Read LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI : CHAPTER IV of The History of Sir Richard Calmady A Romance , free online book, by Lucas Malet, on


“So you really wish me to ask them both to come, Richard?”

Lady Calmady stood on the tiger-skin before the Gun-Room hearth. Upon the said hearth a merry, little fire of pine logs clicked and chattered. Even here, on the dry upland, the night air had an edge to it; while in the valleys there would be frost before morning, ripening that same splendour of autumn foliage alike to greater glory and swifter fall. And the snap in the air, working along with other unwonted influences, made Katherine somewhat restless this evening. Her eyes were dark with unspoken thought. Her voice had a ring in it. The shimmering, black, satin dress and fine lace she wore gave a certain magnificence to her appearance. Her whole being was vibrant. She was rather dangerously alive. Her elder brother’s unlooked-for advent had awakened her strangely from the reserve and stately monotony of her daily existence, had shaken even, for the moment, the completeness of the dominion of her fixed idea. She ceased, for the moment, to sink the whole of her personality in the maternal relationship. Memories of her youth, passed amid the varied interests of society and of the literary and political world of Paris and London, assailed her. All those other Katherines, in short, whom she might have been, and who had seemed to drop away from her, vanishing phantom-like before the uncompromising realities of her husband’s death and her child’s birth, crowded about her, importuning her with vague desires, vague regrets. The confines of Brockhurst grew narrow, while all that which lay beyond them called to her. She craved, almost unconsciously, a wider sphere of action. She longed to obtain, and to lend a hand in the shaping of events and making of history. Even the purest and most devoted among women possessing the doubtful blessing of a measure of intellect are subject to such vagrant heats, such uprisings of personal ambition, specially during the dangerous decade when the nine-and-thirtieth year is past.

Meanwhile Richard’s answer to her question was unfortunately somewhat over-long in coming, for the young man was sunk in meditation and apparently oblivious of her presence. He leaned back in the long, low armchair, his hands clasped behind his head, the embroidered rug drawn about his waist, a venerable, yellow-edged, calf-bound volume lying face downwards on his lap. While young Camp young no longer, full of years indeed beyond the allotted portion of his kind reposed, outstretched and snoring, on the all-too-wide space of rug and chair-seat at his feet. And this indifference, both of man and dog, grew irksome to Lady Calmady. She moved across the shining yellow and black surface of the tiger-skin and straightened the bronzes of Vinedresser and Lazy Lad standing on the high chimneypiece.

“My dear, it grows late,” she said. “Let us settle this matter. If your uncle and cousin are to come, I must send a note over to Newlands to-morrow before breakfast. Remember I have no choice in the matter. I leave it entirely to you. Tell me seriously what you wish.”

Richard stretched himself, turning his head in the hollow of his hands, and shrugged his shoulders slightly.

“That is exactly what I would thank you so heartily to tell me,” he answered. “Do I, or don’t I seriously wish it? I give you my word, mother, I don’t know.”

“Oh; but, my dearest, that is folly! You must have inclination enough, one way or the other, to come to a decision. I was careful not to commit myself. It is still easy not to ask them without being guilty of any discourtesy.”

“It isn’t that,” Richard said. “It is simply that being anything but heroic I am trying of two evils to choose the least. I should like to have my uncle and Helen here immensely. But if the visit wasn’t a success I should be proportionately disappointed and vexed. So is it worth the risk? Disappointments are sufficiently abundant anyhow. Isn’t it slightly imbecile to run a wholly gratuitous risk of adding to their number?”

Then the fixed idea began stealthily, yet surely, to reassert its dominion; for there was a perceptible flavour of discouragement in the young man’s speech.

“Dickie, there is nothing wrong, is there, nothing the matter, to-night?”

“Oh, dear no, of course not!” he answered, half closing his eyes. “Nothing in the world’s the matter.”

