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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Modern Chronicle - Book 3 - Chapter 18. In Which Mr. Erwin Seek Paris
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A Modern Chronicle - Book 3 - Chapter 18. In Which Mr. Erwin Seek Paris Post by :kinky Category :Long Stories Author :Winston Churchill Date :May 2012 Read :1312

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A Modern Chronicle - Book 3 - Chapter 18. In Which Mr. Erwin Seek Paris

BOOK III CHAPTER XVIII. IN WHICH MR. ERWIN SEEK PARIS

As she glanced around the sitting-room of her apartment in Paris one September morning she found it difficult, in some respects, to realize that she had lived in it for more than five years. After Chiltern's death she had sought a refuge, and she had found it here: a refuge in which she meant--if her intention may be so definitely stated--to pass the remainder of her days.

As a refuge it had become dear to her. When first she had entered it she had looked about her numbly, thankful for walls and roof, thankful for its remoteness from the haunts of the prying: as a shipwrecked castaway regards, at the first light, the cave into which he has stumbled into the darkness-gratefully. And gradually, castaway that she felt herself to be, she had adorned it lovingly, as one above whose horizon the sails of hope were not to rise; filled it with friends not chosen in a day, whose faithful ministrations were not to cease. Her books, but only those worthy to be bound and read again; the pictures she had bought when she had grown to know what pictures were; the music she had come to love for its eternal qualities--these were her companions.

The apartment was in the old quarter across the Seine, and she had found it by chance. The ancient family of which this hotel had once been the home would scarce have recognized, if they had returned the part of it Honora occupied. The room in which she mostly lived was above the corner of the quiet street, and might have been more aptly called a sitting-room than a salon. Its panels were the most delicate of blue-gray, fantastically designed and outlined by ribbings of blue. Some of them contained her pictures. The chairs, the sofas, the little tabourets, were upholstered in yellow, their wood matching the panels. Above the carved mantel of yellowing marble was a quaintly shaped mirror extending to the high ceiling, and flanked on either side by sconces. The carpet was a golden brown, the hangings in the tall windows yellow. And in the morning the sun came in, not boisterously, but as a well-bred and cheerful guest. An amiable proprietor had permitted her also to add a wrought-iron balcony as an adjunct to this room, and sometimes she sat there on the warmer days reading under the seclusion of an awning, or gazing at the mysterious facades of the houses opposite, or at infrequent cabs or pedestrians below.

An archway led out of the sitting-room into a smaller room, once the boudoir of a marquise, now Honora's library. This was in blue and gold, and she had so far modified the design of the decorator as to replace the mirrors of the cases with glass; she liked to see her books. Beyond the library was a dining room in grey, with dark red hangings; it overlooked the forgotten garden of the hotel.

One item alone of news from the outer world, vital to her, had drifted to her retreat. Newspapers filled her with dread, but it was from a newspaper, during the first year of her retirement, that she had learned of the death of Howard Spence. A complication of maladies was mentioned, but the true underlying cause was implied in the article, and this had shocked but not surprised her. A ferment was in progress in her own country, the affairs of the Orange Trust Company being investigated, and its president under indictment at the hour of his demise. Her feelings at the time, and for months after, were complex. She had been moved to deep pity, for in spite of what he had told her of his business transactions, it was impossible for her to think of him as a criminal. That he had been the tool of others, she knew, but it remained a question in her mind how clearly he had perceived the immorality of his course, and of theirs. He had not been given to casuistry, and he had been brought up in a school the motto of which he had once succinctly stated: the survival of the fittest. He had not been, alas, one of those to survive.

Honora had found it impossible to unravel the tangled skein of their relationship, and to assign a definite amount of blame to each. She did not shirk hers, and was willing to accept a full measure. That she had done wrong in marrying him, and again in leaving him to marry another man, she acknowledged freely. Wrong as she knew this to have been, severely though she had been punished for it, she could not bring herself to an adequate penitence. She tried to remember him as he had been at Silverdale, and in the first months of their marriage, and not as he had afterwards become. There was no question in her mind, now that it was given her to see things more clearly, that she might have tried harder, much harder, to make their marriage a success. He might, indeed, have done more to protect and cherish her. It was a man's part to guard a woman against the evils with which she had been surrounded. On the other hand, she could not escape the fact, nor did she attempt to escape it, that she had had the more light of the two: and that, though the task were formidable, she might have fought to retain that light and infuse him with it.

