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before them to the whole summer's pleasure, and they were relaxed and
ready to be pleased, and broke simultaneously into a low murmur of
talk and laughter. The windows of the dining-room stood open from the
floor, and from the tiny garden that surrounded the house, even in the
great mass of stucco and brick of encircling London, came the odor of
flowers and of fresh turf. A soft summer-night wind moved the candles
under their red shades; and gently as though they rose from afar, and
not only from across the top of the high wall before the house, came
the rumble of the omnibuses passing farther into the suburbs, and the
occasional quick rush of a hansom over the smooth asphalt. It was a
most delightful choice of people, gathered at short notice and to do
honor to no one in particular, but to give each a chance to say
good-by before he or she met the yacht at Southampton or took the club
train to Homburg. They all knew each other very well; and if there was
a guest of the evening, it was one of the two Americans - either Miss
Egerton, the girl who was to marry Lord Arbuthnot, whose mother sat on
Trevelyan's right, or young Gordon, the explorer, who has just come
out of Africa. Miss Egerton was a most strikingly beautiful girl,
with a strong, fine face, and an earnest, interested way when she
spoke, which the English found most attractive. In appearance she had
been variously likened by Trevelyan, who was painting her portrait, to
a druidess, a vestal virgin, and a Greek goddess; and Lady Arbuthnot's
friends, who thought to please the girl, assured her that no one would
ever suppose her to be an American - their ideas of the American young
woman having been gathered from those who pick out tunes with one
finger on the pianos in the public parlors of the Métropole. Miss
Egerton was said to be intensely interested in her lover's career, and
was as ambitious for his success in the House as he was himself. They
were both very much in love, and showed it to others as little as
people of their class do. The others at the table were General Sir
Henry Kent; Phillips, the novelist; the Austrian Minister and his
young wife; and Trevelyan, who painted portraits for large sums of
money and figure pieces for art; and some simply fashionable smart
people who were good listeners, and who were rather disappointed that
the American explorer was no more sun-burned than other young men who
had stayed at home, and who had gone in for tennis or yachting.

The worst of Gordon was that he made it next to impossible for one to
lionize him. He had been back in civilization and London only two
weeks, unless Cairo and Shepheard's Hotel are civilization, and he
had been asked everywhere, and for the first week had gone everywhere.
But whenever his hostess looked for him, to present another and not so
recent a lion, he was generally found either humbly carrying an ice to
some neglected dowager, or talking big game or international yachting
or tailors to a circle of younger sons in the smoking-room, just as
though several hundred attractive and distinguished people were not
waiting to fling the speeches they had prepared on Africa at him, in
the drawing-room above. He had suddenly disappeared during the second
week of his stay in London, which was also the last week of the London
season, and managers of lecture tours and publishers and lion-hunters,
and even friends who cared for him for himself, had failed to find him
at his lodgings. Trevelyan, who had known him when he was a travelling
correspondent and artist for one of the great weeklies, had found him
at the club the night before, and had asked him to his wife's
impromptu dinner, from which he had at first begged off, but, on
learning who was to be there, had changed his mind and accepted. Mrs.
Trevelyan was very glad he had come; she had always spoken of him as a
nice boy, and now that he had become famous she liked him none the
less, but did not show it before people as much as she had been used
to do. She forgot to ask him whether he knew his beautiful compatriot
or not; but she took it for granted that they had met, if not at
home, at least in London, as they had both been made so much of, and
at the same houses.

The dinner was well on its way towards its end, and the women had
begun to talk across the table, and to exchange bankers' addresses,
and to say "Be sure and look us up in Paris," and "When do you expect
to sail from Cowes?" They were enlivened and interested, and the
present odors of the food and flowers and wine, and the sense of
leisure before them, made it seem almost a pity that such a
well-suited gathering should have to separate for even a summer's
pleasure.

The Austrian Minister was saying this to his hostess, when Sir Henry
Kent, who had been talking across to Phillips, the novelist, leaned
back in his place and said, as though to challenge the attention of
every one, "I can't agree with you, Phillips. I am sure no one else
will."

