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The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 21035

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


BETWEEN the young man of immaculate vesture, of impeccable manners, of undeniable culture, of instinctive sympathy with the great world where great things are done, of unerring tact, of mythological beauty and charm, of boundless ambition, of resistless energy, of incalculable promise, in outer semblance and in avowed creed the fine flower of aristocratic England, professing the divine right of the House of Lords and the utilitarian sanctity of the Church of England-between Paul, that is to say, and the Radical, progressive councillor of Hickney Heath, the Free Zionist dissenter (not even Congregationalist or Baptist or Wesleyan, or any powerfully organized Non-conformist whose conscience archbishops consult with astute patronage), the purveyor of fried fish, the man of crude, uncultivated taste, there should have been a gulf fixed as wide as the Pacific Ocean. As a matter of fact, whatever gulf lay between them was narrow enough to be bridged comfortably over by mutual esteem. Paul took to visiting Mr. Finn. Accustomed to the somewhat tired or conventional creeds of his political world, he found refreshment in the man's intense faith. He also found pathetic attraction in the man's efforts towards self-expression. Mr. Finn, who lived a life of great loneliness-scarcely a soul, said Jane, crossed his threshold from month's end to month's end-seemed delighted to have a sympathetic visitor to whom he could display his painted treasures. When he was among them the haunting pain vanished from his eyes, as sometimes one has seen it vanish from those of an unhappy woman among her flowers. He loved to take Paul through his collection and point out the beauties and claim his admiration. He had converted a conservatory running along one side of the house into a picture gallery, and this was filled with his masterpieces of pictorial villainy. Here Paul was at first astonished at recognizing replicas of pictures which hung in other rooms. Mr. Finn explained.

"These," said he, "are the originals."

Paul pondered over the dark saying for a moment or two until he came upon a half-finished canvas on an easel. It was the copy of a landscape on the wall. He turned questioningly to his host. The latter smiled.

"I'm a bit of an artist myself," he said. "But as I've never had time for lessons in painting, I teach myself by copying good pictures. It's a Saunders"-a name unknown to Paul-"and a very good example. It's called Noontide. The cow is particularly good, isn't it? But it's exceedingly difficult. That fore-shortening-I can't get it quite right yet. But I go on and on till I succeed. The only way."

Paul acquiesced and asked him where he had picked up his Saunders. Indeed, where had he picked up all the others? Not an exhibition in London would have admitted one of them. This "Saunders" represented a wooden cow out of drawing lying in the shade of a conventional tree. It was peculiarly bad.

"I bought it direct from the artist," replied Mr. Finn. "He's an unrecognized genius, and now he's getting old, poor fellow. Years ago he offended the Royal Academy, and they never forgot it. He says they've kept him under all his life. I have a great many of his pictures." He looked admiringly at the cow for a while, and added: "I gave him four pounds ten for this one."

Paul could not forbear saying, though his tone betrayed no irony: "A good price."

"I think so," replied Mr. Finn. "That's what he asked. I could never haggle with an artist. His work is of the spirit, isn't it?"

And Paul marvelled at the childlike simplicity of the man, the son of the Sicilian woman who went about with a barrel-organ, who, starting in the race on a level with Barney Bill, had made a fortune in the exploitation of fried fish. To disturb his faith in the genius of Saunders were a crime-as base a crime as proving to a child the non-existence of fairies. For Paul saw that Silas Finn found in this land of artistic illusion a refuge from many things; not only from the sordid cares of a large business, but perhaps also from the fierce intensity of his religion, from his driving and compelling deity. Here God entered gently.

There was another reason, which Paul scarcely confessed to himself, for the pleasure he found in the older man's company. The veil which he had thrown so adroitly over his past history, which needed continuous adroitness to maintain, was useless in this house. Both Barney Bill and Jane had spoken of him freely. Silas Finn knew of Bludston, of his modeldom, of his inglorious career on the stage. He could talk openly once more, without the never-absent subconscious sense of reserve. He was still, in his own, eyes, the prince out of the fairy-tale; but Silas Finn and the two others alone of his friends shared the knowledge of the days when he herded swine. Now a prince out of a fairy-tale who has herded swine is a romantic figure. Paul did not doubt that he was one. Even Jane, in spite of her direct common sense, admitted it. Barney Bill proclaimed it openly, slapping him on the back and taking much credit to himself for helping the prince on the way to his kingdom. And Mr. Finn, even in the heat of political discussion or theological asseveration, treated him with a curious and pathetic deference.

