On leaving the Montresors, Sir Wilfrid, seeing that it was a fine night with mild breezes abroad, refused a hansom, and set out to walk home to his rooms in Duke Street, St. James’s. He was so much in love with the mere streets, the mere clatter of the omnibuses and shimmer of the lamps, after his long absence, that every step was pleasure. At the top of Grosvenor Place he stood still awhile only to snuff up the soft, rainy air, or to delight his eye now with the shining pools which some showers of the afternoon had left behind them on the pavement, and now with the light veil of fog which closed in the distance of Piccadilly.
“And there are silly persons who grumble about the fogs!” he thought, contemptuously, while he was thus yielding himself heart and sense to his beloved London.
As for him, dried and wilted by long years of cloudless heat, he drank up the moisture and the mist with a kind of physical passion—the noises and the lights no less. And when he had resumed his walk along the crowded street, the question buzzed within him, whether he must indeed go back to his exile, either at Teheran, or nearer home, in some more exalted post? “I’ve got plenty of money; why the deuce don’t I give it up, and come home and enjoy myself? Only a few more years, after all; why not spend them here, in one’s own world, among one’s own kind?”
It was the weariness of the governing Englishman, and it was answered immediately by that other instinct, partly physical, partly moral, which keeps the elderly man of affairs to his task. Idleness? No! That way lies the end. To slacken the rush of life, for men of his sort, is to call on death—death, the secret pursuer, who is not far from each one of us. No, no! Fight on! It was only the long drudgery behind, under alien suns, together with the iron certainty of fresh drudgery ahead, that gave value, after all, to this rainy, this enchanting Piccadilly—that kept the string of feeling taut and all its notes clear.
“Going to bed, Sir Wilfrid?” said a voice behind him, as he turned down St. James’s Street.
“Delafield!” The old man faced around with alacrity. “Where have you sprung from?”
Delafield explained that he had been dining with the Crowboroughs, and was now going to his club to look for news of a friend’s success or failure in a north-country election.
“Oh, that’ll keep!” said Sir Wilfrid. “Turn in with me for half an hour. I’m at my old rooms, you know, in Duke Street.”
“All right,” said the young man, after what seemed to Sir Wilfrid a moment of hesitation.
“Are you often up in town this way?” asked Bury, as they walked on. “Land agency seems to be a profession with mitigations.”
“There is some London business thrown in. We have some large milk depots in town that I look after.”
There was just a trace of hurry in the young man’s voice, and Bury surveyed him with a smile.
“No other attractions, eh?”
“Not that I know of. By the way, Sir Wilfrid, I never asked you how Dick Mason was getting on?”
“Dick Mason? Is he a friend of yours?”
“Well, we were at Eton and Oxford together.”
“Were you? I never heard him mention your name.”
The young man laughed.
“I don’t mean to suggest he couldn’t live without me. You’ve left him in charge, haven’t you, at Teheran?”
“Yes, I have—worse luck. So you’re deeply interested in Dick Mason?”
“Oh, come—I liked him pretty well.”
“Hm—I don’t much care about him. And I don’t somehow believe you do.”
And Bury, with a smile, slipped a friendly hand within the arm of his companion.
“It’s decent, I suppose, to inquire after an old school-fellow?”
“Exemplary. But—there are things more amusing to talk about.”
Delafield was silent. Sir Wilfrid’s fair mustaches approached his ear.
“I had my interview with Mademoiselle Julie.”
“So I suppose. I hope you did some good.”
“I doubt it. Jacob, between ourselves, the little duchess hasn’t been a miracle of wisdom.”
“No—perhaps not,” said the other, unwillingly.
“She realizes, I suppose, that they are connected?”
“Of course. It isn’t very close. Lady Rose’s brother married Evelyn’s aunt, her mother’s sister.”
“Yes, that’s it. She and Mademoiselle Julie ought to have called the same person uncle; but, for lack of certain ceremonies, they don’t. By the way, what became of Lady Rose’s younger sister?”
“Lady Blanche? Oh, she married Sir John Moffatt, and has been a widow for years. He left her a place in Westmoreland, and she lives there generally with her girl.”
“Has Mademoiselle Julie ever come across them?”
“She speaks of them?”
“Yes. We can’t tell her much about them, except that the girl was presented last year, and went to a few balls in town. But neither she nor her mother cares for London.”
“Lady Blanche Moffatt—Lady Blanche Moffatt?” said Sir Wilfrid, pausing. “Wasn’t she in India this winter?”
