Chapter VII. Second Fiddle

My plan was quite obvious in its simplicity, and not in the least discreditable from my point of view. It was perhaps inevitable that a boy like Bob should imagine I was trying to "cut him out," as my blunt friend Quinby phrased it to my face. I had not, of course, the smallest desire to do any such vulgar thing. All I wanted was to make myself, if possible, as agreeable to Mrs. Lascelles as this youth had done before me, and in any case to share with him all the perils of her society. In other words I meant to squeeze into "the imminent deadly breach" beside Bob Evers, not necessarily in front of him. But if there was nothing dastardly in this, neither was there anything heroic, since I was proof against that kind of deadliness if Bob was not.

On the other hand, the whole character of my mission was affected by the decision at which I had now arrived. There was no longer a necessity to speak plainly to anybody. That odious duty was eliminated from my plan of campaign, and the "frontal attack" of recent history discarded for the "turning movement" of the day. So I had learnt something in South Africa after all. I had learnt how to avoid hard knocks which might very well do more harm than good to the cause I had at heart. That cause was still sharply defined before my mind. It was the first and most sacred consideration. I wrote a reassuring despatch to Catherine Evers, and took it myself to the little post-office opposite the hotel that very evening before dressing for dinner. But I cannot say that I was thinking of Catherine when I proceeded to spoil three successive ties in the tying.

Yet I can only repeat that I felt absolutely "proof" against the real cause of my solicitude. It is the most delightful feeling where a handsome woman is concerned. The judgment is not warped by passion or clouded by emotion; you see the woman as she is, not as you wish to see her, and if she disappoint it does not matter. You are not left to choose between systematic self-deception and a humiliating admission of your mistake. The lady has not been placed upon an impossible pedestal, and she has not toppled down. In this case the lady started at the most advantageous disadvantage; every admirable quality, her candour, her courage, her spirited independence, her evident determination to piece a broken life together again and make the best of it, told doubly in her favour to me with my special knowledge of her past. It would be too much to say that I was deeply interested; but Mrs. Lascelles had inspired me with a certain sympathy and dispassionate regard. Cultivated she was not, in the conventional sense, but she knew more than can be imbibed from books. She knew life at first hand, had drained the cup for herself, and yet could savour the lees. Not that she enlarged any further on her own past. Mrs. Lascelles was never a great talker, like Catherine; but she was certainly a woman to whom one could talk. And talk to her I did thenceforward, with a conscientious conviction that I was doing my duty, and only an occasional qualm for its congenial character, while Bob listened with a wondering eye, or went his own way without a word.

It is easy to criticise my conduct now. It would have been difficult to act otherwise at the time. I am speaking of the evening after my walk with Mrs. Lascelles, of the next day when it rained, and now of my third night at the hotel. The sky had cleared. The glass was high. There was a finer edge than ever on the silhouetted mountains against the stars. It appeared that Bob and Mrs. Lascelles had talked of taking their lunch to the Findelen Glacier on the next fine day, for he came up and reminded her of it as she sat with me in the glazed veranda after dinner. I had seen him standing alone under the stars a few minutes before: so this was the result of his cogitation. But in his manner there was nothing studied, much less awkward, and his smile even included me, though he had not spoken to me alone all day.

"Oh, no, I hadn't forgotten, Mr. Evers. I am looking forward to it," said my companion, with a smile of her own to which the most jealous swain could not have taken exception.

Bob Evers looked hard at me.

"You'd better come, too," he said.

"It's probably too far," said I, quite intending to play second fiddle next day, for it was really Bob's turn.

"Not for a man who has been up to the Cricket-ground," he rejoined.

"But it's dreadfully slippery," put in Mrs. Lascelles, with a sympathetic glance at my sticks.

"Let him get them shod like alpenstocks," quoth Bob, "and nails in his boots; then they'll be ready when he does the Matterhorn!"

It might have passed for boyish banter, but I knew that it was something more; the use of the third person changed from chaff to scorn as I listened, and my sympathetic resolution went to the winds.

"Thank you," I replied; "in that case I shall be delighted to come, and I'll take your tip at once by giving orders about my boots."

And with that I resigned my chair to Bob, not sorry for the chance; he should not be able to say that I had monopolised Mrs. Lascelles without intermission from the first. Nevertheless, I was annoyed with him for what he had said, and for the moment my actions were no part of my scheme. Consequently I was thus in the last mood for a familiarity from Quinby, who was hanging about the door between the veranda and the hall, and who would not let me pass.

"That's awfully nice of you," he had the impudence to whisper.

"What do you mean?"

"Giving that poor young beggar another chance!"

"I don't understand you."

"Oh, I like that! You know very well that you've gone in on the military ticket and deliberately cut the poor youngster--"

I did not wait to hear the end of this gratuitous observation. It was very rude of me, but in another minute I should have been guilty of a worse affront. My annoyance had deepened into something like dismay. It was not only Bob Evers who was misconstruing my little attentions to Mrs. Lascelles. I was more or less prepared for that. But here were outsiders talking about us--the three of us! So far from putting a stop to the talk, I had given it a regular fillip: here were Quinby and his friends as keen as possible to see what would happen next, if not betting on a row. The situation had taken a sudden turn for the worse. I forgot the pleasant hours that I had passed with Mrs. Lascelles, and began to wish myself well out of the whole affair. But I had now no intention of getting out of the glacier expedition. I would not have missed it on any account. Bob had brought that on himself.

