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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 20288

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

IT would never end. Why should it? Could a Great Wonder be merely a transient thrill? Absurd. Dawn followed night, day after day, and the wonder had not faded. It would never fade. Letter followed letter, each more precious than the last.

She began with "Mon cher Paul." Then "Mon cher," then sometimes "Paul." She set the tone of the frank and loyal friendship in a style very graceful, very elusive, a word of tenderness melting away in a laugh; she took the friendship, pulled it to pieces and reconstructed it in ideal form; then she tied blue ribbon round its neck, and showed him how beautiful it was. She sat on the veranda of her villa and looked out on the moonlit Mediterranean and wanted to cry-"J'avais envie de Pleurer"-because she was all alone, having entertained at dinner a heap of dull and ugly people. She had spent a day on the yacht of a Russian Grand-Duke. "Il m'a fait une cour effrenee"-Paul thirsted immediately for the blood of this Grand-Duke, who had dared to make violent love to her. But when, a few lines farther on, he found that she had guessed his jealousy and laughed at it, he laughed too. "Don't be afraid. I have had enough of these people." She wanted une ame sincere et candide; and Paul laid the flattering unction to his own sincere and candid soul. Then she spoke prettily of his career. He was to be the flambeau eveilleur, the awakening torch in the darkness before the daybreak. But he musn't overwork. His health was precious. There was a blot and erasure in the sentence. He took the letter to the light, lover-wise, and looked at it through a magnifying glass-and his pulses thrilled when it told him that she had originally written, "Votre sante m'est precieuse," and had scrabbled out the "m." "Your health is precious to me." That is what her heart had said. Did lover ever have a dearer mistress? He kissed the blot, and the thick French ink coming off on his lips was nectar.

And he began his letters with "My dear Princess;" then it was "Dearest Princess;" then "My Princess." Then she rallied him on the matter. It came to "Mais enfin j'ai un petit nom comme tout le monde." In common with the rest of humanity she had a Christian name-and she was accustomed to be called by it by her frank and loyal friends. "And they are so few." Paul heard the delicate little sigh and saw the delicate rise and fall of the white bosom. And again he fed on purple ink. So he began his next letter with "Dear Sophie." But he could not pour the same emotion into "Dear Sophie" as he could into "My Princess"-and "My Sophie" was a step beyond the bounds of frank and loyal friendship. So it came to his apostrophizing her as "Dear" and scattering "Sophies" deliciously through the text. And so the frank and loyal friendship went on its appointed course, as every frank and loyal friendship between two young and ardent souls who love each other has proceeded since the beginning of a sophisticated world.

The first three months of that year were a period of enchantment. He lived supremely. The daily round of work was trivial play. He rose at seven, went to bed at two, crowded the nineteen hours of wakefulness with glorious endeavour. He went all over the country with his flambeau eveilleur, awakening the Youth of England, finding at last the great artistic gift the gods had given him, the gift of oratory. One day he reminded Jane of a talk long ago when he had fled from the studios: "You asked me how I was going to earn my living. I said I was going to follow one of the Arts."

"I remember," said Jane, regarding him full-eyed. "You said you thought you were a poet-but you might be a musician or painter. Finally you decided you were an actor."

He laughed his gay laugh. "I was an infernally bad actor," he acknowledged.

Then he explained his failure on the stage. He was impatient of other people's inventions, wanting to play not Hamlet or Tom or Dick or Romeo or Harry, but himself. Now he could play himself. It was acting in a way. Anyhow it was an Art; so his boyish prophecy had come true. He had been struggling from childhood for a means of self-expression. He had tried most of them save this. Here he had found it. He loved to play upon a crowd as if they were so many notes of a vast organ.

On this occasion Jane said: "And my means of self-expression is to play on the keys of a typewriter."

"Your time hasn't come," he replied. "When you have found your means you will express yourself all the more greatly."

Which was ingenious on the part of Paul, but ironically consoling to Jane.

