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It appeared that Armour had made the great mistake of his life. When people came to know, they said that to have done it when sober had shown him possessed of a kind of maliciousness and cynicism almost pardonable, but to do it when tipsy proved him merely weak and foolish. But the fact is, he was less tipsy at the time than was imagined; and he could have answered to more malice and cynicism than was credited to him. To those who know the world it is not singular that, of the two, Armour was thought to have made the mistake and had the misfortune, or that people wasted their pity and their scorn upon him alone. Apparently they did not see that the woman was to be pitied. He had married her; and she was only an Indian girl from Fort Charles of the Hudson's Bay Company, with a little honest white blood in her veins. Nobody, not even her own people, felt that she had anything at stake, or was in danger of unhappiness, or was other than a person who had ludicrously come to bear the name of Mrs. Francis Armour. If any one had said in justification that she loved the man, the answer would have been that plenty of Indian women had loved white men, but had not married them, and yet the population of half- breeds went on increasing.
Frank Armour had been a popular man in London. His club might be found in the vicinity of Pall Mall, his father's name was high and honoured in the Army List, one of his brothers had served with Wolseley in Africa, and Frank himself, having no profession, but with a taste for business and investment, had gone to Canada with some such intention as Lord Selkirk's in the early part of the century. He owned large shares in the Hudson's Bay Company, and when he travelled through the North-West country, prospecting, he was received most hospitably. Of an inquiring and gregarious nature he went as much among the half-breeds--or 'metis', as they are called--and Indians as among the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company and the white settlers. He had ever been credited with having a philosophical turn of mind; and this was accompanied by a certain strain of impulsiveness or daring. He had been accustomed all his life to make up his mind quickly and, because he was well enough off to bear the consequences of momentary rashness in commercial investments, he was not counted among the transgressors. He had his own fortune; he was not drawing upon a common purse. It was a different matter when he trafficked rashly in the family name so far as to marry the daughter of Eye-of-the-Moon, the Indian chief.
He was tolerably happy when he went to the Hudson's Bay country; for Miss Julia Sherwood was his promised wife, and she, if poor, was notably beautiful and of good family. His people had not looked quite kindly on this engagement; they had, indeed, tried in many ways to prevent it; partly because of Miss Sherwood's poverty, and also because they knew that Lady Agnes Martling had long cared for him, and was most happily endowed with wealth and good looks also. When he left for Canada they were inwardly glad (they imagined that something might occur to end the engagement)--all except Richard, the wiseacre of the family, the book- man, the drone, who preferred living at Greyhope, their Hertfordshire home, the year through, to spending half the time in Cavendish Square. Richard was very fond of Frank, admiring him immensely for his buxom strength and cleverness, and not a little, too, for that very rashness which had brought him such havoc at last.
Richard was not, as Frank used to say, "perfectly sound on his pins," --that is, he was slightly lame, but he was right at heart. He was an immense reader, but made little use of what he read. He had an abundant humour, and remembered every anecdote he ever heard. He was kind to the poor, walked much, talked to himself as he walked, and was known by the humble sort as "a'centric." But he had a wise head, and he foresaw danger to Frank's happiness when he went away. While others had gossiped and manoeuvred and were busily idle, he had watched things. He saw that Frank was dear to Julia in proportion to the distance between her and young Lord Haldwell, whose father had done something remarkable in guns or torpedoes and was rewarded with a lordship and an uncommonly large fortune. He also saw that, after Frank left, the distance between Lord Haldwell and Julia became distinctly less--they were both staying at Greyhope. Julia Sherwood was a remarkably clever girl. Though he felt it his duty to speak to her for his brother,--a difficult and delicate matter, he thought it would come better from his mother.
But when he took action it was too late. Miss Sherwood naively declared that she had not known her own heart, and that she did not care for Frank any more. She wept a little, and was soothed by motherly Mrs. Armour, who was inwardly glad, though she knew the matter would cause Frank pain; and even General Armour could not help showing slight satisfaction, though he was innocent of any deliberate action to separate the two. Straightway Miss Sherwood despatched a letter to the wilds of Canada, and for a week was an unengaged young person. But she was no doubt consoled by the fact that for some time past she had had complete control of Lord Haldwell's emotions. At the end of the week her perceptions were justified by Lord Haldwell's proposal, which, with admirable tact and obvious demureness, was accepted.
Now, Frank Armour was wandering much in the wilds, so that his letters and papers went careering about after him, and some that came first were last to reach him. That was how he received a newspaper announcing the marriage of Lord Haldwell and Julia Sherwood at the same time that her letter, written in estimable English and with admirable feeling, came, begging for a release from their engagement, and, towards its close, assuming, with a charming regret, that all was over, and that the last word had been said between them.
