Four men sat in the smoking-room of a London club. They were alone. That is scarcely to be wondered at, for it was far past midnight. Moreover, it was not a large club, and even when the place was most frequented large numbers were seldom present. Three of the men were chatting cursorily about a defeat of the Government which had taken place that night, but the fourth, by far the most striking looking man of the quartette, sat almost by himself, moody and silent.
They were all young men. The oldest had barely reached his thirty-fifth year, while the youngest was evidently less than thirty. All of them gave evidence of being young men of leisure, and each of them could claim to belong to that class which is vaguely termed English gentlemen.
"Will the Government resign, think you?" said one.
"No," another replied.
"Why? It could hardly be called a snatch division."
"No, but governments do not resign unless the country is against them."
"Which it is."
"In a sense, yes; but in another sense, no. The question to-night was a brewer's question. Well, if they resigned and went to the country, they would be returned again. The brewers, for whom the Government has been fighting, would be sufficiently strong at the polls to secure the return of their supporters."
"Which is a strong reason why the Government will resign."
They went on discussing the question, neither saying anything worthy of record. They seemed to be deeply interested, however; perhaps because two of them were Parliamentary candidates. The man who sat apart, however, took no note of the conversation. He could by listening carefully have heard all that was said, but his mind seemed elsewhere. Neither did he speak to the others, although he knew each one intimately. Of what he was thinking it would be difficult to tell. There was a strange, vacant look in his eyes, and his face was very pale.
He seemed utterly oblivious of the time, and although a waiter hovered near, as if to remind the party that he was very sleepy, this young man especially took no note of his presence.
Presently he aroused himself, and rang a bell which stood on the table at his elbow.
The waiter came towards him sleepily.
"Whisky," he said.
"A large one."
"And make haste about it."
The waiter left the room, while the others glanced at each other significantly.
"How many is that to-night?" said one in a low voice.
"Heaven knows, I don't. He's on the drink again."
"If I'd taken half he's had, I should have to be carried to bed."
"Pity, isn't it? He's ruining his career."
"I don't know. He never shows he's been drinking. He's always at his best when he's drunk."
"He's never drunk."
"Well, you know what I mean. He can never do himself justice now, unless he's had what would make any one of us incapable."
"Yes, but that kind of thing can't last. No constitution could stand it. In time it'll destroy his nerves, and then – "
"Yes, it's a pity."
The waiter brought the young man a large measure of whisky and a bottle of soda-water. He poured a small quantity of soda into the whisky. His hand was steady and he did not seem to be in the least affected by what he had drunk.
He lifted the glass to his lips and nearly drained it. Then he sat back in the chair and closed his eyes.
"I should think he will soon be asleep, now," whispered one.
"It's an awful pity. Don't you think one ought to try and warn him?"
"Try it. I would not like to."
"But he's ruining his life. A fellow of such brilliance, too. Do you remember that speech he made at the Eclectic?"
"Remember! Who doesn't? You know the constituency he's candidate for? Well, the story of his adoption for that constituency by the general committee is worth telling. I don't quite know how it was, but through a misunderstanding two men were invited on the same night to come and address them with a view to adoption. Well, the other man was young Lord Telsize, an able, capable fellow, by no means a bad speaker, and as rich as a money-lending Jew. Each had to address the meeting in turn, and Telsize came first. He made a rattling speech; he voiced all their pet opinions, and every one was made to understand that if he were adopted it would not cost them a penny to fight the election. The meeting wanted to vote straight away and adopt Telsize without hearing Leicester, especially when they heard that he would contribute practically nothing to the funds. However, the chairman overruled this. He said it would not be courteous to ask a man down and not hear him speak; so they called him in. Leicester saw at a glance how things stood, and that put him on his mettle. In three minutes the meeting was at a white heat, and before half an hour was over he was unanimously invited to fight their battles. A man who was there told me that Leicester's speech was the most remarkable thing he'd ever heard."
"I don't care, he's ruining himself. The truth about him is sure to come out, and then he'll be drummed out of the place."
"I suppose Miss Blackstone refused him because she had heard about this habit of his."
"Oh, it wasn't that only. Miss Blackstone is a very religious young lady, and, as you know, Leicester is an agnostic. Not only that, but his views about marriage would not be likely to commend themselves to her. Fancy Radford Leicester being accepted by a girl like Miss Blackstone!"
They had been speaking in low tones, although they thought the young man was too much under the influence of whisky to take any notice of them, even although the sound of their voices could reach him plainly. They were greatly surprised, therefore, when he to whom they had referred as Radford Leicester rose from his chair and came close to them. He looked at them quietly, glancing first at one and then at the other. Each returned his glance, as if wondering what he would say.
"I was in doubts," he said, "as to whether I was in one of Moody and Sankey's meetings or whether some strange fate had thrown me into the midst of a Dorcas society."
"Why, old man?"
"Because at first I heard of some scheme for snatching a brand from the burning, and afterwards I heard some gossip which was as full of lies as the gossip of a Dorcas society usually is. When I opened my eyes I was a bit surprised. I found I was in the smoking-room of my club, where women are not admitted. Am I mistaken? For the plan for my salvation was essentially feminine, while the gossip was scarcely up to the level of a woman's charity meeting."
