The story of The God in the Car is of a very special character. Here we find the large canvas of serious life brushed over with a firm hand, relentless in general outlines and details—telling the tragedy of a woman's love and the price that ambition pays for its own gratification. It is said that a certain English colonial statesman suggested the character of Rushton; we do not know, nor do we care. What we do know, however, is that in this story we meet not one or two, but several, characters that are worth knowing, and whom we will remember for many a day. Juggernaut, "The God in the Car," is the incarnation of all the qualities and shortcomings of what the French are pleased to call the strugforlifer, and under the wheels of his rolling throne he crushes the woman that loves him, relentless of the ruin and misery he leaves behind. Mr. Hope has shown that quantity is not always detrimental to quality.
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The God In The Car
Anthony Hope – His Life And Work
The God In The Car
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
By Frederick Taber Cooper
It is a sufficiently pleasant task to undertake to write a brief appreciation of Mr. Anthony Hope. The prevailing urbanity of his manner, the sustained sparkle of his wit, the agreeable expectation that he arouses of something stimulating about to happen, largely disarm criticism. Besides, he does not seem to demand to be taken too seriously; he is not a preacher or reformer, he is not trying to revolutionize the world; he is too well pleased with men and women as they actually are, to desire to make them something different. In short, he is a suave and charming public entertainer, and like all wise entertainers he alters the character of his program in accordance with the fluctuations of public taste. And being both versatile and farsighted he is usually in the van of each new movement. The God in the Car, his story of gigantic land speculations in South Africa, with the Herculean figure whom he chooses to disguise under the name of " Juggernaut," appeared in 1894, thus antedating by five years The Colossus, by Morley Roberts. Phroso, with its romantic setting among the islands of modern Greece, anticipated by a year Mr. E. F. Benson's analogous attempts, The Vintage and The Capsina. When the revival of the English historical novel was at its height, he succeeded once more in coming in ahead of his competitors, and Simon Dale, which appeared in 1898 and is a study of Restoration manners, with Nell Gwynn for its central interest, led the way for The Orange Girl by Sir Walter Besant, issued in 1899, and F. Frankfort Moore's Nell Gwynn, Comedian, which was not published until 1900.
But although he so cleverly adapts himself to the trend of public taste, Mr. Anthony Hope is not an innovator; he adapts but does not originate. Yet it is no uncommon thing to hear him erroneously praised for having created two new and widely popular types of fiction, the Zenda type and that of The Dolly Dialogues. Now, The Prisoner of Zenda, as we remember at once when we stop to think, is not the first up-to-date sword and buckler story of an imaginary principality; it was preceded, by nearly a decade, by Stevenson's Prince Otto; and the only reason that it so often gets the credit of being the forerunner of its class is simply because it was done with a defter, lighter touch, a more spontaneous inspiration. Similarly, The Dolly Dialogues are not the first attempt to imitate in English the sparkle and the piquancy of the Gallic dialogue in the form that " Gyp " and Henri Lavedan have made familiar. Although it is quite likely that at that time Anthony Hope had never even heard of it, The Story of the Gadsbys had at least three years the start of The Dolly Dialogues, and even though it was done with a heavier hand, it succeeded in getting a greater effectiveness out of the type.
But, after all, statistics of this sort, while interesting to a person of precise and inquiring mind, have little or no bearing upon the sources of enjoyment which a surprisingly large number of people undoubtedly find in Mr. Hope's writings. And there is variety enough among them to suit all tastes. He began in a spirit of blithe and irresponsible romanticism; he has gradually come, in his later years, to look upon life in a rather matter-of-fact way and to picture, by choice, the more serious problems of life in the social world to which he belongs. Yet his novels, even the most ambitious of them, never suggest the ponderousness of a novel-with-a-purpose; he never forgets what is expected from a conscientious entertainer. And one reason why he so uniformly succeeds is that he is an exceedingly good craftsman; he has mastered the sheer mechanics of his art. It is never wise for a novelist, whatever his literary creed may be, to be wantonly scornful of technique. There are just a few erratic geniuses who, because they have in them certain big thoughts that are struggling for utterance and apparently cannot be uttered in the simple usual way, boldly break the established rules and make new ones to suit their needs. To draw an offhand parallel, they are somewhat in the position of a man who, although untrained in public speaking, is listened to indulgently because of the importance of what he has to say. But your public entertainer enjoys no such license; and the lighter and more irresponsible his theme the more perfect must be his execution. And it is because Mr. Hope possesses that magic touch of the born story teller, that such delightful triflings as The Dolly Dialogues and The Indiscretion of the Duchess seem to linger in the memory with perennial youth, while many another weightier volume has faded out with the passage of years.
