No Hero by E.W. Hornung
Chapter IV. A Little Knowledge
Once in the Town Hall at Simla (the only time I was ever there) it was my fortune to dance with a Mrs. Heymann of Lahore, a tall woman, but a featherweight partner, and in all my dancing days I never had a better waltz. To my delight she had one other left, though near the end, and we were actually dancing when an excitable person came out of the card-room, flushed with liquor and losses, and carried her off in the most preposterous manner. It was a shock to me at the time to learn that this outrageous little man was my partner's husband. Months later, when I came across their case in the papers, it was, I am afraid, without much sympathy for the injured husband. The man was quite unpresentable, and I had seen no more of him at Simla, but of the woman just enough to know her by matchlight on the terrace at the Riffel Alp.
And this was Bob's widow, this dashing divorcee! Dashing she was as I now remembered her, fine in mould, finer in spirit, reckless and rebellious as she well might be. I had seen her submit before a ball-room, but with the contempt that leads captivity captive. Seldom have I admired anything more. It was splendid even to remember, the ready outward obedience, the not less apparent indifference and disdain. There was a woman whom any man might admire, who had had it in her to be all things to some man! But Bob Evers was not a man at all. And this--and this--was his widow!
Was she one at all? How could I tell? Yes, it was Lascelles, the other name in the case, to the best of my recollection. But had she any right to bear it? And even supposing they had married, what had happened to the second husband? Widow or no widow, second marriage or no second marriage, defensible or indefensible, was this the right friend for a lad still fresh from Eton, the only son of his mother, who had sent me in secret to his side?
There was only one answer to the last question, whatever might be said or urged in reply to all the rest. I could not but feel that Catherine Evers had been justified in her instinct to an almost miraculous degree; that her worst fears were true enough, so far as the lady was concerned; and that Providence alone could have inspired her to call in an agent who knew what I knew, and who therefore saw his duty as plainly as I already saw mine. But it is one thing to recognise a painful duty and quite another thing to know how to minimise the pain to those most affected by its performance. The problem was no easy one to my mind, and I lay awake upon it far into the night.
Tired out with travel, I fell asleep in the end, to awake with a start in broad daylight. The sun was pouring through the uncurtained dormer-window of my room under the roof. And in the sunlight, looking his best in knickerbockers, as only thin men do, with face greased against wind and glare, and blue spectacles in rest upon an Alpine wideawake, stood the lad who had taken his share in keeping me awake.
"I'm awfully sorry," he began. "It's horrid cheek, but when I saw your room full of light I thought you might have been even earlier than I was. You must get them to give you curtains up here."
He had a note in his hand and I thought by his manner there was something that he wished and yet hesitated to tell me. I accordingly asked him what it was.
"It's what we were speaking about last night!" burst out Bob. "That's why I've come to you. It's these silly fools who can't mind their own business and think everybody else is like themselves! Here's a note from Mrs. Lascelles which makes it plain that that old idiot George is not the only one who has been talking about us, and some of the talk has reached her ears. She doesn't say so in so many words, but I can see it's that. She wants to get out of our expedition to Monte Rosa hut--wants me to go alone. The question is, ought I to let her get out of it? Does it matter one rap what this rabble says about us? I've come to ask your advice--you were such a brick about it all last night--and what you say I'll do."
I had begun to smile at Bob's notion of "a rabble": this one happened to include a few quite eminent men, as you have seen, to say nothing of the average quality of the crowd, of which I had been able to form some opinion of my own. But I had already noticed in Bob the exclusiveness of the type to which he belonged, and had welcomed it as one does welcome the little faults of the well-night faultless. It was his last sentence that made me feel too great a hypocrite to go on smiling.
"It may not matter to you," I said at length, "but it may to the lady."
"I suppose it does matter more to them?"
The sunburnt face, puckered with a wry wistfulness, was only comic in its incongruous coat of grease. But I was under no temptation to smile. I had to confine my mind pretty closely to the general principle, and rather studiously to ignore the particular instance, before I could bring myself to answer the almost infantile inquiry in those honest eyes.
