HUGH CRIMBLE waited again in the Bruton Street drawing-room — this time at the afternoon hour; he restlessly shifted his place, looked at things about him without seeing them; all he saw, all he outwardly studied, was his own face and figure as he stopped an instant before a long glass suspended between two windows. Just as he turned from that brief and perhaps not wholly gratified inspection Lady Grace — that he had sent up his name to whom was immediately apparent — presented herself at the entrance from the other room. These young persons had hereupon no instant exchange of words; their exchange was mute — they but paused where they were; while the silence of each evidently tested the other for full confidence. A measure of this comfort came first, it would have appeared, to Hugh; though he then at once asked for confirmation of it.
“Am I right, Lady Grace, am I right? — to have come, I mean, after so many days of not hearing, not knowing, and perhaps, all too stupidly, not trying.” And he went on as, still with her eyes on him, she didn’t speak; though, only, we should have guessed, from her stress of emotion. “Even if I’m wrong, let me tell you, I don’t care — simply because, whatever new difficulty I may have brought about for you here a fortnight ago, there’s something that today adds to my doubt and my fear too great a pang, and that has made me feel I can scarce bear the suspense of them as they are.”
The girl came nearer, and if her grave face expressed a pity it yet declined a dread. “Of what suspense do you speak? Your still being without the other opinion —?”
“Ah, that worries me, yes; and all the more, at this hour, as I say, that —” He dropped it, however: “I’ll tell you in a moment! My real torment, all the while, has been not to know, from day to day, what situation, what complication that last scene of ours with your father here has let you in for; and yet at the same time — having no sign nor sound from you! — to see the importance of not making anything possibly worse by approaching you again, however discreetly. I’ve been in the dark,” he pursued, “and feeling that I must leave you there; so that now — just brutally turning up once more under personal need and at any cost — I don’t know whether I most want or most fear what I may learn from you.”
Lady Grace, listening and watching, appeared to choose between different ways of meeting this appeal; she had a pacifying, postponing gesture, marked with a beautiful authority, a sign of the value for her of what she gave precedence to and which waved off everything else. “Have you had — first of all — any news yet of Bardi?”
“That I have is what has driven me straight at you again — since I’ve shown you before how I turn to you at a crisis. He has come as I hoped and like a regular good ’un,” Hugh was able to state; “I’ve just met him at the station, but I pick him up again, at his hotel in Clifford Street, at five. He stopped, on his way from Dover this morning, to my extreme exasperation, to ‘sample’ Canterbury, and I leave him to a bath and a change and tea. Then swooping down I whirl him round to Bond Street, where his very first apprehension of the thing (an apprehension, oh I guarantee you, so quick and clean and fine and wise) will be the flash-light projected — well,” said the young man, to wind up handsomely, but briefly and reasonably, “over the whole field of our question.”
She panted with comprehension. “That of the two portraits being but the one sitter!”
“That of the two portraits being but the one sitter. With everything so to the good, more and more, that bangs in, up to the head, the golden nail of authenticity, and”— he quite glowed through his gloom for it —“we take our stand in glory on the last Mantovano in the world.”
It was a presumption his friend visibly yearned for — but over which, too, with her eyes away from him, she still distinguished the shadow of a cloud. “That is if the flash-light comes!”
“That is if it comes indeed, confound it!”— he had to enlarge a little under the recall of past experience. “So now, at any rate, you see my tension!”
She looked at him again as with a vision too full for a waste of words. “While you on your side of course keep well in view Mr. Bender’s.”
“Yes, while I keep well in view Mr. Bender’s; though he doesn’t know, you see, of Bardi’s being at hand.”
“Still,” said the girl, always all lucid for the case, “if the ‘flash-light’ does presently break ——!”
“It will first take him in the eye?” Hugh had jumped to her idea, but he adopted it only to provide: “It might if he didn’t now wear goggles, so to say! — clapped on him too hard by Pappendick’s so damnably perverse opinion.” With which, however, he quickly bethought himself. “Ah, of course, these wretched days, you haven’t known of Pappendick’s personal visit. After that wire from Verona I wired him back defiance —”
“And that brought him?” she cried.
“To do the honest thing, yes — I will say for him: to renew, for full assurance, his early memory of our picture.”
She hung upon it. “But only to stick then to what he had telegraphed?”
“To declare that for him, lackaday! our thing’s a pure Moretto — and to declare as much, moreover, with all the weight of his authority, to Bender himself, who of course made a point of seeing him.”
“So that Bender”— she followed and wondered —“is, as a consequence, wholly off?”
It made her friend’s humour play up in his acuteness. “Bender, Lady Grace, is, by the law of his being, never ‘wholly’ off — or on! — anything. He lives, like the moon, in mid-air, shedding his silver light on earth; never quite gone, yet never all there — save for inappreciable moments. He would be in eclipse as a peril, I grant,” Hugh went on —“if the question had struck him as really closed. But luckily the blessed Press — which is a pure heavenly joy and now quite immense on it — keeps it open as wide as Piccadilly.”
“Which makes, however,” Lady Grace discriminated, “for the danger of a grab.”
“Ah, but all the more for the shame of a surrender! Of course I admit that when it’s a question of a life spent, like his, in waiting, acquisitively, for the cat to jump, the only thing for one, at a given moment, as against that signal, is to be found one’s self by the animal in the line of its trajectory. That’s exactly,” he laughed, “where we are!”
She cast about as intelligently to note the place. “Your great idea, you mean, has so worked — with the uproar truly as loud as it has seemed to come to us here?”
“All beyond my wildest hope,” Hugh returned; “since the sight of the picture, flocked to every day by thousands, so beautifully tells. That we must at any cost keep it, that the nation must, and hang on to it tight, is the cry that fills the air — to the tune of ten letters a day in the Papers, with every three days a gorgeous leader; to say nothing of more and more passionate talk all over the place, some of it awfully wild, but all of it wind in our sails.”
“I suppose it was that wind then that blew me round there to see the thing in its new light,” Lady Grace said. “But I couldn’t stay — for tears!”
“Ah,” Hugh insisted on his side for comfort, “we’ll crow loudest yet! And don’t meanwhile, just don’t, those splendid strange eyes of the fellow seem consciously to plead? The women, bless them, adore him, cling to him, and there’s talk of a ‘Ladies’ League of Protest’— all of which keeps up the pitch.”
“Poor Amy and I are a ladies’ league,” the girl joylessly joked —“as we now take in the ‘Journal’ regardless of expense.”
“Oh then you practically have it all — since,” Hugh, added after a brief hesitation, “I suppose Lord Theign himself doesn’t languish uninformed.”
“At far-off Salsomaggiore — by the papers? No doubt indeed he isn’t spared even the worst,” said Lady Grace —“and no doubt too it’s a drag on his cure.”
Her companion seemed struck with her lack of assurance. “Then you don’t — if I may ask — hear from him?”
“I? Never a word.”
“He doesn’t write?” Hugh allowed himself to insist.
“He doesn’t write. And I don’t write either.”
“And Lady Sandgate?” Hugh once more ventured.
“Doesn’t she write?”
“Doesn’t she hear?” said the young man, treating the other form of the question as a shade evasive.
“I’ve asked her not to tell me,” his friend replied —“that is if he simply holds out.”
“So that as she doesn’t tell you”— Hugh was clear for the inference —“he of course does hold out.” To which he added almost accusingly while his eyes searched her: “But your case is really bad.”
She confessed to it after a moment, but as if vaguely enjoying it. “My case is really bad.”
He had a vividness of impatience and contrition. 197
“And it’s I who — all too blunderingly! — have made it so?”
“I’ve made it so myself,” she said with a high head-shake, “and you, on the contrary —!” But here she checked her emphasis.
“Ah, I’ve so wanted, through our horrid silence, to help you!” And he pressed to get more at the truth. “You’ve so quite fatally displeased him?”
“To the last point — as I tell you. But it’s not to that I refer,” she explained; “it’s to the ground of complaint I’ve given you.” And then as this but left him blank, “It’s time — it was at once time — that you should know,” she pursued; “and yet if it’s hard for me to speak, as you see, it was impossible for me to write. But there it is.” She made her sad and beautiful effort. “The last thing before he left us I let the picture go.”
“You mean —?” But he could only wonder — till, however, it glimmered upon him. “You gave up your protest?”
“I gave up my protest. I told him that — so far as I’m concerned! — he might do as he liked.”
Her poor friend turned pale at the sharp little shock of it; but if his face thus showed the pang of too great a surprise he yet wreathed the convulsion in a gay grimace. “You leave me to struggle alone?”
“I leave you to struggle alone.”
He took it in bewilderingly, but tried again, even to the heroic, for optimism. “Ah well, you decided, I suppose, on some new personal ground.”
“Yes; a reason came up, a reason I hadn’t to that extent looked for and which of a sudden — quickly, before he went — I had somehow to deal with. So to give him my word in the dismal sense I mention was my only way to meet the strain.” She paused; Hugh waited for something further, and “I gave him my word I wouldn’t help you,” she wound up.
He turned it over. “To act in the matter — I see.”
“To act in the matter”— she went through with it —“after the high stand I had taken.”
Still he studied it. “I see — I see. It’s between you and your father.”
“It’s between him and me — yes. An engagement not again to trouble him.”
Hugh, from his face, might have feared a still greater complication; so he made, as he would probably have said, a jolly lot of this. “Ah, that was nice of you. And natural. That’s all right!”