Meanwhile Paul pursued his own career of glory. The occasional visits to Hickney Heath were, after all, but rare, though distinct, episodes in his busy life. He had his parliamentary work for Colonel Winwood, his work for Miss Winwood, his work for the Young England League. He had his social engagements. He had the Princess Zobraska. He also began to write, in picturesque advocacy of his views, for serious weekly and monthly publications. Then Christmas came and he found himself at Drane's Court, somewhat gasping for breath. A large houseparty, however, including Lord Francis Ayres, the chief Opposition Whip, threatened to keep him busy.

The Princess drove over from Chetwood Park for dinner on Christmas Day. He had to worship from afar; for a long spell of the evening to worship with horrible jealousy. Lord Francis Ayres, a bachelor and a man of winning charm, as men must be whose function it is to keep Members of Parliament good and pleased with themselves and sheeplike, held the Princess captive, in a remote corner, with his honeyed tongue. She looked at him seductively out of her great, slumberous blue eyes, even as she had looked, on occasion, at him, Paul. He hated Lord Francis, set himself up against him, as of old he had set himself up against Billy Goodge. He was a better man than Frank Ayres. Frank Ayres was only a popinjay. Beneath the tails of his coat he snapped his fingers at Frank Ayres, while he listened, with his own agreeable smile, to Mademoiselle de Cressy's devilled gossip.

He was very frigid and courtly when he bade the Princess good night at the door of her limousine.

"Ah, que vous etes bete!" she laughed.

He went to bed very angry. She had told him to his face that he was a silly fool. And so he was. He thought of all the brilliantly dignified things he might have said, if the relentless engine had not whirred her away down the drive. But the next morning Lord Francis met him in the wintry garden and smiled and held out a winning hand. Paul hid his hatred beneath the mask of courtesy. They talked for a few moments of indifferent matters. Then Frank Ayres suddenly said: "Have you ever thought of standing for Parliament?"

Paul, who had been sauntering between flowerless beds with his companion, stood stock still. The Chief Whip of a political party is a devil of a fellow. To the aspiring young politician he is much more a devil of a fellow than the Prime Minister or any Secretary of State. If a Chief Whip breathes the suggestion that a man might possibly stand for election as a Member of Parliament, it means that at any suitable vacancy, or at a general election, he will, with utter certainty, have his chance as a candidate with the whole force of his party behind him. It is part of the business of Chief Whips to find candidates.

"Of course," said Paul, rather stupidly. "Eventually. One of these days."

"But soon?"

"Soon?"

Paul's head reeled. What did he mean by soon? "Well," Lord Francis laughed, "not to-morrow. But pretty soon. Look here, Savelli. I'm going to speak frankly. The party's in for a long period out of office. That's obvious. Look at the majority against us. We want the young blood-not the old hacks-so that when we come in again we shall have a band of trained men in the heyday of their powers. Of course I know-it's my business to know-what generally you have done for the Young England League, but I missed your speech at Flickney Heath in the autumn. You had an immense success, hadn't you?"

"They seemed pleased with what I had to say," replied Paul modestly. "When did you hear about it?"

"Last night."

"The Winwoods are the dearest people in the world," said Paul, walking warily, "but they are prejudiced in my favour."

"It wasn't the Winwoods."

The beautiful truth flashed upon Paul.

"Then it was the Princess Zobraska."

The other laughed. "Never mind. I know all about it. It isn't often one has to listen to speeches at second-hand. The question is: Would you care to stand when the time comes?"

"I should just think I would," cried Paul boyishly.

All his jealous resentment had given place to exultation. It was the Princess who had told Frank Ayres. If she had been laying him under the spell of her seduction it was on his, Paul's, account. She had had the splendid audacity to recite his speech to the Chief Whip. Frank Ayres was suddenly transformed from a popinjay into an admirable fellow. The Princess herself sat enthroned more adorable than ever.

"The only difficulty," said Paul, "is that I have to earn my living."

"That might be arranged," said Lord Francis.

So Paul, as soon as he found an opportunity, danced over to Chetwood Park and told his Princess all about it, and called her a tutelary goddess and an angel and all manner of pretty names. And the Princess, who was alone, poured for him her priceless Russian tea into egg-shell China tea-cups and fed him on English crumpets, and, in her French and feminine way, gave him the outer fringe of her heart to play with-a very dangerous game. She had received him, not as once before in the state drawing room, but in the intimacy of her own boudoir, a place all soft lights and cushions and tape

stries and gleaming bits of sculpture. After tea and crumpets had been consumed, the dangerous game proceeded far enough for Paul to confess his unjust dislike of Frank Ayres.

