Chapter I. A Plenipotentiary
 

Has no writer ever dealt with the dramatic aspect of the unopened envelope? I cannot recall such a passage in any of my authors, and yet to my mind there is much matter for philosophy in what is always the expressionless shell of a boundless possibility. Your friend may run after you in the street, and you know at a glance whether his news is to be good, bad, or indifferent; but in his handwriting on the breakfast-table there is never a hint as to the nature of his communication. Whether he has sustained a loss or an addition to his family, whether he wants you to dine with him at the club or to lend him ten pounds, his handwriting at least will be the same, unless, indeed, he be offended, when he will generally indite your name with a studious precision and a distant grace quite foreign to his ordinary caligraphy.

These reflections, trite enough as I know, are nevertheless inevitable if one is to begin one's unheroic story in the modern manner, at the latest possible point. That is clearly the point at which a waiter brought me the fatal letter from Catherine Evers. Apart even from its immediate consequences, the letter had a prima facie interest, of no ordinary kind, as the first for years from a once constant correspondent. And so I sat studying the envelope with a curiosity too piquant not to be enjoyed. What in the world could so obsolete a friend find to say to one now? Six months earlier there had been a certain opportunity for an advance, which at that time could not possibly have been misconstrued; when they landed me, a few later, there was another and perhaps a better one. But this was the last summer of the late century, and already I was beginning to get about like a lamplighter on my two sticks. Now, young men about town, on two walking-sticks, in the year of grace 1900, meant only one thing. Quite a stimulating thing in the beginning, but even as I write, in this the next winter but one, a national irritation of which the name alone might prevent you from reading another word.

Catherine's handwriting, on the contrary, was still stimulating, if indeed I ever found it more so in the foolish past. It had not altered in the least. There was the same sweet pedantry of the Attic e, the same superiority to the most venial abbreviation, the same inconsistent forest of exclamatory notes, thick as poplars across the channel. The present plantation started after my own Christian name, to wit "Dear Duncan!!" Yet there was nothing Germanic in Catherine's ancestry; it was only her apologetic little way of addressing me as though nothing had ever happened, of asking whether she might. Her own old tact and charm were in that tentative burial of the past. In the first line she had all but won my entire forgiveness; but the very next interfered with the effect.

"You promised to do anything for me!"

I should be sorry to deny it, I am sure, for not to this day do I know what I did say on the occasion to which she evidently referred. But was it kind to break the silence of years with such a reference? Was it even quite decent in Catherine to ignore my existence until I could be of use to her, and then to ask the favour in her first breath? It was true, as she went on to remind me, that we were more or less connected after all, and at least conceivable that no one else could help her as I could, if I would. In any case, it was a certain satisfaction to hear that Catherine herself was of the last opinion. I read on. She was in a difficulty; but she did not say what the difficulty was. For one unworthy moment the thought of money entered my mind, to be ejected the next, as the Catherine of old came more and more into the mental focus. Pride was the last thing in which I had found her wanting, and her letter indicated no change in that respect.

"You may wonder," she wrote just at the end, "why I have never sent you a single word of inquiry, or sympathy, or congratulation!! Well--suppose it was 'bad blood'!! between us when you went away! Mind, I never meant it to be so, but suppose it was: could I treat the dear old you like that, and the Great New You like somebody else? You have your own fame to thank for my unkindness! I am only thankful they haven't given you the V.C.!! Then I should never have dared--not even now!!!"

I smoked a cigarette when I had read it all twice over, and as I crushed the fire out of the stump I felt I could as soon think of lighting it again as I should have expected Catherine Evers to set a fresh match to me. That, I was resolved, she should never do; nor was I quite coxcomb enough to suspect her of the desire for a moment. But a man who has once made a fool of himself, especially about a woman somewhat older than himself, does not soon get over the soreness; and mine returned with the very fascination which made itself felt even in the shortest little letter.

Catherine wrote from the old address in Elm Park Gardens, and she wanted me to call as early as I could, or to make any appointment I liked. I therefore telegraphed that I was coming at three o'clock that afternoon, and thus made for myself one of the longest mornings that I can remember spending in town. I was staying at the time at the Kensington Palace Hotel, to be out of the central racket of things, and yet more or less under the eye of the surgeon who still hoped to extract the last bullet in time. I can remember spending half the morning gazing aimlessly over the grand old trees, already prematurely bronzed, and the other half in limping in their shadow to the Round Pond, where a few little townridden boys were sailing their humble craft. It was near the middle of August, and for the first time I was thankful that an earlier migration had not been feasible in my case.

