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CHAPTER FIVE--THE TEA-PARTY (Page 2)


"Being what?" she interrupted me.

"A physiognomist," I repeated raising my voice a little. "A physiognomist, Mrs. Fyne. And on the principles of that science a pointed little chin is a sufficient ground for interference. You want to interfere--do you not?"

Her eyes grew distinctly bigger. She had never been bantered before in her life. The late subtle poet's method of making himself unpleasant was merely savage and abusive. Fyne had been always solemnly subservient. What other men she knew I cannot tell but I assume they must have been gentlemanly creatures. The girl-friends sat at her feet. How could she recognize my intention. She didn't know what to make of my tone.

"Are you serious in what you say?" she asked slowly. And it was touching. It was as if a very young, confiding girl had spoken. I felt myself relenting.

"No. I am not, Mrs. Fyne," I said. "I didn't know I was expected to be serious as well as sagacious. No. That science is farcical and therefore I am not serious. It's true that most sciences are farcical except those which teach us how to put things together."

"The question is how to keep these two people apart," she struck in. She had recovered. I admired the quickness of women's wit. Mental agility is a rare perfection. And aren't they agile! Aren't they-- just! And tenacious! When they once get hold you may uproot the tree but you won't shake them off the branch. In fact the more you shake . . . But only look at the charm of contradictory perfections! No wonder men give in--generally. I won't say I was actually charmed by Mrs. Fyne. I was not delighted with her. What affected me was not what she displayed but something which she could not conceal. And that was emotion--nothing less. The form of her declaration was dry, almost peremptory--but not its tone. Her voice faltered just the least bit, she smiled faintly; and as we were looking straight at each other I observed that her eyes were glistening in a peculiar manner. She was distressed. And indeed that Mrs. Fyne should have appealed to me at all was in itself the evidence of her profound distress. "By Jove she's desperate too," I thought. This discovery was followed by a movement of instinctive shrinking from this unreasonable and unmasculine affair. They were all alike, with their supreme interest aroused only by fighting with each other about some man: a lover, a son, a brother.

"But do you think there's time yet to do anything?" I asked.

She had an impatient movement of her shoulders without detaching herself from the back of the chair. Time! Of course? It was less than forty-eight hours since she had followed him to London . . . I am no great clerk at those matters but I murmured vaguely an allusion to special licences. We couldn't tell what might have happened to-day already. But she knew better, scornfully. Nothing had happened.

"Nothing's likely to happen before next Friday week,--if then."

This was wonderfully precise. Then after a pause she added that she should never forgive herself if some effort were not made, an appeal.

"To your brother?" I asked.

"Yes. John ought to go to-morrow. Nine o'clock train."

"So early as that!" I said. But I could not find it in my heart to pursue this discussion in a jocular tone. I submitted to her several obvious arguments, dictated apparently by common sense but in reality by my secret compassion. Mrs. Fyne brushed them aside, with the semi-conscious egoism of all safe, established, existences. They had known each other so little. Just three weeks. And of that time, too short for the birth of any serious sentiment, the first week had to be deducted. They would hardly look at each other to begin with. Flora barely consented to acknowledge Captain Anthony's presence. Good morning--good night--that was all--absolutely the whole extent of their intercourse. Captain Anthony was a silent man, completely unused to the society of girls of any sort and so shy in fact that he avoided raising his eyes to her face at the table. It was perfectly absurd. It was even inconvenient, embarrassing to her--Mrs. Fyne. After breakfast Flora would go off by herself for a long walk and Captain Anthony (Mrs. Fyne referred to him at times also as Roderick) joined the children. But he was actually too shy to get on terms with his own nieces.

This would have sounded pathetic if I hadn't known the Fyne children who were at the same time solemn and malicious, and nursed a secret contempt for all the world. No one could get on terms with those fresh and comely young monsters! They just tolerated their parents and seemed to have a sort of mocking understanding among themselves against all outsiders, yet with no visible affection for each other. They had the habit of exchanging derisive glances which to a shy man must have been very trying. They thought their uncle no doubt a bore and perhaps an ass.

