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I hope I have not conveyed to the reader the idea that our hero is frivolous. On the contrary, he was considered a very brilliant young man, and he could command the respect of his elders when he chose. But, partly owing to his wealth and independent condition, partly to the fact that the world had done its best to spoil him, he had led a very aimless existence. He was by no means satisfied with his life, however; he was far too clever for that; and he had spent a good deal of time, first and last, reviling Fate for not having endowed him with some talent upon which he could concentrate his energies, and with which attain distinction and find balm for his ennui. His grandmother had cherished the conviction that he was an undeveloped genius; but in regard to what particular field his genius was to enrich, she had never clearly expressed herself, and his own consciousness had not been more explicit. He had long ago made up his mind, indeed, that his grandmother's convictions had been the fond delusions of a doting parent, and that the sooner he unburdened himself of that particular legacy the better. The unburdening, however, had been accomplished with a good deal of bitterness, for he was very ambitious and very proud, and to be obliged to digest the fact that he was but a type of the great majority was distinctly galling. True, politics were left. His father, one of the most distinguished of England's statesmen, and a member of the present cabinet, would have been delighted to assist his career; but Harold disliked politics. With the exception of his passing interest in the Russian socialists--an interest springing from his adventurous nature--he had never troubled himself about any party, faction, or policy, home or foreign. He would like to write a great poem, but he had never felt a second's inspiration, and had never wasted time in the endeavor to force it. Failing that, he would like to write a novel; but, fluently and even brilliantly as he sometimes talked, his pen was not ready, and he was conscious of a conspicuous lack of imagination. To be sure, one does not need much in these days of realistic fervor; it is considered rather a coarse and old-fashioned article; but that one needs some sort of a plot is indisputable, and Dartmouth's brain had consistently refused to evolve one. Doubtless he could cultivate the mere habit of writing, and achieve reputation as an essayist. His critical faculty was pronounced, and he had carefully developed it; and it was possible that when the world had completely palled upon him, he would shut himself up at Crumford Hall and give the public the benefit of his accumulated opinions, abstract and biographical. But he was not ready for that yet; he needed several years more of experience, observation, and assiduous cultivation of the habit of analysis; and in the meantime he was in a condition of cold disgust with himself and with Fate. It may also have been gathered that Mr. Dartmouth was a young man of decidedly reckless proclivities. It is quite true that he never troubled himself about any question of morals or social ethics; he simply calculated the mathematical amount of happiness possible to the individual. That was all there was in life. Had he lived a generation or two earlier, he would have pursued his way along the paths of the prohibited without introspective analysis; but being the intellectual young man of the latter decades of the 19th century, it amused him to season his defiance of certain conventional codes with the salt of philosophy.
Miss Penrhyn reached the Legation a few moments after Dartmouth's arrival, and he watched her as she entered the ballroom. She wore a simple white gown, embroidered about the corsage with silver crescents; and her richly-tinted brown hair was coiled about her head and held in place by a crescent-shaped comb. She was a tall, slim, shapely girl, with an extreme grace of carriage and motion, and a neck and arms whose clear olive was brought out with admirable effect by the dead white of her gown. Her face, somewhat listless and preoccupied as she entered, quickly brightened into animation as a number of men at once surrounded her. Dartmouth continued to watch her for a few moments, and concluded that he would like to know her, even if she were a girl and an ingenue. She was fascinating, apart from her beauty; she looked different from other women, and that was quite enough to command his interest. It would be too much trouble to struggle for an introduction at present, however, and he allowed himself to be taken possession of by his cousin, Margaret Talbot, who, with the easy skill of a spoiled beauty, dismissed several other cavaliers upon his approach. They wandered about for a time, and finally entered a tiny boudoir fitted up to represent a bird's nest in tufted blue satin, with an infinite number of teacups so arranged as to be cunningly suggestive of eggs whose parents had been addicted to Decorative Art.
"What do you think of the new beauty?" demanded Mrs. Talbot, as they established themselves upon an extremely uncomfortable little sofa upheld between the outstretched wings of the parent bird, which was much too large for the eggs.
"She does very well," replied Harold, who was wise in his generation.
Mrs. Talbot put her handkerchief suddenly to her face and burst into tears. Dartmouth turned pale.
"What is it, Margaret?" he said. "Do not cry here; people will notice, and make remarks."
She made no reply, and he got up and moved restlessly about the room; then returning he stood looking moodily down upon her.