In spite of my telegram Mrs. Evers was not at home when I arrived, but she had left a message which more than explained matters. She was lunching out, but only in Brechin Place, and I was to wait in the study if I did not mind. I did not, and yet I did, for the room in which Catherine certainly read her books and wrote her letters was also the scene of that which I was beginning to find it rather hard work to forget as it was. Nor had it changed any more than her handwriting, or than the woman herself as I confidently expected to find her now. I have often thought that at about forty both sexes stand still to the eye, and I did not expect Catherine Evers, who could barely have reached that rubicon, to show much symptom of the later marches. To me, here in her den, the other year was just the other day. My time in India was little better than a dream to me, while as for angry shots at either end of Africa, it was never I who had been there to hear them. I must have come by my sticks in some less romantic fashion. Nothing could convince me that I had ever been many days or miles away from a room that I knew by heart, and found full as I left it of familiar trifles and poignant associations.

That was the shelf devoted to her poets; there was no addition that I could see. Over it hung the fine photograph of Watts's "Hope," an ironic emblem, and elsewhere one of that intolerably sad picture, his "Paolo and Francesca": how I remembered the wet Sunday when Catherine took me to see the original in Melbury Road! The old piano which was never touched, the one which had been in St. Helena with Napoleon's doctor, there it stood to an inch where it had stood of old, a sort of grand-stand for the photographs of Catherine's friends. I descried my own young effigy among the rest, in a frame which I recollected giving her at the time. Well, I looked all the idiot I must have been; and there was the very Persian rug that I had knelt on in my idiocy! I could afford to smile at myself to-day; yet now it all seemed yesterday, not even the day before, until of a sudden I caught sight of that other photograph in the place of honour on the mantelpiece. It was one by Hills and Sanders, of a tall youth in flannels, armed with a long-handled racket, and the sweet open countenance which Robin Evers had worn from his cradle upward. I should have known him anywhere and at any age. It was the same dear, honest face; but to think that this giant was little Bob! He had not gone to Eton when I saw him last; now I knew from the sporting papers that he was up at Cambridge; but it was left to his photograph to bring home the flight of time.

Certainly his mother would never have done so when all at once the door opened and she stood before me, looking about thirty in the ample shadow of a cavalier's hat. Simply but admirably gowned, as I knew she would be, her slender figure looked more youthful still; yet in all this there was no intent; the dry cool smile was that of an older woman, and I was prepared for greater cordiality than I could honestly detect in the greeting of the small firm hand. But it was kind, as indeed her whole reception of me was; only it had always been the way of Catherine the correspondent to make one expect a little more than mere kindness, and of Catherine the companion to disappoint that expectation. Her conversation needed few exclamatory points.

"Still halt and lame," she murmured over my sticks. "You poor thing, you are to sit down this instant."

And I obeyed her as one always had, merely remarking that I was getting along famously now.

"You must have had an awful time," continued Catherine, seating herself near me, her calm wise eyes on mine.

"Blood-poisoning," said I. "It nearly knocked me out, but I'm glad to say it didn't quite."

Indeed, I had never felt quite so glad before.

"Ah! that was too hard and cruel; but I was thinking of the day itself," explained Catherine, and paused in some sweet transparent awe of one who had been through it.

"It was a beastly day," said I, forgetting her objection to the epithet until it was out. But Catherine did not wince. Her fixed eyes were full of thought.

"It was all that here," she said. "One depressing morning I had a telegram from Bob, 'Spion Kop taken'--"

"So Bob," I nodded, "had it as badly as everybody else!"

"Worse," declared Catherine, her eye hardening; "it was all I could do to keep him at Cambridge, though he had only just gone up. He would have given up everything and flown to the Front if I had let him."

And she wore the inexorable face with which I could picture her standing in his way; and in Catherine I could admire that dogged look and all it spelt, because a great passion is always admirable. The passion of Catherine's life was her boy, the only son of his mother, and she a widow. It had been so when he was quite small, as I remembered it with a pinch of jealousy startling as a twinge from an old wound. More than ever must it be so now; that was as natural as the maternal embargo in which Catherine seemed almost to glory. And yet, I reflected, if all the widows had thought only of their only sons--and of themselves!

"The next depressing morning," continued Catherine, happily oblivious of what was passing through one's mind, "the first thing I saw, the first time I put my nose outside, was a great pink placard with 'Spion Kop Abandoned!' Duncan, it was too awful."

"I wish we'd sat tight," I said, "I must confess."

