side too.”
Our young man seemed to feel the shade of ambiguity, but he reached at a meaning. “You’re with me in my plea for our defending at any cost of effort or ingenuity —”
“The precious picture Lord Theign exposes?”— she took his presumed sense faster than he had taken hers. But she hung fire a moment with her reply to it. “Well, will you keep the secret of everything I’ve said or say?”
“To the death, to the stake, Lady Sandgate!”
“Then,” she momentously returned, “I only want, too, to make Bender impossible. If you ask me,” she pursued, “how I arrange that with my deep loyalty to Lord Theign ——”
“I don’t ask you anything of the sort,” he interrupted —“I wouldn’t ask you for the world; and my own bright plan for achieving the coup you mention ———”
“You’ll have time, at the most,” she said, consulting afresh her bracelet watch, “to explain to Lady Grace.” She reached an electric bell, which she touched — facing then her visitor again with an abrupt and slightly embarrassed change of tone. “You do think my great portrait splendid?”
He had strayed far from it and all too languidly came back. “Your Lawrence there? As I said, magnificent.”
But the butler had come in, interrupting, straight from the lobby; of whom she made her request. “Let her ladyship know — Mr. Crimble.”
Gotch looked hard at Hugh and the crumpled hat — almost as if having an option. But he resigned himself to repeating, with a distinctness that scarce fell short of the invidious, “Mr. Crimble,” and departed on his errand.
Lady Sandgate’s fair flush of diplomacy had meanwhile not faded. “Couldn’t you, with your immense cleverness and power, get the Government to do something?”
“About your picture?” Hugh betrayed on this head a graceless detachment. “You too then want to sell?”
Oh she righted herself. “Never to a private party!”
“Mr. Bender’s not after it?” he asked — though scarce lighting his reluctant interest with a forced smile.
“Most intensely after it. But never,” cried the proprietress, “to a bloated alien!”
“Then I applaud your patriotism. Only why not,” he asked, “carrying that magnanimity a little further, set us all an example as splendid as the object itself?”
“Give it you for nothing?” She threw up shocked hands. “Because I’m an aged female pauper and can’t make every sacrifice.”
Hugh pretended — none too convincingly — to think. “Will you let them have it very cheap?”
“Yes — for less than such a bribe as Bender’s.”
“Ah,” he said expressively, “that might be, and still ——!”
“Well,” she had a flare of fond confidence. “I’ll find out what he’ll offer — if you’ll on your side do what you can — and then ask them a third less.” And she followed it up — as if suddenly conceiving him a prig. “See here, Mr. Crimble, I’ve been — and this very first time I— charming to you.”
“You have indeed,” he returned; “but you throw back on it a lurid light if it has all been for that!”
“It has been — well, to keep things as I want them; and if I’ve given you precious information mightn’t you on your side —”
“Estimate its value in cash?”— Hugh sharply took her up. “Ah, Lady Sandgate, I am in your debt, but if you really bargain for your precious information I’d rather we assume that I haven’t enjoyed it.”
She made him, however, in reply, a sign for silence; she had heard Lady Grace enter the other room from the back landing, and, reaching the nearer door, she disposed of the question with high gay bravery. “I won’t bargain with the Treasury!”— she had passed out by the time Lady Grace arrived.
As Hugh recognised in this friend’s entrance and face the light of welcome he went, full of his subject, straight to their main affair. “I haven’t been able to wait, I’ve wanted so much to tell you — I mean how I’ve just come back from Brussels, where I saw Pappen-dick, who was free and ready, by the happiest chance, to start for Verona, which he must have reached some time yesterday.”
The girl’s responsive interest fairly broke into rapture. “Ah, the dear sweet thing!”
“Yes, he’s a brick — but the question now hangs in the balance. Allowing him time to have got into relation with the picture, I’ve begun to expect his wire, which will probably come to my club; but my fidget, while I wait, has driven me”— he threw out and dropped his arms in expression of his soft surrender —“well, just to do this: to come to you here, in my fever, at an unnatural hour and uninvited, and at least let you know I’ve ‘acted.’”
“Oh, but I simply rejoice,” Lady Grace declared, “to be acting with you.”
“Then if you are, if you are,” the young man cried, “why everything’s beautiful and right!”
“It’s all I care for and think of now,” she went on in her bright devotion, “and I’ve only wondered and hoped!”
Well, Hugh found for it all a rapid, abundant lucidity. “He was away from home at first, and I had to wait — but I crossed last week, found him and settled incoming home by Paris, where I had a grand four days’ jaw with the fellows there and saw their great specimen of our master: all of which has given him time.”
“And now his time’s up?” the girl eagerly asked.
“It must be-and we shall see.” But Hugh postponed that question to a matter of more moment still. “The thing is that at last I’m able to tell you how I feel the trouble I’ve brought you.”
It made her, quickly colouring, rest grave eyes on him. “What do you know — when I haven’t told you — about my ‘trouble’?”
“Can’t I have guessed, with a ray of intelligence?”— he had his answer ready. “You’ve sought asylum with this good friend from the effects of your father’s resentment.”
“‘Sought asylum’ is perhaps excessive,” Lady Grace returned —“though it wasn’t pleasant with him after that hour, no,” she allowed. “And I couldn’t go, you see, to Kitty.”
“No indeed, you couldn’t go to Kitty.” He smiled at her hard as he added: “I should have liked to see you go to Kitty! Therefore exactly is it that I’ve set you adrift — that I’ve darkened and poisoned your days. You’re paying with your comfort, with your peace, for having joined so gallantly in my grand remonstrance.”
She shook her head, turning from him, but then turned back again — as if accepting, as if even relieved by, this version of the prime cause of her state. “Why do you talk of it as ‘paying’— if it’s all to come back to my being paid? I mean by your blest success — if you really do what you want.”
“I have your word for it,” he searchingly said, “that our really pulling it off together will make up to you ——?”
“I should be ashamed if it didn’t, for everything!”— she took the question from his mouth. “I believe in such a cause exactly as you do — and found a lesson, at Dedborough, in your frankness and your faith.”
“Then you’ll help me no end,” he said all simply and sincerely.
“You’ve helped me already”— that she gave him straight back. And on it they stayed a moment, their strenuous faces more intensely communing.
“You’re very wonderful — for a girl!” Hugh brought out.
“One has to be a girl, naturally, to be a daughter of one’s house,” she laughed; “and that’s all I am of ours — but a true and a right and a straight one.”
He glowed with his admiration. “You’re splendid!”
That might be or not, her light shrug intimated; she gave it, at any rate, the go-by and more exactly stated her case. “I see our situation.”
“So do I, Lady Grace!” he cried with the strongest emphasis. “And your father only doesn’t.”
“Yes,” she said for intelligent correction —“he sees it, there’s nothing in life he sees so much. But unfortunately he sees it all wrong.”
Hugh seized her point of view as if there had been nothing of her that he wouldn’t have seized. “He sees it all wrong then! My appeal the other day he took as a rude protest. And any protest ——”
“Any protest,” she quickly and fully agreed, “he takes as an offence, yes. It’s his theory that he still has rights,” she smiled, “though he is a miserable peer.”
“How should he not have rights,” said Hugh, “when he has really everything on earth?”
“Ah, he doesn’t even know that — he takes it so much for granted.” And she sought, though as rather sadly and despairingly, to explain. “He lives all in his own world.”
“He lives all in his own, yes; but he does business all in ours — quite as much as the people who come up to the city in the Tube.” With which Hugh had a still sharper recall of the stiff actual. “And he must be here to do business today.”
“You know,” Lady Grace asked, “that he’s to meet Mr. Bender?”
“Lady Sandgate kindly warned me, and,” her companion saw as he glanced at the clock on the chimney, “I’ve only ten minutes, at best. The ‘Journal’ won’t have been good for him,” he added —“you doubtless have seen the ‘Journal’?”
“No”— she was vague. “We live by the ‘Morning Post.’”
“That’s why our friend here didn’t speak then,” Hugh said with a better light —“which, out of a dim consideration for her, I didn’t do, either. But they’ve a leader this morning about Lady Lappington and her Longhi, and on Bender and his hauls, and on the certainty — if we don’t do something energetic — of more and more Benders to come: such a conquering horde as invaded the old civilisation, only armed now with huge cheque-books instead of with spears and battle-axes. They refer to the rumour current — as too horrific to believe — of Lord Theign’s putting up his Moretto; with the question of how properly to qualify any such sad purpose in him should the further report prove true of a new and momentous opinion about the picture entertained by several eminent authorities.”
“Of whom,” said the girl, intensely attached to this recital, “you’re of course seen as not the least.”
