The train was half an hour late and the drive from the station longer than he had supposed, so that when he reached the house its inmates had dispersed to dress for dinner and he was conducted straight to his room. The curtains were drawn in this asylum, the candles were lighted, the fire was bright, and when the servant had quickly put out his clothes the comfortable little place became suggestive — seemed to promise a pleasant house, a various party, talks, acquaintances, affinities, to say nothing of very good cheer. He was too occupied with his profession to pay many country visits, but he had heard people who had more time for them speak of establishments where ‘they do you very well.’ He foresaw that the proprietors of Stayes would do him very well. In his bedroom at a country house he always looked first at the books on the shelf and the prints on the walls; he considered that these things gave a sort of measure of the culture and even of the character of his hosts. Though he had but little time to devote to them on this occasion a cursory inspection assured him that if the literature, as usual, was mainly American and humorous the art consisted neither of the water-colour studies of the children nor of ‘goody’ engravings. The walls were adorned with old-fashioned lithographs, principally portraits of country gentlemen with high collars and riding gloves: this suggested — and it was encouraging — that the tradition of portraiture was held in esteem. There was the customary novel of Mr. Le Fanu, for the bedside; the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight. Oliver Lyon could scarcely forbear beginning it while he buttoned his shirt.
Perhaps that is why he not only found every one assembled in the hall when he went down, but perceived from the way the move to dinner was instantly made that they had been waiting for him. There was no delay, to introduce him to a lady, for he went out in a group of unmatched men, without this appendage. The men, straggling behind, sidled and edged as usual at the door of the dining-room, and the dénouement of this little comedy was that he came to his place last of all. This made him think that he was in a sufficiently distinguished company, for if he had been humiliated (which he was not), he could not have consoled himself with the reflection that such a fate was natural to an obscure, struggling young artist. He could no longer think of himself as very young, alas, and if his position was not so brilliant as it ought to be he could no longer justify it by calling it a struggle. He was something of a celebrity and he was apparently in a society of celebrities. This idea added to the curiosity with which he looked up and down the long table as he settled himself in his place.
It was a numerous party — five and twenty people; rather an odd occasion to have proposed to him, as he thought. He would not be surrounded by the quiet that ministers to good work; however, it had never interfered with his work to see the spectacle of human life before him in the intervals. And though he did not know it, it was never quiet at Stayes. When he was working well he found himself in that happy state — the happiest of all for an artist — in which things in general contribute to the particular idea and fall in with it, help it on and justify it, so that he feels for the hour as if nothing in the world can happen to him, even if it come in the guise of disaster or suffering, that will not be an enhancement of his subject. Moreover there was an exhilaration (he had felt it before) in the rapid change of scene — the jump, in the dusk of the afternoon, from foggy London and his familiar studio to a centre of festivity in the middle of Hertfordshire and a drama half acted, a drama of pretty women and noted men and wonderful orchids in silver jars. He observed as a not unimportant fact that one of the pretty women was beside him: a gentleman sat on his other hand. But he went into his neighbours little as yet: he was busy looking out for Sir David, whom he had never seen and about whom he naturally was curious.
Evidently, however, Sir David was not at dinner, a circumstance sufficiently explained by the other circumstance which constituted our friend’s principal knowledge of him — his being ninety years of age. Oliver Lyon had looked forward with great pleasure to the chance of painting a nonagenarian, and though the old man’s absence from table was something of a disappointment (it was an opportunity the less to observe him before going to work), it seemed a sign that he was rather a sacred and perhaps therefore an impressive relic. Lyon looked at his son with the greater interest — wondered whether the glazed bloom of his cheek had been transmitted from Sir David. That would be jolly to paint, in the old man — the withered ruddiness of a winter apple, especially if the eye were still alive and the white hair carried out the frosty look. Arthur Ashmore’s hair had a midsummer glow, but Lyon was glad his commission had been to delineate the father rather than the son, in spite of his never having seen the one and of the other being seated there before him now in the happy expansion of liberal hospitality.
