Read CHAPTER VIII - ‘I WONDER WHY?’ of The Dictator , free online book, by Justin McCarthy, on ReadCentral.com.

The Dictator had had a good deal to do with marrying and giving in marriage in the Republic of Gloria. One of the social and moral reforms he had endeavoured to bring about was that which should secure to young people the right of being consulted as to their own inclinations before they were formally and finally consigned to wedlock. The ordinary practice in Gloria was very much like that which prevails in certain Indian tribes the family on either side arranged for the young man and the maiden, made it a matter of market bargain, settled it by compromise of price or otherwise, and then brought the pair together and married them. Ericson set his face against such a system, and tried to get a chance for the young people. He carried his influence so far that the parents on both sides among the official classes in the capital consulted him generally before taking any step, and then he frankly undertook the mediator’s part, and found out whether the young woman liked the young man or not whether she liked someone better or not. He had a sweet and kindly way with him which usually made both the youths and the maidens confidential and he learned many a quiet heart-secret; and where he found that a suggested marriage would really not do, he told the parents as much, and they generally yielded to his influence and his authority. He had made happy many a pair of young lovers who, without his beneficent intervention, would have been doomed to ’spoil two houses,’ as the old saying puts it.

Therefore, he did not feel much put out at the mere idea of intervening in another man’s love affairs, or even the idea of carrying a proposal of marriage from another man.

Yet the Dictator was in somewhat thoughtful mood as he drove to Sir Rupert Langley’s. He had taken much interest in Helena Langley. She had an influence over him which he told himself was only the influence of a clever child told himself of this again and again. Yet there was a curious feeling of unfitness or dissatisfaction with the part he was going to play. Of course, he would do his very best for Hamilton. There was no man in the world for whom he cared half so much as he did for Hamilton. No that is not putting it strongly enough there was now no man in the world for whom he really cared but Hamilton. The Dictator’s affections were curiously narrowed. He had almost no friends whom he really loved but Hamilton and acquaintances were to him just all the same, one as good as another, and no better. He was a philanthropist by temperament, or nature, or nerve, or something; but while he would have risked his life for almost any man, and for any woman or child, he did not care in the least for social intercourse with men, women, and children in general. He could not talk to a child children were a trouble to him, because he did not know what to say to them. Perhaps this was one reason why he was attracted by Helena Langley; she seemed so like the ideal child to whom one can talk. Then came up the thought in his mind must he lose Hamilton if Miss Langley should consent to take him as her husband? Of course, Hamilton had declared that he would never marry until the Dictator and he had won back Gloria; but how long would that resolve last if Helena were to answer, Yes and Now? The Dictator felt lonely as his cab stopped at Sir Rupert Langley’s door.

‘Is Miss Langley at home?’

Yes, Miss Langley was at home. Of course, the Dictator knew that she would be, and yet in his heart he could almost have wished to hear that she was out. There is a mood of mind in which one likes any postponement. But the duty of friendship had to be done and the Dictator was sorry for everybody.

The Dictator was met in the hall by the footman, and also by To-to. To-to was Helena’s black poodle. The black poodle took to all Helena’s friends very readily. Whom she liked, he liked. He had his ways, like his mistress and he at once allowed Ericson to understand not only that Helena was at home, but that Helena was sitting just then in her own room, where she habitually received her friends. The footman told the Dictator that Miss Langley was at home To-to told him what the footman could not have ventured to do, that she was waiting for him in her own drawing-room, and ready to receive him.