“Of whom, of course, Lady Grace, I’m as yet — however I’m ‘seen’— the whole collection. But we’ve time”— he rested on that “The fat, if you’ll allow me the expression, is on the fire — which, as I see the matter, is where this particular fat should be.”
“Is the article, then,” his companion appealed, “very severe?”
“I prefer to call it very enlightened and very intelligent — and the great thing is that it immensely ‘marks,’ as they say. It will have made a big public difference — from this day; though it’s of course aimed not so much at persons as at conditions; which it calls upon us all somehow to tackle.”
“Exactly”— she was full of the saving vision; “but as the conditions are directly embodied in persons ——”
“Oh, of course it here and there bells the cat; which means that it bells three or four.”
“Yes,” she richly brooded —“Lady Lappington is a cat!”
“She will have been ‘belled,’ at any rate, with your father,” Hugh amusedly went on, “to the certainty of a row; and a row can only be good for us — I mean for us in particular.” Yet he had to bethink himself. “The case depends a good deal of course on how your father takes such a resounding rap.”
“Oh, I know how he’ll take it!”— her perception went all the way.
“In the very highest and properest spirit?”
“Well, you’ll see.” She was as brave as she was clear. “Or at least I shall!”
Struck with all this in her he renewed his homage. “You are, yes, splendid!”
“I even,” she laughed, “surprise myself.”
But he was already back at his calculations. “How early do the papers get to you?”
“At Dedborough? Oh, quite for breakfast — which isn’t, however, very early.”
“Then that’s what has caused his wire to Bender.”
“But how will such talk strike him?” the girl asked.
Hugh meanwhile, visibly, had not only followed his train of thought, he had let it lead him to certainty. “It will have moved Mr. Bender to absolute rapture.”
“Rather,” Lady Grace wondered, “than have put him off?”
“It will have put him prodigiously on! Mr. Bender — as he said to me at Dedborough of his noble host there,” Hugh pursued —“is ‘a very nice man’; but he’s a product of the world of advertisment, and advertisement is all he sees and aims at. He lives in it as a saint in glory or a fish in water.”
She took it from him as half doubting. “But mayn’t advertisement, in so special a case, turn, on the whole, against him?”
Hugh shook a negative forefinger with an expression he might have caught from foreign comrades. “He rides the biggest whirlwind — he has got it saddled and bitted.”
She faced the image, but cast about “Then where does our success come in?”
“In our making the beast, all the same, bolt with him and throw him.” And Hugh further pointed the moral. “If in such proceedings all he knows is publicity the thing is to give him publicity, and it’s only a question of giving him enough. By the time he has enough for himself, you see, he’ll have too much for every one else — so that we shall ‘up’ in a body and slay him.”
The girl’s eyebrows, in her wondering face, rose to a question. “But if he has meanwhile got the picture?”
“We’ll slay him before he gets it!” He revelled in the breadth of his view. “Our own policy must be to organise to that end the inevitable outcry. Organise Bender himself — organise him to scandal.” Hugh had already even pity to spare for their victim. “He won’t know it from a boom.”
Though carried along, however, Lady Grace could still measure. “But that will be only if he wants and decides for the picture.”
“We must make him then want and decide for it — decide, that is, for ‘ours.’ To save it we must work him up — he’ll in that case want it so indecently much. Then we shall have to want it more!”
“Well,” she anxiously felt it her duty to remind him, “you can take a horse to water ——!”
“Oh, trust me to make him drink!”
There appeared a note in this that convinced her. “It’s you, Mr. Crimble, who are ‘splendid’!”
“Well, I shall be-with my jolly wire!” And all on that scent again, “May I come back to you from the club with Pappendick’s news?” he asked.
“Why, rather, of course, come back!”
“Only not,” he debated, “till your father has left.”
Lady Grace considered too, but sharply decided. “Come when you have it. But tell me first,” she added, “one thing.” She hung fire a little while he waited, but she brought it out. “Was it you who got the ‘Journal’ to speak?”
“Ah, one scarcely ‘gets’ the ‘Journal’!”
“Who then gave them their ‘tip’?”
“About the Mantovano and its peril?” Well, he took a moment — but only not to say; in addition to which the butler had reappeared, entering from the lobby. “I’ll tell you,” he laughed, “when I come back!”
Gotch had his manner of announcement while the visitor was mounting the stairs. “Mr. Breckenridge Bender!”
“Ah then I go,” said Lady Grace at once.
“I’ll stay three minutes.” Hugh turned with her, alertly, to the easier issue, signalling hope and cheer from that threshold as he watched her disappear; after which he faced about with as brave a smile and as ready for immediate action as if she had there within kissed her hand to him. Mr. Bender emerged at the same instant, Gotch withdrawing and closing the door behind him; and the former personage, recognising his young friend, threw up his hands for friendly pleasure.
“Ah, Mr. Crimble,” he cordially inquired, “you’ve come with your great news?”
Hugh caught the allusion, it would have seemed, but after a moment. “News of the Moretto? No, Mr. Bender, I haven’t news yet.” But he added as with high candour for the visitor’s motion of disappointment: “I think I warned you, you know, that it would take three or four weeks.”
“Well, in my country,” Mr. Bender returned with disgust, “it would take three or four minutes! Can’t you make ’em step more lively?”
“I’m expecting, sir,” said Hugh good-humouredly, “a report from hour to hour.”
“Then will you let me have it right off?”
Hugh indulged in a pause; after which very frankly: “Ah, it’s scarcely for you, Mr. Bender, that I’m acting!”
The great collector was but briefly checked. “Well, can’t you just act for Art?”
“Oh, you’re doing that yourself so powerfully,” Hugh laughed, “that I think I had best leave it to you!”
His friend looked at him as some inspector on circuit might look at a new improvement. “Don’t you want to go round acting with me?”
“Go ‘on tour,’ as it were? Oh, frankly, Mr. Bender,” Hugh said, “if I had any weight ——!”
“You’d add it to your end of the beam? Why, what have I done that you should go back on me — after working me up so down there? The worst I’ve done,” Mr. Bender continued, “is to refuse that Moretto.”
“Has it deplorably been offered you?” our young man cried, unmistakably and sincerely affected. After which he went on, as his fellow-visitor only eyed him hard, not, on second thoughts, giving the owner of the great work away: “Then why are you — as if you were a banished Romeo — so keen for news from Verona?” To this odd mixture of business and literature Mr. Bender made no reply, contenting himself with but a large vague blandness that wore in him somehow the mark of tested utility; so that Hugh put him another question: “Aren’t you here, sir, on the chance of the Mantovano?”
“I’m here,” he then imperturbably said, “because Lord Theign has wired me to meet him. Ain’t you here for that yourself?”
Hugh betrayed for a moment his enjoyment of a “big” choice of answers. “Dear, no! I’ve but been in, by Lady Sandgate’s leave, to see that grand Lawrence.”
“Ah yes, she’s very kind about it — one does go ‘in.’” After which Mr. Bender had, even in the atmosphere of his danger, a throb of curiosity. “Is any one after that grand Lawrence?”
“Oh, I hope not,” Hugh laughed, “unless you again dreadfully are: wonderful thing as it is and so just in its right place there.”
“You call it,” Mr. Bender impartially inquired, “a very wonderful thing?”
“Well, as a Lawrence, it has quite bowled me over”— Hugh spoke as for the strictly aesthetic awkwardness of that. “But you know I take my pictures hard.” He gave a punch to his hat, pressed for time in this connection as he was glad truly to appear to his friend. “I must make my little rapport.” Yet before it he did seek briefly to explain. “We’re a band of young men who care — and we watch the great things. Also — for I must give you the real truth about myself — we watch the great people.”
“Well, I guess I’m used to being watched — if that’s the worst you can do.” To which Mr. Bender added in his homely way: “But you know, Mr. Crimble, what I’m really after.”
Hugh’s strategy on this would again have peeped out for us. “The man in this morning’s ‘Journal’ appears at least to have discovered.”
“Yes, the man in this morning’s ‘Journal’ has discovered three or four weeks — as it appears to take you here for everything — after my beginning to talk. Why, they knew I was talking that time ago on the other side.”
“Oh, they know things in the States,” Hugh cheerfully agreed, “so independently of their happening! But you must have talked loud.”
“Well, I haven’t so much talked as raved,” Mr. Bender conceded —“for I’m afraid that when I do want a thing I rave till I get it. You heard me at Ded-borough, and your enterprising daily press has at last caught the echo.”
“Then they’ll make up for lost time! But have you done it,” Hugh asked, “to prepare an alibi?”