Arthur Ashmore was a fresh-coloured, thick-necked English gentleman, but he was just not a subject; he might have been a farmer and he might have been a banker: you could scarcely paint him in characters. His wife did not make up the amount; she was a large, bright, negative woman, who had the same air as her husband of being somehow tremendously new; a sort of appearance of fresh varnish (Lyon could scarcely tell whether it came from her complexion or from her clothes), so that one felt she ought to sit in a gilt frame, suggesting reference to a catalogue or a price-list. It was as if she were already rather a bad though expensive portrait, knocked off by an eminent hand, and Lyon had no wish to copy that work. The pretty woman on his right was engaged with her neighbour and the gentleman on his other side looked shrinking and scared, so that he had time to lose himself in his favourite diversion of watching face after face. This amusement gave him the greatest pleasure he knew, and he often thought it a mercy that the human mask did interest him and that it was not less vivid than it was (sometimes it ran its success in this line very close), since he was to make his living by reproducing it. Even if Arthur Ashmore would not be inspiring to paint (a certain anxiety rose in him lest if he should make a hit with her father-in-law Mrs. Arthur should take it into her head that he had now proved himself worthy to aborder her husband); even if he had looked a little less like a page (fine as to print and margin) without punctuation, he would still be a refreshing, iridescent surface. But the gentleman four persons off — what was he? Would he be a subject, or was his face only the legible door-plate of his identity, burnished with punctual washing and shaving — the least thing that was decent that you would know him by?
This face arrested Oliver Lyon: it struck him at first as very handsome. The gentleman might still be called young, and his features were regular: he had a plentiful, fair moustache that curled up at the ends, a brilliant, gallant, almost adventurous air, and a big shining breastpin in the middle of his shirt. He appeared a fine satisfied soul, and Lyon perceived that wherever he rested his friendly eye there fell an influence as pleasant as the September sun — as if he could make grapes and pears or even human affection ripen by looking at them. What was odd in him was a certain mixture of the correct and the extravagant: as if he were an adventurer imitating a gentleman with rare perfection or a gentleman who had taken a fancy to go about with hidden arms. He might have been a dethroned prince or the war-correspondent of a newspaper: he represented both enterprise and tradition, good manners and bad taste. Lyon at length fell into conversation with the lady beside him — they dispensed, as he had had to dispense at dinner-parties before, with an introduction — by asking who this personage might be.
‘Oh, he’s Colonel Capadose, don’t you know?’ Lyon didn’t know and he asked for further information. His neighbour had a sociable manner and evidently was accustomed to quick transitions; she turned from her other interlocutor with a methodical air, as a good cook lifts the cover of the next saucepan. ‘He has been a great deal in India — isn’t he rather celebrated?’ she inquired. Lyon confessed he had never heard of him, and she went on, ‘Well, perhaps he isn’t; but he says he is, and if you think it, that’s just the same, isn’t it?’
‘If you think it?’
‘I mean if he thinks it — that’s just as good, I suppose.’
‘Do you mean that he says that which is not?’
‘Oh dear, no — because I never know. He is exceedingly clever and amusing — quite the cleverest person in the house, unless indeed you are more so. But that I can’t tell yet, can I? I only know about the people I know; I think that’s celebrity enough!’
‘Enough for them?’
‘Oh, I see you’re clever. Enough for me! But I have heard of you,’ the lady went on. ‘I know your pictures; I admire them. But I don’t think you look like them.’
‘They are mostly portraits,’ Lyon said; ‘and what I usually try for is not my own resemblance.’
‘I see what you mean. But they have much more colour. And now you are going to do some one here?’
‘I have been invited to do Sir David. I’m rather disappointed at not seeing him this evening.’
‘Oh, he goes to bed at some unnatural hour — eight o’clock or something of that sort. You know he’s rather an old mummy.’
‘An old mummy?’ Oliver Lyon repeated.
‘I mean he wears half a dozen waistcoats, and that sort of thing. He’s always cold.’
‘I have never seen him and never seen any portrait or photograph of him,’ Lyon said. ‘I’m surprised at his never having had anything done — at their waiting all these years.’
‘Ah, that’s because he was afraid, you know; it was a kind of superstition. He was sure that if anything were done he would die directly afterwards. He has only consented to-day.’
‘He’s ready to die then?’
‘Oh, now he’s so old he doesn’t care.’
‘Well, I hope I shan’t kill him,’ said Lyon. ‘It was rather unnatural in his son to send for me.’
‘Oh, they have nothing to gain — everything is theirs already!’ his companion rejoined, as if she took this speech quite literally. Her talkativeness was systematic — she fraternised as seriously as she might have played whist. ‘They do as they like — they fill the house with people — they have carte blanche.’
‘I see — but there’s still the title.’
‘Yes, but what is it?’
