Ronald West stood at the window of his wife's sitting-room, looking across the bright garden-borders to the wide park beyond, and wondering how on earth he should open the subject of which his mind had been full during their morning ride.
He had swung off his own horse a few moments before; thrown the bridle to a waiting groom, and made his way round to her stirrup. Then he had laid his hand upon Silverheels' mane, and looking up into his wife's glowing, handsome face, he had said: "May I come to your room for a talk, Helen? I have something very important to tell you."
Helen had smiled down upon him.
"I thought my cavalier was miles away from his horse and his wife, during most of the ride. But, if he proposes taking me on the same distant journey, he shall be forgiven. Also, I have something to tell you, Ronnie, and I see the turret clock gives us an hour before luncheon. I must scribble out a message for the village; then I will come to you at once, without stopping to change."
She laid her hand on his shoulder, and dropped lightly to the ground. Then, telling the groom to wait, she passed into the hall.
Ronald left her standing at the table, walked into the sitting-room alone, and suddenly realised that when you have thought of a thing continuously, day and night, during the best part of a week, and kept it to yourself, it is not easy to begin explaining it to another person—even though that other person be your always kind, always understanding, altogether perfect wife!
He had forgotten to leave his hat and gloves in the hall. He now tossed them into a chair—Helen's own particular chair it so happened—but kept his riding-crop in his hand, and thwacked his leather gaiters with it, as he stood in the bay window.
It was such a perfect spring morning! The sun shone in through the old-fashioned lattice panes.
Some silly old person of a bygone century had scratched with a diamond on one of these a rough cross, and beneath it the motto: In hoc vince.
Ronald had inveighed against this. If Helen's old ancestor, having nothing better to do, had wanted to write down a Latin motto, he should have put it in his pocket-book, or, better still, on the even more transitory pages of the blotter, instead of scribbling on the beautiful diamond panes of the old Grange windows. But Helen had laughed and said: "I should think he lived before the time of blotters, dear! No doubt the morning sun was shining on the glass, Ronnie, as he stood at the window. It was of the cross gleaming in the sunlight, that he wrote: In this conquer. If we could but remember it, the path of self-sacrifice and clear shining is always the way to victory."
Helen invariably stood up for her ancestors, which was annoying to a very modern young man who, not being aware of possessing any, considered ancestors unnecessary and obsolete.
But to-day the glittering letters shone out to him as an omen.
He meant to conquer, in this, as in all else.
It was curious that Helen should have chanced upon the simile of a distant journey. Another good omen! In hoc vince!
He heard her coming.
Now—how should he begin? He must be very tactful. He must break it to her gently.
Helen, closing the door behind her, came slowly down the sunny room. The graceful lines of her tall figure looked well, in the severe simplicity of her riding-habit. Her mass of beautiful hair was tucked away beneath her riding-hat. But nothing could take from the calm sweetness of her face, nor the steady expectant kindness of her eyes. Helen's eyes always looked out upon the world, as if they expected to behold a Vision Beautiful.
As she moved towards the bay window, she was considering whether she would decide to have her say first, or whether she would let Ronnie begin. Her wonderful news was so all-important. Having made up her mind that the time had come when she might at last share it with Ronnie, it seemed almost impossible to wait one moment before telling him. On the other hand, it would be so absorbing to them both, that probably Ronnie's subject would be allowed to lapse, completely forgotten and unmentioned. Nothing which was of even the most transitory interest to Ronnie, ever met this fate at his wife's hands. Therefore the very certainty that her news would outweigh his, inclined her to let him speak first.
She was spared the responsibility of decision.
Ronald, turning quickly, faced his wife. Hesitation seemed futile; promptness, essential. In hoc vince!
"Helen," he said, "I want to go to Central Africa."
Helen looked at him in silence, during a moment of immense astonishment.
Then she lifted his hat and gloves, laid them upon a table, seated herself in her easy-chair, and carefully flicked some specks of dust from her riding-habit.
