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   Chapter 17 ONLY A SIMPLE SERVICE

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 22426

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Mrs. Elstree took the card that the maid brought her. She started up, mechanically touched her hair-which was of the feathery and fluffy kind-and her dress, with the woman's instinct to see that everything was in order: the quick colour rose to her cheek-perhaps from the heat of the fire. 'Yes,' she said, 'I am at home.' She was sitting beside the fire in the drawing-room of Armorel's flat. It was a cold afternoon in March: outside, a black east wind raged through the streets; it was no day for driving or for walking: within, soft carpets, easy-chairs, and bright fires invited one to stay at home. This lady, indeed, was one of those who love warmth and physical ease above all other things. Actually to be warm, lazily warm, without any effort to feel warmth, afforded her a positive and distinct physical pleasure, just as a cat is pleased by being stroked. Therefore, though a book lay in her lap, she had not been reading. It is much pleasanter to lie back and feel warm, with half-closed eyes, in a peaceful room, than to be led away by some impetuous novelist into uncomfortable places, cold places, fatiguing places.

She started, however, and the book fell to the floor, where it remained. And she rose to her feet when the owner of the card came in. The relict of Jerome Elstree was still young, and grief had as yet destroyed none of her beauty. She looked better, perhaps, in the morning-which says a great deal.

'Alec?' she murmured-her eyes as soft as her voice. 'I thought you would come this afternoon.'

'Are you quite alone, Mrs. Elstree?' he asked with a look of warning.

'Quite, Mr. Feilding. And, since the door is shut, and we are quite alone-why-then--' She laughed, held out both her hands, and put up her face like a child.

He took her hands and bent to kiss her lips.

'Zoe,' he said, 'you grow lovelier every day. Last night--' He kissed her again.

'Lovelier than Philippa?'

'What is Philippa beside you? An iceberg beside a-a garden of flowers--'

'There is beauty in icebergs, I have read.'

'Never mind Philippa, dear Zoe. She is nothing to us.'

'I don't mind her a bit, Alec, if you don't. If you begin to mind her-- But we will wait until that happens. Why are you here to-day?'

'I have come to call upon Mrs. Elstree, widow of my poor friend Jerome Elstree.'

'Ce pauvre Jerome! The tears come into my eyes'-in fact, they did at that moment-'look!-when I think of him. So often have I spoken of his virtues and his untimely fate that he has really lived. I never before understood that there are ghosts of men who never lived as well as ghosts of the dead.'

'And I came to call upon your charge, Miss Rosevean.'

'Yes'-she said this dubiously, perhaps jealously-'so I supposed. Why did you send me here, Alec? You have always got some reason for everything. There was no need for my coming-I was doing as well as I expect to do.'

The young man looked about the room without replying to this question.

'Someone,' he said presently, 'has furnished this room who knows furniture.'

'It was Armorel herself. I have no taste-as you know.'

'And how do you get on with her? Are you happy here, Zoe?'

'I am as happy as I ever expect to be-until--'

'Yes, yes,' he interrupted, impatiently. 'You like her, then?'

'I like her as much as I can like any woman. You know, Alec, I am not greatly in love with my own sex. If there were no other women in the world than just enough to dress me, get my dinner, and keep my house clean, I should not murmur. Eve was the happiest of women, in spite of the difficulties she must have had in keeping up with the fashion. Because, you see, she was the only woman.'

'No doubt. And now tell me about this girl.'

'She is rich. To be rich is everything. Money makes an angel of every woman. When I was eighteen, and first met you, Alec, I was rich. Then you saw the wings sticking out visibly one on each shoulder, didn't you? They are gone now-at least,' she looked over her shoulder, 'I see them no longer.'

'I heard she was rich. Where did the money come from?'

'It has been saving up for I don't know how long. The girl is only twenty-one, and she has about thirty thousand pounds, besides all kinds of precious things worth I don't know how much.'

'Jagenal told me she was comfortably off-"comfortably," he said-but-thirty thousand pounds!'

'The mere thought of so much makes your eyes glow quite poetically, Alec. Write a poem on thirty thousand pounds. Well, that is what she has, and all her own, without any drawbacks: no nasty poor relations-no profligate brothers-to nibble and gnaw. She has not either brother or sister-an enviable lot when one has money. When one has no money a brother-a successful brother-might be useful.'

'And how do you get on with her?'

'I think we do pretty well together. But my post is precarious.'

'Why?'

'Because the young woman is pretty, rich, and masterful. It is a curious thing about women that the most masterful soonest find their master.'

'You mean that she will marry.'

'If she gets engaged, being rich, she will certainly marry at once. Until she marries I believe we can get on together, because she is totally independent of me. This afternoon, for example, she has gone out to look at pictures somewhere, with a girl she has picked up somehow-a girl who writes.'