“No”— she spoke from a deeper depth —“it’s altogether wrong. For whatever happens I must now accept it.”
“Well, say you must”— he really declined not to treat it almost as rather a “lark”—“if we can at least go on talking.”
“Ah, we can at least go on talking!” she perversely sighed. “I can say anything I like so long as I don’t say it to him” she almost wailed. But she added with more firmness: “I can still hope — and I can still pray.”
He set free again with a joyous gesture all his confidence. “Well, what more could you do, anyhow? So isn’t that enough?”
It took her a moment to say, and even then she didn’t. “Is it enough for you, Mr. Crimble?”
“What is enough for me”— he could for his part readily name it —“is the harm done you at our last meeting by my irruption; so that if you got his consent to see me ——!”
“I didn’t get his consent!”— she had turned away from the searching eyes, but she faced them again to rectify: “I see you against his express command.”
“Ah then thank God I came!”— it was like a bland breath on a feu de joie: he flamed so much higher.
“Thank God you’ve come, yes — for my deplorable exposure.” And to justify her name for it before he could protest, “I offered him here not to see you,” she rigorously explained.
“‘Offered him?”— Hugh did drop for it. “Not to see me — ever again?”
She didn’t falter. “Never again.”
Ah then he understood. “But he wouldn’t let that serve ——?”
“Not for the price I put on it.”
“His yielding on the picture?”
“His yielding on the picture.”
Hugh lingered before it all. “Your proposal wasn’t ‘good enough’?”
“It wasn’t good enough.”
“I see,” he repeated —“I see.” But he was in that light again mystified. “Then why are you therefore not free?”
“Because — just after — you came back, and I did see you again!”
Ah, it was all present. “You found you were too sorry for me?”
“I found I was too sorry for you — as he himself found I was.”
Hugh had got hold of it now. “And that, you mean, he couldn’t stomach?”
“So little that when you had gone (and how you had to go you remember) he at once proposed, rather than that I should deceive you in a way so different from his own ——”
“To do all we want of him?”
“To do all I did at least.”
“And it was then,” he took in, “that you wouldn’t deal?”
“Well”— try though she might to keep the colour out, it all came straighter and straighter now —“those moments had brought you home to me as they had also brought him; making such a difference, I felt, for what he veered round to agree to.”
“The difference”— Hugh wanted it so adorably definite —“that you didn’t see your way to accepting ——?”
“No, not to accepting the condition he named.”
“Which was that he’d keep the picture for you if you’d treat me as too ‘low’——?”
“If I’d treat you,” said Lady Grace with her eyes on his fine young face, “as impossible.”
He kept her eyes — he clearly liked so to make her repeat it. “And not even for the sake of the picture —?” After he had given her time, however, her silence, with her beautiful look in it, seemed to admonish him not to force her for his pleasure; as if what she had already told him didn’t make him throb enough for the wonder of it. He had it, and let her see by his high flush how he made it his own — while, the next thing, as it was but part of her avowal, the rest of that illumination called for a different intelligence. “Your father’s reprobation of me personally is on the ground that you’re all such great people?”
She spared him the invidious answer to this as, a moment before, his eagerness had spared her reserve; she flung over the “ground” that his question laid bare the light veil of an evasion, “‘Great people,’ I’ve learned to see, mustn’t — to remain great — do what my father’s doing.”
“It’s indeed on the theory of their not so behaving,” Hugh returned, “that we see them — all the inferior rest of us — in the grand glamour of their greatness!”
If he had spoken to meet her admirable frankness half-way, that beauty in her almost brushed him aside to make at a single step the rest of the journey. “You won’t see them in it for long — if they don’t now, under such tests and with such opportunities, begin to take care.”
This had given him, at a stroke, he clearly felt, all freedom for the closer criticism. “Lord Theign perhaps recognises some such canny truth, but ‘takes care,’ with the least trouble to himself and the finest short cut — does it, if you’ll let me say so, rather on the cheap — by finding ‘the likes’ of me, as his daughter’s trusted friend, out of the question.”
“Well, you won’t mind that, will you?” Lady Grace asked, “if he finds his daughter herself, in any such relation to you, quite as much so.”
“Different enough, from position to position and person to person,” he brightly brooded, “is the view that gets itself most comfortably taken of the implications of Honour!”
“Yes,” the girl returned; “my father, in the act of despoiling us all, all who are interested, without apparently the least unpleasant consciousness, keeps the balance showily even, to his mostly so fine, so delicate sense, by suddenly discovering that he’s scandalised at my caring for your friendship.”
Hugh looked at her, on this, as with the gladness verily of possession promised and only waiting — or as if from that moment forth he had her assurance of everything that most concerned him and that might most inspire. “Well, isn’t the moral of it all simply that what his perversity of pride, as we can only hold it, will have most done for us is to bring us — and to keep us — blessedly together?”
She seemed for a moment to question his “simply.” “Do you regard us as so much ‘together’ when you remember where, in spite of everything, I’ve put myself?”
“By telling him to do what he likes?” he recalled without embarrassment. “Oh, that wasn’t in spite of ‘everything’— it was only in spite of the Manto-vano.”
“‘Only’?” she flushed —“when I’ve given the picture up?”
“Ah,” Hugh cried, “I don’t care a hang for the picture!” And then as she let him, closer, close to her with this, possess himself of her hands: “We both only care, don’t we, that we’re given to each other thus? We both only care, don’t we, that nothing can keep us apart?”
“Oh, if you’ve forgiven me —!” she sighed into his fond face.
“Why, since you gave the thing up for me,” he pleadingly laughed, “it isn’t as if you had given me up ——!”
“For anything, anything? Ah never, never!” she breathed.
“Then why aren’t we all right?”
“Well, if you will ——!”
“Oh for ever and ever and ever!”— and with this ardent cry of his devotion his arms closed in their strength and she was clasped to his breast and to his lips.
The next moment, however, she had checked him with the warning “Amy Sandgate!”— as if she had heard their hostess enter the other room. Lady Sand-gate was in fact almost already upon them — their disjunction had scarce been effected and she had reached the nearer threshold. They had at once put the widest space possible between them — a little of the flurry of which transaction agitated doubtless their clutch at composure. They gave back a shade awkwardly and consciously, on one side and the other, the speculative though gracious attention she for a few moments made them and their recent intimate relation the subject of; from all of which indeed Lady Grace sought and found cover in a prompt and responsible address to Hugh. “Mustn’t you go without more delay to Clifford Street?”
He came back to it all alert “At once!” He had recovered his hat and reached the other door, whence he gesticulated farewell to the elder lady. “Please pardon me”— and he disappeared.
Lady Sandgate hereupon stood for a little silently confronted with the girl. “Have you freedom of mind for the fact that your father’s suddenly at hand?”
“He has come back?”— Lady Grace was sharply struck.
“He arrives this afternoon and appears to go straight to Kitty — according to a wire that I find downstairs on coming back late from my luncheon. He has returned with a rush — as,” said his correspondent in the elation of triumph, “I was sure he would!”
Her young friend was more at sea. “Brought back, you mean, by the outcry — even though he so hates it?”
But she was more and more all lucidity — save in so far as she was now almost all authority. “Ah, hating still more to seem afraid, he has come back to face the music!”
Lady Grace, turning away as in vague despair for the manner in which the music might affect him, yet wheeled about again, after thought, to a positive recognition and even to quite an inconsequent pride. “Yes — that’s dear old father!”
And what was Lady Sandgate moreover but mistress now of the subject? “At the point the row has reached he couldn’t stand it another day; so he has thrown up his cure and — lest we should oppose him! — not even announced his start.”
“Well,” her companion returned, “now that I’ve done it all I shall never oppose him again!”
Lady Sandgate appeared to show herself as still under the impression she might have received on entering. “He’ll only oppose you!”
“If he does,” said Lady Grace, “we’re at present two to bear it.”
“Heaven save us then”— the elder woman was quick, was even cordial, for the sense of this —“your good friend is clever!”
Lady Grace honoured the remark. “Mr. Crim-ble’s remarkably clever.”
“And you’ve arranged ——?”
“We haven’t arranged — but we’ve understood. So that, dear Amy, if you understand —!” Lady Grace paused, for Gotch had come in from the hall.
“His lordship has arrived?” his mistress immediately put to him.
“No, my lady, but Lord John has — to know if he’s expected here, and in that case, by your ladyship’s leave, to come up.”
Her ladyship turned to the girl. “May Lord John — as we do await your father — come up?”
“As suits you, please!”
“He may come up,” said Lady Sandgate to Gotch. “His lordship’s expected.” She had a pause till they were alone again, when she went on to her companion: “You asked me just now if I understood. Well — I do understand!”
Lady Grace, with Gotch’s withdrawal, which left the door open, had reached the passage to the other room. “Then you’ll excuse me!”— she made her escape.
Lord John, reannounced the next instant from the nearest quarter and quite waiving salutations, left no doubt of the high pitch of his eagerness and tension as soon as the door had closed behind him. “What on earth then do you suppose he has come back to do —?” To which he added while his hostess’s gesture impatiently disclaimed conjecture: “Because when a fellow really finds himself the centre of a cyclone ——!”
“Isn’t it just at the centre,” she interrupted, “that you keep remarkably still, and only in the suburbs that you feel the rage? I count on dear Theign’s doing nothing in the least foolish —!”
