At the beginning of the 'sixties James Sorley came all the way from Hobart Town to call on the Captain for the first time in many years.
"I hear with … ah … horror that you contemplate page 249inaugurating a rifle club in this district," he began, before they were well into the library.
And the Captain—quite ready for old James with his pinched-in waist and stiff cravat—replied promptly: "Then you've heard wrong. It is inaugurated."
James went quite grey. He refused the offered chair and began at great length to assert that as Representative of the District (one always heard plenty of capitals when old James was about, thought the Captain) he had continually set his face against the degradation of military——
"Now, look here, James." The Captain decided to be tactful as long as he could. "You may as well stop this poppycock. If England can have volunteers, so can her colonies. And will, sir. And will."
"As Representative I warn you that I can exert powers … I … I warn you …" He ended vaguely, wishing the Captain wouldn't stare like a terrier about to bite: "I warn you of the very grave consequences which may overtake yourself and your dupes."
"I've already warned 'em that we're shootin' on the new Butts in Trienna Sandhills this afternoon. Now I warn you. If there are grave consequences attendant on any one's hangin' about the targets, I'm not responsible."
"Then," James grasped tighter the hat and stick which he had not laid down, "then I am to take it, Captain Comyn, that you defy me?"
"Take it how you like, James," said the Captain, enjoying himself hugely. "Take it how you like. Can I offer you a tot of Hollands with it?"
But when James stalked out like the crack of doom the Captain felt a discomfortable prick of alarm before he fortified himself with the tot James had rejected. For perhaps the first time he wished that mortgage had got itself paid off. But mortgages never did, somehow. Old James couldn't expect it, especially now that the Captain had made himself responsible for the general upkeep of the club. But each man provided his own uniform and the entrance fee was only half a crown. If that was not doing the thing cheaply, he would like to know what was. page 250Hypnotized into content by the consciousness of economy somewhere, he drove out with Madam to the Sandhills, very splendid in a frock-coat of olive-green, drab leggings, and a tall shako with cocks' feathers. Already there were two companies of artillery in the country, and soon there would be four of infantry. "Let Napoleon the Third bring his Frenchies when he likes," the Captain said to Madam. "We are ready for them."
Madam looked at the company drawn up against the yellow sand and the grey scrub wattle in the sun. If rifles had come in with the Crimea, whiskers had too, but she never liked them—particularly under shakos.
"Eh, mon vieux!" she cried. "Uniform is apparently as irresistible to a man as jewels are to a woman."
Very rosy and happy, the Captain kissed her hand, making the one epigram of his life: "With this difference, my love. With this difference. We wear uniform in order to prevent damage. The fair sex wear jewels in order to increase it."
"That's as may be," said Madam, rather tartly, remembering James Sorley's face as he left Clent. "There are occasions when the mere putting on of a uniform may provoke damage."
Had that been intuition? she wondered two days later, finding the Captain tossing into a great heap on the floor the papers from three large tin boxes in the library. He looked up, hot and dusty with snuff, and smiled when she asked him what he wanted.
"Nothing, my love. A mere nothing. If I can find the titles … I did have them."
"What do you want with titles?" asked Madam, a cold chill at her heart.
Still tossing papers, still on his fat little knees, her goodman answered her: "Nothing. Oh, merely an ultimatum, my love. Very civil, like one nation to another, but … but, damme, Jenny darling … not like one gentleman to another. If he was annoyed about something—and I certainly did gather as much the other day—he should have called me out and not ordered some pettifogging attorney to call in the mortgage. James never was a gentleman. We shall have to sell, Jenny … if I can find the titles."
Madam sat down. Her hands came together in her lap.page 251
"Guillaume, we have the spirit of the pioneer, and there we end. We could conquer, but we could not serve. And only those who do both can remain in the land."
"My dear girl," he said. "My darling girl." He put his arms round her, kissing her forehead. "It will all come right, Jenny—though, damme, I don't just see how, at the moment. But whatever happens, my love, I can only feel that we both have done our best."
He looked at her simply, trustfully, like a not too intelligent dog, and she took his face gently between her hands and kissed it thoughtfully. Guillaume, bless his dear soul, had certainly done his best with James; but Madam Comyn, the once-beloved of James, had not yet entered the lists.
Councillor James Sorley thought it best not to tell his family of the ultimatum. Uncomfortably he felt that, despite what he knew to be their very deep and natural respect for him, they might conceivably question it. In fact, the country might presently question it; for Comyn never could keep his mouth shut, and if he were as hard up as Henry declared and had to sell Clent … James withdrew his mind somewhat hastily from that thought; wished his family had not all gone out to dinner and left him to feel dull alone, and began industriously to recollect that he was a Member of the Upper House, complimented on his administrative qualities by the elusive Downing Street, and with a possible title in view. In any case Comyn was getting no more than his deserts. A noisy little chap whom he had never really liked, and if Madam … but, thank God, she hadn't. Thank God for a decorous and influential career with Louisa always faithful, so very faithful, beside him, instead of that mad and bad sweet dream——
"Madam Comun," announced the maid-servant, and slammed the door. James made a swift movement of flight, controlled it, said and did things as though the sky were not falling. Madam, looking through her ringlets, was completely at her ease. James's convulsive movement had put her there and, nom d'un nom, where was she not going to put him! With both hands out she advanced, shimmering silks and sandalwood scent quivering in the warm air.page 252
"At last," she said, "at last I have come to you, my friend."