“By ‘raving,’ as you say, the saddle on the wrong horse. I don’t think you at all believe you’ll get the Sir Joshua — but meanwhile we shall have cleared up the question of the Moretto.”
Mr. Bender, imperturbable, didn’t speak till he had done justice to this picture of his subtlety. “Then, why on earth do you want to boom the Moretto?”
“You ask that,” said Hugh, “because it’s the boomed thing that’s most in peril.”
“Well, it’s the big, the bigger, the biggest things, and if you drag their value to the light why shouldn’t we want to grab them and carry them off — the same as all of you originally did?”
“Ah, not quite the same,” Hugh smiled —“that I will say for you!”
“Yes, you stick it on now — you have got an eye for the rise in values. But I grant you your unearned increment, and you ought to be mighty glad that, to such a time, I’ll pay it you.”
Our young man kept, during a moment’s thought, his eyes on his companion, and then resumed with all intensity and candour: “You may easily, Mr. Bender, be too much for me — as you appear too much for far greater people. But may I ask you, very earnestly, for your word on this, as to any case in which that happens — that when precious things, things we are to lose here, are knocked down to you, you’ll let us at least take leave of them, let us have a sight of them in London, before they’re borne off?”
Mr. Bender’s big face fell almost with a crash. “Hand them over, you mean, to the sandwich men on Bond Street?”
“To one or other of the placard and poster men — I don’t insist on the inserted human slice! Let the great values, as a compensation to us, be on view for three or four weeks.”
“You ask me,” Mr. Bender returned, “for a general assurance to that effect?”
“Well, a particular one — so it be particular enough,” Hugh said —“will do just for now. Let me put in my plea for the issue — well, of the value that’s actually in the scales.”
Mr. Bender carnivorously smiled. “Hadn’t we better know which it is first?”
Hugh had a motion of practical indifference for this. “The public interest — playing so straight on the question — may help to settle it. By which I mean that it will profit enormously — the question of probability, of identity itself will — by the discussion it will create. The discussion will promote certainty ——”
“And certainty,” Mr. Bender massively mused, “will kick up a row.”
“Of course it will kick up a row!”— Hugh thoroughly guaranteed that. “You’ll be, for the month, the best-abused man in England — if you venture to remain here at all; except, naturally, poor Lord Theign.”
“Whom it won’t be my interest, at the same time, to worry into backing down.”
“But whom it will be exceedingly mine to practise on”— and Hugh laughed as at the fun before them —“if I may entertain the sweet hope of success. The only thing is — from my point of view,” he went on —“that backing down before what he will call vulgar clamour isn’t in the least in his traditions, nothing less so; and that if there should be really too much of it for his taste or his nerves he’ll set his handsome face as a stone and never budge an inch. But at least again what I appeal to you for will have taken place — the picture will have been seen by a lot of people who’ll care.”
“It will have been seen,” Mr. Bender amended —“on the mere contingency of my acquisition of it — only if its present owner consents.”
“‘Consents’?” Hugh almost derisively echoed; “why, he’ll propose it himself, he’ll insist on it, he’ll put it through, once he’s angry enough — as angry, I mean, as almost any public criticism of a personal act of his will be sure to make him; and I’m afraid the striking criticism, or at least animadversion, of this morning, will have blown on his flame of bravado.”
Inevitably a student of character, Mr. Bender rose to the occasion. “Yes, I guess he’s pretty mad.”
“They’ve imputed to him”— Hugh but wanted to abound in that sense —“an intention of which after all he isn’t guilty.”
“So that”— his listener glowed with interested optimism —“if they don’t look out, if they impute it to him again, I guess he’ll just go and be guilty!”
Hugh might at this moment have shown to an initiated eye as fairly elated by the sense of producing something of the effect he had hoped. “You entertain the fond vision of lashing them up to that mistake, oh fisher in troubled waters?” And then with a finer art, as his companion, expansively bright but crudely acute, eyed him in turn as if to sound him: “The strongest thing in such a type — one does make out — is his resentment of a liberty taken; and the most natural furthermore is quite that he should feel almost anything you do take uninvited from the groaning board of his banquet of life to be such a liberty.”
Mr. Bender participated thus at his perceptive ease in the exposed aristocratic illusion. “Yes, I guess he has always lived as he likes, the way those of you who have got things fixed for them do, over here; and to have to quit it on account of unpleasant remark —”
But he gave up thoughtfully trying to express what this must be; reduced to the mere synthetic interjection “My!”
“That’s it, Mr. Bender,” Hugh said for the consecration of such a moral; “he won’t quit it without a hard struggle.”
Mr. Bender hereupon at last gave himself quite gaily away as to his high calculation of impunity. “Well, I guess he won’t struggle too hard for me to hold on to him if I want to!”
“In the thick of the conflict then, however that may be,” Hugh returned, “don’t forget what I’ve urged on you — the claim of our desolate country.”
But his friend had an answer to this. “My natural interest, Mr. Crimble — considering what I do for it — is in the claim of ours. But I wish you were on my side!”
“Not so much,” Hugh hungrily and truthfully laughed, “as I wish you were on mine!” Decidedly, none the less, he had to go. “Good-bye — for another look here!”
He reached the doorway of the second room, where, however, his companion, freshly alert at this, stayed him by a gesture. “How much is she really worth?”
“‘She’?” Hugh, staring a moment, was miles at sea. “Lady Sandgate?”
A responsible answer was prevented — the butler was again with them; he had opened wide the other door and he named to Mr. Bender the personage under his convoy. “Lord John!”
Hugh caught this from the inner threshold, and it gave him his escape. “Oh, ask that friend!” With which he sought the further passage to the staircase and street, while Lord John arrived in charge of Mr. Gotch, who, having remarked to the two occupants of the front drawing-room that her ladyship would come, left them together.
“Then Theign’s not yet here!” Lord John had to resign himself as he greeted his American ally. “But he told me I should find you.”
“He has kept me waiting,” that gentleman returned —“but what’s the matter with him anyway?”
“The matter with him”— Lord John treated such ignorance as irritating —“must of course be this beastly thing in the ‘Journal.’”
Mr. Bender proclaimed, on the other hand, his incapacity to seize such connections. “What’s the matter with the beastly thing?”
“Why, aren’t you aware that the stiffest bit of it is a regular dig at you?”
“If you call that a regular dig you can’t have had much experience of the Papers. I’ve known them to dig much deeper.”
“I’ve had no experience of such horrid attacks, thank goodness; but do you mean to say,” asked Lord John with the surprise of his own delicacy, “that you don’t unpleasantly feel it?”
“Feel it where, my dear sir?”
“Why, God bless me, such impertinence, everywhere!”
“All over me at once?”— Mr. Bender took refuge in easy humour. “Well, I’m a large man — so when I want to feel so much I look out for something good. But what, if he suffers from the blot on his ermine — ain’t that what you wear? — does our friend propose to do about it?”
Lord John had a demur, which was immediately followed by the apprehension of support in his uncertainty. Lady Sandgate was before them, having reached them through the other room, and to her he at once referred the question. “What will Theign propose, do you think, Lady Sandgate, to do about it?”
She breathed both her hospitality and her vagueness. “To ‘do’——?”
“Don’t you know about the thing in the ‘Journal’— awfully offensive all round?”
“There’d be even a little pinch for you in it,” Mr. Bender said to her —“if you were bent on fitting the shoe!”
Well, she met it all as gaily as was compatible with a firm look at her elder guest while she took her place with them. “Oh, the shoes of such monsters as that are much too big for poor me!” But she was more specific for Lord John. “I know only what Grace has just told me; but since it’s a question of footgear dear Theign will certainly — what you may call — take his stand!”
Lord John welcomed this assurance. “If I know him he’ll take it splendidly!”
Mr. Bender’s attention was genial, though rather more detached. “And what — while he’s about it — will he take it particularly on?”
“Oh, we’ve plenty of things, thank heaven,” said Lady Sandgate, “for a man in Theign’s position to hold fast by!”
Lord John freely confirmed it. “Scores and scores — rather! And I will say for us that, with the rotten way things seem going, the fact may soon become a real convenience.”
Mr. Bender seemed struck — and not unsympathetic. “I see that your system would be rather a fraud if you hadn’t pretty well fixed that!”
Lady Sandgate spoke as one at present none the less substantially warned and convinced. “It doesn’t, however, alter the fact that we’ve thus in our ears the first growl of an outcry.”
“Ah,” Lord John concurred, “we’ve unmistakably the first growl of an outcry!”
Mr. Bender’s judgment on the matter paused at sight of Lord Theign, introduced and announced, as Lord John spoke, by Gotch; but with the result of his addressing directly the person so presenting himself. “Why, they tell me that what this means, Lord Theign, is the first growl of an outcry!”