Accordingly, Mr. Hope belongs to that order of novelists about whom it is not only more enjoyable but more profitable to gossip genially than to weigh strictly in the balance. It is so easy to become garrulous over volumes that have worn well and afford many a pleasant hour of relaxation. It would be purposeless to take up serially each one of his many volumes, analyze and pigeonhole it according to its relative value. The better and the franker thing to do is to admit that there are certain volumes by Mr. Hope which gave the present writer genuine pleasure, and certain others that gave him no pleasure at all, and that those falling under the first division are the only ones which it seems worth while to discuss. In his earlier period the mere mention of Anthony Hope conjured up scenes of spirited adventure, reckless daring, gallant heroes combining the good breeding, the patrician ease, the assured manner of the better class of young Englishmen possessing the double advantage of birth and education, who, nevertheless, despite their studied reserve and immaculateness of dress, are plunged by a whim of fate into adventures of extraordinary daring and sublime audacity, adventures that would have taxed the prowess of Dumas's Immortal Three. It is a clever formula, this trick of taking certain types of familiar everyday people straight out of prosaic actuality and compelling them, whether they will or no, to perform romantic deeds against a romantic background. This peculiar combination was certainly a happy thought. It appealed to that latent thirst for adventure which we almost all possess; it unconsciously flattered the reader with a new sense of daring, a feeling that he too, if thus suddenly and surprisingly transported into Zendaland, might similarly rise to the occasion and achieve great deeds. There is no purpose served by analyzing once again the story of The Prisoner of Zenda. It is one of those stories the artificiality of which stands out glaringly the moment one starts to lay its bones bare.
Any story which depends upon the chance resemblance of two human beings, a resemblance so close, so misleading, that even the wife of one of the two is at a loss to distinguish them, takes on, when stated briefly, apart from the glamour of the tale itself, an air of palpable falsity to life. And yet the fact remains that tens of thousands of readers have lost themselves, forgotten time and space, in their utter absorption in the dilemma of the Princess Flavia, who finds in Rudolph Rassendyl all the qualities which might have made it possible for her to love her husband, if only he had been as close a replica of Rassendyl morally as he was physically.
I do not mind admitting that personally I revert more frequently to The Dolly Dialogues than to any other volume by Mr. Hope. This is not merely because of the delicate touch and epigrammatic neatness for which they have been so universally praised. Superficially considered they are a series of encounters between a sparkling and fascinating little lady and a sedate and nimble-witted gentleman, whom it is insinuated that the Lady Dolly has jilted. Now, the real fascination about these brilliant exchanges of repartee lies chiefly in the subtle and yet elusive implications that we are always on the point of reading between the lines, and yet never quite get in their entirety. That Mr. Carter has long been a worshiper at the shrine of Lady Dolly, that he has many a time felt a pang of regret that his fortune in life has made him ineligible, that he considers her husband not half grateful enough to Providence and that his own assumed air of sentimental resignation has in it a little touch of genuine regret, all this we get pretty clearly. And yet, we are well aware, all the time, that Mr. Carter, in spite of an occasional twinge of envy, would not change his condition if he could; that, although he may not be precisely aware of it, he is already confirmed in his bachelor habits; that he likes his freedom from responsibility, his harmless, unprofitable daily routine, his favorite corner in his favorite club, his innocent philandering with various young women, married and unmarried. He may, at times, deceive the Lady Dolly into commiserating him and blaming herself as a thoughtless coquette, but never for very long at a time. The whole thing is a sort of grown-up game of make-believe in which the players get a curious transitory, almost illogical enjoyment in feigning broken hearts and blighted lives. And yet there is just enough truth underlying it all to suggest that Mr. Hope was capable of more serious work than he had yet done. There was, for instance, everywhere a pervading suggestion of the infinite number of contradictory motives and impulses that determine every human action, and the impossibility which every man and woman must admit to themselves of deciding just how much gladness and how much regret is entailed in every least little thing that they do.