"Dear me," complained Mrs. Trevelyan, plaintively, "what have you been
saying now, Mr. Phillips? He always has such debatable theories," she
explained.

"On the contrary, Mrs. Trevelyan," answered the novelist, "it is the
other way. It is Sir Henry who is making all the trouble. He is
attacking one of the oldest and dearest platitudes I know." He paused
for the general to speak, but the older man nodded his head for him to
go on. "He has just said that fiction is stranger than truth,"
continued the novelist. "He says that I - that people who write could
never interest people who read if they wrote of things as they really
are. They select, he says - they take the critical moment in a man's
life and the crises, and want others to believe that that is what
happens every day. Which it is not, so the general says. He thinks
that life is commonplace and uneventful - that is, uneventful in a
picturesque or dramatic way. He admits that women's lives are saved
from drowning, but that they are not saved by their lovers, but by a
longshoreman with a wife and six children, who accepts five pounds for
doing it. That's it, is it not?" he asked.

The general nodded and smiled. "What I said to Phillips was," he
explained, "that if things were related just as they happen, they
would not be interesting. People do not say the dramatic things they
say on the stage or in novels; in real life they are commonplace or
sordid - or disappointing. I have seen men die on the battle-field,
for instance, and they never cried, 'I die that my country may live,'
or 'I have got my promotion at last;' they just stared up at the
surgeon and said, 'Have I got to lose that arm?' or 'I am killed, I
think.' You see, when men are dying around you, and horses are
plunging, and the batteries are firing, one doesn't have time to think
up the appropriate remark for the occasion. I don't believe, now, that
Pitt's last words were, 'Roll up the map of Europe.' A man who could
change the face of a continent would not use his dying breath in
making epigrams. It was one of his secretaries or one of the doctors
who said that. And the man who was capable of writing home, 'All is
lost but honor,' was just the sort of a man who would lose more
battles than he would win. No; you, Phillips," said the general,
raising his voice as he became more confident and conscious that be
held the centre of the stage, "and you, Trevelyan, don't write and
paint every-day things as they are. You introduce something for a
contrast or for an effect; a red coat in a landscape for the bit of
color you want, when in real life the red coat would not be within
miles; or you have a band of music playing a popular air in the street
when a murder is going on inside the house. You do it because it is
effective; but it isn't true. Now Mr. Caithness was telling us the
other night at the club, on this very matter - "

"Oh, that's hardly fair," laughed Trevelyan; "you've rehearsed all
this before. You've come prepared."

"No, not at all," frowned the general, sweeping on. "He said that
before he was raised to the bench, when he practised criminal law, he
had brought word to a man that he was to be reprieved, and to another
that he was to die. Now, you know," exclaimed the general, with a
shrug, and appealing to the table, "how that would be done on the
stage or in a novel, with the prisoner bound ready for execution, and
a galloping horse, and a fluttering piece of white paper, and all
that. Well, now, Caithness told us that he went into the man's cell
and said, 'You have been reprieved, John,' or William, or whatever the
fellow's name was. And the man looked at him and said: 'Is that so?
That's good - that's good;' and that was all he said. And then, again,
he told one man whose life he had tried very hard to save: 'The Home
Secretary has refused to intercede for you. I saw him at his house
last night at nine o'clock.' And the murderer, instead of saying, 'My
God! what will my wife and children do?' looked at him, and repeated,
'At nine o'clock last night!' just as though that were the important
part of the message."

"Well, but, general," said Phillips, smiling, "that's dramatic enough
as it is, I think. Why - "

"Yes," interrupted the general, quickly and triumphantly. "But that is
not what you would have made him say, is it? That's my point."

