Chapter VIII. Prayers and Parables
 

I had quite forgotten one element which plays its part in most affairs of the affections. I mean, of course, the element of pique. Bob Evers, with the field to himself, had been sensible and safe enough; it was my intrusion, and nothing else, which had fanned his boyish flame into this premature conflagration. Of that I felt convinced. But Bob would not believe me if I told him so; and what else was there for me to tell him? To betray Catherine and the secret of my presence, would simply hasten an irrevocable step. To betray Mrs. Lascelles, and her secret, would certainly not prevent one. Both courses were out of the question upon other grounds. Yet what else was left?

To speak out boldly to Mrs. Lascelles, to betray Catherine and myself to her?

I shrank from that; nor had I any right to reveal a secret which was not only mine. What then was I to do? Here was this lad professedly on the point of proposing to this woman. It was useless to speak to the lad; it was impossible to speak to the woman. To be sure, she might not accept him; but the mere knowledge that she was to have the chance seemed enormously to increase my responsibility in the matter. As for the dilemma in which I now found myself, deservedly as you please, there was no comparing it with any former phase of this affair.

  "O, what a tangled web we weave,
  When first we practise to deceive!"

The hackneyed lines sprang unbidden, as though to augment my punishment; then suddenly I reflected that it was not in my own interest I had begun to practise my deceit; and the thought of Catherine braced me up, perhaps partly because I felt that it should. I put myself back into the fascinating little room in Elm Park Gardens. I saw the slender figure in the picture hat, I heard the half-humorous and half-pathetic voice. After all, it was for Catherine I had undertaken this ridiculous mission; she was therefore my first and had much better be my only consideration. I could not run with the hare after hunting with the hounds. And I should like to have seen Catherine's face if I had expressed any sympathy with the hare!

No; it was better to be unscrupulously stanch to one woman than weakly chivalrous toward both; and my mind was made up by the end of dinner. There was only one chance now of saving the wretched Bob, or rather one way of setting to work to save him; and that was by actually adopting the course with which he had already credited me. He thought I was "trying to cut him out." Well, I would try!

But the more I thought of him, of Mrs. Lascelles, of them both, the less sanguine I felt of success; for had I been she (I could not help admitting it to myself), as lonely, as reckless, as unlucky, I would have married the dear young idiot on the spot. Not that my own marriage (with Mrs. Lascelles) was an end that I contemplated for a moment as I took my cynical resolve. And now I trust that I have made both my position and my intentions very plain, and have written myself down neither more of a fool nor less of a knave than circumstances (and one's own infirmities) combined to make me at this juncture of my career.

The design was still something bolder than its execution, and if Bob did not propose that night it was certainly no fault of mine. I saw him with Mrs. Lascelles on the terrace after dinner; but I had neither the heart nor the face to thrust myself upon them. Everything was altered since Bob had shown me his hand; there were certain rules of the game which even I must now observe. So I left him in undisputed possession of the perilous ground, and being in a heavy glow from the strong air of the glacier, went early to my room; where I lay long enough without a wink, but quite prepared for Bob, with news of his engagement, at every step in the corridor.

Next day was Sunday, and chiefly, I am afraid, because there was neither blind nor curtain to my dormer-window, and the morning sun streamed full upon my pillow, I got up and went to early service in the little tin Protestant Church. It was wonderfully well attended. Quinby was there, a head taller than anybody else, and some sizes smaller in heads. The American bridegroom came in late with his "best girl." The late Vice Chancellor, with the peeled nose, and Mr. Belgrave Teale, fit for Church Parade, or for the afternoon act in one of his own fashion-plays, took round the offertory bags, into which Mr. Justice Sankey (in race-course checks) dropped gold. It was not the sort of service at which one cares to look about one, but I was among the early comers, and I could not help it. Mrs. Lascelles, however, was there before me, whereas Bob Evers was not there at all. Nevertheless, I did not mean to walk back with her until I saw her walking very much alone, a sort of cynosure even on the way from church, though humble and grave and unconscious as any country maid. I watched her with the rest, but in a spirit of my own. Some subtle change I seemed to detect in Mrs. Lascelles as in Bob. Had he really declared himself overnight, and had she actually accepted him? A new load seemed to rest upon her shoulders, a new anxiety, a new care; and as if to confirm my idea, she started and changed colour as I came up.