That she did not hold herself guiltless is the important point. Many of her hours were spent in retrospection. She was, in a sense, as one dead, yet retaining her faculties; and these became infinitely keen now that she was deprived of the power to use them as guides through life. She felt that the power had come too late, like a legacy when one is old. And she contemplated the Honora of other days--of the flesh, as though she were now the spirit departed from that body; sorrowfully, poignantly regretful of the earthly motives, of the tarnished ideals by which it had been animated and led to destruction.

Even Hugh Chiltern had left her no illusions. She thought of him at tunes with much tenderness; whether she still loved him or not she could not say. She came to the conclusion that all capacity for intense feeling had been burned out of her. And she found that she could permit her mind to rest upon no period of her sojourn at Grenoble without a sense of horror; there had been no hour when she had seemed secure from haunting terror, no day that had not added its mite to the gathering evidence of an ultimate retribution. And it was like a nightmare to summon again this spectacle of the man going to pieces under her eyes. The whole incident in her life as time wore on assumed an aspect bizarre, incredible, as the follies of a night of madness appear in the saner light of morning. Her great love had bereft her of her senses, for had the least grain of sanity remained to her she might have known that the thing they attempted was impossible of accomplishment.

Her feeling now, after four years, might be described as relief. To employ again the figure of the castaway, she often wondered why she of all others had been rescued from the tortures of slow drowning and thrown up on an island. What had she done above the others to deserve preservation? It was inevitable that she should on occasions picture to herself the years with him that would have stretched ahead, even as the vision of them had come to her that morning when, in obedience to his telegram, she had told Starling to prepare for guests. Her escape had indeed been miraculous!

Although they had passed through a ceremony, the conviction had never taken root in her that she had been married to Chiltern. The tie that had united her to him had not been sacred, though it had been no less binding; more so, in fact. That tie would have become a shackle. Her perception of this, after his death, had led her to instruct her attorney to send back to his relatives all but a small income from his estate, enough for her to live on during her lifetime. There had been some trouble about this matter; Mrs. Grainger, in particular, had surprised her in making objections, and had finally written a letter which Honora received with a feeling akin to gratitude. Whether her own action had softened this lady's feelings, she never understood; she had cherished the letter for its unexpectedly charitable expressions. Chiltern's family had at last agreed to accept the estate on the condition that the income mentioned should be tripled. And to this Honora had consented. Money had less value than ever in her eyes.

She lived here in Paris in what may be called a certain peace, made no demands upon the world, and had no expectations from it. She was now in half mourning, and intended to remain so. Her isolation was of her own choice, if a stronger expression be not used. She was by no means an enforced outcast. And she was even aware that a certain sympathy for her had grown up amongst her former friends which had spread to the colony of her compatriots in Paris; in whose numbers there were some, by no means unrecognized, who had defied the conventions more than she. Hugh Chiltern's reputation, and the general knowledge of his career, had no doubt aided to increase this sympathy, but the dignity of her conduct since his death was at the foundation of it. Sometimes, on her walks and drives, she saw people bowing to her, and recognized friends or acquaintances of what seemed to her like a former existence.

Such had been her life in Paris until a certain day in early September, a month before this chapter opens. It was afternoon, and she was sitting in the balcony cutting a volume of memoirs when she heard the rattle of a cab on the cobbles below, and peered curiously over the edge of the railing. Although still half a block away, the national characteristics of the passenger were sufficiently apparent. He was an American--of that she was sure. And many Americans did not stray into that quarter. The length of his legs, for one thing, betrayed him: he found the seat of the fiacre too low, and had crossed one knee over the other. Other and less easily definable attributes he did not lack. And as he leaned against the faded blue cushions regarding with interest the buildings he passed, he seemed, like an ambassador, to convert the cab in which he rode into United States territory. Then she saw that it was Peter Erwin.