Now, how did To-to contrive to tell him that? Very easily, in truth. To-to had a keen, healthy curiosity. He was always anxious to know what was going on. The moment he heard the bell ring at the great door he wanted to know who was coming in, and he ran down the stairs and stood in the hall to find out. When the door was opened, and the visitor appeared, To-to instantly made up his mind. If it was an unfamiliar figure, To-to considered it an introduction in which he had no manner of interest, and, without waiting one second, he scampered back to rejoin his mistress, and try to explain to her that there was some very uninteresting man or woman coming to call on her. But if it was somebody he knew, and whom he knew that his mistress knew, then there were two courses open to him. If Helena was not in her sitting room, To-to welcomed the visitor in the most friendly and hospitable way, and then fell into the background, and took no further notice, but ranged the premises carelessly and on his own account. If, however, his mistress were in her drawing room, then To-to invariably preceded the visitor up the stairs, going in front even of the footman, and ushered the new-comer into my lady’s chamber. The process of reasoning on To-to’s part must have been somewhat after this fashion. ’My business is to announce my lady’s friends, the people whom I, with my exquisite intelligence, know to be people whom she wants to see. If I know that she is in her drawing-room ready to see them, then, of course, it is my duty and my pleasure to go before, and announce them. But if I know, having just been there, that she is not yet there, then I have no function to perform. It is the business of some other creature her maid very likely to receive the news from the footman that someone is waiting to see her. That is a complex process with which I have nothing to do.’ The favoured visitor, therefore the visitor, that is to say, whom To-to favoured, believing him or her to be favoured by To-to’s mistress had to pass through what may be called two portals, or ordeals. First, he had to ask of the servant whether Miss Langley was at home. Being informed that she was at home, then it depended on To-to to let the visitor know whether Miss Langley was actually in her drawing-room waiting to receive him, or whether he was to be shown into the drawing-room and told that Miss Langley would be duly informed of his presence, and asked if he would be good enough to take a chair and wait for a moment. Never was To-to known to make the slightest mistake about the actual condition of things. Never had he run up in advance of the Dictator when his mistress was not seated in her drawing-room ready to receive her visitor. Never had he remained lingering in the hall and the passages when Miss Langley was in her room, and prepared for the reception. Evidently, To-to regarded himself as Helena’s special functionary. The other attendants and followers footmen, maids, and such like might be allowed the privilege of saying whether Miss Langley was or was not at home to receive visitors; but the special and quite peculiar function of To-to was to make it clear whether Miss Langley was or was not at that very moment waiting in her own particular drawing-room to welcome them.

So the Dictator, who had not much time to spare, being pressed with various affairs to attend to, was much pleased to find that To-to not merely welcomed him when the door was opened a welcome which the Dictator would have expected from To-to’s undisguised regard and even patronage but that To-to briskly ran up the stairs in advance of the footman, and ran before him in through the drawing-room door when the footman had opened it. The Dictator loved the dog because of the creature’s friendship for him and love for its mistress. The Dictator did not know how much he loved the dog because the dog was devoted to Helena Langley. On the stairs, as he went up, a sudden pang passed through the Dictator’s heart. It might, perhaps, have brought him even clearer warning than it did. ’If I succeed in my mission’ it might have told him ’what is to become of me?’ But, although the shot of pain did pass through him, he did not give it time to explain itself.

Helena was seated on a sofa. The moment she heard his name announced she jumped up and ran to meet him.

‘I ought to have gone beyond the threshold,’ she said, blushing, ’to meet my king.’

‘So kind of you,’ he said, rather stiffly, ’to stay in for me. You have so many engagements.’

’As if I would not give up any engagement to please you! And the very first time you expressed any wish to see me!’

‘Well, I have come talk to you about something very serious.’

She looked up amazed, her bright eyes broadening with wonder.

’Something that concerns the happiness of yourself, perhaps of another person certainly.’

She drooped her eyes now, and her colour deepened and her breath came quickly.

The Dictator went to the point at once.

‘I am bad at prefaces,’ he said, ’I come to speak to you on behalf of my dear young friend and comrade, Ernest Hamilton.’

‘Oh!’ She drew herself up and looked almost defiantly at him.

‘Yes; he asked me to come and see you.’

‘What have I to do with Mr. Hamilton?’

‘That you must teach me,’ said Ericson, smiling rather sadly, and quoting from ‘Hamlet.’

‘I can teach you that very quickly Nothing.’

‘But you have not heard what I was going to say.’

’No. Well, you were quoting from Shakespeare let me quote too. “Had I three ears I’d hear thee."’ She drew herself back into her sofa. They were seated on the sofa side by side. He was leaning forward she had drawn back. She was waiting in a sort of dogged silence.

’Hamilton is one of the noblest creatures I ever knew. He is my very dearest friend.’

A shade came over her face, and she shrugged her shoulders.