"Tight!" cried Catherine in dry horror. "I should have abandoned it long before. I should have run away--hard! To think that you didn't--that's quite enough for me."

And again I sustained the full flattery of that speechless awe which was yet unembarrassing by reason of its freedom from undue solemnity.

"There were some of us who hadn't a leg to run on," I had to say; "I was one, Mrs. Evers."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Catherine, then." But it put me to the blush.

"Thank you. If you really wish me to call you 'Captain Clephane' you have only to say so; but in that case I can't ask the favour I had made up my mind to ask--of so old a friend."

Her most winning voice was as good a servant as ever; the touch of scorn in it was enough to stimulate, but not to sting; and it was the same with the sudden light in the steady intellectual eyes.

"Catherine," I said, "you can't indeed ask any favour of me! There you are quite right. It is not a word to use between us."

Mrs. Evers gave me one of her deliberate looks before replying.

"And I am not so sure that it is a favour," she said softly enough at last. "It is really your advice I want to ask, in the first place at all events. Duncan, it's about old Bob!"

The corners of her mouth twitched, her eyes filled with a quaint humorous concern, and as a preamble I was handed the photograph which I had already studied on my own account.

"Isn't he a dear?" asked Bob's mother. "Would you have known him, Duncan?"

"I did know him," said I. "Spotted him at a glance. He's the same old Bob all over."

I was fortunate enough to meet the swift glance I got for that, for in sheer sweetness and affection it outdid all remembered glances of the past. In a moment it was as though I had more than regained the lost ground of lost years. And in another moment, on the heels of the discovery, came the still more startling one that I was glad to have regained my ground, was thankful to be reinstated, and strangely, acutely, yet uneasily happy, as I had never been since the old days in this very room.

Half in a dream I heard Catherine telling of her boy, of his Eton triumphs, how he had been one of the rackets pair two years, and in the eleven his last, but "in Pop" before he was seventeen, and yet as simple and unaffected and unspoilt with it all as the small boy whom I remembered. And I did remember him, and knew his mother well enough to believe it all; for she did not chant his praises to organ music, but rather hummed them to the banjo; and one felt that her own demure humour, so signal and so permanent a charm in Catherine, would have been the saving of half-a-dozen Bobs.

"And yet," she wound up at her starting-point, "it's about poor old Bob I want to speak to you!"

"Not in a fix, I hope?"

"I hope not, Duncan."

Catherine was serious now.

"Or mischief?"

"That depends on what you mean by mischief."

Catherine was more serious still.

"Well, there are several brands, but only one or two that really poison--unless, of course, a man is very poor."

And my mind harked back to its first suspicion, of some financial embarrassment, now conceivable enough; but Catherine told me her boy was not poor, with the air of one who would have drunk ditchwater rather than let the other want for champagne.

"It is just the opposite," she added: "in little more than a year, when he comes of age, he will have quite as much as is good for him. You know what he is, or rather you don't. I do. And if I were not his mother I should fall in love with him myself!"

Catherine looked down on me as she returned from replacing Bob's photograph on the mantelpiece. The humour had gone out of her eye; in its place was an almost animal glitter, a far harder light than had accompanied the significant reference to the patriotic impulse which she had nipped in the bud. It was probably only the old, old look of the lioness whose whelp is threatened, but it was something new to me in Catherine Evers, something half-repellent and yet almost wholly fine.

"You don't mean to say it's that?" I asked aghast.

"No, I don't," Catherine answered, with a hard little laugh. "He's not quite twenty, remember; but I am afraid that he is making a fool of himself, and I want it stopped."

I waited for more, merely venturing to nod my sympathetic concern.

"Poor old Bob, as you may suppose, is not a genius. He is far too nice," declared Catherine's old self, "to be anything so nasty. But I always thought he had his head screwed on, and his heart screwed in, or I never would have let him loose in a Swiss hotel. As it was, I was only too glad for him to go with George Kennerley, who was as good at work at Eton as Bob was at games."

In Catherine's tone, for all the books on her shelves, the pictures on her walls, there was no doubt at all as to which of the two an Eton boy should be good at, and I agreed sincerely with another nod.

"They were to read together for an hour or so every day. I thought it would be a nice little change for Bob, and it was quite a chance; he must do a certain amount of work, you see. Well, they only went at the beginning of the month, and already they have had enough of each other's society."

"You don't mean that they've had a row?"

Catherine inclined a mortified head.

"Bob never had such a thing in his life before, nor did I ever know anybody who succeeded in having one with Bob. It does take two, you know. And when one of the two has an angelic temper, and tact enough for twenty--"

"You naturally blame the other," I put in, as she paused in visible perplexity.