Our artist broke into laughter at this, whereat his companion stared. Before he had recovered himself she was scouring the plain with her other neighbour. The gentleman on his left at last risked an observation, and they had some fragmentary talk. This personage played his part with difficulty: he uttered a remark as a lady fires a pistol, looking the other way. To catch the ball Lyon had to bend his ear, and this movement led to his observing a handsome creature who was seated on the same side, beyond his interlocutor. Her profile was presented to him and at first he was only struck with its beauty; then it produced an impression still more agreeable — a sense of undimmed remembrance and intimate association. He had not recognised her on the instant only because he had so little expected to see her there; he had not seen her anywhere for so long, and no news of her ever came to him. She was often in his thoughts, but she had passed out of his life. He thought of her twice a week; that may be called often in relation to a person one has not seen for twelve years. The moment after he recognised her he felt how true it was that it was only she who could look like that: of the most charming head in the world (and this lady had it) there could never be a replica. She was leaning forward a little; she remained in profile, apparently listening to some one on the other side of her. She was listening, but she was also looking, and after a moment Lyon followed the direction of her eyes. They rested upon the gentleman who had been described to him as Colonel Capadose — rested, as it appeared to him, with a kind of habitual, visible complacency. This was not strange, for the Colonel was unmistakably formed to attract the sympathetic gaze of woman; but Lyon was slightly disappointed that she could let him look at her so long without giving him a glance. There was nothing between them to-day and he had no rights, but she must have known he was coming (it was of course not such a tremendous event, but she could not have been staying in the house without hearing of it), and it was not natural that that should absolutely fail to affect her.
She was looking at Colonel Capadose as if she were in love with him — a queer accident for the proudest, most reserved of women. But doubtless it was all right, if her husband liked it or didn’t notice it: he had heard indefinitely, years before, that she was married, and he took for granted (as he had not heard that she had become a widow) the presence of the happy man on whom she had conferred what she had refused to him, the poor art-student at Munich. Colonel Capadose appeared to be aware of nothing, and this circumstance, incongruously enough, rather irritated Lyon than gratified him. Suddenly the lady turned her head, showing her full face to our hero. He was so prepared with a greeting that he instantly smiled, as a shaken jug overflows; but she gave him no response, turned away again and sank back in her chair. All that her face said in that instant was, ‘You see I’m as handsome as ever.’ To which he mentally subjoined, ‘Yes, and as much good it does me!’ He asked the young man beside him if he knew who that beautiful being was — the fifth person beyond him. The young man leaned forward, considered and then said, ‘I think she’s Mrs. Capadose.’
‘Do you mean his wife — that fellow’s?’ And Lyon indicated the subject of the information given him by his other neighbour.
‘Oh, is he Mr. Capadose?’ said the young man, who appeared very vague. He admitted his vagueness and explained it by saying that there were so many people and he had come only the day before. What was definite to Lyon was that Mrs. Capadose was in love with her husband; so that he wished more than ever that he had married her.
‘She’s very faithful,’ he found himself saying three minutes later to the lady on his right. He added that he meant Mrs. Capadose.
‘Ah, you know her then?’
‘I knew her once upon a time — when I was living abroad.’
‘Why then were you asking me about her husband?’
‘Precisely for that reason. She married after that — I didn’t even know her present name.’
‘How then do you know it now?’
‘This gentleman has just told me — he appears to know.’
‘I didn’t know he knew anything,’ said the lady, glancing forward.
‘I don’t think he knows anything but that.’
‘Then you have found out for yourself that she is faithful. What do you mean by that?’
‘Ah, you mustn’t question me — I want to question you,’ Lyon said. ‘How do you all like her here?’
‘You ask too much! I can only speak for myself. I think she’s hard.’
‘That’s only because she’s honest and straightforward.’
‘Do you mean I like people in proportion as they deceive?’
‘I think we all do, so long as we don’t find them out,’ Lyon said. ‘And then there’s something in her face — a sort of Roman type, in spite of her having such an English eye. In fact she’s English down to the ground; but her complexion, her low forehead and that beautiful close little wave in her dark hair make her look like a glorified contadina.’
‘Yes, and she always sticks pins and daggers into her head, to increase that effect. I must say I like her husband better: he is so clever.’
‘Well, when I knew her there was no comparison that could injure her. She was altogether the most delightful thing in Munich.’