‘I mean amongst men. I was not thinking of you.’

‘No,’ she answered, ‘I am quite sure you were not thinking of me.’

She perversely pretended to misunderstand his meaning. He hardly noticed her words. ‘Please go on,’ she said, ‘and tell me about Mr. Hamilton.’

‘He is in love with you,’ the Dictator said in a soft low-voice, and as if he envied the man about whom that tale could be told.

‘Oh!’ she exclaimed impatiently, turning on the sofa as if in pain, ’I am sick of all this love making! Why can’t a young man like one without making an idiot of himself and falling in love with one? Why can’t we let each other be happy all in our own way? It is all so horribly mechanical! You meet a man two or three times, and you dance with him, and you talk with him, and perhaps you like him perhaps you like him ever so much and then in a moment he spoils the whole thing by throwing his ridiculous offer of marriage right in your face! Why on earth should I marry Mr. Hamilton?’

’Don’t take it too lightly, dear young lady I know Hamilton to the very depth of his nature. This is a serious thing with him he is not like the commonplace young masher of London society; when he feels, he feels deeply I know what has been his personal devotion to myself.’

’Then why does he not keep to that devotion? Why does he desert his post? What does he want of me? What do I want of him? I liked him chiefly because he was devoted to you and now he turns right round and wants to be devoted to me! Tell him from me that he was much better employed with his former devotion tell him my advice was that he should stick to it.’

‘You must give a more serious answer,’ the Dictator said gravely.

‘Why didn’t he come himself?’ she asked somewhat inconsequently, and going off on another tack at once. ’I can’t understand how a man of any spirit can make love by deputy.’

‘Kings do sometimes,’ the Dictator said.

Helena blushed again. Some thought was passing through her mind which was not in his. She had called him her king.

‘Mr. Hamilton is not a king,’ she said almost angrily. She was on the point of blurting out, ‘Mr. Hamilton is not my king,’ but she recovered herself in good time. ‘Even if he were,’ she went on, ’I should rather be proposed to in person as Katherine was by Henry the Fifth.’

‘You take this all too lightly,’ Ericson pleaded. ’Remember that this young man’s heart and his future life are wrapped up in your answer, and in you.’

‘Tell him to come himself and get his answer,’ she said with a scornful toss of her head. Something had risen up in her heart which made her unkind.

‘Miss Langley,’ Ericson said gravely, ’I think it would have been much better if Hamilton had come himself and made his proposal, and argued it out with you for himself. I told him so, but he would not be advised. He is too modest and fearful, although, I tell you, I have seen more than once what pluck he has in danger. Yes, I have seen how cool, how elate he can be with the bullets and the bayonets of the enemy all at work about him. But he is timid with you because he loves you.’

‘"He either fears his fate too much “’ she began.

’You can’t settle this thing by a quotation. I see that you are in a mood for quotations, and that shows that you are not very serious. I shall tell you why he asked me, and prevailed upon me, to come to you and speak for him. There is no reason why I should not tell you.’

‘Tell me,’ she said.

’I am old enough to have no hesitation in telling a girl of your age anything.’

‘Again!’ Helena said. ’I do wish you would let my age alone? I thought we had come to an honourable understanding to leave my age out of the question.’

’I fear it can’t well be left out of this question. You see, what I was going to tell you was that Hamilton asked me to break this to you because he believes that I have great influence with you.’

‘Of course, you know you have.’

‘Yes but there was more.’

‘What more?’ She turned her head away.

’He is under the impression that you would do anything I asked you to do.’

‘So I would, and so I will!’ she exclaimed impetuously. ’If you ask me to marry Mr. Hamilton I will marry him! Yes I will. If you, knowing what you do know, can wish your friend to marry me, and me to become his wife, I will accept his condescending offer! You know I do not love him you know I never felt one moment’s feeling of that kind for him you know that I like him as I like twenty other young men and not a bit more. You know this at all events, you know it now when I tell you and will you ask me to marry Mr. Hamilton now?’

‘But is this all true? Is this really how you feel to him?’

‘Zwischen uns sei Wahrheit,’ Helena said scornfully. ’Why should I deceive you? If I loved Mr. Hamilton I could marry him, couldn’t I? seeing that he has sent you to ask me? I do not love him I never could love him in that way. Now what do you ask me to do?’

