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But Graeme was thinking of her, and was formulating her character from the delicious little bits of self-revelation which slipped out every now and again.
"Yes," he said, "new things are very enjoyable, and in these times there is no lack of them. The tendency, I should say, is towards superfluity. But new places----! There are surely not many left except the North Pole and the South. Everybody goes everywhere nowadays, and you tumble over friends in Damascus and find your tailor picnicking on the slopes of Lebanon."
Now, as it chanced,--if you admit such a thing as chance in so tangled a coil as this complex world of ours,--Adam Black had just tucked Charles Pixley into a close little argumentative corner, and given him food for contemplation, and catching Graeme's last remark, he smiled across the table, and in a word of four letters dropped a seed into several lives which bore odd fruit and blossom.
"Ever been to Sark, Graeme?" he asked.
"Sark? No. Let me see----"
"Channel Islands. You go across from Guernsey. If ever you want relief from your fellows--to finish a book, or to start one, or just to grizzle and find yourself--try Sark. It's the most wonderful little place, and it's amazing how few people know it."
Then Charles Pixley bethought him of a fresh line of argument, and engaged Black, and was promptly shown the error of his ways; and Margaret Brandt and Graeme resumed their discussion of places and books and people. And before that evening ended, with such affinity of tastes, their feet were fairly set in the rosy path of friendship.
Now that is how it all began, and that explains what happened afterwards when the right time came.
Chance, forsooth! We know better.
Not long after that dinner, Lady Elspeth Gordon came up to town for the first time after her husband's death.
She had been John Graeme's mother's closest friend, and when he was left alone in the world, the dear old lady, before she had fully recovered from her own sore loss, took upon herself a friendly supervision of him and his small affairs, and their intercourse was very delightful.
For Lady Elspeth knew everybody worth knowing, and all that was to be known about the rest; and those gentle brown eyes of hers had missed little of what had gone on around her since she first came to London, fifty years before. She had known Wellington, and Palmerston, and John Russell, and Disraeli, and Gladstone, and Louis Napoleon, and Garibaldi, and many more. She was a veritable golden link with the past, and a storehouse of reminiscence and delightful insight into human nature.
And--since she knew everyone worth knowing, Graeme very soon discovered that she knew Margaret Brandt, and Miss Brandt's very frequent visits to Phillimore Gardens proved that she was an acceptable visitor there.
Upon that, his own visits to Lady Elspeth naturally became still more frequent than before,--approximating even, as she had said, the record of the milkman,--and, though his dear old friend might rate him gently as to the motives for his coming, he had every reason to believe that her sympathies were with him, and that she would do what she could to further his hopes.
He had never, however, openly discussed Margaret with her until that afternoon of which I have already spoken.
Miss Brandt, you see, was always most graciously kind and charming whenever they met. But that was just her natural self. She was charming and gracious to everyone--even to Charles Pixley, the while he swamped her with inane t.i.ttle-tattle, and higher proof of grace than that it would be difficult to imagine.
And, since she was charming to all, Graeme felt that he could base no solid hopes on her gracious treatment of himself, though the quiet recollection of every smallest detail of it would set him all aglow with hope for days after each chance meeting. And so he had never ventured to discuss the matter with Lady Elspeth, and would not have done so that afternoon had she not herself opened it.
The dear old lady's encouragement, however, deepened and strengthened his hopes, in spite of her insidious hints concerning Mr. Pixley's possible intentions. For she was a shrewd, shrewd woman, and those soft brown eyes of hers saw far and deep. And, since she bade him hope, hope he would, though every brick in London town became a Pixley set on thwarting him.
The fact of Margaret's means being, for the present at all events, so much larger than his own, he would not allow to trouble him. It was Margaret herself he wanted, and had wanted long before he heard she had money. The troublesome accident of her possessions should not come between them if he could help it. He did not for one moment believe she would ever think so ill of him as to believe that he wanted her for anything but herself. And in any case, if kind Providence bestowed her upon him, he would insist on her money being all settled on herself absolutely and irrevocably.
Since that never-to-be-forgotten dinner, they had come across one another at Lady Elspeth's with sufficient frequency to open the eyes of that astute old lady to the heart-state of one of them at all events. Possibly she knew more of the heart and mind of the other than she cared to say in plain words; but, as a woman, she would naturally abide by the rules of the game. In the smaller games of life it is woman's privilege, indeed, to stretch and twist all rules to suit her own convenience, but in this great game of love, woman stands by woman and the womanly rules of the game--unless, indeed, she craves the stakes for herself, in which case----
And so--although Lady Elspeth favoured him, that afternoon, only with vague generalities as to the pleasures of hope, and afforded him no solid standing-ground for the sole of his hopeful foot, but left him to discover that for himself, as was only right and proper--his heart stood high, and he looked forward with joyous antic.i.p.ation to the future.
The radiant sun of all his rosy heavens was Margaret Brandt, and he would not for one moment admit the possibility of its clouding by anything of the name of Pixley.
Graeme had not the entree of the Pixley mansion.
Mr. Pixley he knew, by repute only, as the head of Pixley's, the great law-firm, in Lincoln's Inn. Mrs. Pixley he had never met.
Mr. Pixley was a bright and shining light--yea, a veritable light-house--of respectability and benevolence, and bushel coverings were relegated to their proper place outside his scheme of life. His charities were large, wide-spread, religiously advertised in the donation columns of the daily papers, and doubtless palliated the effects of mult.i.tudes of other people's sins.
