No Hero by E.W. Hornung
Chapter VI. Out of Action
Now if, upon a warm, soft, summer evening, you were suddenly asked to describe the perfect winter's day, either you would have to stop and think a little, or your imagination is more elastic than mine. Yet you might have a passionate preference for cold sun and bracing airs. To me, Catherine Evers and this Mrs. Lascelles were as opposite to each other as winter and summer, or the poles, or any other notorious antitheses. There was no comparison between them in my mind, yet as I sat with one among the sunlit, unfamiliar Alps, it was a distinct effort to picture the other in the little London room I knew so well. For it was always among her books and pictures that I thought of Catherine, and to think was to wish myself there at her side, rather than to wish her here at mine. Catherine's appeal, I used to think, was to the highest and the best in me, to brain and soul, and young ambition, and withal to one's love of wit and sense of humour. Mrs. Lascelles, on the other hand, struck me primarily in the light of some splendid and spirited animal. I still liked to dwell upon her dancing. She satisfied the mere eye more and more. But I had no reason to suppose that she knew right from wrong in art or literature, any more than she would seem to have distinguished between them in life itself. Her Tauchnitz novel lay beside her on the grass and I again reflected that it would not have found a place on Catherine's loftiest shelf. Catherine would have raved about the view and made delicious fun of Quinby and the judge, and we should have sat together talking poetry and harmless scandal by the happy hour. Mrs. Lascelles probably took place and people alike for granted. But she had lived, and as an animal she was superb! I looked again into her healthy face and speaking eyes, with their bitter knowledge of good and evil, their scorn of scorn, their redeeming honesty and candour. The contrast was complete in every detail except the widowhood of both women; but I did not pursue it any farther; for once more there was but one woman in my thoughts, and she sat near me under a red parasol--clashing so humanly with the everlasting snows!
"You don't answer my question, Captain Clephane. How much for your thoughts?"
"I'll make you a present of them, Mrs. Lascelles. I was beginning to think that a lot of rot has been written about the eternal snows and the mountain-tops and all the rest of it. There a few lines in that last little volume of Browning--"
I stopped of my own accord, for upon reflection the lines would have made a rather embarrassing quotation. But meanwhile Mrs. Lascelles had taken alarm on other grounds.
"Oh, don't quote Browning!"
"He is far too deep for me; besides, I don't care for poetry, and I was asking you about Mrs. Evers."
"Well," I said, with some little severity, "she's a very clever woman."
"Clever enough to understand Browning?"
If this was irony, it was also self-restraint, for it was to Catherine's enthusiasm that I owed my own. The debt was one of such magnitude as a life of devotion could scarcely have repaid, for to whom do we owe so much as to those who first lifted the scales from our eyes and awakened within us a soul for all such things? Catherine had been to me what I instantly desired to become to this benighted beauty; but the desire was not worth entertaining, since I hardly expected to be many minutes longer on speaking terms with Mrs. Lascelles. I recalled the fact that it was I who had broached the subject of Bob Evers and his mother, together with my unpalatable motive for so doing. And I was seeking in my mind, against the grain, I must confess, for a short cut back to Bob, when Mrs. Lascelles suddenly led the way.
"I don't think," said she, "that Mr. Evers takes after his mother."
"I'm afraid he doesn't," I replied, "in that respect."
"And I am glad," she said. "I do like a boy to be a boy. The only son of his mother is always in danger of becoming something else. Tell me, Captain Clephane, are they very devoted to each other?"
There was some new note in that expressive voice of hers. Was it merely wistful, was it really jealous, or was either element the product of my own imagination? I made answer while I wondered:
"Absolutely devoted, I should say; but it's years since I saw them together. Bob was a small boy then, and one of the jolliest. Still I never expected him to grow up the charming chap he is now."
Mrs. Lascelles sat gazing at the great curve of Theodule Glacier. I watched her face.
"He is charming," she said at length. "I am not sure that I ever met anybody quite like him, or rather I am quite sure that I never did. He is so quiet, in a way, and yet so wonderfully confident and at ease!"
"That's Eton," said I. "He is the best type of Eton boy, and the best type of Eton boy," I declared, airing the little condition with a flourish, "is one of the greatest works of God."
