Frivolous Cupid by Anthony Hope
Chapter IV. A Repentant Sinner.
It was, I believe, mainly as a compliment to me that Miss Audrey Liston was asked to Poltons. Miss Liston and I were very good friends, and my cousin Dora Polton thought, as she informed me, that it would be nice for me to have someone I could talk to about "books and so on." I did not complain. Miss Liston was a pleasant young woman of six-and-twenty; I liked her very much except on paper, and I was aware that she made it a point of duty to read something at least of what I wrote. She was in the habit of describing herself as an "authoress in a small way." If it were pointed out that six three-volume novels in three years (the term of her literary activity, at the time of which I write) could hardly be called "a small way," she would smile modestly and say that it was not really much; and if she were told that the English language embraced no such word as "authoress," she would smile again and say that it ought to; a position toward the bugbear of correctness with which, I confess, I sympathize in some degree. She was very diligent; she worked from ten to one every day while she was at Poltons; how much she wrote is between her and her conscience.
There was another impeachment which Miss Liston was hardly at the trouble to deny. "Take my characters from life?" she would exclaim. "Surely every artist" (Miss Liston often referred to herself as an artist) "must?" And she would proceed to maintain--what is perhaps true sometimes--that people rather liked being put into books, just as they like being photographed, for all that they grumble and pretend to be afflicted when either process is levied against them. In discussing this matter with Miss Liston I felt myself on delicate ground, for it was notorious that I figured in her first book in the guise of a misogynistic genius; the fact that she lengthened (and thickened) my hair, converted it from an indeterminate brown to a dusky black, gave me a drooping mustache, and invested my very ordinary workaday eyes with a strange magnetic attraction, availed nothing; I was at once recognized; and, I may remark in passing, an uncommonly disagreeable fellow she made me. Thus I had passed through the fire. I felt tolerably sure that I presented no other aspect of interest, real or supposed, and I was quite content that Miss Liston should serve all the rest of her acquaintance as she had served me. I reckoned they would last her, at the present rate of production, about five years.
Fate was kind to Miss Liston, and provided her with most suitable patterns for her next piece of work at Poltons itself. There were a young man and a young woman staying in the house--Sir Gilbert Chillington and Miss Pamela Myles. The moment Miss Liston was apprized of a possible romance, she began the study of the protagonists. She was looking out, she told me, for some new types (if it were any consolation--and there is a sort of dignity about it--to be called a type, Miss Liston's victims were always welcome to so much), and she had found them in Chillington and Pamela. The former appeared to my dull eye to offer no salient novelty; he was tall, broad, handsome, and he possessed a manner of enviable placidity. Pamela, I allowed, was exactly the heroine Miss Liston loved--haughty, capricious, difficile, but sound and true at heart (I was mentally skimming Volume I). Miss Liston agreed with me in my conception of Pamela, but declared that I did not do justice to the artistic possibilities latent in Chillington; he had a curious attraction which it would tax her skill (so she gravely informed me) to the utmost to reproduce. She proposed that I also should make a study of him, and attributed my hurried refusal to a shrinking from the difficulties of the task.
"Of course," she observed, looking at our young friends, who were talking nonsense at the other side of the lawn, "they must have a misunderstanding."
"Why, of course," said I, lighting my pipe. "What should you say to another man?"
"Or another woman?" said Miss Liston.
"It comes to the same thing," said I. (About a volume and a half I meant.)
"But it's more interesting. Do you think she'd better be a married woman?" And Miss Liston looked at me inquiringly.
"The age prefers them married," I remarked.
This conversation happened on the second day of Miss Liston's visit, and she lost no time in beginning to study her subjects. Pamela, she said, she found pretty plain sailing, but Chillington continued to puzzle her. Again, she could not make up her mind whether to have a happy or a tragic ending. In the interests of a tenderhearted public, I pleaded for marriage bells.
"Yes, I think so," said Miss Liston, but she sighed, and I think she had an idea or two for a heart-broken separation, followed by mutual, lifelong, hopeless devotion.
The complexity of young Sir Gilbert did not, in Miss Liston's opinion, appear less on further acquaintance; and indeed, I must admit that she was not altogether wrong in considering him worthy of attention. As I came to know him better, I discerned in him a smothered self-appreciation, which came to light in response to the least tribute of interest or admiration, but was yet far remote from the aggressiveness of a commonplace vanity. In a moment of indiscretion I had chaffed him--he was very good- natured--on the risks he ran at Miss Liston's hands; he was not disgusted, but neither did he plume himself or spread his feathers. He received the suggestion without surprise, and without any attempt at disclaiming fitness for the purpose; but he received it as a matter which entailed a responsibility on him. I detected the conviction that, if the portrait was to be painted, it was due to the world that it should be well painted; the subject must give the artist full opportunities.