‘Her people lived there; they were not rich — in pursuit of economy in fact, and Munich was very cheap. Her father was the younger son of some noble house; he had married a second time and had a lot of little mouths to feed. She was the child of the first wife and she didn’t like her stepmother, but she was charming to her little brothers and sisters. I once made a sketch of her as Werther’s Charlotte, cutting bread and butter while they clustered all round her. All the artists in the place were in love with her but she wouldn’t look at ‘the likes’ of us. She was too proud — I grant you that; but she wasn’t stuck up nor young ladyish; she was simple and frank and kind about it. She used to remind me of Thackeray’s Ethel Newcome. She told me she must marry well: it was the one thing she could do for her family. I suppose you would say that she has married well.’
‘She told you?’ smiled Lyon’s neighbour.
‘Oh, of course I proposed to her too. But she evidently thinks so herself!’ he added.
When the ladies left the table the host as usual bade the gentlemen draw together, so that Lyon found himself opposite to Colonel Capadose. The conversation was mainly about the ‘run,’ for it had apparently been a great day in the hunting-field. Most of the gentlemen communicated their adventures and opinions, but Colonel Capadose’s pleasant voice was the most audible in the chorus. It was a bright and fresh but masculine organ, just such a voice as, to Lyon’s sense, such a ‘fine man’ ought to have had. It appeared from his remarks that he was a very straight rider, which was also very much what Lyon would have expected. Not that he swaggered, for his allusions were very quietly and casually made; but they were all too dangerous experiments and close shaves. Lyon perceived after a little that the attention paid by the company to the Colonel’s remarks was not in direct relation to the interest they seemed to offer; the result of which was that the speaker, who noticed that he at least was listening, began to treat him as his particular auditor and to fix his eyes on him as he talked. Lyon had nothing to do but to look sympathetic and assent — Colonel Capadose appeared to take so much sympathy and assent for granted. A neighbouring squire had had an accident; he had come a cropper in an awkward place — just at the finish — with consequences that looked grave. He had struck his head; he remained insensible, up to the last accounts: there had evidently been concussion of the brain. There was some exchange of views as to his recovery — how soon it would take place or whether it would take place at all; which led the Colonel to confide to our artist across the table that he shouldn’t despair of a fellow even if he didn’t come round for weeks — for weeks and weeks and weeks — for months, almost for years. He leaned forward; Lyon leaned forward to listen, and Colonel Capadose mentioned that he knew from personal experience that there was really no limit to the time one might lie unconscious without being any the worse for it. It had happened to him in Ireland, years before; he had been pitched out of a dogcart, had turned a sheer somersault and landed on his head. They thought he was dead, but he wasn’t; they carried him first to the nearest cabin, where he lay for some days with the pigs, and then to an inn in a neighbouring town — it was a near thing they didn’t put him under ground. He had been completely insensible — without a ray of recognition of any human thing — for three whole months; had not a glimmer of consciousness of any blessed thing. It was touch and go to that degree that they couldn’t come near him, they couldn’t feed him, they could scarcely look at him. Then one day he had opened his eyes — as fit as a flea!
‘I give you my honour it had done me good — it rested my brain.’ He appeared to intimate that with an intelligence so active as his these periods of repose were providential. Lyon thought his story very striking, but he wanted to ask him whether he had not shammed a little — not in relating it, but in keeping so quiet. He hesitated however, in time, to imply a doubt — he was so impressed with the tone in which Colonel Capadose said that it was the turn of a hair that they hadn’t buried him alive. That had happened to a friend of his in India — a fellow who was supposed to have died of jungle fever — they clapped him into a coffin. He was going on to recite the further fate of this unfortunate gentleman when Mr. Ashmore made a move and every one got up to adjourn to the drawing-room. Lyon noticed that by this time no one was heeding what his new friend said to him. They came round on either side of the table and met while the gentlemen dawdled before going out.
‘And do you mean that your friend was literally buried alive?’ asked Lyon, in some suspense.
Colonel Capadose looked at him a moment, as if he had already lost the thread of the conversation. Then his face brightened — and when it brightened it was doubly handsome. ‘Upon my soul he was chucked into the ground!’
‘And was he left there?’
‘He was left there till I came and hauled him out.’
‘I dreamed about him — it’s the most extraordinary story: I heard him calling to me in the night. I took upon myself to dig him up. You know there are people in India — a kind of beastly race, the ghouls — who violate graves. I had a sort of presentiment that they would get at him first. I rode straight, I can tell you; and, by Jove, a couple of them had just broken ground! Crack — crack, from a couple of barrels, and they showed me their heels, as you may believe. Would you credit that I took him out myself? The air brought him to and he was none the worse. He has got his pension — he came home the other day; he would do anything for me.’