She drew back her head from the balcony rail, and tried to sit still and to think, but she was trembling as one stricken with a chill. The cab stopped; and presently, after an interval, his card was handed her. She rose, and stood for a moment with her hand against the wall before she went into the salon. None of the questions she had asked herself were answered. Was she glad to see him? and what would be his attitude towards her? When she beheld him standing before her she had strength only to pronounce his name.

He came forward quickly and took her hand and looked down into her face. She regarded him tremulously, instinctively guessing the vital importance of this moment for him; and she knew then that he had been looking forward to it in mingled hope and dread, as one who gazes seaward after a night of tempest for the ship he has seen at dusk in the offing. What had the tempest done to her? Such was his question. And her heart leaped as she saw the light growing in his eyes, for it meant much to her that he should see that she was not utterly dismantled. She fell; his own hand tremble as he relinquished hers. He was greatly moved; his voice, too, betrayed it.

"You see I have found you," he said.

"Yes," she answered; "--why did you come?"

"Why have I always come to you, when it was possible?" he asked.

"No one ever had such a friend, Peter. Of that I am sure:'

"I wanted to see Paris," he said, "before I grew too decrepit to enjoy it."

She smiled, and turned away.

"Have you seen much of it?"

"Enough to wish to see more."

"When did you arrive?"

"Some time in the night," he said, "from Cherbourg. And I'm staying at a very grand hotel, which might be anywhere. A man I crossed with on the steamer took me there. I think I'd move to one of the quieter ones, the French ones, if I were a little surer of my pronunciation and the subjunctive mood."

"You don't mean to say you've been studying French!"

He coloured a little, and laughed.

"You think it ridiculous at my time of life? I suppose you're right. You should have seen me trying to understand the cabmen. The way these people talk reminds me more of a Gatling gun than anything I can think of. It certainly isn't human."

"Perhaps you have come over as ambassador," she suggested. "When I saw you in the cab, even before I recognized you, I thought of a bit of our soil broken off and drifted over here."

Her voice did not quite sustain the lighter note--the emotion his visit was causing her was too great. He brought with him into her retreat not so much a flood of memories as of sensations. He was a man whose image time with difficulty obliterates, whose presence was a shining thing: so she had grown to value it in proportion as she had had less of it. She did inevitably recall the last time she had seen him, in the little Western city, and how he had overwhelmed her, invaded her with doubts and aroused the spirit which had possessed her to fight fiercely for its foothold. And to-day his coming might be likened to the entrance of a great physician into the room of a distant and lonely patient whom amidst wide ministrations he has not forgotten. She saw now that he had been right. She had always seen it, clearly indeed when he had been beside her, but the spirit within her had been too strong, until now. Now, when it had plundered her soul of treasures--once so little valued--it had fled. Such were her thoughts.

The great of heart undoubtedly possess this highest quality of the physician,--if the statement may thus be put backhandedly,--and Peter Erwin instinctively understood the essential of what was going on within her. He appeared to take a delight in the fancy she had suggested; that he had brought a portion of the newer world to France.

"Not a piece of the Atlantic coast, certainly," he replied. "One of the muddy islands, perhaps, of the Mississippi."

"All the more representative," she said. "You seem to have taken possession of Paris, Peter--not Paris of you. You have annexed the seat of the Capets, and brought democracy at last into the Faubourg."

"Without a Reign of Terror," he added quizzically.

"If you are not ambassador, what are you?" she asked. "I have expected at any moment to read in the Figaro that you were President of the United States."

"I am the American tourist," he declared, "with Baedeker for my Bible, who desires to be shown everything. And I have already discovered that the legend of the fabulous wealth of the Indies is still in force here. There are many who are willing to believe that in spite of my modest appearance--maybe because of it--I have sailed over in a galleon filled with gold. Already I have been approached from every side by confidential gentlemen who announced that they spoke English--one of them said 'American'--who have offered to show me many things, and who have betrayed enough interest in me to inquire whether I were married or single."

Honora laughed. They were seated in the balcony by this time, and he had the volume of memoirs on his knee, fingering it idly.

"What did you say to them?" she asked.

"I told them I was the proud father of ten children," he replied. "That seemed to stagger them, but only for a moment. They offered to take us all to the Louvre."

"Peter, you are ridiculous! But, in spite of your nationality, you don't look exactly gullible."

