ON THE WING
That night, having gone up to his room, Shelton filled his pipe for his unpleasant duty. He had resolved to hint to Ferrand that he had better go. He was still debating whether to write or go himself to the young foreigner, when there came a knock and Ferrand himself appeared.
"I should be sorry," he said, breaking an awkward silence, "if you were to think me ungrateful, but I see no future for me here. It would be better for me to go. I should never be content to pass my life in teaching languages 'ce n'est guere dans mon caractre'."
As soon as what he had been cudgelling his brains to find a way of saying had thus been said for him, Shelton experienced a sense of disapproval.
"What do you expect to get that's better?" he said, avoiding Ferrand's eyes.
"Thanks to your kindness," replied the latter, "I find myself restored. I feel that I ought to make some good efforts to dominate my social position."
"I should think it well over, if I were you!" said Shelton.
"I have, and it seems to me that I'm wasting my time. For a man with any courage languages are no career; and, though I 've many defects, I still have courage."
Shelton let his pipe go out, so pathetic seemed to him this young man's faith in his career; it was no pretended faith, but neither was it, he felt, his true motive for departure. "He's tired," he thought; "that 's it. Tired of one place." And having the instinctive sense that nothing would keep Ferrand, he redoubled his advice.
"I should have thought," he said, "that you would have done better to have held on here and saved a little before going off to God knows what."
"To save," said Ferrand, "is impossible for me, but, thanks to you and your good friends, I 've enough to make front to first necessities. I'm in correspondence with a friend; it's of great importance for me to reach Paris before all the world returns. I 've a chance to get, a post in one of the West African companies. One makes fortunes out there--if one survives, and, as you know, I don't set too much store by life."
"We have a proverb," said Shelton, "'A bird in the hand is worth two birds in the bush!'"
"That," returned Ferrand, "like all proverbs, is just half true. This is an affair of temperament. It 's not in my character to dandle one when I see two waiting to be caught; 'voyager, apprendre, c'est plus fort que moi'." He paused; then, with a nervous goggle of the eyes and an ironic smile he said: "Besides, 'mon cher monsieur', it is better that I go. I have never been one to hug illusions, and I see pretty clearly that my presence is hardly acceptable in this house."
"What makes you say that?" asked, Shelton, feeling that the murder was now out."
"My dear sir, all the world has not your understanding and your lack of prejudice, and, though your friends have been extremely kind to me, I am in a false position; I cause them embarrassment, which is not extraordinary when you reflect what I have been, and that they know my history."
"Not through me," said Shelton quickly, "for I don't know it myself."
"It's enough," the vagrant said, "that they feel I'm not a bird of their feather. They cannot change, neither can I. I have never wanted to remain where I 'm not welcome."
Shelton turned to the window, and stared into the darkness; he would never quite understand this vagabond, so delicate, so cynical, and he wondered if Ferrand had been swallowing down the words, "Why, even you won't be sorry to see my back!"
"Well," he said at last, "if you must go, you must. When do you start?"
"I 've arranged with a man to carry my things to the early train. I think it better not to say good-bye. I 've written a letter instead; here it is. I left it open for you to read if you should wish."
"Then," said Shelton, with a curious mingling of relief, regret, good-will, "I sha'n't see you again?"
Ferrand gave his hand a stealthy rub, and held it out.
"I shall never forget what you have done for me," he said.
"Mind you write," said Shelton.
"Yes, yes"--the vagrant's face was oddly twisted--"you don't know what a difference it makes to have a correspondent; it gives one courage. I hope to remain a long time in correspondence with you."
"I dare say you do," thought Shelton grimly, with a certain queer emotion.
"You will do me the justice to remember that I have never asked you for anything," said Ferrand. "Thank you a thousand times. Good-bye!"
He again wrung his patron's hand in his damp grasp, and, going out, left Shelton with an odd sensation in his throat. "You will do me the justice to remember that I have never asked you for anything." The phrase seemed strange, and his mind flew back over all this queer acquaintanceship. It was a fact: from the beginning to the end the youth had never really asked for anything. Shelton sat down on his bed, and began to read the letter in his hand. It was in French.
DEAR MADAME (it ran),
It will be insupportable to me, after your kindness, if you take me for ungrateful. Unfortunately, a crisis has arrived which plunges me into the necessity of leaving your hospitality. In all lives, as you are well aware, there arise occasions that one cannot govern, and I know that you will pardon me that I enter into no explanation on an event which gives me great chagrin, and, above all, renders me subject to an imputation of ingratitude, which, believe me, dear Madame, by no means lies in my character. I know well enough that it is a breach of politeness to leave you without in person conveying the expression of my profound reconnaissance, but if you consider how hard it is for me to be compelled to abandon all that is so distinguished in domestic life, you will forgive my weakness. People like me, who have gone through existence with their eyes open, have remarked that those who are endowed with riches have a right to look down on such as are not by wealth and breeding fitted to occupy the same position. I shall never dispute a right so natural and salutary, seeing that without this distinction, this superiority, which makes of the well-born and the well-bred a race apart, the rest of the world would have no standard by which to rule their lives, no anchor to throw into the depths of that vast sea of fortune and of misfortune on which we others drive before the wind. It is because of this, dear Madame, that I regard myself so doubly fortunate to have been able for a few minutes in this bitter pilgrimage called life, to sit beneath the tree of safety. To have been able, if only for an hour, to sit and set the pilgrims pass, the pilgrims with the blistered feet and ragged clothes, and who yet, dear Madame, guard within their hearts a certain joy in life, illegal joy, like the desert air which travellers will tell you fills men as with wine to be able thus to sit an hour, and with a smile to watch them pass, lame and blind, in all the rags of their deserved misfortunes, can you not conceive, dear Madame, how that must be for such as I a comfort? Whatever one may say, it is sweet, from a position of security, to watch the sufferings of others; it gives one a good sensation in the heart.