He drew a chair into the circle and sat down, each man looking rather uncomfortable as he did so.
"Don't you feel like a word of prayer?" he said mockingly. "I am rather in the humour for it. What is the process? First conviction, and then conversion, isn't it?"
There was no thickness in his voice, each word was carefully articulated. He gave no sign of drinking, if we except the peculiar look in his eyes.
"Your father is a parson, isn't he, Purvis?" he went on. "He will be pleased to know that his son is walking in his father's footsteps, while Sprague's mother is great at women's meetings. Sprague has evidently inherited his mother's gifts."
Sprague turned towards him angrily.
"Steady, steady, old man," said Leicester, with a mocking smile on his lips. "You can't deny that you assist your mother at her drawing-room meetings, neither can you deny that the story of Miss Blackstone's refusal of me was born in one of them."
"It might have been mentioned there," said Sprague, thrown off his guard.
"It originated there," said Leicester lightly.
"Why do you say that?" asked Sprague.
"Because it is safe to assume that, when a story without any foundation in fact is afloat, especially if it is a trifle malicious, it was born in a religious meeting run by women. Besides, I know your mother started this gossip."
Each of the three men looked more uncomfortable. They had no idea that the quick ears of the man had heard every word.
"I'm a sad case," went on Leicester, mockingly. "I'm ruining my career, my nerves are breaking down, and I shall soon be drummed out of my constituency. Let's see, how many whiskies have I had to-night? Surely, surely, you fellows, who are so immaculate, should have a few words of prayer. Come now, Purvis, a few words of exhortation. I will listen patiently."
"We said nothing wrong, Leicester," said Purvis, "and we meant nothing wrong. We only said what those who know you best, and like you best, are thinking. You may keep the fact of your hard drinking from the public a little longer, but not much. Such things are bound to leak out."
"Especially when I have such loyal friends."
"That isn't fair, Leicester. Not one of us would ever dream of saying outside what we say among ourselves. We can't close our eyes or our ears. We've heard you order whisky after whisky to-night, and we've seen you drink them."
"And what then?"
"Yes, what then? I am as sober as you. I say, hold out your hands as I am holding out mine. Are yours steadier than mine? I tell you, no whisky that was ever distilled could bowl me over."
"All nonsense, Leicester; all nonsense. Whisky is whisky, and nerves are nerves, and whisky will beat you, if you go on drinking so. It may be unpleasant for you to hear us say so, but truth is truth."
"I know when to stop," said Leicester. "While my head and my heels are steady I know I'm all right."
"All the same, you can't stop people talking, and there is some truth in the Blackstone story."
"Yes, I know," said Leicester quietly; "and as you chaps are so deeply interested in my soul, I'll tell you. I never proposed to Miss Blackstone; I never thought of proposing to her."
"Then why did you cease going to her father's house?"
"Because her father has ceased to invite me," he replied. "Do you know why? I'll tell you. The devil got hold of me one night and I trod on the old man's moral and religious corns. I knocked the sawdust out of his dolls. I was feeling a bit cynical, and I attacked the motives and morals of religious people. Now, then, you know. But I never proposed to Miss Blackstone; if I had, I should have been accepted."
"It's good to have a high opinion of one's self."
"Or a poor opinion of women," replied Leicester.
"What has that to do with the question?"
"Only this. Women don't trouble about morals. What women want in a husband is a man that shall be talked about; a man who is courted and petted; a man who is quoted in the papers. Given position, and notoriety on the lines I have mentioned, and women don't trouble about the other things."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because I know."
"How do you know?"
"I am thirty years of age, and I have kept my eyes open during these last ten years – that's all. You talk about my religious views and my ideas on marriage, and what you call my cynicism generally. But let the best of the women believe that a man will give them the position they covet and then he can believe what he likes and do what he likes. No, my dear, pious friends, you need not fear either about me or my future as long as you believe in your views about what is called my abilities."
"That's a libel on women," said Sprague.
"I'm willing to put my views to a test," replied Leicester.
"What do you mean?"
"My language is pretty plain," replied Leicester.
Each of the other men felt the influence of Leicester's stronger personality, and each of them resented it at the same time. They felt almost angry that the man whom they had been pitying as a drunkard should so coolly hold them at bay.
"It is a poor thing to say you'll put your views to the test, when you know it cannot be done," remarked Sprague.
"Look here, my dear, exemplary friends, who are so anxious for my moral reclamation," said Leicester in his quiet, mocking tone, "I've made a statement, and I'll stand by it. I'm not a marrying man, as you know; still I am willing to sacrifice my own feelings for the good of my fellows. So, then, pick out your most pious and high-principled young woman; Sunday-school teacher preferred, warranted to be sound in doctrine, and having a proper horror of men like myself. Choose her carefully, and I'm prepared to prove my words."
"If she'll have you."
