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Lawyer and politician Sir Edward Leithen has been diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis - a year to live. A former colleague, American John S. Blenkiron, requests help to find his niece's husband, who has flown from his successful financial career to the wild Canadian north . . .
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THUS SAID ALFRED: IF THOU HAST A WOE TELL IT NOT TO THE WEAKLING, TELL IT TO THY SADDLE-BOW, AND RIDE SINGING FORTH.
PROVERBS OF ALFRED
Leithen had been too busy all day to concern himself with the thoughts which hung heavily at the back of his mind. In the morning he had visited his bankers to look into his money affairs. These were satisfactory enough; for years he had been earning a large income and spending little of it; his investments were mostly in trustee stocks; he found that he possessed, at a safe computation, a considerable fortune, while his Cotswold estate would find a ready sale. Next came his solicitors, for he was too wise a man to make the mistake of many barristers and tinker with his own will. He gave instructions for bringing the old one up to date. There were a few legacies by way of mementoes to old friends, a considerable gift to his college, donations to certain charities, and the residue to his nephew Charles, his only near relation.
He forced himself to lunch at one of his clubs, in a corner where no one came near him, though Archie Roylance waved a greeting across the dining-room. Then he spent a couple of hours with his clerk in his Temple chambers, looking through the last of his briefs. There were not a great many, since, for some months, he had been steadily refusing work. The batch of cases for opinion he could soon clear off, and one big case in the Lords he must argue next week, for it involved a point of law in which he had always taken a special interest. The briefs for the following term would be returned. The clerk, who had been with him for thirty years, was getting on in life and would be glad to retire on an ample pension. Still, it was a painful parting.
'It's a big loss to the Bar, Sir Edward, sir,' old Mellon said, 'and it's pretty well the end of things for me. You have been a kind master to me, sir, and I'm proud to have served you. I hope you are going to have many happy years yet.'
But there had been a look of pain in the old man's eyes which told Leithen that he had guessed what he dared not hint at.
He had tea at the House of Commons with the Chief Whip, a youngish man named Ritson, who in the War had been a subaltern in his own battalion. Ritson listened to him with a wrinkled brow and troubled eyes.
'Have you told your local people?' he asked.
'I'll write to them tomorrow. I thought I ought to tell you first. There's no fear of losing the seat. My majority has never been less than six thousand, and there's an excellent candidate ready in young Walmer.'
'We shall miss you terribly, you know. There's no one to take your place.'
Leithen smiled. 'I haven't been pulling my weight lately.'
'Perhaps not. But I'm thinking of what's coming. If there's an election, we're going to win all right, and we'll want you badly in the new Government. It needn't be a law office. You can have your pick of half a dozen jobs. Only yesterday the Chief was speaking to me about you.' And he repeated a conversation he had had with the man who would be the next Prime Minister.
'You're all very kind. But I don't think I want anything. I've done enough, as Napoleon said, "pour chauffer la gloire."'
'It is your health?' Ritson asked.
'Well, I need a rest. I've been pretty busy all my days, and I'm tired.'
The Chief Whip hesitated.
'Things are pretty insecure in the world just now. There may be a crisis any day. Don't you think you ought——'
'I've thought of that. But if I stayed on I could do nothing to help. That isn't a pleasant conclusion to come to, but it's the truth.'
Ritson stood at the door of his room and watched his departing guest going down the corridor to the Central Lobby. He turned to a junior colleague who had joined him—
'I wonder what the devil's the matter! There's been a change in him in the last few months. But he doesn't look a sick man. He was always a bad colour, of course, but Lamancha says he is the hardest fellow he ever knew on the hill.'
The other shook a wise head. 'You never can tell. He had a roughish time in the War and the damage often takes years to come out. I think he's right to slack off, for he must have a gruelling life at the Bar. My father tried to get him the other day as leader in a big case, and he wasn't to be had for love or money. Simply snowed under with work!'
Leithen walked from the House towards his rooms in Down Street. He was still keeping his thoughts shut down, but in spite of himself the familiar streets awakened memories. How often he had tramped them in the far-off days when he was a pupil in chambers and the world was an oyster waiting to be opened! It was a different London then, quieter, cosier, dirtier perhaps, but sweeter-smelling. On a summer evening such as this the scents would have been a compound of wood paving, horse-dung, flowers, and fresh paint, not the deadly monotony of petrol. The old landmarks, too, were disappearing. In Saint James's Street only Mr. Lock's modest shop-window and the eighteenth-century façade of Boodle's recalled the London of his youth. He remembered posting up this street with a high heart after he had won his first important case in court . . . and the Saturday afternoons' strolls in it when he had changed his black regimentals for tweeds or flannels . . . and the snowy winter day when a tiny coffin on a gun carriage marked the end of Victoria's reign . . . and the shiny August morning in 1914 when he had been on his way to enlist with a mind half-anxious and half-exulting. He had travelled a good deal in his time, but most of his life had been spent in this square mile of West London. He did not regret the changes; he only noted them. His inner world was crumbling so fast that he had lost any craving for permanence in the externals of life.