The appearance of the most eminent figure in the group might have been held in itself to testify to some such truth; in the sense at least that a certain conscious radiance, a gathered light of battle in his lordship’s aspect would have been explained by his having taken the full measure — an inner success with which he glowed — of some high provocation. He was flushed, but he bore it as the ensign of his house; he was so admirably, vividly dressed, for the morning hour and for his journey, that he shone as with the armour of a knight; and the whole effect of him, from head to foot, with every jerk of his unconcern and every flash of his ease, was to call attention to his being utterly unshaken and knowing perfectly what he was about. It was at this happy pitch that he replied to the prime upsetter of his peace.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what anything means to you, Mr. Bender — but it’s exactly to find out that I’ve asked you, with our friend John, kindly to meet me here. For a very brief conference, dear lady, by your good leave,” he went on to Lady Sandgate; “at which I’m only too pleased that you yourself should assist. The ‘first growl’ of any outcry, I may mention to you all, affects me no more than the last will ——!”
“So I’m delighted to gather”— Lady Sandgate took him straight up —“that you don’t let go your inestimable Cure.”
He at first quite stared superior —”‘Let go’?”— but then treated it with a lighter touch. “Upon my honour I might, you know — that dose of the daily press has made me feel so fit! I arrive at any rate,” he pursued to the others and in particular to Mr. Bender, “I arrive with my decision taken — which I’ve thought may perhaps interest you. If that tuppeny rot is an attempt at an outcry I simply nip it in the bud.”
Lord John rejoicingly approved. “Absolutely the only way — with the least self-respect — to treat it!”
Lady Sandgate, on the other hand, sounded a sceptical note. “But are you sure it’s so easy, Theign, to hush up a real noise?”
“It ain’t what I’d call a real one, Lady Sandgate,” Mr. Bender said; “you can generally distinguish a real one from the squeak of two or three mice! But granted mice do affect you, Lord Theign, it will interest me to hear what sort of a trap — by what you say — you propose to set for them.”
“You must allow me to measure, myself, Mr. Bender,” his lordship replied, “the importance of a gross freedom publicly used with my absolutely personal proceedings and affairs; to the cause and origin of any definite report of which — in such circles! — I’m afraid I rather wonder if you yourself can’t give me a clue.”
It took Mr. Bender a minute to do justice to these stately remarks. “You rather wonder if I’ve talked of how I feel about your detaining in your hands my Beautiful Duchess ——?”
“Oh, if you’ve already published her as ‘yours’— with your power of publication!” Lord Theign coldly laughed — “of course I trace the connection!”
Mr. Benders acceptance of responsibility clearly cost him no shade of a pang. “Why, I haven’t for quite a while talked of a blessed other thing — and I’m capable of growing more profane over my not getting her than I guess any one would dare to be if I did.”
“Well, you’ll certainly not ‘get’ her, Mr. Bender,” Lady Sandgate, as for reasons of her own, bravely trumpeted; “and even if there were a chance of it don’t you see that your way wouldn’t be publicly to abuse our noble friend?”
Mr. Bender but beamed, in reply, upon that personage. “Oh, I guess our noble friend knows I have to talk big about big things. You understand, sir, the scream of the eagle!”
“I’ll forgive you,” Lord Theign civilly returned, “all the big talk you like if you’ll now understand me. My retort to that hireling pack shall be at once to dispose of a picture.”
Mr. Bender rather failed to follow. “But that’s what you wanted to do before.”
“Pardon me,” said his lordship —“I make a difference. It’s what you wanted me to do.”
The mystification, however, continued. “And you were not — as you seemed then — willing?”
Lord Theign waived cross-questions. “Well, I’m willing now — that’s all that need concern us. Only, once more and for the last time,” he added with all authority, “you can’t have our Duchess!”
“You can’t have our Duchess!”— and Lord John, as before the altar of patriotism, wrapped it in sacrificial sighs.
“You can’t have our Duchess!” Lady Sandgate repeated, but with a grace that took the sting from her triumph. And she seemed still all sweet sociability as she added: “I wish he’d tell you too, you dreadful rich thing, that you can’t have anything at all!”
Lord Theign, however, in the interest of harmony, deprecated that rigour. “Ah, what then would become of my happy retort?”
“And what — as it is,” Mr. Bender asked —“becomes of my unhappy grievance?”
“Wouldn’t a really great capture make up to you for that?”
“Well, I take more interest in what I want than in what I have — and it depends, don’t you see, on how you measure the size.”
Lord John had at once in this connection a bright idea. “Shouldn’t you like to go back there and take the measure yourself?”
Mr. Bender considered him as through narrowed eyelids. “Look again at that tottering Moretto?”
“Well, its size — as you say — isn’t in any light a negligible quantity.”
“You mean that — big as it is — it hasn’t yet stopped growing?”
The question, however, as he immediately showed, resided in what Lord Theign himself meant “It’s more to the purpose,” he said to Mr. Bender, “that I should mention to you the leading feature, or in other words the very essence, of my plan of campaign — which is to put the picture at once on view.” He marked his idea with a broad but elegant gesture. “On view as a thing definitely disposed of.”
“I say, I say, I say!” cried Lord John, moved by this bold stroke to high admiration.
Lady Sandgate’s approval was more qualified. “But on view, dear Theign, how?”
“With one of those pushing people in Bond Street.” And then as for the crushing climax of his policy: “As a Mantovano pure and simple.”
“But my dear man,” she quavered, “if it isn’t one?”
Mr. Bender at once anticipated; the wind had suddenly risen for him and he let out sail. “Lady Sand-gate, it’s going, by all that’s — well, interesting, to be one!”
Lord Theign took him up with pleasure. “You seize me? We treat it as one!”
Lord John eagerly borrowed the emphasis. “We treat it as one!”
Mr. Bender meanwhile fed with an opened appetite on the thought — he even gave it back larger. “As the long-lost Number Eight!”
Lord Theign happily seized him. “That will be it — to a charm!”
“It will make them,” Mr. Bender asked, “madder than anything?”
His patron — if not his client — put it more nobly. “It will markedly affirm my attitude.”
“Which will in turn the more markedly create discussion.”
“It may create all it will!”
“Well, if you don’t mind it, I don’t!” Mr. Bender concluded. But though bathed in this high serenity he was all for the rapid application of it elsewhere. “You’ll put the thing on view right off?”
“As soon as the proper arrangement ——”
“You put off your journey to make it?” Lady Sand-gate at once broke in.
Lord Theign bethought himself — with the effect of a gracious confidence in the others. “Not if these friends will act.”
“Oh, I guess we’ll act!” Mr. Bender declared.
“Ah, won’t we though!” Lord John re-echoed.
“You understand then I have an interest?” Mr. Bender went on to Lord Theign.
His lordship’s irony met it. “I accept that complication — which so much simplifies!”
“And yet also have a liberty?”
“Where else would be those you’ve taken? The point is,” said Lord Theign, “that I have a show.”
It settled Mr. Bender. “Then I’ll fix your show.” He snatched up his hat. “Lord John, come right round!”
Lord John had of himself reached the door, which he opened to let the whirlwind tremendously figured by his friend pass out first. Taking leave of the others he gave it even his applause. “The fellow can do anything anywhere!” And he hastily followed.
Lady Sandgate, left alone with Lord Theign, drew the line at their companion’s enthusiasm. “That may be true of Mr. Bender — for it’s dreadful how he bears one down. But I simply find him a terror.”
“Well,” said her friend, who seemed disposed not to fatigue the question, “I dare say a terror will help me.” He had other business to which he at once gave himself. “And now, if you please, for that girl.”
“I’ll send her to you,” she replied, “if you can’t stay to luncheon.”
“I’ve three or four things to do,” he pleaded, “and I lunch with Kitty at one.”
She submitted in that case — but disappointedly. “With Berkeley Square then you’ve time. But I confess I don’t quite grasp the so odd inspiration that you’ve set those men to carry out.”
He showed surprise and regret, but even greater decision. “Then it needn’t trouble you, dear — it’s enough that I myself go straight.”
“Are you so very convinced it’s straight?”— she wouldn’t be a bore to him, but she couldn’t not be a blessing.
“What in the world else is it,” he asked, “when, having good reasons, one acts on ’em?”
“You must have an immense array,” she sighed, “to fly so in the face of Opinion!”
“‘Opinion’?” he commented —“I fly in its face? Why, the vulgar thing, as I’m taking my quiet walk, flies in mine! I give it a whack with my umbrella and send it about its business.” To which he added with more reproach: “It’s enough to have been dished by Grace — without your falling away!”
