Read CHAPTER IV of Jason, free online book, by Justus Miles Forman, on ReadCentral.com.

OLD DAVID STEWART

It was Miss Benham’s custom, upon returning home at night from dinner-parties or other entertainments, to look in for a few minutes on her grandfather before going to bed. The old gentleman, like most elderly people, slept lightly, and often sat up in bed very late into the night, reading or playing piquet with his valet. He suffered hideously at times from the malady which was killing him by degrees, but when he was free from pain the enormous recuperative power, which he had preserved to his eighty-sixth year, left him almost as vigorous and clear-minded as if he had never been ill at all. Hartley’s description of him had not been altogether a bad one: “a quaint old beggar... a great quantity of white hair and an enormous square white beard and the fiercest eyes I ever saw...” He was a rather “quaint old beggar,” indeed! He had let his thick, white hair grow long, and it hung down over his brows in unparted locks as the ancient Greeks wore their hair. He had very shaggy eyebrows, and the deep-set eyes under them gleamed from the shadow with a fierceness which was rather deceptive but none the less intimidating. He had a great beak of a nose, but the mouth below could not be seen. It was hidden by the mustache and the enormous square beard. His face was colorless, almost as white as hair and beard; there seemed to be no shadow or tint anywhere except the cavernous recesses from which the man’s eyes gleamed and sparkled. Altogether he was certainly “a quaint old beggar.”

He had, during the day and evening, a good many visitors, for the old gentleman’s mind was as alert as it ever had been, and important men thought him worth consulting. The names which the admirable valet Peters announced from time to time were names which meant a great deal in the official and diplomatic world of the day. But if old David felt flattered over the unusual fashion in which the great of the earth continued to come to him, he never betrayed it. Indeed, it is quite probable that this view of the situation never once occurred to him. He had been thrown with the great of the earth for more than half a century, and he had learned to take it as a matter of course.

On her return from the Marquise de Saulnes’ dinner-party, Miss Benham went at once to her grandfather’s wing of the house, which had its own street entrance, and knocked lightly at his door. She asked the admirable Peters, who opened to her, “Is he awake?” and being assured that he was, went into the vast chamber, dropping her cloak on a chair as she entered.

David Stewart was sitting up in his monumental bed behind a sort of invalid’s table which stretched across his knees without touching them. He wore over his night-clothes a Chinese mandarin’s jacket of old red satin, wadded with down, and very gorgeously embroidered with the cloud and bat designs, and with large round panels of the imperial five-clawed dragon in gold. He had a number of these jackets they seemed to be his one vanity in things external and they were so made that they could be slipped about him without disturbing him in his bed, since they hung down only to the waist or thereabouts. They kept the upper part of his body, which was not covered by the bedclothes, warm, and they certainly made him a very impressive figure.

He said: “Ah, Helen! Come in! Come in! Sit down on the bed there and tell me what you have been doing!” He pushed aside the pack of cards which was spread out on the invalid’s table before him, and with great care counted a sum of money in francs and half-francs and nickel twenty-five centime pieces. “I’ve won seven francs fifty from Peters to-night,” he said, chuckling gently. “That is a very good evening, indeed. Very good! Where have you been, and who were there?”

“A dinner-party at the De Saulnes’,” said Miss Benham, making herself comfortable on the side of the great bed. “It’s a very pleasant place. Marian is, of course, a dear, and they’re quite English and unceremonious. You can talk to your neighbor at dinner instead of addressing the house from a platform, as it were. French dinner-parties make me nervous.”

Old David gave a little growling laugh.

“French dinner-parties at least keep people up to the mark in the art of conversation,” said he. “But that is a lost art, anyhow, nowadays, so I suppose one might as well be quite informal and have done with it. Who were there?”

“Oh, well” she considered, “no one, I should think, who would interest you. Rather an indifferent set. Pleasant people, but not inspiring. The Marquis had some young relative or connection who was quite odious and made the most surprising noises over his food. I met a new man whom I think I am going to like very much, indeed. He wouldn’t interest you, because he doesn’t mean anything in particular, and of course he oughtn’t to interest me for the same reason. He’s just an idle, pleasant young man, but he has great charm very great charm. His name is Ste. Marie. Baron de Vries seems very fond of him, which surprised me, rather.”

“Ste. Marie!” exclaimed the old gentleman, in obvious astonishment. “Ste. Marie de Mont Perdu?”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, that is the name, I believe. You know him, then? I wonder he didn’t mention it.”

“I knew his father,” said old David. “And his grandfather, for that matter. They’re Gascon, I think, or Bearnais; but this boy’s mother will have been Irish, unless his father married again.

