April’s Message by James Branch Cabell

Story type: Literature

As Played at Halvergate House, April 9, 1750

“You cannot love, nor pleasure take, nor give,
But life begin when ’tis too late to live.
On a tired courser you pursue delight,
Let slip your morning, and set out at night.
If you have lived, take thankfully the past;
Make, as you can, the sweet remembrance last.
If you have not enjoyed what youth could give,
But life sunk through you, like a leaky sieve.

DRAMATIS PERSONÆ

DUKE OF ORMSKIKK.

EARL OF BRUDENEL, father to Lady Marian Heleigh, who has retired sometime into the country.

LORD HUMPHREY DEGGE, a gamester, and Ormskirk’s hireling.

MR. LANGTON, secretary to Ormskirk.

LADY MARIAN HELEIGH, betrothed to Ormskirk, a young, beautiful girl of a mild and tender disposition.

SCENE

The east terrace of Halvergate House.

APRIL’S MESSAGE

PROEM:–Apologia pro Auctore

It occurs to me that we here assume intimacy with a man of unusual achievement, and therefore tread upon quaggy premises. Yet I do but avail myself of to-day’s privilege…. It is an odd thing that people will facilely assent to Don Adriano’s protestation against a certain travestying of Hector,–“Sweet chucks, beat not the bones of the dead, for when he breathed he was a man,”–even while through the instant the tide of romance will be setting quite otherwhither, with their condonation. For in all the best approved romances the more sumptuous persons of antiquity are very guilty of twaddle on at least one printed page in ten, and nobody remonstrates; and here is John Bulmer, too, lugged from the grave for your delectation.

I presume, however, to palliate the offence. The curious may find the gist of what I narrate concerning Ormskirk in Heinrich Löwe’s biography of the man, and will there discover that with established facts I have not made bold to juggle. Only when knowledge failed have I bridged the void with speculation. Perhaps I have guessed wrongly: the feat is not unhuman, and in provision against detection therein I can only protest that this lack of omniscience was never due to malice; faithfully I have endeavored to deduce from the known the probable, and in nothing to misrepresent to you this big man of a little age, this trout among a school of minnows.

Trout, mark you; I claim for Ormskirk no leviathan-ship. Rather I would remind you of a passage from somewhat anterior memoirs: “The Emperor of Lilliput is taller, by almost the breadth of my nail, than any of his court, which alone is enough to strike an awe into his beholders.”

This, however, is not the place to expatiate on Ormskirk’s extraordinary career; his rise from penury and obscurity, tempered indeed by gentle birth, to the priviest secrets of his Majesty’s council,–climbing the peerage step by step, as though that institution had been a garden-ladder,–may be read of in the history books.

“I collect titles as an entomologist does butterflies,” he is recorded to have said: “and I find the gaudier ones the cheapest. My barony I got for a very heinous piece of perjury, my earldom for not running away until the latter end of a certain battle, my marquisate for hoodwinking a half-senile Frenchman, and my dukedom for fetching in a quack doctor when he was sore needed by a lady whom the King at that time delighted to honor.”

It was, you observe, a day of candors.

I

The Duke of Ormskirk, then (one gleans from Löwe’s pages), dismissed from mind the Audaine conspiracy. It was a pity to miss the salutary effect of a few political executions just then, but after all there was nothing to be done about it. So the Duke turned to the one consolation offered by the affair, and set out for Halvergate House, the home of Marian Heleigh’s father. There one finds him, six days later, deep in a consultation with his secretary, which in consideration of the unseasonable warmth was held upon the east terrace.

“Yes, I think we had better have the fellow hanged on the thirteenth,” said Ormskirk, as he leisurely affixed his signature. “The date seems eminently appropriate. Now the papers concerning the French treaty, if you please, Mr. Langton.”

The impassive-faced young man who sat opposite placed a despatch-box between them. “These were sent down from London only last night, sir. Mr. Morfit [Footnote: Perhaps the most adroit of all the many spies in Ormskirk’s employment. It was this same Morfit who in 1756 accompanied Damiens into France as far as Calais; and see page 16.] has been somewhat dilatory.”

“Eh, it scarcely matters. I looked them over in bed this morning and found them quite correct, Mr. Langton, quite–Why, heyday!” the Duke demanded, “what’s this? You have brought me the despatch-box from my dresser–not, as I distinctly told you, from the table by my bed. Nay, I have had quite enough of mistakes concerning despatch-boxes, Mr. Langton.”

Mr. Langton stammered that the error was natural. Two despatch-boxes were in appearances so similar–

“Never make excuses, Mr. Langton. ‘Qui s’excuse–‘ You can complete the proverb, I suppose. Bring me Morfit’s report this afternoon, then. Yes, that appears to be all. You may go now, Mr. Langton. No, you may leave that box, I think, since it is here. O man, man, a mistake isn’t high treason! Go away, Mr. Langton! you annoy me.”

Left alone, the Duke of Ormskirk sat for a while, tapping his fingers irresolutely against the open despatch-box. He frowned a little, for, with fair reason to believe Tom Langton his son, he found the boy too stolid, too unimaginative, to go far. It seemed to Ormskirk that none of his illegitimate children displayed any particular promise, and he sighed. Then he took a paper from the despatch-box, and began to read.