One week-end during the session he spent at the Marchioness of Chudley's place in Lancashire. He drove in a luxurious automobile through the stately park, which once he had traversed in the brakeful of urchins, the raggedest of them all, and his heart swelled with pardonable exultation. He had passed through Bludston and he had caught a glimpse of what had once been his brickfield, now the site of more rows of mean little houses, and he had seen the grim factory chimneys still smoking, smoking.... The little Buttons, having grown up into big Buttons, were toiling away their lives in those factories. And Button himself, the unspeakable Button? Was he yet alive? And Mrs. Button, who had been Polly Kegworthy and called herself his mother? It was astonishing how seldom he thought of her.... He had run away a scarecrow boy in a gipsy van. He came back a formative force in the land, the lover of a princess, the honoured guest of the great palace of the countryside. He slipped his hand into his waistcoat pocket and felt the cornelian heart.

Yes, in the great palace he found himself an honoured guest. His name was known independently of his work for the Winwoods. He was doing good service to his party. The word had gone abroad-perhaps Frank Ayres had kindly spoken it-that he was the coming man. Lady Chudley said: "I wonder if you remember what we talked about when I first met you."

Paul laughed, for she did not refer to the first meeting of all. "I'm afraid I was very young and fatuous," said he. "It was years ago. I hadn't grown up."

"Never mind. We talked about waking the country from its sleep."

"And you gave me a phrase, Lady Chudley-'the Awakener of England.' It stuck. It crystallized all sorts of vague ambitions. I've never forgotten it for five consecutive minutes. But how can you remember a casual act of graciousness to an unimportant boy?"

"No boy who dreams of England's greatness is unimportant," she said. "You've proved me to be right. Your dreams are coming true-see, I don't forget!"

"I owe you far more than you could possibly imagine," said Paul.

"No, no. Don't. Don't exaggerate. A laughing phrase-that's nothing."

"It is something. Even a great deal. But it's not all," said he.

"What else is there?"

"You were one of the two or three," he said earnestly, thinking of the Bludston factory, "who opened new horizons for me."

"I'm a proud woman," said Lady Chudley.

The next day, Sunday, old Lord Chudley dragged him into his own private den. He had a very red, battered, clean-shaven face and very red hair and side whiskers; and he was a very honest gentleman, believing implicitly in God and the King and the House of Lords, and Foxes, and the Dutch School of Painting, and his responsibility as a great landowner toward the two or three thousand human beings with whom he had business relations.

"Look here, Savelli. I've looked into your League. It's a damned good thing. About the only thing that has been invented which can stem the tide of Socialism. Catch 'em young. That's the way. But you want the sinews of war. You get subscriptions, but not enough; I've seen your last balance sheet. You want a little army of-what the devil shall we call 'em?"

"Big Englanders," Paul suggested at a venture.

"Good. We want an army of 'em to devote their whole time to the work. Open a special fund. You and Ursula Winwood will know how to work it. What Ursula Winwood doesn't know in this sort of business isn't worth knowing-and here's something to head the list with."

And he handed Paul a cheque, which after a dazed second or two he realized to be one for five thousand pounds.

That was the beginning of the financial prosperity and the real political importance of the Young England League. Paul organized a great public dinner with the Leader of the Opposition in the chair and an amazing band of notables around the tables. Speeches were made, the Marquis of Chudley's patriotism extolled, and subscription lists filled up and handed to a triumphant organizing secretary.

A powerful daily newspaper took up the cause and made strong appeal. The Lodges made simultaneous efforts in their respective districts. Money flowed into the League's coffers.

When Parliament rose for the Easter recess Paul, the most tired, yet the most blissful, youth among the Fortunate, flew straight to Venice, where a happy-eyed princess welcomed him. She was living in a Palazzo on the Grand Canal, lent to her-that is the graceful Italian way of putting it-by some Venetian friends; and there, with Mademoiselle de Cressy to keep off the importunate, she received such acquaintance as floated from the ends of the earth through the enchanted city.

"I have started by seeing as few people as I can," she said. "That's all on account of you, monsieur."

He pressed her hand. "I hope we don't see a single soul we know as long as I'm here," he declared.