Some years before, just about the time he was emerging from knickerbockers, he had been madly in love with this golden-haired, hazel-eyed cousin of his, and the lady, who had the advantage of him in years, being unresponsive, he had haunted a very large and very deep ornamental pond in his grandmother's park for several weeks with considerable persistency. Had the disease attacked him in summer it is quite probable that this story would never have been written, for his nature was essentially a high-strung and tragic one; but fortunately he met his beautiful cousin in mid-winter, and 'tis a despairing lover indeed who breaks the ice. Near as their relationship was, he had not met her again until the present winter, and then he had found that years had lent her additional fascination. She was extremely unhappy in her domestic life, and naturally she gave him her confidence and awoke that sentiment which is so fatally akin to another and sometimes more disastrous one.
Dartmouth loved her with that love which a man gives to so many women before the day comes wherein he recognizes the spurious metal from the real. It was not, as in its first stage, the mad, unreasoning fancy of an unfledged boy, but that sentiment, half sympathy, half passion, which a woman may inspire who is not strong enough to call out the highest and best that lies hidden in a man's nature. This feeling for his cousin, if not the supremest that a woman can command, bore one characteristic which distinguished it from any of his previous passions. For the first time in his life he had resisted a temptation--principally because she was his cousin. With the instinct of his caste he acknowledged the obligation to avert dishonor in his own family where he could. And, aside from family pride, he had a strong personal regard for his cousin which was quite independent of that sentiment which, for want of a better name, he called love. She was young, she was lonely, she was unhappy, and his calmer affection prompted him to protect her from himself, and not, after a brief period of doubtful happiness, to leave her to a lifetime of tormenting memories and regrets. She loved him, of course; and reckless with the knowledge of her ruined life, her hopeless future, and above all the certainty that youth and its delicious opportunities were slipping fast, she would doubtless have gone the way of most women under similar circumstances, had not Harold, for once in his life, been strong. Perhaps, if he had really loved her, he would not have been so self-sacrificing.
After her paroxysm of tears had partly subsided, he took her hand. "What is the matter?" he asked, kindly. "Is there any more trouble?"
"It is the same," she said. "You know how unhappy I am; it was foolish of me to break down here, but I could not help it. Besides, there is another thing--I wish you would go away."
He walked to the end of the room, then returned and bent over her, placing his hand on the back of the sofa. "Very well," he said, "I will go. I should have gone before. I would have done so, but I hated to leave you alone."
He lifted her face and kissed her. She laid her head against his shoulder, then she suddenly pushed him from her with a low cry, and Dartmouth, following her gaze, turned his head in time to meet the scornful eyes of Miss Penrhyn as she dropped the portiere from her hand. Dartmouth kicked aside a footstool with an exclamation of anger. He was acutely conscious of having been caught in a ridiculous position, and moreover, he would not be the chief sufferer.
"Oh, Harold! Harold!" gasped Margaret, "I am ruined. You know what women are. By this time to-morrow that girl will have told the story all over Paris."
The words made Dartmouth forget his personal annoyance for the moment. "Do not cry any more," he said, kindly; "I am awfully sorry, but I will see what I can do. I will make a point of meeting the girl, and I will see that--do not worry. I will go at once, and you had better remain here for the present. There is no danger of anyone intruding upon you: this room was never intended for three." He paused a moment. "Good-bye, Margaret!" he said.
She started sharply, but rose to her feet and put out her hand: "Good-bye," she said.
He lifted her hand to his lips, then the portiere fell behind him and she was alone.
He went directly to the ball-room and asked Hollington to present him to Miss Penrhyn. She was standing with her back to him and did not notice his approach, and his name was pronounced while her eyes were still on the face of the man to whom she was talking. She gave him a glance of swift scorn, bent her head haughtily, and all but turned her back upon him. But Dartmouth, indolent and lazy as he was, was not the man to be lightly disposed of when once roused to action.
"Bolton," he said, to her companion, "they are waiting for you in the billiard-room; you have an engagement to play a game with our host at twelve. It is now exactly the hour. I will take charge of Miss Penrhyn;" and before the bewildered Bolton could protest, or Miss Penrhyn realize his purpose, he had drawn the girl's arm through his own and was half-way down the room.
"Where have I met you before?" he demanded, when they were safely lost in the crowd. "Surely, we are not altogether strangers."
"I do not know," haughtily; "I have never met you before that I am aware of."
"It is strange, but I cannot get rid of the idea that I have seen you elsewhere," continued Dartmouth, unmoved. "And yet, if I had, I most assuredly could not have forgotten it."
"You are flattering, but I must ask you to excuse me. I am engaged for the next dance, and I see my partner looking for me."
