No Hero by E.W. Hornung
Chapter IX. Sub Judice
Well, I made a belated attempt to earn my young friend's good opinion. I kept out of his way after dinner, and went in search of Quinby instead. I felt I had a crow of my own to pluck with this gentleman, who owed to my timely intervention a far greater immunity than he deserved. It was in the little billiard-room I found him, pachydermatously applauding the creditable attempts of Sir John Sankey at the cannon game, and as studiously ignoring the excellent shots of an undistinguished clergyman who was beating the judge. Quinby made room for me beside him, with a civility which might have caused me some compunction, but I repaid him by coming promptly to my point.
"What's this report about Mrs. Lascelles?" I asked, not angrily at all, for naturally my feeling in the matter was not so strong as Bob's, but with a certain contemptuous interest, if a man can judge of his own outward manner from his inner temper at the time.
Quinby favoured me with a narrow though a sidelong look; the room was very full, and in the general chit-chat, punctuated by the constant clicking of the heavy balls, there was very little danger of our being overheard. But Quinby was careful to lower his voice.
"It's perfectly true," said he, "if you mean about her being divorced."
"Yes, that was what I heard; but who started the report?"
"Who started it. You may well ask! Who starts anything in a place like this? Ah, good shot, Sir John, good shot!"
"Never mind the good shots, Quinby. I really rather want to talk to you about this. I sha'n't keep you long."
"Talk away, then. I am listening."
"Mrs. Lascelles and I are rather friends."
"So I can see."
"Very well, then, I want to know who started all this. It may be perfectly true, as you say, but who found it out? If you can't tell me I must ask somebody else."
The ruddy Alpine colouring had suddenly become accentuated in the case of Quinby.
"As a matter of fact," said he, "it was I who first heard of it, quite by chance. You can't blame me for that, Clephane."
"Of course not," said I encouragingly.
"Well, unfortunately I let it out; and you know how things get about in an hotel."
"It was unfortunate," I agreed. "But how on earth did you come to hear?"
Quinby hummed and hawed; he had heard from a soldier friend, a man who had known her in India, a man whom I knew myself, in fact Hamilton the sapper, who had telegraphed to Quinby to secure me my room. I ought to have been disarmed by the coincidence; but I recalled our initial conversation, about India and Hamilton and Mrs. Lascelles, and I could not consider it a coincidence at all.
"You don't mean to tell me," said I, aping the surprise I might have felt, "that our friend wrote and gave Mrs. Lascelles away to you of his own accord?"
But Quinby did not vouchsafe an answer. "Hard luck, Sir John!" cried he, as the judge missed an easy cannon, leaving his opponent a still easier one, which lost him the game. I proceeded to press my question in a somewhat stronger form, though still with all the suavity at my command.
"Surely," I urged, "you must have written to ask him about her first?"
"That's my business, I fancy," said Quinby, with a peculiarly aggressive specimen of the nasal snigger of which enough was made in a previous chapter, but of which Quinby himself never tired.
"Quite," I agreed; "but do you also consider it your business to inquire deliberately into the past life of a lady whom I believe you only know by sight, and to spread the result of your inquiries broadcast in the hotel? Is that your idea of chivalry? I shall ask Sir John Sankey whether it is his," I added, as the judge joined us with genial condescension, and I recollected that his proverbial harshness toward the male offender was redeemed by an extraordinary sympathy with the women. Thereupon I laid a general case before Sir John, asking him point-blank whether he considered such conduct as Quinby's (but I did not say whose the conduct was) either justifiable in itself or conducive to the enjoyment of a holiday community like ours.
"It depends," said the judge, cocking a critical eye on the now furious Quinby. "I am afraid we most of us enjoy our scandal, and for my part I always like to see a humbug catch it hot. But if the scandal's about a woman, and if it's an old scandal, and if she's a lonely woman, that quite alters the case, and in my opinion the author of it deserves all he gets."
