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Chapter 5-9 (b)

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« on: September 22, 2023, 10:11:08 am »

Thus admonished, Gabrielle paused. Her aspect and bearing were reserved, as those of one who yields in obedience to good manners rather than to personal inclination. But Adrian, nothing daunted, followed up his advantage.

“I came here to-day, chère Madame,” he said, “as soon as possible after my return. My idea was to consult our friend Miss Beauchamp, to ask her advice and enlist her assistance. I feared my conduct might have appeared erratic, inexplicable. I proposed begging her to act as my ambassadress, asking her to recount to you certain things which have taken place since we parted at Ste. Marie---things very grievous, in a way unexampled and unnatural. But as I have the good fortune to find you here, I entreat you to wait and hear me while I acquaint you with those occurrences myself. You will remain, yes? Let us go over there then, out of earshot of the insupportably recurrent Mr. Byewater. I need to speak to you alone, chère Madame, without frivolous interruptions. And Mr. Byewater is forever at hand. He annoys me. He is so very far from decorative. He reminds me of a fish---of an underdone filet de sole.”

Madame St. Leger’s reserve gave slightly.

“Unhappy Mr. Byewater!” she murmured.

“Yes, indeed unhappy, since you too observe the likeness,” Adrian pursued, darting positively envenomed glances in the direction of the doorway. “Yet is it not unpardonable in any man to resemble the insufficiently fried section of a flat fish? You recognize it as unpardonable? Sit down here then, trés chère Madame, at the farthest distance possible from that lanky poisson d’Amérique. Ah! I am grateful to you,” he added, with very convincing earnestness. “For in listening you will help to dissipate the blackness of regret which engulfs me. You will hear and you will judge; yes, it is for you, for you only and supremely to do that---to judge.”

“I fear you will be no end fatigued, Miss Beauchamp, standing all this long time talking,” the excellent, and, fortunately, quite unconscious Byewater was meanwhile saying. “I believe I ought to go right now. I had promised myself I would escort Madame St. Leger home to the Quai Malaquais. But I don’t believe I stand to gain anything by waiting. Recent developments hardly favour the supposition that promise is likely to condense into fact.”

He nodded his head, indicating the couple ensconced at the opposite end of the room in two pillowed, cane-seated, cane-backed gilt chairs of pseudo-classic pattern. The wall immediately behind them carried a broad, tall panel of looking-glass, the border of which blossomed on either side at about half its height into a cluster of shaded electric lamps. The mellow light from these covered the perfectly finished figures of the young man and woman, sitting there in such close proximity, and created a bright circle about them, as Anastasia Beauchamp noted, curiously isolating them from all surrounding objects save their own graceful images repeated in the great looking-glass. Her eyes dwelt upon them in indulgent tenderness. Might they prosper! And therewith, very genially, she turned her attention to the fish-like Byewater once more.

But that same bright isolation and close proximity worked strongly upon Gabrielle St. Leger. Her pulse quickened. A subtle excitement took possession of her, which, just because of her anxiety to ignore and conceal it, obliged her to speak.

“Your cousin’s death has evidently pained you. You mourn her very truly, very much?”

“I cannot mourn enough.”

“Indeed!” she said, dwelling upon the word with a peculiar and slightly incredulous inflection.

“No,” he repeated, “I cannot mourn enough. But to make my state of mind intelligible to you---and it is vitally important to me to do so---it is necessary you should know what has happened. I cannot deny that I am very sad.”

He bowed himself together, setting his elbows on his knees, pressing his hands against either side of his head.

“I have cause to be sad,” he continued. “Involuntarily I have contributed to the commission of a crime. All the values are altered. I am become a stranger to myself. Therefore I ask just this of you, to hear me and to judge.”