"That is a relief," he said. "I had begun to think I ought to leave my address and my watch with the Consul General...."

Of such a nature was the first insidious rupture of that routine she had grown to look upon as changeless for the years to come, of the life she had chosen for its very immutable quality. Even its pangs of loneliness had acquired a certain sweet taste. Partly from a fear of a world that had hurt her, partly from fear of herself, she had made her burrow deep, that heat and cold, the changing seasons, and love and hate might be things far removed. She had sought to remove comparisons, too, from the limits of her vision; to cherish and keep alive, indeed, such regrets as she had, but to make no new ones.

Often had she thought of Peter Erwin, and it is not too much to say that he had insensibly grown into an ideal. He had come to represent to her the great thing she had missed in life, missed by feverish searching in the wrong places, digging for gold where the ground had glittered. And, if the choice had been given her, she would have preferred his spiritual to his bodily companionship--for a while, at least. Some day, when she should feel sure that desire had ceased to throb, when she should have acquired an unshakable and absolute resignation, she would see him. It is not too much to say, if her feeling be not misconstrued and stretched far beyond her own conception of it, that he was her one remaining interest in the world. She had scanned the letters of her aunt and uncle for knowledge of his doings, and had felt her curiosity justified by a certain proprietorship that she did not define, faith in humankind, or the lack of it, usually makes itself felt through one's comparative contemporaries. That her uncle was a good man, for instance, had no such effect upon Honora, as the fact that Peter was a good man. And that he had held a true course had gradually become a very vital thing to her, perhaps the most vital thing; and she could have imagined no greater personal calamity now than to have seen him inconsistent. For there are such men, and most people have known them. They are the men who, unconsciously, keep life sweet.

Yet she was sorry he had invaded her hiding-place. She had not yet achieved peace, and much of the weary task would have to be done over after he was gone.

In the meantime she drifted with astounding ease into another existence. For it was she, and not the confidential gentlemen, who showed Peter Paris: not the careless, pleasure-loving Paris of the restaurants, but of the Cluny and the Carnavalet. The Louvre even was not neglected, and as they entered it first she recalled with still unaccustomed laughter his reply to the proffered services of the guide. Indeed, there was much laughter in their excursions: his native humour sprang from the same well that held his seriousness. She was amazed at his ability to strip a sham and leave it grotesquely naked; shams the risible aspect of which she had never observed in spite of the familiarity four years had given her. Some of his own countrymen and countrywomen afforded him the greatest amusement in their efforts to carry off acquired European "personalities," combinations of assumed indifference and effrontery, and an accent the like of which was never heard before. But he was neither bitter nor crude in his criticisms. He made her laugh, but he never made her ashamed. His chief faculty seemed to be to give her the power to behold, with astonishing clearness, objects and truths which had lain before her eyes, and yet hidden. And she had not thought to acquire any more truths.

The depth of his pleasure in the things he saw was likewise a revelation to her. She was by no means a bad guide to the Louvre and the Luxembourg, but the light in her which had come slowly flooded him with radiance at the sight of a statue or a picture. He would stop with an exclamation and stand gazing, self-forgetful, for incredible periods, and she would watch him, filled with a curious sense of the limitations of an appreciation she had thought complete. Where during his busy life had he got this thing which others had sought in many voyages in vain?

Other excursions they made, and sometimes these absorbed a day. It was a wonderful month, that Parisian September, which Honora, when she allowed herself to think, felt that she had no right to. A month filled to the brim with colour: the stone facades of the houses, which in certain lights were what the French so aptly call bleuatre; the dense green foliage of the horse-chestnut trees, the fantastic iron grills, the Arc de Triomphe in the centre of its circle at sunset, the wide shaded avenues radiating from it, the bewildering Champs Elysees, the blue waters of the Seine and the graceful bridges spanning it, Notre Dame against the sky. Their walks took them, too, into quainter, forgotten regions where history was grim and half-effaced, and they speculated on the France of other days.

They went farther afield; and it was given them to walk together down green vistas cut for kings, to linger on terraces with the river far below them, and the roofs of Paris in the hazy distance; that Paris, sullen so long, the mutterings of which the kings who had sat there must have heard with dread; that Paris which had finally risen in its wrath and taken the pleasure-houses and the parks for itself.