“Ah, but he can’t have chucked everything for nothing,” Lord John sharply returned; “and wherever you place him in the rumpus he can’t not meet somehow, hang it, such an assault on his character as a great nobleman and good citizen.”
“It’s his luck to have become with the public of the newspapers the scapegoat-inchief: for the sins, so-called, of a lot of people!” Lady Sandgate inconclusively sighed.
“Yes,” Lord John concluded for her, “the mercenary millions on whose traffic in their trumpery values — when they’re so lucky as to have any! — this isn’t a patch!”
“Oh, there are cases and cases: situations and responsibilities so intensely differ!”— that appeared on the whole, for her ladyship, the moral to be gathered.
“Of course everything differs, all round, from everything,” Lord John went on; “and who in the world knows anything of his own case but the victim of circumstances exposing himself, for the highest and purest motives, to be literally torn to pieces?”
“Well,” said Lady Sandgate as, in her strained suspense, she freshly consulted her bracelet watch, “I hope he isn’t already torn — if you tell me you’ve been to Kitty’s.”
“Oh, he was all right so far: he had arrived and gone out again,” the young man explained, “as Lady Imber hadn’t been at home.”
“Ah cool Kitty!” his hostess sighed again — but diverted, as she spoke, by the reappearance of her butler, this time positively preceding Lord Theign, whom she met, when he presently stood before her, his garb of travel exchanged for consummate afternoon dress, with yearning tenderness and compassionate curiosity. “At last, dearest friend — what a joy! But with Kitty not at home to receive you?”
That young woman’s parent made light of it for the indulged creature’s sake. “Oh I knew my Kitty! I dressed and I find her at five-thirty.” To which he added as he only took in further, without expression, Lord John: “But Bender, who came there before my arrival — he hasn’t tried for me here?”
It was a point on which Lord John himself could at least be expressive. “I met him at the club at luncheon; he had had your letter — but for which chance, my dear man, I should have known nothing. You’ll see him all right at this house; but I’m glad, if I may say so, Theign,” the speaker pursued with some emphasis —“I’m glad, you know, to get hold of you first.”
Lord Theign seemed about to ask for the meaning of this remark, but his other companion’s apprehension had already overflowed. “You haven’t come back, have you — to whatever it may be! — for trouble of any sort with Breckenridge?”
His lordship transferred his penetration to this fair friend, “Have you become so intensely absorbed — these remarkable days! — in ‘Breckenridge’?”
She felt the shadow, you would have seen, of his claimed right, or at least privilege, of search — yet easily, after an instant, emerged clear. “I’ve thought and dreamt but of you — suspicious man! — in proportion as the clamour has spread; and Mr. Bender meanwhile, if you want to know, hasn’t been near me once!”
Lord John came in a manner, and however unconsciously, to her aid. “You’d have seen, if he had been, what’s the matter with him, I think — and what perhaps Theign has seen from his own letter: since,” he went on to his fellow-visitor, “I understood him a week ago to have been much taken up with writing you.”
Lord Theign received this without comment, only again with an air of expertly sounding the speaker; after which he gave himself afresh for a moment to Lady Sandgate. “I’ve not come home for any clamour, as you surely know me well enough to believe; or to notice for a minute the cheapest insolence and aggression — which frankly scarce reached me out there; or which, so far as it did, I was daily washed clean of by those blest waters. I returned on Mr. Bender’s letter,” he then vouchsafed to Lord John —“three extraordinarily vulgar pages about the egregious Pap-pendick!”
“About his having suddenly turned up in person, yes, and, as Breckenridge says, marked the picture down?”— the young man was clearly all-knowing. “That has of course weighed on Bender — being confirmed apparently, on the whole, by the drift of public opinion.”
Lord Theign took, on this, with a frank show of reaction from some of his friend’s terms, a sharp turn off; he even ironically indicated the babbler or at least the blunderer in question to Lady Sandgate. “He too has known me so long, and he comes here to talk to me of ‘the drift of public opinion’!” After which he quite charged at his vain informant. “Am I to tell you again that I snap my fingers at the drift of public opinion? — which is but another name for the chatter of all the fools one doesn’t know, in addition to all those (and plenty of ’em!) one damnably does.”
Lady Sandgate, by a turn of the hand, dropped oil from her golden cruse. “Ah, you did that, in your own grand way, before you went abroad!”
“I don’t speak of the matter, my dear man, in the light of its effect on you,” Lord John importantly explained —“but in the light of its effect on Bender; who so consumedly wants the picture, if he is to have it, to be a Mantovano, but seems unable to get it taken at last for anything but the fine old Moretto that of course it has always been.”
Lord Theign, in growing disgust at the whole beastly complication, betrayed more and more the odd pitch of the temper that had abruptly restored him with such incalculable weight to the scene of action. “Well, isn’t a fine old Moretto good enough for him; confound him?”
It pulled up not a little Lord John, who yet made his point. “A fine old Moretto, you know, was exactly what he declined at Dedborough — for its comparative, strictly comparative, insignificance; and he only thought of the picture when the wind began to rise for the enormous rarity —”
“That that mendacious young cad who has bamboozled Grace,” Lord Theign broke in, “tried to befool us, for his beggarly reasons, into claiming for it?”
Lady Sandgate renewed her mild influence. “Ah, the knowing people haven’t had their last word — the possible Mantovano isn’t exploded yet!” Her noble friend, however, declined the offered spell. “I’ve had enough of the knowing people — the knowing people are serpents! My picture’s to take or to leave — and it’s what I’ve come back, if you please, John, to say to your man to his face.”
This declaration had a report as sharp and almost as multiplied as the successive cracks of a discharged revolver; yet when the light smoke cleared Lady Sand-gate at least was still left standing and smiling. “Yes, why in mercy’s name can’t he choose which? — and why does he write him, dreadful Breckenridge, such tiresome argumentative letters?”
Lord John took up her idea as with the air of something that had been working in him rather vehemently, though under due caution too, as a consequence of this exchange, during which he had apprehensively watched his elder. “I don’t think I quite see how, my dear Theign, the poor chap’s letter was so offensive.”
In that case his dear Theign could tell him. “Because it was a tissue of expressions that may pass current — over counters and in awful newspapers — in his extraordinary world or country, but that I decline to take time to puzzle out here.”
“If he didn’t make himself understood,” Lord John took leave to laugh, “it must indeed have been an unusual production for Bender.”
“Oh, I often, with the wild beauty, if you will, of so many of his turns, haven’t a notion,” Lady Sandgate confessed with an equal gaiety, “of what he’s talking about.”
“I think I never miss his weird sense,” her younger guest again loyally contended —“and in fact as a general thing I rather like it!”
“I happen to like nothing that I don’t enjoy,” Lord Theign rejoined with some asperity —“and so far as I do follow the fellow he assumes on my part an interest in his expenditure of purchase-money that I neither feel nor pretend to. He doesn’t want — by what I spell out — the picture he refused at Dedborough; he may possibly want — if one reads it so — the picture on view in Bond Street; and he yet appears to make, with great emphasis, the stupid ambiguous point that these two ‘articles’ (the greatest of Morettos an ‘article’!) haven’t been ‘by now’ proved different: as if I engaged with him that I myself would so prove them!”
Lord John indulged in a pause — but also in a suggestion. “He must allude to your hoping — when you allowed us to place the picture with Mackintosh — that it would show to all London in the most precious light conceivable.”
“Well, if it hasn’t so shown”— and Lord Theign stared as if mystified —“what in the world’s the meaning of this preposterous racket?”
“The racket is largely,” his young friend explained, “the vociferation of the people who contradict each other about it.”
On which their hostess sought to enliven the gravity of the question. “Some — yes — shouting on the housetops that’s a Mantovano of the Mantovanos, and others shrieking back at them that they’re donkeys if not criminals.”
“He may take it for whatever he likes,” said Lord Theign, heedless of these contributions, “he may father it on Michael Angelo himself if he’ll but clear out with it and let me alone!”
“What he’d like to take it for,” Lord John at this point saw his way to remark, “is something in the nature of a Hundred Thousand.”
“A Hundred Thousand?” cried his astonished friend.
“Quite, I dare say, a Hundred Thousand”— the young man enjoyed clearly handling even by the lips so round a sum.
Lady Sandgate disclaimed however with agility any appearance of having gaped. “Why, haven’t you yet realised, Theign, that those are the American figures?”
His lordship looked at her fixedly and then did the same by Lord John, after which he waited a little. “I’ve nothing to do with the American figures — which seem to me, if you press me, you know, quite intolerably vulgar.”
“Well, I’d be as vulgar as anybody for a Hundred Thousand!” Lady Sandgate hastened to proclaim.
“Didn’t he let us know at Dedborough,” Lord John asked of the master of that seat, “that he had no use, as he said, for lower values?”
“I’ve heard him remark myself,” said their companion, rising to the monstrous memory, “that he wouldn’t take a cheap picture — even though a ‘handsome’ one — as a present.”
“And does he call the thing round the corner a cheap picture?” the proprietor of the work demanded.
Lord John threw up his arms with a grin of impatience. “All he wants to do, don’t you see? is to prevent your making it one!”
Lord Theign glared at this imputation to him of a low ductility. “I offered the thing, as it was, at an estimate worthy of it — and of me.”
