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   Chapter 18 No.18

The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 21831

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


IN the tense silence of the few moments of waiting Paul passed from the boy to whom the earth had been a fairyland to the man grappling with great realities. In those few moments he lived through his past life and faced an adumbration of the future.

The door was thrown open and the Princess appeared, smiling, happy, a black ostrich feather in her hat and a sable stole hanging loose from her shoulders; a great and radiant lady. Behind her came the Colonel and Ursula Winwood. Paul bent over the Princess's, outstretched hand.

"A thousand pardons for keeping you waiting. I did not know you had come. I was engaged with my friends. May I have the honour of presenting them? Princess, this is Mr. Silas Finn, the managing director of Fish Palaces Limited. These are two very dear friends, Miss Seddon-Mr. Simmons. Miss Winwood-Colonel Winwood, may I?"

He waved an introductory hand. The Princess: bowed; then, struck by their unsmiling faces and by Paul's strange manner, turned to him quickly.

"'Qu'est ce qu'il y a?"

"Je vais vous le dire."

He pushed a chair. She sat down. Ursula Winwood sat in Paul's writing chair. The others remained standing.

"Mr. Finn called to inform me that he has been adopted as the Liberal candidate for Hickney Heath."' "My felicitations," said the Princess.

Silas bowed to her gravely and addressed Colonel Winwood.

"We have been, sir-Mr. Savelli and I-for some time on terms of personal friendship in the constituency."

"I see, I see," replied the Colonel, though he was somewhat puzzled. "Very polite and friendly, I'm sure."

"Mr. Finn also urges me to withdraw my candidature," said Paul.

The Princess gave a little incredulous laugh. Ursula Winwood rose and, with a quick protective step, drew nearer Paul. Colonel Winwood frowned.

"Withdraw? In Heaven's name why?"

Silas Finn tugged at his black-and-white-streaked beard and looked at his son.

"Need we go into it again? There are religious reasons, which perhaps, Madam"-Silas addressed the Princess-"you might misunderstand. Mr. Savelli possibly thinks I am a fanatic. I can't help it. I have warned him. That is enough. Good-bye, Mr. Savelli."

He held out his hand; but Paul did not take it. "You forget, Mr. Finn, that I asked you to stay." He clutched the sides of his jacket till his knuckles grew white, and he set his teeth. "Mr. Finn has another reason for wishing me not to oppose him-"

"That reason you need never give," cried Silas in a loud voice, and starting forward. "You know that I make no claims whatsoever."

"I know that," said Paul, coldly; "but I am going to give it all the same." He paused, held up his hand and looked at the Princess. "Mr. Silas Finn happens to be my father."

"Good God!" gasped the Colonel, after a flash of silence.

The Princess caught a quick breath and sat erect in her chair.

"Votre Pere, Paul?"

"Yes, Princess. Until half an hour ago I did not know it. Never in my life did I know that I had a father living. My friends there can bear witness that what I say is true."

"But, Paul dear," said Miss Winwood, laying her kind fingers on his arm and searching his face, "you told us that your parents were dead and that they were Italians."

"I lied," replied Paul calmly. "But I honestly believed the woman who was my mother not to be my mother, and I had never heard of my father. I had to account for myself to you. Your delicacy, Miss Winwood, enabled me to invent as little as possible."

"But your name-Savelli?"

"I took it when I went on the stage-I had a few years' obscure and unsuccessful struggle. You will remember I came to you starving and penniless."

The Princess grew white and her delicate nostrils quivered.

"Et monsieur votre pere-" she checked herself. "And your father, what do you say he is?"

Paul motioned to Silas to speak.

"I, Madam," said the latter, "am a self-made man, and by the establishment of fried-fish shops all over London and the great provincial towns, have, by the grace of God, amassed a considerable fortune."

"Fried fish?" said the Princess in a queer voice.

Silas looked at her out of his melancholy and unhumorous eyes.

"Yes, Madam."

"I have also learned," said Paul, "that my grandmother was a Sicilian who played a street-organ. Hence my Italian blood."

Jane, standing by the door with Barney Bill, most agonized of old men, wholly nervous, twisting with gnarled fingers the broken rim of his hard felt hat, turned aside so that no one but Bill should see a sudden gush of tears. For she had realized how drab and unimportant she was in the presence of the great and radiant lady; also how the great and radiant lady was the God-sent mate for Paul, never so great a man as now when he was cutting out his heart for truth's sake.

"I should like to tell you what my life has been," continued Paul, "in the presence of those who know it already. That's why I asked them to stay. Until an hour ago I lived in dreams. In my own fashion I was an honest man. But now I've got this knowledge of my origin, the dreams are swept away and I stand naked to myself. If I left you, Miss Winwood, and Colonel Winwood, who have been so good to me-and Her Highness, who has deigned to honour me with her friendship-in a moment's doubt as to my antecedents I should be an impostor."