In Piccadilly he felt his knees trembling and called a taxi. In Down Street he took the lift to his rooms, though for thirty years he had made a ritual of climbing the stairs.
The flat was full of powdery sunlight. He sank into a chair at the window to get his breath, and regarded the comfortable, shabby sitting-room. Now that he seemed to be looking at it with new eyes he noted details which familiarity had long obscured. The pictures were school and college groups, one or two mountain photographs, and, over the mantelpiece, Raeburn's portrait of his grandfather. He was very little of a connoisseur, though at Borrowby he had three Vandykes which suited its Jacobean solemnity. There were books everywhere; they overflowed into the dining-room and his bedroom and the little hall. He reflected that what with these, and the law library in his chambers, and his considerable collection at Borrowby, he must have at least twenty thousand volumes. He had been happy here, happy and busy, and for a moment—for a moment only—he felt a bitter pang of regret.
But he was still keeping his thoughts at a distance, for the time had not come to face them. Memories took the vacant place. He remembered how often he had left these rooms with a holiday zest, and how he had always returned to them with delight, for this, and not Borrowby, was his true home. How many snug winter nights had he known here, cheerful with books and firelight; and autumn twilights when he was beginning to get into the stride of his work after the long vacation; and spring mornings when the horns of elfland were blowing even in Down Street! He lay back in his chair, shut his eyes, and let his memory wander. There was no harm in that, for the grim self-communion he had still to face would have no room for memories. He almost dozed.
The entry of his man, Cruddock, aroused him.
'Lord Clanroyden called you up, sir. He is in Town for the night and suggests that you might dine with him. He said the Turf Club at eight. I was to let him know, sir.'
'Tell him to come here instead. You can produce some kind of dinner?' Leithen rather welcomed the prospect. Sandy Clanroyden would absorb his attention for an hour or two and postpone for a little the settlement with himself which his soul dreaded.
He had a bath and changed. He had been feeling listless and depressed, but not ill, and the cold shower gave him a momentary sense of vigour and almost an appetite for food. He caught a glimpse of himself naked in the long mirror, and was shocked anew by his leanness. He had given up weighing himself, but it looked as if he had lost pounds in the past month.
Sandy arrived on the stroke of eight. Leithen, as he greeted him, reflected that he was the only one of his closer friends whom he could have borne to meet. Archie Roylance's high spirits would have been intolerable, and Lamancha's air of mastery over life, and Dick Hannay's serene contentment.
He did not miss the sharp glance of his guest when he entered the room. Could some rumours have got abroad? It was clear that Sandy was setting himself to play a part, for his manner had not its usual ease. He was not talking at random, but picking his topics.
A proof was that he did not ask Leithen about his holiday plans, which, near the close of the law term, would have been a natural subject. He seemed to feel that his host's affairs might be delicate ground, and that it was his business to distract his mind from some unhappy preoccupation. So he talked about himself and his recent doings. He had just been to Cambridge to talk to the Explorers' Club, and had come back with strong views about modern youth.
'I'm not happy about the young entry. Oh! I don't mean all of it. There's plenty of lads that remind me of my own old lot. But some of the best seem to have become a bit too much introverted—isn't that the filthy word? What's to be done about the owlish young, Ned?'
'I don't see much of youth nowadays,' said Leithen. 'I seem to live among fogies. I'm one myself.'
'Rot! You are far and away the youngest of us.'
Again Leithen caught a swift glance at his face, as if Sandy would have liked to ask him something, but forbore.
'Those boys make me anxious. It's right that they should be serious, with the world slipping into chaos, but they need not be owlish. They are so darned solemn about their new little creeds in religion and politics, forgetting that they are all as old as the hills. There isn't a ha'porth of humour in the bunch, which means, of course, that there isn't any perspective. If it comes to a showdown, I'm afraid they will be pretty feeble folk. People with half their brains and some sense of humour will make rings round them.'
Leithen must have shown his unconcern about the future of the world by his expression, for Sandy searched for other topics. Spring at Laverlaw had been diviner than ever. Had Leithen heard the curlews this year? No? Didn't he usually make a pilgrimage somewhere to hear them? For Northerners they, and not the cuckoo, were the heralds of spring . . . His wife was at Laverlaw, but was coming to London next day. Yes, she was well, but——
Again Leithen saw in the other's face a look of interrogation. He wanted to ask him something, tell him something, but did not feel the moment propitious.