"But I don't, Duncan, and that's just the point. George is devoted to Bob, and is as nice as he can be himself, in his own sober, honest, plodding way. He may not have the temper, he certainly has not the tact, but he worships Bob and has come back quite miserable."

"Then he has come back, and you have seen him?"

"He was here last night. You must know that Bob writes to me every day, even from Cambridge, if it's only a line; and in yesterday's letter he mentioned quite casually that George had had enough of it and was off home. It was a little too casual to be quite natural in old Bob, and there are other things he has been mentioning in the same way. If any instinct is to be relied upon it is a mother's, and mine amounted almost to second sight. I sent Master George a telegram, and he came in last night."

"Well?"'

"Not a word! There was bad blood between them, but that was all I could get out of him. Vulgar disagreeables between Bob, of all people, and his greatest friend! If you could have seen the poor fellow sitting where you are sitting now, like a prisoner in the dock! I put him in the witness-box instead, and examined him on scraps of Bob's letters to me. It was as unscrupulous as you please, but I felt unscrupulous; and the poor dear was too loyal to admit, yet too honest to deny, a single thing."

"And?" said I, as Bob's mother paused again.

"And," cried she, with conscious melodrama in the fiery twinkle of her eye--"and, I know all! There is an odious creature at the hotel--a widow, if you please! A 'ripping widow' Bob called her in his first letter; then it was 'Mrs. Lascelles'; but now it is only 'some people' whom he escorts here, there, and everywhere. Some people, indeed!"

Catherine smiled unmercifully. I relied upon my nod.

"I needn't tell you," she went on, "that the creature is at least twenty years older than my baby, and not at all nice at that. George didn't tell me, mind, but he couldn't deny a single thing. It was about her that they fell out. Poor George remonstrated, not too diplomatically, I daresay, but I can quite see that my Bob behaved as he was never known to behave on land or sea. The poor child has been bewitched, neither more nor less."

"He'll get over it," I murmured, with the somewhat shaky confidence born of my own experience.

Catherine looked at me in mild surprise.

"But it's going on now, Duncan--it's going on still!"

"Well," I added, with all the comfort that my voice would carry, and which an exaggerated concern seemed to demand: "well, Catherine, it can't go very far at his age!" Nor to this hour can I yet conceive a sounder saying, in all the circumstances of the case, and with one's knowledge of the type of lad; but my fate was the common one of comforters, and I was made speedily and painfully aware that I had now indeed said the most unfortunate thing.

Catherine did not stamp her foot, but she did everything else required by tradition of the exasperated lady. Not go far? As if it had not gone too far already to be tolerated another instant longer than was necessary!

"He is making a fool of himself--my boy--my Bob--before a whole hotelful of sharp eyes and sharper tongues! Is that not far enough for it to have gone? Duncan, it must be stopped, and stopped at once; but I am not the one to do it. I would rather it went on," cried Catherine tragically, as though the pit yawned before us all, "than that his mother should fly to his rescue before all the world! But a friend might do it, Duncan--if--"

Her voice had dropped. I bent my ear.

"If only," she sighed, "I had a friend who would!"

Catherine was still looking down when I looked up; but the droop of the slender body, the humble angle of the cavalier hat, the faint flush underneath, all formed together a challenge and an appeal which were the more irresistible for their sweet shamefacedness. Acute consciousness of the past (I thought), and (I even fancied) some penitence for a wrong by no means past undoing, were in every sensitive inch of her, as she sat a suppliant to the old player of that part. And there are emotions of which the body may be yet more eloquent than the face; there was the figure of Watts's "Hope" drooping over as she drooped, not more lissom and speaking than her own; just then it caught my eye, and on the spot it was as though the lute's last string of that sweet masterpiece had vibrated aloud in Catherine's room.

My hand shook as I reached for my trusty sticks, but I cannot say that my voice betrayed me when I inquired the name of the Swiss hotel.

"The Riffel Alp," said Catherine--"above Zermatt, you know."

"I start to-morrow morning," I rejoined, "if that will do."

Then Catherine looked up. I cannot describe her look. Transfiguration were the idle word, but the inadequate, and yet more than one would scatter the effect of so sudden a burst of human sunlight.

"Would you really go?" she cried. "Do you mean it, Duncan?"

"I only wish," I replied, "that it were to Australia."

"But then you would be weeks too late."

"Ah, that's another story! I may be too late as it is."

