Chapter X. The Last Word
 

"Is that you?"

It was an hour or so later, but still I sat ruminating upon the parapet, within a yard or two of the spot where I had first accosted Bob Evers and Mrs. Lascelles. I had retraced the little sequence of subsequent events, paltry enough in themselves, yet of a certain symmetry and some importance as a whole. I had attacked and defended my own conduct down to that hour, when I ought to have been formulating its logical conclusion, and during my unprofitable deliberations the night had aged and altered (as it were) behind my back. There was no more music in the drawing-room. There were no more people under the drawing-room windows. The lights in all the lower windows were not what they had been; it was the bedroom tiers that were illuminated now. But I did not realise that there was less light outside until I awoke to the fact that Mrs. Lascelles was peering tentatively toward me, and putting her question in such an uncertain tone.

"That depends who I am supposed to be," I answered, laughing as I rose to put my personality beyond doubt.

"How stupid of me!" laughed Mrs. Lascelles in her turn, though rather nervously to my fancy. "I thought it was Mr. Evers!"

I had hard work to suppress an exclamation. So he had not told her what he was going to do, and yet he had not forbidden me to tell her. Poor Bob was more subtle than I had supposed, but it was a simple subtlety, a strange chord but still in key with his character as I knew it.

"I am sorry to disappoint you," said I. "But I am afraid you won't see any more of Bob Evers to-night."

"What do you mean?" asked Mrs. Lascelles, suspiciously.

"I wonder he didn't tell you," I replied, to gain time in which to decide how to make the best use of such an unforeseen opportunity.

"Well, he didn't; so please will you, Captain Clephane?"

"Bob Evers," said I, with befitting gravity, "is climbing the Matterhorn at this moment."

"Never!"

"At least he has started."

"When did he start?"

"An hour or more ago, with a couple of guides."

"He told you, then?"

"Only just as he was starting."

"Was it a sudden idea?"

"More or less, I think."

I waited for the next question, but that was the last of them. Just then the interloping cloud floated clear of the moon, and I saw that my companion was wrapped up as on the earlier night, in the same unconventional combination of rain-coat and golf-cape; but now the hood hung down, and the sudden rush of moonlight showed me a face as full of sheer perplexity and annoyance as I could have hoped to find it, and as free from deeper feeling.

"The silly boy!" exclaimed Mrs. Lascelles at last. "I suppose it really is pretty safe, Captain Clephane?"

"Safer than most dangerous things, I believe; and they are the safest, as you know, because you take most care. He has a couple of excellent guides; the chance of getting them was partly why he went. In all human probability we shall have him back safe and sound, and fearfully pleased with himself, long before this time to-morrow. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lascelles," I continued with the courage of my opportunity, "it is a very good chance for me to speak to you about our friend Bob. I have wanted to do so for some little time."

"Have you, indeed?" said Mrs. Lascelles, coldly.

"I have," I answered imperturbably; "and if it wasn't so late I should ask for a hearing now."

"Oh, let us get it over, by all means!"

But as she spoke Mrs. Lascelles glanced over the shoulder that she shrugged so contemptuously, toward the lights in the bedroom windows, most of which were wide open.

"We could walk toward the zig-zags," I suggested. "There is a seat within a hundred yards, if you don't think it too cold to sit, but in any case I needn't keep you many minutes. Bob Evers," I continued, as my suggestion was tacitly accepted, "paid me the compliment of confiding in me somewhat freely before he started on this hare-brained expedition of his."

"So it appears."

"Ah, but he didn't only tell me what he was going to do; he told me why he was doing it," said I, as we sauntered on our way side by side. "It was difficult to believe," I added, when I had waited long enough for the question upon which I had reckoned.

"Indeed?"

"He said he had proposed to you."

And again I waited, but never a word.

"That child!" I added with deliberate scorn.

But a further pause was broken only by my companion's measured steps and my own awkward shuffle.

"That baby!" I insisted.

