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The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 28274

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


ONE morning Paul, with a clump of papers in his hand, entered his pleasant private room at Drane's Court, stepped briskly to the long Cromwellian table placed in the window bay, and sat down to his correspondence.

It was gusty outside, as could be perceived by the shower of yellow beech leaves that slanted across the view; but indoors a great fire flaming up the chimney, a Turkey carpet fading into beauty, rich eighteenth century mezzotints on the walls, reposeful leather-covered chairs and a comfortable bookcase gave an atmosphere of warmth and coziness. Paul lit a cigarette and attacked a pile of unopened letters. At last he came to an envelope, thick and faintly scented, bearing a crown on the flap. He opened it and read:

DEAR MR. SAVELLI:

Will you dine on Saturday and help me entertain an eminent Egyptologist? I know nothing of Egypt save Shepheard's Hotel, and that I'm afraid wouldn't interest him. Do come to my rescue. Yours, SOPHIE ZOBRASKA.

Paul leaned back in his chair, twiddling the letter between his fingers, and looked smilingly out on the grey autumn rack of clouds. There was a pleasant and flattering intimacy in the invitation: pleasant because it came from a pretty woman; flattering because the woman was a princess, widow of a younger son of a Royal Balkan house. She lived at Chetwood Park, on the other side of Morebury, and was one of the great ones of those latitudes. A real princess.

Paul's glance, travelling back from the sky, fell upon the brass date indicator on the table. It marked the 2nd of October. On that day five years ago he had entered on his duties at Drane's Court. He laughed softly. Five years ago he was a homeless wanderer. Now princesses were begging him to rescue them from Egyptologists. With glorious sureness all his dreams were coming true.

Thus we see our Fortunate Youth at eight-and-twenty in the heyday of success. If he had strutted about under Jane's admiring eyes, like a peacock among daws, he now walked serene, a peacock among peacocks. He wore the raiment, frequented the clubs, ate the dinners of the undeservingly rich and the deservingly great. His charm and his self-confidence, which a genius of tact saved from self-assertion, carried him pleasantly through the social world; his sympathetic intelligence dealt largely and strongly with the public affairs under his control. He loved organizing, persuading, casting skilful nets. His appeal for subscriptions was irresistible. He had the magical gift of wringing a hundred pounds from a plutocrat with the air of conferring a graceful favour. In aid of the Mission to Convert the Jews he could have fleeced a synagogue. The societies and institutions in which the Colonel and Ursula Winwood were interested flourished amazingly beneath his touch. The Girls' Club in the Isle of Dogs, long since abandoned in despair by the young Guardsman, grew into a popular and sweetly mannered nunnery. The Central London Home for the Indigent Blind, which had been languishing for support, in spite of Miss Winwood's efforts, found itself now in a position to build a much-needed wing. There was also, most wonderful and, important thing of all, the Young England League, which was covering him with steadily increasing glory. Of this much hereafter. But it must be remembered. Ursula complained that he left her nothing to do save attend dreary committee meetings; and even for these Paul saved her all the trouble in hunting up information. She was a mere figurehead.

"Dearest lady," Paul would say, "if you send me about my business, you'll write me a character, won't you, saying that you're dismissing me for incorrigible efficiency?"

"You know perfectly well," she would sigh, "that I would be a lost, lone woman without you."

Whereat Paul would laugh his gay laugh. At this period of his life he had not a care in the world.

The game of politics also fascinated him. A year or so after he joined the Winwoods there was a General Election. The Liberals, desiring to drive the old Tory from his lair, sent down a strong candidate to Morebury. There was a fierce battle, into which Paul threw himself, heart and soul. He discovered he could speak. When he first found himself holding a couple of hundred villagers in the grip of his impassioned utterance he felt that the awakening of England had begun. It was a delicious moment. As a canvasser he performed prodigies of cajolery. Extensive paper mills, a hotbed of raging Socialism, according to Colonel Winwood, defaced (in the Colonel's eyes) the outskirts of the little town.

"They're wrong 'uns to a man," said the Colonel, despondently.