'Her uncle has just turned up here. Apparently there's a bit of family trouble to be settled. You know him, don't you? Blenkiron—John Scantlebury Blenkiron?'
Leithen nodded. 'A little. I was his counsel in the Continental Nickel case some years ago. He's an old friend of yours and Hannay's, isn't he?'
'About the best Dick and I have in the world. Would you like to see him again? I rather think he would like to see you.'
Leithen yawned and said his plans for the immediate future were uncertain.
Just before ten Sandy took his leave, warned by his host's obvious fatigue. He left the impression that he had come to dinner to say something which he had thought had better be left unsaid, and Leithen, when he looked at his face in his dressing-table mirror, knew the reason. It was the face of a very sick man.
That night he had meant, before going to sleep, to have it out with himself. But he found that a weary body had made his brain incapable of coherent thought, so he tumbled into bed.
The reckoning came six hours later, when his bedroom was brightening with the fore-glow of a June dawn. He awoke, as he usually did nowadays, sweating and short of breath. He got up and laved his face with cold water. When he lay down again he knew that the moment had arrived.
Recent events had been confused in a cloud of misery, and he had to disengage the details. . . . There was no one moment to which he could point when his health had begun to fail. Two years before he had had a very hard summer at the Bar, complicated by the chairmanship of a Royal Commission, and a trip to Norway for the August sea-trout had been disastrous. He had returned still a little fatigued. He no longer got up in the morning with a certain uplift of spirit, work seemed duller and more laborious, food less appetising, sleep more imperative but less refreshing.
During that winter he had had a bout of influenza for the first time in his life. After it he had dragged his wing for a month or two, but had seemed to pick up in the spring when he had had a trip to Provence with the Clanroydens. But the hot summer had given him a setback, and when he went shooting with Lamancha in the autumn he found to his dismay that he had become short of breath and that the hills were too steep for him. Also he was clearly losing weight. So on his return to London he sought out Acton Croke and had himself examined. The great doctor had been ominously grave. Our fathers, he said, had talked unscientifically about the 'grand climacteric,' which came in the early sixties, but there was such a thing as a climacteric which might come any time in middle life, when the physical powers adjusted themselves to the approach of age. That crisis Leithen was now enduring, and he must go very carefully and remember that the dose of gas he got in the War had probably not exhausted its effect. Croke put him on a diet, prescribed a certain routine of rest and exercise, and made him drastically cut down his engagements. He insisted also on seeing him once a fortnight.
A winter followed for Leithen of steadily declining health. His breath troubled him and a painful sinking in the chest. He rose languidly, struggled through the day, and went to bed exhausted. Every moment he was conscious of his body and its increasing frailty. Croke sent him to a nursing home during the Christmas vacation, and for a few weeks he seemed to be better. But the coming of spring, instead of giving him new vigour, drained his strength. He began to suffer from night sweats which left him very feeble in the morning. His meals became a farce. He drove himself to take exercise, but now a walk round the Park exhausted one who only a few years back could walk down any Highland gillie. Croke's face looked graver with each visit.
Then the day before yesterday had come the crisis. He went by appointment to Croke and demanded a final verdict. The great doctor gave it: gravely, anxiously, tenderly, as to an old friend, but without equivocation. He was dying, slowly dying.
Leithen's mind refused to bite on the details of his own case with its usual professional precision. He was not interested in these details. He simply accepted the judgment of the expert. He was suffering from advanced tuberculosis, a retarded consequence of his gas-poisoning. Croke, knowing his patient's habit of mind, had given him a full diagnosis, but Leithen had scarcely listened to his exposition of the chronic fibrous affection and broncho-pulmonary lesions. The fact was enough for him.
'How long have I to live?' he asked, and he was told a year, perhaps a little longer.
'Shall I go off suddenly, or what?' The answer was that there would be a progressive loss of strength until the heart failed.
'You can give me no hope?'
Croke shook his head.
'I dare not. The lesions might heal, the fibrous patches might disappear, but it would be a miracle according to our present knowledge. I must add, of course, that our present knowledge may not be final truth.'
'But I must take it as such. I agree. Miracles don't happen.'
Leithen left Harley Street almost cheerfully. There was a grim satisfaction in knowing the worst. He was so utterly weary that after coffee and a sandwich in his rooms he went straight to bed.
Soon he must think things out, but not at once. He must first make some necessary arrangements about his affairs which would keep him from brooding. That should be the task of the morrow. It all reminded him of his habit as a company commander in the trenches when an attack was imminent; he had busied himself with getting every detail exact, so that his mind had no time for foreboding . . .