“So you’ve been meeting a Ste. Marie, have you? and finding that he has great charm?” The old gentleman broke into one of his growling laughs, and reached for a long black cigar, which he lighted, eying his granddaughter the while over the flaring match. “Well,” he said, when the cigar was drawing, “they all have had charm. I should think there has never been a Ste. Marie without it. They’re a sort of embodiment of romance, that family. This boy’s great-grandfather lost his life defending a castle against a horde of peasants in 1799; his grandfather was killed in the French campaign in Mexico in ’39 at Vera Cruz it was, I think; and his father died in a filibustering expedition ten years ago. I wonder what will become of the last Ste. Marie?” Old David’s eyes suddenly sharpened. “You’re not going to fall in love with Ste. Marie and marry him, are you?” he demanded.

Miss Benham gave a little angry laugh, but her grandfather saw the color rise in her cheeks for all that.

“Certainly not,” she said, with great decision, “What an absurd idea! Because I meet a man at a dinner-party and say I like him, must I marry him to-morrow? I meet a great many men at dinners and things, and a few of them I like. Heavens!”

“‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much,’” muttered old David into his huge beard.

“I beg your pardon?” asked Miss Benham, politely.

But he shook his head, still growling inarticulately, and began to draw enormous clouds of smoke from the long black cigar. After a time he took the cigar once more from his lips and looked thoughtfully at his granddaughter, where she sat on the edge of the vast bed, upright and beautiful, perfect in the most meticulous detail. Most women when they return from a long evening out look more or less the worse for it deadened eyes, pale cheeks, loosened coiffure tell their inevitable tale. Miss Benham looked as if she had just come from the hands of a very excellent maid. She looked as freshly soignee as she might have looked at eight that evening instead of at one. Not a wave of her perfectly undulated hair was loosened or displaced, not a fold of the lace at her breast had departed from its perfect arrangement.

“It is odd,” said old David Stewart, “your taking a fancy to young Ste. Marie. Of course, it’s natural, too, in a way, because you are complete opposites, I should think that is, if this lad is like the rest of his race. What I mean is that merely attractive young men don’t, as a rule, attract you.”

“Well, no,” she admitted, “they don’t usually. Men with brains attract me most, I think men who are making civilization, men who are ruling the world, or at least doing important things for it. That’s your fault, you know. You taught me that.”

The old gentleman laughed.

“Possibly,” said he. “Possibly. Anyhow, that is the sort of men you like, and they like you. You’re by no means a fool, Helen; in fact, you’re a woman with brains. You could wield great influence married to the proper sort of man.”

“But not to M. Ste. Marie,” she suggested, smiling across at him.

“Well, no,” he said. “No, not to Ste. Marie. It would be a mistake to marry Ste. Marie if he is what the rest of his house have been. The Ste. Maries live a life compounded of romance and imagination and emotion. You’re not emotional.”

“No,” said Miss Benham, slowly and thoughtfully. It was as if the idea were new to her. “No, I’m not, I suppose. No. Certainly not.”

“As a matter of fact,” said old David, “you’re by nature rather cold. I’m not sure it isn’t a good thing. Emotional people, I observe, are usually in hot water of some sort. When you marry you’re very likely to choose with a great deal of care and some wisdom. And you’re also likely to have what is called a career. I repeat that you could wield great influence in the proper environment.”

The girl frowned across at her grandfather reflectively.

“Do you mean by that,” she asked, after a little silence “do you mean that you think I am likely to be moved by sheer ambition and nothing else in arranging my life? I’ve never thought of myself as a very ambitious person.”

“Let us substitute for ambition common-sense,” said old David. “I think you have a great deal of common-sense for a woman and so young a woman. How old are you by-the-way? Twenty-two? Yes, to be sure. I think you have great common-sense and appreciation of values. And I think you’re singularly free of the emotionalism that so often plays hob with them all. People with common-sense fall in love in the right places.”

“I don’t quite like the sound of it,” said Miss Benham. “Perhaps I am rather ambitious I don’t know. Yes, perhaps. I should like to play some part in the world, I don’t deny that. But am I as cold as you say? I doubt it very much. I doubt that.”

“You’re twenty-two,” said her grandfather, “and you have seen a good deal of society in several capitals. Have you ever fallen in love?”

Oddly, the face of Ste. Marie came before Miss Benham’s eyes as if she had summoned it there. But she frowned a little and shook her head, saying:

“No, I can’t say that I have. But that means nothing. There’s plenty of time for that. And you know,” she said, after a pause “you know I’m rather sure I could fall in love pretty hard. I’m sure of that. Perhaps I have been waiting. Who knows?”

“Aye, who knows?” said David. He seemed all at once to lose interest in the subject, as old people often do without apparent reason, for he remained silent for a long time, puffing at the long black cigar or rolling it absently between his fingers. After awhile he laid it down in a metal dish which stood at his elbow, and folded his lean hands before him over the invalid’s table. He was still so long that at last his granddaughter thought he had fallen asleep, and she began to rise from her seat, taking care to make no noise; but at that the old man stirred and put out his hand once more for the cigar. “Was young Richard Hartley at your dinner-party?” he asked, and she said:

“Yes. Oh yes, he was there. He and M. Ste. Marie came together, I believe. They are very close friends.”