He was a church-warden, president and honorary treasurer of numerous philanthropical societies--in a word, at once a pillar and corner-stone of his profession, his church, and his country.
He was also a smug little man with a fresh, well-fed face, bordered by a touch of old-fashioned, gray side-whisker, rather outstanding blue eyes, and he carried, and sometimes used as it was intended to be used, a heavy gold pince-nez, which more frequently, however, acted as a kind of lightning-conductor for the expression of his feelings. A pince-nez of many parts:--now it was a scalping-knife, slaughtering the hopes of some harried victim of the law; and again, it was a baton beating time to a hymn or the National Anthem; possibly it was, in moments of relaxation, a jester's wand poking fun at ancient cronies, though indeed a somewhat full-blooded imagination is required for that. I have heard that once when, in the fervour of a speech, Mr.
Pixley dropped his pince-nez among the reporters below, he was utterly unable to continue until the fetish was recovered and handed back to him. It is an undoubted fact that though you might forget the exact lines of Mr. Pixley's face and even his words, you never forgot the fascinating evolutions of his heavy gold pince-nez. Like a Frenchman's hands, it told even more than his face or his words.
He had a good voice, and a deportment which had, without doubt, been specially created for the chairmanship of public meetings. And he was Margaret Brandt's uncle by marriage, her guardian and trustee, and the father of Charles Svendt, on whose account Lady Elspeth had thought well to throw out warning hints of possible paternal intentions respecting Margaret and her fortune.
From every point of view Graeme detested Mr. Pixley, though he had never pa.s.sed a word with him. He was too perfect, too immaculate. His "unco' guidness," as Lady Elspeth would have said, bordered on ostentation. The sight and sound of him aroused in some people a wild inclination towards unaccustomed profanity and wallowing in the mire.
He was so undisguisedly and self-satisfiedly better than his fellows that one felt his long and flawless life almost in the nature of a rebuke if not an affront. He was too obtrusively good for this world.
One could not but feel that if he had been cut off in his youth, and buried under a very white marble slab and an appropriate inscription, both he and the world would have been far more comfortably circ.u.mstanced. And John Graeme devoutly wished he had been so favoured, for, in that case, he could neither have been Margaret's uncle, trustee, nor guardian, and it is possible that there would also have been no Charles Svendt Pixley to trouble the course of his own true love.
But of Charles Svendt I have no harsh word to say. He could not help being his father's son, and one must not blame him for the unavoidable. And, in most respects, he was as unlike his worthy parent as circ.u.mstances permitted.
He was on the Stock Exchange and doing well there. He had very comfortable rooms near St. James's Square, and enjoyed life in his own way and at his own not inconsiderable expense. When Margaret Brandt was at home, however, he was much at his father's house in Melgrave Square.
He made no pretence to unco' guidness whatever. He subscribed to nothing outside the House, with two exceptions--the Dogs' Home at Battersea, and the Home of Rest for Aged Horses at Acton--signs of grace both these offerings, I take it!
To all other demands he invariably replied,--"Can't burn the candle at both ends, my dear sir. The governor charitables for the whole family. He'll give you something if you'll let him head the list and keep it standing."
No, we have no fault to find with Charles Svendt. Time came when he was weighed and not found wanting.
Graeme and he had run across one another occasionally--at the Travellers' Club and elsewhere--but their acquaintance had never ripened to the point of introduction till that night at the Whitefriars' dinner. After that they were on nodding terms, but not much more, until--well, until later.
So, though there was hope in his heart, born of Lady Elspeth's approval and quiet suggestings, John Graeme was still somewhat doubtful as to Margaret Brandt's feelings towards him, and quite at a loss how to arrive at a more exact knowledge of them.
Too precipitate an advance might end in utter rout. And opportunities of approach were all too infrequent for his wishes.
Their chance meetings were rare and exquisite pleasures,--to be looked forward to with an eagerness that held within it the strange possibility of pain through sheer excess of longing;--to be enjoyed like the glory of a fleeting dream;--to be looked back upon with touches of regret at opportunities missed;--to be dwelt upon for days and nights with alternate hope and misgiving, with the rapturous recalling of every tone of the sweet voice, of every word it had uttered, of every gracious gesture, and every most minute and subtle change in the sweetest face and the frankest and most charming eyes in the world.
Their acquaintance had blossomed thus far, when a dire disaster happened and justified all his fears.
He ran gaily up the steps of Lady Elspeth's house one afternoon, br.i.m.m.i.n.g with hope that kindly fortune might bring Margaret that way that day, and was hurled into deepest depths of despair by old Hamish as soon as he opened the door.
"Ech, Mr. Graeme!" said the old man, with his grizzled old face tuned to befitting concern. "Her leddyship's awa' to Inverstrife at a moment's notice. She had a tailegram late last night saying the little leddy--the Countess, ye ken--was very bad, and would she go at once.
And she and Jannet were off by the first train this morning. They aye send for us, ye ken, when anything by-ordinar's to the fore. It's the little leddy's first, ye understand, and ye'll mind that her own mother died two years ago."
"Well, well! I'm sorry you've had such an upsetting, Hamish. And there's no knowing when Lady Elspeth will return, I suppose?"
"It a' depends on the little leddy, Mr. Graeme. Her leddyship will stay till everything's all right, ye may depend upon that. She told me to give you her kindest regairds and beg you to excuse her not writing. They were all on their heads, so to speak, as ye can understand."