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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHalf A Hero: A Novel - Chapter 12. An Absurd Ambition
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Half A Hero: A Novel - Chapter 12. An Absurd Ambition Post by :dcbiz Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Hope Date :May 2012 Read :1787

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Half A Hero: A Novel - Chapter 12. An Absurd Ambition

CHAPTER XII. AN ABSURD AMBITION

_Suave mari magno_--Like so many of us who quote these words, Mr. Coxon could not finish the line, but the tag as it stood was enough to express his feelings. If the Cabinet were going to the bottom, he was not to sink with it. If he had one foot in that leaky boat, the other was on firm ground. He had received unmistakable intimations that, if he would tread the path of penitence as Puttock had, the way should be strewn with roses, and the fatted calf duly forthcoming at the end of the journey. He had a right to plume himself on the dexterity which had landed him in such a desirable position, and he was fully awake to the price which that position made him worth. Now a man who commands a great price, thought Mr. Coxon, is a great man. So his meditations--which, in this commercial age, seem hardly open to adverse criticism--ran, as he walked towards Government House, just about the same time as Mr. Kilshaw was also thinking of betaking himself thither. A great man (Mr. Coxon's reflections continued) can aspire to the hand of any lady--more especially when he depends not merely on intellectual ability (which is by no means everything), but is also a man of culture, of breeding, of a University education, and of a very decent income. He forbore to throw his personal attractions into the scale, but he felt that if he were in other respects a suitable aspirant, no failure could await him on that score. Vanity apart, he could not be blind to the fact that he was in many ways different from most of his compatriots, still more from most of his colleagues.

"In all essentials I am an Englishman, pure and simple," thought he, as he entered the gates of Government House; but, the phrase failing quite to satisfy him, he substituted, as he rang the bell, "An English gentleman."

"Shall we go into the garden?" said Lady Eynesford, after she had bidden him welcome. "I dare say we shall find Miss Scaife there," and, as she spoke, she smiled most graciously.

Coxon followed her, his brow clouded for the first time that day. He was not anxious to find Miss Scaife, and he had begun to notice that Lady Eynesford always suggested Miss Scaife as a resource; her manner almost implied that he must come to see Miss Scaife.

"I can't think where she has got to," exclaimed Lady Eynesford, after a perfunctory search; "but it's too hot to hunt. Sit down here in the verandah. Eleanor has probably concealed herself somewhere to read the last debate. She takes such an interest in all your affairs--the Ministry's, I mean."

"I noticed she was very attentive the other day."

"Oh, at that wretched House! Why don't you ventilate it? It gave poor Alicia quite a headache."

"I hope Miss Derosne is not still suffering?"

"Oh, it's nothing much. I suppose she feels this close weather. It's frightful, isn't it? I wonder you had the courage to walk up. It's very friendly of you, Mr. Coxon."

"With such an inducement, Lady Eynesford--" Coxon began, in his laboriously polite style.

"I know," laughed his hostess, and her air was so kind and confidential that Coxon was emboldened. He did not understand why people called the Governor's wife cold and "stand-offish"; he always insisted that no one could be more cordial than she had shown herself towards him.

"What do you know?" he asked, with a smile, and an obviously assumed look of surprise.

"You don't suppose I think I'm the inducement--or even the Governor? And we can't find her! Too bad!" and Lady Eynesford shook her head in playful despair.

"But," said Coxon, feeling now quite happy, "isn't the--the inducement--at home?"

"Oh yes, she's somewhere," replied Lady Eynesford, good-naturedly ignoring her visitor's too ready acquiescence in her modest disclaimer.

"I'm afraid I'm a poor politician. I can conceal nothing."

"Your secret is quite safe with me, and no one else has guessed it."

"Not even Miss Scaife?" asked Coxon, with a smile. Eleanor had so often managed a _tete-a-tete for him, he remembered.

"Oh, I can't tell that--but, you know, we women never guess these things till we're told. It's not correct, Mr. Coxon."

"But you say you guessed it."

"That's quite different. I might guess it--or--or anybody else (though nobody has)--but not Eleanor."