Paul came back from among them with a notebook full of promises.

"How did you manage it?" asked the Colonel.

"I think I got on to the poetical side of politics," said Paul.

"What the deuce is that?"

Paul smiled. "An appeal to the imagination," said he.

When Colonel Winwood got in by an increased majority, in spite of the wave of Liberalism that spread over the land, he gave Paul a gold cigarette case; and thenceforward admitted him into his political confidence. So Paul became familiar with the Lobby of the House of Commons and with the subjects before the Committees on which Colonel Winwood sat, and with the delicate arts of wire-pulling and intrigue, which appeared to him a monstrously fine diversion. There was also the matter of Colonel Winwood's speeches, which the methodical warrior wrote out laboriously beforehand and learned by heart. They were sound, weighty pronouncements, to which the House listened with respect; but they lacked the flashes which lit enthusiasm. One day he threw the bundle of typescript across to Paul.

"See what you think of that."

Paul saw and made daring pencilled amendments, and took it to the Colonel.

"It's all very funny," said the latter, tugging his drooping moustache, "but I can't say things like that in the House."

"Why not?" asked Paul.

"If they heard me make an epigram, they would have a fit."

"Our side wouldn't. The Government might. The Government ought to have fits all the time until it expires in convulsions."

"But this is a mere dull agricultural question. The Board of Agriculture have brought it in, and it's such pernicious nonsense that I, as a county gentleman, have to speak against it."

"But couldn't you stick in my little joke about the pigs?" asked Paul pleadingly.

"What's that?" Colonel Winwood found the place in the script. "I say that the danger of swine fever arising from this clause in the Bill will affect every farmer in England."

"And I say," cried Paul eagerly, pointing to his note, "if this clause becomes law, swine fever will rage through the land like a demoniacal possession. The myriad pigs of Great Britain, possessed of the devils of Socialism, will be turned into Gadarene swine hurtling down to destruction. You can show how they hurtle, like this-" He flickered his hands. "Do try it."

"H'm!" said Colonel Winwood.

Sorely against his will, he tried it. To his astonishment it was a success. The House of Commons, like Mr. Peter Magnus's friend, is easily amused. The exaggeration gave a cannon-ball's weight to his sound argument. The Government dropped the clause-it was only a trivial part of a wide-reaching measure-the President of the Board of Agriculture saying gracefully that in the miracle he hoped to bring about he had unfortunately forgotten the effect it might have on the pigs. There was "renewed laughter," but Colonel Winwood remained the hero of the half-hour and received the ecstatic congratulations of unhumorous friends. He might have defeated the Government altogether. In the daily round of political life nothing is so remarkable as the lack of sense of proportion.

"It was the Gadarene swine that did it," they said.

"And that," said Colonel Winwood honestly, "was my young devil of a secretary."

Thenceforward the young wit and the fresh fancy of Paul played like a fountain over Colonel Winwood's speeches.

"Look here, young man," said he one day, "I don't like it. Sometimes I take your confounded suggestions, because they happen to fit in; but I'm actually getting the reputation of a light political comedian, and it won't do."

Whereupon Paul, with his swift intuition, saw that in the case of a proud, earnest gentleman like Colonel Winwood the tempting emendations of typescript would not do. In what Miss Winwood called his subtle Italian way, he induced his patron to discuss the speeches before the process of composition. These discussions, involving the swift rapier play of intelligences, Colonel Winwood enjoyed. They stimulated him magically. He sat down and wrote his speeches, delightfully unconscious of what in them was Paul and what was himself; and when he delivered them he was proud of the impression he had made upon the House.

And so, as the years passed, Paul gained influence not only in the little circle of Drane's Court and Portland Place, but also in the outer world. He was a young man of some note. His name appeared occasionally in the newspapers, both in connection with the Winwood charities and with the political machine of the Unionist party. He was welcomed at London dinner tables and in country houses. He was a young man who would go far. For the rest, he had learned to ride and shoot, and not to make mistakes about the genealogical relationships of important families. He had travelled about Europe, sometimes with the Winwoods, sometimes by himself. He was a young man of cultivation and accomplishment.