He sat, as one had said, upon the east terrace of Halvergate House. Behind him a tall yew-hedge shut off the sunlight from the table where he and Tom Langton had earlier completed divers businesses; in front of him a balustrade, ivy-covered, and set with flower-pots of stone, empty as yet, half screened the terraced gardens that sank to the artificial lake below.

The Duke could see only a vast expanse of sky and a stray bit of Halvergate printing the horizon with turrets, all sober gray save where the two big copper cupolas of the south fa�ade burned in the April sun; but by bending forward you glimpsed close-shaven lawns dotted with clipped trees and statues,–as though, he reflected, Glumdalclitch had left her toys scattered haphazard about a green blanket–and the white of the broad marble stairway descending to the sunlit lake, and, at times, the flash of a swan’s deliberate passage across the lake’s surface. All white and green and blue the vista was, and of a monastic tranquillity, save for the plashing of a fountain behind the yew-hedge and the grumblings of an occasional bee that lurched complainingly on some by-errand of the hive.

Presently his Grace of Ormskirk replaced the papers in the despatch-box, and, leaning forward, sighed. “Non sum qualis eram sub bonæ regno Cynaræ,” said his Grace of Ormskirk. He had a statesman-like partiality for the fag-end of an alcaic.

Then he lifted his head at the sound of a girl’s voice. Somewhere rearward to the hedge the girl idly sang–an old song of Thomas Heywood’s,–in a serene contralto, low-pitched and effortless, but very sweet. Smilingly the Duke beat time.

Sang the girl:

“Pack clouds away, and welcome, day!
With night we banish sorrow:
Sweet air, blow soft; mount, lark, aloft,
To give my love good-morrow.
Wings from the wind to please her mind,
Notes from the lark I’ll borrow:
Bird, prune thy wing; nightingale, sing,
To give my love good-morrow.”

And here the Duke chimed in with a sufficiently pleasing baritone:

“To give my love good-morrow,
Notes from them all I’ll borrow.”

“O heavens!” spoke the possessor of the contralto, “I would have thought you were far too busy sending people to gaol and arranging their execution, and so on, to have any time for music. I am going for a walk in the forest, Jack.” Considering for a moment, she added, “You may come, too, if you like.”

See also  The Adventure Of The Second Stain by Arthur Conan Doyle

But the concession was made so half-heartedly that in the instant the Duke of Ormskirk raised a dissenting hand. “I would not annoy you for an emperor’s ransom. Go in peace, my child.”

Lady Marian Heleigh stood at an opening in the yew-hedge and regarded him for a lengthy interval in silence. Slender, men called her, and women “a bean pole.” There was about her a great deal of the child and something of the wood-nymph. She had abundant hair, the color of a dead oak-leaf, and her skin was clear, with a brown tinge. Her eyes puzzled you by being neither brown nor green consistently; no sooner had you convicted them of verdancy than they shifted to the hue of polished maple, and vice versa; but they were too large for her face, which narrowed rather abruptly beneath a broad, low forehead, and they flavored her aspect with the shrewd innocence of a kitten. She was by ordinary grave; but, animated, her countenance quickened with somewhat the glow of a brown diamond; then her generous eyes flashed and filmed like waters moving under starlight, then you knew she was beautiful. All in all, you saw in Marian a woman designed to be petted, a Columbine rather than a Cleopatra; her lures would never shake the stability of a kingdom, but would inevitably gut its toy-shops; and her departure left you meditative less of high enterprises than of buying something for her.

Now Marian considered her betrothed, and seemed to come at last to a conclusion that skirted platitude. “Jack, two people can be fond of each other without wanting to be together all the time. And I really am fond of you, Jack.”

“I would be a fool if I questioned the first statement,” rejoined the Duke; “and if I questioned the second, very miserable. Nevertheless, you go in pursuit of strange gods, and I decline to follow.”

Her eyebrows interrogated him.

“You are going,” the Duke continued, “in pursuit of gods beside whom I esteem Zidonian Ashtoreth, and Chemosh, and Milcom, the abomination of the Ammonites, to be commendable objects of worship. You will pardon my pedantic display of learning, for my feelings are strong. You are going to sit in the woods. You will probably sit under a youngish tree, and its branches will sway almost to the ground and make a green, sun-steeped tent about you, as though you sat at the heart of an emerald. You will hear the kindly wood-gods go steathily about the forest, and you will know that they are watching you, but you will never see them. From behind every tree-bole they will watch you; you feel it, but you never, never quite see them. Presently the sweet, warm odors of the place and its perpetual whispering and the illimitably idiotic boasting of the birds,–that any living creature should be proud of having constructed one of their nasty little nests is a reflection to baffle understanding,–this hodge-podge of sensations, I say, will intoxicate you. Yes, it will thoroughly intoxicate you, Marian, and you sit there quite still, in a sort of stupor, drugged into the inebriate’s magnanimity, firmly believing that the remainder of your life will be throughout of finer texture,–earth-spurning, free from all pettiness, and at worst vexed only by the noblest sorrows. Bah!” cried the Duke; “I have no patience with such nonsense! You will believe it to the tiniest syllable, that wonderful lying message which April whispers to every living creature that is young,–then you will return to me, a slim, star-eyed Mænad, and will see that I am wrinkled. But do you go your ways, none the less, for April is waiting for you yonder,–beautiful, mendacious, splendid April. And I? Faith, April has no message for me, my dear.”