As he lay watching his window brighten with the morning, he wondered why he was taking things so calmly. It was not courage—he did not consider himself a brave man, though he had never greatly feared death. At the best he had achieved in life a thin stoicism, a shallow fortitude. Insensibility, perhaps, was the best word. He remembered Doctor Johnson's reply to Boswell's 'That, sir, was great fortitude of mind.'—'No, sir, stark insensibility.'
At any rate, he would not sink to self-pity. He had been brought up in a Calvinistic household and the atmosphere still clung to him, though in the ordinary way he was not a religious man. For example, he had always had an acute sense of sin, which had made him something of a Puritan in his way of life. He had believed firmly in God, a Being of ineffable purity and power, and consequently had had no undue reverence for man. He had always felt his own insignificance and imperfections and was not inclined to cavil at fate. On the contrary, he considered that fortune had been ludicrously kind to him. He had had fifty-eight years of health and wealth. He had survived the War, when the best of his contemporaries had fallen in swathes. He had been amazingly successful in his profession and had enjoyed every moment of his work. Honours had fallen to him out of all proportion to his merits. He had had a thousand pleasures—books, travel, the best of sport, the best of friends.
His friends—that had been his chief blessing. As he thought of their warm companionship he could not check a sudden wave of regret. That would be hard to leave. He had sworn Acton Croke to secrecy, and he meant to keep his condition hidden even from his closest intimates—from Hannay and Clanroyden and Lamancha and Palliser-Yeates and Archie Roylance. He could not endure to think of their anxious eyes. He would see less of them than before, of course, but he would continue to meet them on the old terms. Yes—but how? He was giving up Parliament and the Bar—London, too. What story was he to tell? A craving for rest and leisure? Well, he must indulge that craving at a distance, or otherwise his friends would discover the reason.
But where . . . Borrowby? Impossible, for it was associated too closely with his years of vigour. He had rejoiced in reshaping that ancient shell into a home for a green old age; he remembered with what care he had planned his library and his garden; Borrowby would be intolerable as a brief refuge for a dying man . . . Scotland?—somewhere in the Lowland hills or on the sounding beaches of the west coast? But he had been too happy there. All the romance of childhood and forward-looking youth was bound up with those places and it would be agony to revisit them.
His memory sprawled over places he had seen in his much-travelled life. There was a certain Greek island where he had once lived dangerously; there were valleys on the Italian side of the Alps, and a saeter in the Jotunheim to which his fancy had often returned. But in his survey he found that the charm had gone from them; they were for the living, not the dying. Only one spot had still some appeal. In his early youth, when money had not been plentiful, he had had an autumn shooting trip in northern Quebec because it was cheap. He had come down on foot over the height of land, with a single Montagnais guide, back-packing their kit, and one golden October afternoon he had stumbled on a place which he had never forgotten. It was a green saddle of land, a meadow of wild hay among the pines. South from it a stream ran to the St. Lawrence; from an adjacent well another trickle flowed north on the Arctic watershed. It had seemed a haven of pastoral peace in a shaggy land, and he recalled how loath he had been to leave it. He had often thought about it, often determined to go back and look for it. Now, as he pictured its green security, it seemed the kind of sanctuary in which to die. He remembered its name. The spring was called Clairefontaine, and it gave its name both to the south-flowing stream and to a little farm below in the valley.
Supposing he found the proper shelter, how was he to spend his closing months? As an invalid, slowly growing feebler, always expectant of death? That was starkly impossible. He wanted peace to make his soul, but not lethargy either of mind or body. The body!—that was the rub. It was failing him, that body which had once been a mettled horse quickly responding to bridle or spur. Now he must be aware every hour of its ignoble frailty . . . He stretched out his arms, flexing the muscles as he used to do when he was well, and was conscious that there was no pith in them.
His thoughts clung to this physical shell of his. He had been proud of it, not like an athlete who guards a treasure, but like a master proud of an adequate servant. It had added much to the pleasures of life . . . But he realised that in his career it had mattered very little to him, for his work had been done with his mind. Labouring men had their physical strength as their only asset, and when the body failed them their work was done. They knew from harsh experience the limits of their strength, what exhaustion meant, and strife against pain and disablement. They had to endure all their days what he had endured to a small degree in the trenches . . . Had he not missed something, and, missing it, had failed somehow in one of the duties of man?