Once they went out to Chantilly, the cameo-like chateau that stands mirrored in its waters, and wandered through the alleys there. Honora had left her parasol on the parapet, and as they returned Peter went to get it, while she awaited him at a little distance. A group was chatting gayly on the lawn, and one of them, a middle-aged, well-dressed man hailed him with an air of fellowship, and Peter stopped for a moment's talk.

"We were speaking of ambassadors the other day," he said when he joined her; "that was our own, Minturn."

"We were speaking of them nearly a month ago," she said.

"A month ago! I can't believe it!" he exclaimed.

"What did he say to you?" Honora inquired presently.

"He was abusing me for not letting him know I was in Paris."

"Peter, you ought to have let him know!"

"I didn't come over here to see the ambassador," answered Peter, gayly.

She talked less than usual on their drive homeward, but he did not seem to notice the fact. Dusk was already lurking in the courtyards and byways of the quiet quarter when the porter let them in, and the stone stairway of the old hotel was almost in darkness. The sitting-room, with its yellow, hangings snugly drawn and its pervading but soft light, was a grateful change. And while she was gone to--remove her veil and hat, Peter looked around it.

It was redolent of her. A high vase of remarkable beauty, filled with white roses, stood on the gueridon. He went forward and touched it, and closed his eyes as though in pain. When he opened them he saw her standing in the archway.

She had taken off her coat, and was in a simple white muslin gown, with a black belt--a costume that had become habitual. Her age was thirty. The tragedy and the gravity of her life during these later years had touched her with something that before was lacking. In the street, in the galleries, people had turned to look at her; not with impudent stares. She caught attention, aroused imagination. Once, the year before, she had had a strange experience with a well-known painter, who, in an impulsive note, had admitted following her home and bribing the concierge. He craved a few sittings. Her expression now, as she looked at Peter, was graver than usual.

"You must not come to-morrow," she said.

"I thought we were going to Versailles again," he replied in surprise. "I have made the arrangements."

"I have changed my mind. I'm not going."

"You want to postpone it?" he asked.

She took a chair beside the little blaze in the fireplace.

"Sit down, Peter. I wish to say something to you. I have been wishing to do so for some time."

"Do you object if I stand a moment?" he said. "I feel so much more comfortable standing, especially when I am going to be scolded."

"Yes," she admitted, "I am going to scold you. Your conscience has warned you."

"On the contrary," he declared, "it has never been quieter. If I have offended; it is through ignorance."

"It is through charity, as usual," she said m a low voice. "If your conscience be quiet, mine is not. It is in myself that I am disappointed--I have been very selfish. I have usurped you. I have known it all along, and I have done very wrong in not relinquishing you before."

"Who would have shown me Paris?" he exclaimed.

"No," she continued, "you would not have been alone. If I had needed proof of that fact, I had it to-day--"

"Oh, Minturn," he interrupted; "think of me hanging about an Embassy and trying not to spill tea!" And he smiled at the image that presented.

Her own smile was fleeting.

"You would never do that, I know," she said gravely.

"You are still too modest, Peter, but the time has gone by when I can be easily deceived. You have a great reputation among men of affairs, an unique one. In spite of the fact that you are distinctly American, you have a wide interest in what is going on in the world. And you have an opportunity here to meet people of note, people really worth while from every point of view. You have no right to neglect it."

He was silent a moment, looking down at her. She was leaning forward, her eyes fixed on the fire, her hands clasped between her knees.

"Do you think I care for that?" he asked.

"You ought to care," she said, without looking up. "And it is my duty to try to make you care."

"Honora, why do you think I came over here?" he said.

"To see Paris," she answered. "I have your own word for it. To--to continue your education. It never seems to stop."

"Did you really believe that?"

"Of course I believed it. What could be more natural? And you have never had a holiday like this."

"No," he agreed. "I admit that."

"I don't know how much longer you are going to stay," she said. "You have not been abroad before, and there are other places you ought to go."

"I'll get you to make out an itinerary."

"Peter, can't you see that I'm serious? I have decided to take matters in my own hands. The rest of the time you are here, you may come to see me twice a week. I shall instruct the concierge."