"My dear fellow, it must!"
Bob looked disappointed but resigned.
"Well, then, I won't press it, though I'm not sure that I agree. You see, it's not as though there was or ever would be anything between us. The idea's absurd. We are absolute pals and nothing else. That's what makes all this such a silly bore. It's so unnecessary. Now she wants me to go alone, but I don't see the fun of that."
"Does she ask you to go alone?"
"She does. That's the worst of it."
I nodded, and he asked me why.
"She probably thinks it would be the best answer to the tittle-tattlers, Bob."
That was not a deliberate lie; not until the words were out did it occur to me that Mrs. Lascelles might now have another object in getting rid of her swain for the day. But Bob's eyes lighted in a way that made me feel a deliberate liar.
"By Jove!" he said, "I never thought of that. I don't agree with her, mind, but if that's her game I'll play it like a book. So long, Duncan! I'm not one of those chaps who ask a man's advice without the slightest intention of ever taking it!"
"But I haven't ventured to advise you," I reminded the boy, with a cowardly eye to the remotest consequences.
"Perhaps not, but you've shown me what's the proper thing to do." And he went away to do it there and then, like the blameless exception that I found him to so many human rules.
I had my breakfast upstairs after this, and lay for some considerable time a prey to feelings which I shall make no further effort to expound; for this interview had not altered, but only intensified them; and in any case they must be obvious to those who take the trouble to conceive themselves in my unenviable position.
And it was my ironic luck to be so circumstanced in a place where I could have enjoyed life to the hilt! Only to lie with the window open was to breathe air of a keener purity, a finer temper, a more exhilarating freshness, than had ever before entered my lungs; and to get up and look out of the window was to peer into the limpid brilliance of a gigantic crystal, where the smallest object was in startling focus, and the very sunbeams cut with scissors. The people below trailed shadows like running ink. The light was ultra-tropical. One looked for drill suits and pith headgear, and was amazed to find pajamas insufficient at the open window.
Upon the terrace on the other side, when I eventually came down, there were cane chairs and Tauchnitz novels under the umbrella tents, and the telescope out and trained upon a party on the Matterhorn. A group of people were waiting turns at the telescope, my friend Quinby and the hanging judge among them. But I searched under the umbrella tents as well as one could from the top of the steps before hobbling down to join the group.
"I have looked for an accident through that telescope," said the jocose judge, "fifteen Augusts running. They usually have one the day after I go."
"Good morning, sir!" was Quinby's greeting; and I was instantly introduced to Sir John Sankey, with such a parade of my military history as made me wince and Sir John's eye twinkle. I fancied he had formed an unkind estimate of my rather overpowering friend, and lived to hear my impression confirmed in unjudicial language. But our first conversation was about the war, and it lasted until the judge's turn came for the telescope.
"Black with people!" he ejaculated. "They ought to have a constable up there to regulate the traffic."
But when I looked it was long enough before my inexperienced eye could discern the three midges strung on the single strand of cobweb against the sloping snow.
"They are coming down," explained the obliging Quinby. "That's one of the most difficult places, the lower edge of the top slope. It's just a little way along to the right where the first accident was.... By the way, your friend Evers says he's going to do the Matterhorn before he goes."
It was unwelcome hearing, for Quinby had paused to regale me with a lightning sketch of the first accident, and no one had contradicted his gruesome details.
"Is young Evers a friend of yours?" inquired the judge.
The judge did not say another word. But Quinby availed himself of the first opportunity of playing Ancient Mariner to my Wedding Guest.
"I saw you talking to them," he told me confidentially, "last night, you know!"
He took me by the sleeve.
"Of course I don't know what you said, but it's evidently had an effect. Evers has gone off alone for the first time since he has been here."
I shifted my position.
"You evidently keep an eye on him, Mr. Quinby."