His hope was gratified, not completely, but enough to remove grounds for lover's fretfulness. He passed idyllic days in halcyon weather. Often she would send her gondola to fetch him from the Grand Hotel, where he was staying. Now and then, most graciously audacious of princesses, she would come herself. On such occasions he would sit awaiting her with beating heart, juvenis fortunatus nimium, on the narrow veranda of the hotel, regardless of the domed white pile of Santa Maria della Salute opposite, or the ceaseless life on the water, or the sunshine, or anything else in Venice, his gaze fixed on the bend of the

canal; and then at last would appear the tall curved prow, and then the white-clad, red-sashed Giacomo bending to his oar, and then the white tenda with the dear form beneath, vaguely visible, and then Felipe, clad like Giacomo and bending, too, rhythmically with the foremost figure. Slowly, all too slowly, the gondola would near the steps, and beneath the tenda would smile the dearest face in the world, and the cheeks would be delicately flushed and the eyes tender and somewhat shy. And Paul would stand, smiling too, a conquering young figure with green Marienbad hat tilted with ever so tiny a shade of jauntiness, the object of frankly admiring and curious glances from a lone woman or two on the veranda, until the gondola was brought up to the wave-washed steps, and the hotel porter had fixed the bridge of plank. Then, with Giacomo supporting his elbow, he would board the black craft and would creep under the tenda and sink on the low seat by her side with a sense of daring and delicious intimacy, and the gondola would glide away into fairyland.

"Let us be real tourists and do Venice thoroughly," she had said. "I have never seen it properly."

"But you've been here many times before."

"Yes. But-"

She hesitated.

"Eh bien?"

"Je ne peux pas le dire. Il faut deviner."

"Will you forgive me if I guess right? Our great Shakespeare says: 'Love lends a precious seeing to the eye.'"

"That-that's very pretty," said the Princess in French. "I love much your Shakespeare."

Whereupon Paul recognized her admission of the correctness of his conjecture; and so, with the precious vision they had borrowed, they went about tourist-wise to familiar churches and palaces, and everything they saw was lit with exceeding loveliness. And they saw the great pictures of the world, and Paul, with his expert knowledge, pointed out beauties she had not dreamed of hitherto, and told her tales of the painters and discoursed picturesquely on Venetian history, and she marvelled at his insight and learning and thought him the most wonderful man that had ever dropped, ready-made, from heaven. And he, in the flush of his new love, was thrilled by her touch and the low tones of her voice when she plucked him by the sleeve and murmured: "Ah, Paul, regardez-moi ca. It is so beautiful one wants to weep with joy."

They spoke now half in French, half in English, and she no longer protested against his murderous accent, which, however, he strove to improve. Love must have lent its precious hearing too, for she vowed she loved to hear him speak her language.

In the great Council Chamber of the Ducal Palace they looked at the seventy-six portraits of the illustrious succession of Doges-with the one tragic vacant space, the missing portrait of Marino Faliero, the Rienzi of Venice, the man before his time.

"It seizes one's heart, doesn't it?" said the Princess, with her impulsive touch on his sleeve. "All these men were kings-sovereigns of a mighty nation. And how like they are to one another-in this essential quality one would say they were brothers of a great family."

"Why, yes," he cried, scanning the rows of severe and subtle faces. "It's true. Illuminatingly true."

He slid up his wrist quickly so that his hand met hers; he held it. "How swift your perception is! And what is that quality-that quality common to them all-that quality of leadership? Let us try to find it."

Unconsciously he gripped her hand, and she returned his pressure; and they stood, as chance willed it, alone, free from circumambulant tourists, in the vast chamber, vivid with Paul Veronese's colour on wall and ceilings, with Tintoretto and Bassano' with the arrogant splendour of the battles and the pomp and circumstance of victorious armies of the proud and conquering republic, and their eyes were drawn from all this painted and riotous wonder by the long arresting frieze of portraits of serene, masterful and subtle faces.

"The common factor-that's what we want, isn't it?"

"Yes," she breathed.

And as they stood, hand in hand, the unspoken thought vibrating between them, the memory came to him of a day long ago when he had stood with another woman-a girl then-before the photographs in the window of the London Stereoscopic Company in Regent Street, and he had scanned faces of successful men. He laughed-he could not help it-and drew his Princess closer to him. Between the analogous then and the wonderful now, how immense a difference! As he laughed she looked swiftly up into his face.

"I know why you laugh."

"No, my Princess. Impossible."

"Mais oui. Tell me. All these great princes"-she swept her little gloved hand toward the frieze. "What is their common factor?"

Paul, forgetful of his mirth, looked round. "'Indomitable will," said he seriously. "Unconquerable ambition, illimitable faith. They all seem to be saying their creed. 'I believe in myself almighty, and in Venice under my control, and in God who made us both, and in the inferiority of the remnant of the habitable globe.' Or else: 'In the beginning God created Venice. Then He created the rest of the world. Then He created Me. Then He retired and left me to deal with the situation.' Or else: 'I am an earthly Trinity. I am myself. I am Venice. I am God.'"