'But, my dear Zoe, you must look after her. Don't let her pick up girls and make friendships. You are here to look after her. I hoped that you would gain her complete confidence-become indispensable to her.'

'Oh! that is why you sent me here? Pray, my dear Alec, what can Armorel be to you?'

'Nothing, dear child,' he replied, patting her soft hand, 'that will bring any discord between you and me. But-make yourself indispensable and necessary to her.'

'You will tell me, I dare say, presently, what you mean. But you don't know this young islander. Necessary to me she is, as you know. Necessary to her I shall never become. We have nothing in common. I can do nothing for her at all, except go out to theatres and concerts and things in the evening. Even then our tastes clash. I like to laugh; she likes to sit solemnly with big eyes staring-so-as if she was receiving inspiration. I like comic operas, she likes serious plays; I like dance music, she likes classical music; I like the fool's paradise, she likes-the other kind, where they all behave so well and are under no illusions. In fact, Armorel takes herself quite seriously all round. Of course, a girl with such a fortune can take herself anyhow she pleases.'

'She knows how to dress, apparently. Most advanced girls disdain dress.'

'But she is not an advanced girl. She is only a girl who knows a great deal. She is not in the least emancipated. Why, she still professes the Christian religion. She is just a girl who has set herself resolutely to learn all she can. She has been about it for five years. When she began, I understand that she knew nothing. What she means to do with her knowledge I have not learned. She talks French and German and Italian. You have heard her play? Very well: you can't beat that. You shall see some of her drawings. They are rather in your style, I think. A highly cultivated girl. That is all.'

'A female prig? A consciously superior person?'

'Not a bit. Rather humble-minded. But masterful and independent. Where she fails is, of course, in ordinary talk. She can't talk-she can only converse. She doesn't know the pictures and painters, and poets and novelists of the day-she doesn't know a single person in society. She doesn't know any personal history at all. And she doesn't care about any. That is Armorel.'

'I see,' he replied thoughtfully. 'Things will be difficult, I am afraid.'

'What things? Oh! there is another point in which she differs from people of society.'

'Yes?'

'When you and I, dear Alec, think and talk of people, we conclude that they are exactly like ourselves-do we not? Quite worldly and selfish, you know. Everyone with his little show to run for himself. Now, Armorel, on the other hand, concludes that everyone is like-not us-but herself. Do you catch the difference? There is a difference, you know.'

'Sometimes, Zoe, I seem not to understand you. But never mind. Under your influence--'

'I have no influence at all with her. I never shall have.'

'But, my dear Zoe, why are you here? I want you-I repeat-to exercise an overwhelming influence.'

'Oh! It is impossible. Consider-you who know me so well-how can I influence a girl who is always seeking after great things? She wants everything noble and lofty and pure. She has what they call a great soul-and I-oh! Alec, you know that I belong to the infinitely little souls. There are a great, great number of us, but we are very contemptible.'

'Let us think,' he replied. 'Let us contrive and devise some way--'

'Enough about Armorel. Tell me now about yourself.'

'I am always the same.'

'You have come, perhaps, this afternoon,' she murmured softly, 'to bring me some new hope-Oh! Alec-at last-some hope?'

'I have no new hope to give you, child.'

Both sat in silence, looking into the firelight.

'It is seven years-seven years,' said Zoe, 'since I had my great quarrel with Philippa. She was eighteen then-and so was I-I charged her with throwing herself at your head, you know. So she did. So she does still. Why, the woman can't conceal, even now, that she loves you. I saw it in her eyes last night, I saw it in her attitude when she was talking to you. She swore after the row we had that she would never speak to me again. But you see she has broken that vow. I was eighteen then, and I was rich, a good deal richer than Philippa ever will be. When you and I became engaged I was twenty-one. That is four years ago, Alec. Yet, a year or two, and the girl you were-engaged to-will be thin and faded. For your sake, my dear boy, I hope that you will not keep her waiting very much longer before you present her to the world.'

'My dear child, could I help the smash that came-the smash and scandal? When the whole town was ringing with your father's smash and his suicide, and the ruin of I don't know how many people, was that the moment for us to step forward and take hands before the world?'

'No; you certainly could not. As a man of the world, you would have been justified in breaking off the thing-especially as it was only a day or two old.'

'I could not let you go, Zoe,' he said, with a touch of real tenderness. 'I was madly in love.'

'I think you were, Alec. I really think that at the time you were truly and madly in love. Else you would never have done a thing of which you repented the next day.'

'I have never repented, dear Zoe-never once.'

'Perhaps you calculated that something would be saved out of the smash. Perhaps, for once in your life, you never calculated at all upon anything. Well-I consented to keep the thing a secret.'

'You know that it was necessary.'