Almost without warning Mr. Hope proved that the vague promise of more serious work was well founded, by producing what, I think, the sober judgment of posterity will recognize as his most ambitious and most enduring work, Quisante. Alexander Quisante, from whom the volume takes its name, is not an Englishman either by birth or ancestry. He comes of antecedents almost unknown beyond the fact that they are a mixture of French and Spanish. With scanty means he comes, an absolute outsider, preparing to lay siege to the political and social world of London. In every way he finds himself handicapped. The foreordained course of education through which the English ruling classes pass as a matter of course and by which their prejudices and points of view are determined, has not been his privilege. In addition to this he lacks that inborn refinement which sometimes makes up for good breeding and social experience. His taste is often exceedingly bad; his manner is alternately too subservient and too arrogant. Of the higher standards of morality he has no perception; he is the typical adventurer, unscrupulous, insincere, monumentally selfish. But, to offset all this, his intellect is quite extraordinary; his brain is an instrument marvelously under control, and he uses it at his pleasure, to bring the lesser intellects about him under his dominion. Above all, he has the gift of eloquence; and when he chooses to give full rein to his rhetorical powers, he can sway his audience at will, and thrill and sweep them with him through the whole gamut of human emotions. Of the men and women whom he meets, fully one-half are antagonized and repelled; the others give him an unquestioning, almost slavish devotion. But he has a personality which cannot leave negative results; it must breed love or hate.
The other character in the book who shares the central interest is Lady May Gaston, a woman who, by birth and training, participates in all those special privileges of rank and caste, all the traditions of her order from which Quisante is shut out. There is another man, one in her own class, who would be glad to make her his wife. He is in all respects the sort of man whom she is expected to marry; and she is not wholly indifferent to him. But she meets Quisante, and, from the first, comes under the spell of his dominant personality. There is much in him from which she shrinks. His social ineptitude, his faculty for doing the wrong thing, or the right thing at the wrong time, makes her shudder. Although fascinated, she is not blinded. She sees his vulgarities, she questions his sincerity, she even doubts whether he is deserving of her respect. Nevertheless, the spectacular, flamboyant brilliancy of the man dominates her better judgment, and in spite of her relatives' remonstrances, in spite of warnings from a member of Quisante's own family, she marries him, unable to resist the almost hypnotic spell cast over her by this man, who is something of a charlatan and something of a cad. The greater part of the book concerns itself with the story of the married life of this curiously ill-assorted couple; of his success in the public eye; of her gradual disillusionment, which, bitter though it is in its completeness, finds her somewhat apathetic, unable to feel the resentment that she knows she ought, unable to acknowledge that she regrets her choice. This, indeed, is the most interesting aspect of the book, the domination, mentally and morally, of a woman of rare sensitiveness and infinite possibilities by a man with whom companionship inevitably means deterioration.
The next of Mr. Anthony Hope's volumes, which personally appealed to the present writer, is entitled A Servant of the Public, and is enjoyable chiefly because of the tantalizing witchery of its heroine. Ora Pinsent is a young actress, who has taken London by storm. She has a husband somewhere, it is said, " whose name does not matter "; indeed, it matters so little that it does not prevent her from letting Ashley Mead make ardent love to her, one Sunday afternoon, though all the while she " preserves wonderfully the air of not being responsible for the thing, of neither accepting nor rejecting, of being quite passive, of having it just happen to her." Thus with a single pen stroke Mr. Hope has set the woman unmistakably before us. Throughout the book she practices the art of having things just happen to her, the art of dodging responsibility. With Ashley she drifts, dangerously one thinks, at first, until one sees how easily she checks his ardor when she chooses, with a nervous laugh, and a low whispered " Don't, don't make love to me any more now." She talks much solemn nonsense about her duty to the husband whose name does not matter, and about her intention to renounce Ashley, although one realizes that there is really nothing to renounce, nor ever will be. And when the time comes for her company to leave London and start on their American tour, here also she plays the passive role, neither accepting nor rejecting. It is only when the weary months of her absence are over and she comes back as the wife of her leading man, that Ashley begins to see her as she really is; only then that he feels her power over him has ceased; only then that he can say, " I no longer love her, but I wish to God I did! " It is not easy to convey an impression of a woman's charm, when it lies not in what she says, but in the way she says it; not in what she does, but in the way she does it. But this is precisely what Anthony Hope has done triumphantly in his portraiture of Ora Pinsent, Ora, with her upturned face, with its habitual expression of expecting to be kissed, is one of the heroines in contemporary fiction that will not easily be forgotten.