This queer thought kept returning to him with the force of a revelation. His mood was the opposite of self-pity, a feeling that his life had been too cosseted and fur-lined. Only now that his body was failing did he realise how little he had used it . . . Among the oddly assorted beliefs which made up his religious equipment one was conditional immortality. The soul was only immortal if there was such a thing as a soul, and further existence had to be earned in this one. He had used most of the talents God had given him, but not all. He had never, except in the War, staked his body in the struggle, and yet that was the stake of most of humanity. Was it still possible to meet that test of manhood with a failing body? . . . If only the War were still going on!
His mind, which had been dragging apathetically along, suddenly awoke into vigour. By God, there was one thing that would not happen! He would not sit down and twiddle his thumbs and await death. His ship, since it was doomed, should go down in action with every flag flying. Lately he had been re-reading Vanity Fair and he remembered the famous passage where Thackeray moralises on the trappings of the conventional deathbed, the soft-footed nurses, the hushed voices of the household, the alcove on the staircase in which to rest the coffin. The picture affected him with a physical nausea. That, by God! should never be his fate. He would die standing, as Vespasian said an emperor should . . .
The day had broadened into full sunlight. The white paint and the flowered wallpaper of his bedroom glowed with the morning freshness, and from the street outside came pleasant morning sounds like the jingle of milk-cans and the whistling of errand boys. His mind seemed to have been stabbed awake out of a flat stoicism into a dim but masterful purpose.
He got up and dressed, and his cold bath gave him a ghost of an appetite for breakfast.
His intention was to go down to his chambers later in the morning and get to work on the batch of cases for opinion. As always after a meal, he felt languid and weak, but his mind was no longer comatose. Already it was beginning to move steadily, though hopelessly, towards some kind of plan. As he sat huddled in a chair at the open window, Cruddock announced that a Mr. Blenkiron was on the telephone and would like an appointment.
This was the American that Sandy Clanroyden had spoken of. Leithen remembered him clearly as his client in a big case. He remembered much that he had heard about him from Sandy and Dick Hannay. One special thing, too—Blenkiron had been a sick man in the War and yet had put up a remarkable show. He had liked him, and, though he felt himself now cut off from human companionship, he could hardly refuse an interview for Sandy's sake. The man had probably some lawsuit in hand, and, if so, it would not take long to refuse.
'If convenient, sir, the gentleman could come along now,' said Cruddock.
Leithen nodded and took up the newspaper.
Blenkiron had aged. Eight years ago Leithen recalled him as a big man with a heavy shaven face, a clear skin, and calm, ruminant grey eyes. A healthy creature in hard condition, he could have given a good account of himself with his hands as well as his head. Now he was leaner and more grizzled, and there were pouches under his eyes. Leithen remembered Sandy's doings in South America; Blenkiron had been in that show, and he had heard about his being a sort of industrial dictator in Olifa, or whatever the place was called.
The grey eyes were regarding him contemplatively but keenly. He wondered what they made of his shrunken body.
'It's mighty fine to see you again, Sir Edward. And all the boys, too. I've been stuck so tight in my job down South that I've got out of touch with my friends. I'm giving myself a holiday to look them up and to see my little niece. I think you know Babs.'
'I know her well. A very great woman. I had forgotten she was your niece. How does the old gang strike you?'
'Lasting well, sir. A bit older and maybe a bit wiser and settling down into good citizens. They tell me that Sir Archibald Roylance is making quite a name for himself in your Parliament, and that Lord Clanroyden cuts a deal of ice with your Government. Dick Hannay, I judge, is getting hayseed into his hair. How about yourself?'
'Fair,' Leithen said. 'I'm going out of business now. I've worked hard enough to be entitled to climb out of the rut.'
'That's fine!' Blenkiron's face showed a quickened interest. 'I haven't forgotten what you did for me when I was up against the Delacroix bunch. There's no man on the globe I'd sooner have with me in a nasty place than you. You've a mighty quick brain and a mighty sound judgment and you're not afraid to take a chance.'
'You're very kind,' said Leithen, a little wearily. 'Well, that's all done with now. I am going out of harness.'
'A man like you can't ever get out of harness. If you lay down one job you take up another.'
Blenkiron's eyes, appraising now rather than meditative, scanned the other's face. He leaned forward in his chair and sank his voice.
'I came round this morning to say something to you, Sir Edward—something very special. Babs has a sister, Felicity—I guess you don't know her, but she's something of a person on our side of the water. Two years younger than Babs, and married to a man you've maybe heard of, Francis Galliard, one of old Simon Ravelston's partners. Young Galliard's got a great name in the city of New York, and Felicity and he looked like being a happy pair. But just lately things haven't been going too well with Felicity.'
In common politeness Leithen forced a show of attention, but Blenkiron had noted his dull eyes.