'You said so. I obeyed. But four years-four years-and no prospect of a termination. Consider!' She pleaded as she had spoken before, in the same soft, caressing, murmuring ton

e.

'I do consider, Zoe. You can have your freedom again. I have no right--'

'Nonsense! My freedom? It is your own that you want. My freedom?' she repeated, but without raising her voice. 'Mine? What could I do with it-now? Whither could I turn? Do not, I advise you, think that I will ever while I live restore your freedom to you.'

'I spoke in your own interest, believe me.'

'I am now what you have made me. You know what that is. You know what I was four years ago.'

'I have advised you, it is true.'

'No; you have led me. At the moment of my greatest trouble you made me break away from my own people, who were sorry for my misfortunes, and would have kept me among them in my own circle. There was no reason for me to leave them. The wreck of my father's fortune was not imputed to me. You persuaded me to assert my own independence, and to go upon the stage, for which I was as well fitted as for the kingdom of heaven.'

'I hoped-I thought-that you would succeed.'

'No; what you hoped and intended was to keep me in your power. You would not let me go, and you could not-or would not--'

'Could not, my child. I could not.'

'For four years I have endured the humiliations of the actress who is a failure and can only take the lowest parts. You know what I have endured, and yet-- Oh! Alec, your love is, indeed, a noble gift! And now, for your sake, I am here, playing a part for you. I am the young widow of the man who never existed. I make up a hundred lies every day to a girl who believes every word-which makes it more disgraceful and more horrible. When one knows that she is disbelieved it is different.'

'Zoe, you know my position.'

'Very well, indeed. You live in a little palace. You keep your man-servant and your two horses. You go every day into some kind of good society--'

'It is necessary: my position demands it.'

'Your position, my friend, has nothing to do with it. If you stayed at home every evening just as many copies of your paper would be sold. You spend all this money on yourself, Alec, because you are a selfish person and indulgent, and because you like to make a great show of success.'

'You do not understand.'

'Oh, yes, I do! You paint lovely pictures, which you sell: you write admirable stories and excellent verses-at least, I suppose they are admirable and excellent. You put them into a paper which is your own--'

'Yes-yes. But all these things leave me as poor as I was four years ago.'

He got up and stood before the fire, looking into it. Then he walked across to the window and gazed into the street. Then he returned and looked into the fire again. This restlessness may be a sign that something is on a man's mind.

'Zoe,' he said at length, without looking at her, 'your impatience makes you unjust. You do not understand. Things have come to a crisis.'

'What kind of a crisis?'

'A financial crisis. I must have money.'

'Then go and make it. Paint more pictures: write more poetry. Make money, as other men do. It is very noble and grand to pretend that you only work when you please; but it isn't business, and it isn't true.'

'Again-you do not understand. I must have money in a short time, or else--'

'Else-what may happen, Alec?' She leaned forward, losing her murmuring manner for the first time.

'I may-I must-become bankrupt. That to me signifies social ruin.'

'You have something more to say. Won't you say it at once?'

'If I can get over this difficulty it will be all right-my anxieties over. I thought, Zoe, when I sent you here, that, with a girl rich, mistress of her own, of age, it would be easy for you to wind yourself into her confidence and borrow-or beg, or somehow get what I want out of her. To borrow would be best.'

'How much do you want? Tell me exactly.'

'I want, before the end of next month, about 3,000l. Say, 3,500l.'

'That is a very large sum of money.'

'Not to this girl. Make her lend it to you. Make up some story. Beg it or borrow it-and--' he laid his hand upon her shoulder, but she made no movement in reply; he stooped and kissed her head, but she did not look up. 'Zoe-I swear-if you will do this for me, our long and weary waiting shall be at an end. I will acknowledge everything. I will give up this extravagant life: we will settle down like a couple of honest bourgeois: we will live over the shop if you like-that is, the publishing office of the paper.' He took her hand and raised it to his lips, but she made no response.

'Would she ever get the money back again?'

'Perhaps. How can I tell?'

'Even for the bribe you offer, Alec, I am afraid I cannot do it.'

'We will try together. We will lay ourselves out to attract the girl, to win her confidence. Consider. She is alone. She is in our hands--'

'Yes, yes. But you do not know her. Alec, if I cannot succeed, what will you do?'

'I must look out for some girl with money and get engaged to her. The mere fact of an engagement would be enough for me.'

'Yes,' she said quickly, 'it would have to be. Will you get engaged to-to Philippa?'

'No; Philippa will only have money at the death of her father and mother-not before. Philippa is out of the question.'

'Is there nobody among all your fine friends who will lend you the money?'

'No one. We do not lend money to each other. We go on as if there were no money difficulties in the world, as well as no diseases, no old age, no dying. We do not speak of money.'

'Friendship in society has its limits. Yes; I see. But can't you borrow it in the usual way of business people?'