"Did you tell him he was one, Captain Clephane?" asked Mrs. Lascelles, dryly, but drawn so far at last.

"I spared his feelings. But can it be true, Mrs. Lascelles?"

"It is true."

"Is it a fact that you didn't give him a definite answer?"

"I don't know what business it is of yours," said Mrs. Lascelles, bluntly; "and since he seems to have told you everything, neither do I know why you should ask me. However, it is quite true that I did not finally refuse him on the spot."

This carefully qualified confirmation should have afforded me abundant satisfaction. I was over-eager in the matter, however, and I cried out impetuously:

"But you will?"

"Will what?"

"Refuse the boy!"

We had reached the seat, but neither of us sat down. Mrs. Lascelles appeared to be surveying me with equal resentment and defiance. I, on the other hand, having shot my bolt, did my best to look conciliatory.

"Why should I refuse him?" she asked at length, with less emotion and more dignity than her bearing had led me to expect. "You seem so sure about it, you know!"

"He is such a boy--such an utter child--as I said just now." I was conscious of the weakness of saying it again, and it alone, but my strongest arguments were too strong for direct statement.

This one, however, was not unfruitful in the end.

"And I," said Mrs. Lascelles, "how old do you think I am? Thirty-five?"

"Of course not," I replied, with obvious gallantry. "But I doubt if Bob is even twenty."

"Well, then, you won't believe me, but I was married before I was his age, and I am just six-and-twenty now."

It was a surprise to me. I did not doubt it for a moment; one never did doubt Mrs. Lascelles. It was indeed easy enough to believe (so much I told her) if one looked upon the woman as she was, and only difficult in the prejudicial light of her matrimonial record. I did not add these things. "But you are a good deal older," I could not help saying, "in the ways of the world, and it is there that Bob is such an absolute infant."

"But I thought an Eton boy was a man of the world?" said Mrs. Lascelles, quoting me against myself with the utmost readiness.

"Ah, in some things," I had to concede. "Only in some things, however."

"Well," she rejoined, "of course I know what you mean by the other things. They matter to your mind much more than mere age, even if I had been fifteen years older, instead of five or six. It's the old story, from the man's point of view. You can live anything down, but you won't let us. There is no fresh start for a woman; there never was and never will be."

I protested that this was unfair. "I never said that, or anything like it, Mrs. Lascellcs!"

"No, you don't say it, but you think it!" she cried back. "It is the one thing you have in your mind. I was unhappy, I did wrong, so I can never be happy, I can never do right! I am unfit to marry again, to marry a good man, even if he loves me, even if I love him!"

"I neither say nor think anything of the kind," I reiterated, and with some slight effect this time. Mrs. Lascelles put no more absurdities into my mouth.

"Then what do you say?" she demanded, her deep voice vibrant with scornful indignation, though there were tears in it too.

"I think he will be a lucky fellow who gets you," I said, and meant every word, as I looked at her well in the moonlight, with her shining eyes, and curling lip, and fighting flush.

"Thank you, Captain Clephane!"

And I thought I was to be honoured with a contemptuous courtesy; but I was not.

"He ought to be a man, however," I went on, "and not a boy, and still less the only child of a woman with whom you would never get on."

"So you are as sure of that," exclaimed Mrs. Lascelles, "as of everything else!" It seemed, however, to soften her, or at least to change the current of her thoughts. "Yet you get on with her?" she added with a wistful intonation.

I could not deny that I got on with Catherine Evers.

"You are even fond of her?"

"Quite fond."

"Then do you find me a very disagreeable person, that she and I couldn't possibly hit it off, in your opinion?"

"It isn't that, Mrs. Lascelles," said I, almost wearily. "You must know what it is. You want to marry her son--"

Mrs. Lascelles smiled.