Armour was sitting in the trader's room at Fort Charles when the carrier came with the mails. He had had some successful days hunting buffalo with Eye-of-the-Moon and a little band of metis, had had a long pow-wow in Eye-of-the-Moon's lodge, had chatted gaily with Lali the daughter, and was now prepared to enjoy heartily the arrears of correspondence and news before him. He ran his hand through the letters and papers, intending to classify them immediately, according to such handwriting as he recognised and the dates on the envelopes. But, as he did so, he saw a newspaper from which the wrapper was partly torn. He also saw a note in the margin directing him to a certain page. The note was in Richard's handwriting. He opened the paper at the page indicated and saw the account of the marriage! His teeth clinched on his cigar, his face turned white, the paper fell from his fingers. He gasped, his hands spread out nervously, then caught the table and held it as though to steady himself.
The trader rose. "You are ill," he said. "Have you bad news?" He glanced towards the paper. Slowly Armour folded the paper up, and then rose unsteadily. "Gordon," he said, "give me a glass of brandy."
He turned towards the cupboard in the room. The trader opened it, took out a bottle, and put it on the table beside Armour, together with a glass and some water. Armour poured out a stiff draught, added a very little water, and drank it. He drew a great sigh, and stood looking at the paper.
"Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Armour?" urged the trader.
"Nothing, thank you, nothing at all. Just leave the brandy here, will you? I feel knocked about, and I have to go through the rest of these letters."
He ran his fingers through the pile, turning it over hastily, as if searching for something. The trader understood. He was a cool-headed Scotsman; he knew that there were some things best not inquired into, and that men must have their bad hours alone. He glanced at the brandy debatingly, but presently turned and left the room in silence. In his own mind, however, he wished he might have taken the brandy without being discourteous. Armour had discovered Miss Sherwood's letter. Before he opened it he took a little more brandy. Then he sat down and read it deliberately. The liquor had steadied him. The fingers of one hand even drummed on the table. But the face was drawn, the eyes were hard, and the look of him was altogether pinched. After he had finished this, he looked for others from the same hand. He found none. Then he picked out those from his mother and father. He read them grimly. Once he paused as he read his mother's letter, and took a gulp of plain brandy. There was something very like a sneer on his face when he finished reading. He read the hollowness of the sympathy extended to him; he understood the far from adroit references to Lady Agnes Martling. He was very bitter. He opened no more letters, but took up the Morning Post again, and read it slowly through. The look of his face was not pleasant. There was a small looking-glass opposite him. He caught sight of himself in it. He drew his hand across his eyes and forehead, as though he was in a miserable dream. He looked again; he could not recognise himself.
He then bundled the letters and papers into his despatch-box. His attention was drawn to one letter. He picked it up. It was from Richard. He started to break the seal, but paused. The strain of the event was too much; he winced. He determined not to read it then, to wait until he had recovered himself. He laughed now painfully. It had been better for him--it had, maybe, averted what people were used to term his tragedy--had he read his brother's letter at that moment. For Richard Armour was a sensible man, notwithstanding his peculiarities; and perhaps the most sensible words he ever wrote were in that letter thrust unceremoniously into Frank Armour's pocket. Armour had received a terrible blow. He read his life backwards. He had no future. The liquor he had drunk had not fevered him, it had not wildly excited him; it merely drew him up to a point where he could put a sudden impulse into practice without flinching. He was bitter against his people; he credited them with more interference than was actual. He felt that happiness had gone out of his life and left him hopeless. As we said, he was a man of quick decisions. He would have made a dashing but reckless soldier; he was not without the elements of the gamester. It is possible that there was in him also a strain of cruelty, undeveloped but radical. Life so far had evolved the best in him; he had been cheery and candid. Now he travelled back into new avenues of his mind and found strange, aboriginal passions, fully adapted to the present situation. Vulgar anger and reproaches were not after his nature. He suddenly found sources of refined but desperate retaliation. He drew upon them. He would do something to humiliate his people and the girl who had spoiled his life. Some one thing! It should be absolute and lasting, it should show how low had fallen his opinion of women, of whom Julia Sherwood had once been chiefest to him. In that he would show his scorn of her. He would bring down the pride of his family, who, he believed, had helped, out of mere selfishness, to tumble his happiness into the shambles.
He was older by years than an hour ago. But he was not without the faculty of humour; that was why he did not become very excited; it was also why he determined upon a comedy which should have all the elements of tragedy. Perhaps, however, he would have hesitated to carry his purposes to immediate conclusions, were it not that the very gods seemed to play his game with him. For, while he stood there, looking out into the yard of the fort, a Protestant missionary passed the window. The Protestant missionary, as he is found at such places as Fort Charles, is not a strictly superior person. A Jesuit might have been of advantage to Frank Armour at that moment. The Protestant missionary is not above comfortable assurances of gold. So that when Armour summoned this one in, and told him what was required of him, and slipped a generous gift of the Queen's coin into his hand, he smiled vaguely and was willing to do what he was bidden. Had he been a Jesuit, who is sworn to poverty, and more often than not a man of birth and education, he might have influenced Frank Armour and prevented the notable mishap and scandal. As it was, Armour took more brandy.