On this fifth anniversary he sat gazing unseeingly at the autumn rack, the Princess's letter in his hand, and letting his thoughts wander down the years. He marvelled how valiantly the stars in their courses had fought for him. Even against recognition his life was charmed. Once, indeed, he met at the house in Portland Place a painter to whom he had posed. The painter looked at him keenly.

"Surely we have met before?"

"We have," said Paul with daring frankness. "I remember it gratefully. But if you would forget it I should be still more grateful."

The painter shook hands with him and smiled. "You may be sure I haven't the least idea what you're talking about."

As for Theatreland, the lower walks in the profession to which Paul had belonged do not cross the paths of high political society. It lay behind him far and forgotten. His position was secure. Here and there an anxious mother may have been worried as to his precise antecedents; but Paul was too astute to give mothers over-much cause for anxiety. He lived under the fascination of the Great Game. When he came into his kingdom he could choose; not before. His destiny was drawing him nearer and nearer to it, he thought, with slow and irresistible force. In a few years there would be Parliament, office, power, the awaking from stupor of an England hypnotized by malign influences. He saw himself at the table in the now familiar House of green benches, thundering out an Empire's salvation. If he thought more of the awakener than the awakening, it was because he was the same little Paul Kegworthy to whom the cornelian heart had brought the Vision Splendid in the scullery of the Bludston slum. The cornelian heart still lay in his waistcoat pocket at the end of his watch chain. He also held a real princess's letter in his hand.

A tap at the door aroused him from his day-dream.

There entered a self-effacing young woman with pencil and notebook. "Are you ready for me, sir?"

"Not quite. Sit down for a minute, Miss Smithers. Or, come up to the table if you don't mind, and help me open these envelopes."

Paul, you see, was a great man, who commanded the services of a shorthand typist.

To the mass of correspondence then opened and read he added that which he had brought in from Colonel and Miss Winwood. From this he sorted the few letters which it would be necessary to answer in his own handwriting, and laid them aside; then taking the great bulk, he planted himself on the hearthrug, with his back to the fire, and, cigarette in mouth, dictated to the self-effacing young woman. She took down his words with anxious humility, for she looked upon him as a god sphered on Olympian heights-and what socially insecure young woman of lower-middle-class England could do otherwise in the presence of a torturingly beautiful youth, immaculately raimented, who commanded in the great house with a smile more royal and debonair than that of the master thereof, Member of Parliament though he was, and Justice of the Peace and Lord of the Manor? And Paul, fresh from his retrospect, looked at the girl's thin shoulders and sharp, intent profile, and wondered a little, somewhat ironically. He knew that she regarded him as a kind of god, for reasons of caste. Yet she was the daughter of a Morebury piano tuner, of unblemished parentage for generations. She had never known hunger and cold and the real sting of poverty. Miss Winwood herself knew more of drunken squalor. He saw himself a ragged and unwashed urchin, his appalling breeches supported by one brace, addressing her in familiar terms; and he saw her transfigured air of lofty disgust; whereupon he laughed aloud in the middle of a most unhumorous sentence, much to Miss Smithers' astonishment.

When he had finished his dictation he dismissed her and sat down to his writing. After a while Miss Winwood came in. The five years had treated her lightly. A whitening of the hair about her brows, which really enhanced the comeliness of her florid complexion, a few more lines at corners of eyes and lips, were the only evidences of the touch of Time's fingers. As she entered Paul swung round from his writing chair and started to his feet. "Oh, Paul, I said the 20th for the Disabled Soldiers and Sailors, didn't I? I made a mistake. I'm engaged that afternoon."

"I don't think so, dearest lady," said Paul.

"I am."

"Then you've told me nothing about it," said Paul the infallible.

"I know," she said meekly. "It's all my fault. I never told you. I've aske

d the Bishop of Frome to lunch, and I can't turn him out at a quarter-past two, can I? What date is there free?"

Together they bent over the engagement book, and after a little discussion the new date was fixed.