"That is a long way to want to go, darling," she said, quietly. "But I can see you think something of imperative importance is calling you there. Sit down and tell me all about it, right from the beginning. It is a far cry from our happy, beautiful life here, to Central Africa. You have jumped me to the goal, without any knowledge of the way. Now suppose you take me gently along your mental route."
Ronald flung himself, with a sigh of relief, into the deep basket-work chair opposite Helen's. His boyish face cleared visibly; thenbrightened into enthusiasm. He stretched out his legs, put his hands behind his head, and looked admiringly across at his wife.
"Helen, you are so perfectly splendid in always understanding, always making it quite easy for a fellow to tell you things. You have a way of looking past all minor details, straight to the great essentials. Most women would stand——"
"Never mind what most women would do, Ronnie. I never stand, if I can sit down! It is a waste of useful energy. But you must tell me 'the great essentials,' as they appear to you, if I am to view them properly. Why do you want to go to Central Africa?"
Ronald leapt up and stood with his back to the mantel-piece.
"Helen, I have a new plot; a quite wonderful love-story; better than anything I have done yet. But the scene is laid in Central Africa, and I must go out there to get the setting vivid and correct. You remember how thrilled we were the other day, by the account of that missionary chap, who disappeared into the long grass, thirteen feet high, over twenty years ago; lived and worked among the natives, cut off from all civilisation; then, at last, crawled out again and saw a railway train for the first time in twenty-three years; got on board, and came home, full of wonderful tales of his experiences? Well—you know how, after he had been out there a few years, he found he desperately needed a wife; remembered a plucky girl he had known when he was a boy in England, and managed to get a letter home, asking her to come out to him? She came, and safely reached the place appointed, at the fringe of the wild growth. There she waited several months. But at last the man who had called to her in his need, crawled out of the long grass, took her to himself, and they crawled in again—man and wife—and were seen no more, until they reappeared many years later. Well—that true story has given me the idea of a plot, which will, I verily believe, take the world by storm! So original and thrilling! Far beyond any missionary love-stories."
Helen's calm eyes looked into the excited shining of his.
"Dear, why shouldn't a missionary's love-story be as exciting as any other? I don't quite see how you can better the strangely enthralling tale to which we listened."
"Ah, don't you?" cried Ronald West. "That's because you are not a writer of romances! My dear girl, two men crawled out of the long grass thirteen feet high, at the place where the woman was waiting! Two men—do you see? And the man who crawled out first was not the man who had sent for her! He turned up just too late. Now, do you see?"
"I see," said Helen. "Thirteen is always apt to be an unlucky number."
"Oh, don't joke!" cried Ronald. "I haven't time to tell you, now, how it all works out. But it's quite the strongest thing I've thought of yet. And do you see what it means to me? Think of the weird, mysterious atmosphere of Central Africa, as a setting for a really strong love-interest. Imagine three quite modern, present-day people, learning to know their own hearts and each other's, fighting out the crisis of their lives according to the accepted rules and standards of twentieth century civilisation—yet all amongst the wild primitive savagery of uncivilised tribes, and the extraordinary primeval growths of the unexplored jungles, where plants ape animals, and animals ape men, and all nature rears its head with a loose rein, as if defying method, law, order and construction! Why, merely to walk through some of the tropical houses at Kew gives one a sort of lawless feeling! If I stay long among the queer gnarled plants—all spiky and speckled and hairy; squatting, plump and ungainly on the ground, or spreading huge knotted arms far overhead, as if reaching out for things they never visibly attain—I always emerge into the ordinary English atmosphere outside, feeling altogether unconventional. As I walk across the well-kept lawns, I find it almost difficult to behave with decorum. It takes me quite a long time to become really common-place and conventional once more."
Helen smiled. "Darling," she said, "I think you must have visited the tropical plants in Kew Gardens more frequently than I realised! I shall have to forbid Kew, when certain important County functions are pending."