He laughed, but with a touch of wistfulness; and the girl came to him, laying her hand upon his arm, surprised into a sort of hesitant affection.

“How did you know, Jack? How did you, know that–things, invisible, gracious things, went about the spring woods? I never thought that you knew of them. You always seemed so sensible. I have reasoned it out, though,” Marian went on, sagaciously wrinkled as to the brow. “They are probably the heathen fauns and satyrs and such,–one feels somehow that they are all men. Don’t you, Jack? Well, when the elder gods were sent packing from Olympus there was naturally no employment left for these sylvan folk. So April took them into her service. Each year she sends them about every forest on her errands: she sends them to make up daffodil-cups, for instance, which I suppose is difficult, for evidently they make them out of sunshine; or to pencil the eyelids of the narcissi–narcissi are brazen creatures, Jack, and use a deal of kohl; or to marshal the fleecy young clouds about the sky; or to whistle the birds up from the south. Oh, she keeps them busy, does April! And ’tis true that if you be quite still you can hear them tripping among the dead leaves; and they watch you–with very bright, twinkling little eyes, I think,–but you never see them. And always, always there is that enormous whispering,–half-friendly, half-menacing,–as if the woods were trying to tell you something. ‘Tis not only the foliage rustling…. No, I have often thought it sounded like some gigantic foreigner–some Titan probably,–trying in his own queer and outlandish language to tell you something very important, something that means a deal to you, and to you in particular. Has not anybody ever understood him?”

He smiled. “And I, too, have dwelt in Arcadia,” said his Grace of Ormskirk. “Yes, I once heard April’s message, Marian, for all my crow’s-feet. But that was a long while ago, and perhaps I have forgotten it. I cannot tell, my dear. It is only from April in her own person that one hears this immemorial message. And as for me? Eh, I go into the April woods, and I find trees there of various sizes that pay no attention to me, and shrill, dingy little birds that deafen me, and it may be a gaudy flower or two, and, in any event, I find a vast quantity of sodden, decaying leaves to warn me the place is no fitting haunt for a gentleman afflicted with rheumatism. So I come away, my dear.”

Marian looked him over for a moment. “You are not really old,” she said, with rather conscious politeness. “And you are wonderfully well-preserved. Why, Jack, do you mind–not being foolish?” she demanded, on a sudden.

He debated the matter. Then, “Yes,” the Duke of Ormskirk conceded, “I suppose I do, at the bottom of my heart, regret that lost folly. A part of me died, you understand, when it vanished, and it is not exhilarating to think of one’s self as even partially dead. Once–I hardly know”–he sought the phrase,–“once this was a spacious and inexplicable world, with a mystery up every lane and an adventure around each street-corner; a world inhabited by most marvelous men and women,–some amiable, and some detestable, but every one of them very interesting. And now I miss the wonder of it all. You will presently discover, my dear, that youth is only an ingenious prologue to whet one’s appetite for a rather dull play. Eh, I am no pessimist,–one may still find satisfaction in the exercise of mind and body, in the pleasures of thought and taste and in other titillations of one’s faculties. Dinner is good and sleep, too, is excellent. But we men and women tend, upon too close inspection, to appear rather paltry flies that buzz and bustle aimlessly about, and breed perhaps, and eventually die, and rot, and are swept away from this fragile window-pane of time that opens on eternity.”

“If you are, indeed, the sort of person you describe,” said Marian, reflectively, “I do not at all blame April for having no communication with anyone possessed of such extremely unpleasant opinions. But for my own part, I shall never cease to wonder what it is that the woods whisper about.”

See also  The Register by William Dean Howells

Appraising her, he hazarded a cryptic question, “Vase of delights, and have you never–cared?”

“Why, yes, I think so,” she answered, readily enough. “At least, I used to be very fond of Humphrey Degge,–that is the Marquis of Venour’s place yonder, you know, just past the spur of the forest,–but he was only a younger son, so of course Father wouldn’t hear of it. That was rather fortunate, as Humphrey by and by went mad about Dorothy’s blue eyes and fine shape,–I think her money had a deal to do with it, too, and in any event, she will be fat as a pig at thirty,–and so we quarrelled. And I minded it–at first. And now–well, I scarcely know.” Marian hesitated. “He was a handsome man, but that ridiculous cavalry moustache of his was so bristly–“

“I beg your pardon?” said the Duke.

“–that it disfigured him dreadfully,” said she, with firmness. She had colored.

His Grace of Ormskirk was moved to mirth. “Child, child, you are so deliciously young it appears a monstrous crime to marry you to an old fellow like me!” He took her firm, soft hand in his. “Are you quite sure you can endure me, Marian?”

“Why, but of course I want to marry you,” she said, naïvely surprised. “How else could I be Duchess of Ormskirk?”

Again he chuckled. “You are a worldly little wretch,” he stated; “but if you want my title for a new toy, it is at your service. And now be off with you,–you and your foolish woods, indeed!”

Marian went a slight distance and then turned about, troubled. “I am really very fond of you, Jack,” she said, conscientiously.

