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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crown Of Life - Chapter 17
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The Crown Of Life - Chapter 17 Post by :BrandysVenture Category :Long Stories Author :George Gissing Date :May 2012 Read :1620

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The Crown Of Life - Chapter 17


Olga was the first to break silence.

"You ought to take your boots to be mended," she said gently. "If it rains, you'll get wet feet, and you know what that means."

"You're very kind to think of it; I will."

"You can pay for them, I hope?"

"Pay? Oh, yes, yes! a trifle such as that--Have you had a long walk?"

"I met a friend. I may as well tell you; it was the Italian, Mr. Florio."

"I saw you together," said Kite absently, but not resentfully. "I half thought of coming up to be introduced to him. But I'm rather shabby, I feared you mightn't like it."

"It wouldn't have mattered a bit, so far as I'm concerned," replied Olga good-naturedly. "But he isn't the kind of man you'd care for. If he had been, I should have got you to meet him before now."

"You like him?"

"Yes, I rather like him. But it's nothing more than that; don't imagine it. Oh, I had a call from my cousin Irene this morning. We don't quite get on together; she's getting very worldly. Her idea is that one ought to marry cold-bloodedly, just for social advantage, and that kind of thing. No doubt she's going to do it, and then we shall never see each other again, never!--She tells me that Piers Otway is coming to England again."

"Oh, now I should like to know _him_, I really should!" exclaimed Kite, with a mild vivacity.

"So you shall, if he stays in London. Perhaps you would suit each other."

"I'm sure, because you like him so much."

"Do I?" asked Olga doubtfully. "Yes, perhaps so. If he hasn't changed for the worse. But it'll be rather irritating if he talks about nothing but Irene still. Oh, that's impossible! Five years; yes, that's impossible."

"One should think the better of him, in a way," ventured Kite.

"Oh, in a way. But when a thing of that sort is hopeless. I'm afraid Irene looks down upon him, just because--you know. But he's better than most of the men she'll meet in her drawing-rooms, that's Certain. Shall I ask him to come to my place?"

"Do. And I hope he'll stay in England, and that you'll see a good deal of him."

"Pray, why?"

"Because that's the right kind of acquaintance for you, he'll do you good."

Olga laughed a little, and said, with compassionate kindness:

"You _are queer!"

"I meant nothing unpleasant, Olga," was the apologetic rejoinder.

"Of course you didn't. Have you had dinner yet?"

"Dinner? Oh yes--of course, long ago!"

"I know what that means."

"'Sh! 'Sh! May I come home and talk a little?"

Dinner, it might be feared, was no immutable feature of Mr. Kite's day. He had a starved aspect; his long limbs were appallingly meagre; as he strode along, his clothing, thin and disreputable, flapped about him. But his countenance showed nothing whatever of sourness, or of grim endurance. Nor did he appear to be in a feeble state of health; for all his emaciation, his step was firm and he held himself tolerably upright. One thing was obvious, that at Olga's side he forgot his ills. Each time he glanced at her, a strange beautiful smile passed like a light over his hard features, a smile of infinite melancholy, yet of infinite tenderness. The voice in which he addressed her was invariably softened to express something more than homage.

They had the habit of walking side by side, and could keep silence without any feeling of restraint. Kite now and then uttered some word or ejaculation, to which Olga paid no heed; it was only his way, the trick of a man who lived much alone, and who conversed with visions.

On ascending to the room in Great Portland Street, they found Miss Bonnicastle hard at work on a design of considerable size, which hung against the wall. This young lady, for all her sportiveness, was never tempted to jest at the expense of Mr. Kite; removing a charcoal holder from her mouth, she nodded pleasantly, and stood aside to allow the melancholy man a view of her work.

"Astonishing vigour!" said Kite, in his soft, sincere voice. "How I envy you!"

Miss Bonnicastle laughed with self-deprecation. She, no less than Olga Hannaford, credited Kite with wonderful artistic powers; in their view, only his constitutional defect of energy, his incorrigible dreaminess, stood between him and great achievement. The evidence in support of their faith was slight enough; a few sketches, a hint in crayon, or a wash in water-colour, were all he had to show; but Kite belonged to that strange order of men who, seemingly without effort or advantage of any kind, awaken the interest and gain the confidence of certain women. Even Mrs. Hannaford, though a mother's reasons set her against him, had felt this seductive quality in Olga's lover, and liked though she could not approve of him. Powers of fascination in a man very often go together with lax principle, if not with active rascality; Kite was an instance to the contrary. He had a quixotic sensitiveness, a morbid instinct of honour. If it is true that virile force, preferably with a touch of the brutal, has a high place in the natural woman's heart, none the less does an ideal of male purity, of the masculine subdued to gentle virtues, make strong appeal to the imagination in her sex. To the everyday man, Kite seemed a mere pale grotesque, a creature of flabby foolishness. But Olga Hannaford was not the only girl who had dreamed of devoting her life to him. If she could believe his assurance (and she all but did believe it), for her alone had he felt anything worthy to be called love, to her alone had he spoken words of tenderness. The high-tide of her passion had long since ebbed; yet she knew that Kite still had power over her, power irresistible, if he chose to exercise it, and the strange fact that he would not, that, still loving her, he did not seem to be jealous for her love in return, often moved her to bitterness.