"What does she know about me?" he asked, in meditative tones.
"She's very quick; she'll soon pick up as much as she wants," I assured him.
"She'll probably go all wrong," he said somberly; and of course I could not tell him that it was of no consequence if she did. He would not have believed me, and would have done precisely what he proceeded to do, and that was to afford Miss Liston every chance of appraising his character and plumbing the depths of his soul. I may say at once that I did not regret this course of action; for the effect of it was to allow me a chance of talking to Pamela Myles, and Pamela was exactly the sort of girl to beguile the long, pleasant morning hours of a holiday in the country. No one had told Pamela that she was going to be put in a book, and I don't think it would have made any difference had she been told. Pamela's attitude toward books was one of healthy scorn, confidently based on admitted ignorance. So we never spoke of them, and my cousin Dora condoled with me more than once on the way in which Miss Liston, false to the implied terms of her invitation, deserted me in favor of Sir Gilbert, and left me to the mercies of a frivolous girl. Pamela appeared to be as little aggrieved as I was. I imagined that she supposed that Chillington would ask her to marry him some day, before very long, and I was sure she would accept him; but it was quite plain that, if Miss Liston persisted in making Pamela her heroine, she would have to supply from her own resources a large supplement of passion. Pamela was far too deficient in the commodity to be made anything of without such re-enforcement, even by an art more adept at making much out of nothing than Miss Liston's straightforward method could claim to be.
A week passed, and then, one Friday morning, a new light burst on me. Miss Liston came into the garden at eleven o'clock and sat down by me on the lawn. Chillington and Pamela had gone riding with the squire, Dora was visiting the poor. We were alone. The appearance of Miss Liston at this hour (usually sacred to the use of the pen), no less than her puzzled look, told me that an obstruction had occurred in the novel. Presently she let me know what it was.
"I'm thinking of altering the scheme of my story, Mr. Wynne," said she. "Have you ever noticed how sometimes a man thinks he's in love when he isn't really?"
"Such a case sometimes occurs," I acknowledged.
"Yes, and he doesn't find out his mistake----"
"Till they're married?"
"Sometimes, yes," she said, rather as though she were making an unwilling admission. "But sometimes he sees it before--when he meets somebody else."
"Very true," said I, with a grave nod.
"The false can't stand against the real," pursued Miss Liston; and then she fell into meditative silence. I stole a glance at her face; she was smiling. Was it in the pleasure of literary creation--an artistic ecstasy? I should have liked to answer yes, but I doubted it very much. Without pretending to Miss Liston's powers, I have the little subtlety that is needful to show me that more than one kind of smile may be seen on the human face, and that there is one very different from others; and, finally, that that one is not evoked, as a rule, merely by the evolution of the troublesome encumbrance in pretty writing vulgarly called a "plot."
"If," pursued Miss Liston, "someone comes who can appreciate him and draw out what is best in him----"
"That's all very well," said I, "but what of the first girl?"
"Oh, she's--she can be made shallow, you know; and I can put in a man for her. People needn't be much interested in her."
"Yes, you could manage it that way," said I, thinking how Pamela--I took the liberty of using her name for the shallow girl--would like such treatment.
"She will really be valuable mainly as a foil," observed Miss Liston; and she added generously, "I shall make her nice, you know, but shallow--not worthy of him."
"And what are you going to make the other girl like?" I asked.
Miss Liston started slightly; also she colored very slightly, and she answered, looking away from me across the lawn:
"I haven't quite made up my mind yet, Mr. Wynne."
With the suspicion which this conversation aroused fresh in my mind, it was curious to hear Pamela laugh, as she said to me on the afternoon of the same day:
"Aren't Sir Gilbert and Audrey Liston funny? I tell you what, Mr. Wynne, I believe they're writing a novel together."
"Perhaps Chillington's giving her the materials for one," I suggested.
"I shouldn't think," observed Pamela in her dispassionate way, "that anything very interesting had ever happened to him."
"I thought you liked him," I remarked humbly.
"So I do. What's that got to do with it?" asked Pamela.
It was beyond question that Chillington enjoyed Miss Liston's society; the interest she showed in him was incense to his nostrils. I used to overhear fragments of his ideas about himself which he was revealing in answer to her tactful inquiries. But neither was it doubtful that he had by no means lost his relish for Pamela's lighter talk; in fact, he seemed to turn to her with some relief--perhaps it is refreshing to escape from self-analysis, even when the process is conducted in the pleasantest possible manner--and the hours which Miss Liston gave to work were devoted by Chillington to maintaining his cordial relations with the lady whose comfortable and not over- tragical disposal was taxing Miss Liston's skill. For she had definitely decided all her plot--she told me so a few days later.