"I'm rather keen on dates to-day," said Paul, pointing to the brass calendar.

"Why?"

"It's exactly five years since I entered your dear service," said Paul.

"We've worked you like a galley slave, and so I love your saying 'dear service,'" she replied gently.

Paul, half sitting on the edge of the Cromwellian table in the bay of the window, laughed. "I could say infinitely more, dearest lady, if I were to let myself go."

She sat on the arm of a great leathern chair. Their respective attitudes signified a happy intimacy. "So long as you're contented, my dear boy--" she said.

"Contented? Good heavens!" He waved a protesting hand.

"You're ambitious."

"Of course," said he. "What would be the good of me if I wasn't?"

"One of these days you'll be wanting to leave the nest and-what shall we say?-soar upwards."

Paul, too acute to deny the truth of this prophecy said: "I probably shall. But I'll be the rarissima avis, to whom the abandoned nest will always be the prime object of his life's consideration."

"Pretty,"' said Miss Winwood.

"It's true."

"I'm sure of it," she said pleasantly. "Besides, if you didn't leave the nest and make a name for yourself, you wouldn't be able to carry on our work. My brother and I, you see, are of the older generation-you of the younger."

"You're the youngest woman I know," Paul declared.

"I shan't be in a few years, and my brother is a good deal older than I."

"Well, I can't get into Parliament right away," said Paul. "For one thing, I couldn't afford it."

"We must find you a nice girl with plenty of money," she said, half in jest.

"Oh, please don't. I should detest the sight of her. By the way, shall you want me on Saturday evening?"

"No-unless it would be to take Miss Durning in to dinner."

Now Miss Durning being an elderly, ugly heiress, it pleased Miss Winwood to be quizzical. He looked at her in mock reproof. "Dearest lady that you are, I don't feel safe in your hands just now. I shall dine with the Princess on Saturday."

An enigmatic smile flitted across Ursula Winwood's clear eyes. "What does she want you for?"

"To entertain an Egyptologist," assured Paul. He waved his hand toward the letter on the table. "There it is in black and white."

"I suppose for the next few days you'll be cramming hard."

"It would be the polite thing to do, wouldn't it?" said Paul blandly.

Miss Winwood shook her head and went away, and Paul happily resumed his work. In very truth she was to him the dearest of ladies.

The Princess Zobraska was standing alone by the fireplace at the end of the long drawing-room when Paul was announced on Saturday evening. She was a distinguished-looking woman in the late twenties brown-haired, fresh-complexioned, strongly and at the same time delicately featured. Her dark blue eyes, veiled by lashes, smiled on him lazily as he approached; and lazily, too, her left arm stretched out, the palm of the hand downward, and she did not move. He kissed her knuckles, in orthodox fashion.

"It is very good of you to come, Mr. Savelli," she said in a sweetly foreign accent, "and leave your interesting company at Drane's Court."

"Any company without you, Princess, is chaos," said Paul.

"Grand flatteur, va,-' said she.

"C'est que vous etes irresistible, Princesse, surlout dans ce costume-la."

She touched his arm with an ostrich feather fan. "When it comes to massacring languages, Mr. Savelli, let me be the assassin."

"I laid the tribute of my heart at your feet in the most irreproachable grammar," said Paul.

"But with the accent of John Bull. That's the only thing of John Bull you have about you. For the sake of my ears I must give you some lessons."

"You'll find me such a pupil as never teacher had in the world before. When shall we begin?"

"Aux Kalendes Grecques."

"Ah que vous etes femme!"

She put her hands to her ears. "Listen. Que-vous-etes-femme" she said.

"Que-vous-etes-femme," Paul repeated parrotwise. "Is that better?"

"A little."

"I see the Greek Kalends have begun," said he.

"Mechant, you have caught me in a trap," said she.

And they both laughed.

