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The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 25961

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


THE next morning amazement fluttered over a million breakfast tables and throbbed in a million railway carriages. For all the fierceness of political passions, parliamentary elections are but sombre occurrences to the general public. Rarely are they attended by the picturesque, the dramatic, the tragic. But already the dramatic had touched the election of Hickney Heath, stimulating interest in the result. Thousands, usually apathetic as to political matters, opened their newspapers to see how the ex-convict candidate had fared. They read, with a gasp, that he was dead; that his successful opponent had proclaimed himself to be his son. They had the dramatic value of cumulative effect. If Paul had ever sought notoriety he had it now. His name rang through the length and breadth of the land. The early editions of the London afternoon papers swelled the chorus of amazed comment and conjecture. Some had even routed out a fact or two, Heaven knows whence, concerning father and son. According to party they meted out praise or blame. Some, unversed in the law, declared the election invalid. The point was discussed in a hundred clubs.

There was consternation in the social world. The Duchesses' boudoirs with which Paul had been taunted hummed with indignation. They had entertained an adventurer unawares. They had entrusted the sacred ark of their political hopes to a charlatan. Their daughters had danced with the offspring of gaol and gutter. He must be cast out from the midst of them. So did those that were foolish furiously rage together and imagine many a vain thing. The Winwoods came in for pity. They had been villainously imposed upon. And the Young England League to which they had all subscribed so handsomely-where were its funds? Was it safe to leave them at the disposal of so unprincipled a fellow? Then germs of stories crept in from the studios and the stage and grew perversely in the overheated atmosphere. Paul's reputation began to assume a pretty colour. On the other hand, there were those who, while deploring the deception, were impressed by the tragedy and by Paul's attitude. He had his defenders. Among the latter first sprang forward Lord Francis Ayres, the Chief Whip, officially bound to protect his own pet candidate.

He called early at the house in Portland Place, a distressed and anxious man. The door was besieged by reporters from newspapers, vainly trying to gain, entrance. His arrival created a sensation. At any rate there was a headline "Opposition Whip calls on Savelli." One or two attempted to interview him on the doorstep. He excused himself courteously. As-yet he knew as much or as little as they. The door opened. The butler snatched him in hurriedly. He asked to see the Winwoods. He found them in the library.

"Here's an awful mess," said he, throwing up his hands. "I thought I'd have a word or two with you before I tackle Savelli. Have you seen him this morning?"

"Oh, yes."

"Well, what do you think about it?"

"I think," said Ursula, "that the best thing I can do is to take him away with me for a rest as soon as possible. He's at the end of his tether."

"You seem to take it pretty calmly."

"How do you expect us to take it, my dear Frank?" she asked. "We always expected Paul to do the right thing when the time came, and we consider that he has done it."

The Chief Whip smoothed a perplexed brow. "I don't quite follow. Were you, vulgarly speaking, in the know all the time?"

"Sit down, and I'll tell you."

So he sat down and Miss Winwood quietly told him all she knew about Paul and what had happened during the past few weeks, while the Colonel sat by his desk and tugged his long moustache and here and there supplemented her narrative.

"That's all very interesting," Ayres remarked when she had finished, "and you two have acted like bricks. I also see that he must have had a devil of a time of it. But I've got to look at things from an official point of view."

"There's no question of invalidity, is there?" asked Colonel Winwood.

"No. He was known as Paul Savelli, nominated as Paul Savelli, and elected as Paul Savelli by the electors of Hickney Heath. So he'll sit as Paul Savelli. That's all right. But how is the House going to receive him when he is introduced? How will it take him afterwards? What use will he be to the party? We only ran him because he seemed to be the most brilliant of the young outsiders. We hoped great things of him. Hasn't he smashed up himself socially? Hasn't he smashed up his career at the very beginning? All that is what I want to know."

"So do I," groaned Colonel Winwood. "I didn't have a wink of sleep last night."

"I didn't either," said Ursula, "but I don't think it will matter a row of pins to Paul in his career."

"It will always be up against him," said Ayres.

"Because he has acted like a man?"

"It's the touch of Ruy Blas that I'm afraid of."

"You must remember that he wasn't aware of his relation to the dead man until the eve of the election."