"Indeed, I shall do nothing of the kind. I have no idea of resigning you so lightly." And he calmly led her into a small withdrawing-room and seated her behind a protecting screen. He took the chair beside her and smiled down into her angry face. Her eyes, which had a peculiar yellow flame in them, now within, now just without the iris, as if from a tiny lantern hidden in their depths, were blazing.
"Well?" he said, calmly; "of what are you thinking?"
"That you are the rudest and the most impertinent man I have ever met," she replied, hotly.
"You are unkind; I have been unfortunate enough to incur your disapproval, but you judge me cruelly. I am undoubtedly a very reprehensible character, Miss Penrhyn, but I don't think that I am worse than most men." He recognized at once that it would be folly to tell the usual lie: she would simply laugh in his face. He must accept the situation, plead guilty and make a skilful defense. Later, when he had established himself in her confidence, he would exonerate his cousin.
Miss Penrhyn's lip curled disdainfully. "I am not aware that I have asked you to justify yourself," she said. "It is of no possible interest to me whether you are better or worse than most men. It is quite possible, however," she added, hastily and unwillingly, "that in this case, as in others, there may be the relief of an exception to prove the rule."
Dartmouth saw his advantage at once. She was not merely disgusted; she was angry; and in her anger she forgot herself and condescended to sarcasm. There was one barrier the less to be broken down. "We are a bad lot, I am afraid, Miss Penrhyn," he replied, quietly; "but keep your illusions while you can. You are happier for them, and I would be the last to dispel them."
"You are considerate," she retorted: "it is more than possible you will not dispel my illusions; there will not be--"
"You mean to imply, delicately," he interrupted her, "that you do not consider me worthy of being added to the list of your acquaintances?"
"I really have given the matter no thought, and I do not see what advantage either side could derive from further acquaintance." But she colored slightly as she spoke, and turned to him an angrily severe profile.
"Don't you think," he said--and his calm, drawling tone formed a contrast to her own lack of control which she could not fail to appreciate--"don't you think that you judge me with exaggerated harshness? Do you think the life of any one of these men who have surrounded you to-night, and upon whom you certainly did not frown, would bear inspection? It would almost appear as if I had personally incurred your displeasure, you are so very hard upon me. You forget that my offense could not have any individual application for you. Had I known you, you might reasonably have been indignant had I gone from you, a young girl, to things which you held to be wrong. But I did not know you; you must remember that. And as for the wrong itself, I hope the knowledge of greater wrong may never come to you. When you have lived in the world a few years longer, I am very much afraid you will look upon such things with an only too careless eye."
The cruel allusion to her youth told, and the girl's cheek flushed, as she threw back her head with a spirited movement which delighted Dartmouth, while the lanterns in her eyes leaped up afresh. Where had he seen those eyes before?
"I don't know what your ideas of honor may be in regard to the young ladies of your acquaintance," she said, with an additional dash of ice in her voice, "but it seems to me a peculiar kind of honor which allows a man to insult his hostess by making love to a married woman in her house."
"Pret-ty good for a baby!" thought Dartmouth. "She could not have done that better if she had been brought up Lady Langdon's daughter, instead of having been under that general's tuition, and emancipated from a life of seclusion, just about six months. Decidedly, she is worth cultivating." He looked at her reflectively. That he was in utter disgrace admitted of not a doubt. Women found little fault with him, as a rule. They had shown themselves willing, with an aptitude which savored of monotony, to take him on any terms; and to be sat in judgment upon by a penniless girl with the face and air of an angry goddess, had a flavor of novelty about it decidedly thrilling. He determined to conquer or die. Clever as she was, she was still absolutely a child, and no match for him. He placed his elbow on his knee and leaned his head on his hand.
"Your rebuke is a very just one," he said, sadly. "And I have only the poor excuse to offer that in this wicked world of ours we grow very callous, and forget those old codes of honor which men were once so strict about, no matter what the irregularities of their lives might be. I am afraid it is quite true that I am not fit to touch your hand; and indeed," he added hastily, "it is a miserable business all round, and God knows there is little enough in it."
She turned and regarded him with something less of anger, something more of interest, in her eyes.
"Then why do not you reform?" she asked, in a matter-of fact tone. "Why do you remain so bad, if you regret it?"
"There is nothing else to do," gloomily "Life is such a wretched bore that the only thing to do is to seize what little spice there is in it, and the spice, alas! will never bear analysis."
"Are you unhappy?" she demanded. Her eyes were still disapproving, but her voice was a shade less cold.
He smiled, but at the same time he felt a little ashamed of himself, the weapons were so trite, and it was so easy to manage an unworldly-wise and romantic girl. There was nothing to do but go on, however. "No, I am not unhappy, Miss Penrhyn," he said; "that is, not unhappy in the sense you would mean. I am only tired of life. That is all--but it is enough."