"I didn't see you in church," she remarked, in her own natural fashion, when we had exchanged the ordinary salutations.

"I am afraid you wouldn't expect to see me, Mrs. Lascelles."

"Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't, but I suppose," added Mrs. Lascelles, as her rich voice fell into a pensive (but not a pathetic) key, "I suppose it is you who are much more surprised at seeing me. I can't help it if you are, Captain Clephane. I am not really a religious person. I have not flown to that extreme as yet. But it has been a comfort to me, sometimes; and so, sometimes, I go."

It was very simply said, but with a sigh at the end that left me wondering whether she was in any new need of spiritual solace. Did she already find herself in the dilemma in which I had imagined her, and was it really a dilemma to her? New hopes began to chase my fears, and were gaining upon them when a flannel suit on the sunlit steps caused a temporary check: there was Bob waiting for us, his hands in his pockets, a smile upon his face, yet in the slope of his shoulders and the carriage of his head a certain indefinable but very visible attention and intent.

"Is Mrs. Evers a religious woman?" asked my companion, her step slowing ever so slightly as we approached.

"Not exactly; but she knows all about it," I replied.

"And doesn't believe very much? Then we shouldn't hit it off," exclaimed Mrs. Lascelles, "for I know nothing and believe all I can! Nevertheless, I'm not going to church again to-day."

The last words were in a sort of aside, and I afterwards heard that Bob and Mrs. Lascelles had attended the later service together on the previous Sunday; but I guessed almost as much on the spot, and it put out of my head both the unjust assumption of the earlier remark, concerning Catherine, and the contrast between them which Mrs. Lascelles could hardly afford to emphasise.

"Let's go somewhere else instead--Zermatt--or anywhere else you like," I suggested, eagerly; but we were close to the steps, and before she could reply Bob had taken off his straw hat to Mrs. Lascelles, and flung me a nod.

"How very energetic!" he cried. "I only hope it's a true indication of form, for I've got a scheme: instead of putting in another chapel I propose we stroll down to Zermatt for lunch and come back by the train."

Bob's proposal was made pointedly to Mrs. Lascelles, and as pointedly excluded me, but she stood between the two of us with a charming smile of good-humoured perplexity.

"Now what am I to say? Captain Clephane was in the very act of making the same suggestion!"

Bob glared on me for an instant in spite of Eton and all his ancestors.

"We'll all go together," I cried before he could speak. "Why not?"

Nor was this mere unreasoning or good-natured impulse, since Bob could scarcely have pressed his suit in my presence, while I should certainly have done my best to retard it; still, it was rather a relief to me to see him shake his head with some return of his natural grace.

"My idea was to show Mrs. Lascelles the gorge," said Bob, "but you can do that as well as I can; you can't miss it; besides, I've seen it, and I really ought to stay up here, as a matter of fact, for I'm on the track of a guide for the Matterhorn."

We looked at him narrowly with one accord, but he betrayed no signs of desperate impulse, only those of "climbing fever," and I at least breathed again.

"But if you want a guide," said I, "Zermatt's full of them."

"I know," said he, "but it's a particular swell I'm after, and he hangs out up here in the season. They expect him back from a big trip any moment, and I really ought to be on the spot to snap him up."

So Bob retired, in very fair order after all, and not without his laughing apologies to Mrs. Lascelles; but it was sad to me to note the spurious ring his laugh had now; it was like the death-knell of the simple and the single heart that it had been my lot, if not my mission, to poison and to warp. But the less said about my odious task, the sooner to its fulfilment, which now seemed close at hand.