"No, no, my boy," said Colonel Winwood, who was standing with hands deep in trouser pockets and his head bent, staring at the carpet. "No words like that in this house. Besides, why should we want to go into all this?"

He had the Englishman's detestation of unpleasant explanations. Ursula Winwood supported him.

"Yes, why?" she asked.

"But it would be very interesting," said the Princess slowly, cutting her words.

Paul met her eyes, which she had hardened, and saw beneath them pain and anger and wounded pride and repulsion. For a second he allowed an agonized appeal to flash through his. He knew that he was deliberately killing the love in her heart. He felt the monstrous cruelty of it. A momentary doubt shook him. Was he justified? A short while ago she had entered the room her face alight with love; now her face was as stern and cold as his own. Had he the right to use the knife like this? Then certainty came. It had to be. The swifter the better. She of all human beings must no longer be deceived. Before her, at supreme cost, he must stand clean.

"It's not very interesting," said he. "And it's soon told. I was a ragged boy in a slum in a Lancashire town. I slept on sacking in a scullery, and very seldom had enough to eat. The woman whom I didn't think was my mother ill-treated me. I gather now that she hated me because she hated my father. She deserted him when I was a year old and disappeared; she never spoke of him. I don't know exactly how old I am. I chose a birthday at random. As a child I worked in a factory. You know what child-labour in factories was some years ago. I might have been there still, if my dear old friend there hadn't helped me when I was thirteen to run away. He used to go through the country in a van selling mats and chairs. He brought me to London, and found me a lodging with Miss Seddon's mother. So, Miss Seddon and I were children together. I became an artist's model. When I grew too old for that to be a dignified occupation, I went on the stage. Then one day, starving and delirious, I stumbled through the gates of Drane's Court and fell at Miss Winwood's feet. That's all."

"Since we've begun, we may as well finish and get it over," said Colonel Winwood, still with bent head, but looking at Paul from beneath his eyebrows. "When and how did you come across this gentleman who you say is your father?"

Paul told the story in a few words.

"And now that you have heard everything," said he, "would you think me justified in withdrawing my candidature?"

"Certainly not," said the Colonel. "You've got your duty to the Party."

"And you, Miss Winwood?"

"Can you ask? You have your duty to the country."

"And you, Princess?"

She met his challenging eyes and rose in a stately fashion.

"I am not equal to these complications of English politics, Mr. Savelli," she said. She held herself very erect, but her lips trembled and tears were very near her eyes. She turned to Miss Winwood and held out her hand. "I am afraid we must postpone our discussion of the Forlorn Widows. It is getting late. Au revoir, Colonel Winwood-"

"I will see you to your carriage."

On the threshold she turned, included Paul in a vague bow to the company, and passed through the door which Colonel Winwood held open. Paul watched her until she disappeared-disappeared haughtily out of his life, taking his living heart with her, leaving him with a stone very heavy, very cold, dead. And he was smitten as with a great darkness. He remained quite still for a few moments after the door had closed, then with a sudden jerk he drew himself up.

"Mr. Finn," said he, "as I've told you, I address my first meeting to-night. I am going to make public the fact that I'm your son."

Silas put his hand to his head and looked at him wildly.

"No, no," he muttered hoarsely-"no."

"I see no reason," said Miss Winwood gently.

"I see every reason," said Paul. "I must live in the light now. The truth or nothing."

"Then obey your conscience, Paul," she answered.

But Silas came forward with his outstretched hands.

"You can't do it. You can't do it, I tell you. It's impossible."

"Why?"

He replied in an odd voice, and with a glance at Miss Winwood. "I must tell you afterwards."

"I will leave you," she said.

"Mr. Finn"-she shook hands with him-"I hope you're proud of your son." And then she shook hands with Jane and Barney Bill. "I'm glad to meet such old friends of Paul." And to Paul, as he held the door open, she said, her clear kind eyes full on him, "Remember, we want men in England."

"Thank God, we've got women," said he, with lips from which he could not keep a sudden quiver.

He closed the door and came up to his father standing on the hearthrug.

"And now, why shouldn't I speak? Why shouldn't I be an honest man instead of an impostor?"

"Out of pity for me, my son."

"Pity? Why, what harm would it do you? There's nothing dishonourable in father and son fighting an election." He laughed without much mirth. "It's what some people would call sporting. As for me, personally, I don't see why you should be ashamed of owning me. My record is clean enough."

"But mine isn't, Paul," said Silas mournfully.