‘He called to you in the night?’ said Lyon, much startled.
‘That’s the interesting point. Now what was it? It wasn’t his ghost, because he wasn’t dead. It wasn’t himself, because he couldn’t. It was something or other! You see India’s a strange country — there’s an element of the mysterious: the air is full of things you can’t explain.’
They passed out of the dining-room, and Colonel Capadose, who went among the first, was separated from Lyon; but a minute later, before they reached the drawing-room, he joined him again. ‘Ashmore tells me who you are. Of course I have often heard of you — I’m very glad to make your acquaintance; my wife used to know you.’
‘I’m glad she remembers me. I recognised her at dinner and I was afraid she didn’t.’
‘Ah, I daresay she was ashamed,’ said the Colonel, with indulgent humour.
‘Ashamed of me?’ Lyon replied, in the same key.
‘Wasn’t there something about a picture? Yes; you painted her portrait.’
‘Many times,’ said the artist; ‘and she may very well have been ashamed of what I made of her.’
‘Well, I wasn’t, my dear sir; it was the sight of that picture, which you were so good as to present to her, that made me first fall in love with her.’
‘Do you mean that one with the children — cutting bread and butter?’
‘Bread and butter? Bless me, no — vine leaves and a leopard skin — a kind of Bacchante.’
‘Ah, yes,’ said Lyon; ‘I remember. It was the first decent portrait I painted. I should be curious to see it to-day.’
‘Don’t ask her to show it to you — she’ll be mortified!’ the Colonel exclaimed.
‘We parted with it — in the most disinterested manner,’ he laughed. ‘An old friend of my wife’s — her family had known him intimately when they lived in Germany — took the most extraordinary fancy to it: the Grand Duke of Silberstadt–Schreckenstein, don’t you know? He came out to Bombay while we were there and he spotted your picture (you know he’s one of the greatest collectors in Europe), and made such eyes at it that, upon my word — it happened to be his birthday — she told him he might have it, to get rid of him. He was perfectly enchanted — but we miss the picture.’
‘It is very good of you,’ Lyon said. ‘If it’s in a great collection — a work of my incompetent youth — I am infinitely honoured.’
‘Oh, he has got it in one of his castles; I don’t know which — you know he has so many. He sent us, before he left India — to return the compliment — a magnificent old vase.’
‘That was more than the thing was worth,’ Lyon remarked.
Colonel Capadose gave no heed to this observation; he seemed to be thinking of something. After a moment he said, ‘If you’ll come and see us in town she’ll show you the vase.’ And as they passed into the drawing-room he gave the artist a friendly propulsion. ‘Go and speak to her; there she is — she’ll be delighted.’
Oliver Lyon took but a few steps into the wide saloon; he stood there a moment looking at the bright composition of the lamplit group of fair women, the single figures, the great setting of white and gold, the panels of old damask, in the centre of each of which was a single celebrated picture. There was a subdued lustre in the scene and an air as of the shining trains of dresses tumbled over the carpet. At the furthest end of the room sat Mrs. Capadose, rather isolated; she was on a small sofa, with an empty place beside her. Lyon could not flatter himself she had been keeping it for him; her failure to respond to his recognition at table contradicted that, but he felt an extreme desire to go and occupy it. Moreover he had her husband’s sanction; so he crossed the room, stepping over the tails of gowns, and stood before his old friend.
‘I hope you don’t mean to repudiate me,’ he said.
She looked up at him with an expression of unalloyed pleasure. ‘I am so glad to see you. I was delighted when I heard you were coming.’
‘I tried to get a smile from you at dinner — but I couldn’t.’
‘I didn’t see — I didn’t understand. Besides, I hate smirking and telegraphing. Also I’m very shy — you won’t have forgotten that. Now we can communicate comfortably.’ And she made a better place for him on the little sofa. He sat down and they had a talk that he enjoyed, while the reason for which he used to like her so came back to him, as well as a good deal of the very same old liking. She was still the least spoiled beauty he had ever seen, with an absence of coquetry or any insinuating art that seemed almost like an omitted faculty; there were moments when she struck her interlocutor as some fine creature from an asylum — a surprising deaf-mute or one of the operative blind. Her noble pagan head gave her privileges that she neglected, and when people were admiring her brow she was wondering whether there were a good fire in her bedroom. She was simple, kind and good; inexpressive but not inhuman or stupid. Now and again she dropped something that had a sifted, selected air — the sound of an impression at first hand. She had no imagination, but she had added up her feelings, some of her reflections, about life. Lyon talked of the old days in Munich, reminded her of incidents, pleasures and pains, asked her about her father and the others; and she told him in return that she was so impressed with his own fame, his brilliant position in the world, that she had not felt very sure he would speak to her or that his little sign at table was meant for her. This was plainly a perfectly truthful speech — she was incapable of any other — and he was affected by such humility on the part of a woman whose grand line was unique. Her father was dead; one of her brothers was in the navy and the other on a ranch in America; two of her sisters were married and the youngest was just coming out and very pretty. She didn’t mention her stepmother. She asked him about his own personal history and he said that the principal thing that had happened to him was that he had never married.