In writing this, I recollect that I myself once had the chance of passing all my life in this enviable safety, and as you may suppose, dear Madame, I curse myself that I should ever have had the courage to step beyond the boundaries of this fine tranquil state. Yet, too, there have been times when I have asked myself: "Do we really differ from the wealthy--we others, birds of the fields, who have our own philosophy, grown from the pains of needing bread--we who see that the human heart is not always an affair of figures, or of those good maxims that one finds in copy-books--do we really differ?" It is with shame that I confess to have asked myself a question so heretical. But now, when for these four weeks I have had the fortune of this rest beneath your roof, I see how wrong I was to entertain such doubts. It is a great happiness to have decided once for all this point, for it is not in my character to pass through life uncertain--mistaken, perhaps--on psychological matters such as these. No, Madame; rest happily assured that there is a great difference, which in the future will be sacred for me. For, believe me, Madame, it would be calamity for high Society if by chance there should arise amongst them any understanding of all that side of life which--vast as the plains and bitter as the sea, black as the ashes of a corpse, and yet more free than any wings of birds who fly away--is so justly beyond the grasp of their philosophy. Yes, believe me, dear Madame, there is no danger in the world so much to be avoided by all the members of that circle, most illustrious, most respectable, called high Society.
From what I have said you may imagine how hard it is for me to take my flight. I shall always keep for you the most distinguished sentiments. With the expression of my full regard for you and your good family, and of a gratitude as sincere as it is badly worded,
Believe me, dear Madame,
Shelton's first impulse was to tear the letter up, but this he reflected he had no right to do. Remembering, too, that Mrs. Dennant's French was orthodox, he felt sure she would never understand the young foreigner's subtle innuendoes. He closed the envelope and went to bed, haunted still by Ferrand's parting look.
It was with no small feeling of embarrassment, however, that, having sent the letter to its destination by an early footman, he made his appearance at the breakfast-table. Behind the Austrian coffee-urn, filled with French coffee, Mrs. Dennant, who had placed four eggs in a German egg-boiler, said "Good-morning," with a kindly smile.
"Dick, an egg?" she asked him, holding up a fifth.
"No, thank you," replied Shelton, greeting the table and fitting down.
He was a little late; the buzz of conversation rose hilariously around.
"My dear," continued Mr. Dennant, who was talking to his youngest daughter, "you'll have no chance whatever--not the least little bit of chance."
"Father, what nonsense! You know we shall beat your heads off!"
"Before it 's too late, then, I will eat a muffin. Shelton, pass the muffins!" But in making this request, Mr. Dennant avoided looking in his face.
Antonia, too, seemed to keep her eyes away from him. She was talking to a Connoisseur on Art of supernatural appearances, and seemed in the highest spirits. Shelton rose, and, going to the sideboard, helped himself to grouse.
"Who was the young man I saw yesterday on the lawn?" he heard the Connoisseur remark. "Struck me as having an--er--quite intelligent physiog."
His own intelligent physiog, raised at a slight slant so that he might look the better through his nose-nippers, was the very pattern of approval. "It's curious how one's always meeting with intelligence;" it seemed to say. Mrs. Dennant paused in the act of adding cream, and Shelton scrutinised her face; it was hare-like, and superior as ever. Thank goodness she had smelt no rat! He felt strangely disappointed.
"You mean Monsieur Ferrand, teachin' Toddles French? Dobson, the Professor's cup."
"I hope I shall see him again," cooed the Connoisseur; "he was quite interesting on the subject of young German working men. It seems they tramp from place to place to learn their trades. What nationality was he, may I ask?"
Mr. Dennant, of whom he asked this question, lifted his brows, and said,
"Half Dutch, half French."
"Very interesting breed; I hope I shall see him again."
"Well, you won't," said Thea suddenly; "he's gone."
Shelton saw that their good breeding alone prevented all from adding, "And thank goodness, too!"
"Gone? Dear me, it's very--"
"Yes," said Mr. Dennant, "very sudden."
"Now, Algie," murmured Mrs. Dennant, "it 's quite a charmin' letter. Must have taken the poor young man an hour to write."
"Oh, mother!" cried Antonia.
And Shelton felt his face go crimson. He had suddenly remembered that her French was better than her mother's.
"He seems to have had a singular experience," said the Connoisseur.
"Yes," echoed Mr. Dennant; "he 's had some singular experience. If you want to know the details, ask friend Shelton; it's quite romantic. In the meantime, my dear; another cup?"
The Connoisseur, never quite devoid of absent-minded malice, spurred his curiosity to a further effort; and, turning his well-defended eyes on Shelton, murmured,
"Well, Mr. Shelton, you are the historian, it seems."
"There is no history," said Shelton, without looking up.
"Ah, that's very dull," remarked the Connoisseur.
"My dear Dick," said Mrs. Dennant, "that was really a most touchin' story about his goin' without food in Paris."
Shelton shot another look at Antonia; her face was frigid. "I hate your d---d superiority!" he thought, staring at the Connoisseur.
"There's nothing," said that gentleman, "more enthralling than starvation. Come, Mr Shelton."
"I can't tell stories," said Shelton; "never could."
He cared not a straw for Ferrand, his coming, going, or his history; for, looking at Antonia, his heart was heavy.
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