Then he went down to Eye-of-the-Moon's lodge. A few hours afterwards the missionary met him there. The next morning Lali, the daughter of Eye-of- the-Moon, and the chieftainess of a portion of her father's tribe, whose grandfather had been a white man, was introduced to the Hudson's Bay country as Mrs. Frank Armour. But that was not all. Indeed, as it stood, it was very little. He had only made his comedy possible as yet; now the play itself was to come. He had carried his scheme through boldly so far. He would not flinch in carrying it out to the last letter. He brought his wife down to the Great Lakes immediately, scarcely resting day or night. There he engaged an ordinary but reliable woman, to whom he gave instructions, and sent the pair to the coast. He instructed his solicitor at Montreal to procure passages for Mrs. Francis Armour and maid for Liverpool. Then, by letters, he instructed his solicitor in London to meet Mrs. Francis Armour and maid at Liverpool and take them to Greyhope in Hertfordshire--that is, if General Armour and Mrs. Armour, or some representative of the family, did not meet them when they landed from the steamship.
Presently he sat down and wrote to his father and mother, and asked them to meet his wife and her maid when they arrived by the steamer Aphrodite. He did not explain to them in precise detail his feelings on Miss Julia Sherwood's marriage, nor did he go into full particulars as to the personality of Mrs. Frank Armour; but he did say that, because he knew they were anxious that he should marry "acceptably," he had married into the aristocracy, the oldest aristocracy of America; and because he also knew they wished him to marry wealth, he sent them a wife rich in virtues--native, unspoiled virtues. He hoped that they would take her to their hearts and cherish her. He knew their firm principles of honour, and that he could trust them to be kind to his wife until he returned to share the affection which he was sure would be given to her. It was not his intention to return to England for some time yet. He had work to do in connection with his proposed colony; and a wife--even a native wife-- could not well be a companion in the circumstances. Besides, Lali--his wife's name was Lali!--would be better occupied in learning the peculiarities of the life in which her future would be cast. It was possible they would find her an apt pupil. Of this they could not complain, that she was untravelled; for she had ridden a horse, bareback, half across the continent. They could not cavil at her education, for she knew several languages--aboriginal languages--of the North. She had merely to learn the dialect of English society, and how to carry with acceptable form the costumes of the race to which she was going. Her own costume was picturesque, but it might appear unusual in London society. Still, they could use their own judgment about that.
Then, when she was gone beyond recall, he chanced one day to put on the coat he wore when the letters and paper declaring his misfortune came to him. He found his brother's letter; he opened it and read it. It was the letter of a man who knew how to appreciate at their proper value the misfortunes, as the fortunes, of life. While Frank Armour read he came to feel for the first time that his brother Richard had suffered, maybe, from some such misery as had come to him through Julia Sherwood. It was a dispassionate, manly letter, relieved by gentle wit, and hinting with careful kindness that a sudden blow was better for a man than a lifelong thorn in his side. Of Julia Sherwood he had nothing particularly bitter to say. He delicately suggested that she had acted according to her nature, and that in the see-saw of life Frank had had a sore blow; but this was to be borne. The letter did not say too much; it did not magnify the difficulty, it did not depreciate it. It did not even directly counsel; it was wholesomely, tenderly judicial. Indirectly, it dwelt upon the steadiness and manliness of Frank's character; directly, lightly, and without rhetoric, it enlarged upon their own comradeship. It ran over pleasantly the days of their boyhood, when they were hardly ever separated. It made distinct, yet with no obvious purpose, how good were friendship and confidence--which might be the most unselfish thing in the world--between two men. With the letter before him Frank Armour saw his act in a new light.
As we said, it is possible if he had read it on the day when his trouble came to him, he had not married Lali, or sent her to England on this--to her--involuntary mission of revenge. It is possible, also, that there came to him the first vague conception of the wrong he had done this Indian girl, who undoubtedly married him because she cared for him after her heathen fashion, while he had married her for nothing that was commendable; not even for passion, which may be pardoned, nor for vanity, which has its virtues. He had had his hour with circumstance; circumstance would have its hour with him in due course. Yet there was no extraordinary revulsion. He was still angry, cynical, and very sore. He would see the play out with a consistent firmness. He almost managed a smile when a letter was handed to him some weeks later, bearing his solicitor's assurance that Mrs. Frank Armour and her maid had been safely bestowed on the Aphrodite for England. This was the first act in his tragic comedy.
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