Helena's Path deserves something more than a passing word of commendation, for it is an excellent example of Mr. Hope's deftness in doing a very slight thing extremely well. It has an outward framework of actuality, the atmosphere of present day English country life; yet into this he has infused a certain spirit of old-time chivalry and homage that gives to his whole picture something of the grace and charm of a Watteau landscape. The whole theme of the volume, which is scarcely more than a novelette, concerns itself with a right of way. The hero's estates lie somewhere on the east coast of England; but between his land and the strip of beach where he and his fathers before him have for generations been in the habit of bathing lies the property which the heroine has recently purchased; and, unaware of any right of way, she closes up the gate through which it is his habit to pass for his daily swim. He writes courteously but firmly, insisting on his right. She answers in the same spirit, emphatically denying it. He refuses to be robbed of his legal rights, even by a pretty woman; she refuses to yield, at a command, what she would have graciously granted to a prayer. As neither side chooses to adopt legal measures, a state of mimic war ensues, in which he continues to invade the enemy's territory, while she continues to barricade and entrench. And all the while, although they have not once met face to face, each is quietly falling in love with the other, so that when finally honorable terms of peace are concluded, it is already a foregone conclusion that the whole dainty little comedy will end with oaths of fealty and bestowal of favors worthy of a knight and a lady of the olden times.
With the passage of years, however, the author of The Dotty Dialogues has tended to give us fewer and fewer of these dainty trifles and more and more of his serious and careful social studies. In this class belongs The Great Miss Driver, and there is no exaggeration in saying that since the publication of Quisante it is easily the biggest, best-rounded, and altogether worthiest book he has written. And yet, the first thing you are apt to think of is that the germ idea of the story goes straight back to The Dolly Dialogues; that in a superficial way, yes, and perhaps in a deeper way, too, there is a certain rather absurd similarity between them; just as though the author, having once made a pleasant little comedy out of a certain situation, had ever since been turning over in his mind the possibility of using it in a bigger and more serious way, until eventually he evolved the present volume. Not that Jennie Driver, heiress to Breysgate Priory, bears any close resemblance to Lady Mickleham beyond the very feminine desire for conquest, any more than the Mr. Austin of the one story is a close relative of Mr. Carter in the other. The resemblance lies in this, that both stories are told in the first person by the man who in his secret heart loves the woman of whom he writes, but knows that because he is poor, because he has the natural instinct of an old bachelor, because, also, she has given her heart elsewhere, he must remain content to look upon her joys and sorrows in the capacity of a friend, and not that of a lover. To this extent The Great Miss Driver may be defined as The Dolly Dialogues rendered in a different tempo.
Yet, such a definition gives no hint of the strength, the variety, the vital interest of this story. In the character of Jennie Driver Mr. Hope has given us a woman whose ruling passion is to hold sway, to fascinate and bend to her will every one who comes within her sphere. And because of this desire she can never bear to lose the allegiance of any man, no matter how mean and unworthy he has proved himself; and herein lies the source of her life's tragedy. She is not content to be merely the richest woman in the county, to play the part of Lady Bountiful, and build memorials and endow institutions with fabulous sums; she wants also to be a social leader with undisputed right to take precedence over all the other ladies of the community, and this she could do if she married Lord Fillingford, whom she respects, and who badly needs her fortune; but not if she should marry Leonard Octon, big, brusque, rather brutal, who is cut by the whole county, and whom she happens to love. It is a rather unique situation in fiction for a woman to be forced into publicly slighting the one man on earth that she cares for; still more unique for a woman who is pledged to marry one man to be secretly meeting the other man, and thus atoning for deliberately cutting him whenever they meet in public. And, surely, it was a rather audacious thing for Mr. Hope to attempt to make us feel that in spite of her double-dealing Jennie Driver is a rather big and fine and splendid sort of woman; that she would have kept faith with Fillingford had he been big enough to trust her when appearances were heavily against her; and that in defying convention and scandalizing the little world she lives in by fleeing with Octon to Paris, she is doing the one big, brave, inevitable act. Yet, that is precisely what the author does succeed in making us feel; and when because Fate intervenes and wrecks the last chance of Jennie's happiness through the death of Octon, we not only sympathize with her bitterness toward the narrow-minded social circle that had forced her lover into exile, but we also glory with her in the big, carefully planned and altogether adequate revenge by which she forces the county to pay tardy homage to the name of Octon.
