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The Grey Room By Eden Phillpotts Characters: 31257

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

Sir Walter persisted in his purpose and went to Florence. He believed that here Mary might find distractions and novelties to awaken interest which would come freshly into her life without the pain and poignancy of any recollection to lessen the work of peace. For himself he only desired to see her returning to content. Happiness he knew must be a condition far removed from her spirit for many days.

They stood one evening on the Piazza of Michelangelo and saw Florence, like a city of dim, red gold extended beneath them. The setting sunlight wove an enchantment over towers and roofs. It spread a veil of ineffable brightness upon the city and tinged green Arno also, where the river wound through the midst.

Sir Walter was quietly happy, because he knew that in a fortnight his friends, Ernest and Nelly Travers, would be at Florence. Mary, too, prepared to welcome them gladly, for her father's sake. He left his daughter largely undisturbed, and while they took their walks together, the old man, to whom neither music nor pictures conveyed much significance, let her wander at will, and the more readily because he found that art was beginning to exercise a precious influence over Mary's mind. There was none to guide her studies, but she pursued them with a plan of her own, and though at first the effort sometimes left her weary, yet she persisted until she began to perceive at least the immensity of the knowledge she desired to acquire.

Music soothed her mind; painting offered an interest, part sensuous, part intellectual. Perhaps she loved music best at first, since it brought a direct anodyne. In the sound of music she could bear to think of her brief love story. She even made her father come and listen presently to things that she began to value.

Their minds inevitably proceeded by different channels of thought, and while she strove resolutely to occupy herself with the new interests, and put away the agony of the past, till thinking was bearable again and a road to peace under her feet once more, Sir Walter seldom found himself passing many hours without recurrence of painful memories and a sustained longing to strip the darkness which buried them. To his forthright and simple intelligence, mystery was hateful, and the reflection that his home must for ever hold a profound and appalling mystery often thrust itself upon his thoughts, and even inclined him, in some moods, to see Chadlands no more. Yet a natural longing to return to the old environment, in which he could move with ease and comfort, gradually mastered him, and as the spring advanced he often sighed for Devonshire, yet wondered how he could do so. Then would return the gloomy history of the winter rolling over his spirit like a cloud, and the thought of going home again grew distasteful.

Mary, however, knew her father well enough, and at this lustrous hour, while Florence stretched beneath them in its quiet, evening beauty, she declared that they must not much longer delay their return.

"Plenty of time," he said. "I am not too old to learn, I find, and a man would indeed be a great fool if he could not learn in such a place as this. But though art can never mean much to me now, your case is different, and I am thankful to know that these things will be a great addition and interest to your future life. I'm a Philistine, and shall always so remain, but I'm a repentant one. I see my mistake too late."

"It's a new world, father," she said, "and it has done a great deal for an unhappy woman-not only in taking my thoughts off myself, but in lessening my suffering, too. I do not know why, or how, but music, and these great, solemn pictures painted by dead men, all touch my thoughts of dear Tom. I seem to see that there are so many more mighty ones dead than living. And yet not dead. They live in what they have made. And Tom lives in what he made-that was my love for him and his for me. He grows nearer and dearer than ever when I hear beautiful music. I can better bear to think of him at such times, and it will always help me to remember him."

"God bless art if it does so much," he said. "We come to it as little children, and I shall always be a child and never understand, but for you the valuable message will be received. May life never turn you away from these things in years to come."

"Never! Never!" she assured him. "Art has done too much for me. I shall not try to live my life without it. Already I feel I could not."

"What have you seen to-day?" he asked.

"I was at the Pitti all the morning. I liked best Fra Bartolommeo's great altar piece and Titian's portrait of Cardinal Ippolito dei Medici. You must see him-a strange, unhappy spirit only twenty-three years old. Two years afterwards he was poisoned, and his haunted, discontented eyes closed for ever. And the 'Concert'-so wonderful, with such a hunger-starved expression in the soul of the player. And Andrea del Sarto-how gracious and noble; but Henry James says he's second-rate, because his mind was second-rate, so I suppose he is, but not to me. He never will be to me. To-morrow you must come and see some of the things I specially love. I won't bore you. I don't know enough to bore you yet. Oh, and Allori's 'Judith'-so lovely, but I wonder if Allori did justice to her? Certainly his 'Judith' could never have done what the real Judith did. And there's a landscape by Rubens-dark and old-yet it reminded me of our woods where they open out above the valley."