"Gros jaloux," said the Princess.

"That was why you said que vous etes bete," said he.

"Partly."

"What were the other reasons?"

"Any woman has a thousand reasons for calling any man stupid."

"Tell me some of them at any rate."

"Well, isn't it stupid of a man to try to quarrel with his best friend when he won't be seeing her again for three or four months?"

"You're not going away soon?"

"Next week."

"Oh!" said Paul.

"Yes. I go to Paris, then to my villa at Mont Boron. I have the nostalgia of my own country, you see. Then to Venice at Easter."

Paul looked at her wistfully, for life seemed suddenly very blank and dismal. "What shall I do all that time without my best friend?"

"You will probably find another and forget her."

She was lying back among cushions, pink and terra-cotta, and a round black cushion framed her delicate head.

Paul said in a low voice, bending forward: "Do you think you are a woman whom men forget?"

Their eyes met. The game had grown very perilous. "Men may remember the princess," she replied, "but forget the woman."

"If it weren't for the woman inside the princess; what reason should I have for remembering?" he asked.

She fenced. "But, as it is, you don't see me very often."

"I know. But you are here-to be seen-not when I want you, for that would be every hour of the day-but, at least, in times of emergency. You are here, all the same, in the atmosphere of my life."

"And if I go abroad I shall no longer be in that atmosphere? Did I not say you would forget?"

She laughed. Then quickly started forward, and, elbow on knee and chin on palm, regarded him brightly. "We are talking like a couple of people out of Mademoiselle de Scudery," she said before he had time to reply. "And we are in the twentieth century, mon pauvre ami. We must be sensible. I know that you will miss me. And I will miss you too. Mais que voulez-vous? We have to obey the laws of the world we live in."

"Need we?" asked Paul daringly. "Why need we?"

"We must. I must go away to my own country. You must stay in yours and work and fulfill your ambitions." She paused. "I want you to be a great man," she said, with a strange tenderness in her voice.

"With you by my side," said he, "I feel I could conquer the earth."

"As your good friend I shall always be by your side. Vous voyez, mon cher Paul," she went on quickly in French. "I am not quite as people see me. I am a woman who is lonely and not too happy, who has had disillusions which have embittered her life. You know my history. It is public property. But I am young. And my heart is healed-and it craves faith and tenderness and-and friendship. I have many to flatter me. I am not too ugly. Many men pay their court to me, but they do not touch my heart. None of them even interest me. I don't know why. And then I have my rank, which imposes on me its obligations. Sometimes I wish I were a little woman of nothing at all, so that I could do as I like. Mais enfin, I do what I can. You have come, Paul Savelli, with your youth and your faith and your genius, and you pay your court to me like the others. Yes, it is true-and as long as it was amusing, I let it go on. But now that you interest me, it is different. I want your success. I want it with all my heart. It is a little something in my life-I confess it-quelque chose de tres joli-and I will not spoil it. So let us be good friends, frank and loyal-without any Scudery." She looked at him with eyes that had lost their languor-a sweet woman's eyes, a little moist, very true. "And now," she said, "will you be so kind as to put a log on the fire."

Paul rose and threw a log on the glowing embers, and stood by her side. He was deeply moved. Never before had she so spoken. Never before had she afforded a glimpse of the real woman. Her phrases, so natural, so sincere, in her own tongue, and so caressive, stirred the best in him. The glamour passed from the royal lady; only the sweet and beautiful woman remained.

"I will be what you will, my Princess," he said.

At that moment he could not say more. For the first time in his life he was mute in a woman's presence; and the reason was that for the first time in his life love for a woman had gripped his heart.

She rose and smiled at him. "Bons amis, francs et loyaux?"

"Francs et loyaux."

She gave him her hand in friendship; but she gave him her eyes in love. It is the foolish way of women.

"May a frank and loyal friend write to you sometimes?" he asked.

"Why, yes. And a frank and loyal friend will answer."

"And when shall I see you again?"

"Did I not tell you," she said, moving to the bell, for this was leave-taking-"that I shall be in Venice at Easter?"