‘Oh, you ought to,’ she answered. ‘It’s the best thing.’
‘I like that — from you!’ he returned.
‘Why not from me? I am very happy.’
‘That’s just why I can’t be. It’s cruel of you to praise your state. But I have had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of your husband. We had a good bit of talk in the other room.’
‘You must know him better — you must know him really well,’ said Mrs. Capadose.
‘I am sure that the further you go the more you find. But he makes a fine show, too.’
She rested her good gray eyes on Lyon. ‘Don’t you think he’s handsome?’
‘Handsome and clever and entertaining. You see I’m generous.’
‘Yes; you must know him well,’ Mrs. Capadose repeated.
‘He has seen a great deal of life,’ said her companion.
‘Yes, we have been in so many places. You must see my little girl. She is nine years old — she’s too beautiful.’
‘You must bring her to my studio some day — I should like to paint her.’
‘Ah, don’t speak of that,’ said Mrs. Capadose. ‘It reminds me of something so distressing.’
‘I hope you don’t mean when you used to sit to me — though that may well have bored you.’
‘It’s not what you did — it’s what we have done. It’s a confession I must make — it’s a weight on my mind! I mean about that beautiful picture you gave me — it used to be so much admired. When you come to see me in London (I count on your doing that very soon) I shall see you looking all round. I can’t tell you I keep it in my own room because I love it so, for the simple reason —— ’ And she paused a moment.
‘Because you can’t tell wicked lies,’ said Lyon.
‘No, I can’t. So before you ask for it —— ’
‘Oh, I know you parted with it — the blow has already fallen,’ Lyon interrupted.
‘Ah then, you have heard? I was sure you would! But do you know what we got for it? Two hundred pounds.’
‘You might have got much more,’ said Lyon, smiling.
‘That seemed a great deal at the time. We were in want of the money — it was a good while ago, when we first married. Our means were very small then, but fortunately that has changed rather for the better. We had the chance; it really seemed a big sum, and I am afraid we jumped at it. My husband had expectations which have partly come into effect, so that now we do well enough. But meanwhile the picture went.’
‘Fortunately the original remained. But do you mean that two hundred was the value of the vase?’ Lyon asked.
‘Of the vase?’
‘The beautiful old Indian vase — the Grand Duke’s offering.’
‘The Grand Duke?’
‘What’s his name? — Silberstadt–Schreckenstein. Your husband mentioned the transaction.’
‘Oh, my husband,’ said Mrs. Capadose; and Lyon saw that she coloured a little.
Not to add to her embarrassment, but to clear up the ambiguity, which he perceived the next moment he had better have left alone, he went on: ‘He tells me it’s now in his collection.’
‘In the Grand Duke’s? Ah, you know its reputation? I believe it contains treasures.’ She was bewildered, but she recovered herself, and Lyon made the mental reflection that for some reason which would seem good when he knew it the husband and the wife had prepared different versions of the same incident. It was true that he did not exactly see Everina Brant preparing a version; that was not her line of old, and indeed it was not in her eyes to-day. At any rate they both had the matter too much on their conscience. He changed the subject, said Mrs. Capadose must really bring the little girl. He sat with her some time longer and thought — perhaps it was only a fancy — that she was rather absent, as if she were annoyed at their having been even for a moment at cross-purposes. This did not prevent him from saying to her at the last, just as the ladies began to gather themselves together to go to bed: ‘You seem much impressed, from what you say, with my renown and my prosperity, and you are so good as greatly to exaggerate them. Would you have married me if you had known that I was destined to success?’
‘I did know it.’
‘Well, I didn’t’
‘You were too modest.’
‘You didn’t think so when I proposed to you.’