"But he was aware that he wasn't a descendant of a historical Italian family, which everyone thought him to be. I don't speak for myself," said Ayres. "I'm fond of the chap. One can't help it. He has the charm of the great gentleman, confound him, and it's all natural. The cloven hoof has never appeared, because I personally believe there's no cloven hoof. The beggar was born well bred, and, as to performance-well-he has been a young meteor across the political sky. Until this election. Then he was a disappointment. I frankly confess it. I didn't know what he was playing at. Now I do. Poor chap. I personally am sympathetic. But what about the cold-blooded other people, who don't know what you've told me? To them he's the son of an ex-convict-a vendor of fried fish-I put it brutally from their point of view-who has been masquerading as a young St. George on horseback. Will he ever be forgiven? Officially, have I any use for him? You see, I'm responsible to the party."

"Any party," said Ursula, "would be a congregation of imbeciles who didn't do their best to develop the genius of Paul Savelli."

"I'm fond of Paul," said Colonel Winwood, in his tired way, "but I don't know that I would go as far as that."

"It's only because you're a limited male, my dear James. I suppose Caesar was the only man who really crossed the Rubicon. And the fuss he made about it! Women jump across with the utmost certainty. My dear Frank, we're behind Paul, whatever happens. He has been fighting for his own hand ever since he was a child, it is true. But he has fought gallantly."

"My dear Miss Winwood," said Frank Ayres, "if there's a man to be envied, it's the one who has you for his champion!"

"Anyone, my dear Frank, is to be envied," she retorted, "who is championed by common-sense."

"All these fireworks illuminate nothing," said Colonel Winwood. "I think we had better ask Paul to come down and see Frank. Would you like to see him alone?"

"I had rather you stayed," said Frank Ayres.

A message was sent to Paul, and presently he appeared, very pale and haggard.

Frank Ayres met him with outstretched hand, spoke a courteous word of sympathy, apologized for coming in the hour of tragic bereavement.

Paul thanked him with equal courtesy. "I was about to write to you, Lord Francis," he continued, "a sort of statement in explanation of what happened last night-"

"Our friends have told me all, I think, that you may have to say."

"I shall still write it," said Paul, "so that you can have it in black and white. At present, I've given the press nothing."

"Quite right," said Frank Ayres. "For God's sake, let us work together as far as the press is concerned. That's one of the reasons why I've forced myself upon you. It's horrible, my dear fellow, to intrude at such a time. I hate it, as you can well imagine. But it's my duty."

"Of course it is," said Paul. There was a span of awkward silence. "Well," said he, with a wan smile, "we're facing, not a political, but a very unimportant party situation. Don't suppose I haven't a sense of proportion. I have. What for me is the end of the world is the unruffled continuance of the cosmic scheme for the rest of mankind. But there are relative things to consider. You have to consider the party. I'm sort of fly-blown. Am I any use? Let us talk straight. Am I or am I not?"

"My dear chap," said Frank Ayres, with perplexed knitting of the brows, "I don't quite know what to say. You yourself have invited me to talk straight. Well! Forgive me if I do. There may be a suggestion in political quarters that you have won this election under false pretences."

"Do you want me to resign my seat?"

The two men looked deep into each other's eyes.

"A Unionist in is a Liberal out," said Frank Ayres, "and counts two on division. That's one way of looking at it. We want all we can get from the enemy. On the other hand, you'd come in for a lot of criticism and hostility. You'd have to start not only from the beginning, but with a handicap. Are you strong enough to face it?"

"I'm not going to run away from anything," said Paul. "But I'll tell you what I'm prepared to do. I'll resign and fight the constituency again, under my real name of Kegworthy, provided, of course, the local people are willing to adopt me-on the understanding, however, that the party support me, or, at least, don't put forward another candidate. I'm not going to turn berserk."

"That's a sporting offer, at any rate. But, pardon me-we're talking business-where is the money for another election to come from?"

"My poor father's death makes me a wealthy man," replied Paul.

Miss Winwood started forward in her chair. "My dear, you never told us."

"There were so many other things to talk about this morning," he said gently; "but of course I would have told you later. I only mention it now"-he turned to the Chief Whip-"in answer to your direct and very pertinent question."

Now between a political free-lance adopting a parliamentary career in order to fight for his own hand, as all Paul's supporters were frankly aware that he was doing, and a wealthy, independent and brilliant young politician lies a wide gulf. The last man on earth, in his private capacity, to find his estimate of his friends influenced by their personal possessions was the fine aristocrat Lord Francis Ayres. But he was a man of the world, the very responsible head of the executive of a great political party. As that executive head he was compelled to regard Paul from a different angle. The millions of South Africa or the Middle West might vainly knock at his own front door till the crack of doom, while Paul the penniless sauntered in an honoured guest. But in his official room in the House of Commons more stern and worldly considerations had to prevail.