It was all planned out; nay, the scene in which the truth as to his own feelings bursts on Sir Gilbert (I forget at the moment what name the novel gave him) was, I understood, actually written; the shallow girl was to experience nothing worse than a wound to her vanity, and was to turn, with as much alacrity as decency allowed, to the substitute whom Miss Liston had now provided. All this was poured into my sympathetic ear, and I say sympathetic in all sincerity; for, although I may occasionally treat Miss Liston's literary efforts with less than proper respect, she herself was my friend, and the conviction under which she was now living would, I knew, unless it were justified, bring her into much of that unhappiness in which one generally found her heroine plunged about the end of Volume II. The heroine generally got out all right, and the knowledge that she would enabled the reader to preserve cheerfulness. But would poor little Miss Liston get out? I was none too sure of it.
Suddenly a change came in the state of affairs. Pamela produced it. It must have struck her that the increasing intimacy of Miss Liston and Chillington might become something other than "funny."
To put it briefly and metaphorically, she whistled her dog back to her heels. I am not skilled in understanding or describing the artifices of ladies; but even I saw the transformation in Pamela. She put forth her strength and put on her prettiest gowns; she refused to take her place in the sea-saw of society which Chillington had recently established for his pleasure. If he spent an hour with Miss Liston, Pamela would have nothing of him for a day; she met his attentions with scorn unless they were undivided. Chillington seemed at first puzzled; I believe that he never regarded his talks with Miss Liston in other than a business point of view, but directly he understood that Pamela claimed him, and that she was prepared, in case he did not obey her call, to establish a grievance against him, he lost no time in manifesting his obedience. A whole day passed in which, to my certain knowledge, he was not alone a moment with Miss Liston, and did not, save at the family meals, exchange a word with her. As he walked off with Pamela, Miss Liston's eyes followed him in wistful longing; she stole away upstairs and did not come down till five o'clock. Then, finding me strolling about with a cigarette, she joined me.
"Well, how goes the book?" I asked.
"I haven't done much to it just lately," she answered, in a low voice. "I--it's--I don't quite know what to do with it."
"I thought you'd settled?"
"So I had, but--oh, don't let's talk about it, Mr. Wynne!"
But a moment later she went on talking about it.
"I don't know why I should make it end happily," she said. "I'm sure life isn't always happy, is it?"
"Certainly not," I answered. "You mean your man might stick to the shallow girl after all?"
"Yes," I just heard her whisper.
"And be miserable afterward?" I pursued.
"I don't know," said Miss Liston. "Perhaps he wouldn't."
"Then you must make him shallow himself."
"I can't do that," she said quickly. "Oh, how difficult it is!"
She may have meant merely the art of writing--when I cordially agree with--but I think she meant also the way of the world-- which does not make me withdraw my assent. I left her walking up and down in front of the drawing-room windows, a rather forlorn little figure, thrown into distinctness by the cold rays of the setting sun.
All was not over yet. That evening Chillington broke away. Led by vanity, or interest, or friendliness, I know not which--tired may be of paying court (the attitude in which Pamela kept him), and thinking it would be pleasant to play the other part for a while--after dinner he went straight to Miss Liston, talked to her while we had coffee on the terrace, and then walked about with her. Pamela sat by me; she was very silent; she did not appear to be angry, but her handsome mouth wore a resolute expression. Chillington and Miss Liston wandered on into the shrubbery, and did not come into sight again for nearly half an hour.
"I think it's cold," said Pamela, in her cool, quiet tones. "And it's also, Mr. Wynne, rather slow. I shall go to bed."
I thought it a little impertinent of Pamela to attribute the "slowness" (which had undoubtedly existed) to me, so I took my revenge by saying with an assumption of innocence purposely and obviously unreal:
"Oh, but won't you wait and bid Miss Liston and Chillington goodnight?"
Pamela looked at me for a moment. I made bold to smile.
Pamela's face broke slowly into an answering smile.
"I don't know what you mean, Mr. Wynne," said she.
"No?" said I.
"No," said Pamela, and she turned away. But before she went she looked over her shoulder, and still smiling, said, "Wish Miss Liston good-night for me, Mr. Wynne. Anything I have to say to Sir Gilbert will wait very well till to-morrow."
She had hardly gone in when the wanderers came out of the shrubbery and rejoined me. Chillington wore his usual passive look, but Miss Liston's face was happy and radiant. Chillington passed on into the drawing room. Miss Liston lingered a moment by me.