"There was a man told me once," Lord Arbuthnot began, leisurely - "he
was a great chum of mine, and it illustrates what Sir Henry has said,
I think - he was engaged to a girl, and he had a misunderstanding or an
understanding with her that opened both their eyes, at a dance, and
the next afternoon he called, and they talked it over in the
drawing-room, with the tea-tray between them, and agreed to end it. On
the stage he would have risen and said, 'Well, the comedy is over, the
tragedy begins, or the curtain falls;' and she would have gone to the
piano and played Chopin sadly while he made his exit. Instead of
which he got up to go without saying anything, and as he rose he upset
a cup and saucer on the tea-table, and said, 'Oh, I beg your pardon;'
and she said, 'It isn't broken;' and he went out. You see," the young
man added, smiling, "there were two young people whose hearts were
breaking, and yet they talked of teacups, not because they did not
feel, but because custom is too strong on us and too much for us. We
do not say dramatic things or do theatrical ones. It does not make
interesting reading, but it is the truth."

"Exactly," cut in the Austrian Minister, eagerly. "And then there is
the prerogative of the author and of the playwright to drop a curtain
whenever he wants to, or to put a stop to everything by ending the
chapter. That isn't fair. That is an advantage over nature. When some
one accuses some one else of doing something dreadful at the play,
down comes the curtain quick and keeps things at fever point, or the
chapter ends with a lot of stars, and the next page begins with a
description of a sunset two weeks later. To be true, we ought to be
told what the man who is accused said in the reply, or what happened
during those two weeks before the sunset. The author really has no
right to choose only the critical moments, and to shut out the
commonplace, every-day life by a sort of literary closure. That is, if
he claims to tell the truth."

Phillips raised his eyebrows and looked carefully around the table.
"Does any one else feel called upon to testify?" he asked.

"It's awful, isn't it, Phillips," laughed Trevelyan, comfortably, "to
find that the photographer is the only artist, after all? I feel very
guilty."

"You ought to," pronounced the general, gayly. He was very well
satisfied with himself at having held his own against these clever
people. "And I am sure Mr. Gordon will agree with me, too," he went
on, confidently, with a bow towards the younger man. "He has seen more
of the world than any of us, and he will tell you, I am sure, that
what happens only suggests the story; it is not complete in itself.
That it always needs the author's touch, just as the rough diamond - "

"Oh, thanks, thanks, general," laughed Phillips. "My feelings are not
hurt as badly as that."

Gordon had been turning the stem of a wineglass slowly between his
thumb and his finger while the others were talking, and looking down
at it smiling. Now he raised his eyes as though he meant to speak, and
then dropped them again. "I am afraid, Sir Henry," he said, "that I
don't agree with you at all."

Those who had said nothing felt a certain satisfaction that they had
not committed themselves. The Austrian Minister tried to remember what
it was he had said, and whether it was too late to retreat, and the
general looked blankly at Gordon and said, "Indeed?"

"You shouldn't have called on that last witness, Sir Henry," said
Phillips, smiling. "Your case was very good as it was."

"I am quite sure," said Gordon, seriously, "that the story Phillips
will never write is a true story, but he will not write it because
people would say it is impossible, just as you have all seen sunsets
sometimes that you knew would be laughed at if any one tried to paint
them. We all know such a story, something in our own lives, or in the
lives of our friends. Not ghost stories, or stories of adventure, but
of ambitions that come to nothing, of people who were rewarded or
punished in this world instead of in the next, and love stories."

Phillips looked at the young man keenly and smiled. "Especially love
stories," he said.

Gordon looked back at him as if he did not understand.

"Tell it, Gordon," said Mr. Trevelyan.

"Yes," said Gordon, nodding his head in assent, "I was thinking of a
particular story. It is as complete, I think, and as dramatic as any
of those we read. It is about a man I met in Africa. It is not a long
story," he said, looking around the table tentatively, "but it ends
badly."

There was a silence much more appreciated than a polite murmur of
invitation would have been, and the simply smart people settled
themselves rigidly to catch every word for future use. They realized
that this would be a story which had not as yet appeared in the
newspapers, and which would not make a part of Gordon's book. Mrs.
Trevelyan smiled encouragingly upon her former protégé; she was sure
he was going to do himself credit; but the American girl chose this
chance, when all the other eyes were turned expectantly towards the
explorer, to look at her lover.