Surprised, impressed, alarmed even, Gabrielle St. Leger gathered herself back gravely in her gilded, long-seated pseudo-classic chair. The young man’s genuine and undisguised trouble combined with his actual physical nearness to threaten her emotional equilibrium. More eagerly than she cared to admit even to herself had she looked forward to his return to Ste. Marie. Her disappointment was proportionate, causing her anger. The thought of the slight he had put upon her rankled. She was, or rather wished to be, angry still. But just now wishes and feeling ranged themselves in irritating opposition and conflict. And during the silence following his last strangely sorrowful and self-accusing words---he so very near to her, dejected, abstracted, with bent head---feeling gained, waxing masterful and intimate. The personal charm of the man, his distinction of appearance, his quick brain and eloquent speech, his unimpeachable sincerity, his virility---refined, but in no degree impaired by the artificial conditions of modern life---even his boyish outbreak of jealousy toward Lewis Byewater, stirred and agitated her, proving dangerous alike to her senses and her heart. The culminating moment of that terrible experience in René Dax’s studio, when, half beside herself from the horror of madness and death, she had flung herself upon Adrian’s breast, there finding safety and restoration to all the dear joys of living, presented itself to her memory with importunate insistence. Was it conceivable that she craved to have that moment repeat itself?

“Mr. Savage---you asked me to listen. I listen,” she said, and her voice shook.

In response the young man looked up at her, a rather pitiful smile on his white face.

“Thank you---it was like this, then, chère Madame et amie,” he said. “Pushed by certain sinister fears, without waiting to communicate with you or with any one, I went straight to England on receiving from her sister the announcement of my cousin’s death. Letters had passed between us during the previous fortnight which rendered that announcement peculiarly and acutely distressing to me.”

Adrian bent his head again and sat staring blindly at the floor.

“She had asked a pledge of me which neither in honour nor in honesty could I give,” he said, bitterly. “My cousin was an admirable woman of business. I knew that all her worldly affairs were scrupulously regulated. I was in no way concerned in the distribution of her property. I went to attend her funeral as a tribute of regard and respect. I also went in the hope the sinister fears of which I have spoken might prove unfounded. I stayed in London, merely going down to Stourmouth for a few hours. It was a wretched, wretched day, the weather cold and wet.”

He ceased speaking. For at this moment---whether through some inward compelling, some mental necessity to arrive at a just and comprehensive estimate of the history of the last eight months, or whether through some external influence emanating from the unseen world of spirit and striving to dominate and coerce him, he could neither then, nor afterward, determine---the whole gloomy affaire Smyrthwaite, in its entirety, from start to finish, presented itself to his mind. The slightly bizarre yet charming room, its crowded furniture, subdued gaiety of lights and flowers, even Gabrielle St. Leger’s well-beloved and ardently desired presence, became strangely unreal to him and remote; while his mind fixed itself in turn upon the autocratic, self-centered husband and father warping the lives of wife and children in obedience to cold-blooded theory; upon the interruption of his own work, and prosecution of his fair romance, by the tedious labours of the executorship; of his long fruitless search amid the filth of the Paris underworld for the wastrel degenerate, Bibby; of the squalid finding, the still more squalid redisappearance of the wretched fellow, and the disquieting uncertainty which even now covered his whereabouts and his fate; and lastly, with sharp inward shrinking, upon the commencement, the progress, the extinction, of Joanna’s infatuation for himself.

And as sum total and result what remained? What was there to show in the way of harvest for all that strenuous and painful sowing? Only this---that now, very strangely, he himself at once participant and spectator, he saw in the mournful chill of the rain-swept September day a dark, straggling, ill-assorted procession passing up a trampled, puddle-pocketed road between ranks of pale and vulgarly commonplace monuments set against a backing of somber fir-trees and heather. Margaret Smyrthwaite, composed, callous, and comely, swathed in abundance of brand-new crape, walked beside him immediately behind a coffin---the hard, polished lines of which were unsoftened by pall or by flowers---carried shoulder high. The big Yorkshireman, Andrew Merriman, followed in company with Joseph Challoner---the latter oddly subdued and nervous, obsequious even in bearing and in speech. Next came fussy little Colonel Haig, Doctor Norbiton, and the amazon Marion Chase. A contingent of servants from the Tower House, headed by Smallbridge, the butler; Johnson, the portly coachman, and Mrs. Isherwood, brought up the rear. Isherwood, alone of the company, wept, silently but heart-brokenly, mourning not only a mistress who was to her as a daughter, but the passing of an order of things which had filled and moulded her life and in the service of which she had grown old. To Adrian the faithful woman’s tears supplied the one sincere and human note in the otherwise cruelly barren and perfunctory performance. And, to his seeing, her desolation found sympathetic echo in the desolation of the autumn moorland, of the bare coffin, and the grey curtain of drifting mist blotting out the distance---the vast amphitheatre of the Baughurst Park woods, the streets and buildings of Stourmouth, and all the noble freedom of the sea. The hopelessness of that desolation clutched at him still, penetrating him, even now and here, with conviction of failure and futility, with doubt of any eternal and reasoned direction and purpose in things human, and with very searching doubt of himself. His fine and healthy optimism---in other words, his faith in God’s goodness---suffered bitter eclipse.

“I would not be surprised if I concluded to take the trip with Lenty the first of the month, Miss Beauchamp.”

As he spoke Lewis Byewater’s mild and honest eyes, half humorously, half reproachfully, sought the delightful young man and young woman sitting silent in their gilded chairs.

“I am ever so grateful to you for all the splendid times you have given me,” he continued, rather irrelevantly; “but I begin to have a notion it would prove healthier for me to leave Paris this fall.”

Again his eyes sought the silent couple enthroned before the tall mirror.

“Yes,” he said, “I feel pretty confident I will accompany Lenty. Seems as though this gay city had turned ever so lonesome and foreign to-night. Europe is enervating for a continuance. I know others who have found it affect them that way. There is too much atmosphere over here. I have a notion my moral system is in need of toning up; and I believe our bright American climate might help me some if I took a spell of it.”

Madame St. Leger threw back her head and loosened the lace scarf about her rounded throat.

“Return, Mr. Savage. Again I remind you that I wait to hear that which you ask to tell me, that I listen. Return, lest I grow too impatient of waiting,” she said.

Adrian straightened himself. His looked dazed, absorbed. He passed his hands across his eyes and forehead, as one who awakens from a feverish sleep.

“Ah! forgive me, chère Madame,” he answered. “But that is precisely what I need, what I desire---just that---to return, to come back; and to come back by your invitation, at your calling. I ask nothing better, nothing else.”

He spread out his hands, leaning sideways in his chair, looking at her.

“Forgive me. I am very stupid, incoherent; but the events of the last three weeks are still so vividly present to me that they confuse and distract me. I cannot see my way clearly. I find it difficult to tell you what is necessary, just what I should. See, then, it had been the habit of my cousin to keep a journal daily from early childhood. The last volume of that journal she had, I found, left as a legacy to me. Her sister gave it to me after the funeral. I took it back with me to London. The night was wet, and I was in no humour for amusement. I remained indoors, in my room at the hotel. The sinister fears which I entertained in connection with my cousin’s death had not been allayed by my visit to Stourmouth. A certain mystery appeared to surround the circumstances attending it. I perceived a great unwillingness to answer my inquiries on the part of those most nearly concerned. That night, after dinner, I opened the packet containing the journal, unwillingly, I own; I would rather have delayed. But I could not do so. With the muffled roar of the ceaseless London traffic in my ears I sat and read the journal from cover to cover. Having once begun, I could not leave off. I did not go to bed that night. In the morning early I left London. I left England. I travelled. I hardly know where I went, Madame. I wanted to escape. I wanted to get away from every person I knew, whom I had ever seen. Above all I wanted to get away from myself; but I was obliged to take myself along with me. And I found myself a dreadful companion. I hated myself.”

Madame St. Leger moved slightly in her gilded chair.

“My poor friend!” she murmured almost inaudibly.

“Yes, I hated myself,” Adrian repeated. “That journal is the most poignant, the most convincing human document I have ever read. My cousin had the misfortune to love a person who did not return her affection. In the pages of her journal, with uncompromising truthfulness, with appalling self-scrutiny, self-revelation and unflinching courage, with, I may add, the amazing abandon possible only to a rigidly virtuous woman, she has recorded the successive phases of that love, from its first unsuspected and almost unconscious inception to the hour when by an act of will, so extraordinary as to be little short of miraculous, she sent her soul out of her body, across land and sea, in pursuit of the man whom she loved and forced from his own lips the confession of his indifference to her.”

Again Madame St. Leger moved slightly.

“You tell me this soberly, Mr. Savage?” she asked. “In good faith?”