Sadly and sweetly she defended herself. “It’s only my great affection — and all that these years have been for us: they it is that make me wish you weren’t so proud.”
“I’ve a perfect sense, my dear, of what these years have been for us — a very charming matter. But ‘proud’ is it you find me of the daughter who does her best to ruin me, or of the one who does her best to humiliate?”
Lady Sandgate, not undiscernibly, took her choice of ignoring the point of this. “Your surrenders to Kitty are your own affair — but are you sure you can really bear to see Grace?”
“I seem expected indeed to bear much,” he said with more and more of his parental bitterness, “but I don’t know that I’m yet in a funk before my child. Doesn’t she want to see me, with any contrition, after the trick she has played me?” And then as his companion’s answer failed: “In spite of which trick you suggest that I should leave the country with no sign of her explaining —?”
His hostess raised her head. “She does want to see you, I know; but you must recall the sequel to that bad hour at Dedborough — when it was you who declined to see her.”
“Before she left the house with you, the next day, for this?”— he was entirely reminiscent. “What I recall is that even if I had condoned — that evening — her deception of me in my folly, I still loathed, for my friend’s sake, her practical joke on poor John.”
Lady Sandgate indulged in the shrug conciliatory. “It was your very complaint that your own appeal to her became an appeal from herself.”
“Yes,” he returned, so well he remembered, “she was about as civil to me then — picking a quarrel with me on such a trumped-up ground! — as that devil of a fellow in the newspaper; the taste of whose elegant remarks, for that matter, she must now altogether enjoy!”
His good friend showily balanced and might have been about to reply with weight; but what she in fact brought out was only: “I see you’re right about it: I must let her speak for herself.”
“That I shall greatly prefer to her speaking — as she did so extraordinarily, out of the blue, at Dedborough, upon my honour — for the wonderful friends she picks up: the picture-man introduced by her (what was his name?) who regularly ‘cheeked’ me, as I suppose he’d call it, in my own house, and whom I hope, by the way, that under this roof she’s not able to be quite so thick with!”
If Lady Sandgate winced at that vain dream she managed not to betray it, and she had, in any embarrassment on this matter, the support, as we know, of her own tried policy. “She leads her life under this roof very much as under yours; and she’s not of an age, remember, for me to pretend either to watch her movements or to control her contacts.” Leaving him however thus to perform his pleasure the charming woman had before she went an abrupt change of tone. “Whatever your relations with others, dear friend, don’t forget that I’m still here.”
Lord Theign accepted the reminder, though, the circumstances being such, it scarce moved him to ecstasy. “That you’re here, thank heaven, is of course a comfort — or would be if you understood.”
“Ah,” she submissively sighed, “if I don’t always ‘understand’ a spirit so much higher than mine and a situation so much more complicated, certainly, I at least always defer, I at least always — well, what can I say but worship?” And then as he remained not other than finely passive, “The old altar, Theign,” she went on —“and a spark of the old fire!”
He had not looked at her on this — it was as if he shrank, with his preoccupations, from a tender passage; but he let her take his left hand. “So I feel!” he was, however, kind enough to answer.
“Do feel!” she returned with much concentration. She raised the hand to her pressed lips, dropped it and with a rich “Good-bye!” reached the threshold of the other room.
“May I smoke?” he asked before she had disappeared.
He had meanwhile taken out his cigarette case and was looking about for a match. But something else occurred to him. “You must come to Victoria.”
“Rather!” she said with intensity; and with that she passed away.
Left alone he had a moment’s meditation where he stood; it found issue in an articulate “Poor dear thing!”— an exclamation marked at once with patience and impatience, with resignation and ridicule. After which, waiting for his daughter, Lord Theign slowly and absently roamed, finding matches at last and lighting his cigarette — all with an air of concern that had settled on him more heavily from the moment of his finding himself alone. His luxury of gloom — if gloom it was — dropped, however, on his taking heed of Lady Grace, who, arriving on the scene through the other room, had had just time to stand and watch him in silence.
“Oh!” he jerked out at sight of her — which she had to content herself with as a parental greeting after separation, his next words doing little to qualify its dryness. “I take it for granted that you know I’m within a couple of hours of leaving England under a necessity of health.” And then as drawing nearer, she signified without speaking her possession of this fact: “I’ve thought accordingly that before I go I should — on this first possible occasion since that odious occurrence at Dedborough — like to leave you a little more food for meditation, in my absence, on the painfully false position in which you there placed me.” He carried himself restlessly even perhaps with a shade of awkwardness, to which her stillness was a contrast; she just waited, wholly passive — possibly indeed a trifle portentous. “If you had plotted and planned it in advance,” he none the less firmly pursued, “if you had acted from some uncanny or malignant motive, you couldn’t have arranged more perfectly to incommode, to disconcert and, to all intents and purposes, make light of me and insult me.” Even before this charge she made no sign; with her eyes now attached to the ground she let him proceed. “I had practically guaranteed to our excellent, our charming friend, your favourable view of his appeal — which you yourself too, remember, had left him in so little doubt of! — so that, having by your performance so egregiously failed him, I have the pleasure of their coming down on me for explanations, for compensations, and for God knows what besides.”
Lady Grace, looking up at last, left him in no doubt of the rigour of her attention. “I’m sorry indeed, father, to have done you any wrong; but may I ask whom, in such a connection, you refer to as ‘they’?”
“‘They’?” he echoed in the manner of a man who has had handed back to his more careful eye, across the counter, some questionable coin that he has tried to pass. “Why, your own sister to begin with — whose interest in what may make for your happiness I suppose you decently recognise; and his people, one and all, the delightful old Duchess in particular, who only wanted to be charming to you, and who are as good people, and as pleasant and as clever, damn it, when all’s said and done, as any others that are likely to come your way.” It clearly did his lordship good to work out thus his case, which grew more and more coherent to him and glowed with irresistible colour. “Letting alone gallant John himself, most amiable of men, about whose merits and whose claims you appear to have pretended to agree with me just that you might, when he presumed, poor chap, ardently to urge them, deal him with the more cruel effect that calculated blow on the mouth!”
It was clear that in the girl’s great gravity embarrassment had no share. “They so come down on you I understand then, father, that you’re obliged to come down on me?”
“Assuredly — for some better satisfaction than your just moping here without a sign!”
“But a sign of what, father?” she asked — as helpless as a lone islander scanning the horizon for a sail.
“Of your appreciating, of your in some degree dutifully considering, the predicament into which you’ve put me!”
“Hasn’t it occurred to you in the least that you’ve rather put me into one?”
He threw back his head as from exasperated nerves. “I put you certainly in the predicament of your receiving by my care a handsome settlement in life — which all the elements that would make for your enjoying it had every appearance of successfully commending to you.” The perfect readiness of which on his lips had, like a higher wave, the virtue of lifting and dropping him to still more tangible ground. “And if I understand you aright as wishing to know whether I apologise for that zeal, why you take a most preposterous view of our relation as father and daughter.”
“You understand me no better than I fear I understand you,” Lady Grace returned, “if what you expect of me is really to take back my words to Lord John.” And then as he didn’t answer, while their breach gaped like a jostled wound, “Have you seriously come to propose — and from him again,” she added —“that I shall reconsider my resolute act and lend myself to your beautiful arrangement?”
It had so the sound of unmixed ridicule that he could only, for his dignity, not give way to passion. “I’ve come, above all, for this, I may say, Grace: to remind you of whom you’re addressing when you jibe at me, and to make of you assuredly a plain demand — exactly as to whether you judged us to have actively incurred your treatment of our unhappy friend, to have brought it upon us, he and I, by my refusal to discuss with you at such a crisis the question of my disposition of a particular item of my property. I’ve only to look at you, for that matter,” Lord Theign continued — always with a finer point and a higher consistency as his rehearsal of his wrongs broadened —“to have my inquiry, as it seems to me, eloquently answered. You flounced away from poor John, you took, as he tells me, ‘his head off,’ just to repay me for what you chose to regard as my snub on the score of your challenging my entertainment of a possible purchaser; a rebuke launched at me, practically, in the presence of a most inferior person, a stranger and an intruder, from whom you had all the air of taking your cue for naming me the great condition on which you’d gratify my hope. Am I to understand, in other words,”— and his lordship mounted to a climax —“that you sent us about our business because I failed to gratify your hope: that of my knocking under to your sudden monstrous pretension to lay down the law for my choice of ways and means of raising, to my best convenience, a considerable sum of money? You’ll be so good as to understand, once for all, that I recognise there no right of interference from any quarter — and also to let that knowledge govern your behaviour in my absence.”