The councillor grasped the back of Louisa's red-plush chair as though it were his faithful Louisa herself. He shot a glance round on her familiar things: flowers under glass shades, photographs on fretwork brackets, and ormolu clocks exposing their insides, and found his eyes drawn back to Madam, who stood smiling with downcast eyes.
"Ah, la douce ivresse of the years!" she said musically.
"Eh? Hum. Yes," said James. "Won't you … er … sit down?"
"You have not changed as others have changed. As Comyn has changed to me. When again he refused me my desire, I thought, 'There is still one who does not change to me.' And so … I have come."
"What did Comyn refuse you?" James found himself catching at the side issue with almost vulgar alacrity. With equally vulgar certainty he knew that he was suddenly sweating.
"De quoi, alors?" Madam sank into a chair, spread her fingers. "If I demand a new bonnet, a new barouche, it is equal. It is that I demand and he says, 'I cannot afford it.' Like that he says it. Figure you if a man ever so spoke before to the wife who under great provocation has been faithful to him all these years."
"Perhaps he really cannot?" James felt a little heady at being called a provocation, but that did not compensate for his terror.
"He used not to talk like this. I do not like it. I am annoyed. All the time he has no money. Then why not get it? I say. But he will not. James, he has changed. But I know that you have not. And so … I have come as so often you have implored me to."
"Do I understand … am I to understand …" Feeling desperately that he did not understand anything, he cried, "You can't love me now!"
"Oh, as for love, would you have me confess it? Ciel, James, it is for you to teach me as you have so many times offered to do."
"Hem. Not of late years," said the councillor, deprecatingly.
"Not of late years. At present I … ah …" He coughed. Ridiculously a long-forgotten injunction of his old nurse rattled into his brain: "Be a little gentleman, Master James. Be a little page 253gentleman." The councillor of thirty years' experience quailed under it. "Er," he said. "Ah. Er …"
"Comyn no longer loves me!" cried Madam, suddenly abandoning herself to grief in Louisa's red-plush chair. "I am sick of being good and having no money. I never was built for that. I have a gay soul. So I think I will fling my bonnet to the windmill and make one good man happy. And so … I am here."
The councillor wiped his forehead and his voice was unduly loud. "I am not a good man."
"So much the better. I never really liked them good," said Madam, reflectively.
"Madam Comyn, I … ah … beg you to listen. I am deeply …"
"Why not Jenny?" murmured Madam, her little hand groping. James took it. A man could do no less. It sent a thrill through him which warned him that he must be strong. For both their sakes he must be strong. He said so, and when Madam cried, "Why?" he said it again.
"I must consider you. Your standing in the country. I must realize for us both that we cannot now overset our lives with … ah … impunity. We owe so much to others."
"You too? Ah, these so horrible debts!"
"I … ah … did not speak of pecuniary obligations. I trust that I am able to discharge those without difficulty. But the country … our descendants … my old friend, who, I assure you, loves you devotedly. How," he cried, his fingers twitching above those soft glossy ringlets, "could he help it!" Terrified again at himself, he backed off. "You are undoubtedly under a serious misapprehension if you do not know that at present the whole country and, I may say, the …" He was finding his feet now, but Madam promptly jerked him off them. All the enjoyment of this interview was to be hers.
"If Comyn has no money, then it is clearly the will of God that I embarrass him no longer. And if I leave him, to whom should I turn but to one who has waited his reward these many years? Why should one man keep what he no longer values when another so desires it?"
"Good God!" said James. With trembling fingers he page 254rebuttoned his coat, as though the gesture shut her out; suddenly stooped over her where she sat with the firelight round her desirable little body like a nimbus. "My dear," he said with a real earnestness that abashed her, "there was a time when I would have given my soul for what you are now saying. But I … ah … have learned the world since then. I now know that it is my duty to protect you against yourself … myself. I … ah … yes," Madam heard him swallow the pill with an audible gulp, "I will see Captain Comyn and I make no doubt but that something can be arranged. No doubt at all. I am convinced that what you consider want of love is actually no more than want of cash."
"He has told me so. But how to believe … any man."
"You can believe him. I swear it. And you can believe me when I … ah … assure you that I shall never forget the … ah … inestimable honour which you have done me. May I hope," here he began to regain confidence and his hand went naturally into his coat-front, "that, once more reconciled to your husband and flowering in the position you have for so long adorned, you may in an idle moment cast a thought toward him who resigned the most glorious vision of his life in order that your name might may remain untarnished?"
"What a man!" said Madam, softly, into her handkerchief. "What sensibility! How can I but submit … and admire?" She thought swiftly that, this settled, it was a good time to put in a word for Charlotte, whose marriage might set la petite upon her mettle. She murmured: "It is rumoured that your Mark is amorous of our Charlotte, and had that come to pass it would not be right for me ever to think of you again. But since it will not come to pass …"
"Who says it won't?" cried the councillor, sharply, as though struck by a new idea. But Madam did not press the matter. She had the gift, so rare in women, of knowing when she had said enough. After one pressure of the hand, one backward look, she went off in her waiting carriage, and the councillor returned slowly to pour and drink the peg of which he felt so badly in need. And then, although informed that dinner had long been waiting, he stood before the pier-glass for an appreciable time.
With dear Louisa he often felt fully seventy. That siren just page 255departed had made him feel forty-five. Heigh-ho, hey nonny nonny! Well, there went the mortgage, for he would have to pay for this interview through the nose. But when did a man ever kick at paying for favours? He might even have had a kiss if … But no. That would have been dangerous, and besides … a gentleman … Youth is gay, and a maiden is bonny.
Still humming and switching his coat-tails like a young cock bird with new feathers, James Sorley stepped jauntily in to his dinner.