At this Quinby burst out, with an unrestrained heat that did not lower him in my estimation, though the whole of his tirade was directed exclusively against me. I had been talking "at" him, he declared. I might as well have been straightforward while I was about it. He, for his part, was not afraid to take the responsibility for anything he might have said. It was perfectly true, to begin with. The so-called Mrs. Lascelles, who was such a friend of mine, had been the wife of a German Jew in Lahore, who had divorced her on her elopement with a Major Lascelles, whom she had left in his turn, and whose name she had not the smallest right to bear. Quinby exercised some restraint in the utterances of these calumnies, or the whole room must have heard them, but even as it was we had more listeners than the judge when my turn came.
"I won't give you the lie, Quinby, because I am quite sure you don't know you are telling one," said I; "but as a matter of fact you are giving currency to two. In the first place, this lady is Mrs. Lascelles, for the major did marry her; in the second place, Major Lascelles is dead."
"And how do you know?" inquired Quinby, with a touch of genuine surprise to mitigate an insolent disbelief.
"You forget," said I, "that it was in India I knew your own informant. I can only say that my information in all this matter is a good deal better than his. I knew Mrs. Lascelles herself quite well out there; I knew the other side of her case. It doesn't seem to have struck you, Quinby, that such a woman must have suffered a good deal before, and after, taking such a step. Or I don't suppose you would have spread yourself to make her suffer a little more,"
And I still consider that a charitable view of his behaviour; but Quinby was of another opinion, which he expressed with his offensive little laugh as he lifted his long body from the settee.
"This is what one gets for securing a room for a man one doesn't know!" said he.
"On the contrary," I retorted, "I haven't forgotten that, and I have saved you something because of it. I happen to have saved you no less than a severe thrashing from a stronger man than myself, who is even more indignant with you than I am, and who wanted to borrow one of my sticks for the purpose!"
"And it would have served him perfectly right," was the old judge's comment, when the mischief-maker had departed without returning my parting shot. "I suppose you meant young Evers, Captain Clephane?"
"I did indeed, Sir John. I had to tell him the truth in order to restrain him."
The old judge raised his eyebrows.
"Then you hadn't to tell him it before? You are certainly consistent, and I rather admire your position as regards the lady. But I am not so sure that it was altogether fair toward the lad. It is one thing to stand up for the poor soul, my dear sir, but it would be another thing to let a nice boy like that go and marry her!"
So that was the opinion of this ripe old citizen of the world! It ought not to have irritated me as it did. It would be Catherine's opinion, of course; but a dispassionate view was not to be expected from her. I had not hitherto thought otherwise, myself; but now I experienced a perverse inclination to take the opposite side. Was it so utterly impossible for a woman with this woman's record to make a good wife to some man yet? I did not admit it for an instant; he would be a lucky man who won so healthy and so good a heart; thus I argued to myself with Mrs. Lascelles in my mind, and nobody else. But Bob Evers was not a man, I was not sure that he was out of his teens, and to think of him was to think at once with Sir John Sankey and all the rest. Yes, yes, it would be madness and suicide in such a youth; there could be no two opinions about that; and yet I felt indignant at the mildest expression of that which I myself could not deny.
Such was my somewhat chaotic state of mind when I had fled the billiard-room in my turn, and put on my overcoat and cap to commune with myself outside. Nobody did justice to Mrs. Lascelles; it was terribly hard to do her justice; those were perhaps the ideas that were oftenest uppermost. I did not see how I was to be the exception and prove the rule; my brief was for Bob, and there was an end of it. It was foolish to worry, especially on such a night. The moon had waxed since my arrival, and now hung almost round and altogether dazzling in the little sky the mountains left us. Yet I had the terrace all to myself; the magnificent voice of our latest celebrity had drawn everybody else in doors, or under the open drawing-room windows through which it poured out into the glorious night. And in the vivid moonlight the very mountains seemed to have gathered about the little human hive upon their heights, to be listening to the grand rich notes that had some right to break their ancient silence.
"If doughty deeds my lady please, Right soon I'll mount my steed; And strong his arm, and fast his seat, That bears frae me the meed. I'll wear thy colours in my cap, Thy picture at my heart; And he that bends not to thine eye Shall rue it to his smart!"