Notwithstanding the statement made at the beginning of this chapter, to the effect that Mr. Anthony Hope does not write problem novels, the volume entitled Mrs. Maxon Protests comes critically near the border-line. Mrs. Maxon is simply one more young woman who has discovered marriage to be something vastly different from what she had imagined; and her difficulty is of the variety which she regards as almost humiliatingly commonplace namely, incompatibility. Her husband happens to be one of those narrow, self-satisfied, dictatorial men, with old-fashioned ideas about women in general and a rooted conviction that a man has a high moral responsibility for his wife's conduct and must mould her in all fashions to his own way of thinking. Mrs. Maxon bears the strain for five years; then she consults a lawyer. She learns that while she cannot get a divorce in England, she can leave her husband and he cannot force her to come back. At the time of their separation, or to be more accurate, her desertion of him for Maxon refuses to take the matter seriously there is no other man in her life; but in the weeks that follow during which she stays at the country home of some friends with lax ideas of life and a houseful of curious and often irregular people, she suddenly surprises herself by falling in love with a certain Godfrey Ledstone and promptly scandalizes society by eloping with him openly and unashamed. The rest of the book traces, with a clear-sightedness that Mr. Hope has not always shown in his books, the subsequent career of a woman who thinks that by the force of her own example she can bring the whole world over to her way of thinking. He does not spare us any of her disillusions, her humiliations, her heartache and loneliness. But through it all she is learning, strangely and cruelly learning, much that is exceedingly good for her. She is learning, for instance, that charity and sympathy and understanding are often found where least expected. She is learning, too, that there are many other standards in this world as well as her own and that they are just as reasonable and perhaps nobler. She learns that one of the best men she has ever had the good fortune to meet, loving her, pitying her, utterly disapproving of her, would nevertheless have made her his wife in spite of the scandal that had preceded and followed her divorce but for one reason: he is an army officer, and a woman with a taint upon her name would lower the social tone of his regiment and be in some degree a menace to the moral tone of the younger set. It is a temptation to analyze at some length the separate episodes of this rather unusual book throughout the years while Mrs. Maxon is slowly finding her way out of the quagmire of her own making into a belated peace and happiness. Yet, after all, what the book stands for is so admirably summed up in the concluding paragraph that one cannot do it a greater service than to close with one brief quotation. It is a satisfaction to find a book written upon this theme which, while recognizing that there is much to be said on both sides, shows neither vindictiveness toward the woman nor a misplaced championship that would exalt her into a martyr.
In the small circle of those with whom she had shared the issues of destiny she had unsettled much; of a certainty she had settled nothing. Things were just as much in solution as ever; the welter was not abated. Man being imperfect, laws must be made. Man being imperfect, laws must be broken or ever new laws will be made. Winnie Maxon had broken a law and asked a question. When thousands do the like, the Giant, after giving the first comers a box on the ear, may at last put his hand to his own and ponderously consider.
Such are the volumes chosen as a matter of personal preference, out of the generous series that Mr. Hope has so industriously turned out, during a score of years. Another reader's choice might be different, and who shall say whether it would not be as well justified? Because, the first duty of a public entertainer is to entertain; and, taking this for a criterion, the most that any one can say of his own knowledge is, such-and-such volumes have entertained me. It is obvious that Mr. Hope's own preference is for his more serious work, that with the passage of years he has grown more willing to allow the books of his romantic period to fade from sight. Yet, by doing this, he challenges a harder competition, a stricter measurement against a host of rivals. There has been no one to give us a second Prisoner of Zenda, excepting Mr. Hope himself, notwithstanding that many another writer has tried his best. But it would be easy to name a dozen contemporary novelists who could give us the annals of another Servant of the People, or chronicle some further Intrusions of Peggy, and one or two who, perhaps, could do it better. Mr. Hope is not one of the great novelists of his generation; but he is never mediocre, and even in his uninspired moments never dull. His Prisoner of Zenda and his Dolly Dialogues were both gems of the first water; his Quisante certainly suffers nothing by comparison with George Gissing's Charlatan, separated from it by barely a year. As a chronicler of English manners he is certainly of rather more importance than Mr. E. F. Benson or Mr. Maarten Maartens, although not in the same class with Galsworthy, Bennett, or W. H. Maxwell. He will be remembered, I think, somewhat as William Black and Marion Crawford are remembered, as having preserved a wholesome optimism, an unshaken belief in human nature, and as having done his part to keep the tone of the modern novel clean and wholesome.
AN INSOLENT MEMORY.
"I'm so blind," said Miss Ferrars plaintively. "Where are my glasses?"