It was not in fact so imminent as I supposed, for the descent into Zermatt is somewhat too steep for the conduct of a necessarily delicate debate. Sound legs go down at a compulsory run, and my companion was continually waiting for me to catch her up, only to shoot ahead again perforce. Or the path was too narrow for us to walk abreast, and you cannot become confidential in single file; or the noise of falling waters drowned our voices, when we stood together on that precarious platform in the cool depths of the gorge, otherwise such an admirable setting for the scene that I foresaw. Then it was a beautiful walk in itself, with its short tacks in the precipitous pine-woods above, its sudden plunge into the sunken gorge below, its final sweep across the green valley beyond; and it was all so new to us both that there were impressions to exchange or to compare at every turn. In fine, and with all the will in the world, it was quite impossible to get in a word about Bob before luncheon at the Monte Rosa, and by that time I for one was in no mood to introduce so difficult a topic.

But an opportunity there came, an opportunity such as even I could not neglect; on the contrary, I made too much of it, as the sequel will show. It was in the little museum which every tourist goes to see. We had shuddered over the gruesome relics of the first and worst catastrophe on the Matterhorn, and were looking in silence upon the primitive portraits of the two younger Englishmen who had lost their lives on that historic occasion. It appeared that they had both been about the same age as Bob Evers, and I pointed this out to my companion. It was a particularly obvious remark to make; but Mrs. Lascelles turned her face quickly to mine, and the colour left it in the half-lit, half-haunted little room, which we happened to have all to ourselves.

"Don't let him go up, Captain Clephane; don't let him, please!"

"Do you mean Bob Evers?" I asked, to gain time while I considered what to say; for the intensity of her manner took me aback.

"You know I do," said Mrs. Lascelles, impatiently; "don't let him go up the Matterhorn to-night, or to-morrow morning, or whenever it is that he means to start."

"But, my dear Mrs. Lascelles, who am I to prevent that young gentleman from doing what he likes?"

"I thought you were more or less related?"

"Rather less than more."

"But aren't you very intimate with his mother?"

I had to meet a pretty penetrating look.

"I was once."

"Well, then, for his mother's sake you ought to do your best to keep him out of danger, Captain Clephane."

It was my turn to repay the look which I had just received. No doubt I did so with only too much interest; no doubt I was equally clumsy of speech; but it was my opportunity, and something or other must be said.

"Quite so, Mrs. Lascelles; and for his mother's sake," said I, "I not only will do, I have already done, my best to keep the lad out of harm's way. He is the apple of her eye; they are simply all the world to one another. It would break her heart if anything happened to him--anything--if she were to lose him in any sense of the word."

I waited a moment, thinking she would speak, prepared on my side to be as explicit as she pleased; but Mrs. Lascelles only looked at me with her mouth tight shut and her eyes wide open; and I concluded--somewhat uneasily, I will confess--that she saw for herself what I meant.

"As for the Matterhorn," I went on, "that, I believe, is not such a very dangerous exploit in these days. There are permanent chains and things where there used to be polished precipices. It makes the real mountaineers rather scornful; anyone with legs and a head, they will tell you, can climb the Matterhorn nowadays. If I had the legs I'd go with him, like a shot."

"To share the danger, I suppose?"

"And the sport."

"Ah," said Mrs. Lascelles, "and the sport, of course! I had forgotten that!"

Yet I did not perceive that I had been found out, for nothing was further from my mind than to prolong the parable to which I had stooped in passing a few moments before. It had served its purpose, I conceived. I had given my veiled warning; it never occurred to me that Mrs. Lascelles might be indulging in a veiled retort. I thought she was annoyed at the hint that I had given her. I began to repent of that myself. It had quite spoilt our day, and so many and long were the silences, as we wandered from little shop to little shop, and finally with relief to the train, that I had plenty of time to remember how much we had found to talk about all the morning.

But matters were coming to a head in spite of me, for Bob Evers waylaid us on our return, and, with hardly a word to Mrs. Lascelles, straightway followed me to my room. He was pale with a suppressed anger which flared up even as he closed my door behind him, but though his honest face was now in flames, he still kept control of his tongue.

"I want you to lend me one of those sticks of yours," he said, quietly; "the heaviest, for choice."

"What the devil for?" I demanded, thinking for the moment of no shoulders but my own.

"To give that bounder Quinby the licking he deserves!" cried Bob: "to give it him now at once, when the post comes in, and there are plenty of people about to see the fun. Do you know what he's been saying and spreading all over the place?"