“Be off with you!” the Duke scolded. “You should be ashamed of yourself to practice such flatteries and blandishments on a defenceless old gentleman. You had best hurry, too, for if you don’t I shall probably kiss you,” he threatened. “I, also,” he added, with point.

She blew him a kiss from her finger-tips and went away singing.

Sang Marian:

“Blackbird and thrush, in every bush,
Stare, linnet, and cock-sparrow,
You pretty elves, amongst yourselves,
Sing my fair love good-morrow.
To give my love good-morrow,
Sing birds, in every furrow.”

II

Left to his own resources, the Duke of Ormskirk sat down beside the table and fell to making irrelevant marks upon a bit of paper. He hummed the air of Marian’s song. There was a vague contention in his face. Once he put out his hand toward the open despatch-box, but immediately he sighed and pushed, it farther from him. Presently he propped his chin upon both hands and stayed in the attitude for a long while, staring past the balustrade at the clear, pale sky of April.

Thus Marian’s father, the Earl of Brudenel, found Ormskirk. The Earl was lean and gray, though only three years older than his prospective son-in-law, and had been Ormskirk’s intimate since boyhood. Ormskirk had for Lord Brudenel’s society the liking that a successful person usually preserves for posturing in the gaze of his outrivalled school-fellows: Brudenel was an embodied and flattering commentary as to what a less able man might make of chances far more auspicious than Ormskirk ever enjoyed. All failure the Earl’s life had been; in London they had long ago forgotten handsome Harry Heleigh and the composure with which he nightly shoved his dwindling patrimony across the gaming-table; about Halvergate men called him “the muddled Earl,” and said of him that his heart died, with his young wife some eighteen years back. Now he vegetated in the home of his fathers, contentedly, a veteran of life, retaining still a mild pride in his past vagaries; [Footnote: It was then well said of him by Claridge, “It is Lord Henry Heleigh’s vanity to show that he is a man of pleasure as well as of business; and thus, in settlement, the expedition he displays toward a fellow-gambler is equitably balanced by his tardiness toward a too-credulous shoemaker.”] and kindly time had armed him with the benumbing, impenetrable indifference of the confessed failure. He was abstractedly courteous to servants, and he would not, you felt, have given even to an emperor his undivided attention. For the rest, the former wastrel had turned miser, and went noticeably shabby as a rule, but this morning he was trimly clothed, for he was returning homeward from the quarter-sessions at Winstead.

“Dreamer!” said the Earl. “I do not wonder that you grow fat.”

The Duke smiled up at him. “Confound you, Harry!” said he, “I had just overreached myself into believing I had made what the world calls a mess of my career and was supremely happy. There are disturbing influences abroad to-day.” He waved his hand toward the green-and-white gardens. “Old friend, you permit disreputable trespassers about Halvergate. ‘See you not Goldy-locks there, in her yellow gown and green sleeves? the profane pipes, the tinkling timbrels?’ Spring is at her wiles yonder,–Spring, the liar, the queen-cheat, Spring that tricks all men into happiness.”

“‘Fore Gad,” the Earl capped his quotation, “if the heathen man could stop his ears with wax against the singing woman of the sea, then do you the like with your fingers against the trollop of the forest.”

“Faith, time seals them firmlier than wax. You and I may sit snug now with never a quicker heart-beat for all her lures. Yet I seem to remember,–once a long while ago when we old fellows were somewhat sprier,–I, too, seem to remember this Spring-magic.”

“Indeed,” observed the Earl, seating himself ponderously, “if you refer to a certain inclination at that period of the year toward the likeliest wench in the neighborhood, so do I. ‘Tis an obvious provision of nature, I take it, to secure the perpetuation of the species. Spring comes, and she sets us all a-mating–humanity, partridges, poultry, pigs, every blessed one of us she sets a-mating. Propagation, Jack–propagation is necessary, d’ye see; because,” the Earl conclusively demanded, “what on earth would become of us if we didn’t propagate?”

“The argument is unanswerable,” the Duke conceded. “Yet I miss it,–this Spring magic that no longer sets the blood of us staid fellows a-fret.”

“And I,” said Lord Brudenel, “do not. It got me into the deuce of a scrape more than once.”

“Yours is the sensible view, no doubt….Yet I miss it. Ah, it is not only the wenches and the red lips of old years,–it is not only that at this season lasses’ hearts grow tender. There are some verses–” The Duke quoted, with a half-guilty air:

“Now I loiter, and dream to the branches swaying
In furtive conference,–high overhead–
Atingle with rumors that Winter is sped
And over his ruins a world goes Maying.

“Somewhere–impressively,–people are saying
Intelligent things (which their grandmothers said),
While I loiter, and dream to the branches swaying
In furtive conference, high overhead.”

“Verses!” The Earl snorted. “At your age!”

“Here the hand of April, unwashed from slaying
Earth’s fallen tyrant–for Winter is dead,–
Uncloses anemones, staining them red:
And her daffodils guard me in squads,–displaying
Intrepid lances lest wisdom tread
Where I loiter and dream to the branches’ swaying–

“Well, Harry, and to-day I cannot do so any longer. That is what I most miss,–the ability to lie a-sprawl in the spring grass and dream out an uncharted world,–a dream so vivid that, beside it, reality grew tenuous, and the actual world became one of childhood’s shrug-provoking bugbears dimly remembered.”