"Of course I can't give you an answer now," said he. "I'll have to discuss the whole matter with the powers that be. But a seat's a seat, and though I appreciate your Quixotic offer, I don't see why we should risk it. It's up to you to make good. It's more in your own interest that I'm speaking now. Can you go through with it?"

Paul, with his unconquerable instinct for the dramatic, hauled out the little cornelian heart at the end of his watch-chain. "My dear fellow," said he. "Do you see that? It was given to me for failing to win a race at a Sunday-school treat, when I was a very little boy. I didn't possess coat or stockings, and my toes came out through the ends of my boots, and in order to keep the thing safe I knotted it up in the tail of my shirt, which waggled out of the seat of my breeches. It was given to me by a beautiful lady, who, I remember, smelled like all the perfumes of Araby. She awakened my aesthetic sense by the divine and intoxicating odour that emanated from her. Since then I have never met woman so-so like a scented garden of all the innocences. To me she was a goddess. I overheard her prophesy things about me. My life began from that moment. I kept the cornelian heart all my life, as a talisman. It has brought me through all kinds of things. Once I was going to throw it away and Miss Winwood would not let me. I kept it, somewhat against my will, for I thought it was a lying talisman. It had told me, in the sweet-scented lady's words, that I was the son of a prince. Give me half an hour to-morrow or the day after," he said, seeing a puzzled look in Frank Ayres's face, "and I'll tell you a true psychological fairy tale-the apologia pro vita mea. I say, anyhow, that lately, until last night, I thought this little cornelian heart was a lying talisman. Then I knew it didn't lie. I was the son of a prince, a prince of men, although he had been in gaol and spent his days afterwards in running emotional Christianity and fried-fish shops. His name was Silas. Mine is Paul. Something significant about it, isn't there? Anyhow"-he balanced the

heart in the palm of his hand-"this hasn't lied. It has carried me through all my life. When I thought it failed, I found it at the purest truth of its prophecy. It's not going to fail me now. If it's right for me to take my seat I'll take it-whether I make good politically, or not, is on the knees of the gods. But you may take it from me that there's nothing in this wide world that I won't face or go through with, if I've set my mind to it."

So the child who had kicked Billy Goodge and taken the spolia opima of paper cocked hat and wooden sword spoke through the man. As then, in a queer way, he found himself commanding a situation; and as then, commanding it rightfully, through sheer personal force. Again, at a sign, he would have broken the sword across his knee. But the sign did not come.

"Speaking quite unofficially," said Frank Ayres, "I think, if you feel like that, you would be a fool to give up your seat."

"Very well," said Paul, "I thank you. And now, perhaps, it would be wise to draw up that statement for the press, if you can spare the time."

So Paul made a draft and Frank Ayres revised it, and it was sent upstairs to be typed. When the typescript came down, Paul signed and dispatched it and gave the Chief Whip a duplicate.

"Well," said the latter, shaking hands, "the best of good luck!"

Whereupon he went home feeling that though there would be the deuce to pay, Paul Savelli would find himself perfectly solvent; and meeting the somewhat dubious Leader of the Opposition later in the day he said: "Anyhow, this 'far too gentlemanly party' has got someone picturesque, at last, to touch the popular imagination."

"A new young Disraeli?"

"Why not?"

The Leader made a faint gesture of philosophic doubt. "The mould is broken," said he.

"We'll see," said Frank Ayres, confidently.

Meanwhile, Paul returned to his room and wrote a letter, three words of which he had put on paper-"My dear Princess"-when the summons to meet the Chief Whip had come. The unblotted ink had dried hard. He took another sheet.

"My dear Princess," he began.

He held his head in his hand. What could he say? Ordinary courtesy demanded an acknowledgment of the Princess's message of inquiry. But to write to her whom he had held close in his arms, whose lips had clung maddeningly to his, in terms of polite convention seemed impossible. What had she meant by her message? If she had gone scornfully out of his life, she had gone, and there was an end on't. Her coming back could bear only one interpretation-that of Jane's passionate statement. In spite of all, she loved him. But now, stripped and naked and at war with the world, for all his desire, he would have none of her love. Not he.... At last he wrote:

PRINCESS,-A thousand grateful thanks for last night's gracious act-the act of the very great lady that I have the privilege of knowing you to be.