He devoted the next morning to Mary, and wandered among the pictures with her. He strove to share her enthusiasm, and, indeed, did so sometimes. Then occurred a little incident, so trivial that they forgot all about it within an hour, yet were reminded of it at a very startling moment now fast approaching.

They had separated, and Sir Walter's eye was caught by a portrait. But he forgot it a moment later in passing interest of a blazoned coat of arms upon the frame-a golden bull's head on a red ground. The heraldic emblem was tarnished and inconspicuous, yet the spectator felt curiously conscious that it was not unfamiliar. It seemed that he had seen it already somewhere. He challenged Mary with it presently; but she had never observed it before to her recollection.

Sir Walter enjoyed his daughter's interest, and finding that his company among the pictures added to Mary's pleasure, while his comments caused her no apparent pain, he declared his intention of seeing more.

"You must tell me what you know," he said.

"It will be the blind leading the blind, dearest," she answered, "but my delight must be in finding things I think you'll like. The truth is that neither of us knows anything about what we ought to like."

"That's a very small matter," he declared. "We must begin by learning to like pictures at all. When Ernest comes, he will want us to live in his great touring car and fly about, so we should use our present time to the best advantage. Pictures do not attract him, and he will be very much surprised to hear that I have been looking at them."

"We must interest him, too, if we can."

"That would be impossible. Ernest does not understand pictures, and music gives him no pleasure. He regards art with suspicion, as a somewhat unmanly thing."

"Poor Mr. Travers!"

"Do not pity him, Mary. His life is sufficiently full without it."

"But I've lived to find out that no life can be." In due course Ernest and Nelly arrived, and, as Sir Walter had prophesied, their pleasure consisted in long motor drives to neighboring places and scenes of interest and beauty. His daughter, in the new light that was glimmering for her, found her father's friends had shrunk a little. She could speak with them and share their interests less whole-heartedly than of old; but they set it down to her tribulation and tried to "rouse" her. Ernest Travers even lamented her new-found interests and hoped they were "only a passing phase."

"She appears to escape from reality into a world of pictures and music," he said. "You must guard against that, my dear Walter. These things can be of no permanent interest to a healthy mind."

For a fortnight they saw much of their friends, and Mary observed how her father expanded in the atmosphere of Ernest and Nelly. They understood each other so well and echoed so many similar sentiments and convictions.

Ernest entertained a poor opinion of the Italian character. He argued that a nation which depended for its prosperity on wines and silk-"and such wines"-must have too much of the feminine in it to excel. He had a shadowy idea that he understood the language, though he could not speak nor write it himself.

"We, who have been nurtured at Eton and Oxford, remember enough Latin to understand these people," he said, "for what is Italian but the emasculated tongue of ancient Rome?"

Nelly Travers committed herself to many utterances as idiotic as Ernest's, and Mary secretly wondered to find how shadowy and ridiculous such solid people showed in a strange land. They carried their ignorance and their parochial atmosphere with them as openly and unashamedly as they carried their luggage. She was not sorry to leave them, for she and her father intended to stop for a while at Como before returning home again.

Their friends were going to motor over the battlefields of France presently, and both Ernest and Nelly came to see Sir Walter and his daughter off for Milan. Mr. Travers rushed to the door of the carriage and thrust in a newspaper as the train moved.

"I have secured a copy of last week's 'Field,' Walter," he said.

They passed over the Apennines on a night when the fire-flies flashed in every thicket under the starry gloom of a clear and moonless sky; and when the train stopped at little, silent stations the throb of nightingales fell upon their ears.

But circumstances prevented their visit to the Larian Lake, for at Milan letters awaited Sir Walter from home, and among them one that hastened his return. From a stranger it came, and chance willed that the writer, an Italian, had actually made the journey from Rome to London in order that he might see Sir Walter, while all the time the master of Chadlands happened to be within half a day's travel. Now, the writer was still in London, and proposed to stop there until he should receive an answer to his communication. He wrote guardedly, and made one statement of extraordinary gravity. He was concerned with the mystery of the Grey Room, and believed that he might throw some light upon the melancholy incidents recorded concerning it.