"It is magnificent!" she cried. "How you understand them! How you understand the true aristocratic spirit! They are all, what you call, leaders of men. I did not expect an analysis so swift and so true. But, Paul"-her voice sank adorably-"all these men lack something-something that you have. And that is why I thought you laughed."

He smiled down on her. "Do you think I was measuring myself with these men?"

"Naturally. Why should you not?" she asked proudly.

"And what have I got that they lack?"

"Happiness," said the Princess.

Paul was silent for a while, as they moved slowly away to the balcony which overlooks the lagoon and San Giorgio Maggiore glowing warm in the sunshine, and then he said: "Yet most of those men loved passionately in their time, and were loved by beautiful women."

"Their love was a thing of the passions, not of the spirit. You cannot see a woman, that is to say happiness, behind any of their faces."

He whispered: "Can you see a woman behind mine."

"If you look like that," she replied, with a contented little laugh, "the whole world can see it." And so their talk drifted far away from Doges, just as their souls were drifting far from the Golden Calf of the Frank and Loyal Friendship which Sophie the Princess had set up.

How could they help it-and in Venice of all places in the world? If she had determined on maintaining the friendship calm and austere, why in Minerva's name had she bidden him hither? Sophie Zobraska passed for a woman of sense. None knew better than she the perils of moonlit canals and the sensuous splash of water against a gondola, and the sad and dreamy beauty which sets the lonely heart aching for love. Why had she done it? Some such questions must Mademoiselle de Cressy have asked, for the Princess told him that Stephanie had lectured her severely for going about so much in public alone with a beau jeune homme.

"But we don't always want Stephanie with us," she argued, "and she is not sympathetic in Venice. She likes restaurants and people. Besides, she is always with her friends at Danielli's, so if it weren't for you I should be doing nothing all by myself in the lonely palazzo. Forcement we go about together."

Which was all sophistical and nonsensical; and she knew it, for there was a mischievous little gleam in her eye as she spoke. But none the less, shutting her ears to the unsympathetic Stephanie, did she continue to show herself alone in public with the beautiful youth. She had thrown her crown over the windmills for a few happy days; for a few happy days she was feeding her starved nature, drinking in her fill of beauty and colour and the joy of life. And the pair, thus forcibly thrown together, drifted through the narrow canals beneath the old crumbling palaces, side by side, and hand in hand while Giacomo and Felipe, disregarded automata, bent to their oars.

One afternoon, one mellow and memorable afternoon, they were returning from Murano. Not a breath of wind ruffled the lagoon. The islands in their spring verdure slumbered peacefully. Far away the shipping in the bacino lay still like enchanted craft. Only a steamer or two, and here and there the black line of a gondola with its standing, solitary rower, broke the immobility of things. And Venice, russet and rose and grey, brooded in the sunset, a city of dreams. They murmured words of wonder and regret. Instinctively they drew near and their shoulders touched. Their clasp of fingers tightened and their breath came quickly, and for a long time they were silent. Then at last he whispered her name, in the old foolish and inevitable way. And she turned her face to him, and met his eyes and said "Paul," and her lips as she said it seemed to speak a kiss. And all the earth was wrapped in glory too overwhelming for speech.

It was only when they entered the Grand Canal and drew up by the striped posts of the palazzo that she said: "I have those Roman people and the Heatherfields coming to dinner. I wish I hadn't." She sighed. "Would you care to come?"

He smiled into her eyes. "No, my Princess, not to-night. I should do silly things. To-night I will go and talk to the moon. To-morrow, when can I come?"

"Early. As early as you like."

And Paul went away and talked to the moon, and the next morning, his heart tumultuous, presented himself at the palazzo. He was shown into the stiff Italian drawing-room, with its great Venetian glass chandelier, its heavy picture-hung walls, its Empire furniture covered in yellow silk. Presently the door opened and she entered, girlish in blouse and skirt, fresh as the morning. "Bon jour, Paul. I've not had time to put on my hat, but-"

She did not end, for he strode toward her and with a little laugh of triumph took her in his arms and kissed her. And so what had to be came to pass.

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