PAUL SAVELLI.

He rang for a servant and ordered the note to be sent by hand, and then went out to Hickney Heath to see to the burying of his dead. On his return he found a familiar envelope with the crown on the flap awaiting him. It contained but few words:

PAUL, come and see me. I will stay at home all day.

SOPHIE.

His pulses throbbed. Her readiness to await his pleasure proved a humility of spirit rare in Princess Sophie Zobraska. Her hands were held out towards him. But he hardened his heart. The fairy-tale was over. Nothing but realities lay before him. The interview was perilous; but he was not one to shirk danger. He went out, took a cab and drove to Berkeley Square.

She rose shyly as he entered and advanced to meet him. He kissed her hand, but when he sought to release it he found his held in her warm clasp. "Mon Dieu! How ill you are looking!" she said, and her lips quivered.

"I'm only tired."

"You look so old. Ah!" She moved away from him with a sigh. "Sit down. I suppose you can guess why I've asked you to come," she continued after a pause. "But it is a little hard to say. I want you to forgive me."

"There is nothing to forgive," said Paul.

"Don't be ungenerous; you know there is. I left you to bear everything alone."

"You were more than justified. You found me an impostor. You were wounded in everything you held sacred. I wounded you deliberately. You could do nothing else but go away. Heaven forbid that I should have thought of blaming you. I didn't. I understood."

"But it was I who did not understand," she said, looking at the rings on her fingers. "Yes. You are right. I was wounded-like an animal, I hid myself in the country, and I hoped you would write, which was foolish, for I knew you wouldn't. Then I felt that if I had loved you as I ought, I should never have gone away."

"I thought it best to kill your love outright," said Paul.

She lay back on her cushions, very fair, very alluring, very sad. From where he sat he saw her face in its delicate profile, and he had a mighty temptation to throw himself on his knees by her side.

"I thought, too, you had killed it," she said.

"Still think so," said Paul, in a low voice.

She raised herself, bent forward, and he met the blue depths of her gaze. "And you? Your love?"

"I never did anything to kill it."

"But I did."

"No, you couldn't. I shall love you to the hour of my death." He saw the light leap into her eyes. "I only say it," he added somewhat coldly, "because I will lie to you no longer. But it's a matter that concerns me alone."

"How you alone? Am not I to be considered?"

He rose and stood on the hearthrug, facing her. "I consider you all the time," said he.

"Listen, mon cher ami," she said, looking up at him. "Let us understand one another. Is there anything about you, your birth or your life that I still don't know-I mean, anything essential?"

"Nothing that matters," said Paul.

"Then let us speak once and for all, soul to soul. You and I are of those who can do it. Eh bien. I am a woman of old family, princely rank and fortune-you-"

"By my father's death," said Paul, for the second time that day, "I am a rich man. We can leave out the question of fortune-except that the money I inherit was made out of a fried-fish shop business. That business was conducted by my father on lines of peculiar idealism. It will be my duty to carry on his work-at least"-he inwardly and conscientiously repudiated the idea of buying fish at Billingsgate at five o'clock in the morning-"as far as the maintenance of his principles is concerned."

"Soit," said the Princess, "we leave out the question of fortune. You are then a man of humble birth, and the rank you have gained for yourself."

"I am a man of no name and of tarnished reputation. Good God!" he blazed out suddenly, losing control. "What is the good of torturing ourselves like this? If I wouldn't marry you-before-until I had done something in the front of the world to make you proud of me, what do you think I'll do now, lying in the gutter for every one to kick me? Would it be to the happiness of either of us for me to sneak through society behind your rank? It would be the death of me and you would come to hate me as a mean hound."

"You? A mean hound?" Her voice broke and the tears welled up in her eyes. "You have done nothing for me to be proud of? You? You who did what you did last night? Yes, I was there. I saw and heard. Listen!" She rose to her feet and stood opposite to him, her eyes all stars, her figure trembling and her hands moving in her Frenchwoman's passionate gestures. "When I saw in the newspapers about your father, my heart was wrung for you. I knew what it meant. I knew how you must suffer. I came up straight to town. I wanted to be near you. I did not know how. I did not want you to see me. I called in my steward. 'How can I see the election?' We talked a little. He went and hired a room opposite the Town Hall. I waited there in the darkness. I thought it would last forever. And then came the result and the crowd cheered and I thought I should choke. I sobbed, I sobbed, I sobbed-and then you came. And I heard, and then I held out my arms to you alone in the dark room-like this-and cried: 'Paul, Paul!"' Woman conquered. Madness surged through him and he flung his arms about her and they kissed long and passionately.