Sir Walter hesitated for Mary's sake, but was relieved when she suggested a prompt return.

"It would be folly to delay," she said. "This means quite as much to me as to you, father, and I could not go to Como knowing there may be even the least gleam of light for us at home. Nothing can alter the past, but if it were possible to explain how and why-what an unutterable relief to us both!"

"Henry was to meet us at Menaggio."

"He will be as thankful as we are if anything comes of this. He doesn't leave England till Thursday, and can join us at Chadlands instead."

"I only live to explain these things," confessed her father. "I would give all that I have to discover reasons for the death of your dear husband. But there are terribly grave hints here. I can hardly imagine this man is justified in speaking of 'crime.' Would the word mean less to him than to us?"

"He writes perfect English. Whatever may be in store, we must face it hopefully. Such things do not happen by chance."

"He is evidently a gentleman-a man of refinement and delicate feeling. I am kindly disposed to him already. There is something chivalric and what is called 'old-fashioned' in his expressions. No young man writes like this nowadays."

The letter, which both read many times, revealed the traits that Sir Walter declared. It was written with Latin courtesy and distinction. There were also touches of humor in it, which neither he nor Mary perceived:

"Claridge's Hotel, London. April 9.

"Dear Sir Walter Lennox,-In common with the rest of the

world that knows England, I have recently been profoundly

interested and moved at the amazing events reported as

happening at Chadlands, in the County of Devon, under your

roof. The circumstances were related in Italian journals

with no great detail, but I read them in the 'Times'

newspaper, being familiar with your language and a great

lover of your country.

"I had already conceived the idea of communicating with you

when-so small is the world in this our time-accident

actually threw me into the society of one of your personal

friends. At an entertainment given by the British Ambassador

at Rome, a young soldier, one Colonel Vane, was able to do

me some service in a crush of people, and I enjoyed the

privilege of his acquaintance as the result. I would not

have inflicted myself upon another generation, but he took

an interest in conversing with one who knew his own language.

He was also intelligent-for a military man. Needless to

say, he made no allusion to the tragedy at Chadlands, but

when he spoke of espionage in war and kindred matters, I

found him familiar with the details concerning the death of

the great English detective, Peter Hardcastle. I then asked

him, as being myself deeply interested in the matter, whether

it would be possible to get further and fuller details of the

story of 'the Grey Room,' whereupon he told me, to my

amazement, that he had been at Chadlands when your lamented

son-in-law, Captain Thomas May, passed out of life. I then

recollected Colonel Vane's name, among others mentioned in

the 'Times,' as at Chadlands when the disaster occurred.

"Finding that my curiosity was not idle, Colonel Vane accepted

an invitation to dinner, and I enjoyed the pleasure of

entertaining him and learning many personal and intimate

particulars of the event. These were imparted in confidence,

and he knew that I should not abuse his trust. Indeed, I had

already told him that it was my determination to communicate

with you upon the strength of his narrative.

"It seems improbable that anything I can say will bear upon

the case, and I may presently find that I lack the means to

serve you, or throw light where all is so profoundly buried

in darkness. Yet I am not sure. Small things will often

lead to greater, and though the past is unhappily beyond

recall, since our Maker Himself cannot undo the work of

yesterday, or obliterate events embalmed in vanished time,

yet there is always the future; and if we could but read

the past aright, which we never can, then the future would

prove less of a painful riddle than mankind generally

finds it.

"If, then, I can help you to read the past, I may at least

modify your anxieties in the future; and should I, by a

remote chance, be right in my suspicions, it is quite

imperative that I place myself at your service for the

sake of mankind. In a word, a great crime has been

committed, and the situation is possibly such that further

capital crimes will follow it. I affirm nothing, but I

conceive the agency responsible for these murders to

be still active, since the police have been so completely

foiled. At Chadlands there may still remain an unsleeping

danger to those who follow you-a danger, indeed, to all

human life, so long as it is permitted to persist. I write,

of course, ass

uming you to be desirous of clearing this

abominable mystery, both for your own satisfaction and the

credit of your house. "There is but little to hope from me,

and I would beg you not to feel sanguine in any way. Yet

this I do believe: that if there is one man in the world

to-day who holds the key of your tribulation, I am that man.