"But you are very young," she said, innocently. "You cannot yet be thirty."
He laughed shortly. "I am twenty-eight, Miss Penrhyn--and I am--forty five. You cannot understand, and it is well you should not. But this much I can tell you. I was born with a wretched load of ennui on my spirits, and all things pall after a brief experience. It has been so since the first hour I can remember. My grandmother used to tell me that I should wake up some day and find myself a genius, that I rejoiced in several pointed indications toward that desirable end; that I had only to wait, and ample compensation for the boredom of life would come But, alas! I am twenty-eight, and there are no signs of genius yet. I am merely a commonplace young man pursuing the most commonplace of lives--but I am not going to bore you by talking about myself any longer. I never do. I do not know why I do so to-night. But there is something about you which is strangely sympathetic, in spite of your"--he hesitated--"your unkindness."
She had kept her eyes implacably on the opposite wall, but when he finished she turned to him suddenly, and he saw that her face had perceptibly relaxed.
"You impress me very strangely," she said, abruptly. "I am willing to tell you that frankly, and I hardly understand it. You are doubtless correct when you say I have no right to be angry with you, and I suppose it is also true that you are no worse than other men. When I pushed aside that portiere to-night I felt an unreasoning anger which it would be hard to account for. Had it been Lord Bective Hollington or Mr. Bolton I--I should not have cared. I should not have been angry, I am sure of it. And yet I never saw you before to-day, and had no possible interest in you. I do not understand it. I hardly know whether I like you very much or hate you very much."
He bent his head and looked down sharply into her eyes. He was so used to the coquetry and finesse of women! Was she like the rest? But the eyes she had turned to him were sincere to disquiet, and there was not a suggestion of coquetry about her.
"Do not hate me," he said, softly, "for I would give more for your good opinion than for that of any woman I know. No, I do not mean that for idle flattery. You may not realize it, but you are very different from other women--Oh, bother!"--this last under his breath, as their retreat was invaded by two indignant young men who insisted upon the lawful rights of which Dartmouth had so unblushingly deprived them. There was nothing to do but resign himself to his fate.
Knowing that a second uninterrupted conversation would be impossible with her that night, he left the house shortly after, not, however, before a parting word had assured him that though she still might disapprove, he would have many future opportunities to plead his cause, and, furthermore, that she would not risk the loss of his admiration by relating what she had seen. When he reached his apartment he exchanged his coat for a smoking-jacket, lit a cigar, and throwing himself down on a sofa, gave himself up to thoughts of Miss Penrhyn.
"A strange creature," he mentally announced. "If one can put one's trust in physiognomy, I should say she had about ten times more in her than dwells in ordinary women. She has no suspicion of it herself, however; she will make that discovery later on. I should like to have the power to render myself invisible; but no, I beg pardon, I should like to be present in astral body when her nature awakens. I have always wanted to study the successive psychological evolutions of a woman in love. Not of the ordinary compound of the domestic and the fashionable; there is nothing exciting in that; and besides, our realistic novelists have rendered such researches on my part superfluous; but of a type, small, but each member of which is built up of infinite complexities--like this girl. The nature would awaken with a sudden, mighty shock, not creep toward the light with slow, well-regulated steps--but, bah! what is the use of indulging in boneless imaginings? One can never tell what a woman of that sort will think and feel, until her experience has been a part of his own. And there is no possibility of my falling in love with her, even did I wish it, which I certainly do not. The man who fascinates is not the man who loves. Pardon my modesty, most charming of grandmothers, if your soul really lurks behind that wonderful likeness of yours, as I sometimes think it does, but a man cannot have the double power of making many others feel and of feeling himself. At least, so it seems to me. Love lightly roused is held as lightly, and one loses one's respect for even the passion in the abstract. Of what value can a thing be which springs into life for a trick of manner, an atom or two more of that negative quality called personal magnetism, while wiser and better men pass by unnoticed? One naturally asks, What is love? A spiritual enthusiasm which a cold-blooded analyst would call sentimentality, or its correlative, a fever of the senses? Neither is a very exalted set of conditions. I have been through both more than once, and if my attacks have been light, I have been the better enabled to study my fair inspiration. I never discovered that she felt more deeply; simply more strongly, more tempestuously, after the nature of women. Her feelings were not more complex, they were merely more strongly accentuated. A woman in love imagines that she is the pivot on which the world revolves. A general may immortalize himself, an emperor be assassinated and his empire plunged into a French Revolution, and her passing interest is not roused; nor is she unapt to wonder how others can be interested in matters so purely impersonal. She thinks she loves as no woman ever loved before, and sometimes she succeeds in making the man think so too. But when a man has gone through this sort of thing a couple of dozen times, he becomes impressed with the monotony, the shallowness, and the racial resemblance, so to speak, of the divine passion; and his own capacity for indulging in it diminishes in proportion. If Miss Penrhyn is capable of anything wider and deeper and higher than her average sister, I have met her too late to be inspired with anything beyond passing curiosity. In fact, I doubt if I could be capable of so much as indulging in the surmise had I never known my grandmother. There was a woman unique in her generation. So strong was her individuality that I was forced to appreciate it, even in the days when I used to make her life a burden by planting her silver spoons in the rose-garden and re-setting her favorite cuttings wrong side up. I wish she had lived longer; it would have been both a pleasure and a profit to have studied and analyzed her. And how I should like to know her history! That she had one there is no doubt. The lines of repression in her face were the strongest I have ever seen, to say nothing of the night I found her standing over the Byzantine chest with her hands full of yellow papers. There were no lines of repression in her face just then; she looked fairly murderous. She did not see me, and I left with a brevity worthy of its cause. I should like to know who wrote those letters. I looked for them after her death, but she had either destroyed them or else that old Byzantine chest has a secret drawer. If it has I'll discover it some day when time hangs heavily.