For the first time Paul bowed his head. "I'm sorry," said he. "I forgot." Then he raised it again. "But that's all over and buried in the past."

"It may be unburied."

"How?"

"Don't you see?" cried Jane. "Even I can. If you spring your relationship upon the public, it will create an enormous sensation-it will se

t the place on fire with curiosity. They'll dig up everything they can about you-everything they can about him. Oh, Paul, don't you see.

"It's up agin a man, sonny," said Barney Bill, limping towards them, "it's up agin a candidate, you understand, him not being a Fenian or a Irish patriot, that he's been in gaol. Penal servitude ain't a nice state of life to be reminded of, sonny. Whereas if you leaves things as they is, nobody's going to ask no questions."

"That's my point," said Silas Finn.

Paul looked from one to the other, darkly. In a kind of dull fierce passion he had made up his mind to clear himself before the world, to rend to tatters his garments of romance, to snap his fingers at the stars and destiny and such-like deluding toys, to stand a young Ajax defying the thunderbolts. Here came the first check.

"If they found out as how he'd done time, they'd find out for why," said Bill, cocking his head earnestly.

As Paul, engaged in sombre thought, made no reply, Silas turned away, his hands uplifted in supplication, and prayed aloud. He had sinned in giving way to his anger. He prostrated himself before the divine vengeance. If this was his apportioned punishment, might God give him meekness and strength to bear it. The tremulous, crying voice, the rapt, fanatical face, and the beseeching attitude struck a bizarre note in the comfortable and worldly room. Supported on either side by Jane, helpless and anxious, and Barney Bill, crooked, wrinkled, with his close-cropped white hair and little liquid diamond eyes, still nervously tearing his hat-brim, he looked almost grotesque. To Paul he seemed less a man than a creation of another planet, with unknown and incalculable instincts and impulses, who had come to earth and with foolish hand had wiped out the meaning of existence. Yet he felt no resentment, but rather a weary pity for the stranger blundering through an unsympathetic world. As soon as there came a pause in the prayer, he said not ungently:

"The Almighty is not going to use me as an instrument to punish you, if I can help it. I quite appreciate your point. I'll say nothing."

Barney Bill jerked his thumb towards the chair where the Princess had been sitting:

"She won't give it away?"

Paul smiled sadly. "No, old man. She'll keep it to herself."

That marked the end of the interview. Paul accompanied the three downstairs.

"I meant to act for the best, Paul," said Silas piteously, on parting. "Tell me that I haven't made you my enemy."

"God forbid," said Paul.

He went slowly up to his room again and threw himself in his writing chair. His eye fell upon the notes on the sheet of foolscap. The Radical candidate having been chosen, they were no longer relevant to his speech. He crumpled up the paper and threw it into the waste-paper basket. His speech! He held his head in both hands. A couple of hours hence he would be addressing a vast audience, the centre of the hopes of thousands of his fellow countrymen. The thought beat upon his brain. He had had the common nightmare of standing with conductor's baton in front of a mighty orchestra and being paralyzed by sense of impotence. No less a nightmare was his present position. A couple of hours ago he was athrill with confidence and joy of battle. But then he was a different man. The morning stars, the stars of his destiny, sang together in the ever-deepening glamour of the Vision Splendid. He was entering into the lists of Camelot to fight for his Princess. He was the Mysterious Knight, parented in fairy-far Avilion, the Fortunate Youth, the Awakener of England. Now he was but a base-born young man who had attained a high position by false pretences; an ordinary adventurer with a glib tongue; a self-educated, self-seeking, commonplace fellow. At least, so he saw himself in his Princess's eyes. And he had meant that she should thus behold him. No longer was he entering lists to fight for her. For what hopeless purpose was he entering them? To awaken England? The awakener must have his heart full of dreams and visions and glamour and joy and throbbing life; and in his heart there was death.

He drew out the little cornelian talisman at the end of his watch-chain and looked at it bitterly. It was but a mocking symbol of illusion. He unhooked it and laid it on the table. He would carry it about with him no longer. He would throw it away.

Ursula Winwood quietly entered the room.

"You must come down and have something to eat before the meeting."

Paul rose. "I don't want anything, thank you, Miss Winwood."

"But James and I do. So come and join us."

"Are you coming to the meeting?" he asked in surprise.

"Of course." She lifted her eyebrows. "Why not?"

"After what you have heard?"

"All the more reason for us to go." She smiled as she had smiled on that memorable evening six years ago when she had stood with the horrible pawn-ticket in her hand. "James has to support the Party. I have to support you. James will do the same as I in a day or two. Just give him time. His mind doesn't work very quickly, not as quickly as a woman's. Come," she said. "When we have a breathing space you can tell me all about it. But in the meantime I'm pretty sure I understand."