"What do you want to see?" asked Lord Semingham.
"The man in the corner, talking to Mr. Loring."
"Oh, you won't know him even with the glasses. He's the sort of man you must be introduced to three times before there's any chance of a permanent impression."
"You seem to recognise him."
"I know him in business. We are, or rather are going to be, fellow-directors of a company."
"Oh, then I shall see you in the dock together some day."
"What touching faith in the public prosecutor! Does nothing shake your optimism?"
"Perhaps your witticisms."
"Well, who is he?"
"He was once," observed Lord Semingham, as though stating a curious fact, "in a Government. His name is Foster Belford, and he is still asked to the State Concerts."
"I knew I knew him! Why, Harry Dennison thinks great things of him!"
"It is possible."
"And he, not to be behindhand in politeness, thinks greater of Maggie Dennison."
"His task is the easier."
"And you and he are going to have the effrontery to ask shareholders to trust their money to you?"
"Oh, it isn't us; it's Ruston."
"Mr. Ruston? I've heard of him."
"You very rarely admit that about anybody."
"Moreover, I've met him."
"He's quite coming to the front, of late, I know."
"Is there any positive harm in being in the fashion? I like now and then to talk to the people one is obliged to talk about."
"Go on," said Lord Semingham, urbanely.
"But, my dear Lord Semingham——"
"Hush! Keep the truth from me, like a kind woman. Ah! here comes Tom Loring——How are you, Loring? Where's Dennison?"
"At the House. I ought to be there, too."
"Why, of course. The place of a private secretary is by the side of——"
"His chief's wife. We all know that," interposed Adela Ferrars.
"When you grow old, you'll be sorry for all the wicked things you've said," observed Loring.
"Well, there'll be nothing else to do. Where are you going, Lord Semingham?"
"Because I've done my duty. Oh, but here's Dennison, and I want a word with him."
Lord Semingham passed on, leaving the other two together.
"Has Harry Dennison been speaking to-day?" asked Miss Ferrars.
"Well, he had something prepared."
"He had something! You know you write them."
Mr. Loring frowned.
"Yes, and I know we aren't allowed to say so," pursued Adela.
"It's neither just nor kind to Dennison."
Miss Ferrars looked at him, her brows slightly raised.
"And you are both just and kind, really," he added.
"And you, Mr. Loring, are a wonderful man. You're not ashamed to be serious! Oh, yes, I've annoyed—you're quite right. I was—whatever I was—on the ninth of last March, and I think I'm too old to be lectured."
Tom Loring laughed, and, an instant later, Adela followed suit.
"I suppose it was horrid of me," she said. "Can't we turn it round and consider it as a compliment to you?"
Tom looked doubtful, but, before he could answer, Adela cried:
"Oh, here's Evan Haselden, and—yes—it's Mr. Ruston with him?"
As the two men entered, Mrs. Dennison rose from her chair. She was a tall woman; her years fell one or two short of thirty. She was not a beauty, but her broad brow and expressive features, joined to a certain subdued dignity of manner and much grace of movement, made her conspicuous among the women in her drawing-room. Young Evan Haselden seemed to appreciate her, for he bowed his glossy curly head, and shook hands in a way that almost turned the greeting into a deferentially distant caress. Mrs. Dennison acknowledged his hinted homage with a bright smile, and turned to Ruston.
"At last!" she said, with another smile. "The first time after—how many years?"
"Eight, I believe," he answered.
"Oh, you're terribly definite. And what have you been doing with yourself?"
He shrugged his square shoulders, and she did not press her question, but let her eyes wander over him.
"Well?" he asked.
"Oh—improved. And I?"
Suddenly Ruston laughed.
"Last time we met," he said, "you swore you'd never speak to me again."
"I'd quite forgotten my fearful threat."
He looked straight in her face for a moment, as he asked—
"And the cause of it?"
Mrs. Dennison coloured.
"Yes, quite," she answered; and conscious that her words carried no conviction to him, she added hastily, "Go and speak to Harry. There he is."