From which entirely foolish conversation it may be gathered that between our Fortunate Youth and the Princess some genial sun had melted the icy barriers of formality. He had known her for eighteen months, ever since she had bought Chetwood Park and settled down as the great personage of the countryside. He had met her many times, both in London and in Morebury; he had dined in state at her house; he had shot her partridges; he had danced with her; he had sat out dances with her, notably on one recent June night, in a London garden, where they lost themselves for an hour in the discussion of the relative parts that love played in a woman's life and in a man's. The Princess was French, ancien regime, of the blood of the Coligny, and she had married, in the French practical way, the Prince Zobraska, in whose career the only satisfactory incident history has to relate is the mere fact of his early demise. The details are less exhilarating. The poor little Princess, happily widowed at one-and-twenty, had shivered the idea of love out of her system for some years. Then, as is the way of woman, she regained her curiosities. Great lady, of enormous fortune, she could have satisfied them, had she so chosen, with the large cynicism of a Catherine of Russia. She could also, had she so chosen, have married one of a hundred sighing and decorous gentlemen; but with none of them had she fallen ever so little in love, and without love she determined to try no more experiments; her determination, however, did not involve surrender of interest in the subject. Hence the notable discussion on the June night. Hence, perhaps, after a few other meetings of a formal character, the prettily intimate invitation she had sent to Paul.

They were still laughing at the turn of the foolish conversation when the other guests began to enter the drawing-room. First came Edward Doon, the Egyptologist, a good-looking man of forty, having the air of a spruce don, with a pretty young wife, Lady Angela Doon; then Count Lavretsky, of the Russian Embassy, and Countess Lavretsky; Lord Bantry, a young Irish peer with literary ambitions; and a Mademoiselle de Cressy, a convent intimate of the Princess and her paid companion, completed the small party.

Dinner was served at a round table, and Paul found himself between Lady Angela Doon, whom he took in, and the Countess Lavretsky. Talk was general and amusing. As Doon did not make, and apparently did not expect anyone to make any reference to King Qa or Amenhotep or Rameses-names vaguely floating in Paul's brain-but talked in a sprightly way about the French stage and the beauty of Norwegian fiords, Paul perceived that the Princess's alleged reason for her invitation was but a shallow pretext. Doon did not need any entertainment at all. Lady Angela, however, spoke of her dismay at the prospect of another winter in the desert; and drew a graphic little sketch of the personal discomforts to which Egyptologists were subjected.

"I always thought Egyptologists and suchlike learned folk were stuffy and snuffy with goggles and ragged old beards," laughed Paul. "Your husband is a revelation."

"Yes, he's quite human, isn't he?" she said with an affectionate glance across the table. "He's dead keen on his work, but he realizes-as many of his stuffy and snuffy confreres don't-that there's a jolly, vibrating, fascinating, modern world in which one lives."

"I'm glad to hear you say that about the modern world," said Paul.

"What is Lady Angela saying about the modern world?" asked the Princess, separated from Paul's partner only by Count Lavretsky.

"Singing paeans in praise of it," said Paul.

"What is there in it so much to rejoice at?" asked the diplomatist, in a harsh voice. He was a man prematurely old, and looked at the world from beneath heavy, lizard-like eyelids.

"Not only is it the best world we've got, but it's the best world we've ever had," cried Paul. "I don't know any historical world which would equal the modern, and as for the prehistoric-well, Professor Doon can tell us-"

"As a sphere of amenable existence," said Doon with a smile, "give me Chetwood Park and Piccadilly."

"That is mere hedonism," said Count Lavretsky. "You happen, like us all here, to command the creature comforts of modern wealthy conditions, which I grant are exceedingly superior to those commanded by the great Emperors of ancient times. But we are in a small minority. And even if we were not-is that all?"

"We have a finer appreciation of our individualities," said the Princess. "We lead a wider intellectual life. We are in instant touch, practically, with the thought of the habitable globe."

"And with the emotive force of mankind," said Paul.

"What is that?" asked Lady Angela.

Why Paul, after the first glance of courtesy at the speaker, should exchange a quick glance with the Princess would be difficult to say. It was instinctive; as instinctive as the reciprocal flash of mutual understanding.

"I think I know, but tell us," she said.