“I do not understand poetry,” the Earl apologetically observed. “It appears to me unreasonable to advance a statement simply because it happens to rhyme with a statement you have previously made. And that is what all you poets do. Why, this is very remarkable,” said Lord Brudenel, with a change of tone; “yonder is young Humphrey Degge with Marian. I had thought him in bed at Tunbridge. Did I not hear something of an affair with a house-breaker–?”

See also  Phaethon by Josephine Preston Peabody

Then the Earl gave an exclamation, for in full view of them Lord Humphrey Degge was kissing Lord Brudenel’s daughter.

“Oh, the devil!” said the Earl. “Oh, the insolent young ape!”

“Nay,” said the Duke, restraining him; “not particularly insolent, Harry. If you will observe more closely you will see that Marian does not exactly object to his caresses–quite the contrary, I would say, I told you that you should not permit Spring about the premises.”

The Earl wheeled in an extreme of astonishment. “Come, come, sir! she is your betrothed wife! Do you not intend to kill the fellow?”

“My faith, why?” said his Grace of Ormskirk, with a shrug. “As for betrothals, do you not see that she is already very happily paired?”

In answer Brudenel raised his hands toward heaven, in just the contention of despair and rage appropriate to parental affection when an excellent match is imperilled by a chit’s idiocy.

Marian and Lord Humphrey Degge were mounting from the scrap of forest that juts from Pevis Hill, like a spur from a man’s heel, between Agard Court and Halvergate. Their progress was not conspicuous for celerity. Now they had attained to the tiny, elm-shadowed plateau beyond the yew-hedge, and there Marian paused. Two daffodils had fallen from the great green-and-yellow cluster in her left hand. Humphrey Degge lifted them, and then raised to his mouth the slender fingers that reached toward the flowers. The man’s pallor, you would have said, was not altogether due to his recent wound.

She stood looking up at him, smiling a little timidly, her teeth glinting through parted lips, her eyes star-fire, her cheeks blazoning gules in his honor; she seemed not to breathe at all. A faint twinge woke in the Duke of Ormskirk’s heart. Most women smiled upon him, but they smiled beneath furtive eyes, sometimes beneath rapacious eyes, and many smiled with reddened lips which strove, uneasily, to provoke a rental; how long was it he wondered, simply, since any woman had smiled as Marian smiled now, for him?

“I think it is a dream,” said Marian.

From the vantage of the yew-hedge, “I would to Heaven I could think so, too,” observed her father.

III

The younger people had passed out of sight. But from the rear of the hedge came to the Duke and Lord Brudenel, staring blankly at each other across the paper-littered table, a sort of duet. First tenor, then contralto, then tenor again,–and so on, with many long intervals of silence, during which you heard the plashing of the fountain, grown doubly audible, and, it might be, the sharp, plaintive cry of a bird intensified by the stillness.

“I think it is a dream,” said Marian….

“What eyes you have, Marian!”

“But you have not kissed the littlest finger of all. See, it is quite stiff with indignation.”

“They are green, and brown, and yellow–O Marian, there are little gold specks in them like those in eau de Dantzig! They are quite wonderful eyes, Marian. And your hair is all streaky gold-and-brown. You should not have two colors in your hair, Marian. Marian, did any one ever tell you that you are very beautiful?”

Silence. “Pee-weet!” said a bird. “Tweet?”

And Marian replied: “I am devoted to Dorothy, of course, but I have never admired her fashion of making advances to every man she meets. Yes, she does.”

“Nay, ’twas only her money that lured me, to do her justice. It appeared so very sensible to marry an heiress…. But how can any man be sensible so long as he is haunted by the memory of your eyes? For see how bright they are,–see, here in the water. Two stars have fallen into the fountain, Marian.”

“You are handsomer so. Your nose is too short, but here in the fountain you are quite handsome–“

“Marian,–“

“I wonder how many other women’s fingers you have kissed–like that. Ah, don’t tell me, Humphrey! Humphrey, promise me that you will always lie to me when I ask you about those other women. Lie to me, my dear, and I will know that you are lying and love you all the better for it…. You should not have told me about Dorothy. How often did you kiss all of Dorothy’s finger-tips one by one, in just that foolish, dear way?”

“But who was this Dorothy you speak of, Marian? I have forgotten. Oh, yes–we quarrelled–over some woman,–and I went away. I left you for a mere heiress, Marian. You! And five days, ago while I lay abed, wounded, they told me that you, were to marry Ormskirk. I thought I would go mad…. Eh, I remember now. But what do these things matter? Is it not of far greater importance that the sunlight turns your hair to pure topaz?”

“Ah, my hair, my eyes! Is it these you care for? You would not love me, then, if I were old and ugly?”

“Eh,–I love you.”

“Animal!”

There was a longer silence now. “Tweet!” said a bird, pertly.

Then Marian said, “Let us go to my father.”

“To tell him–?”