“Another idler,” growled old David. “The fellow’s a man of parts and a man of family. What’s he idling about here for? Why isn’t he in Parliament, where he belongs?”

“Well,” said the girl, “I should think it is because he is too much a man of family as you put it. You see, he’ll succeed his cousin, Lord Risdale, before very long, and then all his work would have been for nothing, because he’ll have to take his seat in the Lords. Lord Risdale is unmarried, you know, and a hopeless invalid. He may die any day. I think I sympathize with poor Mr. Hartley. It would be a pity to build up a career for one’s self in the lower House, and then suddenly, in the midst of it, have to give it all up. The situation is rather paralyzing to endeavor, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I dare say,” said old David, absently. He looked up sharply. “Young Hartley doesn’t come here as much as he used to do.”

“No,” said Miss Benham, “he doesn’t.” She gave a little laugh. “To avoid cross-examination,” she said, “I may as well admit that he asked me to marry him and I had to refuse. I’m sorry, because I like him very much, indeed.”

Old David made an inarticulate sound which may have been meant to express surprise or almost anything else. He had not a great range of expression.

“I don’t want,” said he, “to seem to have gone daft on the subject of marriage, and I see no reason why you should be in any haste about it. Certainly I should hate to lose you, my child, but Hartley as the next Lord Risdale is undoubtedly a good match. And you say you like him.”

The girl looked up with a sort of defiance, and her face was a little flushed.

“I don’t love him,” she said. “I like him immensely, but I don’t love him, and, after all well, you say I’m cold, and I admit I’m more or less ambitious, but, after all well, I just don’t quite love him. I want to love the man I marry.”

Old David Stewart held up his black cigar and gazed thoughtfully at the smoke which streamed thin and blue and veil-like from its lighted end.

“Love!” he said, in a reflective tone. “Love!” He repeated the word two or three times slowly, and he stirred a little in his bed. “I have forgotten what it is,” said he. “I expect I must be very old. I have forgotten what love that sort of love is like. It seems very far away to me and rather unimportant. But I remember that I thought it important enough once, a century or two ago. Do you know, it strikes me as rather odd that I have forgotten what love is like. It strikes me as rather pathetic.” He gave a sort of uncouth grimace and stuck the black cigar once more into his mouth. “Egad!” said he, mumbling indistinctly over the cigar, “how foolish love seems when you look back at it across fifty or sixty years!”

Miss Benham rose to her feet smiling, and she came and stood near where the old man lay propped up against his pillows. She touched his cheek with her cool hand, and old David put up one of his own hands and patted it.

“I’m going to bed now,” said she. “I’ve sat here talking too long. You ought to be asleep, and so ought I.”

“Perhaps! Perhaps!” the old man said. “I don’t feel sleepy, though. I dare say I shall read a little.” He held her hand in his and looked up at her.

“I’ve been talking a great deal of nonsense about marriage,” said he. “Put it out of your head! It’s all nonsense. I don’t want you to marry for a long time. I don’t want to lose you.” His face twisted a little, quite suddenly. “You’re precious near all I have left, now,” he said.

The girl did not answer at once, for it seemed to her that there was nothing to say. She knew that her grandfather was thinking of the lost boy, and she knew what a bitter blow the thing had been to him. She often thought that it would kill him before his old malady could run its course.

But after a moment she said, very gently: “We won’t give up hope. We’ll never give up hope. Think! he might come home to-morrow! Who knows?”

“If he has stayed away of his own accord,” cried out old David Stewart, in a loud voice, “I’ll never forgive him not if he comes to me to-morrow on his knees! Not even if he comes to me on his knees!”

The girl bent over her grandfather, saying: “Hush! hush! You mustn’t excite yourself.” But old David’s gray face was working, and his eyes gleamed from their cavernous shadows with a savage fire.

“If the boy is staying away out of spite,” he repeated, “he need never come back to me. I won’t forgive him.” He beat his unemployed hand upon the table before him, and the things which lay there jumped and danced. “And if he waits until I’m dead and then comes back,” said he, “he’ll find he has made a mistake a great mistake. He’ll find a surprise in store for him, I can tell you that. I won’t tell you what I have done, but it will be a disagreeable surprise for Master Arthur, you may be sure.”

The old gentleman fell to frowning and muttering in his choleric fashion, but the fierce glitter began to go out of his eyes and his hands ceased to tremble and clutch at the things before him. The girl was silent, because again there seemed to her to be nothing that she could say. She longed very much to plead her brother’s cause, but she was sure that would only excite her grandfather, and he was growing quieter after his burst of anger. She bent down over him and kissed his cheek.

“Try to go to sleep,” she said. “And don’t torture yourself with thinking about all this. I’m as sure that poor Arthur is not staying away out of spite as if he were myself. He’s foolish and headstrong, but he’s not spiteful, dear. Try to believe that. And now I’m really going. Good-night.” She kissed him again and slipped out of the room. And as she closed the door she heard her grandfather pull the bell-cord which hung beside him and summoned the excellent Peters from the room beyond.