“My dear reckless friend,” his young adviser protested, “you named no figure at all when it came to the point ——!”
“It didn’t come to the point! Nothing came to the point but that I put a Moretto on view; as a thing, yes, perfectly”— Lord Theign accepted the reminding gesture —“on which a rich American had an eye and in which he had, so to speak, an interest. That was what I wanted, and so we left it — parting each of us ready but neither of us bound.”
“Ah, Mr. Bender’s bound, as he’d say,” Lady Sand-gate interposed —”‘bound’ to make you swallow the enormous luscious plum that your appetite so morbidly rejects!”
“My appetite, as morbid as you like”— her old friend had shrewdly turned on her —“is my own affair, and if the fellow must deal in enormities I warn him to carry them elsewhere!”
Lord John, plainly, by this time, was quite exasperated at the absurdity of him. “But how can’t you see that it’s only a plum, as she says, for a plum and an eye for an eye — since the picture itself, with this huge ventilation, is now quite a different affair?”
“How the deuce a different affair when just what the man himself confesses is that, in spite of all the chatter of the prigs and pedants, there’s no really established ground for treating it as anything but the same?” On which, as having so unanswerably spoken, Lord Theign shook himself free again, in his high petulance, and moved restlessly to where the passage to the other room appeared to offer his nerves an issue; all moreover to the effect of suggesting to us that something still other than what he had said might meanwhile work in him behind and beneath that quantity. The spectators of his trouble watched him, for the time, in uncertainty and with a mute but associated comment on the perversity and oddity he had so suddenly developed; Lord John giving a shrug of almost bored despair and Lady Sandgate signalling caution and tact for their action by a finger flourished to her lips, and in fact at once proceeding to apply these arts. The subject of her attention had still remained as in worried thought; he had even mechanically taken up a book from a table — which he then, after an absent glance at it, tossed down.
“You’re so detached from reality, you adorable dreamer,” she began —“and unless you stick to that you might as well have done nothing. What you call the pedantry and priggishness and all the rest of it is exactly what poor Breckenridge asked almost on his knees, wonderful man, to be allowed to pay you for; since even if the meddlers and chatterers haven’t settled anything for those who know — though which of the elect themselves after all does seem to know? — it’s a great service rendered him to have started such a hare to run!”
Lord John took freedom to throw off very much the same idea. “Certainly his connection with the whole question and agitation makes no end for his glory.”
It didn’t, that remark, bring their friend back to him, but it at least made his indifference flash with derision. “His ‘glory’— Mr. Bender’s glory? Why, they quite universally loathe him — judging by the stuff they print!”
“Oh, here — as a corrupter of our morals and a promoter of our decay, even though so many are flat on their faces to him — yes! But it’s another affair over there where the eagle screams like a thousand steam-whistles and the newspapers flap like the leaves of the forest: there he’ll be, if you’ll only let him, the biggest thing going; since sound, in that air, seems to mean size, and size to be all that counts. If he said of the thing, as you recognise,” Lord John went on, “‘It’s going to be a Mantovano,’ why you can bet your life that it is — that it has got to be some kind of a one.”
His fellow-guest, at this, drew nearer again, irritated, you would have been sure, by the unconscious infelicity of the pair — worked up to something quite openly wilful and passionate. “No kind of a furious flaunting one, under my patronage, that I can prevent, my boy! The Dedborough picture in the market — owing to horrid little circumstances that regard myself alone — is the Dedborough picture at a decent, sufficient, civilised Dedborough price, and nothing else whatever; which I beg you will take as my last word on the subject.”
Lord John, trying whether he could take it, momentarily mingled his hushed state with that of their hostess, to whom he addressed a helpless look; after which, however, he appeared to find that he could only reassert himself. “May I nevertheless reply that I think you’ll not be able to prevent anything? — since the discussed object will completely escape your control in New York!”
“And almost any discussed object”— Lady Sand-gate rose to the occasion also —“is in New York, by what one hears, easily worth a Hundred Thousand!”
Lord Theign looked from one of them to the other. “I sell the man a Hundred Thousand worth of swagger and advertisement; and of fraudulent swagger and objectionable advertisement at that?”
“Well”— Lord John was but briefly baffled —“when the picture’s his you can’t help its doing what it can and what it will for him anywhere!”
“Then it isn’t his yet,” the elder man retorted —“and I promise you never will be if he has sent you to me with his big drum!”
Lady Sandgate turned sadly on this to her associate in patience, as if the case were now really beyond them. “Yes, how indeed can it ever become his if Theign simply won’t let him pay for it?”
Her question was unanswerable. “It’s the first time in all my life I’ve known a man feel insulted, in such a piece of business, by happening not to be, in the usual way, more or less swindled!”
“Theign is unable to take it in,” her ladyship explained, “that — as I’ve heard it said of all these money-monsters of the new type — Bender simply can’t afford not to be cited and celebrated as the biggest buyer who ever lived.”
“Ah, cited and celebrated at my expense — say it at once and have it over, that I may enjoy what you all want to do to me!”
“The dear man’s inimitable — at his ‘expense’!” It was more than Lord John could bear as he fairly flung himself off in his derisive impotence and addressed his wail to Lady Sandgate.
“Yes, at my expense is exactly what I mean,” Lord Theign asseverated —“at the expense of my modest claim to regulate my behaviour by my own standards. There you perfectly are about the man, and it’s precisely what I say — that he’s to hustle and harry me because he’s a money-monster: which I never for a moment dreamed of, please understand, when I let you, John, thrust him at me as a pecuniary resource at Dedborough. I didn’t put my property on view that he might blow about it ———!”
“No, if you like it,” Lady Sandgate returned; “but you certainly didn’t so arrange”— she seemed to think her point somehow would help —“that you might blow about it yourself!”
“Nobody wants to ‘blow,’” Lord John more stoutly interposed, “either hot or cold, I take it; but I really don’t see the harm of Bender’s liking to be known for the scale of his transactions — actual or merely imputed even, if you will; since that scale is really so magnificent.”
Lady Sandgate half accepted, half qualified this plea. “The only question perhaps is why he doesn’t try for some precious work that somebody — less delicious than dear Theign — can be persuaded on bended knees to accept a hundred thousand for.”
“‘Try’ for one?”— her younger visitor took it up while her elder more attentively watched him. “That was exactly what he did try for when he pressed you so hard in vain for the great Sir Joshua.”
“Oh well, he mustn’t come back to that — must he, Theign?” her ladyship cooed.
That personage failed to reply, so that Lord John went on, unconscious apparently of the still more suspicious study to which he exposed himself. “Besides which there are no things of that magnitude knocking about, don’t you know? — they’ve got to be worked up first if they’re to reach the grand publicity of the Figure! Would you mind,” he continued to his noble monitor, “an agreement on some such basis as this? — that you shall resign yourself to the biggest equivalent you’ll squeamishly consent to take, if it’s at the same time the smallest he’ll squeamishly consent to offer; but that, that done, you shall leave him free ——”
Lady Sandgate took it up straight, rounding it off, as their companion only waited. “Leave him free to talk about the sum offered and the sum taken as practically one and the same?”
“Ah, you know,” Lord John discriminated, “he doesn’t ‘talk’ so much himself — there’s really nothing blatant or crude about poor Bender. It’s the rate at which — by the very way he’s ‘fixed’: an awful way indeed, I grant you! — a perfect army of reporter-wretches, close at his heels, are always talking for him and of him.”
Lord Theign spoke hereupon at last with the air as of an impulse that had been slowly gathering force. “You talk for him, my dear chap, pretty well. You urge his case, my honour, quite as if you were assured of a commission on the job — on a fine ascending scale! Has he put you up to that proposition, eh? Do you get a handsome percentage and are you to make a good thing of it?”
The young man coloured under this stinging pleasantry — whether from a good conscience affronted or from a bad one made worse; but he otherwise showed a bold front, only bending his eyes a moment on his watch. “As he’s to come to you himself — and I don’t know why the mischief he doesn’t come! — he will answer you that graceful question.”
“Will he answer it,” Lord Theign asked, “with the veracity that the suggestion you’ve just made on his behalf represents him as so beautifully adhering to?” On which he again quite fiercely turned his back and recovered his detachment, the others giving way behind him to a blanker dismay.
Lord John, in spite of this however, pumped up a tone. “I don’t see why you should speak as if I were urging some abomination.”
“Then I’ll tell you why!”— and Lord Theign was upon him again for the purpose. “Because I had rather give the cursed thing away outright and for good and all than that it should hang out there another day in the interest of such equivocations!”
Lady Sandgate’s dismay yielded to her wonder, and her wonder apparently in turn to her amusement. “‘Give it away,’ my dear friend, to a man who only longs to smother you in gold?”
Her dear friend, however, had lost patience with her levity. “Give it away — just for a luxury of protest and a stoppage of chatter — to some cause as unlike as possible that of Mr. Bender’s power of sound and his splendid reputation: to the Public, to the Authorities, to the Thingumbob, to the Nation!”
Lady Sandgate broke into horror while Lord John stood sombre and stupefied. “Ah, my dear creature, you’ve flights of extravagance ——!”
“One thing’s very certain,” Lord Theign quite heedlessly pursued —“that the thought of my property on view there does give intolerably on my nerves, more and more every minute that I’m conscious of it; so that, hang it, if one thinks of it, why shouldn’t I, for my relief, do again, damme, what I like? — that is bang the door in their faces, have the show immediately stopped?” He turned with the attraction of this idea from one of his listeners to the other. “It’s my show — it isn’t Bender’s, surely! — and I can do just as I choose with it.”