I was not surprised to hear that very soon Anthony formed the habit of crossing the two neighbouring fields to seek the shade of a clump of elms at a good distance from the cottage. He lay on the grass and smoked his pipe all the morning. Mrs. Fyne wondered at her brother's indolent habits. He had asked for books it is true but there were but few in the cottage. He read them through in three days and then continued to lie contentedly on his back with no other companion but his pipe. Amazing indolence! The live-long morning, Mrs. Fyne, busy writing upstairs in the cottage, could see him out of the window. She had a very long sight, and these elms were grouped on a rise of the ground. His indolence was plainly exposed to her criticism on a gentle green slope. Mrs. Fyne wondered at it; she was disgusted too. But having just then 'commenced author,' as you know, she could not tear herself away from the fascinating novelty. She let him wallow in his vice. I imagine Captain Anthony must have had a rather pleasant time in a quiet way. It was, I remember, a hot dry summer, favourable to contemplative life out of doors. And Mrs. Fyne was scandalized. Women don't understand the force of a contemplative temperament. It simply shocks them. They feel instinctively that it is the one which escapes best the domination of feminine influences. The dear girls were exchanging jeering remarks about "lazy uncle Roderick" openly, in her indulgent hearing. And it was so strange, she told me, because as a boy he was anything but indolent. On the contrary. Always active.

I remarked that a man of thirty-five was no longer a boy. It was an obvious remark but she received it without favour. She told me positively that the best, the nicest men remained boys all their lives. She was disappointed not to be able to detect anything boyish in her brother. Very, very sorry. She had not seen him for fifteen years or thereabouts, except on three or four occasions for a few hours at a time. No. Not a trace of the boy, he used to be, left in him.

She fell silent for a moment and I mused idly on the boyhood of little Fyne. I could not imagine what it might have been like. His dominant trait was clearly the remnant of still earlier days, because I've never seen such staring solemnity as Fyne's except in a very young baby. But where was he all that time? Didn't he suffer contamination from the indolence of Captain Anthony, I inquired. I was told that Mr. Fyne was very little at the cottage at the time. Some colleague of his was convalescing after a severe illness in a little seaside village in the neighbourhood and Fyne went off every morning by train to spend the day with the elderly invalid who had no one to look after him. It was a very praiseworthy excuse for neglecting his brother-in-law "the son of the poet, you know," with whom he had nothing in common even in the remotest degree. If Captain Anthony (Roderick) had been a pedestrian it would have been sufficient; but he was not. Still, in the afternoon, he went sometimes for a slow casual stroll, by himself of course, the children having definitely cold-shouldered him, and his only sister being busy with that inflammatory book which was to blaze upon the world a year or more afterwards. It seems however that she was capable of detaching her eyes from her task now and then, if only for a moment, because it was from that garret fitted out for a study that one afternoon she observed her brother and Flora de Barral coming down the road side by side. They had met somewhere accidentally (which of them crossed the other's path, as the saying is, I don't know), and were returning to tea together. She noticed that they appeared to be conversing without constraint.

"I had the simplicity to be pleased," Mrs. Fyne commented with a dry little laugh. "Pleased for both their sakes." Captain Anthony shook off his indolence from that day forth, and accompanied Miss Flora frequently on her morning walks. Mrs. Fyne remained pleased. She could now forget them comfortably and give herself up to the delights of audacious thought and literary composition. Only a week before the blow fell she, happening to raise her eyes from the paper, saw two figures seated on the grass under the shade of the elms. She could make out the white blouse. There could be no mistake.

"I suppose they imagined themselves concealed by the hedge. They forgot no doubt I was working in the garret," she said bitterly. "Or perhaps they didn't care. They were right. I am rather a simple person . . . " She laughed again . . . "I was incapable of suspecting such duplicity."