He unclasped his hands, leaned forward and patted the bulldog lying across the rug at his feet. “At least nothing more than usual, nothing more than the abiding something which always has been and always will be the matter.”

“Ah, my dear!” Katherine cried softly.

“I’ve just been reading Burton’s Anatomy here,” he went on bending down, so that his face was hidden, while he pulled the dog’s soft ears. “He assures all whom it may concern that ’bodily imperfections do not a whit blemish the soul or hinder the operations of it, but rather help and much increase it.’ There, Camp, poor old man, don’t start it’s nothing worse than me. I wonder if the elaborate pains which have been taken through generations of your ancestors to breed you into your existing and very royal hideousness your flattened nose and perpetual grin, for instance do help and much increase the operations of your soul!”

He looked up suddenly.

“What do you think, mother?”

“I think think, my darling,” she said, “that perhaps neither you nor I are quite ourselves to-night.”

“Oh, well I’ve had rather a beastly day!” Richard dropped back against the chair cushions again, clasping his hands behind his head. “Or I’ve seemed to have it, which comes practically to much the same thing. I confess I have been rather hipped lately. I suppose it’s the weather. You’re not really in a hurry, mother, are you? Come and sit down.”

And obediently Katherine drew forward a chair and sat beside him. Those uprisings of vagrant desire still struggled, combating the dominion of the fixed idea. But the struggle grew faint and fainter. And then, for a measurable time, Richard fell silent again while she waited. Verily there is no sharper discipline for a woman’s proud spirit, than that administered, often quite unconsciously, by the man whom she loves.

“We gave a wretched girl six weeks to-day for robbing her mistress,” he remarked at last. “It was a flagrant case, so I suppose we were justified. In fact I don’t see how we could have done otherwise. But it went against me awfully, all the same. She has a child to support. Jim Gould got her into trouble and deserted her, like a cowardly, young blackguard. However, it’s easy to be righteous at another person’s expense. Perhaps I should have done the same in his place. I wonder if I should?”

“My dear, we need hardly discuss that point, I think,” Lady Calmady said.

Richard turned his head and smiled at her.

“Poor dear mother, do I bore you? But it is so comfortable to grumble. I know it’s selfish. It’s a horrid bad habit, and you ought to blow me up for it. But then, mother, take it all round, really I don’t grumble much, do I?”

“No, no!” Katherine said quickly. “Indeed, Dickie, you don’t.”

“I have been awfully afraid though, lately, that I do grumble more than I imagine,” he went on, straightening his head, while his handsome profile showed clear cut against the dancing brightness of the firelight. “But it’s almost impossible always to carry something about with you which which you hate, and not let it infect your attitude of mind and, in a degree, your speech. Twenty or thirty years hence it may prove altogether sufficient and satisfactory to know” his lips worked, obliging him to enunciate his words carefully “that bodily imperfections do not a whit blemish the soul or hinder its operations are, in short, an added means of grace. Think of it! Isn’t it a nice, neat, little arrangement, sort of spiritual consolation stakes! Only I’m afraid I’m some two or three decades on the near side of that comfortable conclusion yet, and I find ”

Richard shifted his position, letting his arms drop along the chair arms with a little thud. He smiled again, or at all events essayed to do so.

“In fact, I find it’s beastly difficult to care a hang about your soul, one way or another, when you clearly perceive your body’s making you the laughing-stock of half the people why, mother, sweet dear mother, what is it?”

For Lady Calmady’s two hands had closed down on his hand, and she bowed herself above them as though smitten with sharp pain.