“Why, that I love you, I suppose, and that I cannot marry Jack, not even to be a duchess. Oh, I did so much want to be a duchess! But when you came back to me yonder in the forest, somehow I stopped wanting anything more. Something–I hardly know–something seemed to say, as you came striding through the dead leaves, laughing and so very pale,–something seemed to say, ‘You love him’–oh, quite audibly.”

“Audibly! Why, the woods whispered it, the birds trilled it, screamed it, the very leaves underfoot crackled assent. Only they said, ‘You love her–the girl yonder with glad, frightened eyes, Spring’s daughter.’ Oh, I too, heard it, Marian! ‘Follow,’ the birds sang, ‘follow, follow, follow, for yonder is the heart’s desire!”

The Duke of Ormskirk raised his head, his lips sketching a whistle. “Ah! ah!” he muttered. “Eureka! I have recaptured it–the message of April.”

IV

When these two had gone the Duke flung out his hands in a comprehensive gesture of giving up the entire matter. “Well,” said he, “you see how it is!”

“I do,” Lord Brudenel assented. “And if you intend to sit patient under it, I, at least, wear a sword. Confound it, Jack, do you suppose I am going to have promiscuous young men dropping out of the skies and embracing my daughter?” The Earl became forceful in his language.

“Harry,–” the Duke began.

“The fellow hasn’t a penny–not a stick or a stiver to his name! He’s only a rascally, impudent younger son–and even Venour has nothing except Agard Court yonder! That–that crow’s nest!” Lord Brudenel spluttered. “They mooned about together a great deal a year ago, but I thought nothing of it; then he went away, and she never spoke of him again. Never spoke of him–oh, the jade!”

The Duke of Ormskirk considered the affair, a mild amusement waking in his plump face.

“Old friend,” said he, at length, “it is my opinion that we are perilously near to being a couple of fools. We planned this marriage, you and I–dear, dear, we planned it when Marian was scarcely out of her cradle! But we failed to take nature into the plot, Harry. It was sensible–Oh, granted! I obtained a suitable mistress for Ingilby and Bottreaux Towers, a magnificent ornament for my coach and my opera-box; while you–your pardon, old friend, if I word it somewhat grossly,–you, in effect, obtained a wealthy and not uninfluential husband for your daughter. Nay, I think you are fond of me, but that is beside the mark; it was not Jack Bulmer who was to marry your daughter, but the Duke of Ormskirk. The thing was as logical as a sale of bullocks,–value for value. But now nature intervenes, and”–he snapped his fingers,–“eh, well, since she wants this Humphrey Degge, of course she must have him.”

See also  The Little Acorn by Jay T Stocking

Lord Brudenel mentioned several penalties which he would voluntarily incur in case of any such preposterous marriage.

“Your style,” the Duke regretfully observed, “is somewhat more original than your subject. You have a handsome daughter to barter, and you want your price. The thing is far from uncommon. Yet you shall have your price, Harry. What estate do you demand of your son-in-law?”

“What the devil are you driving at?” said Lord Brudenel.

Composedly the Duke of Ormskirk spread out his hands. “You have, in effect, placed Marian in the market,” he said, “and I offer to give Lord Humphrey Degge the money with which to purchase her.”

“Tis evident,” the Earl considered, “that you are demented!”

“Because I willingly part with money? But then I have a great deal of money. I have money, and I have power, and the King occasionally pats me upon the shoulder, and men call me ‘your Grace,’ instead of ‘my Lord,’ as they do you. So I ought to be very happy, ought I not, Harry? Ah, yes, I ought to be entirely happy, because I have had everything, with the unimportant exception of the one thing I wanted.”

But Lord Brudenel had drawn himself erect, stiffly. “I am to understand, then, from this farrago, that on account of the–um–a–incident we have just witnessed you decline to marry my daughter?”

“I would sooner cut off my right hand,” said the Duke, “for I am fonder of Marian than I am of any other living creature.”

“Oh, very well!” the Earl conceded, sulkily. “Umfraville wants her. He is only a marquis, of course, but so far as money is concerned, I believe he is a thought better off than you. I would have preferred you as a son-in-law, you understand, but since you withdraw–why, then, let it be Umfraville.”

Now the Duke looked up into his face for some while. “You would do that! You would sell Marian to Umfraville–[Footnote: “Whose entrance blushing Satan did deny Lest hell be thought no better than a sty.”] to a person who unites the continence of a partridge with the graces of a Berkshire hog–to that lean whoremonger, to that disease-rotted goat! Because he has the money! Why, Harry, what a car you are!”

Lord Brudenel bowed, “My Lord Duke, you are to-day my guest. I apprehend you will presently be leaving Halvergate, however, and as soon–as that regrettable event takes place, I shall see to it a friend wait upon you with the length of my sword. Meanwhile I venture to reserve the privilege of managing my family affairs at my own discretion.”

“I do not fight with hucksters,” the Duke flung at him, “and you are one. Oh, you peddler! Can you not understand that I am trying to buy your daughter’s happiness?”

“I intend that my daughter shall make a suitable match,” replied the Earl, stubbornly, “and she shall. If Marian is a sensible girl–and, barring to-day, I have always esteemed her such,–she will find happiness in obeying her father’s mandates: otherwise–” He waved the improbable contingency aside.