Paul went out into the frosty air, and the bright wintry stars shone down on him. Often on such nights he had looked up, wondering which was his star, the star that guided his destiny. But to-night no such fancy crossed his mind. He did not think of the stars. He did not think of his destiny. His mind and soul were drenched in thought of one woman. It had come at last, the great passion, the infinite desire. It had come in a moment, wakened into quivering being by the caressive notes of the dear French voice-"mais je suis jeune, et mon coeur est gueri, et il lui manque affreusement de la foi, de la tendresse, de-de"-adorable catch of emotion-"de l'amitie." Friendship, indeed! For amitie all but her lips said amour. He walked beneath the wintry stars, a man in a perfect dream.

Till then she had been but his Princess, the exquisite lady whom it had amused to wander with him into the pays du tendre. She had been as far above him as the now disregarded stars. She had come down with a carnival domino over her sidereal raiment, and had met him on carnival equality. He beau masque! He, knowing her, had fallen beneath her starry spell. He was Paul Kegworthy, Paul Savelli, what you like; Paul the adventurer, Paul the man born to great things. She was a beautiful woman, bearing the title of Princess, the title that had haunted his life since first the Vision Splendid dawned upon him as he lay on his stomach eavesdropping and heard the words of the divinely-smelling goddess who had given him his talisman, the cornelian heart. To "rank himself with princes" had been the intense meaning of his life since ragged and fiercely imaginative childhood. Odd circumstances had ranked him with Sophie Zobraska. The mere romance of it had carried him off his feet. She was a princess. She was charming. She frankly liked his society. She seemed interested in his adventurous career. She was romantic. He too. She was his Egeria. He had worshipped her romantically, in a mediaeval, Italian way, and she had accepted the homage. It had all been deliciously artificial. It had all been Mademoiselle de Scudery. But to-day the real woman, casting off her carnival domino, casting off too the sidereal raiment, had spoken, for the first time, in simple womanhood, and her betraying eyes had told things that they had told to no other man living or dead. And all that was artificial, all that was fantastic, all that was glamour, was stripped away from Paul in the instant of her self-revelation. He loved her as man loves woman. He laughed aloud as his young feet struck the frozen road. She knew and was not angry. She, in her wonder, gave him leave to love her. It was obvious that she loved him to love her. Dear God! He could go on loving her like this for the rest of his life. What more did he want? To the clean man of nine-and-twenty, sufficient for the day is the beauty thereof.

An inspired youth took his place at the Winwoods' dinner table that evening. The elderly, ugly heiress, Miss Durning, concerning whom Miss Winwood had, with gentle malice, twitted him some months before, sat by his side. He sang her songs of Araby and tales of far Cashmere-places which in the commonplace way of travel he had never visited. What really happened in the drawing room between the departure of the ladies and the entrance of the men no one knows. But before the ladies went to bed Miss Winwood took Paul aside.

"Paul dear," she said, "you're never going to marry an old woman for money, are you?"

"Good God, no! Dearest lady, what do you mean?"

His cry was so sincere that she laughed.

"Nothing," she said.

"But you must mean something." He threw out his hands.

"Are you aware that you've been flirting disgracefully with Lizzle Durning?"

"I?" said Paul, clapping a hand to his shirt-front.

"You."

He smiled his sunny smile into the clear, direct eyes of his dearest lady-all the more dear because of the premature white of her hair. "I would flirt to-night with Xantippe, or Kerenhappuch, or Queen Victoria," said he.

"Why?"

He laughed, and although none of the standing and lingering company had overheard them, he gently led her to the curtained embrasure of the drawing-room window.

"This is perhaps the biggest day of my life. I've not had an opportunity of telling you. This morning Frank Ayres offered me a seat in Parliament."

"I'm glad," said Ursula Winwood; but her eyes hardened. "And so-Lizzie Durning-"

He took both her elbows in his hands-only a Fortunate Youth, with his laughing charm, would have dared to grip Ursula Winwood's elbows and cut her short. "Dearest lady," said he, "to-day there are but two women in the world for me. You are one. The other-well-it isn't Miss Durning."

She searched him through and through, "This afternoon?"

"Yes."

"Paul!" She withdrew from his grasp. In her voice was a touch of reproach.

"Dearest lady," said he, "I would die rather than marry a rich woman, ugly or beautiful, if I could not bring her something big in return-something worth living for."

"You've told me either too much or too little. Am I not entitled to know how things stand?"

"You're entitled to know the innermost secrets of my heart," he cried; and he told thereof as far as his love for the Princess was concerned.

"But, my poor boy," said Ursula tenderly, "how is it all going to end?"

"It's never going to end," cried Paul.

Ursula Winwood smiled on him and sighed a little; for she remembered the gallant young fellow who had been killed in the Soudan in eighteen eighty-five.

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