‘Well, if I had married you I couldn’t have married him — and he’s so nice,’ Mrs. Capadose said. Lyon knew she thought it — he had learned that at dinner — but it vexed him a little to hear her say it. The gentleman designated by the pronoun came up, amid the prolonged handshaking for good-night, and Mrs. Capadose remarked to her husband as she turned away, ‘He wants to paint Amy.’
‘Ah, she’s a charming child, a most interesting little creature,’ the Colonel said to Lyon. ‘She does the most remarkable things.’
Mrs. Capadose stopped, in the rustling procession that followed the hostess out of the room. ‘Don’t tell him, please don’t,’ she said.
‘Don’t tell him what?’
‘Why, what she does. Let him find out for himself.’ And she passed on.
‘She thinks I swagger about the child — that I bore people,’ said the Colonel. ‘I hope you smoke.’ He appeared ten minutes later in the smoking-room, in a brilliant equipment, a suit of crimson foulard covered with little white spots. He gratified Lyon’s eye, made him feel that the modern age has its splendour too and its opportunities for costume. If his wife was an antique he was a fine specimen of the period of colour: he might have passed for a Venetian of the sixteenth century. They were a remarkable couple, Lyon thought, and as he looked at the Colonel standing in bright erectness before the chimney-piece while he emitted great smoke-puffs he did not wonder that Everina could not regret she had not married him. All the gentlemen collected at Stayes were not smokers and some of them had gone to bed. Colonel Capadose remarked that there probably would be a smallish muster, they had had such a hard day’s work. That was the worst of a hunting-house — the men were so sleepy after dinner; it was devilish stupid for the ladies, even for those who hunted themselves — for women were so extraordinary, they never showed it. But most fellows revived under the stimulating influences of the smoking-room, and some of them, in this confidence, would turn up yet. Some of the grounds of their confidence — not all of them — might have been seen in a cluster of glasses and bottles on a table near the fire, which made the great salver and its contents twinkle sociably. The others lurked as yet in various improper corners of the minds of the most loquacious. Lyon was alone with Colonel Capadose for some moments before their companions, in varied eccentricities of uniform, straggled in, and he perceived that this wonderful man had but little loss of vital tissue to repair.
They talked about the house, Lyon having noticed an oddity of construction in the smoking-room; and the Colonel explained that it consisted of two distinct parts, one of which was of very great antiquity. They were two complete houses in short, the old one and the new, each of great extent and each very fine in its way. The two formed together an enormous structure — Lyon must make a point of going all over it. The modern portion had been erected by the old man when he bought the property; oh yes, he had bought it, forty years before — it hadn’t been in the family: there hadn’t been any particular family for it to be in. He had had the good taste not to spoil the original house — he had not touched it beyond what was just necessary for joining it on. It was very curious indeed — a most irregular, rambling, mysterious pile, where they every now and then discovered a walled-up room or a secret staircase. To his mind it was essentially gloomy, however; even the modern additions, splendid as they were, failed to make it cheerful. There was some story about a skeleton having been found years before, during some repairs, under a stone slab of the floor of one of the passages; but the family were rather shy of its being talked about. The place they were in was of course in the old part, which contained after all some of the best rooms: he had an idea it had been the primitive kitchen, half modernised at some intermediate period.
‘My room is in the old part too then — I’m very glad,’ Lyon said. ‘It’s very comfortable and contains all the latest conveniences, but I observed the depth of the recess of the door and the evident antiquity of the corridor and staircase — the first short one — after I came out. That panelled corridor is admirable; it looks as if it stretched away, in its brown dimness (the lamps didn’t seem to me to make much impression on it), for half a mile.’
‘Oh, don’t go to the end of it!’ exclaimed the Colonel, smiling.
‘Does it lead to the haunted room?’ Lyon asked.
His companion looked at him a moment. ‘Ah, you know about that?’
‘No, I don’t speak from knowledge, only from hope. I have never had any luck — I have never stayed in a dangerous house. The places I go to are always as safe as Charing Cross. I want to see — whatever there is, the regular thing. Is there a ghost here?’
‘Of course there is — a rattling good one.’
‘And have you seen him?’
‘Oh, don’t ask me what I’ve seen — I should tax your credulity. I don’t like to talk of these things. But there are two or three as bad — that is, as good! — rooms as you’ll find anywhere.’
‘Do you mean in my corridor?’ Lyon asked.
‘I believe the worst is at the far end. But you would be ill-advised to sleep there.’
‘Until you’ve finished your job. You’ll get letters of importance the next morning, and you’ll take the 10.20.’
‘Do you mean I will invent a pretext for running away?’