"We were on our return march from Lake Tchad to the Mobangi," said
Gordon. "We had been travelling over a month, sometimes by water and
sometimes through the forest, and we did not expect to see any other
white men besides those of our own party for several months to come.
In the middle of a jungle late one afternoon I found this man lying at
the foot of a tree. He had been cut and beaten and left for dead. It
was as much of a surprise to me, you understand, as it would be to you
if you were driving through Trafalgar Square in a hansom, and an
African lion should spring up on your horses' haunches. We believed we
were the only white men that had ever succeeded in getting that far
south. Crampel had tried it, and no one knows yet whether he is dead
or alive; Doctor Schlemen had been eaten by cannibals, and Major
Bethume had turned back two hundred miles farther north; and we could
no more account for this man's presence than if he had been dropped
from the clouds. Lieutenant Royce, my surgeon, went to work at him,
and we halted where we were for the night. In about an hour the man
moved and opened his eyes. He looked up at us and said, 'Thank
God!' - because we were white, I suppose - and went off into
unconsciousness again. When he came to the next time, he asked Royce,
in a whisper, how long he had to live. He wasn't the sort of a man you
had to lie to about a thing like that, and Royce told him he did not
think he could live for more than an hour or two. The man moved his
head to show that he understood, and raised his hand to his throat and
began pulling at his shirt, but the effort sent him off into a
fainting-fit again. I opened his collar for him as gently as I could,
and found that his fingers had clinched around a silver necklace that
he wore about his neck, and from which there hung a gold locket shaped
like a heart."

Gordon raised his eyes slowly from the observation of his finger-tips
as they rested on the edge of the table before him to those of the
American girl who sat opposite. She had heard his story so far without
any show of attention, and had been watching, rather with a touch of
fondness in her eyes, the clever, earnest face of Arbuthnot, who was
following Gordon's story with polite interest. But now, at Gordon's
last words, she turned her eyes to him with a look of awful
indignation, which was followed, when she met his calmly polite look
of inquiry, by one of fear and almost of entreaty.

"When the man came to," continued Gordon, in the same conventional
monotone, "he begged me to take the chain and locket to a girl whom
he said I would find either in London or in New York. He gave me the
address of her banker. He said: 'Take it off my neck before you bury
me; tell her I wore it ever since she gave it to me. That it has been
a charm and loadstone to me. That when the locket rose and fell
against my breast, it was as if her heart were pressing against mine
and answering the beating and throbbing of the blood in my veins.'"

Gordon paused, and returned to the thoughtful scrutiny of his
finger-tips.