'I won't trouble you with the story now,' he went on, 'for it's long and a bit ravelled. But the gist of it is that Francis Gilliard has disappeared over the horizon. Just leaked out of the landscape without a word to Felicity or anybody else. No! There is no suggestion of kidnapping or any dirty work—the trouble is in Francis's own mind. He is a Canuck—a Frenchman from Quebec—and I expect his mind works different from yours and mine. Now, he has got to be found and brought back—first of all to Felicity, and second, to his business, and third, to the United States. He's too valuable a man to lose, and in our present state of precarious balance we just can't afford it.'
Blenkiron stopped as if he expected some kind of reply. Leithen said nothing, but his thoughts had jumped suddenly to the upland meadow of Clairefontaine of which he had been thinking that morning. Odd that that remote memory should have been suddenly dug out of the lumber-room of the past!
'We want help in the job,' Blenkiron continued, 'and it's not going to be easy to find it. We want a man who can piece together the bits that make up the jigsaw puzzle, though we haven't got much in the way of evidence. We want a man who can read himself into Francis's mind and understand the thoughts he might have been thinking. And, most of all, we want a man who can put his conclusions into action. Finding Francis may mean a good deal of bodily wear and tear and taking some risks.'
'I see.' Leithen spoke at last. 'You want a combination of detective, psychologist, and sportsman.'
'Yep.' Blenkiron beamed. 'You've hit it. And there's just the one man I know that fills the bill. I've had a talk with Lord Clanroyden and he agrees. If you had been going on at the Bar, we would have offered you the biggest fee that any brief ever carried, for there's money to burn in this business—though I don't reckon the fee would have weighed much with you. But you tell me you are shaking loose. Well, here's a job for your leisure, and, if I judge you right, it's the sort of job you won't turn down without a thought or two.'
Leithen raised his sick eyes to the eager face before him, a face whose abounding vitality sharpened the sense of his own weakness.
'You've come a little late,' he said slowly. 'I'm going to tell you something which Lord Clanroyden and the others don't know, and will never know—which nobody knows except myself and my doctor—and I want you to promise to keep it secret . . . I'm a dying man. I've only about a year to live.'
He was not certain what he expected, but he was certain it would be something which would wind up this business for good. He had longed to have one confidant, only one, and Blenkiron was safe enough. The sound of his voice speaking these grim words somehow chilled him, and he awaited dismally the conventional sympathy. After that Blenkiron would depart and he would see him no more.
But Blenkiron did not behave conventionally. He flushed deeply and sprang to his feet, upsetting his chair.
'My God!' he cried. 'If I ain't the blighted, God-darned blundering fool! I might have guessed by your looks you were a sick man, and now I've hurt you in the raw with my cursed egotistical worries . . . I'm off, Sir Edward. Forget you ever saw me. God forgive me, for I won't soon forgive myself.'
'Don't go,' said Leithen. 'Sit down and talk to me. You may be the very man I want.'
His hostess noticed his slow, appraising look around the table, which took each of the guests in turn.
'You were here last in '34,' she said. 'Do you think we have changed?'
Leithen turned his eyes to the tall woman at his left hand. Mrs. Simon Ravelston had a beautiful figure, ill-chosen clothes, and the weather-beaten face of an English master of foxhounds. She was magnificently in place on horseback, or sailing a boat, or running with her beagles, but no indoor setting could fit her. Sprung from ancient New England stock, she showed her breeding in a wonderful detachment from the hubbub of life. At her own table she would drift into moods of reverie and stare into vacancy, oblivious of the conversation, and then when she woke up would turn such kind eyes upon her puzzled interlocutor that all offences were forgiven. When her husband had been Ambassador at the Court of Saint James's she had been widely popular, a magnet for the most sophisticated young men; but of this she had been wholly unconscious. She was deeply interested in life and very little interested in herself.
Leithen answered: 'Yes. I think you all look a little more fine-drawn and harder-trained. The men, that is. The women could never change.'
Mrs. Ravelston laughed. 'I hope that you're right. Before the depression we were getting rather gross. The old Uncle Sam, that we took as our national figure, was lean like a Red Indian, but in late years our ordinary type had become round-faced, and puffy, and pallid like a Latin John Bull. Now we are recovering Uncle Sam, though we have shaved him and polished him up.' Her eyes ran round the table and stopped at a youngish man with strong, rugged features and shaggy eyebrows who was listening with a smile to the talk of a very pretty girl.
'George Lethaby, for example. Thank goodness he is a career diplomat and can show himself about the world. I should like people to take him as a typical American.' She lowered her voice, for she was speaking now of her left-hand neighbour. 'Or Bronson, here. You know him, don't you? Bronson Jane?'