Ruston obeyed her, and being left for a moment alone, she sat down on the chair placed ready near the door for her short intervals of rest. There was a slight pucker on her brow. The sight of Ruston and his question stirred in her thoughts, which were never long dormant, and which his coming woke into sudden activity. She had not anticipated that he would venture to recall to her that incident—at least, not at once—in the first instant of meeting, at such a time and such a place. But as he had, she found herself yielding to the reminiscence he induced. Forgotten the cause of her anger with him? For the first two or three years of her married life, she would have answered, "Yes, I have forgotten it." Then had come a period when now and again it recurred to her, not for his sake or its own, but as a summary of her stifled feeling; and during that period she had resolutely struggled not to remember it. Of late that struggle had ceased, and the thing lay a perpetual background to her thoughts: when there was nothing else to think about, when the stage of her mind was empty of moving figures, it snatched at the chance of prominence, and thus became a recurrent consciousness from which her interests and her occupations could not permanently rescue her. For example, here she was thinking of it in the very midst of her party. Yet this persistence of memory seemed impertinent, unreasonable, almost insolent. For, as she told herself, finding it necessary to tell herself more and more often, her husband was still all that he had been when he had won her heart—good-looking, good-tempered, infinitely kind and devoted. When she married she had triumphed confidently in these qualities; and the unanimous cry of surprised congratulations at the match she was making had confirmed her own joy and exultation in it. It had been a great match; and yet, beyond all question, also a love match.
But now the chorus of wondering applause was forgotten, and there remained only the one voice which had been raised to break the harmony of approbation—a voice that nobody, herself least of all, had listened to then. How should it be listened to? It came from a nobody—a young man of no account, whose opinion none cared to ask; whose judgment, had it been worth anything in itself, lay under suspicion of being biassed by jealousy. Willie Ruston had never declared himself her suitor; yet (she clung hard to this) he would not have said what he did had not the chagrin of a defeated rival inspired him; and a defeated rival, as everybody knows, will say anything. Certainly she had been right not to listen, and was wrong to remember. To this she had often made up her mind, and to this she returned now as she sat watching her husband and Willie Ruston, forgetful of all the chattering crowd beside.
As to what it was she resolved not to remember, and did remember, it was just one sentence—his only comment on the news of her engagement, his only hint of any opinion or feeling about it. It was short, sharp, decisive, and, as his judgments were, even in the days when he, alone of all the world, held them of any moment, absolutely confident; it was also, she had felt on hearing it, utterly untrue, unjust, and ungenerous. It had rung out like a pistol-shot, "Maggie, you're marrying a fool," and then a snap of tight-fitting lips, a glance of scornful eyes, and a quick, unhesitating stride away that hardly waited for a contemptuous smile at her angry cry, "I'll never speak to you again." She had been in a fury of wrath—she had a power of wrath—that a plain, awkward, penniless, and obscure youth—one whom she sometimes disliked for his arrogance, and sometimes derided for his self-confidence—should dare to say such a thing about her Harry, whom she was so proud to love, and so proud to have won. It was indeed an insolent memory that flung the thing again and again in her teeth.
The party began to melt away. The first good-bye roused Mrs. Dennison from her enveloping reverie. Lady Valentine, from whom it came, lingered for a gush of voluble confidences about the charm of the house, and the people, and the smart little band that played softly in an alcove, and what not; her daughter stood by, learning, it is to be hoped, how it is meet to behave in society, and scanning Evan Haselden's trim figure with wary, critical glances, alert to turn aside if he should glance her way. Mrs. Dennison returned the ball of civility, and, released by several more departures, joined Adela Ferrars. Adela stood facing Haselden and Tom Loring, who were arm-in-arm. At the other end of the room Harry Dennison and Ruston were still in conversation.
"These men, Maggie," began Adela—and it seemed a mere caprice of pronunciation, that the word did not shape itself into "monkeys"—"are the absurdest creatures. They say I'm not fit to take part in politics! And why?"
Mrs. Dennison shook her head, and smiled.
"Because, if you please, I'm too emotional. Emotional, indeed! And I can't generalise! Oh, couldn't I generalise about men!"
"Women can never say 'No,'" observed Evan Haselden, not in the least as if he were repeating a commonplace.
"You'll find you're wrong when you grow up," retorted Adela.
"I doubt that," said Mrs. Dennison, with the kindest of smiles.
"Maggie, you spoil the boy. Isn't it enough that he should have gone straight from the fourth form—where, I suppose, he learnt to generalise——"
"At any rate, not to be emotional," murmured Loring.
"Into Parliament, without having his head turned by——"
"You'd better go, Evan," suggested Loring in a warning tone.
"I shall go too," announced Adela.
"I'm walking your way," said Evan, who seemed to bear no malice.
"You don't object?"
"Not the least. I'm driving."