"The man did not die," he said, raising his head. "Royce brought him
back into such form again that in about a week we were able to take
him along with us on a litter. But he was very weak, and would lie for
hours sleeping when we rested, or mumbling and raving in a fever. We
learned from him at odd times that he had been trying to reach Lake
Tchad, to do what we had done, without any means of doing it. He had
had not more than a couple of dozen porters and a corporal's guard of
Senegalese soldiers. He was the only white man in the party, and his
men had turned on him, and left him as we found him, carrying off with
them his stock of provisions and arms. He had undertaken the
expedition on a promise from the French government to make him
governor of the territory he opened up if he succeeded, but he had had
no official help. If he failed, he got nothing; if he succeeded, he
did so at his own expense and by his own endeavors. It was only a
wonder he had been able to get as far as he did. He did not seem to
feel the failure of his expedition. All that was lost in the happiness
of getting back alive to this woman with whom he was in love. He had
been three days alone before we found him, and in those three days,
while he waited for death, he had thought of nothing but that he would
never see her again. He had resigned himself to this, had given up all
hope, and our coming seemed like a miracle to him. I have read about
men in love, I have seen it on the stage, I have seen it in real life,
but I never saw a man so grateful to God and so happy and so insane
over a woman as this man was. He raved about her when he was feverish,
and he talked and talked to me about her when he was in his senses.
The porters could not understand him, and he found me sympathetic, I
suppose, or else he did not care, and only wanted to speak of her to
some one, and so he told me the story over and over again as I walked
beside the litter, or as we sat by the fire at night. She must have
been a very remarkable girl. He had met her first the year before, on
one of the Italian steamers that ply from New York to Gibraltar. She
was travelling with her father, who was an invalid going to Tangier
for his health; from Tangier they were to go on up to Nice and Cannes,
and in the spring to Paris and on to London for this season just over.
The man was going from Gibraltar to Zanzibar, and then on into the
Congo. They had met the first night out; they had separated thirteen
days later at Gibraltar, and in that time the girl had fallen in love
with him, and had promised to marry him if he would let her, for he
was very proud. He had to be. He had absolutely nothing to offer her.
She is very well known at home. I mean her family is: they have lived
in New York from its first days, and they are very rich. The girl had
lived a life as different from his as the life of a girl in society
must be from that of a vagabond. He had been an engineer, a newspaper
correspondent, an officer in a Chinese army, and had built bridges in
South America, and led their little revolutions there, and had seen
service on the desert in the French army of Algiers. He had no home or
nationality even, for he had left America when he was sixteen; he had
no family, had saved no money, and was trusting everything to the
success of this expedition into Africa to make him known and to give
him position. It was the story of Othello and Desdemona over again.
His blackness lay from her point of view, or rather would have lain
from the point of view of her friends, in the fact that he was as
helplessly ineligible a young man as a cowboy. And he really had lived
a life of which he had no great reason to be proud. He had existed
entirely for excitement, as other men live to drink until they kill
themselves by it; nothing he had done had counted for much except his
bridges. They are still standing. But the things he had written are
lost in the columns of the daily papers. The soldiers he had fought
with knew him only as a man who cared more for the fighting than for
what the fighting was about, and he had been as ready to write on one
side as to fight on the other. He was a rolling stone, and had been a
rolling stone from the time he was sixteen and had run away to sea, up
to the day he had met this girl, when he was just thirty. Yet you can
see how such a man would attract a young, impressionable girl, who had
met only those men whose actions are bounded by the courts of law or
Wall Street, or the younger set who drive coaches and who live the
life of the clubs. She had gone through life as some people go through
picture-galleries, with their catalogues marked at the best pictures.
She knew nothing of the little fellows whose work was skied, who were
trying to be known, who were not of her world, but who toiled and
prayed and hoped to be famous. This man came into her life suddenly
with his stories of adventure and strange people and strange places,
of things done for the love of doing them and not for the reward or
reputation, and he bewildered her at first, I suppose, and then
fascinated, and then won her. You can imagine how it was, these two
walking the deck together during the day, or sitting side by side when
the night came on, the ocean stretched before them. The daring of his
present undertaking, the absurd glamour that is thrown over those who
have gone into that strange country from which some travellers
return, and the picturesqueness of his past life. It is no wonder the
girl made too much of him. I do not think he knew what was coming. He
did not pose before her. I am quite sure, from what I knew of him,
that he did not. Indeed, I believed him when he said that he had
fought against the more than interest she had begun to show for him.
He was the sort of man women care for, but they had not been of this
woman's class or calibre. It came to him like a sign from the heavens.
It was as if a goddess had stooped to him. He told her when they
separated that if he succeeded - if he opened this unknown country, if
he was rewarded as they had promised to reward him - he might dare to
come to her; and she called him her knight-errant, and gave him her
chain and locket to wear, and told him, whether he failed or succeeded
it meant nothing to her, and that her life was his while it lasted,
and her soul as well.

"I think," Gordon said, stopping abruptly, with an air of careful
consideration, "that those were her words as he repeated them to me."

He raised his eyes thoughtfully towards the face of the girl opposite,
and then glanced past her, as if he were trying to recall the words
the man had used. The fine, beautiful face of the woman was white and
drawn around the lips, and she gave a quick, appealing glance at her
hostess, as if she would beg to be allowed to go. But Mrs. Trevelyan
and her guests were watching Gordon or toying with the things in front
of them. The dinner had been served, and not even the soft movements
of the servants interrupted the young man's story.

"You can imagine a man," Gordon went on, more lightly, "finding a
hansom cab slow when he is riding from the station to see the woman he


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Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisVan Bibber and Others → online text (page 11 of 12)