“Pray don’t be distressed,” he went on. “I beg your pardon. I wasn’t thinking what I was saying, I’m an ass. It’s nothing I tell you but the weather. You’re all a lot too good to me and indulge me too much, and I grow soft, and then every trifle rubs me the wrong way. I’m a regular spoilt child I know it and a jolly good spanking is what I deserve. Burton, here, declares that the autumnal, like the vernal, equinox breeds hot humours and distempers in the blood. I believe we ought to be bled, spring and fall, like our forefathers. Look here, mother, don’t take my grumbling to heart. I tell you I’m just a little hipped from the weather. Let’s send for dear old Knott and get him to drive out the devil with his lancet? No, no, seriously, I tell you what we will do. It’ll be good for us both. I have arrived at a decision. We’ll have Uncle William and Helen ”

Richard had spoken very rapidly, half ashamed, trying to soothe her. He paused on the last word. He was conscious of a singular pleasure in pronouncing it. The perfectly finished figure of his cousin, outstanding against the wide, misty brightness of the sunset, the scent of the wood and moorland, the haunting suggestion of glad secrets, even that upcurling of blue cigarette smoke, rising as the smoke of incense with a difference upon the clear evening air, above all that silent flattery of intimate and fearless glances, those gay welcoming gestures, that merry calling, as of birds in the tree-tops, from the spirit of youth within him to the spirit of youth so visibly and radiantly resident in her all this rose up before Richard. He grew reckless, though reckless of precisely what, innocent as he was, in fact although mature in learning, he knew not as yet. Only he turned on his mother a face at once eager and shy, coaxing her as when in his long-ago baby-days he had implored some petty indulgence or the gift of some coveted toy on which his little heart was set.

“Yes, let us have them,” he said. “You know Helen is very charming. You will admire her, mother. She is as clever as she can stick, one sees that at a glance. And she is very much grande dame too and, oh, well, she is a whole lot of charming things! And her coming would be a wholesome breaking up of our ordinary ways of going on. We are usually very contented at least, I think so you, and dear Julius, and I, but perhaps we are getting into a bit of a rut. Helen’s society might prove an even more efficacious method of driving out my blue-devils than Knott’s lancet or a jolly good spanking.”

He laughed quietly, patting Katherine’s hand, but looking away.

“And there is no denying it would be a vastly more graceful one don’t you think so?”

Thus were smouldering fires of personal ambition quenched in Lady Calmady, as so often before. Richard’s tenderness brought her to her knees. She hugged, with an almost voluptuous movement of passion, that half-rejected burden of maternity, gathering it close against her heart once more. But, along with the rapture of self-surrender, came a thousand familiar fears and anxieties. For she had looked into Dickie’s mind, as he spoke out his grumble, and had there perceived the existence of much which she had dreaded and to the existence of which she had striven to blind herself.

“My darling,” she said, with a certain hesitation, “I will gladly have them if you wish it only you remember what happened long ago when Helen was here last?”

“Yes, I know, I was afraid you would think of that. But you can put that aside. Helen’s not the smallest recollection of it. She told me so this afternoon.”

“Told you so?” Katherine repeated.

“Yes,” he said. “It was awfully sweet of her. Evidently she’d been bullied about her unseemly behaviour when she was small, till you, and I, and Brockhurst, had been made into a perfect bugbear. She’s quite amusingly afraid of you still. But she’s no notion what really happened. Of course she can’t have, or she could not have mentioned the subject to me.” Richard shrugged his shoulders. “Obviously it would have been impossible.”

There was a pause. Lady Calmady rose. The young man spoke with conviction, yet her anxiety was not altogether allayed.

“Impossible,” he repeated. “Pretty mother don’t disquiet yourself. Trust me. To tell you the truth I have felt to-day is it very foolish? that I should like some one of my own age for a little while, as don’t you know a playfellow.”

Katherine bent down and kissed him. But mother-love is not, even in its most self-sacrificing expression, without torments of jealousy.

“My dear, you shall have your playfellow,” she said, though conscious of a tightening of the muscles of her beautiful throat. “Good-night. Sleep well.”

She went out, closing the door behind her. The perspective of the dimly-lighted corridor, and the great hall beyond, struck her as rather sadly lifeless and silent. What wonder, indeed, that Richard should ask for a companion, for something young! Love made her selfish and cowardly she feared. She should have thought of this before. She turned back, again opening the Gun-Room door.