“Yes. I believe they went out in November and are to be home by April.”
“Somebody told me they had met her and the girl at Peshawar and then at Simla,” said Sir Wilfrid, ruminating. “Now I remember! She’s a great heiress, isn’t she, and pretty to boot? I know! Somebody told me that fellow Warkworth had been making up to her.”
“Warkworth?” Jacob Delafield stood still a moment, and Sir Wilfrid caught a sudden contraction of the brow. “That, of course, was just a bit of Indian gossip.”
“I don’t think so,” said Sir Wilfrid, dryly. “My informants were two frontier officers—I came from Egypt with them—who had recently been at Peshawar; good fellows both of them, not at all given to take young ladies’ names in vain.”
Jacob made no reply. They had let themselves into the Duke Street house and were groping their way up the dim staircase to Sir Wilfrid’s rooms.
There all was light and comfort. Sir Wilfrid’s valet, much the same age as himself, hovered around his master, brought him his smoking-coat, offered Delafield cigars, and provided Sir Wilfrid, strange to say, with a large cup of tea.
“I follow Mr. Gladstone,” said Sir Wilfrid, with a sigh of luxury, as he sank into an easy chair and extended a very neatly made pair of legs and feet to the blaze. “He seems to have slept the sleep of the just—on a cup of tea at midnight—through the rise and fall of cabinets. So I’m trying the receipt.”
“Does that mean that you are hankering after politics?”
“Heavens! When you come to doddering, Jacob, it’s better to dodder in the paths you know. I salute Mr. G.’s physique, that’s all. Well, now, Jacob, do you know anything about this Warkworth?”
“Warkworth?” Delafield withdrew his cigar, and seemed to choose his words a little. “Well, I know what all the world knows.”
“Hm—you seemed very sure just now that he wasn’t going to marry Miss Moffatt.”
“Sure? I’m not sure of anything,” said the young man, slowly.
“Well, what I should like to know,” said Sir Wilfrid, cradling his teacup in both hands, “is, what particular interest has Mademoiselle Julie in that young soldier?”
Delafield looked into the fire.
“Has she any?”
“She seems to be moving heaven and earth to get him what he wants. By the way, what does he want?”
“He wants the special mission to Mokembe, as I understand,” said Delafield, after a moment. “But several other people want it too.”
“Indeed!” Sir Wilfrid nodded reflectively. “So there is to be one! Well, it’s about time. The travelers of the other European firms have been going it lately in that quarter. Jacob, your mademoiselle also is a bit of an intriguer!”
Delafield made a restless movement. “Why do you say that?”
“Well, to say the least of it, frankness is not one of her characteristics. I tried to question her about this man. I had seen them together in the Park, talking as intimates. So, when our conversation had reached a friendly stage, I threw out a feeler or two, just to satisfy myself about her. But—”
He pulled his fair mustaches and smiled.
“Well?” said the young man, with a kind of reluctant interrogation.
“She played with me, Jacob. But really she overdid it. For such a clever woman, I assure you, she overdid it!”
“I don’t see why she shouldn’t keep her friendships to herself,” said Delafield, with sudden heat.
“Oh, so you admit it is a friendship?”
Delafield did not reply. He had laid down his cigar, and with his hands on his knees was looking steadily into the fire. His attitude, however, was not one of reverie, but rather of a strained listening.
“What is the meaning, Jacob, of a young woman taking so keen an interest in the fortunes of a dashing soldier—for, between you and me, I hear she is moving heaven and earth to get him this post—and then concealing it?”
“Why should she want her kindnesses talked of?” said the young man, impetuously. “She was perfectly right, I think, to fence with your questions, Sir Wilfrid. It’s one of the secrets of her influence that she can render a service—and keep it dark.”
Sir Wilfrid shook his head.
“She overdid it,” he repeated. “However, what do you think of the man yourself, Jacob?”
“Well, I don’t take to him,” said the other, unwillingly. “He isn’t my sort of man.”
“And Mademoiselle Julie—you think nothing but well of her? I don’t like discussing a lady; but, you see, with Lady Henry to manage, one must feel the ground as one can.”
Sir Wilfrid looked at his companion, and then stretched his legs a little farther toward the fire. The lamplight shone full on his silky eyelashes and beard, on his neatly parted hair, and the diamond on his fine left hand. The young man beside him could not emulate his easy composure. He fidgeted nervously as he replied, with warmth:
“I think she has had an uncommonly hard time, that she wants nothing but what is reasonable, and that if she threw you off the scent, Sir Wilfrid, with regard to Warkworth, she was quite within her rights. You probably deserved it.”