Leithen glanced beyond his hostess to where a man just passing into middle life was peering at an illegible menu card. This was the bright particular star of the younger America, and he regarded him with more than curiosity, for he counted upon him for help. On paper Bronson Jane was almost too good to be true. He had been a noted sportsman and was still a fine polo player; his name was a household word in Europe for his work in international finance; he was the Admirable Crichton of his day, and it was rumoured that in the same week he had been offered the Secretaryship of State, the Presidency of an ancient University, and the control of a great industrial corporation. He had chosen the third, but seemed to have a foot in every other world. He had a plain, sagacious face, a friendly mouth, and deep-set eyes, luminous and masterful.
Leithen glanced round the table again. The dining-room of the Ravelston house was a homely place; it had no tapestries or panelling, and its pictures were family portraits of small artistic merit. In each corner there were marble busts of departed Ravelstons. It was like the rest of the house, and, like their country homes in the Catskills and on the Blue Ridge, a dwelling which bore the mark of successive generations who had all been acutely conscious of the past. Leithen felt that he might have been in a poor man's dwelling but for the magnificence of the table flowers and silver and the soup plates which had once belonged to a King of France. He let his gaze rest on each of the men.
'Yes,' he told his hostess, 'you are getting the kind of face I like.'
'But not the right colour, perhaps?' She laughed. 'Is that worry or too much iced water, I wonder?' She broke off suddenly, remembering her neighbour's grey visage.
'Tell me who the people are,' he said to cover her embarrassment. 'I have met Mr. Jane and Mr. Lethaby and Mr. Ravelston.'
'I want you to know my Simon better,' she said. 'I know why you have come here—Mr. Blenkiron told me. Nobody knows about it except in the family. The story is that Mr. Galliard has gone to Peru to look into some pitchblende propositions. Simon is terribly distressed and he feels so helpless. You see we only came back to America from England four months ago, and we have kind of lost touch.'
Simon Ravelston was a big man with a head like Jove, and a noble silvered beard. He was president of one of the chief private banking houses in the world, which under his great-grandfather had financed the first railways beyond the Appalachians, under his grandfather had salvaged the wreckage of the Civil War, and under his father had steadied America's wild gallop to wealth. He had a dozen partners, most of whom understood the technique of finance far better than himself, but on all major questions he spoke the last word, for he had the great general's gift of reducing complexities to a simple syllogism. In an overworked world he seemed always to have ample leisure, for he insisted on making time to think. When others of his calling were spending twelve hectic hours daily in their offices, Simon would calmly go fishing. No man ever saw him rattled or hustled, and this Olympian detachment gave him a prestige in two continents against which he himself used to protest vigorously.
'They think I'm wise only because I don't talk when I've nothing to say,' he used to tell his friends. 'Any fool these days can get a reputation if he keeps his mouth shut.'
He was happy because his mind was filled with happy interests; he had no itching ambitions; he did his jobs as they came along with a sincere delight in doing them well, and a no less sincere delight in seeing the end of them. He was the extreme opposite of the man whose nerves demand a constant busyness, because, like a bicyclist, he will fall down if he stays still.
Leithen's gaze passed to a young man who had Simon's shape of head, but was built on a smaller and more elegant scale. His hostess followed his eyes.
'That's our boy, Eric, and that's his wife, Delia, across the table. Pretty, isn't she? She has the Southern complexion, the real thing, which isn't indigestion from too much hot bread at breakfast. What's he doing? He's on the Johns Hopkins staff and is making a big name for himself in lung surgery. Ever since a little boy he's been set on doctoring and nothing would change him. He had a pretty good training—Harvard—two years at Oxford—a year in Paris—a long spell in a Montreal hospital. That's a new thing about our boys, Sir Edward. They're not so set nowadays on big business. They want to do things and make things, and they consider that there are better tools than dollars. George Lethaby is an example. He's a poor man and always will be, for a diplomat can't be a money-maker. But he's a happier man than Harold Downes, though he doesn't look it.'
Mr. Lethaby's rugged face happened at the moment to be twisted into an expression of pain out of sympathy with some tale of the woman to whom he was talking, while his vis-à-vis, Mr. Downes, was laughing merrily at a remark of his neighbour.
'Harold has a hard life,' said Mrs. Ravelston. 'He's head of the Fremont Banking Corporation and a Saint Sebastian for everyone to shoot arrows at. Any more to be catalogued? Why, yes, there are the two biggest exhibits of all!'
She directed Leithen's eyes to two men separated by a handsome old woman whose hair was dressed in the fashion of forty years ago.
'You see the man on the far side of Ella Purchase, the plump little man with the eagle beak who looks like he's enjoying his food. What would you set him down as?'
'Banker? Newspaper proprietor?'