"How can you?" he asked wearily. "You have other traditions."

"I don't know about traditions; but I don't give my love and take it away again. I set rather too much value on it. I understand because I love you."

"Others with the same traditions can't understand."

"I'm not proposing to marry you," she said bluntly. "That makes a difference."

"It does," said he, meeting her eyes unflinchingly.

"If you weren't a brave man, I shouldn't say such a thing to you. Anyhow I understand you're the last man in the world who should take me for a fool."

"My God!" said Paul in a choky voice. "What can I do to thank you?"

"Win the election."

"You are still my dearest lady-my very very dearest lady," said he.

Her shrewd eyes fell upon the cornelian heart. She picked it up and held it out to him on her plump palm.

"Why have you taken this off your watch-chain?"

"It's a little false god," said he.

"It's the first thing yon asked for when you recovered from your illness. You said you had kept it since you were a tiny boy. See? I remember. You set great value on it then?"

"I believed in it," said Paul.

"And now you don't? But a woman gave it to you."

"Yes," said Paul, wondering, in his masculine way, how the deuce she knew that. "I was a brat of eleven."

"Then keep it. Put it on your chain again. I'm sure it's a true little god. Take it back to please me."

As there was nothing, from lapping up Eisel to killing a crocodile, that Paul would not have done, in the fulness of his wondering gratitude, for his dearest lady, he meekly attached the heart to his chain and put it in his pocket.

"I must tell you," said he, "that the lady-she seemed a goddess to me then-chose me as her champion in a race, a race of urchins at a Sunday school treat, and I didn't win. But she gave me the cornelian heart as a prize."

"But as my champion you will win," said Miss Winwood. "My dear boy," she said, and her eyes grew very tender as she laid her hand on the young man's arm, "believe what an old woman is telling you is true. Don't throw away any little shred of beauty you've ever had in your life. The beautiful things are really the true ones, though they may seem to be illusions. Without the trinket or what it stood for, would you be here now?"

"I don't know," replied Paul. "I might have taken a more honest road to get here."

"We took you to ourselves as a bright human being, Paul-not for what you might or might not have been. By the way, what have you decided as regards making public the fact of your relationship?"

"My father, for his own reasons, has urged me not to do so."

Miss Winwood drew a long breath.

"I'm glad to hear it," she said.

So Paul, comforted by one woman's amazing loyalty, went out that evening and addressed his great meeting. But the roar of applause that welcomed him echoed through void spaces of his being. He felt neither thrill nor fear. The speech prepared by the Fortunate Youth was delivered by a stranger to it, glowing and dancing eloquence. The words came trippingly enough, but the informing Spirit was gone.

Those in the audience familiar with the magic of his smile were disappointed. The soundness of his policy satisfied the hard-headed, but he made no appeal to the imaginative. If his speech did not fall flat, it was not the clarion voice that his supporters had anticipated. They whispered together with depressed headshakings. Their man was not in form. He was nervous. What he said was right enough, but his utterance lacked fire. It carried conviction to those already convinced; but it could make no proselytes. Had they been mistaken in their choice? Too young a man, hadn't he bitten off a hunk greater than he could chew? So the inner ring of local politicians. An election audience, however, brings its own enthusiasms, and it must be a very dull dog indeed who damps their ardour. They cheered prodigiously when Paul sat down, and a crowd of zealots waiting outside the building cheered him again as he drove off. But Paul knew that he had been a failure. He had delivered another man's speech. To-morrow and the day after and the day after that, and ever afterwards, if he held to the political game, he would have to speak in his own new person. What kind of a person would the new Paul be?

He drove back almost in silence with the Colonel and Miss Winwood, vainly seeking to solve the problem. The foundations of his life had been swept away. His foot rested on nothing solid save his own manhood. That no shock should break down. He would fight. He would win the election. He set his lips in grim determination. If life held no higher meaning, it at least offered this immediate object for existence. Besides he owed the most strenuous effort of his soul to the devoted and loyal woman whose face he saw dimly opposite. Afterwards come what might. The Truth at any rate. Magna est veritas et praevalebit.

These were "prave 'orts" and valorous protestations.

But when their light supper was over and Colonel Winwood had retired, Ursula Winwood lingered in the dining room, her heart aching for the boy who looked so stern and haggard. She came behind him and touched his hair.

"Poor boy," she murmured.

Then Paul-he was very young, barely thirty-broke down, as perhaps she meant that he should, and, elbows sprawling amid the disarray of the meal, poured out all the desolation of his soul, and for the first time cried out in anguish for the woman he had lost. So, as love lay a-bleeding mortally pierced, Ursula Winwood wept unaccustomed tears and with tender fingers strove to staunch the wound.

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