‘Unless you are braver than almost any one has ever been. They don’t often put people to sleep there, but sometimes the house is so crowded that they have to. The same thing always happens — ill-concealed agitation at the breakfast-table and letters of the greatest importance. Of course it’s a bachelor’s room, and my wife and I are at the other end of the house. But we saw the comedy three days ago — the day after we got here. A young fellow had been put there — I forget his name — the house was so full; and the usual consequence followed. Letters at breakfast — an awfully queer face — an urgent call to town — so very sorry his visit was cut short. Ashmore and his wife looked at each other, and off the poor devil went.’
‘Ah, that wouldn’t suit me; I must paint my picture,’ said Lyon. ‘But do they mind your speaking of it? Some people who have a good ghost are very proud of it, you know.’
What answer Colonel Capadose was on the point of making to this inquiry our hero was not to learn, for at that moment their host had walked into the room accompanied by three or four gentlemen. Lyon was conscious that he was partly answered by the Colonel’s not going on with the subject. This however on the other hand was rendered natural by the fact that one of the gentlemen appealed to him for an opinion on a point under discussion, something to do with the everlasting history of the day’s run. To Lyon himself Mr. Ashmore began to talk, expressing his regret at having had so little direct conversation with him as yet. The topic that suggested itself was naturally that most closely connected with the motive of the artist’s visit. Lyon remarked that it was a great disadvantage to him not to have had some preliminary acquaintance with Sir David — in most cases he found that so important. But the present sitter was so far advanced in life that there was doubtless no time to lose. ‘Oh, I can tell you all about him,’ said Mr. Ashmore; and for half an hour he told him a good deal. It was very interesting as well as very eulogistic, and Lyon could see that he was a very nice old man, to have endeared himself so to a son who was evidently not a gusher. At last he got up — he said he must go to bed if he wished to be fresh for his work in the morning. To which his host replied, ‘Then you must take your candle; the lights are out; I don’t keep my servants up.’
In a moment Lyon had his glimmering taper in hand, and as he was leaving the room (he did not disturb the others with a good-night; they were absorbed in the lemon-squeezer and the soda-water cork) he remembered other occasions on which he had made his way to bed alone through a darkened country-house; such occasions had not been rare, for he was almost always the first to leave the smoking-room. If he had not stayed in houses conspicuously haunted he had, none the less (having the artistic temperament), sometimes found the great black halls and staircases rather ‘creepy’: there had been often a sinister effect, to his imagination, in the sound of his tread in the long passages or the way the winter moon peeped into tall windows on landings. It occurred to him that if houses without supernatural pretensions could look so wicked at night, the old corridors of Stayes would certainly give him a sensation. He didn’t know whether the proprietors were sensitive; very often, as he had said to Colonel Capadose, people enjoyed the impeachment. What determined him to speak, with a certain sense of the risk, was the impression that the Colonel told queer stories. As he had his hand on the door he said to Arthur Ashmore, ‘I hope I shan’t meet any ghosts.’
‘You ought to have some — in this fine old part.’
‘We do our best, but que voulez-vous?’ said Mr. Ashmore. ‘I don’t think they like the hot-water pipes.’
‘They remind them too much of their own climate? But haven’t you a haunted room — at the end of my passage?’
‘Oh, there are stories — we try to keep them up.’
‘I should like very much to sleep there,’ Lyon said.
‘Well, you can move there to-morrow if you like.’
‘Perhaps I had better wait till I have done my work.’
‘Very good; but you won’t work there, you know. My father will sit to you in his own apartments.’
‘Oh, it isn’t that; it’s the fear of running away, like that gentleman three days ago.’
‘Three days ago? What gentleman?’ Mr. Ashmore asked.
‘The one who got urgent letters at breakfast and fled by the 10.20. Did he stand more than one night?’
‘I don’t know what you are talking about. There was no such gentleman — three days ago.’
‘Ah, so much the better,’ said Lyon, nodding good-night and departing. He took his course, as he remembered it, with his wavering candle, and, though he encountered a great many gruesome objects, safely reached the passage out of which his room opened. In the complete darkness it seemed to stretch away still further, but he followed it, for the curiosity of the thing, to the end. He passed several doors with the name of the room painted upon them, but he found nothing else. He was tempted to try the last door — to look into the room of evil fame; but he reflected that this would be indiscreet, since Colonel Capadose handled the brush — as a raconteur — with such freedom. There might be a ghost and there might not; but the Colonel himself, he inclined to think, was the most mystifying figure in the house.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10