She knew his story. He was the natural son of a spendthrift aristocrat, who, after educating him decently had died and left a will which seemed to assure Kite a substantial independence. Unfortunately, the will dealt, for the most part, with property no longer in existence. Kite's income was to be paid by one of the deceased's relatives, who, instead of benefiting largely, found that he came in for a mere pittance; and the proportion of that pittance due to the illegitimate son was exactly forty-five pounds, four shillings, and fourpence per annum. It was paid; it kept Kite alive; also, no doubt, it kept him from doing what he might have done, in art or anything else. On quarterly pay-day the dreamer always spent two or three pounds on gifts to those of his friends who were least able to make practical return. To Olga, of course, he had offered lordly presents, until the day when she firmly refused to take anything more from him. When his purse was empty he earned something by journeyman work in the studio of a portrait painter, a keen man of business, who gave shillings to this assistant instead of the sovereigns that another would have asked for the same labour.

As usual when he came here, Kite settled himself in a chair, stretched out his legs, let his arms depend, and so watched the two girls at work. There was not much conversation; Kite never began it. Miss Bonnicastle hummed, or whistled, or sang, generally the refrains of the music-hall; if work gave her trouble she swore vigorously--in German, a language with which she was well acquainted and at the sound of her maledictions, though he did not understand them, Kite always threw his head back with a silent laugh. Olga naturally had most of his attention; he often fixed his eyes upon her for five minutes at a time, and Olga, being used to this, was not at all disturbed by it.

When five o'clock came, Miss Bonnicastle flung up her arms and yawned.

"Let's have some blooming tea!" she exclaimed. "All right, I'll get it. I've just about ten times the muscle and go of you two put together; it's only right I should do the slavey."

Kite rose, and reached his hat. Whereupon, with soft pressure of her not very delicate hands, Miss Bonnicastle forced him back into his chair.

"Sit still. Do as I tell you. What's the good of you if you can't help us to drink tea?"

And Kite yielded, as always, wishing he could sit there for ever.

Three weeks later, on an afternoon of rain, the trio were again together in the same way. Someone knocked, and a charwoman at work on the premises handed in a letter for Miss Hannaford.

"I know who this is from," said Olga, looking up at Kite.

"And I can guess," he returned, leaning forward with a look of interest.

She read the note--only a few lines, and handed it to her friend, remarking:

"He'd better come to-morrow."

"Who's that?" asked Miss Bonnicastle.

"Piers Otway."

The poster artist glanced from one face to the other, with a smile. There had been much talk lately of Otway, who was about to begin business in London; his partner, Andre Moncharmont, remaining at Odessa. Olga had heard from her mother that Piers wished to see her, and had allowed Mrs. Hannaford to give him her address; he now wrote asking if he might call.

"I'll go and send him a wire," she said. "There isn't time to write. To-morrow's Sunday."

When Olga had run out, Kite, as if examining a poster on the wall, turned his back to Miss Bonnicastle. She, after a glance or two in his direction, addressed him by name, and the man looked round.

"You don't mind if I speak plainly?"

"Of course I don't," he replied, his features distorted, rather than graced, by a smile.

The girl approached him, arms akimbo, but, by virtue of a frank look, suggesting more than usual of womanhood.

"You've got to be either one thing or the other. She doesn't care _that_"--a snap of the fingers--"for this man Otway, and she knows he doesn't care for her. But she's playing him against you, and you must expect more of it. You ought to make up your mind. It isn't fair to her."

"Thank you," murmured Kite, reddening a little. "It's kind of you."

"Well, I hope it is. But she'd be furious if she guessed I'd said such a thing. I only do it because it's for her good as much as yours. Things oughtn't to drag on, you know; it isn't fair to a girl like that."

Kite thrust his hands into his pockets, and drew himself up to a full five feet eleven.

"I'll go away," he said. "I'll go and live in Paris for a bit."

"That's for _you to decide. Of course if you feel like that--it's none of my business, I don't pretend to understand _you_; I'm not quite sure I understand _her_. You're a queer couple. All I know is, it's gone on long enough, and it isn't fair to a girl like Olga. She isn't the sort that can doze through a comfortable engagement of ten or twelve years, and surely you know that."

"I'll go away," said Kite again, nodding resolutely.

He turned again to the poster, and Miss Bonnicastle resumed her work. Thus Olga found them when she came back.

"I've asked him to come at three," she said. "You'll be out then, Bonnie. When you come in we'll put the kettle on, and all have tea." She chanted it, to the old nursery tune. "Of course you'll come as well"--she addressed Kite--"say about four. It'll be jolly!"