A slight shade of perplexity crossed Coxon's brow. The lady, if kind and reassuring, was also somewhat enigmatical.

"I believe," he said, "Miss Scaife has guessed it."

"Indeed! And is she--pleased?"

"I hope so."

"So do I--for your sake."

"Her approbation would be a factor, would it?"

"Really, Mr. Coxon, I suppose it would!" exclaimed Lady Eynesford in surprise.

"I mean it would be likely to weigh with--with your sister-in-law?"

"With Alicia? Why, what has Alicia got to do with it?"

"You mustn't chaff me, Lady Eynesford. It's too serious," pleaded Coxon, in self-complacent tones.

"What does the man mean?" thought Lady Eynesford. Then a glance at his face somehow brought sudden illumination, and the illumination brought such a shock that Lady Eynesford was startled into vulgar directness of speech.

"Good gracious! Surely it _is Eleanor you come after?" she exclaimed.

"Miss Scaife! What made you think that? Surely you've seen that it's Miss Derosne who----"

"Mr. Coxon!"

At the tone in which Lady Eynesford seemed to hurl his own name in his teeth, Coxon's rosy illusion vanished. He sat in gloomy silence, twisting his hat in his hand and waiting for Lady Eynesford to speak again.

"You astonish me!" she said at last. "I made sure it was Eleanor."

"Why is it astonishing?" he asked. "Surely Miss Derosne's attractions are sufficient to----?"

"Oh, I'm so sorry, I am indeed. You must believe me, Mr. Coxon. If I had foreseen this I--I would have guarded against it. But now--indeed, I'm so sorry."

Lady Eynesford's sorrowful sympathy failed to touch Coxon's softer feelings.

"What is there to be sorry about?" he demanded, almost roughly.

"Why this--this unfortunate misunderstanding. Of course I thought it was Eleanor; you seemed so suited to one another."

Coxon, ignoring the natural affinity suggested, remarked,

"There's no harm done that I can see, except that I hoped I had you on my side. Perhaps I shall have still."

Sympathy had failed. Lady Eynesford, recognising that, felt she had a duty to perform.

"I dare say I am to blame," she said, "but I never thought of such a thing. Really, Mr. Coxon, you must see that I wasn't likely to think of it," and her tone conveyed an appeal to his calmer reason. She was quite unconscious of giving any reasonable cause of offence.

"Why not?" he asked, the silky smoothness of his manner disappearing in his surprise and wounded dignity.

"The--the--oh, if you don't see, I can't tell you."

"You appear to assume that attentions from me to your sister-in-law were not to be expected."

"You do see that, don't you?"

"While attentions to your governess----"

"Miss Scaife is my friend and worthy of anybody's attentions," interposed Lady Eynesford quickly.

"But all the same, very different from Miss Derosne," sneered Coxon sullenly, putting her thoughts into her mouth with a discrimination that completed her discomfiture.

"I don't think there is any advantage in discussing it further," remarked Lady Eynesford, rising.

"I claim to see Miss Derosne herself. I am not to be put off."

"I will acquaint the Governor and my sister-in-law with your wishes. No doubt my husband will communicate with you. Good-morning, Mr. Coxon," and Lady Eynesford performed her stiffest bow.

"Good-morning, Lady Eynesford," he answered, in no less hostile tones, and very different was the man who slammed the gate of Government House behind him from the bland and confident suitor who had entered it half-an-hour before.

The moment he was gone, Lady Eynesford ran to her husband.

"The next time you take a Governorship," she exclaimed, as she sank into a chair, "you must leave me at home."

"What's the matter now?"

Lady Eynesford, with much indignant comment, related the tale of Coxon's audacity.

"Of course I meant him for Eleanor," she concluded. "Did you ever hear of such a thing?"

"But, my dear, he must see Alicia if he wants to. We can't turn him out as if he was a footman! After all, he's got a considerable position here."

"Here!" And the word expressed an opinion as comprehensive as, though far more condensed than, any to be found in Tomes.

"I suppose, Mary, there's no danger of--of Alicia being----?"

"Willie! I couldn't imagine it."

"Well, I'll just tell her, and then I'll write to Coxon and see what to do."

"Do make her understand it's impossible," urged Lady Eynesford.

"We've no reason to suppose she's ever thought of it," the Governor reminded his wife.

"No, of course not," she said. "I shall leave you alone with her, Willie."

Alicia came down at the Governor's summons.

"Well, here's another," said the Governor playfully.

Alicia's conquests had been somewhat numerous--such things were so hard to avoid, she pleaded--and it was not the first time her brother had had to confront her with the slain.

"Another what?"

"Another victim. Mary has been here in a rage because a gentleman is ready to be at your feet. Now who do you think it is?"

"I shan't guess. When I guess, I always guess wrong," said Alicia, "and that----"

"Tells tales, doesn't it? Well! it's a great man this time."

A sudden impossible idea ran through her head. Surely it couldn't be----? But nothing we think of very much seems always impossible. It might be! Her air of raillery dropped from her. She sat down, blushing and breathing quickly.

"Who is it, Willie?" she gasped.

"No, you must guess," said the Governor, over his shoulder; he was engaged in lighting a cigar.

"No, no; tell me, tell me," she could not help crying.

At the sound of her voice, he turned quickly and looked curiously at her.

"Why, Al, what's the matter?" he asked uneasily.

Surely she could not care for that fellow? But girls were queer creatures. Lord Eynesford always doubted if they really knew a gentleman from one who was--well, very nearly a gentleman.

Alicia saw his puzzled look and forced a smile.

"Don't tease me. Who is it?"

"No less a man than a Minister."

"A--Willie, who is it?" she asked, and she stretched out a hand in entreaty.

"My dear girl, whatever----? Well, then, it's Coxon."

"Mr. Coxon! Oh!" and a sigh followed, the hand fell to her side, the flush vanished.

She felt a great relief; the strain was over; there was nothing to be faced now, and, as happens at first, peace seemed almost so sweet as to drown the taste of disappointment. Yet she could not have denied that the taste of disappointment was there.

"Oh! how absurd!"

"It's rather amusing," said his Excellency, much relieved in his turn. "You won't chaff Mary--promise."

"What about? No, I promise."

"She thought he was sweet on Eleanor, and rather backed him up--asked him here and all that, you know--and it was you all the time."

Alicia laughed.

"I thought Mary used to leave him a lot to Eleanor."

"That's it."

"But Eleanor always passed him on to me."

"The deuce she did!" laughed Lord Eynesford.

"Don't tell Mary that!"

"Not I! Well, what shall I say? He wants to see you."

"How tiresome!"

"Look here, Al, Mary seems to have given him a bit of her mind; but I must be civil. We can't tell the chap that he's--well, you know. It wouldn't do out here. You don't mind seeing him, do you?"

Alicia said that she would do her duty.

"And shall I be safe in writing and telling him I can say nothing till he has discovered your inclinations?"

"You'll be perfectly safe," said Alicia with decision.

The Governor wrote his letter; it was a very civil letter indeed, and Lord Eynesford felt that it ought in some degree to assuage the wrath which his wife's unseemly surprise had probably raised in Coxon's breast.

"It's all very well," he pondered, "for a man to be civil all round as I am; but his womankind can always give him away."

He closed his note, pushed the writing-pad from him, and, leaning back in his chair, puffed at his cigar. In the moment of reflection, the impression of Alicia's unexplained agitation revived in his memory.

"I don't believe," he mused, "that she expected me to say Coxon. I wonder if there's some one else; it looked like it. But who the deuce could it be here? It can't be Heseltine or Flemyng--they're not her sort--and there's no one else. Ah! the mail came in this morning, perhaps it's some one at home. That must be it. I like that fellow's impudence. Wonder who the other chap is. Perhaps I was wrong--you can't tell with women, they always manage to get excited about something. I swear there was nothing before I came out, and there's no one here, and----"

"Mr. Kilshaw," announced Jackson.

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