One lives in hope that one may empty the world of so great a

horror; and to do so would give one the most active

satisfaction. But I promise nothing.

"If I should be on the right track, however, let me explain

the direction in which my mind is moving. Human knowledge

may not be equal to any solution, and I may fail accordingly.

It may even be possible that the Rev. Septimus May did not

err, and that at the cost of his life he exorcised some

spirit whose operations were permitted for reasons hid in

the mind of its Creator; but, so far as I am concerned, I

believe otherwise. And if I should prove correct, it will

be possible to show that all has fallen out in a manner

consonant with human reason and explicable by human

understanding. I therefore came to England, glad of the

excuse to do so, and waited upon you at your manor, only to

hear, much to my chagrin, that you were not in residence,

but had gone to Florence, a bird's journey from my own home!

"Now I write to the post-office at Milan, where your servant

directed me that letters should for the moment be sent. If

you are returning soon, I wait for you. If not, it may be

possible to meet in Italy. But I should prefer to think

you return ere long, for I cannot be of practical service

until I have myself, with your permission, visited your

house and seen the Grey Room with my own eyes.

"I beg you will accept my assurances of kindly regard and

sympathy in the great sufferings you and Madame May have

been called upon to endure.

"Until I hear from you, I remain at Claridge's Hotel in


"I have the honor to be,

"Faithfully yours,

"Vergilio Mannetti."

To this communication, albeit he felt little hope, Sir Walter made speedy response. He declared his intention of returning to England during the following week, after which he hoped that Signor Mannetti would visit Chadlands at any time convenient to himself. He thanked him gratefully, but feared that, since the Italian based his theory on a crime, he could not feel particularly sanguine, for the possibility of such a thing had proved non-existent.

Mary, however, looked deeper into the letter. She even suspected that the writer himself entertained a greater belief in his powers than he declared.

"One has always felt the Grey Room is somehow associated with Italy," she said. "The ceiling we know was moulded by Italians in Elizabeth's day."

"It was; but so are all the other moulded ceilings in the house as well."

"He may understand Italian workmanship, and know some similar roof that hid a secret."

"The roof cannot conceal an assassin, and he clearly believes himself on the track of a crime." Nevertheless, Sir Walter's interest increased as the hour approached for their return home. Only when that was decided did he discover how much he longed to be there. For the horror and suffering of the past were a little dimmed already; he thirsted to see his woods and meadows in their vernal dress, to hear the murmur of his river, and move again among familiar voices and familiar paths.

Chadlands welcomed them on a rare evening of May, and the very genuine joy of his people moved Sir Walter not a little. Henry Lennox was already arrived, and deeply interested to read the Italian's letter. He and Mary walked presently in the gardens and he found her changed. She spoke more slowly, laughed not at all. But she had welcomed him with affection, and been interested to learn all that he had to tell her of himself.

"I felt that it would disappoint you to be stopped at the last moment," she said, "but I knew the reason would satisfy you well enough. I feel hopeful somehow; father does not. Yet it is hope mixed with fear, for Signor Mannetti speaks of a great crime."

"A vain theory, I'm afraid. Tell me about yourself. You are well?"

"Yes, very well. You must come to Italy some day, Henry, and let me show you the wonderful things I have seen."

"I should dearly love it. I'm such a Goth. But it's only brutal laziness. I want to take up art and understand a little of what it really matters."

"You have it in you. Are you writing any more poetry?"

"Nothing worth showing you."

She exercised the old fascination; but he indulged in no hope of the future. He knew what her husband had been to Mary, despite the shortness of their union; and, rightly, he felt positive that she would never marry again.

A mournful spectacle appeared, drawn by the sound of well-known voices, and the old spaniel, Prince, crept to Mary's feet. He offered feeble homage, and she made much of him, but the dog had sunk to a shadow.

"He must be put away, poor old beggar; it's cruel to keep him alive. Only Masters said he was determined he should not go while Uncle Walter was abroad. Masters has been a mother to him."