"Well, let us suppose you do. That would be quite enough for Mrs. Evers. No matter who you were, how peerless, how incomparable in every way, she would rather die than let you marry him at his age. I don't say she's wrong--I don't say she's right. I give you the plain fact for what it is worth: you would find her from the first a clever and determined adversary, a regular little lioness with her cub, and absolutely intolerant on that particular point."

I could see Catherine as I spoke, the Catherine I had seen last, and liked least to remember; but the vision faded before the moonlit reality of Mrs. Lascelles, laughing to herself like a great, naughty, pretty child.

"I really think I must marry him," she said, "and see what happens!"

"If you do," I answered, in all seriousness, "you will begin by separating mother and son, and end by making both their lives miserable, and bringing the last misery into your own."

And either my tone impressed her, or the covert reminder in my last words; for the bold smile faded from her face, and she looked longer and more searchingly in mine than she had done as yet.

"You know Mrs. Evers exceedingly well," Mrs. Lascelles remarked.

"I did years ago," I guardedly replied.

"Do you mean to say," urged my companion, "that you have not seen her for years?"

I did not altogether like her tone. Yet it was so downright and straightforward, it was hard to be the very reverse in answer to it, and I shied idiotically at the honest lie. I had quite lost sight both of Bob and his mother, I declared, from the day I went to India until now.

"You mean until you came out here?" persisted Mrs. Lascelles.

"Until the other day," I said, relying on a carefully affirmative tone to close the subject. There was a pause. I began to hope I had succeeded. The flattering tale was never finished.

"I believe," said Mrs. Lascelles, "that you saw Mrs. Evers in town before you started."

It was too late to lie.

"As a matter of fact," I answered easily, "I did."

I built no hopes on the pause which followed that. Somehow I had my face to the moon, and Mrs. Lascelles had her back. Yet I knew that her scrutiny of me was more critical than ever.

"How funny of Bob never to have told me!" she said.

"Told you what?"

"That you saw his mother just before you left."

"I didn't tell him," I said at length.

"That was funny of you, Captain Clephane."

"On the contrary," I argued, with the impudence which was now my only chance, "it was only natural. Bob was rather raw with his friend Kennerley, you see. You knew about that?"

"Oh, yes."

"And why they fell out?"

"Yes."

"Well, he might have thought the other fellow had been telling tales, and that I had come out to have an eye on him, if he had known that I happened to see his mother just before I started."

There was another pause; but now I was committed to an attitude, and prepared for the worst.

"Perhaps there would have been some truth in it?" suggested Mrs. Lascelles.

"Perhaps," I agreed, "a little."

The pause now was the longest of all. It had no terrors for me. Another cloud had come between us and the moon. I was sorry for that. I felt that I was missing something. Even the fine upstanding figure before me was no longer sharp enough to be expressive.

"I have been harking back," explained Mrs. Lascelles, eventually. "Now I begin to follow. You saw his mother, you heard a report, and you volunteered or at least consented to come out and keep an eye on the dear boy, as you say yourself. Am I not more or less right so far, Captain Clephane?"

Her tone was frozen honey.

"More or less," I admitted ironically.

"Of course, I don't know what report that other miserable young man may have carried home with him. I don't want to know. But I can guess. One does not stay in hotel after hotel without getting a pretty shrewd idea of the way people talk about one. I know the sort of things they have been saying here. You would hear them yourself, no doubt, Captain Clephane, as soon as you arrived."

I admitted that I had, but reminded Mrs. Lascelles that the first person I had spoken to was also the greatest gossip in the hotel. She paid no attention to the remark, but stood looking at me again, with the look that I could never quite see to read.

"And then," she went on, "you found out who it was, and you remembered all about me, and your worst fears were confirmed. That must have been an interesting moment. I wonder how you felt.... Did it never occur to you to speak plainly to anybody?"

"I wasn't going to give you away," I said, stolidly, though with no conscious parade of virtue.

"Yet, you see, it would have made no difference if you had! Did you seriously think it would make much difference, Captain Clephane, to a really chivalrous young man?" I bowed my head to the well-earned taunt. "But," she went on, "there was no need for you to speak to Mr. Evers. You might have spoken to me. Why did you not do that?"