'Wrong. That's Walter Derwent. You've heard of him? His father left him all kinds of wealth, but Walter wasted no time in getting out of oil into icebergs. He has flown and mushed and tramped over most of the Arctic, and there are heaps of mountains and wild beasts named for him. And you'd never think he'd moved farther than Long Island. Now place the man on this side of Ella.'
Leithen saw a typical English hunting-man—lean, brown face with the skin stretched tight over the cheekbones, pale, deep-set eyes, a small clipped moustache, shoulders a little stooped from being much on horseback.
'Virginian squire,' he hazarded. 'Warrenton at a guess.'
'Wrong,' she laughed. 'He wouldn't be happy at Warrenton, and I'm certain he wouldn't be happy on a horse. His line is deep learning. He's about our foremost pundit—professor at Yale—dug up cities in Asia Minor—edited Greek books. Writes very nice little stories, too. That's Clifford Savory.'
Leithen looked with interest at the pleasant, vital face. He knew all about Clifford Savory. There were few men alive who were his equals in classical scholarship, and he had published one or two novels, delicate historical re-constructions, which were masterpieces in their way.
His gaze circled round the table, again noting the friendliness of the men's eyes, the atmosphere of breeding and simplicity and stability. He turned to his hostess—
'You've got together a wonderful party for me,' he said. 'I feel what I always feel when I come here—that you are the friendliest people on earth. But I believe, too, that you are harder to get to know than our awkward, difficult, tongue-tied folk at home. To get to know really well, I mean—inside your plate-armour of general benevolence.'
Mrs. Ravelston laughed. 'There may be something in that. It's a new idea to me.'
'I think you are sure of yourselves, too. There is no one at this table who hasn't steady nerves and a vast deal of common-sense. You call it poise, don't you?'
'Maybe; but this is a picked party, remember.'
'Because of its poise?'
'No. Because every man here is a friend of Francis Galliard.'
'Friend? Do you mean acquaintance or intimate?'
The lady pursed her lips.
'I'm not sure. I think you are right, and that we are not an easy people to be intimate with unless we have been brought up with the same background. Francis, too, is scarcely cut out for intimacy. Did you ever meet him?'
'No. I heard his name for the first time a few weeks ago. Which of you knows him best? Mr. Ravelston?'
'Certainly not Simon, though he's his business partner. Francis has a good many sides, and most people know only one of them. Bronson could tell you most about his work. He likes my Eric, but hasn't seen much of him in recent years. I know he used to go duck-shooting in Minnesota with George Lethaby, and he's a trustee of Walter Derwent's Polar Institute. I fancy Clifford Savory is nearer to him than most people. And yet . . . I don't know. Maybe nobody has got to know the real Francis. He has that frank, forthcoming manner which conceals a man, and he's mighty busy too, too busy for intimacies. I used to see him once or twice a week, but I couldn't tell you anything about him that everybody doesn't know. It won't be easy, Sir Edward, to get a proper notion of him from second-hand evidence. Felicity's your best chance. You haven't met Felicity yet?'
'I'm leaving her to the last. What's she like? I know her sister well.'
'She's a whole lot different from Babs. I can tell you she's quite a person.'
Leithen felt that if his hostess had belonged to a different social grade she would have called her a 'lovely' woman. Her meaning was clear. Mrs. Galliard was someone who mattered.
He was beginning to feel very weary, and, knowing that he must ration his strength, he made his excuses and did not join the women after dinner. But he spent a few minutes in the library, to which the men retired for coffee and cigars. He had one word with Clifford Savory.
'I heard you five years ago at the Bar Association,' Savory said. 'You spoke on John Marshall. I hope you're going to give me an evening on this visit.'
Bronson Jane accompanied him to the door.
'You're taking it easy, I understand, Sir Edward, and going slow with dinners. What about the Florian tomorrow at half-past five? In these hot days that's a good time for a talk.'
The library of the Florian Club looked out on the East River, where the bustle of traffic was now dying down and the turbid waters catching the mellow light of the summer evening. It might have been a room in an old English country house, with its Chippendale chairs and bookcases, and the eighteenth-century mezzotints on the walls. The two men sat by the open window, and the wafts of cool evening air gave Leithen for the first time that day a little physical comfort.
'You want me to tell you about Francis Galliard?'
Bronson Jane's wholesome face showed no sign of fatigue, though he had been having a gruelling day.
'I'll tell you all I can, but I warn you that it's not much. I suppose I'm as close to him as most people, but I can't say I know him well. No one does—except perhaps his wife. But I can give you the general lay-out. First of all he is a French-Canadian. Do you know anything about French Canada?'
'I once knew a little—a long time ago.'
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