“Ah, but isn’t that the very point?”— and Lady Sandgate put it to Lord John. “Isn’t it Bender’s show much more than his?”
Her invoked authority, however, in answer to this, made but a motion of disappointment and disgust at so much rank folly — while Lord Theign, on the other hand, followed up his happy thought. “Then if it’s Bender’s show, or if he claims it is, there’s all the more reason!” And it took his lordship’s inspiration no longer to flower. “See here, John — do this: go right round there this moment, please, and tell them from me to shut straight down!”
“‘Shut straight down’?” the young man abhorrently echoed.
“Stop it to-night — wind it up and end it: see?” The more the entertainer of that vision held it there the more charm it clearly took on for him. “Have the picture removed from view and the incident closed.”
“You seriously ask that of me!” poor Lord John quavered.
“Why in the world shouldn’t I? It’s a jolly lot less than you asked of me a month ago at Dedborough.”
“What then am I to say to them?” Lord John spoke but after a long moment, during which he had only looked hard and — an observer might even then have felt — ominously at his taskmaster.
That personage replied as if wholly to have done with the matter. “Say anything that comes into your clever head. I don’t really see that there’s anything else for you!” Lady Sandgate sighed to the messenger, who gave no sign save of positive stiffness.
The latter seemed still to weigh his displeasing obligation; then he eyed his friend significantly — almost portentously. “Those are absolutely your sentiments?”
“Those are absolutely my sentiments”— and Lord Theign brought this out as with the force of a physical push.
“Very well then!” But the young man, indulging in a final, a fairly sinister, study of such a dealer in the arbitrary, made sure of the extent, whatever it was, of his own wrong. “Not one more day?”
Lord Theign only waved him away. “Not one more hour!”
He paused at the door, this reluctant spokesman, as if for some supreme protest; but after another prolonged and decisive engagement with the two pairs of eyes that waited, though differently, on his performance, he clapped on his hat as in the rage of his resentment and departed on his mission.
“He can’t bear to do it, poor man!” Lady Sand-gate ruefully remarked to her remaining guest after Lord John had, under extreme pressure, dashed out to Bond Street.
“I dare say not!”— Lord Theign, flushed with the felicity of self-expression, made little of that. “But he goes too far, you see, and it clears the air — pouah! Now therefore”— and he glanced at the clock —“I must go to Kitty.”
“Kitty — with what Kitty wants,” Lady Sandgate opined —“won’t thank you for that!”
“She never thanks me for anything”— and the fact of his resignation clearly added here to his bitterness. “So it’s no great loss!”
“Won’t you at any rate,” his hostess asked, “wait for Bender?”
His lordship cast it to the winds. “What have I to do with him now?”
“Why surely if he’ll accept your own price —!”
Lord Theign thought — he wondered; and then as if fairly amused at himself: “Hanged if I know what is my own price!” After which he went for his hat. “But there’s one thing,” he remembered as he came back with it: “where’s my too, too unnatural daughter?”
“If you mean Grace and really want her I’ll send and find out.”
“Not now”— he bethought himself. “But does she see that chatterbox?”
“Mr. Crimble? Yes, she sees him.”
He kept his eyes on her. “Then how far has it gone?”
Lady Sandgate overcame an embarrassment. “Well, not even yet, I think, so far as they’d like.”
“They’d ‘like’— heaven save the mark! — to marry?”
“I suspect them of it. What line, if it should come to that,” she asked, “would you then take?”
He was perfectly prompt. “The line that for Grace it’s simply ignoble.”
The force of her deprecation of such language was qualified by tact. “Ah, darling, as dreadful as that?”
He could but view the possibility with dark resentment. “It lets us so down — from what we’ve always been and done; so down, down, down that I’m amazed you don’t feel it!”
“Oh, I feel there’s still plenty to keep you up!” she soothingly laughed.
He seemed to consider this vague amount — which he apparently judged, however, not so vast as to provide for the whole yearning of his nature. “Well, my dear,” he thus more blandly professed, “I shall need all the extra agrément that your affection can supply.”
If nothing could have been, on this, richer response, nothing could at the same time have bee more pleasing than her modesty. “Ah, my affectionate Theign, is, as I think you know, a fountain always in flood; but in any more worldly element than that — as you’ve ever seen for yourself — a poor strand with my own sad affairs, a broken reed; not ‘great’ as they used so finely to call it! You are — with the natural sense of greatness and, for supreme support, the instinctive grand man doing and taking things.”
He sighed, none the less, he groaned, with his thoughts of trouble, for the strain he foresaw on these resolutions. “If you mean that I hold up my head, on higher grounds, I grant that I always have. But how much longer possible when my children commit such vulgarities? Why in the name of goodness are such children? What the devil has got into them, and is it really the case that when Grace offers as a proof of her license and a specimen of her taste a son-inlaw as you tell me I’m in danger of helplessly to swallow the dose?”
“Do you find Mr. Crimble,” Lady Sandgate as if there might really be something to say, “so utterly out of the question?”
“I found him on the two occasions before I went away in the last degree offensive and outrageous; but even if he charged one and one’s poor dear decent old defences with less rabid a fury everything about him would forbid that kind of relation.”
What kind of relation, if any, Hugh’s deficiencies might still render thinkable Lord Theign was kept from going on to mention by the voice of Mr. Gotch, who had thrown open the door to the not altogether assured sound of “Mr. Breckenridge Bender.” The guest in possession gave a cry of impatience, but Lady Sandgate said “Coming up?”
“If his lordship will see him.”
“Oh, he’s beyond his time,” his lordship pronounced —“I can’t see him now!”
“Ah, but mustn’t you — and mayn’t I then?” She waited, however, for no response to signify to her servant “Let him come,” and her companion could but exhale a groan of reluctant accommodation as if he wondered at the point she made of it. It enlightened him indeed perhaps a little that she went on while Gotch did her bidding. “Does the kind of relation you’d be condemned to with Mr. Crimble let you down, down, down, as you say, more than the relation you’ve been having with Mr. Bender?”
Lord Theign had for it the most uninforming of stares. “Do you mean don’t I hate ’em equally both?”
She cut his further reply short, however, by a “Hush!” of warning — Mr. Bender was there and his introducer had left them.
Lord Theign, full of his purpose of departure, sacrificed hereupon little to ceremony. “I’ve but a moment, to my regret, to give you, Mr. Bender, and if you’ve been unavoidably detained, as you great bustling people are so apt to be, it will perhaps still be soon enough for your comfort to hear from me that I’ve just given order to close our exhibition. From the present hour on, sir”— he put it with the firmness required to settle the futility of an appeal.
Mr. Bender’s large surprise lost itself, however, promptly enough, in Mr. Bender’s larger ease. “Why, do you really mean it, Lord Theign? — removing already from view a work that gives innocent gratification to thousands?”
“Well,” said his lordship curtly, “if thousands have seen it I’ve done what I wanted, and if they’ve been gratified I’m content — and invite you to be.”
Mr. Bender showed more keenness for this richer implication. “In other words it’s I who may remove the picture?”
“Well — if you’ll take it on my estimate.”
“But what, Lord Theign, all this time,” Mr. Bender almost pathetically pleaded, “is your estimate?”
The parting guest had another pause, which prolonged itself, after he had reached the door, in a deep solicitation of their hostess’s conscious eyes. This brief passage apparently inspired his answer. “Lady Sandgate will tell you.” The door closed behind him.
The charming woman smiled then at her other friend, whose comprehensive presence appeared now to demand of her some account of these strange proceedings. “He means that your own valuation is much too shockingly high.”
“But how can I know how much unless I find out what he’ll take?” The great collector’s spirit had, in spite of its volume, clearly not reached its limit of expansion. “Is he crazily waiting for the thing to be proved not what Mr. Crimble claims?”
“No, he’s waiting for nothing — since he holds that claim demolished by Pappendick’s tremendous negative, which you wrote to tell him of.”
Vast, undeveloped and suddenly grave, Mr. Bender’s countenance showed like a barren tract under a black cloud. “I wrote to report, fair and square, on Pap-pendick, but to tell him I’d take the picture just the same, negative and all.”
“Ah, but take it in that way not for what it is but for what it isn’t.”
“We know nothing about what it ‘isn’t,’” said Mr. Bender, “after all that has happened — we’ve only learned a little better every day what it is.”
“You mean,” his companion asked, “the biggest bone of artistic contention ——?”
“Yes,”— he took it from her —“the biggest that has been thrown into the arena for quite a while. I guess I can do with it for that.”
Lady Sandgate, on this, after a moment, renewed her personal advance; it was as if she had now made sure of the soundness of her main bridge. “Well, if it’s the biggest bone I won’t touch it; I’ll leave it to be mauled by my betters. But since his lordship has asked me to name a price, dear Mr. Bender, I’ll name one — and as you prefer big prices I’ll try to make it suit you. Only it won’t be for the portrait of a person nobody is agreed about. The whole world is agreed, you know, about my great-grandmother.”
“Oh, shucks, Lady Sandgate!”— and her visitor turned from her with the hunch of overcharged shoulders.