Lady Grace had thus for some minutes waited on his words — waited even as almost with anxiety for the safe conduct he might look to from some of the more extravagant of them. But he at least felt at the end — if it was an end — all he owed them; so that there was nothing for her but to accept as achieved his dreadful felicity. “You’re very angry with me, and I hope you won’t feel me simply ‘aggravating’ if I say that, thinking everything over, I’ve done my best to allow for that. But I can answer your question if I do answer it by saying that my discovery of your possible sacrifice of one of our most beautiful things didn’t predispose me to decide in favour of a person — however ‘backed’ by you — for whose benefit the sacrifice was to take place. Frankly,” the girl pushed on, “I did quite hate, for the moment, everything that might make for such a mistake; and took the darkest view, let me also confess, of every one, without exception, connected with it I interceded with you, earnestly, for our precious picture, and you wouldn’t on any terms have my intercession. On top of that Lord John blundered in, without timeliness or tact — and I’m afraid that, as I hadn’t been the least in love with him even before, he did have to take the consequence.”
Lord Theign, with an elated swing of his person, greeted this as all he could possibly want. “You recognise then that your reception of him was purely vindictive! — the meaning of which is that unless my conduct of my private interests, of which you know nothing whatever, happens to square with your superior wisdom you’ll put me under boycott all round! While you chatter about mistakes and blunders, and about our charming friend’s lack of the discretion of which you yourself set so grand an example, what account have you to offer of the scene you made me there before that fellow — your confederate, as he had all the air of being! — by giving it me with such effrontery that, if I had eminently done with him after his remarkable display, you at least were but the more determined to see him keep it up?”
The girl’s justification, clearly, was very present to her, and not less obviously the truth that to make it strong she must, avoiding every side-issue, keep it very simple, “The only account I can give you, I think, is that I could but speak at such a moment as I felt, and that I felt — well, how can I say how deeply? If you can really bear to know, I feel so still I care in fact more than ever that we shouldn’t do such things. I care, if you like, to indiscretion — I care, if you like, to offence, to arrogance, to folly. But even as my last word to you before you leave England on the conclusion of such a step, I’m ready to cry out to you that you oughtn’t, you oughtn’t, you oughtn’t!”
Her father, with wonder-moved, elevated brows and high commanding hand, checked her as in an act really of violence — save that, like an inflamed young priestess, she had already, in essence, delivered her message. “Hallo, hallo, hallo, my distracted daughter — no ‘crying out,’ if you please!” After which, while arrested but unabashed, she still kept her lighted eyes on him, he gave back her conscious stare for a minute, inwardly and rapidly turning things over, making connections, taking, as after some long and lamentable lapse of observation, a new strange measure of her: all to the upshot of his then speaking with a difference of tone, a recognition of still more of the odious than he had supposed, so that the case might really call for some coolness. “You keep bad company, Grace — it pays the devil with your sense of proportion. If you make this row when I sell a picture, what will be left to you when I forge a cheque?”
“If you had arrived at the necessity of forging a cheque,” she answered, “I should then resign myself to that of your selling a picture.”
“But not short of that!”
“Not short of that. Not one of ours.”
“But I couldn’t,” said his lordship with his best and coldest amusement, “sell one of somebody else’s!”
She was, however, not disconcerted. “Other people do other things — they appear to have done them, and to be doing them, all about us. But we have been so decently different — always and ever. We’ve never done anything disloyal.”
“‘Disloyal’?”— he was more largely amazed and even interested now.
Lady Grace stuck to her word. “That’s what it seems to me!”
“It seems to you”— and his sarcasm here was easy —“more disloyal to sell a picture than to buy one? Because we didn’t paint ’em all ourselves, you know!”
She threw up impatient hands. “I don’t ask you either to paint or to buy ——!”
“Oh, that’s a mercy!” he interrupted, riding his irony hard; “and I’m glad to hear you at least let me off such efforts! However, if it strikes you as gracefully filial to apply to your father’s conduct so invidious a word,” he went on less scathingly, “you must take from him, in your turn, his quite other view of what makes disloyalty — understanding distinctly, by the same token, that he enjoins on you not to give an odious illustration of it, while he’s away, by discussing and deploring with any one of your extraordinary friends any aspect or feature whatever of his walk and conversation. That — pressed as I am for time,” he went on with a glance at his watch while she remained silent —“is the main sense of what I have to say to you; so that I count on your perfect conformity. When you have told me that I may so count”— and casting about for his hat he espied it and went to take it up —“I shall more cordially bid you good-bye.”
His daughter looked as if she had been for some time expecting the law thus imposed upon her — had been seeing where he must come out; but in spite of this preparation she made him wait for his reply in such tension as he had himself created. “To Kitty I’ve practically said nothing — and she herself can tell you why: I’ve in fact scarcely seen her this fortnight. Putting aside then Amy Sandgate, the only person to whom I’ve spoken — of your ‘sacrifice,’ as I suppose you’ll let me call it? — is Mr. Hugh Crimble, whom you talk of as my ‘confederate’ at Dedborough.”
Lord Theign recovered the name with relief. “Mr. Hugh Crimble — that’s it! — whom you so amazingly caused to be present, and apparently invited to be active, at a business that so little concerned him.”
“He certainly took upon himself to be interested, as I had hoped he would. But it was because I had taken upon my self —”
“To act, yes,” Lord Theign broke in, “with the grossest want of delicacy! Well, it’s from that exactly that you’ll now forbear; and ‘interested’ as he may be-for which I’m deucedly obliged to him! — you’ll not speak to Mr. Crimble again.”
“Never again?”— the girl put it as for full certitude.
“Never of the question that I thus exclude. You may chatter your fill,” said his lordship curtly, “about any others.”
“Why, the particular question you forbid,” Grace returned with great force, but as if saying something very reasonable —“that question is the question we care about: it’s our very ground of conversation.”
“Then,” her father decreed, “your conversation will please to dispense with a ground; or you’ll perhaps, better still — if that’s the only way! — dispense with your conversation.”
Lady Grace took a moment as if to examine this more closely. “You require of me not to communicate with Mr. Crimble at all?”
“Most assuredly I require it — since it’s to that you insist on reducing me.” He didn’t look reduced, the master of Dedborough, as he spoke — which was doubtless precisely because he held his head so high to affirm what he suffered. “Is it so essential to your comfort,” he demanded, “to hear him, or to make him, abuse me?”
“‘Abusing’ you, father dear, has nothing whatever to do with it!”— his daughter had fairly lapsed, with a despairing gesture, to the tenderness involved in her compassion for his perversity. “We look at the thing in a much larger way,” she pursued, not heeding that she drew from him a sound of scorn for her “larger.” “It’s of our Treasure itself we talk — and of what can be done in such cases; though with a close application, I admit, to the case that you embody.”
“Ah,” Lord Theign asked as with absurd curiosity, “I embody a case?”
“Wonderfully, father — as you do everything; and it’s the fact of its being exceptional,” she explained, “that makes it so difficult to deal with.”
His lordship had a gape for it. “‘To deal with’? You’re undertaking to ‘deal’ with me?”
She smiled more frankly now, as for a rift in the gloom. “Well, how can we help it if you will be a case?” And then as her tone but visibly darkened his wonder: “What we’ve set our hearts on is saving the picture.”
“What you’ve set your hearts on, in other words, is working straight against me?”
But she persisted without heat. “What we’ve set our hearts on is working for England.”
“And pray who in the world’s ‘England,’” he cried in his stupefaction, “unless I am?”
“Dear, dear father,” she pleaded, “that’s all we want you to be! I mean”— she didn’t fear firmly to force it home —“in the real, the right, the grand sense; the sense that, you see, is so intensely ours.”
“‘Ours’?”— he couldn’t but again throw back her word at her. “Isn’t it, damn you, just in ours —?”
“No, no,” she interrupted —“not in ours!” She smiled at him still, though it was strained, as if he really ought to perceive.
But he glared as at a senseless juggle. “What and who the devil are you talking about? What are ‘we,’ the whole blest lot of us, pray, but the best and most English thing in the country: people walking — and riding! — straight; doing, disinterestedly, most of the difficult and all the thankless jobs; minding their own business, above all, and expecting others to mind theirs?” So he let her “have” the stout sound truth, as it were — and so the direct force of it clearly might, by his view, have made her reel. “You and I, my lady, and your two decent brothers, God be thanked for them, and mine into the bargain, and all the rest, the jolly lot of us, take us together — make us numerous enough without any foreign aid or mixture: if that’s what I understand you to mean!”