He threw up his head with a quick gesture of challenge. Sir Wilfrid shrugged his shoulders.
“I vow I didn’t,” he murmured. “However, that’s all right. What do you do with yourself down in Essex, Jacob?”
The lines of the young man’s attitude showed a sudden unconscious relief from tension. He threw himself back in his chair.
“Well, it’s a big estate. There’s plenty to do.”
“You live by yourself?”
“Yes. There’s an agent’s house—a small one—in one of the villages.”
“How do you amuse yourself? Plenty of shooting, I suppose?”
“Too much. I can’t do with more than a certain amount.”
“Oh yes,” said the young man, indifferently. “There’s a fair links.”
“Do you do any philanthropy, Jacob?”
“I like ‘bossing’ the village,” said Delafield, with a laugh. “It pleases one’s vanity. That’s about all there is to it.”
“What, clubs and temperance, that kind of thing? Can you take any real interest in the people?”
“Well, yes,” he said, at last, as though he grudged the admission. “There’s nothing else to take an interest in, is there? By the way”—he jumped up—“I think I’ll bid you good night, for I’ve got to go down tomorrow in a hurry. I must be off by the first train in the morning.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, it’s only a wretched old man—that two beasts of women have put into the workhouse infirmary against his will. I only heard it tonight. I must go and get him out.”
He looked around for his gloves and stick.
“Why shouldn’t he be there?”
“Because it’s an infernal shame!” said the other, shortly. “He’s an old laborer who’d saved quite a lot of money. He kept it in his cottage, and the other day it was all stolen by a tramp. He has lived with these two women—his sister-in-law and her daughter—for years and years. As long as he had money to leave, nothing was too good for him. The shock half killed him, and now that he’s a pauper these two harpies will have nothing to say to nursing him and looking after him. He told me the other day he thought they’d force him into the infirmary. I didn’t believe it. But while I’ve been away they’ve gone and done it.”
“Well, what’ll you do now?”
“Get him out.”
Delafield hesitated. “Well, then, I suppose, he can come to my place till I can find some decent woman to put him with.”
Sir Wilfrid rose.
“I think I’ll run down and see you someday. Will there be paupers in all the bedrooms?”
“You’ll find a rattling good cook and a jolly snug little place, I can tell you. Do come. But I shall see you again soon. I must be up next week, and very likely I shall be at Lady Henry’s on Wednesday.”
“All right. I shall see her on Sunday, so I can report.”
“Not before Sunday?” Delafield paused. His clear blue eyes looked down, dissatisfied, upon Sir Wilfrid.
“Impossible before. I have all sorts of official people to see tomorrow and Saturday. And, Jacob, keep the duchess quiet. She may have to give up Mademoiselle Julie for her bazaar.”
“I’ll tell her.”
“By the way, is that little person happy?” said Sir Wilfrid, as he opened the door to his departing guest. “When I left England she was only just married.”
“Oh yes, she’s happy enough, though Crowborough’s rather an ass.”
“Well, he’s rather a sticky sort of person. He thinks there’s something particularly interesting in dukes, which makes him a bore.”
“Take care, Jacob! Who knows that you won’t be a duke yourself someday?”
“What do you mean?” The young man glowered almost fiercely upon his old friend.
“I hear Chudleigh’s boy is but a poor creature,” said Sir Wilfrid, gravely. “Lady Henry doesn’t expect him to live.”
“Why, that’s the kind that always does live!” cried Delafield, with angry emphasis. “And as for Lady Henry, her imagination is a perfect charnel house. She likes to think that everybody’s dead or dying but herself. The fact is that Mervyn is a good deal stronger this year than he was last. Really, Lady Henry—” The tone lost itself in a growl of wrath.
“Well, well,” said Sir Wilfrid, smiling, “‘A man beduked against his will,’ etcetera. Good-night, my dear Jacob, and good luck to your old pauper.”
But Delafield turned back a moment on the stairs.
“I say”—he hesitated—“you won’t shirk talking to Lady Henry?”
“No, no. Sunday, certainly—honor bright. Oh, I think we shall straighten it out.”
Delafield ran down the stairs, and Sir Wilfrid returned to his warm room and the dregs of his tea.
“Now—is he in love with her, and hesitating for social reasons? Or—is he jealous of this fellow Warkworth? Or—has she snubbed him, and both are keeping it dark? Not very likely, that, in view of his prospects. She must want to regularize her position. Or—is he not in love with her at all?”