Richard had raised himself. He stood on the seat of the chair, steadying himself by one hand on the chair-back, while with the other he pulled the rug from beneath the sleepy bull-dog.

“Wake up, you lazy old beggar,” he was saying. “Get down, can’t you. I want to go to bed, and you block the way, lying there in gross comfort, snoring. Make yourself scarce, old man. If I’d your natural advantages in the way of locomotion, I wouldn’t be so slow of using them ”

He looked up, and slipped back into a sitting position hastily.

“Oh, mother, I thought you had gone!” he exclaimed, almost sharply.

And to Katherine, overstrung as she was, the words came as a rebuke.

“My dearest, I won’t keep you,” she said. “I only came back to ask you about Honoria St. Quentin.”

“What about her?”

“She is staying at Newlands the two girls are friends, I believe. She seemed to me a fine creature when last I saw her. She knows the world, yet struck me curiously untouched by it. She is well read, she has ideas some of them a little extravagant, but time will modify that. Only her head is awake as yet, not her heart, I think. Shall I ask her to come too?”

“So that we may wake up her heart?” Richard inquired coldly. “No thanks, dear mother, that’s, too serious an undertaking. Have her another time, please. I saw her to-day, and, no doubt my taste is bad, but I must confess she did not please me very much. Nor which is more to the point in this connection perhaps did I please her. Would you ring the bell, please, as you’re there? I want Powell. Thanks so much. Good-night.”

Some ten minutes later Julius March, after kneeling in prayer, as his custom was, before the divinely sorrowful and compassionate image of the Virgin Mother and the Dead Christ, looked forth through the many-paned study window into the clair-obscure of the windless autumn night. He had been sensible of an unusual element in the domestic atmosphere this evening, and had been vaguely disquieted concerning both Katherine and Richard. It was impossible but that, as time went on, life should become more complicated at Brockhurst, and Julius feared his own inability to cope helpfully with such complication. He entertained a mean opinion of himself. It appeared to him he was but an unprofitable servant, unready, tongue-tied, lacking in resource. A depression possessed him which he could not shake off. What had he to show, after all, for these fifty-odd years of life granted to him? He feared his religion had walked in silver slippers, and would so walk to the end. Could it then, in any true and vital sense, be reckoned religion at all? Gross sins had never exercised any attraction over him. What virtue was there, then, in being innocent of gross sin? But to those other sins sins of defective moral courage in speech and action, sins arising from over-fastidiousness had he not yielded freely? Was he not a spiritual valetudinarian? He feared so. Offered, in the Eternal Mercy, endless precious opportunities of service, he had been too weak, too timorous, too slothful, to lay hold on them. And so, as it seemed to him very justly, to-night confession, prayer, adoration, left him unconsoled.

Then, looking out of the many-paned window, while the shame of his barrenness clothed him even as a garment, he beheld Lady Calmady pacing slowly over the gray quarries of the terrace pavement. A dark, fur-bordered mantle shrouded her tall figure from head to foot. Only her face showed, and her hands folded stiffly high upon her bosom, strangely pale against the blackness of her cloak. Ordinarily Julius would have scrupled to intrude upon her lonely walk. But just now the cry within him for human sympathy was urgent. Her near neighbourhood in itself was very dear to him, and she might let fall some gracious word testifying that, in her opinion at least, his life had not been wholly vain. For very surely that which survives when all other passions are uprooted and cast forth survives even in the case of the true ascetic and saint is the unquenchable yearning for the spoken approval of those whom we love and have loved.

And so, pushed by his poverty of self-esteem, Julius March, throwing a plaid on over his cassock, went out and paced the gray quarries beside Katherine Calmady.