“Sensible! Faith, can you not see, even now, that to be sensible is not the highest wisdom? You and I are sensible as the world goes,–and in God’s name, what good does it do us? Here we sit, two miserable and empty-veined old men squabbling across a deal-table, breaking up a friendship of thirty years. And yonder Marian and this Humphrey Degge–who are within a measurable distance of insanity, if their conversation be the touchstone,–yet tread the pinnacles of some seventh heaven of happiness. April has brought them love, Harry. Oh, I concede their love is folly! But it is all folly, Harry Heleigh. Purses, titles, blue ribbons, and the envy of our fellows are the toys which we struggle for, we sensible men; and in the end we find them only toys, and, gaining them, we gain only weariness. And love, too, is a toy; but, gaining love, we gain, at least, a temporary happiness. There is the difference, Harry Heleigh.”

“Oh, have done with your, balderdash!” said Lord Brudenel. He spoke irritably, for he knew his position to be guaranteed by common-sense, and his slow wrath was kindling at opposition.

His Grace of Ormskirk rose to his feet, all tension. In the act his hand struck against the open despatch-box; afterward, with a swift alteration of countenance, he overturned this box and scattered the contents about the table. For a moment he seemed to forget Lord Brudenel; quite without warning Ormskirk flared into rage.

“Harry Heleigh, Harry Heleigh!” he cried, as he strode across the terrace, and caught Lord Brudenel roughly by the shoulder, “are you not content to go to your grave without killing another woman? Oh, you dotard miser!–you haberdasher!–haven’t I offered you money, an isn’t money the only thing you are now capable of caring for? Give the girl to Degge, you huckster!”

Lord Brudenel broke from the Duke’s grasp. Brudenel was asplutter with anger. “I will see you damned first. You offer money,–I fling the money in your fat face. Look you, you have just insulted, me, and now you offer–money! Another insult. John Bulmer, I would not accept an affront like this from an archangel. You are my guest, but I am only flesh and blood. I swear to you this is the most deliberate act of my life.” Lord Brudenel struck him full upon the cheek.

“Pardon,” said the Duke of Ormskirk. He stood rigid, his arms held stiff at his sides, his hands clenched; the red mark showed plain against an ashy countenance. “Pardon me for a moment.” Once or twice he opened and shut his eyes like an automaton. “And stop behaving so ridiculously. I cannot fight you. I have other matters to attend to. We are wise, Harry,–you and I. We know that love sometimes does not endure; sometimes it flares up at a girl’s glance, quite suddenly, and afterward smoulders out into indifference or even into hatred. So, say we, let all sensible people marry for money, for then in any event you get what you marry for,–a material benefit, a tangible good, which does no vanish when the first squabble, or perhaps the first gray hair, arrives. That is sensible; but women, Harry, are not always sensible–“

“Draw, you coward!” Lord Brudenel snarled at him. The Earl had already lugged out his ineffectual dress sword, and would have been, as he stood on guard, a ludicrous figure had he not been rather terrible. His rage shook him visibly, and his obstinate mouth twitched and snapped like that of a beast cornered. All gray he was, and the sun glistened on his gray tye-wig as he waited. His eyes were coals.

But Ormskirk had regained composure. “You know that I am not a coward,” the Duke said, equably. “I have proven it many times. Besides, you overlook two details. One is that I have no sword with me, I am quite unarmed. The other detail is that only gentlemen fight duels, and just now we are hucksters, you and I, chaffering over Marian’s happiness. So I return to my bargaining. You will not sell Marian’s happiness to me for money? Why, then–remember, we are only hucksters, you and I,–I will purchase it by a dishonorable action. I will show you a woman’s letters,–some letters I was going to burn romantically before I married–Instead, I wish you to read them.”

He pushed the papers lying upon the table toward Lord Brudenel. Afterward Ormskirk turned away and stood looking over the ivy-covered balustrade into the gardens below. All white and green and blue the vista was, and of a monastic tranquillity, save for the plashing of the fountain behind the yew-hedge. From the gardens at his feet irresolute gusts brought tepid woodland odors. He heard the rustling of papers, heard Lord Brudenel’s sword fall jangling to the ground. The Duke turned.

“And for twenty years I have been eating my heart out with longing for her,” the Earl said. “And–and I thought you were my friend, Jack.”

See also  The Error Of The Day by Gilbert Parker

“She was not your wife when I first knew her. But John Bulmer was a penniless nobody,–so they gave her to you, an earl’s heir, those sensible parents of hers. I never saw her again, though–as you see,–she wrote to me sometimes. And her parents did the sensible thing; but I think they killed her, Harry.”

“Killed her?” Lord Brudenel echoed, stupidly. Then on a sudden it was singular to see the glare in his eyes puffed out like a candle. “I killed her,” he whispered; “why, I killed Alison,–I!” He began to laugh. “Now that is amusing, because she was the one thing in the world I ever loved. I remember that she used to shudder when I kissed her. I thought it was because she was only a brown and thin and timid child, who would be wiser in love’s tricks by and by. Now I comprehend ’twas because every kiss was torment to her, because every time I touched her ’twas torment. So she died very slowly, did Alison,–and always I was at hand with my kisses, my pet names, and my paddlings,–killing her, you observe, always urging her graveward. Yes, and yet there is nothing in these letters to show how much she must have loathed me!” he said, in a mild sort of wonder. He appeared senile now, the shrunken and calamitous shell of the man he had been within the moment.