"I do, Clephane. I find him a diverting study. He is not the only one in this hotel. There's old Teale on his balcony at the present minute, if you look up. He has the best room in the hotel; the only trouble is that it doesn't face the sun all day; he's not used to being in the shade, and you'll hear him damn the limelight-man in heaps one of these fine mornings. But your enterprising young friend is a more amusing person than Belgrave Teale."
I had heard enough of my enterprising young friend from this quarter.
"Do you never make any expeditions yourself, Mr. Quinby?"
"Sometimes." Quinby looked puzzled. "Why do you ask?" he was constrained to add.
"You should have volunteered instead of Mrs. Lascelles to-day. It would have been an excellent opportunity for prosecuting your own rather enterprising studies."
One would have thought that one's displeasure was plain enough at last; but not a bit of it. So far from resenting the rebuff, the fellow plucked my sleeve, and I saw at a glance that he had not even listened to my too elaborate sarcasm.
"Talk of the--lady!" he whispered. "Here she comes."
And a second glance intercepted Mrs. Lascelles on the steps, with her bold good looks and her fine upstanding carriage, cut clean as a diamond in that intensifying atmosphere, and hardly less dazzling to the eye. Yet her cotton gown was simplicity's self; it was the right setting for such natural brilliance, a brilliance of eyes and teeth and colouring, a more uncommon brilliance of expression. Indeed it was a wonderful expression, brave rather than sweet, yet capable of sweetness too, and for the moment at least nobly free from the defensive bitterness which was to mark it later. So she stood upon the steps, the talk of the hotel, trailing, with characteristic independence, a cane chair behind her, while she sought a shady place for it, even as I had stood seeking for her: before she found one I was hobbling toward her.
"Oh, thanks, Captain Clephane, but I couldn't think of allowing you! Well, then, between us, if you insist. Here under the wall, I think, is as good a place as any."
She pointed out a clear space in the rapidly narrowing ribbon of shade, and there I soon saw Mrs. Lascelles settled with her book (a trashy novel, that somehow brought Catherine Evers rather sharply before my mind's eye) in an isolation as complete as could be found upon the crowded terrace, and too intentional on her part to permit of an intrusion on mine. I lingered a moment, nevertheless.
"So you didn't go to that hut after all, Mrs. Lascelles?"
"No." She waited a moment before looking up at me. "And I'm afraid Mr. Evers will never forgive me," she added after her look, in the rich undertone that had impressed me overnight, before the cigarette controversy.
I was not going to say that I had seen Bob before he started, but it was an opportunity of speaking generally of the lad. Thus I found myself commenting on the coincidence of our meeting again--he and I--and again lying before I realised that it was a lie. But Mrs. Lascelles sat looking up at me with her fine and candid eyes, as though she knew as well as I which was the real coincidence, and knew that I knew into the bargain. It gave me the disconcerting sensation of being detected and convicted at one blow. Bob Evers failed me as a topic, and I stood like the fool I felt.
"I am sure you ought not to stand about so much, Captain Clephane."
Mrs. Lascelles was smiling faintly as I prepared to take her hint.
"Doesn't it really do you any harm?" she inquired in time to detain me.
"No, just the opposite. I am ordered to take all the exercise I can."
"Even hobbling, Mrs. Lascelles, if I don't overdo it."
She sat some moments in thought. I guessed what she was thinking, and I was right.
"There are some lovely walks quite near, Captain Clephane. But you have to climb a little, either going or coming."
"I could climb a little," said I, making up my mind. "It's within the meaning of the act--it would do me good. Which way will you take me, Mrs. Lascelles?"
Mrs. Lascelles looked up quickly, surprised at a boldness on which I was already complimenting myself. But it is the only way with a bold woman.
"Did I say I would take you at all, Captain Clephane?"
"No, but I very much hope you will."
And our eyes met as fairly as they had done by matchlight the night before.
"Then I will," said Mrs. Lascelles, "because I want to speak to you."