"I daresay you're right," said Mrs. Lascelles, smiling indulgently; "but what is it? How do you define it? It isn't 'side,' and yet I can quite imagine people who don't know him thinking that it is. He is cocksure of himself, but of nothing else; that seems to me to be the difference. No one could possibly be more simple in himself. He may have the assurance of a man of fifty, yet it isn't put on; it's neither bumptious nor affected, but just as natural in Mr. Evers as shyness and awkwardness in the ordinary youth one meets. And he has the savoir faire not to ask questions!"
Were we all mistaken? Was this the way in which a designing woman would speak of the object of her designs? Not that I thought so hardly of Mrs. Lascelles myself; but I did think that she might well fall in love with Bob Evers, at least as well as he with her. Was this, then, the way in which a woman would be likely to speak of the young man with whom she had fallen in love? To me the appreciation sounded too frank and discerning and acute. Yet I could not call it dispassionate, and frankness was this woman's outstanding merit, though I was beginning to discover others as well. Moreover, the fact remained that they had been greatly talked about; that at any rate must be stopped and I was there to stop it.
I began to pick my words.
"It's all Eton, except what is in the blood, and it's all a question of manners, or rather of manner. Don't misunderstand me, Mrs. Lascelles. I don't say that Bob isn't independent in character as well as in his ways, but only that when all's said he's still a boy and not a man. He can't possibly have a man's experience of the world, or even of himself. He has a young head on his shoulders, after all, if not a younger one than many a boy with half the assurance that you admire in him."
Mrs. Lascelles looked at me point-blank.
"Do you mean that he can't take care of himself?"
"I don't say that."
"Then what do you say?"
The fine eyes met mine without a flicker. The full mouth was curved at the corners in a tolerant, unsuspecting smile. It was hard to have to make an enemy of so handsome and good-humoured a woman. And was it necessary, was it even wise? As I hesitated she turned and glanced downward once more toward the glacier, then rose and went to the lip of our grassy ledge, and as she returned I caught the sound which she had been the first to hear. It was the gritty planting of nailed boots upon a hard, smooth rock.
"I'm afraid you can't say it now," whispered Mrs. Lascelles. "Here's Mr. Evers himself, coming this way back from the Monte Rosa hut! I'm going to give him a surprise!"
And it was a genuine one that she gave him, for I heard his boyish greeting before I saw his hot brown face, and there was no mistaking the sudden delight of both. It was sudden and spontaneous, complete, until his eyes lit on me. Even then his smile did not disappear, but it changed, as did his tone.
"Good heavens!" cried Bob. "How on earth did you get up here? By rail to the Riffelberg, I hope?"
"On my sticks."
"It was much too far for him," added Mrs. Lascelles, "and all my fault for showing him the way. But I'm afraid there was contributory obstinacy in Captain Clephane, because he simply wouldn't turn back. And now tell us about yourself, Mr. Evers; surely we were not coming back this way?"
"We were not," said Bob, with a something sardonic in his little laugh, "but I thought I might as well. It's the long way, six miles on end upon the glacier."
"But have you really been to the hut?"
"And where's our guide?"
"Oh, I wouldn't be bothered with a guide all to myself."
"My dear young man, you might have stepped straight into a crevasse!"
"I precious nearly did," laughed Bob, again with something odd about his laughter; "but I say, do you know, if you won't think me awfully rude, I'll push on back and get changed. I'm as hot as anything and not fit to be seen."
And he was gone after very little more than a minute from first to last, gone with rather an elaborate salute to Mrs. Lascelles, and rather a cavalier nod to me. But then neither of us had made any effort to detain him and a notable omission I thought it in Mrs. Lascelles, though to the lad himself it may well have seemed as strange in the old friend as in the new.
"What was it," asked Mrs. Lascelles, when we were on our way home, "that you were going to say about Mr. Evers when he appeared in the flesh in that extraordinary way?"
"I forget," said I, immorally.
"Really? So soon? Don't you remember, I thought you meant that he couldn't take care of himself, and you were just going to tell me what you did mean?"
"Oh, well, it wasn't that, because he can!"
But, as a matter of fact, I had seen my way to taking care of Master Bob without saying a word either to him or to Mrs. Lascelles, or at all events without making enemies of them both.