The Duke of Ormskirk put an arm about him. “Old friend, old friend!” said he.

“Why did you not tell me?” the Earl said. “I loved you, Jack. I worshipped her. I would never willingly have seen you two unhappy.”

“Her parents would have done as you planned to do,–they would have given their daughter to the next richest suitor. I was nobody then. So the wisdom of the aged slew us, Harry,–slew Alison utterly, and left me with a living body, indeed, but with little more. I do not say that body has not amused itself. Yet I too, loved her, Harry Heleigh. And when I saw this new Alison–for Marian is her mother, face, heart, and soul,–why, some wraith of emotion stirred in me, some thrill, some not quite forgotten pulse. It seemed Alison come back from the grave. Love did not reawaken, for youth’s fervor was gone out of me, yet presently I fell a-dreaming over my Madeira on long winter evenings,–sedate and tranquil dreams of this new Alison flitting about Ingilby, making the splendid, desolate place into a home. Am old man’s fancies, Harry,–fancies bred of my loneliness, for I am lonely nowadays. But my dreams, I find, were not sufficiently comprehensive; for they did not anticipate April,–and nature,–and Lord Humphrey Degge. We must yield to that triumvirate, we sensible old men. Nay, we are wise as the world goes, but we have learned, you and I, that to be sensible is not the highest wisdom. Marian is her mother in soul, heart, and feature. Don’t let the old tragedy be repeated, Harry. Let her have this Degge! Let Marian have her chance of being happy, for a year or two….”

But Lord Brudenel had paid very little attention. “I suppose so,” he said, when the Duke had ended. “Oh, I suppose so. Jack, she was always kind and patient and gentle, you understand, but she used to shudder when I kissed her,” he repeated, dully,–“shudder, Jack.” He sat staring at his sword lying there on the ground, as though it fascinated him.

“Ah, but,–old friend,” the Duke cried, with his hand upon Lord Brudenel’s shoulder, “forgive me! It was the only way.”

Lord Brudenel rose to his feet. “Oh, yes! why, yes, I forgive you, if that is any particular comfort to you. It scarcely seems of any importance, though. The one thing which really matters is that I loved her, and I killed her. Oh, beyond doubt, I forgive you. But now that you have made my whole past a hideous stench to me, and have proven the love I was so proud of–the one quite clean, quite unselfish thing in my life, I thought it, Jack,–to have been only my lust vented on a defenceless woman,–why, just now, I have not time to think of forgiveness. Yes, Marian may marry Degge if she cares to. And I am sorry I took her mother away from you. I would not have done it if I had known.”

Brudenel started away drearily, but when he had gone a little distance turned back.

“And the point of it is,” he said, with a smile, “that I shall go on living just as if nothing had happened, and shall probably live for a long, long time. My body is so confoundedly healthy. How the deuce did you have the courage to go on living?” he demanded, enviously. “You loved her and you lost her. I’d have thought you would have killed yourself long ago.”

The Duke shrugged. “Yes, people do that in books. In books they have such strong emotions–“

Then Ormskirk paused for a heart-beat, looking down into the gardens. Wonderfully virginal it all seemed to Ormskirk, that small portion of a world upon the brink of renaissance: a tessellation of clean colors, where the gravelled walkways were snow beneath the sun, and were in shadow transmuted to dim violet tints; and for the rest, green ranging from the sober foliage of yew and box and ilex to the pale glow of young grass In the full sunlight; all green, save where the lake shone, a sapphire green-girdled. Spring triumphed with a vaunting pageant. And in the forest, in the air, even in the unplumbed sea-depths, woke the mating impulse,–irresistible, borne as it might seem on the slow-rising tide of grass that now rippled about the world. Everywhere they were mating; everywhere glances allured and mouth met mouth, while John Bulmer went alone without any mate or intimacy with anyone.

Everywhere people were having emotions which Ormskirk envied. He had so few emotions nowadays. Even all this posturing and talk about Alison Heleigh in which he had just indulged began to savor somehow of play-acting. He had loved Alison, of course, and that which he had said was true enough–in a way,–but, after all, he had over-colored it. There had been in his life so many interesting matters, and so many other women too, that the loss of Alison could not be said to have blighted his existence quite satisfactorily. No, John Bulmer had again been playing at the big emotions which he heard about and coveted, just as at this very moment John Bulmer was playing at being sophisticated and blasé… with only poor old Harry for audience….

“A great deal of me did die,” the Duke heard this John Bulmer saying,–“all, I suppose, except my carcass, Harry. And it seemed hardly worth the trouble to butcher that also.”

“No,” Lord Brudenel conceded, “I suppose not. I wonder, d’ye know, will anything ever again seem really worth the trouble of doing it?”

The Duke of Ormskirk took his arm. “Fy, Harry, bid the daws seek their food elsewhere, for a gentleman may not wear his heart upon his sleeve. Empires crumble, and hearts break, and we are blessed or damned, as Fate elects; but through it all we find comfort in the reflection that dinner is good, and sleep, too, is excellent. As for the future–eh, well, if it mean little to us, it means a deal to Alison’s daughter. Let us go to them, Harry.”

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *