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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesQuisante - Chapter 8. Contra Mundum
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Quisante - Chapter 8. Contra Mundum Post by :84xads Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Hope Date :May 2012 Read :2074

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Quisante - Chapter 8. Contra Mundum

CHAPTER VIII. CONTRA MUNDUM

It was impossible not to admire the wealth of experience which Mrs. Baxter had gathered from a singularly quiet life; many men have gone half a dozen times round the world for less. Whatever the situation, whatever the action, she could supply a parallel and thereby forecast an issue. Superficial differences did not hinder her; she pierced to the underlying likeness. When all the world was piteously crying out that never in its life had it heard of such an affair as this of May Gaston's, Mrs. Baxter dived into her treasure-chest and serenely produced the case of the Nonconformist Minister's daughter and the Circus Proprietor. Set this affair side by side with the Quisante business, and a complete sum in double proportion at once made its appearance. The audacity of the man, the headlong folly of the girl, the hopeless mixing of incompatibles were common to the two cases; the issue of the earlier clearly indicated the fate that must attend the later. Lady Richard could do nothing but gasp out, "And what happened, Mrs. Baxter?"

Mrs. Baxter told her, punctuating the story with stitches on a June petticoat.

"She ran away from him twice; but he brought her back, and, they said, beat her well. At any rate she ended by settling down to her new life. They had seven children, all brought up to the circus; only the other day one was sent to prison for ill-treating the dancing bear. He's dead, but she still keeps the circus under his name. Of course all her old friends have dropped her; indeed I hear she drinks. Her father still preaches once on Sundays."

It was easy to disentangle the relevant from the merely reminiscent; the running away, the beating, the settling down, the complete absorption in the new life (vividly indicated by the seven children and their habits), stood out saliently. Add the attitude of old friends, and Lady Richard could not deny the value of the parallel. She acknowledged it with a long-drawn sigh.

"May Gaston must be mad," she observed. "You can imagine how Dick feels about it!"

"And all the while her cousin in the Bank was quite ready to marry her and give her a nice little home. He was Church and sang in the choir at St. Dunstan's."

Without consciously appreciating the nicety of the parallel here, Lady Richard began to think of Weston Marchmont.

"I suppose Mr. Marchmont'll take Fanny now," she said. "I don't know, though; he won't like any sort of connection with Alexander Quisante. How selfish people are! They never think of what their marriages mean to their relations."

This observation expressed a large part of what was felt by society; add friends to relations, and it summed up one side of the indictment against May Gaston. Lady Attlebridge's helpless and bewildered woe was one instance of its truth, Fanny's rage another; to look farther afield, May's friends and acquaintances discovered great cause for vexation in that they saw themselves somehow "let in for" Quisante. At least the alternative was to drop May Gaston as entirely as the unfortunate circus proprietor's wife had been dropped; and this alternative was a difficult one. Had Quisante's raid resulted in the seizure of some insignificant colourless girl who had been merely tolerated for the sake of who she was without possessing any claims in respect of what she was, the dropping would have been easy; but May was not of that kind. She was not only one of them, but very conspicuous among them, one of their ornaments, one in whom they took pride; they would have acknowledged in her a natural leader so soon as a suitable marriage gave her the necessary status and experience. Her treachery was the more flagrant, Quisante's presumption the more enormous, their own course of action the more puzzling to decide.

Yet in their hearts they knew that they must swallow the man; events were too strong for them. Dick Benyon had forced him on them in one side of life, May Gaston now did the like in another; henceforward he must be and would be among them. This consciousness mingled an ingredient of asperity with their genuine pity for May. She would not merely have herself to thank for the troubles which would certainly come upon her; her misfortunes must be regarded as in part a proper punishment for the annoyance she was inflicting on her friends. As for Dick Benyon, it was impossible to speak to him without perceiving that if remorse be in truth the sharpest penalty of sin, he was already punished enough.

The poor man's state was indeed such as to move compassion. Besides his old friend Lady Attlebridge's dumbly accusing eyes, besides Fanny's and Lady Richard's by no means dumb reproaches, a very heavy blow had fallen on him. In the words of his own complaint, his brother Jimmy had gone back on him--and back on his allegiance to Alexander Quisante. The engagement was too much for Jimmy, and in the revulsion of feeling he became downright hostile to Quisante's claims and pretensions. How could he not when Fanny Gaston imperiously and almost tearfully commanded him to attach himself to her banner, and to behold with her eyes the indignity suffered by the noble family of Gaston? Logic was not Jimmy's strong point, and he confounded poor Dick by the twofold assertion that the thing was utterly incredible, and that Dick and he had been most inconceivably idiotic not to have foreseen it from the first hour that they took up Quisante. In this stress of feeling the brothers spoke to one another with candour.