"Why, you look," said I, "as if you'd invented the finest scene ever written."
She did not answer me directly, but stood looking up at the stars. Then she said, in a dreamy tone:
"I think I shall stick to my old idea in the book."
As she spoke, Chillington came out. Even in the dim light I saw a frown on his face.
"I say, Wynne," said he, "where's Miss Myles?"
"She's gone to bed," I answered. "She told me to wish you good night for her, Miss Liston. No message for you, Chillington."
Miss Liston's eyes were on him. He took no notice of her; he stood frowning for an instant, then, with some muttered ejaculation, he strode back into the house. We heard his heavy tread across the drawing room; we heard the door slammed behind him, and I found myself looking on Miss Liston's altered face.
"What does he want her for, I wonder!" she said, in an agitation that made my presence, my thoughts, my suspicions, nothing to her. "He said nothing to me about wanting to speak to her to- night." And she walked slowly into the house, her eyes on the ground, and all the light gone from her face, and the joy dead in it. Whereupon I, left alone, began to rail at the gods that a dear, silly little soul like Miss Liston should bother her poor, silly little head about a hulking fool; in which reflections I did, of course, immense injustice not only to an eminent author, but also to a perfectly honorable, though somewhat dense and decidedly conceited, gentleman.
The next morning Sir Gilbert Chillington ate dirt--there is no other way of expressing it--in great quantities and with infinite humility.
My admirable friend Miss Pamela was severe. I saw him walk six yards behind her for the length of the terrace: not a look nor a turn of her head gave him leave to join her. Miss Liston had gone upstairs, and I watched the scene from the window of the smoking room. At last, at the end of the long walk, just where the laurel-bushes mark the beginning of the shrubberies--on the threshold of the scene of his crime--Pamela turned round suddenly and faced the repentant sinner. The most interesting things in life are those which, perhaps by the inevitable nature of the case, one does not hear; and I did not hear the scene which followed. For a while they stood talking--rather, he talked and she listened. Then she turned again and walked slowly into the shrubbery. Chillington followed. It was the end of a chapter, and I laid down the book.
How and from whom Miss Liston heard the news which Chillington himself told me, without a glimmer of shame or a touch of embarrassment, some two hours later, I do not know; but hear it she did before luncheon; for she came down, ready armed with the neatest little speeches for both the happy lovers.
I did not expect Pamela to show an ounce more feeling than the strictest canons of propriety demanded, and she fulfilled my expectations to the letter; but I had hoped, I confess, that Chillington would have displayed some little consciousness. He did not; and it is my belief that, throughout the events which I have recorded, he retained, and that he still retains, the conviction that Miss Liston's interest in him was purely literary and artistic, and that she devoted herself to his society simply because he offered an interesting problem and an inspiring theme.
An ingenious charity may find in that attitude evidence of modesty; to my thinking, it argues a more subtle and magnificent conceit than if he had fathomed the truth, as many humbler men in his place would have done.
On the day after the engagement was accomplished Miss Liston left us to return to London. She came out in her hat and jacket and sat down by me; the carriage was to be round in ten minutes. She put on her gloves slowly and buttoned them carefully. This done, she said:
"By the way, Mr. Wynne, I've adopted your suggestion. The man doesn't find out."
"Then you've made him a fool?" I asked bluntly.
"No," she answered. "I--I think it might happen though he wasn't a fool."
She sat with her hands in her lap for a moment or two, then she went on, in a lower voice:
"I'm going to make him find out afterward."
I felt her glance on me, but I looked straight in front of me.
"What, after he's married the shallow girl?"
"Yes," said Miss Liston.
"Rather too late, isn't it? At least, if you mean there is to be a happy ending."
Miss Liston enlaced her fingers.
"I haven't decided about the ending yet," said she.
"If you're intent to be tragical--which is the fashion--you'll do as you stand," said I.
"Yes," she answered slowly, "if I'm tragical, I shall do as I stand."
There was another pause, and rather a long one; the wheels of the carriage were audible on the gravel of the front drive. Miss Liston stood up. I rose and held out my hand.
"Of course," said Miss Liston, still intent on her novel, "I could----" She stopped again, and looked apprehensively at me. My face, I believe, expressed nothing more than polite attention and friendly interest.
"Of course," she began again, "the shallow girl--his wife-- might--might die, Mr. Wynne."
"In novels," said I with a smile, "while there's death, there's hope."
"Yes, in novels," she answered, giving me her hand.
The poor little woman was very unhappy. Unwisely, I dare say, I pressed her hand. It was enough, the tears leaped to her eyes; she gave my great fist a hurried squeeze--I have seldom been more touched by any thanks, how ever warm or eloquent--and hurried away.