“You don’t understand me at all — evidently; and above all I see you don’t want to!” she had the bravery to add, “By ‘our’ sense of what’s due to the nation in such a case I mean Mr. Crimble’s and mine — and nobody’s else at all; since, as I tell you, it’s only with him I’ve talked.”
It gave him then, every inch of him showed, the full, the grotesque measure of the scandal he faced. “So that ‘you and Mr. Crimble’ represent the standard, for me, in your opinion, of the proprieties and duties of our house?”
Well, she was too earnest — as she clearly wished to let him see — to mind his perversion of it. “I express to you the way we feel.”
“It’s most striking to hear, certainly, what you express”— he had positively to laugh for it; “and you speak of him, with your insufferable ‘we,’ as if you were presenting him as your — God knows what! You’ve enjoyed a large exchange of ideas, I gather, to have arrived at such unanimity.” And then, as if to fall into no trap he might somehow be laying for her, she dropped all eagerness and rebutted nothing: “You must see a great deal of your fellow-critic not to be able to speak of yourself without him!”
“Yes, we’re fellow-critics, father”— she accepted this opening. “I perfectly adopt your term.” But it took her a minute to go further. “I saw Mr. Crim-ble here half an hour ago.”
“Saw him ‘here’?” Lord Theign amazedly asked. “He comes to you here — and Amy Sandgate has been silent?”
“It wasn’t her business to tell you — since, you see, she could leave it to me. And I quite expect,” Lady Grace then produced, “that he’ll come again.”
It brought down with a bang all her father’s authority. “Then I simply exact of you that you don’t see him.”
The pause of which she paid it the deference was charged like a brimming cup. “Is that what you really meant by your condition just now — that when I do see him I shall not speak to him?”
“What I ‘really meant’ is what I really mean — that you bow to the law I lay upon you and drop the man altogether.”
“Have nothing to do with him at all?”
“Have nothing to do with him at all.”
“In fact”— she took it in-“give him wholly up.”
He had an impatient gesture. “You sound as if I asked you to give up a fortune!” And then, though she had phrased his idea without consternation — verily as if it had been in the balance for her — he might have been moved by something that gathered in her eyes. “You’re so wrapped up in him that the precious sacrifice is like that sort of thing?”
Lady Grace took her time — but showed, as her eyes continued to hold him, what had gathered. “I like Mr. Crimble exceedingly, father — I think him clever, intelligent, good; I want what he wants — I want it, I think, really, as much; and I don’t at all deny that he has helped to make me so want it. But that doesn’t matter. I’ll wholly cease to see him, I’ll give him up forever, if — if —!” She faltered, however, she hung fire with a smile that anxiously, intensely appealed. Then she began and stopped again, “If — if —!” while her father caught her up with irritation.
“‘If,’ my lady? If what, please?”
“If you’ll withdraw the offer of our picture to Mr. Bender — and never make another to any one else!”
He stood staring as at the size of it — then translated it into his own terms. “If I’ll obligingly announce to the world that I’ve made an ass of myself you’ll kindly forbear from your united effort — the charming pair of you — to show me up for one?”
Lady Grace, as if consciously not caring or attempting to answer this, simply gave the first flare of his criticism time to drop. It wasn’t till a minute passed that she said: “You don’t agree to my compromise?”
Ah, the question but fatally sharpened at a stroke the stiffness of his spirit. “Good God, I’m to ‘compromise’ on top of everything? — I’m to let you browbeat me, haggle and bargain with me, over a thing that I’m entitled to settle with you as things have ever been settled among us, by uttering to you my last parental word?”
“You don’t care enough then for what you name?”— she took it up as scarce heeding now what he said.
“For putting an end to your odious commerce —? I give you the measure, on the contrary,” said Lord Theign, “of how much I care: as you give me, very strangely indeed, it strikes me, that of what it costs you —!” But his other words were lost in the hard long look at her from which he broke off in turn as for disgust.
It was with an effect of decently shielding herself — the unuttered meaning came so straight — that she substituted words of her own. “Of what it costs me to redeem the picture?”
“To lose your tenth-rate friend”— he spoke without scruple now.
She instantly broke into ardent deprecation, pleading at once and warning. “Father, father, oh —! You hold the thing in your hands.”
He pulled up before her again as to thrust the responsibility straight back. “My orders then are so much rubbish to you?”
Lady Grace held her ground, and they remained face to face in opposition and accusation, neither making the other the sign of peace. But the girl at least had, in her way, held out the olive-branch, while Lord Theign had but reaffirmed his will. It was for her acceptance of this that he searched her, her last word not having yet come. Before it had done so, however, the door from the lobby opened and Mr. Gotch had regained their presence. This appeared to determine in Lady Grace a view of the importance of delay, which she signified to her companion in a “Well — I must think!” For the butler positively resounded, and Hugh was there.
“Mr. Crimble!” Mr. Gotch proclaimed — with the further extravagance of projecting the visitor straight upon his lordship.
Our young man showed another face than the face his friend had lately seen him carry off, and he now turned it distressfully from that source of inspiration to Lord Theign, who was flagrantly, even from this first moment, no such source at all, and then from his noble adversary back again, under pressure of difficulty and effort, to Lady Grace, whom he directly addressed. “Here I am again, you see — and I’ve got my news, worse luck!” But his manner to her father was the next instant more brisk. “I learned you were here, my lord; but as the case is important I told them it was all right and came up. I’ve been to my club,” he added for the girl, “and found the tiresome thing —!” But he broke down breathless.
“And it isn’t good?” she cried with the highest concern.
Ruefully, yet not abjectly, he confessed, “Not so good as I hoped. For I assure you, my lord, I counted —”
“It’s the report from Pappendick about the picture at Verona,” Lady Grace interruptingly explained.
Hugh took it up, but, as we should well have seen, under embarrassment dismally deeper; the ugly particular defeat he had to announce showing thus, in his thought, for a more awkward force than any reviving possibilities that he might have begun to balance against them. “The man I told you about also,” he said to his formidable patron; “whom I went to Brussels to talk with and who, most kindly, has gone for us to Verona. He has been able to get straight at their Mantovano, but the brute horribly wires me that he doesn’t quite see the thing; see, I mean”— and he gathered his two hearers together now in his overflow of chagrin, conscious, with his break of the ice, more exclusively of that —“my vivid vital point, the absolute screaming identity of the two persons represented. I still hold,” he persuasively went on, “that our man is their man, but Pappendick decides that he isn’t — and as Pappendick has so much to be reckoned with of course I’m awfully abashed.”
Lord Theign had remained what he had begun by being, immeasurably and inaccessibly detached — only with his curiosity more moved than he could help and as, on second thought, to see what sort of a still more offensive fool the heated youth would really make of himself. “Yes — you seem indeed remarkably abashed!”
Hugh clearly was thrown again, by the cold “cut” of this, colder than any mere social ignoring, upon a sense of the damnably poor figure he did offer; so that, while he straightened himself and kept a mastery of his manner and a control of his reply, we should yet have felt his cheek tingle. “I backed my own judgment strongly, I know — and I’ve got my snub. But I don’t in the least knock under.”
“Only the first authority in Europe doesn’t care, I suppose, whether you do or not!”
“He isn’t the first authority in Europe, thank God,” the young man returned —“though he is, I admit, one of the three or four first. And I mean to appeal — I’ve another shot in my locker,” he went on with his rather painfully forced smile to Lady Grace. “I had already written, you see, to dear old Bardi.”
“Bardi of Milan?”— she recognised, it was admirably manifest, the appeal of his directness to her generosity, awkward as their predicament was also for her herself, and spoke to him as she might have spoken without her father’s presence.
It would have shown for beautiful, on the spot, had there been any one to perceive it, that he devoutly recorded her intelligence. “You know of him? — how delightful of you! For the Italians, I now feel,” he quickly explained, “he must have most the instinct — and it has come over me since that he’d have been more our man. Besides of course his so knowing the Verona picture.”
She had fairly hung on his lips. “But does he know ours?”
“No — not ours yet. That is”— he consciously and quickly took himself up —“not yours! But as Pap-pendick went to Verona for us I’ve asked Bardi to do us the great favour to come here — if Lord Theign will be so good,” he said, bethinking himself with a turn, “as to let him examine the Moretto.” He faced again to the personage he mentioned, who, simply standing off and watching, in concentrated interest as well as detachment, this interview of his cool daughter and her still cooler guest, had plainly “elected,” as it were, to give them rope to hang themselves. Staring very hard at Hugh he met his appeal, but in a silence clearly calculated; against which, however, the young man, bearing up, made such head as he could. He offered his next word, that is, equally to the two companions. “It’s not at all impossible — for such curious effects have been! — that the Dedborough picture seen after the Verona will point a different moral from the Verona seen after the Dedborough.”