"You know how I feel about Fanny," said Jimmy, "so you can imagine how much I like it."

"Oh, yes, I know; and I quite understand that you wanted Marchmont to marry May," Dick retorted in an alien savageness born of his wounded spirit.

Jimmy was taken aback by this direct onslaught, but his native honesty forbade him to deny the charge point-blank.

"Supposing she came to like me," he grumbled, "it wouldn't be over and above pleasant to have Quisante for a brother-in-law."

Dick was roused; he summoned up his old faith and his old admiration.

"I tell you what," he said, "the only chance you have of your name being known to posterity is if you succeed in becoming his brother-in-law."

"Damn posterity," said Jimmy, tugging at his moustache. He had never entertained the absurd idea of interesting future ages. He began to perceive more and more clearly how ridiculous his brother had made himself over the fellow; he had shared in the folly, but now at least he could repent and dissociate himself from it.

"What does the Dean say?" he asked maliciously.

"I dare say you won't understand," Dick answered in measured tones, "but the Dean's got sense enough to say nothing. Talking's no use, is it?"

Few indeed shared the Dean's wisdom, or the somewhat limited view that talking is only to be practised when it chances to be useful. Are we never to discuss the obvious or to deplore the inevitable? From so stern a code human nature revolts, and the storm of volubility went on in spite of the silence of the Dean of St. Neot's. Even this silence was imperfect in so far as the Dean said a word or two in private to Morewood when he visited him in his studio, and the pair were looking at Quisante's picture. Dick Benyon was less anxious now to have it finished and sent home in the shortest possible time.

"You've seen some good in him," said the Dean, pointing to the picture.

"Well--something anyhow," said Morewood.

"I think, you know," the Dean pursued meditatively, "that a great woman might succeed in what she's undertaken (Morewood did not need the mention of May Gaston's name), at the cost of sacrificing all her other interests and most of her feelings."

Morewood was lighting his pipe and made no answer.

"Is our dear young friend a great woman, though?" asked the Dean.

"She aspires to be," said Morewood; he was sneering as usual, but rather at aspirations in general than at any unusual absurdity in May Gaston's; thus at least the Dean understood him.

"You mean that that's at the bottom of the trouble?" he inquired, smiling a little.

"Oh, yes," answered Morewood, weary of indicating what was so apparent.

"You've dived down to something in that picture; perhaps she has."

"Yes, she has." Morewood looked straight at the Dean as he added, "But I can leave out the other things, you see. That's the difference."

"And she can't? No. That is the difference. She'll have to live with the other things." He looked courageously at Morewood and ended, "We must trust in God." Either the sincerity or the unexpectedness of the remark kept Morewood silent.

No such ambition as these two imputed to her consciously animated May Gaston. Just now she was content if she could persuade her mother that people after all said nothing very dreadful (for what was said was always more to Lady Attlebridge than what was true), could keep on something like friendly relations with her sister, and could maintain a cheerful view of her own position and of her experiment. Inevitably the hostility of his future mother-in-law and of Fanny brought out the worst side of Quisante's manners; in the effort to conciliate he almost fawned. May had to find consolation in a growth of openness and simplicity towards herself. And she had one notable triumph which more than anything else brought her through the trial with her purpose unshaken and her faith even a little strengthened. It was not a complete triumph, and in trying to push it too far she suffered a slight rebuff; but there was hope to be had from it, it seemed to open a prospect of successes more ample. She made Quisante send back Aunt Maria's five hundred pounds before Mr. Mandeville's operations had resulted either in safety or in gain.

"You see, she never gave it you to use in speculation," she had said. "It isn't right, you must see it isn't. Have you got the money?"

"Yes; but I meant to buy you----"

"No, no, I wouldn't have it. Now do send it back. I know you see what I mean." Her voice grew doubtful and imploring.

"Oh, yes, in a way. But I shan't lose it, you know."

"That doesn't make the least difference."

"If it pleases you, I'll send it back."

"Well, do," she said with a little sigh. The motive was not that which she wished to rouse, but very likely it was that with which she must begin her work. Then she tried the further step. "And any profit you make, if you make any, you ought to send too," she said.

Genuine surprise was exhibited on Quisante's face. "What, after sending back the five hundred?" he asked.

"Yes, you ought." She made a little concession by adding, "Strictly, you know." Quisante looked at her, kissed her hand, and laughed. Her sense of humour, which she began to perceive would rather hamper her, made her join in the laugh. "Do you think me very absurd? No, no, not compliments! Truth, truth always!"

"I call the suggestion rather--well, rather fanciful," said he.

"Yes, I suppose you do," she sighed. "Do you know what I hope?" she went on. "I hope that some day that sort of suggestion will seem a matter of course to you."