He turned and grasped the mantel shelf with both hands, and touched the log with the toe of his boot.

"What I told you about seeing Paris may be called polite fiction," he said. "I came over here to see you. I have been afraid to say it until to-day, and I am afraid to say it now."

She sat very still. The log flared up again, and he turned slowly and looked at the shadows in her face.

"You-you have always been good to me," she answered. "I have never deserved it--I have never understood it. If it is any satisfaction for you to know that what I have saved of myself I owe to you, I tell you so freely."

"That," he said, "is something for which God forbid that I should take credit. What you are is due to the development of a germ within you, a development in which I have always had faith. I came here to see you, I came here because I love you, because I have always loved you, Honora."

"Oh, no, not that!" she cried; "not that!"

"Why not?" he asked. "It is something I cannot help, something beyond my power to prevent if I would. But I would not. I am proud of it, and I should be lost without it. I have had it always. I have come over to beg you to marry me."

"It's impossible! Can't you see it's impossible?"

"You don't love me?" he said. Into those few words was thrown all the suffering of his silent years.

"I don't know what I feel for you," she answered in an agonized voice, her fingers tightening over the backs of her white hands. "If reverence be love--if trust be love, infinite and absolute trust--if gratitude be love--if emptiness after you are gone be a sign of it--yes, I love you. If the power to see clearly only through you, to interpret myself only by your aid be love, I acknowledge it. I tell you so freely, as of your right to know. And the germ of which you spoke is you. You have grown until you have taken possession of--of what is left of me. If I had only been able to see clearly from the first, Peter, I should be another woman to-day, a whole woman, a wise woman. Oh, I have thought of it much. The secret of life was there at my side from the time I was able to pronounce your name, and I couldn't see it. You had it. You stayed. You took duty where you found it, and it has made you great. Oh, I don't mean to speak in a worldly sense. When I say that, it is to express the highest human quality of which I can think and feel. But I can't marry you. You must see it."

"I cannot see it," he replied, when he had somewhat gained control of himself.

"Because I should be wronging you."

"How?" he asked.

"In the first place, I should be ruining your career."

"If I had a career," he said, smiling gently, "you couldn't ruin it. You both overestimate and underestimate the world's opinion, Honora. As my wife, it will not treat you cruelly. And as for my career, as you call it, it has merely consisted in doing as best I could the work that has come to me. I have tried to serve well those who have employed me, and if my services be of value to them, and to those who may need me in the future, they are not going to reject me. If I have any worth in the world, you will but add to it. Without you I am incomplete."

She looked up at him wonderingly.

"Yes, you are great," she said. "You pity me, you think of my loneliness."

"It is true I cannot bear to picture you here," he exclaimed. "The thought tortures me, but it is because I love you, because I wish to take and shield you. I am not a man to marry a woman without love. It seems to me that you should know me well enough to believe that, Honora. There never has been any other woman in my life, and there never can be. I have given you proof of it, God knows."

"I am not what I was," she said, "I am not what I was. I have been dragged down."

He bent and lifted her hand from her knee, and raised it to his lips, a homage from him that gave her an exquisite pain.

"If you had been dragged down," he answered simply, "my love would have been killed. I know something of the horrors you have been through, as though I had suffered them myself. They might have dragged down another woman, Honora. But they have strangely ennobled you."

She drew her hand away.

"No," she said, "I do not deserve happiness. It cannot be my destiny."

"Destiny," he repeated. "Destiny is a thing not understandable by finite minds. It is not necessarily continued tragedy and waste, of that I am certain. Only a little thought is required, it seems to me, to assure us that we cannot be the judges of our own punishment on this earth. And of another world we know nothing. It cannot be any one's destiny to throw away a life while still something may be made of it. You would be throwing your life away here. That no other woman is possible, or ever can be possible, for me should be a consideration with you, Honora. What I ask of you is a sacrifice--will you make me happy?"

Her eyes filled with tears.

"Oh, Peter, do you care so much as that? If--if I could be sure that I were doing it for you! If in spite--of all that has happened to me, I could be doing something for you--!"

He stooped and kissed her.

"You can if you will," he said.


(THE END)
Winston Churchill's Novel: Modern Chronicle

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