“And so awfully long after — wasn’t it?” Lady Grace asked.
“Awfully long after — it was years ago that Pappen-dick, being in this country for such purposes, was kindly admitted to your house when none of you were there, or at least visible.”
“Oh of course we don’t see every one!”— she heroically kept it up.
“You don’t see every one,” Hugh bravely laughed, “and that makes it all the more charming that you did, and that you still do, see me. I shall really get Bardi,” he pursued, “to go again to Verona ——”
“The last thing before coming here?”— she had guessed before he could say it; and still she sustained it, so that he could shine at her for assent. “How happy they should like so to work for you!”
“Ah, we’re a band of brothers,” he returned —”‘we few, we happy few’— from country to country”; to which he added, gaining more ease for an eye at Lord Theign: “though we do have our little rubs and disputes, like Pappendick and me now. The thing, you see, is the ripping interest of it all; since,” he developed and explained, for his elder friend’s benefit, with pertinacious cheer and an assurance superficially at least recovered, “when we’re really ‘hit’ over a case we’ll do almost anything in life.”
Lady Grace, recklessly throbbing in the breath of it all, immediately appropriated what her father let alone. “It must be so lovely to feel so hit!”
“It does spoil one,” Hugh laughed, “for milder joys. Of course what I have to consider is the chance — putting it at the merest chance — of Bardi’s own wet blanket! But that’s again so very small — though,” he pulled up with a drop to the comparative dismal, which he offered as an almost familiar tribute to Lord Theign, “you’ll retort upon me naturally that I promised you the possibility of Pappendick’s veto would be: all on the poor dear old basis, you’ll claim, of the wish father to the thought. Well, I do wish to be right as much as I believe I am. Only give me time!” he sublimely insisted.
“How can we prevent your using it?” Lady Grace again interrupted; “or the fact either that if the worst comes to the worst —”
“The thing”— he at once pursued —“will always be at the least the greatest of Morettos? Ah,” he cried so cheerily that there was still a freedom in it toward any it might concern, “the worst sha’n’t come to the worst, but the best to the best: my conviction of which it is that supports me in the deep regret I have to express”— and he faced Lord Theign again —“for any inconvenience I may have caused you by my abortive undertaking. That, I vow here before Lady Grace, I will yet more than make up!”
Lord Theign, after the longest but the blankest contemplation of him, broke hereupon, for the first time, that attitude of completely sustained and separate silence which he had yet made compatible with his air of having deeply noted every element of the scene — so that it was of this full view his participation had effectively consisted, “I haven’t the least idea, sir, what you’re talking about!” And he squarely turned his back, strolling toward the other room, the threshold of which he the next moment had passed, remaining scantily within, however, and in sight of the others, not to say of ourselves; even though averted and ostensibly lost in some scrutiny that might have had for its object the great enshrined Lawrence.
There ensued upon his words and movement a vivid mute passage, the richest of commentaries, between his companions; who, deeply divided by the width of the ample room, followed him with their eyes and then used for their own interchange these organs of remark, eloquent now over Hugh’s unmistakable dismissal at short order, on which obviously he must at once act. Lady Grace’s young arms conveyed to him by a despairing contrite motion of surrender that she had done for him all she could do in his presence and that, however sharply doubtful the result, he was to leave the rest to herself. They communicated thus, the strenuous pair, for their full moment, without speaking; only with the prolonged, the charged give and take of their gaze and, it might well have been imagined, of their passion. Hugh had for an instant a show of hesitation — of the arrested impulse, while he kept her father within range, to launch at that personage before going some final remonstrance. It was the girl’s raised hand and gesture of warning that waved away for him such a mistake; he decided, under her pressure, and after a last searching and answering look at her reached the door and let himself out. The stillness was then prolonged a minute by the further wait of the two others, Lord Theign where he had been standing and his daughter on the spot from which she had not moved. It presently ended in his lordship’s turn about as if inferring by the silence that the intruder had withdrawn.
“Is that young man your lover?” he said as he drew again near.
Lady Grace waited a little, but spoke as quietly as if she had been prepared. “Has the question a bearing on the promise you a short time ago demanded of me?”
“It has a bearing on the so extraordinary appearance of your intimacy with him!”
“You mean that if he should be-what you ask me about — your exaction would then be modified?”
“My request that you break it short off? That request would, on the contrary,” Lord Theign pronounced, “rest on an immense new ground. Therefore I insist on your telling me the truth.”
“Won’t the truth be before you, father, if you’ll think a moment — without extravagance?” After which, while, as stiffly as ever — and it probably seemed to her impatience as stupidly — he didn’t rise to it, she went on: “If I offered you not again to see him, does that make for you the appearance —?”
“If you offered it, you mean, on your condition — my promising not to sell? I promised,” said Lord Theign, “absolutely nothing at all!”
She took him up with all expression. “So I promised as little! But that I should have been able to say what I did sufficiently meets your curiosity.”
She might, wronged as she held herself, have felt him stupid not to see how wronged; but he was in any case acute for an evasion. “You risked your offer for the great equivalent over which you’ve so wildly worked yourself up.”
“Yes, I’ve worked myself — that, I grant you and don’t blush for! But hardly so much as to renounce my ‘lover’— if,” she prodigiously smiled, “I were so fortunate as to have one!”
“You renounced poor John mightily easily — whom you were so fortunate as to have!”
Her brows rose as high as his own had ever done. “Do you call Lord John my lover?”
“He was your suitor most assuredly,” Lord Theign inimitably said, though without looking at her; “and as strikingly encouraged as he was respectfully ardent!”
“Encouraged by you, dear father, beyond doubt!”
“Encouraged — er — by every one: because you were (yes, you were!) encouraging. And what I ask of you now is a word of common candour as to whether you didn’t, on your honour, turn him off because of your just then so stimulated views on the person who has been with us.”
Grace replied but after an instant, as moved by more things than she could say — moved above all, in her trouble and her pity for him, by other things than harshness: “Oh father, father, father ——!”
He searched her through all the compassion of her cry, but appeared to give way to her sincerity. “Well then if I have your denial I take it as answering my whole question — in a manner that satisfies me. If there’s nothing, on your word, of that sort between you, you can all the more drop him.”
“But you said a moment ago that I should all the more in the other case — that of there being something!”
He brushed away her logic-chopping. “If you’re so keen then for past remarks I take up your own words — I accept your own terms for your putting an end to Mr. Crimble.” To which, while, turning pale, she said nothing, he added: “You recognise that you profess yourself ready ——”
“Not again to see him,” she now answered, “if you tell me the picture’s safe? Yes, I recognise that I was ready — as well as how scornfully little you then were!”
“Never mind what I then was — the question’s of what I actually am, since I close with you on it The picture’s therefore as safe as you please,” Lord Theign pursued, “if you’ll do what you just now engaged to.”
“I engaged to do nothing,” she replied after a pause; and the face she turned to him had grown suddenly tragic. “I’ve no word to take back, for none passed between us; but I won’t do what I mentioned and what you at once laughed at Because,” she finished, “the case is different.”
“Different?” he almost shouted —“how, different?”
She didn’t look at him for it, but she was none the less strongly distinct “He has been here — and that has done it He knows,” she admirably emphasised.
“Knows what I think of him, no doubt — for a brazen young prevaricator! But what else?”
She still kept her eyes on a far-off point. “What he will have seen — that I feel we’re too good friends.”
“Then your denial of it’s false,” her father fairly thundered —“and you are infatuated?”
It made her the more quiet. “I like him very much.”
“So that your row about the picture,” he demanded with passion, “has been all a blind?” And then as her quietness still held her: “And his a blind as much — to help him to get at you?”
She looked at him again now. “He must speak for himself. I’ve said what I mean.”
“But what the devil do you mean?” Lord Theign, taking in the hour, had reached the door as in supremely baffled conclusion and with a sense of time lamentably lost.
Their eyes met upon it all dreadfully across the wide space, and, hurried and incommoded as she saw him, she yet made him still stand a minute. Then she let everything go. “Do what you like with the picture!”
He jerked up his arm and guarding hand as before a levelled blow at his face, and with the other hand flung open the door, having done with her now and immediately lost to sight. Left alone she stood a moment looking before her; then with a vague advance, held apparently by a quickly growing sense of the implication of her act, reached a table where she remained a little, deep afresh in thought — only the next thing to fall into a chair close to it and there, with her elbows on it, yield to the impulse of covering her flushed face with her hands.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51