On which cogitations there fell presently the strokes of many bells tolling midnight, and left them still unresolved. Only one positive impression remained—that Jacob Delafield had somehow grown, vaguely but enormously, in mental and moral bulk during the years since he had left Oxford—the years of Bury’s Persian exile. Sir Wilfrid had been an intimate friend of his dead father, Lord Hubert, and on very friendly terms with his lethargic, good-natured mother. She, by the way, was still alive, and living in London with a daughter. He must go and see them.
As for Jacob, Sir Wilfrid had cherished a particular weakness for him in the Eton-jacket stage, and later on, indeed, when the lad enjoyed a brief moment of glory in the Eton eleven. But at Oxford, to Sir Wilfrid’s thinking, he had suffered eclipse—had become a somewhat heavy, apathetic, pseudo-cynical youth, displaying his mother’s inertia without her good temper, too slack to keep up his cricket, too slack to work for the honor schools, at no time without friends, but an enigma to most of them, and, apparently, something of a burden to himself.
And now, out of that ugly slough, a man had somehow emerged, in whom Sir Wilfrid, who was well acquainted with the race, discerned the stirring of all sorts of strong inherited things, formless still, but struggling to expression.
“He looked at me just now, when I talked of his being duke, as his father would sometimes look.”
His father? Hubert Delafield had been an obstinate, daredevil, heroic sort of fellow, who had lost his life in the Chudleigh salmon river trying to save a gillie who had missed his footing. A man much hated—and much beloved; capable of the most contradictory actions. He had married his wife for money, would often boast of it, and would, none the less, give away his last farthing recklessly, passionately, if he were asked for it, in some way that touched his feelings. Able, too; though not so able as the great duke, his father.
“Hubert Delafield was never happy, that I can remember,” thought Wilfrid Bury, as he sat over his fire, “and this chap has the same expression. That woman in Bruton Street would never do for him—apart from all the other unsuitability. He ought to find something sweet and restful. And yet I don’t know. The Delafields are a discontented lot. If you plague them, they are inclined to love you. They want something hard to get their teeth in. How the old duke adored his termagant of a wife!”
It was late on Sunday afternoon before Sir Wilfrid was able to present himself in Lady Henry’s drawing room; and when he arrived there, he found plenty of other people in possession, and had to wait for his chance.
Lady Henry received him with a brusque “At last,” which, however, he took with equanimity. He was in no sense behind his time. On Thursday, when parting with her, he had pleaded for deliberation. “Let me study the situation a little; and don’t, for Heaven’s sake, let’s be too tragic about the whole thing.”
Whether Lady Henry was now in the tragic mood or not, he could not at first determine. She was no longer confined to the inner shrine of the back drawing room. Her chair was placed in the large room, and she was the center of a lively group of callers who were discussing the events of the week in Parliament, with the light and mordant zest of people well acquainted with the personalities they were talking of. She was apparently better in health, he noticed; at any rate, she was more at ease, and enjoying herself more than on the previous Wednesday. All her social characteristics were in full play; the blunt and careless freedom which made her the good comrade of the men she talked with—as good a brain and as hard a hitter as they—mingled with the occasional sally or caprice which showed her very much a woman.
Very few other women were there. Lady Henry did not want women on Sundays, and was at no pains whatever to hide the fact. But Mademoiselle Julie was at the tea table, supported by an old white-haired general, in whom Sir Wilfrid recognized a man recently promoted to one of the higher posts in the war office. Tea, however, had been served, and Mademoiselle Le Breton was now showing her companion a portfolio of photographs, on which the old man was holding forth.
“Am I too late for a cup?” said Sir Wilfrid, after she had greeted him with cordiality. “And what are those pictures?”
“They are some photos of the Khyber and Tirah,” said Mademoiselle Le Breton. “Captain Warkworth brought them to show Lady Henry.”
“Ah, the scene of his exploits,” said Sir Wilfrid, after a glance at them. “The young man distinguished himself, I understand?”
“Oh, very much so,” said General McGill, with emphasis. “He showed brains, and he had luck.”
“A great deal of luck, I hear,” said Sir Wilfrid, accepting a piece of cake. “He’ll get his step up, I suppose. Anything else?”
“Difficult to say. But the good men are always in request,” said General McGill, smiling.
“By the way, I heard somebody mention his name last night for this Mokembe mission,” said Sir Wilfrid, helping himself to tea cake.