But she apparently felt that she held him, or at least that even if such a conviction might be fatuous she must now put it to the touch. “You’ve been delivered into my hands — too charmingly; and you won’t really pretend that you don’t recognise that and in fact rather like it.”
He faced about to her again as to a case of coolness unparalleled — though indeed with a quick lapse of real interest in the question of whether he had been artfully practised upon; an indifference to bad debts or peculation like that of some huge hotel or other business involving a margin for waste. He could afford, he could work waste too, clearly — and what was it, that term, you might have felt him ask, but a mean measure, anyway? quite as the “artful,” opposed to his larger game, would be the hiding and pouncing of children at play. “Do I gather that those uncanny words of his were just meant to put me off?” he inquired. And then as she but boldly and smilingly shrugged, repudiating responsibility, “Look here, Lady Sandgate, ain’t you honestly going to help me?” he pursued.
This engaged her sincerity without affecting her gaiety. “Mr. Bender, Mr. Bender, I’ll help you if you’ll help me!”
“You’ll really get me something from him to go on with?”
“I’ll get you something from him to go on with.”
“That’s all I ask — to get that. Then I can move the way I want. But without it I’m held up.”
“You shall have it,” she replied, “if I in turn may look to you for a trifle on account.”
“Well,” he dryly gloomed at her, “what do you call a trifle?”
“I mean”— she waited but an instant —“what you would feel as one.”
“That won’t do. You haven’t the least idea, Lady Sandgate,” he earnestly said, “how I feel at these foolish times. I’ve never got used to them yet.”
“Ah, don’t you understand,” she pressed, “that if I give you an advantage I’m completely at your mercy?”
“Well, what mercy,” he groaned, “do you deserve?”
She waited a little, brightly composed — then she indicated her inner shrine, the whereabouts of her precious picture. “Go and look at her again and you’ll see.”
His protest was large, but so, after a moment, was his compliance — his heavy advance upon the other room, from just within the doorway of which the great Lawrence was serenely visible. Mr. Bender gave it his eyes once more — though after the fashion verily of a man for whom it had now no freshness of a glamour, no shade of a secret; then he came back to his hostess. “Do you call giving me an advantage squeezing me by your sweet modesty for less than I may possibly bear?”
“How can I say fairer,” she returned, “than that, with my backing about the other picture, which I’ve passed you my word for, thrown in, I’ll resign myself to whatever you may be disposed — characteristically! — to give for this one.”
“If it’s a question of resignation,” said Mr. Bender, “you mean of course what I may be disposed — characteristically! — not to give.”
She played on him for an instant all her radiance. “Yes then, you dear sharp rich thing!”
“And you take in, I assume,” he pursued, “that I’m just going to lean on you, for what I want, with the full weight of a determined man.”
“Well,” she laughed, “I promise you I’ll thoroughly obey the direction of your pressure.”
“All right then!” And he stopped before her, in his unrest, monumentally pledged, yet still more massively immeasurable. “How’ll you have it?”
She bristled as with all the possible beautiful choices; then she shed her selection as a heaving fruit-tree might have dropped some round ripeness. It was for her friend to pick up his plum and his privilege. “Will you write a cheque?”
“Yes, if you want it right away.” To which, however, he added, clapping vainly a breast-pocket: “But my cheque-book’s down in my car.”
“At the door?” She scarce required his assent to touch a bell. “I can easily send for it.” And she threw off while they waited: “It’s so sweet your ‘flying round’ with your cheque-book!”
He put it with promptitude another way. “It flies round pretty well with Mr ——!”
“Mr. Bender’s cheque-book — in his car,” she went on to Gotch, who had answered her summons.
The owner of the interesting object further instructed him: “You’ll find in the pocket a large red morocco case.”
“Very good, sir,” said Gotch — but with another word for his mistress. “Lord John would like to know —”
“Lord John’s there?” she interrupted.
Gotch turned to the open door. “Here he is, my lady.”
She accommodated herself at once, under Mr. Bender’s eye, to the complication involved in his lordship’s presence. “It’s he who went round to Bond Street.”
Mr. Bender stared, but saw the connection. “To stop the show?” And then as the young man was already there: “You’ve stopped the show?”
“It’s ‘on’ more than ever!” Lord John responded while Gotch retired: a hurried, flurried, breathless Lord John, strikingly different from the backward messenger she had lately seen despatched. “But Theign should be here!”— he addressed her excitedly. “I announce you a call from the Prince.”
“The Prince?”— she gasped as for the burden of the honour. “He follows you?”
Mr. Bender, with an eagerness and a candour there was no mistaking, recognised on behalf of his ampler action a world of associational advantage and auspicious possibility. “Is the Prince after the thing?”
Lord John remained, in spite of this challenge, conscious of nothing but his message. “He was there with Mackintosh — to see and admire the picture; which he thinks, by the way, a Mantovano pure and simple! — and did me the honour to remember me. When he heard me report to Mackintosh in his presence the sentiments expressed to me here by our noble friend and of which, embarrassed though I doubtless was,” the young man pursued to Lady Sandgate, “I gave as clear an account as I could, he was so delighted with it that he declared they mustn’t think then of taking the thing off, but must on the contrary keep putting it forward for all it’s worth, and he would come round and congratulate and thank Theign and explain him his reasons.”
Their hostess cast about for a sign. “Why Theign is at Kitty’s, worse luck! The Prince calls on him here?”
“He calls, you see, on you, my lady — at five-forty-five; and graciously desired me so to put it you.”
“He’s very kind, but”— she took in her condition —“I’m not even dressed!”
“You’ll have time”— the young man was a comfort —“while I rush to Berkeley Square. And pardon me, Bender — though it’s so near — if I just bag your car.”
“That’s, that’s it, take his car!”— Lady Sandgate almost swept him away.
“You may use my car all right,” Mr. Bender contributed —“but what I want to know is what the man’s after.”
“The man? what man?” his friend scarce paused to ask.
“The Prince then — if you allow he is a man! Is he after my picture?”
Lord John vividly disclaimed authority. “If you’ll wait, my dear fellow, you’ll see.”
“Oh why should he ‘wait’?” burst from their cautious companion — only to be caught up, however, in the next breath, so swift her gracious revolution. “Wait, wait indeed, Mr. Bender — I won’t give you up for any Prince!” With which she appealed again to Lord John. “He wants to ‘congratulate’?”
“On Theign’s decision, as I’ve told you — which I announced to Mackintosh, by Theign’s extraordinary order, under his Highness’s nose, and which his Highness, by the same token, took up like a shot.”
Her face, as she bethought herself, was convulsed as by some quick perception of what her informant must have done and what therefore the Prince’s interest rested on; all, however, to the effect, given their actual company, of her at once dodging and covering that issue. “The decision to remove the picture?”
Lord John also observed a discretion. “He wouldn’t hear of such a thing — says it must stay stock still. So there you are!”
This determined in Mr. Bender a not unnatural, in fact quite a clamorous, series of questions. “But where are we, and what has the Prince to do with Lord Theign’s decision when that’s all I’m here for? What in thunder is Lord Theign’s decision — what was his ‘extraordinary order’?”
Lord John, too long detained and his hand now on the door, put off this solicitor as he had already been put off. “Lady Sandgate, you tell him! I rush!”
Mr. Bender saw him vanish, but all to a greater bewilderment. “What the h —— then (I beg your pardon!) is he talking about, and what ‘sentiments’ did he report round there that Lord Theign had been expressing?”
His hostess faced it not otherwise than if she had resolved not to recognise the subject of his curiosity — for fear of other recognitions. “They put everything on me, my dear man — but I haven’t the least idea.”
He looked at her askance. “Then why does the fellow say you have?”
Much at a loss for the moment, she yet found her way. “Because the fellow’s so agog that he doesn’t know what he says!” In addition to which she was relieved by the reappearance of Gotch, who bore on a salver the object he had been sent for and to which he duly called attention.
“The large red morocco case.”
Lady Sandgate fairly jumped at it. “Your blessed cheque-book. Lay it on my desk,” she said to Gotch, though waiting till he had departed again before she resumed to her visitor: “Mightn’t we conclude before he comes?”
“The Prince?” Mr. Bender’s imagination had strayed from the ground to which she sought to lead it back, and it but vaguely retraced its steps. “Will he want your great-grandmother?”
“Well, he may when he sees her!” Lady Sandgate laughed. “And Theign, when he comes, will give you on his own question, I feel sure, every information. Shall I fish it out for you?” she encouragingly asked, beside him by her secretary-desk, at which he had arrived under her persuasive guidance and where she sought solidly to establish him, opening out the gilded crimson case for his employ, so that he had but to help himself. “What enormous cheques! You can never draw one for two-pound-ten!”
“That’s exactly what you deserve I should do!” He remained after this solemnly still, however, like some high-priest circled with ceremonies; in consonance with which, the next moment, both her hands held out to him the open and immaculate page of the oblong series much as they might have presented a royal infant at the christening-font.
He failed, in his preoccupation, to receive it; so she placed it before him on the table, coming away with a brave gay “Well, I leave it to you!” She had not, restlessly revolving, kept her discreet distance for many minutes before she found herself almost face to face with the recurrent Gotch, upright at the door with a fresh announcement.
“Mr. Crimble, please — for Lady Grace.”
“Mr. Crimble again?”— she took it discomposedly.
It reached Mr. Bender at the secretary, but to a different effect. “Mr. Crimble? Why he’s just the man I want to see!”
Gotch, turning to the lobby, had only to make way for him. “Here he is, my lady.”
“Then tell her ladyship.”
“She has come down,” said Gotch while Hugh arrived and his companion withdrew, and while Lady Grace, reaching the scene from the other quarter, emerged in bright equipment — in her hat, scarf and gloves.
These young persons were thus at once confronted across the room, and the girl explained her preparation. “I was listening hard — for your knock and your voice.”
“Then know that, thank God, it’s all right!”— Hugh was breathless, jubilant, radiant.
“A Mantovano?” she delightedly cried.
“A Mantovano!” he proudly gave back.
“A Mantovano!”— it carried even Lady Sandgate away.
“A Mantovano — a sure thing?” Mr. Bender jumped up from his business, all gaping attention to Hugh.
“I’ve just left our blest Bardi,” said that young man —“who hasn’t the shadow of a doubt and is delighted to publish it everywhere.”
“Will he publish it right here to me?” Mr. Bender hungrily asked.
“Well,” Hugh smiled, “you can try him.”
“But try him how, where?” The great collector, straining to instant action, cast about for his hat “Where is he, hey?”
“Don’t you wish I’d tell you?” Hugh, in his personal elation, almost cynically answered.
“Won’t you wait for the Prince?” Lady Sandgate had meanwhile asked of her friend; but had turned more inspectingly to Lady Grace before he could reply. “My dear child — though you’re lovely! — are you sure you’re ready for him?”
“For the Prince!”— the girl was vague. “Is he coming?”
“At five-forty-five.” With which she consulted her bracelet watch, but only at once to wail for alarm. “Ah, it is that, and I’m not dressed!” She hurried off through the other room.
Mr. Bender, quite accepting her retreat, addressed himself again unabashed to Hugh: “It’s your blest Bardi I want first — I’ll take the Prince after.”
The young man clearly could afford indulgence now. “Then I left him at Long’s Hotel.”
“Why, right near! I’ll come back.” And Mr. Bender’s flight was on the wings of optimism.
But it all gave Hugh a quick question for Lady Grace. “Why does the Prince come, and what in the world’s happening?”
“My father has suddenly returned — it may have to do with that.”
The shadow of his surprise darkened visibly to that of his fear. “Mayn’t it be more than anything else to give you and me his final curse?”
“I don’t know — and I think I don’t care. I don’t care,” she said, “so long as you’re right and as the greatest light of all declares you are.”
“He is the greatest”— Hugh was vividly of that opinion now: “I could see it as soon as I got there with him, the charming creature! There, before the holy thing, and with the place, by good luck, for those great moments, practically to ourselves — without Macintosh to take in what was happening or any one else at all to speak of — it was but a matter of ten minutes: he had come, he had seen, and I had conquered.”
“Naturally you had!”— the girl hung on him for it; “and what was happening beyond everything else was that for your original dear divination, one of the divinations of genius — with every creature all these ages so stupid — you were being baptized on the spot a great man.”
“Well, he did let poor Pappendick have it at least-he doesn’t think he’s one: that that eminent judge couldn’t, even with such a leg up, rise to my level or seize my point. And if you really want to know,” Hugh went on in his gladness, “what for us has most particularly and preciously taken place, it is that in his opinion, for my career —”
“Your reputation,” she cried, “blazes out and your fortune’s made?”
He did a happy violence to his modesty. “Well, Bardi adores intelligence and takes off his hat to me.”
“Then you need take off yours to nobody!”— such was Lady Grace’s proud opinion. “But I should like to take off mine to him,” she added; “which I seem to have put on — to get out and away with you — expressly for that.”
Hugh, as he looked her over, took it up in bliss. “Ah, we’ll go forth together to him then — thanks to your happy, splendid impulse! — and you’ll back him gorgeously up in the good he thinks of me.”
His friend yet had on this a sombre second thought. “The only thing is that our awful American ——!”
But he warned her with a raised hand. “Not to speak of our awful Briton!”
For the door had opened from the lobby, admitting Lord Theign, unattended, who, at sight of his daughter and her companion, pulled up and held them a minute in reprehensive view — all at least till Hugh undauntedly, indeed quite cheerfully, greeted him.
“Since you find me again in your path, my lord, it’s because I’ve a small, but precious document to deliver you, if you’ll allow me to do so; which I feel it important myself to place in your hand.” He drew from his breast a pocket-book and extracted thence a small unsealed envelope; retaining the latter a trifle helplessly in his hand while Lord Theign only opposed to this demonstration an unmitigated blankness. He went none the less bravely on. “I mentioned to you the last time we somewhat infelicitously met that I intended to appeal to another and probably more closely qualified artistic authority on the subject of your so-called Moretto; and I in fact saw the picture half an hour ago with Bardi of Milan, who, there in presence of it, did absolute, did ideal justice, as I had hoped, to the claim I’ve been making. I then went with him to his hotel, close at hand, where he dashed me off this brief and rapid, but quite conclusive, Declaration, which, if you’ll be so good as to read it, will enable you perhaps to join us in regarding the vexed question as settled.”
His lordship, having faced this speech without a sign, rested on the speaker a somewhat more confessed intelligence, then looked hard at the offered note and hard at the floor — all to avert himself actively afterward and, with his head a good deal elevated, add to his distance, as it were, from every one and everything so indelicately thrust on his attention. This movement had an ambiguous makeshift air, yet his companions, under the impression of it, exchanged a hopeless look. His daughter none the less lifted her voice. “If you won’t take what he has for you from Mr. Crimble, father, will you take it from me?” And then as after some apparent debate he appeared to decide to heed her, “It may be so long again,” she said, “before you’ve a chance to do a thing I ask.”
“The chance will depend on yourself!” he returned with high dry emphasis. But he held out his hand for the note Hugh had given her and with which she approached him; and though face to face they seemed more separated than brought near by this contact without commerce. She turned away on one side when he had taken the missive, as Hugh had turned away on the other; Lord Theign drew forth the contents of the envelope and broodingly and inexpressively read the few lines; after which, as having done justice to their sense, he thrust the paper forth again till his daughter became aware and received it. She restored it to her friend while her father dandled off anew, but coming round this time, almost as by a circuit of the room, and meeting Hugh, who took advantage of it to repeat by a frank gesture his offer of Bardi’s attestation. Lord Theign passed with the young man on this a couple of mute minutes of the same order as those he had passed with Lady Grace in the same connection; their eyes dealt deeply with their eyes — but to the effect of his lordship’s accepting the gift, which after another minute he had slipped into his breast-pocket. It was not till then that he brought out a curt but resonant “Thank you!” While the others awaited his further pleasure he again bethought himself — then he addressed Lady Grace. “I must let Mr. Bender know ——”
“Mr. Bender,” Hugh interposed, “does know. He’s at the present moment with the author of that note at Long’s Hotel.”
“Then I must now write him”— and his lordship, while he spoke and from where he stood, looked in refined disconnectedness out of the window.
“Will you write there?”— and his daughter indicated Lady Sandgate’s desk, at which we have seen Mr. Bender so importantly seated.
Lord Theign had a start at her again speaking to him; but he bent his view on the convenience awaiting him and then, as to have done with so tiresome a matter, took advantage of it. He went and placed himself, and had reached for paper and a pen when, struck apparently with the display of some incongruous object, he uttered a sharp “Hallo!”
“You don’t find things?” Lady Grace asked — as remote from him in one quarter of the room as Hugh was in another.
“On the contrary!” he oddly replied. But plainly suppressing any further surprise he committed a few words to paper and put them into an envelope, which he addressed and brought away.
“If you like,” said Hugh urbanely, “I’ll carry him that myself.”
“But how do you know what it consists of?”
“I don’t know. But I risk it.”
His lordship weighed the proposition in a high impersonal manner — he even nervously weighed his letter, shaking it with one hand upon the finger-tips of the other; after which, as finally to acquit himself of any measurable obligation, he allowed Hugh, by a surrender of the interesting object, to redeem his offer of service. “Then you’ll learn,” he simply said.
“And may I learn?” asked Lady Grace.
“You?” The tone made so light of her that it was barely interrogative.
“May I go with him?”
Her father looked at the question as at some cup of supreme bitterness — a nasty and now quite regular dose with which his lips were familiar, but before which their first movement was always tightly to close. “With me, my lord,” said Hugh at last, thoroughly determined they should open and intensifying the emphasis.
He had his effect, and Lord Theign’s answer, addressed to Lady Grace, made indifference very comprehensive. “You may do what ever you dreadfully like!”
At this then the girl, with an air that seemed to present her choice as absolutely taken, reached the door which Hugh had come across to open for her.
Here she paused as for another, a last look at her father, and her expression seemed to say to him unaidedly that, much as she would have preferred to proceed to her act without this gross disorder, she could yet find inspiration too in the very difficulty and the old faiths themselves that he left her to struggle with. All this made for depth and beauty in her serious young face — as it had indeed a force that, not indistinguishably, after an instant, his lordship lost any wish for longer exposure to. His shift of his attitude before she went out was fairly an evasion; if the extent of the levity of one of his daughter’s made him afraid, what might have been his present strange sense but a fear of the other from the extent of her gravity? Lady Grace passes from us at any rate in her laced and pearled and plumed slimness and her pale concentration — leaving her friend a moment, however, with his hand on the door.