On one hand rose the dark, rectangular masses of the house, crowned by its stacks of slender, twisted chimneys. On the other lay the indefinite and dusky expanse of the park and forest. The night was very clear. The stars were innumerable fierce, cold points of pulsing light. Orion’s jeweled belt and sword flung wide against the blue-black vault. Cassiopeia seated majestic in her golden chair. Northward, above the walled gardens, the Bear pointing to the diamond flashing of the Pole star. While across all high heaven, dusty with incalculable myriads of worlds, stretched the awful and mysterious highroad of the Milky-Way. The air was keen and tonic though so still. An immense and fearless quiet seemed to hold all things a quiet not of sleep, but of conscious and perfect equilibrium, a harmony so sustained and complete that to human ears it issued, of necessity, in silence.

And that silence Lady Calmady was in no haste to break. Twice she and her companion walked the length of the terrace, and back, before she spoke. She paused, at length, just short of the arcade of the further garden-hall.

“This great peace of the night puts all violence of feeling to the blush,” she said. “One perceives that a thousand years are very really as one day. That calms one with a vengeance.”

Katherine waited, looking out over the vague landscape, clasping the fur-bordered edges of her cloak with either hand. It appeared to Julius that both her voice and the expression of her face were touched with irony.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” she went on, “nor under the ‘visiting moon,’ nor under those somewhat heartless stars. Does it occur to you, Julius, how hopelessly unoriginal we are, how we all follow in the same beaten track? What thousands of men and women have stood, as you and I stand now, at once calmed as I admit that I am and rendered not a little homeless by the realisation of their own insignificance in face of the sleeping earth and this brooding immensity of space! A quoi bon, a quoi bon? Why can’t one learn to harden one’s poor silly heart, and just move round, stone-like, with the great movement of things accepting fate and ceasing to struggle or to care?”

“Just because, I think,” he answered, “the converse of that same saying is equally true. If, in material things, a thousand years are as one day, in the things of the spirit one day is as a thousand years. Remember the Christ crying upon the cross ’My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ and suffering during that brief utterance the sum of all the agony of sensible insignificance and sensible homelessness human nature ever has borne or will bear.”

“Ah, the Christ! the Christ!” Lady Calmady exclaimed, half wistfully as it seemed to Julius March, and half impatiently. She turned and paced the pale pavement again.

“You are too courteous, my dear friend, and cite an example august out of all proportion to my little lament.” She looked round at him as she spoke, smiling; and in the uncertain light her smile showed tremulous, suggestive of a nearness to tears. “Instinctively you scale Olympus, Calvary? yes, but I am afraid both those heights take on an equally and tragically mythological character to me and would bring me consolation from the dwelling-places of the gods. And my feet, all the while, are very much upon the floor, alas! That is happening to me which never yet happened to the gods, according to the orthodox authorities. Just this a commonplace dear Julius, I am growing old.”

Katherine drew her cloak more severely about her and moved on hastily, her head a little bent.

“No, no, don’t protest,” she added, as he attempted to speak. “We can be honest and dispense with conventional phrases, here, alone, under the stars. I am growing old, Julius and being, I suppose, but a vain, doting woman, I have only discovered what that really means to-day! But there is this excuse for me. My youth was so blessed, so so glorious, that it was natural I should strive to delude myself regarding its passing away. I perceive that for years I have continued to call that a bride-bed which was, in truth, a bier. I have struggled to keep my youth in fancy, as I have kept the red drawing-room in fact, unaltered. Is not all this pitifully vain and self-indulgent? I have solaced myself with the phantom of youth. And I am old old.”

“But you are yourself, Katherine, yourself. Nothing that has been, has ceased to be,” Julius broke in, unable in the fulness of his reverent honour of his dear lady to comprehend the meaning of her present bitterness. “Surely the mere adding of year to year can make no so vital difference?”