"Tell father that; he may blame Masters for letting him linger on like this. He rather hoped, I know, that poor Prince would be painlessly destroyed, or die, before he came back."

"Masters would never have let him die unless directed to do so."

"And I'm sure father could never have written the words down and posted them. You know father."

Letters awaited the returned travellers, one from Colonel Vane, who described his meeting with Signor Mannetti, and hoped something might come of it; and another from the stranger himself. He expressed satisfaction at his invitation, and proposed arriving at Chadlands on the following Monday, unless directions reached him to the contrary.

When the time came, Sir Walter himself went into Exeter to meet his guest and bring him back by motor-car. At first sight of the signor, his host experienced a slight shock of astonishment to mark the Italian's age. For Vergilio Mannetti was an ancient man. He had been tall, but now stooped, and, though not decrepit, yet he needed assistance, and was accompanied and attended by a middle-aged Italian. The traveller displayed a distinguished bearing. He had a brown, clean-shaved face, the skin of which appeared to have shrunk rather than wrinkled, yet no suggestion of a mummy accompanied this physical accident. His hair was still plentiful, and white as snow; his dark eyes were undimmed, and proved not only brilliant but wonderfully keen. He told them more than once, and indeed proved, that behind large glasses, that lent an owl-like expression to his face, his long sight was unimpaired. His rather round face sparkled with intelligence and humor.

He owned to eighty years, yet presented an amazing vitality and a keen interest in life and its fulness. The old man had played the looker-on at human existence, and seemed to know as much, if not more, of the game than the players. He confessed to this attitude and blamed himself for it.

"I have never done a stroke of honest work in my life," he said. "I was born with the silver spoon in my mouth. Alas, I have been amazingly lazy; it was my metier to look on. I ought, at least, to have written a book; but then all the things I wanted to say have been so exquisitely said by Count Gobineau in his immortal volumes, that I should only have been an echo. The world is too full of echoes as it is. Believe me, if I had been called to work for my living, I should have cut a respectable figure, for I have an excellent brain."

"You know England, signor?"

"When I tell you that I married an English-woman, and that both my sons have English blood in their veins, you will realize the sincerity of my devotion. My dear wife was a Somerset."

Mary May always declared that the old Italian won her heart and even awakened something akin to affection before she had known him half an hour. There was a fascination in his admixture of childish simplicity and varied knowledge. None, indeed, could resist his gracious humor and old-world courtesies. The old man could be simple and ingenuous, too; but only when it pleased him so to be; and it was not the second childishness of age, for his intellect remained keen and moved far more swiftly than any at Chadlands. But he was modest and loved a jest. The hand of time had indeed touched him, and sometimes his memory broke down and he faltered with a verbal difficulty; but this only appeared to happen when he was weary.

"The morning is my good time," he told them. "You will, I fear, find me a stupid old fellow after dinner."

Signor Mannetti proved a tremendous talker, and implicitly revealed that he belonged to the nobility of his country, and that he enjoyed the friendship of many notable men. The subject of his visit was not mentioned on the day of his arrival. He spoke only of Italy, laughed to think he had passed through Florence to seek Sir Walter in England, and then, finding his hostess a neophyte at the shrines of art, attuned himself to the subject for her benefit.

"If you found pictures answer to an unknown need within yourself, that is very well," he declared. "About music I know little; but concerning painting a great deal. And you desire to know, too, I see. The spirit is willing, but the spirit probably does not know yet what lies in front of it. You are groping-blind, childlike-without a hand to guard and an authority to guide. That is merely to waste time. When you go back to Italy, you must begin at the beginning, if you are in earnest-not at the middle. Only ignorance measures art in terms of skill, for there are no degrees in art. None has transcended Giotto, because technique and draughtsmanship are accidents of time; they lie outside the soul of the matter. Art is in fact a static thing. It changes as the face of the sea changes, from hour to hour; but it does not progress. There are great and small artists and great and small movements, as there are great and small waves, brisk breezes and terrific tempests; but all are moulded of like substance. In the one case art, in the other, the ocean, remains unchanged. I shall plan your instruction for you, if you please, and send you to the primitives first-the mighty ones who laid the foundations. I lived five years at Siena-for love of the beginnings; and you must also learn to love and reverence the beginnings, if you would understand that light in the darkness men call the Renaissance."