'I should have to show books and enter into unpleasant explanations. You see, Zoe, the paper has got a very good name, but rather a small circulation. Everybody sees it, but very few buy it.'

'And so you heard of Armorel, and you thought that here was a chance. You say to me, in plain words: "If you get this money, there shall be an end of the false position." Is that so?'

'That is exactly what I do say and swear, Zoe. It is a very simple thing. You have only to persuade the girl to lend you this money, or to advance it, or to invest it by your agency-or something-a very simple and easy thing. You love me well enough to do me such a simple service.'

'I love you well enough, I suppose,' she replied sadly, 'to do everything you tell me to do. A simple service! Only to deceive and plunder this girl, who believes us all to be honourable and truthful!'

'Oh, we shall find a way-some way-to pay her back. Don't be afraid. And don't go off into platitudes, Zoe-you are much too pretty-and when it is done, and you are openly, before the world--'

'I know you well enough to know how much happiness to expect. I am a fool. All women are fools. Philippa is a fool. And I've set my foolish heart on-you. If I fail-if I fail'-her words sank to the softest and gentlest murmur-'you are going to cast about for an heiress, and you will get engaged to her, and then-then-we shall see, dear Alec, what will happen then.' She sat up, her cheek fiery, and her eyes flashing, though her voice was so soft. 'Hush!' she whispered. 'I hear Armorel's step!'

They heard her voice as well outside, loud and clear.

'Come to my own room,' she said. 'What you want is there. This way.'

'It is the girl with her-the girl who writes. They have gone into her own room-her boudoir-her study-where she works half the day. The girl lives with her brother, close by.'

They listened, silent, with hushed breath, like conspirators.

'Poor Armorel!' said Zoe. 'If she only knew what we are plotting! She thinks me the most truthful of women! And all I am here for is to cheat her out of her money! Don't you think I had better make a clean breast and ask her to give me the money and let me go?'

'Begin to-day,' said Alec. 'Begin to talk about me. Interest her in me. Let her know how great and good--'

'Hush!'

Then they heard her voice again in the hall.

'No-no-you must come this evening. Bring Archie with you. I will play, and he shall listen. You shall both listen. And then great thoughts will come to you.'

'Always great thoughts-great thoughts-great pictures,' Zoe murmured. 'And we are so infinitely little. Brother worm, shall we crawl into some hole and hide ourselves?'

Then the door opened, and Armorel herself appeared, fresh and rosy in spite of the cold wind.

'My dear child,' said Zoe softly, looking up from her cushions, 'come in and sit down. You must be perishing with the east wind. Do sit down and be comfortable. You met Mr. Feilding last night, I believe.'

The visitor remained for a quarter of an hour. Armorel had been to see a certain picture in the National Gallery. He talked of pictures just as, the night before, he had talked of music: that is to say, as one who knows all the facts about the painters and their works and their schools: their merits and their defects. He knew and could talk fluently the language of the Art Critic, just as he knew and could talk the language of the Musical Critic. Armorel listened. Now and then she made a remark. But her manner lacked the reverence with which most maidens listened to this thrice-gifted darling of the Muses. She actually seemed not to care very much what he said.

Zoe, for her part, lay back in her cushions in silence.

'How do you like him?' she asked, when their visitor left them.

'I don't know; I haven't thought about him. He talks too much, I think. And he talks as if he was teaching.'

'No one has a better right to talk with authority.'

'But we are free to listen or not as we please. Why has he the right to teach everybody?'

'My dear child, Alec Feilding is the cleverest man in all London.'

'He must be very clever then. What does he do?'

'He does everything-poetry, painting, fiction-everything!'

'Oh, you will show me his poetry, perhaps, some time? And his pictures I suppose we shall see in May somewhere. He doesn't look as if he was at all great. But one may be wrong.'

'My dear Armorel, you are a fortunate girl, though you do not understand your good fortune. Alec-I am privileged to call him Alec-has conceived a great interest in you. Oh, not of the common love kind, that you despise so much-nothing to do with your beaux yeux-but on account of your genius. He was greatly taken with your playing: if you will show him your pictures he will give you instruction that may be useful to you. He wants to know you, my dear.'

'Well,' said Armorel, not in the least overwhelmed, 'he can if he pleases, I suppose, since he is a friend of yours.'

'That is not all: he wants your friendship as a sister in art. Such a man-such an offer, Armorel, must not be taken lightly.'

'I am not drawn towards him,' said the girl. 'In fact, I think I rather dislike his voice, which is domineering; and his manner, which seems to me self-conscious and rather pompous; and his eyes, which are too close together. Zoe, if he were not the cleverest man in London, I should say that he was the most crafty.'

Zoe laughed. 'What man discovers by experiment and experience,' she murmured, incoherently, 'woman discovers at a glance. And yet they say--'

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