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THE CONFIDENCE OF LORD ARRANMORE
The servants had left the room, and the doors were fast closed. Lord Arranmore sat a little forward in his high-backed chair, one hand grasping the arm, the other stretched flat upon the table before him. By his side, neglected, was a cedar-wood box of his favourite cigarettes.
"I am going," he said, thoughtfully, "to tell you a story, of whom the hero is--myself. A poor sort of entertainment perhaps, but then there is a little tragedy and a little comedy in what I have to tell. And you three are the three people in the world to whom certain things were better told."
They bent forward, fascinated by the cold directness of his speech, by the suggestion of strange things to come. The mask of their late gaiety had fallen away. Lady Caroom, grave and sad-eyed, was listening with an anxiety wholly unconcealed. Under the shaded lamplight their faces, dominated by that cold masterly figure at the head of the table, were almost Rembrandtesque.
"You have heard a string of incoherent but sufficiently damaging accusations made against me to-day by a young lady whose very existence, I may say, was a surprise to me. It suited me then to deny them. Nevertheless they were in the main true."
The announcement was no shock. Every one of the three curiously enough had believed the girl.
"I must go a little further back than the time of which she spoke. At twenty-six years old I was an idle young man of good family, but scant expectations, supposed to be studying at the Bar, but in reality idling my time about town. In those days, Lady Caroom, you had some knowledge of me."
"Up to the time of your disappearance--yes. I remember, Arranmore," she continued, her manner losing for a moment some of its restraint, and her eyes and tone suddenly softening, "dancing with you that evening. We arranged to meet at Ranelagh the next day, and, when the next day came, you had vanished, gone as completely as though the earth had swallowed you up. For weeks every one was asking what has become of him. And then--I suppose you were forgotten."
"This," Lord Arranmore continued, "is the hardest part of my narrative, the hardest because the most difficult to make you understand. You will forgive my offering you the bare facts only. I will remind you that I was young, impressionable, and had views. So to continue!"
The manner of his speech was in its way chillingly impressive. He was still sitting in exactly the same position, one hand upon the arm of his high-backed chair, the other upon the table before him. He made use of no gestures, his face remained as white and emotionless as a carved image, his tone, though clear and low, was absolutely monotonous. But there was about him a subtle sense of repression apparent to all of them.
"On my way home that night my hansom knocked down an old man. He was not seriously hurt, and I drove him home. On the way he stared at me curiously. Every now and then he laughed--unpleasantly.
"'I have never seen any one out of your world before,' he said. 'I dare say you have never spoken to any one out of mine except to toss us alms. Come and see where I live.'
"He insisted, and I went. I found myself in a lodging-house, now pulled down and replaced by one of Lord Rowton's tenement houses. I saw a hundred human beings more or less huddled together promiscuously, and the face of every one of them was like the face of a rat. The old man dragged me from room to room, laughing all the time. He showed me children herded together without distinction of sex or clothing, here and there he pointed to a face where some apprehension of the light was fighting a losing battle with the ghouls of disease, of vice, of foul air, of filth. I was faint and giddy when we had looked over that one house, but the old man was not satisfied. He dragged me on to the roof and pointed eastwards. There, as far as the eyes could reach, was a blackened wilderness of smoke-begrimed dwellings. He looked at me and grinned. I can see him now. He had only one tooth, a blackened yellow stump, and every time he opened his mouth to laugh he was nearly choked with coughing. He leaned out over the palisading and reached with both his arms eastward. 'There,' he cried, frantically, 'you have seen one. There are thousands and tens of thousands of houses like this, a million crawling vermin who were born into the world in your likeness, as you were born, my fine gentleman. Day by day they wake in their holes, fill their lungs with foul air, their stomachs with rotten food, break their backs and their hearts over some hideous task. Every day they drop a little lower down. Drink alone keeps them alive, stirs their blood now and then so that they can feel their pulses beat, brings them a blessed stupor. And see over there the sun, God's sun, rises every morning, over them and you. Young man! You see those flaming spots of light? They are gin-palaces. You may thank your God for them, for they alone keep this horde of rotten humanity from sweeping westwards, breaking up your fine houses, emptying your wine into the street, tearing the silk and laces from your beautiful soft-limbed women. Bah! But you have read. It would be the French Revolution over again. Oh, but you are wise, you in the West, your statesmen and your philanthropists, that you build these gin-palaces, and smile, and rub your hands and build more and spend the money gaily. You build the one dam which can keep back your retribution. You keep them stupefied, you cheapen the vile liquor and hold it to their noses. So they drink, and you live. But a day of light may come.'"
Lord Arranmore ceased speaking, stretched out his hand and helped himself to wine with unfaltering fingers.
"I have tried," he continued, "to repeat the exact words which the old man used to me, and I do not find it so difficult as you might imagine, because at that time they made a great impression upon me. But I cannot, of course, hope to reproduce to you his terrible earnestness, the burning passion with which every word seemed to spring from his lips. Their effect upon me at that time you will be able to judge when I tell you this--that I never returned to my rooms, that for ten years I never set foot west of Temple Bar. I first joined a small society in Whitechapel, then I worked for myself, and finally I became a police-court missionary at Southwark Police-Court. The history of those years is the history of a slowly-growing madness. I commenced by trying to improve whole districts-I ended with the individual."
Brooks' wineglass fell with a little crash upon the tablecloth. The wine, a long silky stream, flowed away from him unstaunched, unregarded. His eyes were fixed upon Lord Arranmore. He leaned forward.
"A police-court missionary!" he cried, hoarsely.
Lord Arranmore regarded him for a moment in silence.
"Yes. As you doubtless surmise, I am your father. Afterwards you may ask me questions."
Brooks sat as one stupefied, and then a sudden warm touch upon his hand sent the blood coursing once more through his veins. Sybil's fingers lay for a moment upon his. She smiled kindly at him. Lord Arranmore's voice once more broke the short silence.
"The individual was my greatest disappointment," he continued. "Young and old, all were the same. I took them to live with me, I sent them abroad, I found them situations in this country, I talked with them, read with them, showed them the simplest means within their reach by means of which they might take into their lives a certain measure of beautiful things. Failure would only make me more dogged, more eager. I would spend months sometimes with one man or boy, and at last I would assure myself of success. I would find them a situation, see them perhaps once a week, then less often, and the end was always the same. They fell back. I had put the poison to sleep, but it was always there. It was their everlasting heritage, a gift from father to son, bred in the bone, a part of their blood.
"In those days I married a lady devoted to charitable works. Our purpose was to work together, but we found it impracticable. There was, I fear, little sympathy between us. The only bond was our work--and that was soon to be broken. For there came a time, after ten breathless years, when I paused to consider."
He raised his glass to his lips and drained it. The wine was powerful, but it brought no tinge of colour to his cheeks, nor any lustre to his eyes. He continued in the same firm, expressionless tone.
"There came a night when I found myself thinking, and I knew then that a new terror was stealing into my life. I made my way up to the roof of the house where that old man had first taken me, and I leaned once more over the palisading and looked eastwards. I fancied that I could still hear the echoes of his frenzied words, and for the first time I heard the note of mockery ringing clearly through them. There they stretched--the same blackened wilderness of roofs sheltering the same horde of drinking, filthy, cursing, parasitical creatures; there flared the gin-palaces, more of them, more brilliantly lit, more gorgeously decorated. Ten years of my life, and what had I done? What could any one do? The truth seemed suddenly written across the sky in letters of fire. I, a poor human creature, had been fighting with a few other fanatics against the inviolable, the unconquerable laws of nature. The hideous mistake of all individual effort was suddenly revealed to me. 'We were like a handful of children striving to dam a mighty torrent with a few handfuls of clay. Better a thousand times that these people rotted--and died in their holes, that disease should stalk through their streets, and all the evil passions born of their misery and filth should be allowed to blaze forth that the whole world might see, so the laws of the world might intervene, the great natural laws by which alone these things could be changed. I looked down at myself, then wasted to the bone, a stranger to the taste of wine or tobacco, to all the joys of life, a miserable heart-broken wretch, and I cursed that old man and the thought of him till my lips were dry and my throat ached. I walked back to my miserable dwelling with a red fire before my eyes, muttering, cursing that power which stood behind the universe, and which we call God, that there should be vomited forth into the world day by day, hour by hour, this black stream of human wretchedness, an everlasting mockery to those who would seek for the joy of life.
"They took me to the hospital, and they called my illness brain-fever. But long before they thought me convalescent I was conscious, lying awake and plotting my escape. With cunning I managed it. Of my wife and child I never once thought. Every trace of human affection seemed withered up in my heart. I took the money subscribed for me with a hypocrite's smile, and I slunk away from England. I went to Montreal in Canada, and I deliberately entered upon a life of low pleasures. Pardon me!"
He bent forward and with a steady hand readjusted the shade of a lamp which was in danger of burning. Lady Caroom leaned back in her chair with an indrawn sobbing breath. The action at such a moment seemed grotesque. His own coolness, whilst with steady fingers he probed away amongst the wounded places of his life, was in itself gruesome.