He broke from Mary presently, strove to interest Sir Walter, and succeeded.

"A benevolent autocracy is the ideal government, my friend-the ideal of all supreme thinkers-a Machiavelli, a Nietzsche, a Stendhal, a Gobineau. Liberty and equality are terms mutually destructive, they cannot exist together; for, given liberty, the strong instantly look to it that equality shall perish. And rightly so. Equality is a war cry for fools-a negation of nature, an abortion. The very ants know better. Doubtless you view with considerable distrust the growing spirit of democracy, or what is called by that name?"

"I do," admitted Sir Walter.

"Your monarch and mine are a little bitten by this tarantula. I am concerned for them. We must not pander to the mob's leaders, for they are not, and never have been, the many-headed thing itself. They, not the mob, are 'out to kill,' as you say. But that State will soon perish that thinks to prosper under the rule of the proletariat. Such a constitution would be opposed to natural law and, therefore, contain the seeds of its own dissolution. And its death would be inconceivably horrible; for the death of huge, coarse organisms is always horrible. Only distinguished creatures are beautiful in death, or know how to die like gentlemen."

"Who are on your side to-day, signor?" asked Henry Lennox.

"More than I know, I hope. Gobineau is my lighthouse in the storm. You must read him, if you have not done so. He was the incarnate spirit of the Renaissance. He radiated from his bosom its effulgence and shot it forth, like the light of a pharos over dark waters; he, best of all men, understood it, and, most of all men, mourned to see its bright hope and glory perish out of the earth under the unconquerable superstition of mankind and the lamentable infliction of the Jewish race. Alas! The Jews have destroyed many other things besides the Saviour of us all."

They found the Renaissance to be the favorite theme of Signor Mannetti. He returned again and again to it, and it was typical of him that he could combine assurances of being a devout Catholic with sentiments purely pagan.

"Christianity has operated in the making of many slaves and charlatans," he said. "One mourns the fact, but must be honest. It has too often scourged the only really precious members of society from the temple of life. It has cast the brave and clean and virile into outer darkness, and exalted the staple of humanity, which is never brave, or virile, and seldom really clean. A hideous wave submerges everything that matters. The proud, the beautiful-the only beings that justify the existence of mankind-will soon be on the hills with the hawks and leopards, and hunted like them-outcast, pariah, unwanted, hated."

"The spirit of christianity is socialistic, I fear," said Sir Walter. "It is one of those things I do not pretend to understand, but the modern clergy speak with a clear voice on the subject."

"Do your clergy indeed speak with a clear voice?"

"They do; and we must, of course, listen. Truth is apt to be painful. And how can we reconcile our aristocratic instincts with our faith? I ask for information and you will forgive the personality. I find myself in almost entire agreement with your noble sentiments. But, as a good Christian, ought I to be so? How do you stand with the one true faith in your heart and these opinions in your head, signor?"

The old man twinkled and a boyish smile lighted his aged countenance.

"A good question-a shrewd thrust, Sir Walter. There can be only one answer to that, my friend. With God all things are possible."

Henry laughed; his uncle was puzzled.

"You think that is no answer," continued the Italian. "But reason also must have a place in the sun, though we have to hide it in our pocket sometimes. So many great men would not extinguish their light-and had it extinguished for them. A difficult subject. Let us continue to think in compartments. It is safer so. If you are over eighty years old, you love safety. But I love joy and romance also, and is not religion almost the only joy and romance left to us? It is affirmation remember, not negation, that makes the world go round! The 'intellectuals' forget that, and they are sterile accordingly."

Signor Mannetti's wits were something too nimble for his hearers. He talked and talked-about everything but the matter in their minds-until half-past ten o'clock, when his man came after him. Thereupon he rose, like an obedient child, and wished them "Good-night."

"Stephano is my guardian angel," he said-"a being of painful punctuality. But he adds years to my life. He forgets nothing. I wish you a kind farewell until to-morrow and offer grateful thanks for your welcome. I breakfast in my room, if you please, and shall be ready at eleven o'clock to put myself at your service. Then you will be so gracious as to answer me some questions, and I shall, please God, try to help you."

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