"Duplicity is a strong word, Mrs. Fyne--isn't it?" I expostulated. "And considering that Captain Anthony himself . . . "

"Oh well--perhaps," she interrupted me. Her eyes which never strayed away from mine, her set features, her whole immovable figure, how well I knew those appearances of a person who has "made up her mind." A very hopeless condition that, specially in women. I mistrusted her concession so easily, so stonily made. She reflected a moment. "Yes. I ought to have said--ingratitude, perhaps."

After having thus disengaged her brother and pushed the poor girl a little further off as it were--isn't women's cleverness perfectly diabolic when they are really put on their mettle?--after having done these things and also made me feel that I was no match for her, she went on scrupulously: "One doesn't like to use that word either. The claim is very small. It's so little one could do for her. Still . . . "

"I dare say," I exclaimed, throwing diplomacy to the winds. "But really, Mrs. Fyne, it's impossible to dismiss your brother like this out of the business . . . "

"She threw herself at his head," Mrs. Fyne uttered firmly.

"He had no business to put his head in the way, then," I retorted with an angry laugh. I didn't restrain myself because her fixed stare seemed to express the purpose to daunt me. I was not afraid of her, but it occurred to me that I was within an ace of drifting into a downright quarrel with a lady and, besides, my guest. There was the cold teapot, the emptied cups, emblems of hospitality. It could not be. I cut short my angry laugh while Mrs. Fyne murmured with a slight movement of her shoulders, "He! Poor man! Oh come .

. . "

By a great effort of will I found myself able to smile amiably, to speak with proper softness.

"My dear Mrs. Fyne, you forget that I don't know him--not even by sight. It's difficult to imagine a victim as passive as all that; but granting you the (I very nearly said: imbecility, but checked myself in time) innocence of Captain Anthony, don't you think now, frankly, that there is a little of your own fault in what has happened. You bring them together, you leave your brother to himself!"

She sat up and leaning her elbow on the table sustained her head in her open palm casting down her eyes. Compunction? It was indeed a very off-hand way of treating a brother come to stay for the first time in fifteen years. I suppose she discovered very soon that she had nothing in common with that sailor, that stranger, fashioned and marked by the sea of long voyages. In her strong-minded way she had scorned pretences, had gone to her writing which interested her immensely. A very praiseworthy thing your sincere conduct,--if it didn't at times resemble brutality so much. But I don't think it was compunction. That sentiment is rare in women . . . "

"Is it?" I interrupted indignantly.

"You know more women than I do," retorted the unabashed Marlow. "You make it your business to know them--don't you? You go about a lot amongst all sorts of people. You are a tolerably honest observer. Well, just try to remember how many instances of compunction you have seen. I am ready to take your bare word for it. Compunction! Have you ever seen as much as its shadow? Have you ever? Just a shadow--a passing shadow! I tell you it is so rare that you may call it non-existent. They are too passionate. Too pedantic. Too courageous with themselves--perhaps. No I don't think for a moment that Mrs. Fyne felt the slightest compunction at her treatment of her sea-going brother. What HE thought of it who can tell? It is possible that he wondered why he had been so insistently urged to come. It is possible that he wondered bitterly--or contemptuously--or humbly. And it may be that he was only surprised and bored. Had he been as sincere in his conduct as his only sister he would have probably taken himself off at the end of the second day. But perhaps he was afraid of appearing brutal. I am not far removed from the conviction that between the sincerities of his sister and of his dear nieces, Captain Anthony of the Ferndale must have had his loneliness brought home to his bosom for the first time of his life, at an age, thirty-five or thereabouts, when one is mature enough to feel the pang of such a discovery. Angry or simply sad but certainly disillusioned he wanders about and meets the girl one afternoon and under the sway of a strong feeling forgets his shyness. This is no supposition. It is a fact. There was such a meeting in which the shyness must have perished before we don't know what encouragement, or in the community of mood made apparent by some casual word. You remember that Mrs. Fyne saw them one afternoon coming back to the cottage together. Don't you think that I have hit on the psychology of the situation? . . . "

"Doubtless . . . " I began to ponder.