"Oh, bother the County!" cried Ronnie. "I never went in for a French dancing-master to bid me mind my P's and Q's! But, seriously, Helen, don't you understand how much this means to me? Both my last novels have had tame English settings. I can't go on forever letting my people make love in well-kept gardens!"
"Dear Ronnie, you have a good precedent. The first couple on record made love in a garden."
"Nonsense, darling! Eden was a quite fascinating jungle, in which all the wild animals conversed with intelligence and affability. You don't suppose Eve would have stood there alone, calmly listening while the serpent talked theology, unless conversations with animals had been an every-day occurrence. Think how you'd flee to me, if an old cow in the park suddenly asked you a question. But do let's keep to the point. I've got a new plot, and I must have a new setting."
"Why not be content to do as you have done before, Ronnie; go on writing, simply and sincerely, of the life you live and know?"
"Because, my dear girl, in common with the Athenians, people are always wanting either to tell or to hear some new thing. I've got hold of a jolly new thing, and I'm going to run it for all it's worth."
Helen considered this in silence.
Ronald walked over to the window, and beat a tattoo upon the In hoc vince pane.
"Do you see?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered, slowly. "I see your point, but I also see danger ahead. I am so anxious that, in your work, you should keep the object and motive at the highest; not putting success or popularity in their wrong place. Let success be the result of good work well done—conscientiously done. Let popularity follow unsought, simply from the fact that you have been true to yourself, and to your instinctive inspiration; that you have seen life at its best, and tried to portray it at its highest. To go rushing off to Central Africa in order to find a startling setting, is an angling after originality, which will by no means ensure doing really better work. Oh, Ronnie, my advice is: be content to stay at home, and to write truly and sincerely of the things you know."
Ronald came back to his chair; sat down, his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands, and looked earnestly into the troubled eyes of his wife.
"But, Helen," he said, "that really is not the point. Can't you see that I am completely possessed by this new plot? Also, that Central Africa is its only possible setting? It is merely a satisfactory side-issue, that it varies my mise-en-scene."
"Must you go off there, Ronnie, in order to write it? Why not get all the newest and best books on African travel, and read up facts——"
"Never!" cried Ronald, on his feet again, and walking up and down the room. "I must be steeped in the wonderful African atmosphere, before I can sub-consciously work it into my book. No account of other men's travels could do this for me. Besides, one might get all the main things correct, yet make a slip in some little unimportant detail. Then, by-and-by, some Johnny would come along, who could no more have written a page of your book than he could fly, but who happens to be intimately acquainted with the locality. He ignores the plot, the character-study, all the careful work on the essentials; but he spots your trivial error concerning some completely unimportant detail. So off he writes to the papers, triumphantly airing his little tit-bit of superior information; other mediocre people take it up—and you never hear the end of it."
Helen laughed, tender amusement in her eyes.
"Ronnie dear, I admit that not many Johnnies could write your books. But most Johnnies can fly, now-a-days! You must be more up-to-date in your similes, old boy; or you will have your wife writing to the papers, remarking that you are behind the times! But, seriously, Ronnie, you should be grateful to anybody who takes the trouble to point out an error, however small, in one of your books. You are keen that your work should be perfect; and if a mistake is mentioned, it can be set right. Why, surely you remember, when you read me the scene in the manuscript you wrote just after our marriage, in which a good lady could not sit down upon a small chair, owing to her toupet, I—your admiring and awestruck wife—ventured to point out that a toupet was not a crinoline; and you were quite grateful, Ronnie. You did not consider me an unappreciative Johnny, nor even a mediocre person! Who has, unknown to me, been trampling on your susceptibilities?"
"Nobody, thank goodness! I have never written a scene yet, of which I had not carefully verified every detail of the setting. But it has happened lots of times to people I know. Unimportant slips never seem to me to matter in another fellow's work, but they would matter desperately, horribly, appallingly in one's own. Therefore, nothing will ever induce me to place the plot of a novel of mine, in surroundings with which I am not completely familiar. Helen—I must go to Central Africa."