So, on the following afternoon, Olga sat alone, in readiness for her visitor. She had paid a little more attention than usual to her appearance, but was perfectly self-possessed; a meeting with Piers Otway had never yet quickened her pulse, and would not do so to-day. If anything, she suffered a little from low spirits, conscious of having played a rather disingenuous part before Kite, and not exactly knowing to what purpose she had done so. It still rained; it had been gloomy for several days. Looking at the heavy sky above the gloomy street, Olga had a sense of wasted life. She asked herself whether it would not have been better, on the decline of her love-fever, to go back into the so-called respectable world, share her mother's prosperity, make the most of her personal attractions, and marry as other girls did--if anyone invited her. She was doing no good; all the experience to be had in a life of mild Bohemianism was already tasted, and found rather insipid. An artist she would never become; probably she would never even support herself. To imagine herself really dependent on her own efforts, was to sink into misery and fear. The time had come for a new step, a new beginning, yet all possibilities looked so vague.

A knock at the door. She opened, and saw Piers Otway.

If they had been longing to meet, instead of scarcely ever giving a thought to each other, they could not have clasped hands with more warmth. They gazed eagerly into each other's eyes, and seemed too much overcome for ordinary words of greeting. Then Olga saw that Otway looked nothing like so well as when on his visit to England some couple of years ago. He, in turn, was surprised at the change in Olga's features; the bloom of girlhood had vanished; she was handsome, striking, but might almost have passed for a married woman of thirty.

"A queer place, isn't it?" she said, laughing, as Piers cast a glance round the room.

"Is this your work?" he asked, pointing to the posters.

"No, no! Mine isn't for exhibition. It hides itself--with the modesty of supreme excellence!"

Again they looked at each other; Olga pointed to a chair, herself became seated, and explained the conditions of her life here. Bending forward, his hands folded between his knees, Otway listened with a face on which trouble began to reassert itself after the emotion of their meeting.

"So you have really begun business at last?" said Olga.

"Yes. Rather hopefully, too."

"You don't look hopeful, somehow."

"Oh, that's nothing. Moncharmont has scraped together a fair capital, and as for me, well, a friend has come to my help, I mustn't say who it is. Yes, things look promising enough, for a start. Already I've seen an office in the City, which I think I shall take. I shall decide to-morrow, and then--_avos_!"

"What does that mean?"

"A common word in Russian. It means 'Fire away.'"

"I must remember it," said Olga, laughing. "It'll make a change from English and French slang--_Avos_!"

There was a silence longer than they wished. Olga broke it by asking abruptly:

"Have you seen my mother?"

"Not yet."

"I'm afraid she's not well."

"Then why do you keep away from her?" said Piers, with good-humoured directness. "Is it really necessary for you to live here? She would be much happier if you went back."

"I'm not sure of that."

"But I am, from what she says in her letters, and I should have thought that you, too, would prefer it to this life."

He glanced round the room. Olga looked vexed, and spoke with a note of irony.

"My tastes are unaccountable, I'm afraid. You, no doubt, find it difficult to understand them. So does my cousin Irene. You have heard that she is going to be married?"

Piers, surprised at her change of tone, regarded her fixedly, until she reddened and her eyes fell.

"Is the engagement announced, then?"

"I should think so; but I'm not much in the way of hearing fashionable gossip."

Still Piers regarded her; still her cheeks kept their colour, and her eyes refused to meet his.

"I see I have offended you," he said quietly. "I'm very sorry. Of course I went too far in speaking like that of the life you have chosen. I had no righ----"

"Nonsense! If you mustn't tell me what you think, who may?"

Again the change was so sudden, this time from coldness to smiling familiarity, that Piers felt embarrassed.

"The fact is," Olga pursued, with a careless air, "I don't think I shall go on with this much longer. If you said what you have in your mind, that I should never be any good as an artist, you would be quite right. I haven't had the proper training; it'll all come to nothing. And--talking of engagements--I daresay you know that mine is broken off?"

"No, I didn't know that."

"It is. Mr. Kite and I are only friends now. He'll look in presently, I think. I should like you to meet him, if you don't mind."

"Of course I shall be very glad."

"All this, you know," said Olga, with a laugh, "would be monstrously irregular in decent society, but decent society is often foolish, don't you think?"

"To be sure it is," Piers answered genially, "and I never meant to find fault with your preference for a freer way of living. It is only--you say I may speak freely--that I didn't like to think of your going through needless hardships."

"You don't think, then, it has done me good?"

"I am not at all sure of that."

Olga lay back in her chair, as if idly amused.

"You see," she said, "how we have both changed. We are both much more positive, in different directions. To be sure, it makes conversation more interesting. But the change is greatest in me. You always aimed at success in a respectable career."

Otway looked puzzled, a little disconcerted.

"Really, is that how I always struck you? To me it's new light on my own character."

"How did you think of yourself, then?" she asked, looking at him from beneath drooping lids.

"I hardly know; I have thought less on that subject than on most."

Again there came a silence, long enough to be embarrassing. Then Olga took up a sketch that was lying on the table, and held it to her visitor.

"Don't you think that good? It's one of Miss Bonnicastle's. Let us talk about her; she'll be here directly. We don't seem to get on, talking about ourselves."

The sketch showed an elephant sitting upright, imbibing with gusto from a bottle of some much-advertised tonic. Piers broke into a laugh. Other sketches were exhibited, and thus they passed the time until Miss Bonnicastle and Kite arrived together.

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