“Oh, that’s quite undecided,” said the general, sharply. “There is no immediate hurry for a week or two, and the government must send the best man possible.”
“No doubt,” said Sir Wilfrid.
It interested him to observe that Mademoiselle Le Breton was no longer pale. As the general spoke, a bright color had rushed into her cheeks. It seemed to Sir Wilfrid that she turned away and busied herself with the photographs in order to hide it.
The general rose, a thin, soldierly figure, with gray hair that drooped forward, and two bright spots of red on the cheekbones. In contrast with the expansiveness of his previous manner to Mademoiselle Le Breton, he was now a trifle frowning and stiff—the high official once more, and great man.
“Good-night, Sir Wilfrid. I must be off.”
“How are your sons?” said Sir Wilfrid, as he rose.
“The eldest is in Canada with his regiment.”
“And the second?”
“The second is in orders.”
“Overworking himself in the East End, as all the young parsons seem to be doing?”
“That is precisely what he has been doing. But now, I am thankful to say, a country living has been offered him, and his mother and I have persuaded him to take it.”
“A country living? Where?”
“One of the Duke of Crowborough’s Shropshire livings,” said the general, after what seemed to be an instant’s hesitation. Mademoiselle Le Breton had moved away, and was replacing the photographs in the drawer of a distant bureau.
“Ah, one of Crowborough’s? Well, I hope it is a living with something to live on.”
“Not so bad, as times go,” said the general, smiling. “It has been a great relief to our minds. There were some chest symptoms; his mother was alarmed. The duchess has been most kind; she took quite a fancy to the lad, and—”
“What a woman wants she gets. Well, I hope he’ll like it. Good night, General. Shall I look you up at the War Office some morning?”
“By all means.”
The old soldier, whose tanned face had shown a singular softness while he was speaking of his son, took his leave.
Sir Wilfrid was left meditating, his eyes absently fixed on the graceful figure of Mademoiselle Le Breton, who shut the drawer she had been arranging and returned to him.
“Do you know the general’s sons?” he asked her, while she was preparing him a second cup of tea.
“I have seen the younger.”
She turned her beautiful eyes upon him. It seemed to Sir Wilfrid that he perceived in them a passing tremor of nervous defiance, as though she were in some way bracing herself against him. But her self-possession was complete.
“Lady Henry seems in better spirits,” he said, bending toward her.
She did not reply for a moment. Her eyes dropped. Then she raised them again, and gently shook her head without a word. The melancholy energy of her expression gave him a moment’s thrill.
“Is it as bad as ever?” he asked her, in a whisper.
“It’s pretty bad. I’ve tried to appease her. I told her about the bazaar. She said she couldn’t spare me, and, of course, I acquiesced. Then, yesterday, the duchess—hush!”
Lady Henry’s voice rang imperiously through the room.
“Yes, Lady Henry.”
Mademoiselle Le Breton stood up expectant.
“Find me, please, that number of the Revue des Deux Mondes which came in yesterday. I can prove it to you in two minutes,” she said, turning triumphantly to Montresor on her right.
“What’s the matter?” said Sir Wilfrid, joining Lady Henry’s circle, while Mademoiselle Le Breton disappeared into the back drawing room.
“Oh, nothing,” said Montresor, tranquilly. “Lady Henry thinks she has caught me out in a blunder—about Favre, and the negotiations at Versailles. I dare say she has. I am the most ignorant person alive.”
“Then are the rest of us spooks?” said Sir Wilfrid, smiling, as he seated himself beside his hostess. Montresor, whose information on most subjects was prodigious, laughed and adjusted his eyeglass. These battles royal on a date or a point of fact between him and Lady Henry were not uncommon. Lady Henry was rarely victorious. This time, however, she was confident, and she sat frowning and impatient for the book that didn’t come.
Mademoiselle Le Breton, indeed, returned from the back drawing room empty-handed; left the room apparently to look elsewhere, and came back still without the book.
“Everything in this house is always in confusion!” said Lady Henry, angrily. “No order, no method anywhere!”
Mademoiselle Julie said nothing. She retreated behind the circle that surrounded Lady Henry. But Montresor jumped up and offered her his chair.
“I wish I had you for a secretary, mademoiselle,” he said, gallantly. “I never before heard Lady Henry ask you for anything you couldn’t find.”
Lady Henry flushed, and, turning abruptly to Bury, began a new topic. Julie quietly refused the seat offered to her, and was retiring to an ottoman in the background when the door was thrown open and the footman announced: