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III

III

On the rare occasions when there was no company at Clent the evenings were frankly dull. Madam ceased to play the harp when her voice ceased to please her critical ear. She played bezique with the Captain, or fashioned flower bunches on her embroidery frame while he netted curtains in thick white cotton for the whole of Clent. So far Madam had saved the austere elegance of her salon, but she knew that she would hang all the walls with that atrocious netting sooner than rendre triste her good man…. The brutality of age! It softens one, she thought.

Susan stitched unendingly on petticoats and frills. In her sewing-room was a long shelf which she hoped to fill with empty reels before she died. What le bon Dieu had been about, to fashion such as Susan, was more than Madam would ever be able to guess. And the swarm of children she and William page 154produced between them. Looking with dislike on fat, pale Susan, Madam felt she could have borne it better had William alone been responsible. William sat at the small buhl table, reading the Mercury and making notes regarding sales. Humphrey wandered in and out, and Mab had a book and an easy-chair by the big bright fireplace. Mab had nearly gone to the Crimea, to the New Zealand wars, to the gold-fields again. Madam, whose hopes had lessened sadly with the years, had prayed him almost on her knees to go to the Crimea. "I would buy you a commission," she said. "And the army is a proper enough career for a du Nesle Comyn. To return as a general would also give you an entrée into the Government."

Once she thought she had him persuaded, eager, the hunger gone out of his eyes before a new light. But it had all come to nothing, and very well she knew why and would have gladly slain Julia Berry had it been possible…. Dieu! she thought. And all this because I was virtuous. To have encouraged un peu plus the good James and there had been no Julia…. Profoundly considering the results of virtue, she looked again at Mab. He had ceased to read, but he did not feel her look. He stared into the glowing caverns of the fire. Seeing Julia, sans doute.

Everywhere Mab's troubled heart saw Julia. Julia with fair tragic face and too yielding body wrapped as he had just now wrapped her in hood and cloak of darkest fur. Julia in town, slaying a troop of curled young bucks with the bright hard shining of her eyes. Julia, that soft innocent child-thing of that long-ago Christmas Day. Julia, who once had sent him a rhyme:

Since all that thou can'st ever do for me
Is to do nothing, let me never see
How all-endured that nothing is to thee,

and, woman-like, had ever since expected him to let her see it.

Berry was Sir Almeric Berry now. Or "A.B." Or "All Brandy." He answered amiably to any name his endless associates gave him, and (being always hard up) had the constant excitement of being refused money by Julia and returning to the lenders with a puzzled look in his bemused black eyes. "My Lady page 155says I spend too much," he told them in his thick loitering voice. "So I do. She's quite right. Mons'rous fine woman, Lady Berry. Tell y'what," with sudden energy, "money's root of all evil. Comes between man and wife, y'know. Bad thing, that. I wonder …"

He seemed to be always wondering in the interludes of his "little amusements," which were the perennial scandal of the town. The latest, having recently consoled a hard-shell whaling-captain, had offended even the military's generous canons of gallantry. "So I've left him again," said Julia, still lovely in her twenties. "But if you left me, Mab, I should die."

Old Jerrold brought wine and plum-cake. Susan went to the feather bed she so closely resembled. The others drifted out. Mab sat alone over the fire; seeing ghosts, broken forms that once stood upright, incomprehensible pitiful forms that led him nowhere, promised nothing. Then he looked up and saw Humphrey stock against the tall white mantel.

Hours of preparation had convinced Humphrey of the difficulty of his mission, but they had not deterred him. He opened at once: "Jenny comes home for good next month, you know."

"Lucky you! I wish I had a sister."

Mab was feeling that one has to begin very young if one hopes to understand women. He lay back smiling up at the boy, with quizzical tired eyes. Experience, poise, a man's dark knowledge—Humphrey read them all and, badly frightened, he turned his head and blurted out, "I shouldn't care for her to see what I saw in the old hut to-night."

The utter silence following that frightened him more. He had a new and desolate sense that right is not always might, that this errant uncle was somehow stronger than righteous anger, mysteriously proof. Some sternly held youthful beliefs tumbled into ruin, bewildered him. He breathed hard.

"No gentleman ever sees what he is not meant to see," Mab said evenly, "or hears what he is not meant to hear. Haven't you learned that yet! Good night."

"Good night, sir," said Humphrey, and went out with his head down. In the corridor he stood a minute, brushing his hand over his face. But he could not clear his vision. Life, it seemed, page 156was not the direct, uncomplex, practical thing he had been used to think it. Life was … well what the devil was it?