"Because I didn't want to quarrel with you," I answered quite honestly; "because I enjoyed your society too much myself."

"That was very nice of you," said Mrs. Lascelles, with a sudden although subtle return of the good-nature which had always attracted me. "If it is sincere," she added, as an apparent afterthought.

"I am perfectly sincere now."

"Then what do you think I should do?" she asked me, in the soft new tone which actually flattered me with the idea that she was making up her mind to take my advice.

"Refuse this lad!"

"And then?" she almost whispered.

"And then--"

I hesitated. I found it hard to say what I thought, hard even upon myself. We had been good friends. I admired the woman cordially; her society was pleasant to me, as it always had been. Nevertheless, we had just engaged in a duel of no friendly character; and now that we seemed of a sudden to have become friends again, it was the harder to give her the only advice which I considered compatible alike with my duty and the varied demands of the situation. If she took it as she seemed disposed to do, the immediate loss would be mine, and I foresaw besides a much more disagreeable reckoning with Bob Evers than the one now approaching an amicable conclusion. I should have to stay behind to face the music of his wrath alone. Still, at the risk of appearing brutal I made my proposal in plain terms; but, to minimise that risk, I ventured to take the lady's hand and was glad to find the familiarity permitted in the same friendly spirit in which it was indulged.

"I would have no 'and then,'" I said, "if I were you. I should refuse him under such circumstances that he couldn't possibly bother you, or himself about you, again. Now is your opportunity."

"Is it?" she asked, a thrilling timbre in her low voice. And I fancied there was a kindred tremor in the firm warm hand within mine.

"The best of opportunities," I replied, "if you are not too wedded to this place, and can tear yourself away from the rest of us." (Her hand lay loose in mine.) "Mrs. Lascelles, I should go to-morrow morning" (her hand fell away altogether), "while he is still up the Matterhorn and I shouldn't let him know where I--shouldn't give him a chance of finding out--"

A sudden peal of laughter cut me short. I could not have believed it came from my companion. But no other soul was near us, though I looked all ways. It was the merriest laughter imaginable, only the merriment was harsh and hard.

"Oh, thank you, Captain Clephane! You are too delicious! I saw it coming; I only wondered whether I could contain myself until it came. Yet I could hardly believe that even you would commit yourself to that finishing touch of impudence! Certainly it is an opportunity, his being out of the way. You were not long in making use of it, were you? It will amuse him when he comes down, though it may open his eyes. I shall tell him everything, so I give you warning. Every single thing, that you have had the insolence to tell me!"

She had caught up her skirts from the ground, she had half turned away from me, toward the hotel. The false merriment had died out of her. The true indignation remained, ringing in every accent of the deep sweet voice, and drawn up in every inch of the tall straight figure. I do not remember whether the moon was hid or shining at the moment. I only know that my lady's eyes shone bright enough for me to see them then and ever after, bright and dry with a scorn that burnt too hot for tears; and that I admired her even while she scorned me, as I had never thought to admire any woman but one, but this woman least of all.

So we both stood, intent, some seconds, looking our last upon each other if I was wise. Then I lifted my hat, and offered my congratulations (more sincere than they sounded) to her and Bob.

"Did I tell you why he is going up?" I added. "It is to pass the time until he knows his fate. If only we could let him know it now!"

Mrs. Lascelles glanced toward the mountain, and my eyes followed hers. A great cloud hid the grim outstanding summit.

"If only you had prevented him from going!" she cried back at me in a last reproach; and to me her tone was conclusive, it rang so true, and so invidiously free from the smaller emotions which it had been my own unhappiness to inspire. It was the real woman who had spoken out once more, suddenly, perhaps unthinkingly, but obviously from her heart. And as she turned, I followed her very slowly and without a word; for now was I surely and deservedly undone.