“You thanked me just now for Bardi’s opinion after all,” Hugh said with a smile; “and it seems to me that — after all as well — I’ve grounds for thanking you!” On which he left his benefactor alone.
“Tit for tat!” There broke from Lord Theign, in his solitude, with the young man out of earshot, that vague ironic comment; which only served his turn, none the less, till, bethinking himself, he had gone back to the piece of furniture used for his late scribble and come away from it again the next minute delicately holding a fair slip that we naturally recognise as Mr. Bender’s forgotten cheque. This apparently surprising value he now studied at his ease and to the point of its even drawing from him an articulate “What in damnation —?” His speculation dropped before the return of his hostess, whose approach through the other room fell upon his ear and whom he awaited after a quick thrust of the cheque into his waistcoat.
Lady Sandgate appeared now in due — that is in the most happily adjusted — splendour; she had changed her dress for something smarter and more appropriate to the entertainment of Princes, “Tea will be downstairs,” she said. “But you’re alone?”
“I’ve just parted,” her friend replied, “with Grace and Mr. Crimble.”
“‘Parted’ with them?”— the ambiguity struck her.
“Well, they’ve gone out together to flaunt their monstrous connection!”
“You speak,” she laughed, “as if it were too gross — I They’re surely coming back?”
“Back to you, if you like — but not to me.”
“Ah, what are you and I,” she tenderly argued, “but one and the same quantity? And though you may not as yet absolutely rejoice in-well, whatever they’re doing,” she cheerfully added, “you’ll get beautifully used to it.”
“That’s just what I’m afraid of — what such horrid matters make of one!”
“At the worst then, you see”— she maintained her optimism —“the recipient of royal attentions!”
“Oh,” said her companion, whom his honour seemed to leave comparatively cold, “it’s simply as if the gracious Personage were coming to condole!”
Impatient of the lapse of time, in any case, she assured herself again of the hour. “Well, if he only does come!”
“John — the wretch!” Lord Theign returned —“will take care of that: he has nailed him and will bring him.”
“What was it then,” his friend found occasion in the particular tone of this reference to demand, “what was it that, when you sent him off, John spoke of you in Bond Street as specifically intending?”
Oh he saw it now all lucidly — if not rather luridly — and thereby the more tragically. “He described me in his nasty rage as consistently — well, heroic!”
“His rage”— she pieced it sympathetically out —“at your destroying his cherished credit with Bender?”
Lord Theign was more and more possessed of this view of the manner of it. “I had come between him and some profit that he doesn’t confess to, but that made him viciously and vindictively serve me up there, as he caught the chance, to the Prince — and the People!”
She cast about, in her intimate interest, as for some closer conception of it. “By saying that you had remarked here that you offered the People the picture —?”
“As a sacrifice — yes! — to morbid, though respectable scruples.” To which he sharply added, as if struck with her easy grasp of the scene: “But I hope you’ve nothing to call a memory for any such extravagance?”
Lady Sandgate waited — then boldly took her line. “None whatever! You had reacted against Bender — but you hadn’t gone so far as that!”
He had it now all vividly before him. “I had reacted — like a gentleman; but it didn’t thereby follow that I acted — or spoke — like a demagogue; and my mind’s a complete blank on the subject of my having done so.”
“So that there only flushes through your conscience,” she suggested, “the fact that he has forced your hand?”
Fevered with the sore sense of it his lordship wiped his brow. “He has played me, for spite, his damned impertinent trick!”
She found but after a minute — for it wasn’t easy — the right word, or the least wrong, for the situation. “Well, even if he did so diabolically commit you, you still don’t want — do you? — to back out?”
Resenting the suggestion, which restored all his nobler form, Lord Theign fairly drew himself up. “When did I ever in all my life back out?”
“Never, never in all your life of course!”— she dashed a bucketful at the flare. “And the picture after all ——!”
“The picture after all”— he took her up in cold grim gallant despair —“has just been pronounced definitely priceless.” And then to meet her gaping ignorance: “By Mr. Crimble’s latest and apparently greatest adviser, who strongly stamps it a Mantovano and whose practical affidavit I now possess.”
Poor Lady Sandgate gaped but the more — she wondered and yearned. “Definitely priceless?”
“Definitely priceless.” After which he took from its place of lurking, considerately unfolding it, the goodly slip he had removed from her blotting-book. “Worth even more therefore than what Bender so blatantly offers.”
Her attention fell with interest, from the distance at which she stood, on this confirmatory document, her recognition of which was not immediate. “And is that the affidavit?”
“This is a cheque to your order, my lady, for ten thousand pounds.”
“Ten thousand?”— she echoed it with a shout.
“Drawn by some hand unknown,” he went on quietly.
“Unknown?”— again, in her muffled joy, she let it sound out.
“Which I found there at your desk a moment ago, and thought best, in your interest, to rescue from accident or neglect; even though it be, save for the single stroke of a name begun,” he wound up with his look like a playing searchlight, “unhappily unsigned.”
“Unsigned?”— the exhibition of her design, of her defeat, kept shaking her. “Then it isn’t good —?”
“It’s a Barmecide feast, my dear!”— he had still, her kind friend, his note of grimness and also his penetration of eye. “But who is it writes you colossal cheques?”
“And then leaves them lying about?” Her case was so bad that you would have seen how she felt she must do something — something quite splendid. She recovered herself, she faced the situation with all her bright bravery of expression and aspect; conscious, you might have guessed, that she had never more strikingly embodied, on such lines, the elegant, the beautiful and the true. “Why, who can it have been but poor Breckenridge too?”
“‘Breckenridge’—?” Lord Theign had his smart echoes. “What in the world does he owe you money for?”
It took her but an instant more — she performed the great repudiation quite as she might be prepared to sweep, in the Presence impending, her grandest curtsey. “Not, you sweet suspicious thing, for my great-grandmother!” And then as his glare didn’t fade: “Bender makes my life a burden — for the love of my precious Lawrence.”
“Which you’re weakly letting him grab?”— nothing could have been finer with this than Lord Theign’s reprobation unless it had been his surprise.
She shook her head as in bland compassion for such an idea. “It isn’t a payment, you goose — it’s a bribe! I’ve withstood him, these trying weeks, as a rock the tempest; but he wrote that and left it there, the fiend, to tempt me — to corrupt me!”
“Without putting his name?”— her companion again turned over the cheque.
She bethought herself, clearly with all her genius, as to this anomaly, and the light of reality broke. “He must have been interrupted in the artful act — he sprang up with such a bound at Mr. Crimble’s news. At once then — for his interest in it — he hurried off, leaving the cheque forgotten and unfinished.” She smiled more intensely, her eyes attached, as from fascination, to the morsel of paper still handled by her friend. “But of course on his next visit he’ll add his great signature.”
“The devil he will!”— and Lord Theign, with the highest spirit, tore the crisp token into several pieces, which fluttered, as worthless now as pure snowflakes, to the floor.
“Ay, ay, ay!”— it drew from her a wail of which the character, for its sharp inconsequence, was yet comic.
This renewed his stare at her. “Do you want to back out? I mean from your noble stand.”
As quickly, however, she had saved herself. “I’d rather do even what you’re doing — offer my treasure to the Thingumbob!”
He was touched by this even to sympathy. “Will you then join me in setting the example of a great donation ———?”
“To the What-do-you-call-it?” she extravagantly smiled.
“I call it,” he said with dignity, “the ‘National Gallery.’”
She closed her eyes as with a failure of breath. “Ah my dear friend —!”
“It would convince me,” he went on, insistent and persuasive.
“Of the sincerity of my affection?”— she drew nearer to him.
“It would comfort me”— he was satisfied with his own expression. Yet in a moment, when she had come all rustlingly and fragrantly close, “It would captivate me,” he handsomely added.
“It would captivate you?” It was for her, we should have seen, to be satisfied with his expression; and, with our more informed observation of all it was a question of her giving up, she would have struck us as subtly bargaining.
He gallantly amplified. “It would peculiarly — by which I mean it would so naturally — unite us!”
Well, that was all she wanted. “Then for a complete union with you — of fact as well as of fond fancy!” she smiled —“there’s nothing, even to my one ewe lamb, I’m not ready to surrender.”
“Ah, we don’t surrender,” he urged —“we enjoy!”
“Yes,” she understood: “with the glory of our grand gift thrown in.”
“We quite swagger,” he gravely observed —“though even swaggering would after this be dull without you.”
“Oh, I’ll swagger with you!” she cried as if it quite settled and made up for everything; and then impatiently, as she beheld Lord John, whom the door had burst open to admit: “The Prince?”
“The Prince!”— the young man launched it as a call to arms.
They had fallen apart on the irruption, the pair discovered, but she flashed straight at her lover: “Then we can swagger now!”
Lord Theign had reached the open door. “I meet him below.”
Demurring, debating, however, she stayed him a moment. “But oughtn’t I— in my own house?”
His lordship caught her meaning. “You mean he may think —?” But he as easily pronounced. “He shall think the Truth!” And with a kiss of his hand to her he was gone.
Lord John, who had gazed in some wonder at these demonstrations, was quickly about to follow, but she checked him with an authority she had never before used and which was clearly the next moment to prove irresistible. “Lord John, be so good as to stop.” Looking about at the condition of a room on the point of receiving so august a character, she observed on the floor the fragments of the torn cheque, to which she sharply pointed. “And please pick up that litter!”
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