"No," he continued, settling himself down more comfortably among his pillows, and tossing the end of his cigar into the grate, "I shall marry some day, undoubtedly, but I must find a woman with the brains and charm of my grandmother. This girl, they say, is brilliant, and certainly she cut me up sharply enough to-night; but she would be altogether too much to handle for a lifetime. It would be very pleasant for a time, but a deuced bore later on. What a beauty she is, though! I cannot get her out of my mind. She has been posing before my mental vision all the time I have been trying to think about something else. Those eyes--gods! And what a figure! What--"
With a nervous, precipitate motion, he rose to his feet and drew in his breath, as if to throw a sudden load from his chest. He stood irresolute for a moment, then revolving slowly on his heel, walked, as if independently of his own volition, over to his desk. He felt very strangely; he did not remember to have ever felt so strangely before. His head had become suddenly confused, but at the same time he was aware that his brain had thrown open its doors to a new arrival, and that the visitor was trying to make itself heard. It appeared to be a visitor of great importance, and Dartmouth was conscious that it had presented itself to his perceptions in the form of an extraordinarily strong impulse, a great and clamorous Desire. He had been aware of the same desire before, but only in an abstract way, a general purposeless longing; but now this peremptory, loudly-knocking consciousness was vaguely suggesting another--just behind. It would almost seem, if it were not too preposterous a supposition, as if that second struggling consciousness were trying to announce itself under the high-sounding title of--what? He could not formulate it. If his brain were only not so confused! What could so suddenly have affected him? He was always so clear-headed and logical. Was he going to be ill? When he reached his desk he sat down before it and mechanically took up his pen. He leaned his head on his hand, like a man in a state of mental exhaustion, and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he opened them wide, with an exclamation which was almost a cry; and of his usual calm repose there was not a trace remaining. He leaned forward breathlessly and put his pen to the paper. "Her eyes! Her skin! Her form!" he muttered uncertainly. "Her--her--her--Oh! what is it? Why cannot I say it? It has come at last--she was right after all--but the words--the words--why will not they come? The music is there--a great rhythm and harmony--but the words are floating about like wraiths of mist. If I could only grasp and crystallize them, and set them to that wonderful music, the world--the world would rise at last and call me great! Her eyes--her hair--oh, my God, what is it?" He threw down his pen and staggered to his feet. His face was blanched and drawn, and his eyes had lost their steady light. He grasped the chair to save himself from falling; he had lost over himself both physical and mental control. It seemed to him that two beings, two distinct entities, were at war within his brain--that new, glorious consciousness, and a tangible power above, which forced it down with an iron hand--down--down--into the depths of his mind, where its cries for speech came up in faint, inarticulate murmurs. And it tried and tried, that strange new thing, to struggle from its dungeon and reach the wide, free halls of his thought, but it could not; it beat against that unrelaxing iron hand only to fall back again and again. And it sang and sang and sang, in spite of its struggles and captivity. The faint, sweet echo came up--if he could but catch the words! If he could but dash aside that iron hand, and let his brain absorb them! Surely a word or two must force their way--yes! yes! they had come! "Her face! her form!"--He tore open his waistcoat; his lungs felt as if they had been exhausted. Then, how he never knew, he managed to reach his sofa, and fell face downward upon it; and the next morning, when his valet came in and drew aside the curtains and let in the light of mid-day, he found him there as he had fallen.
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