"I was very certain of my conclusions at the time," Marlow went on impatiently. "But don't think for a moment that Mrs. Fyne in her new attitude and toying thoughtfully with a teaspoon was about to surrender. She murmured:

"It's the last thing I should have thought could happen."

"You didn't suppose they were romantic enough," I suggested dryly.

She let it pass and with great decision but as if speaking to herself,

"Roderick really must be warned."

She didn't give me the time to ask of what precisely. She raised her head and addressed me.

"I am surprised and grieved more than I can tell you at Mr. Fyne's resistance. We have been always completely at one on every question. And that we should differ now on a point touching my brother so closely is a most painful surprise to me." Her hand rattled the teaspoon brusquely by an involuntary movement. "It is intolerable," she added tempestuously--for Mrs. Fyne that is. I suppose she had nerves of her own like any other woman.

Under the porch where Fyne had sought refuge with the dog there was silence. I took it for a proof of deep sagacity. I don't mean on the part of the dog. He was a confirmed fool.

I said:

"You want absolutely to interfere . . . ?" Mrs. Fyne nodded just perceptibly . . . "Well--for my part . . . but I don't really know how matters stand at the present time. You have had a letter from Miss de Barral. What does that letter say?"

"She asks for her valise to be sent to her town address," Mrs. Fyne uttered reluctantly and stopped. I waited a bit--then exploded.

"Well! What's the matter? Where's the difficulty? Does your husband object to that? You don't mean to say that he wants you to appropriate the girl's clothes?"

"Mr. Marlow!"

"Well, but you talk of a painful difference of opinion with your husband, and then, when I ask for information on the point, you bring out a valise. And only a few moments ago you reproached me for not being serious. I wonder who is the serious person of us two now."

She smiled faintly and in a friendly tone, from which I concluded at once that she did not mean to show me the girl's letter, she said that undoubtedly the letter disclosed an understanding between Captain Anthony and Flora de Barral.

"What understanding?" I pressed her. "An engagement is an understanding."

"There is no engagement--not yet," she said decisively. "That letter, Mr. Marlow, is couched in very vague terms. That is why--"

I interrupted her without ceremony.

"You still hope to interfere to some purpose. Isn't it so? Yes? But how should you have liked it if anybody had tried to interfere between you and Mr. Fyne at the time when your understanding with each other could still have been described in vague terms?"

She had a genuine movement of astonished indignation. It is with the accent of perfect sincerity that she cried out at me:

"But it isn't at all the same thing! How can you!"

Indeed how could I! The daughter of a poet and the daughter of a convict are not comparable in the consequences of their conduct if their necessity may wear at times a similar aspect. Amongst these consequences I could perceive undesirable cousins for these dear healthy girls, and such like, possible causes of embarrassment in the future.

"No! You can't be serious," Mrs. Fyne's smouldering resentment broke out again. "You haven't thought--"

"Oh yes, Mrs. Fyne! I have thought. I am still thinking. I am even trying to think like you."

"Mr. Marlow," she said earnestly. "Believe me that I really am thinking of my brother in all this . . . " I assured her that I quite believed she was. For there is no law of nature making it impossible to think of more than one person at a time. Then I said:

"She has told him all about herself of course."

"All about her life," assented Mrs. Fyne with an air, however, of making some mental reservation which I did not pause to investigate. "Her life!" I repeated. "That girl must have had a mighty bad time of it."

"Horrible," Mrs. Fyne admitted with a ready frankness very creditable under the circumstances, and a warmth of tone which made me look at her with a friendly eye. "Horrible! No! You can't imagine the sort of vulgar people she became dependent on . . . You know her father never attempted to see her while he was still at large. After his arrest he instructed that relative of his--the odious person who took her away from Brighton--not to let his daughter come to the court during the trial. He refused to hold any communication with her whatever."

I remembered what Mrs. Fyne had told me before of the view she had years ago of de Barral clinging to the child at the side of his wife's grave and later on of these two walking hand in hand the observed of all eyes by the sea. Pictures from Dickens--pregnant with pathos.

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