It was a brave new setting to brave old lines, as simple and direct as themselves, studiously in keeping, passionate, virile, almost inspired; and the whole so justly given that the great notes did not drown the words as they often will, but all came clean to the ear. No wonder the hotel held its breath! I was standing entranced myself, an outpost of the audience underneath the windows, whose fringe I could just see round the uttermost angle of the hotel, when Bob Evers ran down the steps, and came toward me in such guise that I could not swear to him till the last yard.
"Don't say a word," he whispered excitedly. "I'm just off!"
"Off where?" I gasped, for he had changed into full mountaineering garb, and there was his greased face beaming in the moonlight, and the blue spectacles twinkling about his hat-band, at half-past nine at night.
"Up the Matterhorn!"
"At this time of night?"
"It is a bit late, and that's why I want it kept quiet. I don't want any fuss or advice. I've got a couple of excellent guides waiting for me just below by the shoemaker's hut. I told you I was on their tracks. Well, it was to-night or never as far as they were concerned, they are so tremendously full up. So to-night it is, and don't you remind me of my mother!"
I was thinking of her when he spoke; for the song had swung through a worthy refrain into another verse, and now I knew it better. It was Catherine who had introduced me to all my lyrics; it was to Catherine I had once hymned this one in my unformed heart.
"But I thought," said I, as I forced myself to think, "that everybody went up to the Cabane overnight, and started fresh from there in the morning?"
"Most people do, but it's as broad as it's long," declared Bob, airily, rapidly, and with the same unwonted excitement, born as I thought of his unwonted enterprise. "You have a ripping moonlight walk instead of a so-called night's rest in a frowsy hut. We shall get our breakfast there instead, and I expect to start fresher than if I had slept there and been knocked up at two o'clock in the morning. That's all settled, anyhow, and you can look for me on top through the telescope after breakfast. I shall be back before dark, and then--"
"Well, what then?" I asked, for Bob had made a significant and yet irresolute pause, as though he could not quite bring himself to tell me something that was on his mind.
"Well," he echoed nonchalantly at last, as though he had not hesitated at all, "as a matter of fact, to-morrow night I am to know my fate. I have asked Mrs. Lascelles to marry me, and she hasn't said no, but I am giving her till to-morrow night. That's all, Clephane. I thought it a fair thing to let you know. If you want to waltz in and try your luck while I'm gone, there's nothing on earth to prevent you, and it might be most satisfactory to everybody. As a matter of fact, I'm only going so as to get over the time and keep out of the way."
"As a matter of fact?" I queried, waving a little stick toward the lighted windows. "Listen a minute, and then tell me!"
And we listened together to the last and clearest rendering of the refrain--
"Then tell me how to woo thee, Love; O tell me how to woo thee! For thy dear sake, nae care I'll take, Tho' ne'er another trow me!"
"What tosh!" shouted Bob (his mother should have heard him) through the applause. "Of course I'm going to take care of myself, and of course I meant to rush the Matterhorn while I'm here, but between ourselves that's my only reason for rushing it to-night."
Yet had he no boyish vision of quick promotion in the lady's heart, no primitive desire to show his mettle out of hand, to set her trembling while he did or died? He had, I thought, and he had not; that shining face could only have reflected a single and candid heart. But it is these very natures, so simple and sweet-hearted and transparent, that are least to be trusted on the subject of their own motives and emotions, for they are the soonest deceived, not only by others but in themselves. Or so I venture to think, and even then reflected, as I shook my dear lad's hand by the side parapet of the moonlit terrace, and watched him run down into the shadows of the fir-trees and so out of my sight with two dark and stalwart figures that promptly detached themselves from the shadows of the shoemaker's hut. A third figure mounted to where I now sat listening to the easy, swinging, confident steps, as they fell fainter and fainter upon the ear; it was the shoemaker himself who had shod my two sticks with spikes and my boots with formidable nails; and we exchanged a few words in a mixture of languages which I should be very sorry to reproduce.
"Do you know those two guides?" is what I first asked in effect.
"Very well, monsieur."
"Are they good guides?"
"The very best, monsieur."