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

A BRAVE GENTLEMAN RECEIVES A HURT, BUT VOLUNTEERS IN A GOOD CAUSE

When Ste. Marie had gone, Miss Benham sat alone in the drawing-room for almost an hour. She had been stirred that afternoon more deeply than she thought she had ever been stirred before, and she needed time to regain that cool poise, that mental equilibrium, which was normal to her and necessary for coherent thought.

She was still in a sort of fever of bewilderment and exaltation, still all aglow with the man’s own high fervor; but the second self which so often sat apart from her, and looked on with critical, mocking eyes, whispered that to-morrow, the fever past, the fervor cooled, she must see the thing in its true light a glorious lunacy born of a moment of enthusiasm. It was finely romantic of him, this mocking second self whispered to her picturesque beyond criticism but, setting aside the practical folly of it, could even the mood last?

The girl rose to her feet with an angry exclamation. She found herself intolerable at such times as this.

“If there’s a heaven,” she cried out, “and by chance I ever go there, I suppose I shall walk sneering through the streets and saying to myself: ‘Oh yes, it’s pretty enough, but how absurd and unpractical!’”

She passed before one of the small, narrow mirrors which were let into the walls of the room in gilt Louis Seize frames with candles beside them, and she turned and stared at her very beautiful reflection with a resentful wonder.

“Shall I always drag along so far behind him?” she said. “Shall I never rise to him, save in the moods of an hour?”

She began suddenly to realize what the man’s going away meant that she might not see him again for weeks, months, even a year. For was it at all likely that he could succeed in what he had undertaken?

“Why did I let him go?” she cried. “Oh, fool, fool, to let him go!” But even as she said it she knew that she could not have held him back.

She began to be afraid, not for him, but of herself. He had taught her what it might be to love. For the first time love’s premonitory thrill promise of unspeakable, uncomprehended mysteries had wrung her, and the echo of that thrill stirred in her yet; but what might not happen in his long absence? She was afraid of that critical and analyzing power of mind which she had so long trained to attack all that came to her. What might it not work with the new thing that had come? To what pitiful shreds might it not be rent while he who only could renew it was away? She looked ahead at the weeks and months to come, and she was terribly afraid.

She went out of the room and up to her grandfather’s chamber and knocked there. The admirable Peters, who opened to her, said that his master had not been very well, and was just then asleep, but as they spoke together in low tones the old gentleman cried, testily, from within:

“Well? Well? Who’s there? Who wants to see me? Who is it?”

Miss Benham went into the dim, shaded room, and when old David saw who it was he sank back upon his pillows with a pacified growl. He certainly looked ill, and he had grown thinner and whiter within the past month, and the lines in his waxlike face seemed to be deeper scored.

The girl went up beside the bed and stood there a moment, after she had bent over and kissed her grandfather’s cheek, stroking with her hand the absurdly gorgeous mandarin’s jacket an imperial yellow one this time.

“Isn’t this new?” she asked. “I seem never to have seen this one before. It’s quite wonderful.”

The old gentleman looked down at it with the pride of a little girl over her first party frock. He came as near simpering as a fierce person of eighty-six, with a square white beard, can come.

“Rather good what? What?” said he. “Yes, it’s new. De Vries sent it me. It is my best one. Imperial yellow. Did you notice the little Show medallions with the swastika? Young Ste. Marie was here this afternoon.” He introduced the name with no pause or change of expression, as if Ste. Marie were a part of the decoration of the mandarin’s jacket. “I told him he was a damned fool.”

“Yes,” said Miss Benham, “I know. He said you did. I suppose,” she said, “that in a sort of very informal fashion I am engaged to him. Well, no, perhaps not quite that; but he seems to consider himself engaged to me, and when he has finished something very important that he has undertaken to do he is coming to ask me definitely to marry him. No, I suppose we aren’t engaged yet; at least, I’m not. But it’s almost the same, because I suppose I shall accept him whether he fails or succeeds in what he is doing.”

“If he fails in it, whatever it may be,” said old David, “he won’t give you a chance to accept him; he won’t come back. I know him well enough for that. He’s a romantic fool, but he’s a thoroughgoing fool. He plays the game.” The old man looked up to his granddaughter, scowling a little. “You two are absurdly unsuited to each other,” said he, “and I told Ste. Marie so. I suppose you think you’re in love with him.”

“Yes,” said the girl, “I suppose I do.”

“Idleness and all? You were rather severe on idleness at one time.”

“He isn’t idle any more,” said she. “He has undertaken of his own accord to find Arthur. He has some theory about it; and he is not going to see me again until he has succeeded or until a year is past. If he fails, I fancy he won’t come back.”

Old David gave a sudden hoarse exclamation, and his withered hands shook and stirred before him. Afterward he fell to half-inarticulate muttering.

“The young romantic fool! Don Quixote like all the rest of them those Ste. Maries. The fool and the angels. The angels and the fool.”

The girl distinguished words from time to time. For the most part, he mumbled under his breath. But when he had been silent a long time, he said, suddenly:

“It would be ridiculously like him to succeed.”

The girl gave a little sigh.

“I wish I dared hope for it,” said she. “I wish I dared hope for it.”

She had left a book that she wanted in the drawing-room, and, when presently her grandfather fell asleep in his fitful manner, she went down after it. In crossing the hall she came upon Captain Stewart, who was dressed for the street and had his hat and stick in his hands. He did not live in his father’s house, for he had a little flat in the rue du Faubourg St. Honore, but he was in and out a good deal. He paused when he saw his niece, and smiled upon her a benignant smile which she rather disliked, because she disliked benignant people. The two really saw very little of each other, though Captain Stewart often sat for hours together with his sister, up in a little boudoir which she had furnished in the execrable taste which to her meant comfort, while that timid and colorless lady embroidered strange tea cloths with stranger flora, and prattled about the heathen, in whom she had an academic interest.

He said: “Ah, my dear! It’s you?”

Indisputably it was, and there seemed to be no use of denying it, so Miss Benham said nothing, but waited for the man to go on if he had more to say.

“I dropped in,” he continued, “to see my father, but they told me he was asleep, and so I didn’t disturb him. I talked a little while with your mother instead.”

“I have just come from him,” said Miss Benham. “He dozed off again as I left. Still, if you had anything in particular to tell him, he’d be glad to be wakened, I fancy. There’s no news?”

“No,” said Captain Stewart, sadly “no, nothing. I do not give up hope, but I am, I confess, a little discouraged.”

“We are all that, I should think,” said Miss Benham, briefly.

She gave him a little nod and turned away into the drawing-room. Her uncle’s peculiar dry manner irritated her at times beyond bearing, and she felt that this was one of the times. She had never had any reason for doubting that he Was a good and kindly soul, but she disliked him because he bored her. Her mother bored her, too the poor woman bored everybody but the sense of filial obligation was strong enough in the girl to prevent her from acknowledging this even to herself. In regard to her uncle she had no sense of obligation whatever, except to be as civil to him as possible, and so she kept out of his way. She heard the heavy front door close, and gave a little sigh of relief.

“If he had come in here and tried to talk to me,” she said, “I should have screamed.”

Meanwhile Ste. Marie, a man moving in a dream, uplifted, cloud-enwrapped, made his way homeward. He walked all the long distance that is, looking backward upon it, later, he thought he must have walked, but the half-hour was a blank to him, an indeterminate, a chaotic whirl of things and emotions.

In the little flat in the rue d’Assas he came upon Richard Hartley, who, having found the door unlocked and the master of the place absent, had sat comfortably down, with a pipe and a stack of Couriers Francais, to wait. Ste. Marie burst into the doorway of the room where his friend sat at ease. Hat, gloves, and stick fell away from him in a sort of shower. He extended his arms high in the air. His face was, as it were, luminous. The Englishman regarded him morosely. He said:

“You look as if somebody had died and left you money. What the devil you looking like that for?”

“He!” cried Ste. Marie, in a great voice. “He, the world is mine! Embrace me, my infant! Sacred name of a pig, why do you sit there? Embrace me!”

He began to stride about the room, his head between his hands. Speech lofty and ridiculous burst from him in a sort of splutter of fireworks, but the Englishman sat still in his chair, and a gray, bleak look came upon him, for he began to understand. He was more or less used to these outbursts, and he bore them as patiently as he could, but though seven times out of the ten they were no more than spasms of pure joy of living, and meant, “It’s a fine spring day,” or “I’ve just seen two beautiful princesses of milliners in the street,” an inner voice told him that this time it meant another thing. Quite suddenly he realized that he had been waiting for this bracing himself against its onslaught. He had not been altogether blind through the past month. Ste. Marie seized him and dragged him from his chair.

“Dance, lump of flesh! Dance, sacred English rosbif that you are! Sing, gros polisson! Sing!” Abruptly, as usual, the mania departed from him, but not the glory; his eyes shone bright and triumphant. “Ah, my old,” said he, “I am near the stars at last. My feet are on the top rungs of the ladder. Tell me that you are glad!”

The Englishman drew a long breath.

“I take it,” said he, “that means that you’re that she has accepted you, eh?” He held out his hand. He was a brave and honest man. Even in pain he was incapable of jealousy. He said: “I ought to want to murder you, but I don’t. I congratulate you. You’re an undeserving beggar, but so were the rest of us. It was an open field, and you’ve won quite honestly. My best wishes!”

Then at last Ste. Marie understood, and in a flash the glory went out of his face. He cried: “Ah, mon cher ami! Pig that I am to forget. Pig! Pig! Animal!”

The other man saw that tears had sprung to his eyes, and was horribly embarrassed to the very bottom of his good British soul.

“Yes! Yes!” he said, gruffly. “Quite so, quite so! No consequence!” He dragged his hands away from Ste. Marie’s grasp, stuck them in his pockets, and turned to the window beside which he had been sitting. It looked out over the sweet green peace of the Luxembourg Gardens, with their winding paths and their clumps of trees and shrubbery, their flaming flower-beds, their groups of weather-stained sculpture. A youth in laborer’s corduroys and an unclean beret strolled along under the high palings; one arm was about the ample waist of a woman somewhat the youth’s senior, but, as ever, love was blind. The youth carolled in a high, clear voice, “Vous étés si jolie,” a song of abundant sentiment, and the woman put up one hand and patted his cheek. So they strolled on and turned up into the rue Vavin.

Ste. Marie, across the room, looked at his friend’s square back, and knew that in his silent way the man was suffering. A great sadness, the recoil from his trembling heights of bliss, came upon him and enveloped him. Was it true that one man’s joy must inevitably be another’s pain? He tried to imagine himself in Hartley’s place, Hartley in his, and he gave a little shiver. He knew that if that bouleversement were actually to take place he would be as glad for his friend’s sake as poor Hartley was now for his, but he knew also that the smile of congratulation would be a grimace of almost intolerable pain, and so he knew what Hartley’s black hour must be like.

“You must forgive me,” he said. “I had forgotten. I don’t know why. Well, yes, happiness is a very selfish state of mind, I suppose. One thinks of nothing but one’s self and one other. I during this past month I’ve been in the clouds. You must forgive me.”

The Englishman turned back into the room. Ste. Marie saw that his face was as completely devoid of expression as it usually was, that his hands, when he chose and lighted a cigarette, were quite steady, and he marvelled. That would have been impossible for him under such circumstances.

“She has accepted you, I take it?” said Hartley again.

“Not quite that,” said he. “Sit down and I’ll tell you about it.” So he told him about his hour with Miss Benham, and about what had been agreed upon between them, and about what he had undertaken to do. “Apart from wishing to do everything in this world that I can do to make her happy,” he said “and she will never be at peace again until she knows the truth about her brother apart from that, I’m purely selfish in the thing. I’ve got to win her respect, as well as the rest. I want her to respect me, and she has never quite done that. I’m an idler. So are you, but you have a perfectly good excuse. I have not. I’ve been an idler because it suited me, because nothing turned up, and because I have enough to eat without working for my living. I know how she has felt about all that. Well, she shall feel it no longer.”

“You’re taking on a big order,” said the other man.

“The bigger the better,” said Ste. Marie. “And I shall succeed in it or never see her again. I’ve sworn that.”

The odd look of exaltation that Miss Benham had seen in his face, the look of knightly fervor, came there again, and Hartley saw it, and knew that the man was stirred by no transient whim. Oddly enough he thought, as had the girl earlier in the day, of those elder Ste. Maries, who had taken sword and lance and gone out into a strange world a place of unknown terrors afire for the Great Adventure. And this was one of their blood.

“I’m afraid you don’t realize,” he went on, “the difficulties you’ve got to face. Better men than you have failed over this thing, you know.”

“A worse might nevertheless succeed,” said Ste. Marie. And the other said:

“Yes. Oh yes. And there’s always luck to be considered, of course. You might stumble on some trace.” He threw away his cigarette and lighted another, and he smoked it down almost to the end before he spoke. At last he said: “I want to tell you something. The reason why I want to tell it comes a little later. A few weeks before you returned to Paris I asked Miss Benham to marry me.”

Ste. Marie looked up with a quick sympathy. “Ah,” said he. “I have sometimes thought wondered. I have wondered if it went as far as that. Of course, I could see that you had known her well, though you seldom go there nowadays.”

“Yes,” said Hartley, “it went as far as that, but no farther. She well, she didn’t care for me not in that way. So I stiffened my back and shut my mouth, and got used to the fact that what I’d hoped for was impossible. And now comes the reason for telling you what I’ve told. I want you to let me help you in what you’re going to do if you think you can, that is. Remember, I cared for her, too. I’d like to do something for her. It would never have occurred to me to do this until you thought of it, but I should like very much to lend a hand do some of the work. D’you think you could let me in?”

Ste. Marie stared at him in open astonishment, and, for an instant, something like dismay.

“Yes, yes! I know what you’re thinking,” said the Englishman. “You’d hoped to do it all yourself. It’s your game. I know. Well, it’s your game even if you let me come in. I’m just a helper. Some one to run errands. Some one, perhaps, to take counsel with now and then. Look at it on the practical side. Two heads are certainly better than one. Certainly I could be of use to you. And besides well, I want to do something for her. I cared, too, you see. D’you think you could take me in?”

It was the man’s love that made his appeal irresistible. No one could appeal to Ste. Marie on that score in vain. It was true that he had hoped to work alone to win or lose alone; to stand, in this matter, quite on his own feet; but he could not deny the man who had loved her and lost her. Ste. Marie thrust out his hand.

“You love her, too!” he said. “That is enough. We work together. I have a possibly foolish idea that if we can find a certain man we will learn something about Arthur Benham. I’ll tell you about it.”

But before he could begin the door-bell jangled.