He stopped laughing and looked put out. She saw that his vanity was hurt. "But I hope all sorts of unusual things about you," she went on, her conscience rebuking her for using the wile of flattery. But it served well; the cloud passed from his face, as he begged her not to expect to see him a saint too soon.

A few days later he came in radiant; the operation had gone splendidly, there was a cent. per cent. profit; she was to come with him and buy the necklace at once. May loved necklaces and liked him for being so eager to give her one. And she did not wish to appear in the light of a prig (that had probably been his impression of her) again so soon. But had he not the evening before, as they talked over their prospects, told her that he owed Dick Benyon a thousand pounds or more, and was in arrears with the instalments by which the debt was to be liquidated? By a not unnatural turn of her mind she found herself less able to allow him to forget his obligation, less able to indulge him in the temporary extravagance of a lover, than if he had been a man on whose punctilious honour in all matters of money she relied absolutely. She was more affectionate and more effusive to him than usual, and it was with a kiss that she whispered,

"Give me the money, not the necklace."

"The money?" he said in surprise.

"Yes, to do what I like with. At least give me your promise to do what I ask with it."

He was suspicious and his face showed it. She laughed. "Yes, I'm worrying again," she said. "I can now, you see. When we're married I shan't have the power."

"You'll always have absolute power over me."

"Oh, I wish that was true!" she said. "No, I don't," came an instant later. "If I thought that, I'd never speak to you again." Moving away a little, she turned her head back towards him and went on, "Use it to pay Dick Benyon. I'd rather you did that than gave me a thousand necklaces."

"Oh, Dick's in no hurry; he's got lots of money." Quisante was visibly vexed this time. "Aren't you going to allow me to give you anything?" he asked.

She had a struggle to win this time, and again had to call in the ally she distrusted, an appeal to his vanity. She told him that it hurt her idea, her great idea, of him, that he should be in any way under obligations to or dependent on anybody. This way of putting the matter caught his fancy, which had remained blind to the more prosaic aspect of the case. "You must stand by your own strength," she said. She had to go a step farther still. "It'll make Amy Benyon quite angry too; it'll take away one of her grievances. Don't pay only the arrears, pay all you can." Thus she won and was comforted, in spite of her suspicion of the weapons that she found herself obliged to use.

Comfort she needed sadly, and it could come only from Quisante himself. For the rest the sense of loneliness was strong upon her, and with it a bitterness that this time in her life should be so different from what it was in the lives of most girls. The superficials were there; friends sent presents and Lady Attlebridge was as particular about the gowns and so forth as though the match had been absolutely to her liking. But there was no sincere congratulation, no sympathy, no envy. Her engagement was a mistake, her marriage a tragedy; that was the verdict; she saw it in every glance and discerned it under every civil speech. The common judgment, the opinion of the group we have lived with, has a force irrespective of its merit; there were times when May sank under the burden of it and almost retreated. Then she was outwardly most contented, took Quisante everywhere with her, tried (as people said) to thrust him down everybody's throat, even pretended a love which she had expressly denied to the man himself. All this done, she would fly to solitude and there be a victim to her fears, shudder at the risk she had elected to run, and pray for any strange convulsion of events to rescue her.

None came; time went on, people settled down to the notion; only to a small circle the matter retained a predominant interest. The rest of the world could not go on talking about it for ever; they had a number of other people's affairs to attend to, and the vagaries of one fanciful young woman could not occupy their important minds for ever. None the less, they turned away with a pleasant sense that they might find good reason for turning back presently; let a year or two of the marriage run, and there might be something to look at again.

But to one man the thing never became less strange, less engrossing, or less horrible. Weston Marchmont abandoned as pure folly the attempt to accustom his mind to it or to acquiesce in it; he had not the power to cease to think of it. It was unnatural; to that he returned always; and it ousted what surely was natural, what his whole being cried out was meant, if there were such a thing as a purpose in human lives at all. Disguised by his habit of self-repression before others, his passion was as strong as Quisante's own; it was backed by a harmony of tastes and a similarity of training which gave it increased intensity; it had been encouraged by an apparent promise of success, now turned to utter failure. Amy Benyon might think that he would now marry Fanny, if only he could endure such an indirect connection with Quisante. To himself it seemed so impossible to think of anyone but May that in face of facts he could not believe that he was not foremost in her heart. The facts meant marriage, it seemed; he denied that they meant love. He discerned what May had said to Quisante--although not of course that she had said it--and it filled him with a more unendurable revolt. He might have tolerated a defeat in love; not to be defeated and yet to suffer all the pains of the vanquished was not to be borne. But he was helpless, and when he had tried to plead his cause he had done himself no good. He had rather so conducted himself as to give May Gaston the right to shut the door on any further friendship with him; towards her future husband he had never varied from an attitude of cool disdain. It was more than a month since he had seen her, it was longer since he had done more than nod carelessly to Quisante as they passed one another in the lobby or the smoking-room.