‘I am sorry for my poor young friend and comrade,’ the Dictator answered sadly. ’I thought, perhaps, he might have had some reason to believe ’

‘Did he tell you anything of the kind?’

’Oh, no, no; he is the last man in the world to say such a thing, or even to think it. One reason why he wished me to open the matter to you was that he feared, if he spoke to you about it himself, you would only laugh at him and refuse to give him a serious answer. He thought you would give me a serious answer.’

‘What a very extraordinary and eccentric young man!’

’Indeed, he is nothing of the kind although, of course, like myself, he has lived a good deal outside the currents of English feeling.’

‘I should have thought,’ she said gravely, ’that that was rather a question of the currents of common human feeling. Do the young women in Gloria like to be made love to by delegation?’

‘Would it have made any difference if he had come himself?’

’No difference in the world now or at any other time. But remember, I am a very loyal subject, and I admit the right of my king to hand me over in marriage. If you tell me to marry Mr. Hamilton, I will.’

‘You are only jesting, Miss Langley, and this is not a jest.’

‘I don’t feel much in the mood for jesting,’ she answered. ’It would rather seem as if I had been made the subject of a jest ’

‘Oh, you must not say that,’ he interposed in an almost angry tone. ’You can’t, and don’t, think that either of him or of me.’

’No, I don’t; I could not think it of you and no, I could not think it of him either. But you must admit that he has acted rather oddly.’

‘And I too, I suppose?’

’Oh, you well, of course, you were naturally thinking of the interest, or, at least, the momentary wishes, of your friend.’

’Of my two friends you are my friend. Did we not swear an eternal friendship the other night?’

‘Now you are jesting.’

’I am not; I am profoundly serious. I thought perhaps this might be for the happiness of both.’

’Did you ever see anything in me which seemed to make such an idea likely?’

‘You see, I have known you but for so short a time.’

‘People who are worth knowing at all are known at once or never known,’ she said promptly and very dogmatically.

‘Young ladies do not wear their hearts upon their sleeves.’

‘I am afraid I do sometimes too much,’ she said.

‘I thought it at least possible.’

’Now you know. Well, are you going to ask me to marry your friend Mr. Hamilton?’

’No, indeed, Miss Langley. That would be a cruel injustice and wrong to him and to you. He must marry someone who loves him; you must marry someone whom you love. I am sorry for my poor friend this will hurt him. But he cannot blame you, and I cannot blame you. He has some comfort he has Gloria to fight for some day.’

‘Put it nicely very nicely to him,’ Helena said, softening now that all was over. ’Tell him won’t you? that I am ever so fond of him; and tell him that this must not make the least difference in our friendship. No one shall ever know from me.’

‘I will put it all as well as I can,’ said the Dictator; ’but I am afraid it must make a difference to him. It made a difference to me when I was a young man of about his age.’

‘You were disappointed?’ Helena asked, in rather tremulous tone.

’More than that; I think I was deceived. I was ever so much worse off than Hamilton, for there was bitterness in my story, and there can be none in his. But I have survived as you see.’

‘Is she still living?’

’Oh, yes; she married for money and rank, and has got both, and I believe she is perfectly happy.’

‘And have you recovered quite?’

’Quite; I fancy it must have been an unreal sort of thing altogether. My wound is quite healed does not give me even a passing moment of pain, as very old wounds sometimes do. But I am not going to lapse into the sentimental. It was only the thought of Hamilton that brought all this up.’

‘You are not sentimental?’ Helena asked.

’I have not had time to be. Anyhow, no woman ever cared about me in that way, I mean no, not one.’

‘Ah, you never can tell,’ Helena said gently. He seemed to her somehow, to have led a very lonely life; it came into her thoughts just then; she could not tell why. She was relieved when he rose to go, for she felt her sympathy for him beginning to be a little too strong, and she was afraid of betraying it. The interview had been a curious and a trying one for her. The Dictator left the room wondering how he could ever have been drawn into talking to a girl about the story of his lost love. ‘That girl has a strange influence over me,’ he thought. ‘I wonder why?’