"Whether you do me the honour of marrying me or not," she said a while later' flushed and triumphant, "our lives are joined together."

And Paul, still shaken by the intoxication of her lips and hair and clinging pressure of her body, looked at her intensely with the eyes of a man's longing. But he said: "Nothing can alter what I said a few minutes ago-not all the passion and love in the world. You and I are not of the stuff, thank God, to cut ourselves adrift and bury ourselves in some romantic island and give up our lives to a dream. We're young. We're strong. We both know that life is a different sort of thing altogether from that. We're not of the sort that shirks its responsibilities. We've got to live in the world, you and I, and do the world's work."

"Parfaitement, mon bien aime." She smiled at him serenely. "I would not bury myself with you in an Ionian island for more than two months in a year for anything on earth. On my part, it would be the unforgivable sin. No woman has the right, however much she loves him, to ruin a man, any more than a man has the right to ruin a woman. But if you won't marry me, I'm perfectly willing to spend two months a year in an Ionian island with you," and she looked at him, very proud and fearless.

Paul took her by the shoulders and shook her, more roughly than he realized. "Sophie, don't tempt me to a madness that we should both regret."

She laughed, wincing yet thrilled, under the rude handling, and freed herself. "But what more can a woman offer the man who loves her-that is to say if he does love her?"

"I not love you?" He threw up his hands-"Dear God!"

She waved him away and retreated a step or two, still laughing, as he advanced. "Then why won't you marry me? You're afraid."

"Yes," he cried. "It's the only thing on this earth that I'm afraid of."

"Why?"

"The sneers. First you'd hate them. Then you'd hate and despise me."

She grew serious. "Calme-toi, my dearest. Just consider things practically. Who is going to sneer at a great man?"

"I the first," replied Paul bitterly, his self-judgment warped by the new knowledge of the vanities and unsubstantialities on which his life had been founded. "I a great man, indeed!"

"A very great man. A brilliant man I knew long ago. A brave man I have known, in spite of my pride, these last two or three awful weeks. But last night I knew you were a great man-a very great man. Ah, mon Paul. La canaille, whether it lives in Whitechapel or Park Lane, what does it matter to us?"

"The riff-raff, unfortunately," said Paul, "forms the general judgment of society."

The Princess drew herself up in all her aristocratic dignity. "My Paul well-beloved," said she, "you have still one or two things to learn. People of greatness and rank march with their peers, and they can spit upon the canaille. There is canaille in your House of Lords, upon which, the day after to-morrow, you can spit, and it will take off its coronet and thank you-and now," she said, resuming her seat on the sofa, among the cushions, "let us stop arguing. If there is any more arguing to be done, let us put it off to another occasion. Let us dismiss the questions of marriage and Ionian islands altogether, and let us talk pleasantly like dear friends who are reconciled."

And with the wit of the woman who loves and the subtlety of the woman of the world she took Paul in her delicate hands and held him before her smiling eyes and made him tell her of all the things she wanted to know. And so Paul told her of all his life, of Bludston, of Barney Bill, of the model days, of the theatre, of Jane, of his father; and he showed her the cornelian heart and expounded its significance; and he talked of his dearest lady, Miss Winwood, and his work on the Young England League, and his failure to grip in this disastrous election, and he went back to the brickfield and his flight from the Life School, and his obsessing dream of romantic parentage and the pawning of his watch at Drane's Court; and in the full tide of it all a perturbed butler appeared at the door.

"Can I speak a word to Your Highness?"

She rose. The butler spoke the word. She burst out laughing. "My dear," she cried, "it's past nine o'clock. The household is in a state of agitation about dinner. We'll have it at once, Wilkins."

The butler bowed and retired.

The Princess laughed again. "Of course you'll stay. I left Stephanie at Morebury."

And Paul stayed to dinner, and though, observing the flimsy compact, they dismissed the questions of Ionian islands and marriage, they talked till midnight of matters exceedingly pleasant.

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