“Ah! you dear stupid creature,” she cried, “stupid, because, manlike, you are so hopelessly sensible it makes just all the difference in the world. I shall grow less alert, less pliable of mind, less quick of sympathy, less capable of adjusting myself to altered conditions, and to entertaining new views. And, all the while, the demand upon me will not lessen.”

Katherine stopped suddenly in her swift walk. The two stood facing one another.

“The demand will increase,” she declared. “Richard is not happy.”

And thereupon since, even in the most devout and holy, the old Adam dies extremely hard Julius March fell a prey to very lively irritation. While she talked of herself, bestowing unreserved confidence upon him, he could listen gladly, forever. But if that most welcome subject of conversation should be dropped, let her give him that which he craved to-night, so specially a word for himself. Let her deal, for a little space, with his own private needs, his own private joys and sorrows.

“Ah! Richard is not happy!” he exclaimed, his irritation finding voice. “We reach the root of the matter. Richard is not happy. Alas, then, for Richard’s mother!”

“Are you so much surprised?” Katherine asked hotly. “Do you venture to blame him? If so, I am afraid religion has made you rather cruel, Julius. But that is not a new thing under the sun either. Those who possess high spiritual consolations unknown to the rank and file of us have generally displayed an inclination to take the misfortunes of others with admirable resignation. Dearest Marie de Mirancourt was an exception to that rule. You might do worse perhaps than learn to follow her example.”

As she finished speaking Lady Calmady turned from him rather loftily, and prepared to move away. But even in so doing she received an impression which tended to modify her resentful humour.

For an instant Julius March stood, a tall, thin, black figure, rigid and shadowless upon the pallor of the gray pavement, his arms extended wide, as once crucified, while he looked, not at her, not out into the repose of the night-swathed landscape, but up at the silent dance of the eternal stars in the limitless fields of space. As Katherine, earlier in the evening, had taken up the momentarily rejected burden of her motherhood, so Julius now, with a movement of supreme self-surrender, took up the momentarily rejected burden of the isolation of the religious life. Self-wounded by self-love, he had sought comfort in the creature rather than the creator. And the creature turned and rebuked him. It was just. Now Julius gave himself back, bowed himself again under the dominion of his fixed idea; and, so doing, gained, unconsciously, precisely that which he had gone forth to seek. For Katherine, struck alike by the strange vigour, and strange resignation, of his attitude, suffered quick fear, not only for, but of him. His aloofness alarmed her.

“Julius! dear Julius!” she cried. “Come, let us walk. It grows cold. I enjoy that, but it is not very safe for you. And, pardon me, dear friend, I spoke harshly just now. I told you I was getting old. Put my words down to the peevishness of old age then.”

Katherine smiled at him with a sweet, half-playful humility. Her face was very wan. And speech not coming immediately to him, she spoke again.

“You have always been very patient with me. You must go on being so.”

“I ask nothing better,” Julius said.

Lady Calmady stopped, drew herself up, shook back her head.

“Ah! what sorry creatures we all are,” she cried, rather bitterly. “Discontented, unstable, forever kicking against the pricks, and fighting against the inevitable. Always crying to one another, ’See how hard this is, know how it hurts, feel the weight!’ My poor darling cries to me that is natural enough” Katherine paused “and as it should be. But I must needs run out and cry to you. In this we are like links of an endless chain. What is the next link, Julius? To whom will you cry in your turn?”

“The chain is not endless” he replied. “The last link of it is riveted to the steps of the throne of God. I will make my cry there my threefold cry for you, for Richard, and for myself, Katherine.”

Lady Calmady had reached the arched side-door leading from the terrace into the house. She paused, with her hand on the latch.

“Your God and I quarreled nearly four-and-twenty years ago not when Richard, my joy, died, but when Richard, my sorrow, was born,” she said. “I own I see no way, short of miracle, of that quarrel being made up.”

“Then a miracle will be worked,” he answered.

“Ah! You forget I grow old,” Katherine retorted, smiling; “so that for miracles the time is at once too long and too short.”