Adrian looked fixedly at her. Her beautiful face, her whole attitude, was tense with excitement.

“In absolute good faith, Madame,” he replied. “I have not only the detailed testimony of her journal, but the perfectly independent and equally detailed testimony of the person whom she loved. The two statements agree in every particular.”

“Still,” Gabrielle cried, a sudden yearning in her eyes, “still I cannot count her as altogether unfortunate, your poor cousin! For it is not given to many---it is the mark of a very strong, a very great nature, to be capable of such love. And when she had obtained this man’s confession?”

“She decided to live no longer,” Adrian replied hoarsely. “She had no religion, no faith in Almighty God or in the survival of human personality and consciousness, no hope of a hereafter, to restrain her from taking her own life. She made her preparations calmly and silently, with the dignity of sincere and very impressive stoicism. The concluding words of the terrible book, in which she has dissected out all the passion and agony of her heart, of her poor tortured body as well as her poor tortured soul, are words of pity, of tenderness, toward the man who found himself unable to return her affection.”

For a time both remained silent, while in the outer room Miss Beauchamp bade a genial farewell to the disconsolate Byewater.

“Yes, go, my dear young man, go,” she said, “and breathe the surprising air of your very surprising native land. I shall miss you. But I understand the position, and give you my blessing. Later you will return to us---for Europe is full of illumination and of instruction. You will return, and, be very sure, we shall all be delighted to see you. Be sure, also, that you leave an altogether pleasant and friendly reputation behind you.”

“But, but,” Gabrielle said, presently, with a certain protest and hesitancy, “it pains, it angers me to think of so great a waste. For it is no ordinary thing, the bestowal by any woman of so magnificent a gift of love. That a woman, young and rich, should die for love---and now, at the present time, when our interest moves quickly from person to person, when we console ourselves easily with some new occupation, new friendship, when our morals are perhaps a little---how do you say?---easy, is it not particularly surprising, is it not, indeed, unique? To reject such affection, is not that to throw away, in a sense, a positive fortune? How could such devotion fail to attract, fail to create a response? Why, Monsieur, could not this man of whom you tell me return your cousin’s great love?”

Adrian Savage spread out his hands with a gesture at once hopeless and singularly appealing.

“Because, Madame, because the man already loved you,” he said. “And, that being so, for him there could be no possible room, no conceivable question, of any other love.”

Madame St. Leger remained absolutely motionless, expressionless, for a moment; then she threw back her head, closing her eyes. “Ah!” she sighed, sharply. “Ah!”

And Adrian waited, watching her, a sudden keenness in his face. For what, indeed, did it betoken, where did it lead to, this praise and advocacy of Joanna Smyrthwaite’s tragic devotion, followed by that singularly unrestrained and unconventional little outcry? The said outcry struck right through him, giving him a queer turn in the blood---carrying him back in sentiment, moreover, to the horrible yet perfect experience in René Dax’s studio, when he had felt the whole weight of Gabrielle’s beloved body flung against him and the clasp of her arms about his neck. He straightened himself, took a deep breath, his nostrils dilated, his lips parted. He emerged from the confusion and lethargy which had oppressed him, quickened by that same outcry into newness and fullness of life. To him all this was as the drawing aside of some gloomy, jealously impenetrable curtain---the curtain of desolate grey mist, was it, blotting out the distance, the town, the great woods, and the noble freedom of the sea, when he walked in that ill-assorted funeral procession up the wet road behind Joanna’s coffin?---a drawing of it aside and letting the glad and wholesome sunlight shine on him once more. He no longer felt a stranger to himself. The past---all which had happened, all which went to shape his character and inspire his action, all which he had desired and held infinitely dear before the affaire Smyrthwaite imposed itself upon him---linked up with the present, in sane and intelligible sequence of cause and effect. Thus, chastened, it is true, a little older, sadder, wiser, but fearless, ardent, purposeful as ever, did Adrian the Magnificent come into his own again.

He drew nearer to her, laid his right arm somewhat possessively upon the arm of Madame St. Leger’s chair, and spoke softly, yet with much of his former impetuosity.

“See, chère Madame, see,” he said; “do you perhaps remember, this winter, in the week of the great snow, when I came to tell you I was summoned to my cousins’ home in England? You were not quite, quite kind. You mocked me a little, suggesting a solution of the problems raised by my impending visit. The solution you proposed was, as I ventured to explain to you, impossible then. It remained impossible to the end, the cruel end, and for the same reason.”

His manner changed. His voice deepened.

“Yet, believe me, when by degrees, against my will, against my respect for my cousin and sincere desire for her happiness, the fact of her unfortunate partiality was brought home to me, I tried with all my strength to command my heart. Twice I faced the situation without reserve, and tried to submit, to sacrifice myself, rather than cause her humiliation and distress.”

Adrian looked away across the crowded, pleasant room, with its scent of autumn flowers, cedar, and sandalwood, and its many shaded lights. His lips worked, but at first no sound passed them.

“I could not do it,” he said. “I could not. I loved you too much.”

He raised his hand from the arm of la belle Gabrielle’s chair, turning proudly upon her, as a man who on his trial fiercely protests his own innocence.

“I had given her no cause for her disastrous delusion---before God, Madame, I had not. And my passion, too, has its authority, its unalienable rights. I could not, I dared not, betray them. It may be that the happiness to which I aspire will never be granted me. Very well. I shall suffer, but I shall know how to accommodate myself. But to cut myself off voluntarily from all hope of that happiness by marriage with another woman was like asking me to mutilate myself. I refused. Could the situation repeat itself, I should again refuse, although when I read her terrible journal and learned the reason of my cousin’s suicide I was consumed by remorse, by grief and self-reproach.”

Adrian paused.

“Now I have told you everything, Madame,” he added, quietly. “I leave myself in your hands. It is for you to condemn or to acquit me, to judge whether I have behaved as an honourable man, whether I have done right.”

After a silence, a pathetic bewilderment in her mysterious eyes, Gabrielle St. Leger answered brokenly: “I do not know. I do not know. I cannot presume to judge. What you tell me is all so difficult, so sad---only I may say, perhaps, that I am glad you did not sacrifice yourself.”

“You are glad? Then---” Adrian stammered, “then you will marry me?”

“Eh! but,” la belle Gabrielle cried, and her voice shook, though whether with tears or with laughter she herself knew not, “you go so quick, so very quick!”

“You are mistaken---pardon me. I do not go quick, but slow, slow as the centuries, as æons, as innumerable and cumulative eternities. Have I not served for you, tres chère Madame, a good seven years?”

“So long as that?”

“Yes, as long as that. Ever since the day I first saw you. You had but recently come to Paris. Much has happened---for both of us---since that date. Yes, I can still describe to you the gown you wore, the manner in which your hair was dressed, can recall the subjects of our conversation, can repeat the words which you said.”

Madame St. Leger gathered herself back in her gilded chair, her head bent. For a quite perceptible space of time she remained absolutely still. The inclination of her head and the shadow cast by the brim of her hat concealed her face. Adrian’s heart thumped in his ears. His breath came short and thick. At last he could bear the suspense no longer. He leaned forward again.

“Madame, Madame,” he called softly, urgently, “think of the seven years. Remember that I am young and that I am on fire, since I love as the young love. Do not prolong my trial. Give me my answer---yes or no---now, here, at once.”

Thus adjured, Madame St. Leger raised her head, looked full at him with wide-open eyes, something profound, exalted, in a way desperate, in her expression. She shivered slightly, and holding out both her hands: “I surrender,” she said.

The young man took her extended hands in his, bent down and kissed them reverently; then looked back at her gravely, resolutely, though he was white to the lips.

“But not under compulsion, not out of pity?” he said. “Now, even now, with the consummation of all my hopes and desire within my grasp, I would rather you sent me away than, than---that----”

La belle Gabrielle shook her head gently, smiling.

“No, no,” she answered. “Not under compulsion, not out of pity, mon ami; but because I find nature is too strong for me. Because I find I too love, and find---since you will have me lay bare my heart and tell you everything---it is you, precisely and solely you, whom I love.”

And from the inner room---into which Anastasia Beauchamp had passed unperceived by her two guests during this, for them, momentous colloquy---came strains of heroic music, good for the soul.

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