And I daresay we seemed a sufficiently united trio as we marched along the pretty winding path to the Findelen next morning. Dear Bob was not only such a gentleman, but such a man, that it was almost a pleasure to be at secret issue with him; he would make way for me at our lady's side, listen with interest when she made me spin my martial yarns, laugh if there was aught to laugh at, and in a word, give me every conceivable chance. His manners might have failed him for one heated moment overnight; they were beyond all praise this morning; and I repeatedly discerned a morbid sporting dread of giving the adversary less than fair play. It was sad to me to consider myself as such to Catherine's son, but I was determined not to let the thought depress me, and there was much outward occasion for good cheer. The morning was a perfect one in every way. The rain had released all the pungent aromas of the mountain woods through which we passed. Snowy height came in dazzling contrast with a turquoise sky. The toy town of Zermatt spattered the green hollow far below. And before me on the narrow path went Bob Evers in a flannel suit, followed by Mrs. Lascelles and her red parasol, though he carried her alpenstock with his own in readiness for the glacier.

Thither we came in this order, I at least very hot from hard hobbling to keep up; but the first breath from the glacier cooled me like a bath, and the next like the great drink in the second stanza of the Ode to a Nightingale. I could have shouted out for pleasure, and must have done so but for the engrossing business of keeping a footing on the sloping ice with its soiled margin of yet more treacherous moraine. Yet on the glacier itself I was less handicapped than I had been on the way, and hopped along finely with my two shod sticks and the sharp new nails in my boots. Bob, however, was invariably in the van, and Mrs. Lascelles seemed more disposed to wait for me than to hurry after him. I think he pushed the pace unwittingly, under the prick of those emotions which otherwise were in such excellent control. I can see him now, continually waiting for us on the brow of some glistening ice-slope, leaning on his alpenstock and looking back, jet-black by contrast between the blinding hues of ice and sky.

But once he waited on the brink of some unfathomable crevasse, and then we all three cowered together and peeped down; the sides were green and smooth and sinister, like a crack in the sea, but so close together that one could not have fallen out of sight; yet when Bob loosened a lump of ice and kicked it in we heard it clattering from wall to wall in prolonged diminuendo before the faint splash just reached our ears. Mrs. Lascelles shuddered, and threw out a hand to prevent me from peering farther over. The gesture was obviously impersonal and instinctive, as an older eye would have seen, but Bob's was smouldering when mine met it next, and in the ensuing advance he left us farther behind than ever. But on the rock where we had our lunch he was once more himself, bright and boyish, careless and assured. So he continued till the end of that chapter. On the way home, moreover, he never once forged ahead, but was always ready with a hand for Mrs. Lascelles at the awkward places; and on the way through the woods, nothing would serve him but that I should set the pace, that we might all keep together. Judge therefore of my surprise when he came to my room, as I was dressing for the absurdly early dinner which is the one blot upon Riffel Alp arrangements, with the startling remark that we "might as well run straight with one another."

"By all means, my dear fellow," said I, turning to him with the lather on my chin. He was dressed already, as perfectly as usual, and his hands were in his pockets. But his fresh brown face was as grave as any judge's, and his mouth as stern. I went on to ask, disingenuously enough, if we had not been "running straight with each other" as it was.

"Not quite," said Bob Evers, dryly; "and we might as well, you know!"

"To be sure; but don't mind if I go on shaving, and pray speak for yourself."

"I will," he rejoined. "Do you remember our conversation the night you came?"

"More or less."

"I mean when you and I were alone together, before we turned in."

"Oh, yes. I remember something about it."

"It would be too silly to expect you to remember much," he went on after a pause, with a more delicate irony than heretofore. "But, as a matter of fact, I believe I said it was all rot that people talked about the impossibility of being mere pals with a woman, and all that sort of thing."

"I believe you did.'"

"Well, then, that was rot. That's all."

I turned round with my razor in mid-air,

"My dear fellow!" I exclaimed.

"Quite funny, isn't it?" he laughed, but rather harshly, while his mountain bronze deepened under my scrutiny.

"You are not in earnest, Bob!" said I; and on the word his laughter ended, his colour went.

"I am," he answered through his teeth. "Are you?"

Never was war carried more suddenly into the enemy's country, or that enemy's breath more completely taken away than mine. What could I say? "As much as you are, I should hope!" was what I ultimately said.

The lad stood raking me with a steady fire from his blue eyes.

"I mean to marry her," he said, "if she will have me."

There was no laughing at him. Though barely twenty, as I knew, he was man enough for any age as we faced each other in my room, and a man who knew his own mind into the bargain.

"But, my dear Bob," I ventured to remonstrate, "you are years too young--"

"That's my business. I am in earnest. What about you?"

I breathed again.

"My good fellow," said I, "you are at perfect liberty to give yourself away to me, but you really mustn't expect me to do quite the same for you."

"I expect precious little, I can tell you!" the lad rejoined hotly. "Not that it matters twopence so long as you are not misled by anything I said the other day. I prefer to run straight with you--you can run as you like with me. I only didn't want you to think that I was saying one thing and doing another. As a matter of fact I meant all I said at the time, or thought I did, until you came along and made me look into myself rather more closely than I had done before. I won't say how you managed it. You will probably see for yourself. But I'm very much obliged to you, whatever happens. And now that we understand each other there's no more to be said, and I'll clear out."

There was, indeed, no more to be said, and I made no attempt to detain him; for I did see for myself, only too clearly and precisely, how I had managed to precipitate the very thing which I had come out from England expressly to prevent.