Then one day, a fortnight before the marriage, he met Quisante as they were both leaving the House about four o'clock. On a sudden impulse he joined his rival. He knew his man; Quisante received him with friendliness and even effusion, and invited him to join him in a call at Lady Attlebridge's. They went on together, Quisante elated at this new evidence of his power to reconcile opposition and conciliate support, Marchmont filled with a vague painful curiosity and a desire to see the two together at the cost of any suffering the sight might bring him.

The drawing-room at Lady Attlebridge's was a double room; in one half May sat reading, in the other her mother dozed. May rose with a start as the men entered together; her face flushed as she greeted Marchmont and bade Quisante go and pay his respects to her mother.

"I hardly expected ever to see you again," she said. "And I didn't expect Mr. Quisante to bring you." Her tone was oddly expressive at once of pleasure and regret, of anticipation and fear. "Have you made friends?" she asked.

He answered under the impulse of his mood.

"We must make friends," he said, "or I shall never see any more of you."

"I thought you didn't want to." She liked him too well not to show a little coquetry, a little challenge.

"I thought so too, or tried to think so."

"I was sure you had deserted me. You said such--well, such severe things."

"I say them all still."

"But here you are!" she cried, laughing.

"Yes, here I am," said he, but he was grave and looked intently at her. She grew red again as she met his gaze, and frowned a little.

"I'm not sure I'm glad you've come after all," she said after a pause. "Why have you come? I don't quite understand."

"I've come to see you, to look on at your happiness," he answered.

"You've no right to talk like that."

They became silent. From the inner room they heard Lady Attlebridge's nervous efforts at conversation and Quisante's fluent, too fluent, responses. He was telling the good lady about her great social influence, and, little as she liked him, she seemed to listen eagerly. Marchmont looked at May and smiled. He was disappointed when she returned his smile.

"He's a little too much of a politician, isn't he?" she asked.

Her refusal to perceive the insinuation of his smile made him ashamed of it.

"We all are, when we've something to get, I suppose," he said with a shrug.

"Oh, I don't think you need reproach yourself," she exclaimed, laughing.

There was a short pause. Then he said suddenly,

"You're the one person in the world to talk to."

Now she neither laughed nor yet rebuked him, and, as his eyes met hers, he seemed to have no fear that she would do either the one or the other. Yet he could not quite understand her look; did she pity him or did she entreat for herself? For his life he could not answer. The only thing he knew was that she would follow her path and take for husband the man who flattered Lady Attlebridge in the inner room. Then she spoke in a low voice.

"Yes, do come, come and see us afterwards, come as often as you like." He raised his eyes to hers again. "Because the oftener you come, the more you'll understand him, and the better you understand him, the better you'll know why I'm doing what I am."

The soft look of pity or of entreaty vanished from her eyes now. She seemed to speak in a strong and even defiant confidence. But he met her with a resolute dissent.

"If you want me, I'll come. But I shan't understand why you did what you're doing and I shall never see in him what you want me to see." He looked round and saw Quisante preparing to join them. "Am I to come, then?" he asked.

Quisante was walking towards them; she answered with a nervous laugh, "I think you must come sometimes anyhow." Then she raised her voice and said to Quisante, "I'm telling Mr. Marchmont that I shall expect to see him often at our house."

Quisante seconded her invitation with more than adequate enthusiasm; if Marchmont were converted to him, who could still be obstinate? The two men began to talk, May falling more and more into silence. She did not accuse Marchmont of deliberate malice, but by chance or the freak of some mischievous demon everything he said led Quisante on to display his weaknesses. She knew that Marchmont marked them every one; he was too well bred to show his consciousness by so much as the most fleeting glance at her; yet she could have met such a glance with understanding, yes, with sympathy, and would have had to summon up by artificial effort the resentment that convention demanded of her. The sight of the two men brought home to her with a new and an almost terrible sharpness the divorce between her emotional liking and her intellectual interest. And in a matter which all experience declared to concern the emotions primarily, she had elected to give foremost place to the intellect, to suffer under an ever recurring jar of the feelings for the sake of an occasional treat to the brain. That was her prospect unless she could transform the nature of Alexander Quisante. "Marry a nice man of your own sort, and then be as much interested as you like in Sandro." Aunt Maria's advice echoed in her ears as she watched the two men round whom the struggle of her soul centred, the struggle that she had thought was finished on the day when she promised to become Alexander Quisante's wife.

"I shall keep you both to your word," said Marchmont when he left them. May nodded, smiling slightly. Quisante said all and more than all the proper things.

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