"No," I answered, my heart sinking within me. "What has he been saying?"

The colour altered on Bob's face, altered and softened to a veritable blush, and his eyes avoided mine.

"I'm ashamed to tell you, it makes me so sick," he said, disgustedly. "But the fact is that he's been spreading a report about Mrs. Lascelles; it has nothing on earth to do with me. It appears he only heard it himself this morning, by letter, but the brute has made good use of his time! I only got wind of it an hour or two ago, of course quite by accident, and I haven't seen the fellow since; but he's particularly keen on his letters, and either he explains himself to my satisfaction or I make an example of him before the hotel. It's a thing I never dreamt of doing in my life, and I'm sorry the poor beast is such a scarecrow; but it's a duty to punish that sort of crime against a woman, and now I'm sure you'll lend me one of your sticks. I am only sorry I didn't bring one with me."

"But wait a bit, my dear fellow," said I, for he was actually holding out his hand: "you have still to tell me what the report was."

"Divorce!" he answered in a tragic voice. "Clephane, the fellow says she was divorced in India, and that it was--that it was her fault!"

He turned away his face. It was in a flame.

"And you are going to thrash Quinby for saying that?"

"If he sticks to it, I most certainly am," said Bob, the fire settling in his blue eyes.

"I should think twice about it, Bob, if I were you."

"My dear man, what else do you suppose I have been thinking of all the afternoon?"

"It will make a fresh scandal, you see."

"I can't help that."

And Bob shut his mouth with a self-willed snap.

"But what good will it do?"

"A liar will be punished, that's all! It's no use talking, Clephane; my mind is made up."

"But are you so sure that it's a lie?" I was obliged to say it at last, reluctantly enough, yet with a wretched feeling that I might just as well have said it in the beginning.

"Sure?" he echoed, his innocent eyes widening before mine. "Why, of course I'm sure! You don't know what pals we've been. Of course I never asked questions, but she's told me heaps and heaps of things; it would fit in with some of them, if it were true."

Then I told him that it was true, and how I knew that it was true, and my reason for having kept all that knowledge to myself until now. "I could not give her away even to you, Bob, nor yet tell you that I had known her before; for you would have been certain to ask when and how; and it was in her first husband's time, and under his name."

It was a comfort to be quite honest for once with one of them, and it is a relief even now to remember that I was absolutely honest with Bob Evers about this. He said almost at once that he would have done the same himself, and even as he spoke his whole manner changed toward me. His face had darkened at my unexpected confirmation of the odious rumour, but already it was beginning to lighten toward me, as though he found my attitude the one redeeming feature in the new aspect of affairs. He even thanked me for my late reserve, obviously from his heart, and in a way that went to mine on more grounds than one. It was as though a kindness to Mrs. Lascelles was already the greatest possible kindness to him.

"But I am glad you have told me now," he added, "for it explains many things. I was inclined to look upon you, Duncan--you won't mind my telling you now--as a bit of a deliberate interloper! But all the time you knew her first, and that alters everything. I hope to out you still, but I sha'n't any longer bear you a grudge if you out me!"

I was horrified.

"My dear fellow," I cried, "do you mean to say this makes no difference?"

"It does to Quinby. I must keep my hands off him, I suppose, though to my mind he deserves his licking all the more."

"But does it make no difference to you? My good boy, can you at your age seriously think of marrying a woman who has been married twice already, and divorced once?"

"I didn't know that when I thought of it first," he answered, doggedly, "and I am not going to let it make a difference now. Do you suppose I would stand away from her because of anything that's past and over? Do they stand away from us for--that sort of thing?"

Of course I said that was rather different, with as much conviction as though the ancient dogma had been my own.

"But, Duncan, you know it's the very last thing you're dreaming of doing yourself!"

And again I argued, as feebly as you please, that it was quite different in my case--that I was a good ten years older than he, and not my mother's only son.

Bob stiffened on the spot.

"My mother must take care of herself," said he; "and I," he added, "I must take care of myself, if you don't mind. And I hope you won't, for you've been most awfully good to me, you know! I never thought so until these last few minutes; but now I sha'n't forget it, no matter how it all turns out!"