Her brightness clouded on the instant; only a gleam of annoyance pierced the cloud.

"Too late for what, may I ask?"

"Everything except stopping the banns."

"Please don't talk nonsense, Duncan. Banns at nineteen!"

"It is nonsense, I agree; at the same time the minor consequences will be the hardest to deal with. If they are being talked about, well, they are being talked about. You know Bob best: suppose he is making a fool of himself, is he the sort of fellow to stop because one tells him so? I should say not, from what I know of him, and of you."

"I don't know," argued Catherine, looking pleased with her compliment. "You used to have quite an influence over him, if you remember."

"That's quite possible; but then he was a small boy, now he is a grown man."

"But you are a much older one."

"Too old to trust to that."

"And you have been wounded in the war."

"The hotel may be full of wounded officers; if not I might get a little unworthy purchase there. In any case I'll go. I should have to go somewhere before many days. It may as well be to that place as to another. I have heard that the air is glorious; and I'll keep an eye on Robin, if I can't do anything else."

"That's enough for me," cried Catherine, warmly. "I have sufficient faith in you to leave all the rest to your own discretion and good sense and better heart. And I never shall forget it, Duncan, never, never! You are the one person he wouldn't instantly suspect as an emissary, besides being the only one I ever--ever trusted well enough to--to take at your word as I have done."

I thought myself that the sentence might have pursued a bolder course without untruth or necessary complications. Perhaps my conceit was on a scale with my acknowledged infirmity where Catherine was concerned. But I did think that there was more than trust in the eyes that now melted into mine; there was liking at least, and gratitude enough to inspire one to win infinitely more. I went so far as to take in mine the hand to which I had dared to aspire in the temerity of my youth; nor shall I pretend for a moment that the old aspirations had not already mounted to their old seat in my brain. On the contrary, I was only wondering whether the honesty of voicing my hopes would nowise counterbalance the caddishness of the sort of stipulation they might imply.

"All I ask," I was saying to myself, "is that you will give me another chance, and take me seriously this time, if I prove myself worthy in the way you want."

But I am glad to think I had not said it when tea came up, and saved a dangerous situation by breaking an insidious spell.

I stayed another hour at least, and there are few in my memory which passed more deliciously at the time. In writing of it now I feel that I have made too little of Catherine Evers, in my anxiety not to make too much, yet am about to leave her to stand or to fall in the reader's opinion by such impression as I have already succeeded in creating in his or her mind. Let me add one word, or two, while yet I may. A baron's daughter (though you might have known Catherine some time without knowing that), she had nevertheless married for mere love as a very young girl, and had been left a widow before the birth of her boy. I never knew her husband, though we were distant kin, nor yet herself during the long years through which she mourned him. Catherine Evers was beginning to recover her interest in the world when first we met; but she never returned to that identical fold of society in which she had been born and bred. It was, of course, despite her own performances, a fold to which the worldly wolf was no stranger; and her trouble had turned a light-hearted little lady into an eager, intellectual, speculative being, with a sort of shame for her former estate, and an undoubted reactionary dislike of dominion and of petty pomp. Of her own high folk one neither saw nor heard a thing; her friends were the powerful preachers of most denominations, and one or two only painted or wrote; for she had been greatly exercised about religion, and somewhat solaced by the arts.

Of her charm for me, a lad with a sneaking regard for the pen, even when I buckled on the sword, I need not be too analytical. No doubt about her kindly interest, in the first instance, in so morbid a curiosity as a subaltern who cared for books and was prepared to extend his gracious patronage to pictures. This subaltern had only too much money, and if the truth be known, only too little honest interest in the career into which he had allowed himself to drift. An early stage of that career brought him up to London, where family pressure drove him on a day to Elm Park Gardens. The rest is easily conceived. Here was a woman, still young, though some years older than oneself; attractive, intellectual, amusing, the soul of sympathy, at once a spiritual influence and the best companion in the world; and for a time, at least, she had taken a perhaps imprudent interest in a lad whom she so greatly interested herself, on so many and various accounts. Must you marvel that the young fool mistook the interest, on both sides, for a more intense feeling, of which he for one had no experience at the time, and that he fell by his mistake at a ridiculously early stage of his career?

It is, I grant, more surprising to find the same young man playing Harry Esmond (at due distance) to the same Lady Castlewood after years in India and a taste of two wars. But Catherine's room was Catherine's room, a very haunt of the higher sirens, charged with noble promptings and forgotten influences and impossible vows. And you will please bear in mind that as yet I am but setting forth, from this rarefied atmosphere, upon my invidious mission.