"A mere schoolboy score!"
"How stupid of me! You haven't had time to forget them."
"Oh, take her away," said Mrs. Dennison, and they disappeared in a fire of retorts, happy, or happy enough for happy people, and probably Evan drove with the lady after all.
Mrs. Dennison walked towards where her husband and Ruston sat on a sofa in talk.
"What are you two conspiring about?" she asked.
"Ruston had something to say to me about business."
"Oh, we've met in the city, Mrs. Dennison," explained Ruston, with a confidential nod to Harry.
"And that was the object of your appearance here to-day? I was flattering my party, it seems."
"No. I didn't expect to find your husband. I thought he would be at the House."
"Ah, Harry, how did the speech go?"
"Oh, really pretty well, I think," answered Harry Dennison, with a contented air. "I got nearly half through before we were counted out."
A very faint smile showed on his wife's face.
"So you were counted out?" she asked.
"Yes, or I shouldn't be here."
"You see, I am acquitted, Mrs. Dennison. Only an accident brought him here."
"An accident impossible to foresee," she acquiesced, with the slightest trace of bitterness—so slight that her husband did not notice it.
"Well, you'd better talk to Semingham about it," he remarked to Harry Dennison; "he's one of us, you know."
"Yes, I will. And I'll just get you that pamphlet of mine; you can put it in your pocket."
He ran out of the room to fetch what he promised. Mrs. Dennison, still faintly smiling, held out her hand to Ruston.
"It's been very pleasant to see you again," she said graciously. "I hope it won't be eight years before our next meeting."
"Oh, no; you see I'm floating now."
"Floating?" she repeated, with a smile of enquiry.
"Yes; on the surface. I've been in the depths till very lately, and there one meets no good society."
"Ah! You've had a struggle?"
"Yes," he answered, laughing; "you may call it a bit of a struggle."
She looked at him with grave curious eyes.
"And you are not married?" she asked abruptly.
"No, I'm glad to say."
"Why glad, Mr. Ruston? Some people like being married."
"Oh, I don't claim to be above it, Mrs. Dennison," he answered with a laugh, "but a wife would have been a great hindrance to me all these years."
There was a simple and bona fide air about his statement; it was not raillery; and Mrs. Dennison laughed in her turn.
"Oh, how like you!" she murmured.
Mr. Ruston, with a passing gleam of surprise at her merriment, bade her a very unemotional farewell, and left her. She sat down and waited idly for her husband's return. Presently he came in. He had caught Ruston in the hall, delivered his pamphlet, and was whistling cheerfully. He took a chair near his wife.
"Rum chap that!" he said. "But he's got a good deal of stuff in him;" and he resumed his lively tune.
The tune annoyed Mrs. Dennison. To suffer whistling without visible offence was one of her daily trials. Harry's emotions and reflections were prone to express themselves through that medium.
"I didn't do half-badly, to-day," said Harry, breaking off again. "Old Tom had got it all splendidly in shape for me—by Jove, I don't know what I should do without Tom—and I think I put it pretty well. But, of course, it's a subject that doesn't catch on with everybody."
It was the dullest subject in the world; it was also, in all likelihood, one of the most unimportant; and dull subjects are so seldom unimportant that the perversity of the combination moved Maggie Dennison to a wondering pity. She rose and came behind the chair where her husband sat. Leaning over the back, she rested her elbows on his shoulders, and lightly clasped her hands round his neck. He stopped his whistle, which had grown soft and contented, laughed, and kissed one of the encircling hands, and she, bending lower, kissed him on the forehead as he turned his face up to look at her.
"You poor dear old thing!" she said with a smile and a sigh.
THE COINING OF A NICKNAME.
When it was no later than the middle of June, Adela Ferrars, having her reputation to maintain, ventured to sum up the season. It was, she said, a Ruston-cum-Violetta season. Violetta's doings and unexampled triumphs have, perhaps luckily, no place here; her dancing was higher and her songs more surpassing in another dimension than those of any performer who had hitherto won the smiles of society; and young men who are getting on in life still talk about her. Ruston's fame was less widespread, but his appearance was an undeniable fact of the year. When a man, the first five years of whose adult life have been spent on a stool in a coal merchant's office, and the second five somewhere (an absolutely vague somewhere) in Southern or Central Africa, comes before the public, offering in one closed hand a new empire, or, to avoid all exaggeration, at least a province, asking with the other opened hand for three million pounds, the public is bound to afford him
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