Paul, challenged, defined it as the swift wave of sympathy that surged over the earth. A famine in India, a devastating earthquake in Mexico, a bid for freedom on the part of an oppressed population, a deed of heroism at sea-each was felt within practically a few moments, emotionally, in an English, French or German village. Our hearts were throbbing continuously at the end of telegraph wires.

"And you call that pleasure?" asked Count Lavretsky.

"It isn't hedonism, at any rate," said Paul.

"I call it life," said the Princess. "Don't you?"-she turned to Doon.

"I think what Mr. Savelli calls the emotive force of mankind helps to balance our own personal emotions," said he.

"Or isn't it rather a wear and tear on the nervous system?" laughed his wife.

"It seems so to me," said Count Lavretsky. "Perhaps, being a Russian, I am more primitive and envy a nobleman of the time of Pharaoh who never heard of devastations in Mexico, did not feel his heart called upon to pulsate at anything beyond his own concerns. But he in his wisdom at his little world was vanity and was depressed. We moderns, with our infinitely bigger world and our infinitely greater knowledge, have no more wisdom than the Egyptian, and we see that the world is all the more vanity and are all the more overwhelmed with despair."

"But-" said Paul.

"But-" cried the Princess.

Both laughed, and paused. Paul bowed with a slight gesture.

"I am not overwhelmed with despair," the Princess continued.

"Neither am I," said Paul.

"I am keeping my end up wonderfully," said Lady Angela.

"I am in a nest of optimists," Count Lavretsky groaned. "But was it not you, Lady Angela, who talked of wear and tear.

"That was only to contradict my husband."

"What is all this about?" asked the Countess Lavretsky, who had been discussing opera with Lord Bantry and Mademoiselle de Cressy.

Doon scientifically crystallized the argument. It held the octette, while men-servants in powder and gold-laced livery offered poires Zobraska, a subtle creation of the chef. Lord Bantry envied the contemplative calm which unexciting circumstances allowed the literary ancient. Mademoiselle de Cressy advanced the feminist view in favour of the modern world. The talk became the light and dancing interplay of opinion and paradox common to thousands of twentieth-century dinner-tables.

"All the same," said Count Lavretsky, "they wear you out, these emotive forces. Nobody is young nowadays. Youth is a lost art."

"On the contrary," cried Mademoiselle de Cressy in French. "Everybody is young to-day. This pulsation of the heart keeps you young. It is the day of the young woman of forty-five."

Count Lavretsky, who was fifty-nine, twirled a grey moustache. "I am one of the few people in the world who do not regret their youth. I do not regret mine, with its immaturity, its follies and subsequent headaches. I would sooner be the scornful philosopher of sixty than the credulous lover of twenty."

"He always talks like that," said the Countess to Paul; "but when he met me first he was thirty-five-and"-she laughed-"and now voila-for him there is no difference between twenty and sixty. Expliquez-moi ca."

"It's very simple," declared Paul. "In this century the thirties, forties, and fifties don't exist. You're either twenty or sixty."

"I hope I shall always be twenty," said the Princess lightly.

"Do you find your youth so precious, then?" asked Count Lavretsky.

"More than I ever did!" She laughed and again met Paul's eyes.

This time she flushed faintly as she held them for a fraction of a second. He had time to catch a veiled soft gleam intimate and disquieting. For some time he did not look again in her direction; when he did, he met in her eyes only the lazy smile with which she regarded all and sundry.

Later in the evening she said to him: "I'm glad you opposed Lavretsky. He makes me shiver. He was born old and wrinkled. He has never had a thrill in his life."

"And if you don't have thrills when you're young, you can't expect to have them when you're old," said Paul.

"He would ask what was the good of thrills."

"You don't expect me to answer, Princess."

"We know because we're young."

They stood laughing in the joy of their full youth, a splendid couple, some distance away from the others, ostensibly inspecting a luminous little Cima on the wall. The Princess loved it as the bright jewel of her collection, and Paul, with his sense of beauty and knowledge of art, loved it too. Yet, instead of talking of the picture, they talked of Lavretsky, who was looking at them sardonically from beneath his heavy eyelids.

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