"My money," he continued, "was no large sum, but I eked it out with gambling. The luck was always on my side. It's quite true that I ruined the father of the young lady who paid me a visit to-day. After a somewhat chequered career he was settling down in a merchant's office in Montreal when I met him. His luck at cards was as bad as mine was good. I won all he had, and more. I believe that he committed suicide. A man there was kind to me, asked me to his house--I persuaded his wife to run away with me. These are amongst the slightest of my delinquencies. I steeped myself in sin. I revelled in it. I seemed to myself in some way to be showing my defiance for the hidden powers of life which I had cursed. I played a match with evil by day and by night until I was glutted. And then I stole away from the city, leaving behind a hideous reputation and not a single friend. Then a new mood came to me. I wanted to get to a place where I should see no human beings at all, and escape in that way from the memories which were still like a clot upon my brain. So I set my face westwards. I travelled till at last civilization lay behind. Still I pushed onward. I had stores in plenty, an Indian servant who chanced to be faithful, and whom I saw but twice a day. At last I reached Lake Ono. Here between us we built a hut. I sent my Indian away then, and when he fawned at my feet to stay I kicked him. This was my third phase of living, and it was true that some measure of sanity came back to me. Oh, the blessed relief of seeing the face of neither man nor woman. It was the unpeopled world of Nature--uncorrupted, fresh, magnificent, alive by day and by night with everlasting music of Nature. The solitudes of those great forests were like a wonderful balm. So the fevers were purged out of me, and I became once more an ordinary human being. I was content, I think, to die there, for I had plenty to eat and drink, and the animals and birds who came to me morning and evening kept me from even the thought of loneliness. The rest is obvious. I lost two cousins in South Africa, an uncle in the hunting-field. A man in Montreal had recognized me. I was discovered. But before I returned I killed Brooks, the police-court missionary. This girl has forced me to bring him to life again."
It was a strange silence which followed. Brooks sat back in his chair, pale, bewildered, striving to focus this story properly, to attain a proper comprehension of these new strange things. And behind all there smouldered the slow burning anger of the child who has looked into the face of a deserted mother. Lady Caroom was white to the lips, and in her eyes the horror of that story so pitilessly told seemed still to linger.
Lord Arranmore spoke again. Still he sat back in his high-backed chair, and still he spoke in measured, monotonous tones. But this time, if only their ears had been quick enough to notice it, there lay behind an emotion, held in check indeed, but every now and then quivering for expression. He had turned to Lady Caroom.
"Chance," he said, "has brought together here at the moment when the telling of these things has become a necessity, the two people who have in a sense some right to hear them, for from each I have much to ask. Sybil is your daughter, and from her there need be no secrets. So, Catherine, I ask you again, now that you know everything, are you brave enough to be my wife?"
She raised her eyes, and he saw the horror there. But he made no sign. She rose and held out her hand for Sybil.
"Arranmore," she said, "I am afraid."
He looked down upon his plate.
"So let it be, then," he said. "It would need a brave woman indeed to join her lot with mine after the things which I have told you. At heart, Catherine, I am almost a dead man. Believe me, you are wise."
He rose, and the two women passed from the room. Then he resumed his former seat, and attitude, and Brooks, though he tried to speak, felt his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth, a dry and nerveless thing.
For in these doings there was tragedy.
"There remains to me you, Philip Kingston, my son," Lord Arranmore said, in the same measured tone. "You also have before you the story of my life, you are able from it to form some sort of idea as to what my future is likely to be. I do not wish to deceive you. My early enthusiasms are extinct. I look upon the ten or twenty years or so which may be left to me of life as merely a space of time to be filled with as many amusements and new sensations as may be procurable without undue effort. I have no wish to convert, or perhaps pervert you, to my way of thinking. You live still in Utopia, and to me Utopia does not exist. So make your choice deliberately. Do you care to come to me?"
Then Brooks found words of a sort.
"Lord Arranmore," he said, "forgive me if what I must say sounds undutiful. I know that you have suffered. I can realize something of what you have been through. But your desertion of my mother and me was a brutality. What you call your creed of life sounds to me hideous. You and I are far apart, and so far as I am concerned, God grant that we may remain so."
For the first time Lord Arranmore smiled. He poured out with steady hand yet another glass of wine, and he nodded towards the door.
"I am obliged to you," he said, "for your candour. I have met with enough hypocrisy in life to be able to appreciate it. Be so good as to humour my whim--and to leave me alone."
Brooks rose from his seat, hesitated for a single moment, and left the room. Lord Arranmore leaned back in his high-backed chair and looked round at the empty places. The cigarette burned out between his fingers, his wine remained untasted. The evening's entertainment was over.
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