"That's the point. I maintain that neither orthodoxy of life nor conduct weigh with women as long as the suitor has the qualifications I have mentioned. Now it is believed, rightly or wrongly, that I am going to have what is commonly called a brilliant career. Well, choose your most pattern young woman – she must be what is called a lady, of course, and I must stipulate that she is passably good-looking and is not penniless."
"I am prepared to put my views to the test. Of course, model young men like you would not think of a wager; but if I don't succeed – well, I'll give a hundred pounds to any religious cause you like to mention."
The man's eyes flashed with a new light. The plan he had sketched seemed to amuse and excite him.
"It's all nonsense," said Sprague.
"Test it," laughed Leicester.
He had apparently imbued the others with his own spirit. For the moment they were eager to see what would happen.
"Name your woman," went on Leicester. "What, are you afraid? Will you not support your doctrine of the nobility of women? I give it as my opinion that women are uniformly selfish, vain, and sordid. I maintain that what they want is a man who will give them position, name, prominence. Given that, and everything goes by the board. And I stand by it. I place a hundred pounds upon it. All I ask you to do is to name your woman."
There was a wild gleam in his eye, and he was evidently prepared to stand by his words. As for the others, they yielded more and more to his stronger personality.
"No," said Sprague presently, "it is not fair. If either of us had a sister we would not like to make her the subject of such a proposition."
"But if you are right, my dear, good friends," went on Leicester, "no harm can be done. I propose to the lady, and I am refused. What then? It is only another illustration of the downfall of Radford Leicester, the atheist, the cynic, the drunkard. But I am willing to risk it. All I say is, name the woman. Let her be the best you can think of; let her be the most exemplary, the most high-minded, the most orthodox, and I maintain that she'll not care a fig about all my failings, if she believes in the brilliance of my career."
"If you hadn't drunk so much whisky you'd not propose such a thing," said Purvis.
"Oh, you are backing out, are you?" sneered Leicester. "It is always the same. Fellows like you utter pious platitudes; you proclaim the glory of women; you hold up your hands with horror at a man who dares tell the truth, and then you back out like cowards. I say there is no woman but who has her price. You quote that lying gossip about Miss Blackstone refusing me because of my heresies and my whisky drinking. I tell you it is a lie invented by Sprague's mother, and I go further and I say that there is no woman who really cares a fig for these things, provided you can satisfy her ambition. And I'm prepared to stand by it. All I say is, name your woman."
"Miss Olive Castlemaine."
The man who had taken no part in the conversation spoke this time, and as the name escaped his lips both Purvis and Sprague gave a start. Even Leicester was silent for a moment. He looked from one to another suspiciously, then he burst out laughing.
"You've made a bold bid, Winfield," he said. "You make even me tremble. Miss Olive Castlemaine is, so I suppose, the most sought-after heiress in London. She fulfils all my conditions, and, more than that, she has refused both Sprague and Purvis. I suppose, from what I am told, that she looked upon Sprague as a bit of a hypocrite, and Purvis as – well, not likely to have a great future."
He evidently stung both these men by his words. It was perfectly true that both of them had been refused by Miss Olive Castlemaine, it was just as true that she had been sought after by a number of other eligible marriageable men, and had refused them all.
Miss Olive Castlemaine was known to be a young lady of more than ordinary beauty, of good social standing, and, what was more, an heiress to great wealth. But she was not a society woman. Some women laughed at her because she preferred seeking to do good in the world to living the life of a butterfly. She worked among the poor, she taught a class of ragged children, and she was known to have strong opinions both about men and things. She had taken a degree at St. Andrews University, she was a Girton girl, and had attained to a high position there. Without being a "blue stocking" she was a cultured woman, and was acquainted with the language and literature of more than one country. But, more than all, she had caused many society women to raise their eyebrows at the mention of her name, because she was, to use their expression, "pious." She belonged to no set, and was rarely seen at receptions. She loved London because it was the centre of English life – life intellectual, political, religious: but society functions had no attractions for her. Some had called her a female prig, but few regarded her as such – she was too healthy-minded, too natural, too real.
Her mother had died when she was quite a child, and thus she became the one earthly delight and pride of her father, who was managing director of, and chief shareholder in, one of the most prosperous and respectable firms in London. She lived with her father in one of those fine old houses, surrounded by a large tract of park-lands, a few of which yet remain within the precincts of Larger London, in spite of the ravages of the speculative builder.
She was at the time of the commencement of this history about twenty-three years of age. She was a perfectly womanly woman. She hated much of the foolish flippancy which characterised many of the women she knew, and had a healthy disgust for those who talked lightly about not being bound by those great social institutions which lie at the basis of our national greatness and purity. Nevertheless, she dared to think for herself, and had an almost masculine way of defending her opinions.
Being the only child of John Castlemaine, who occupied not only a high position in the City of London, but owned more than one fine estate in England, she had all that money could buy, while her father's integrity and honourable reputation made her the envy of those who, socially, would regard her as an inferior. For John Castlemaine, while bearing a name known in English history, and possessed of great wealth, was still a member of what is called the "middle classes." He simply stood high up in his own class. He was not of those who mingled freely with the men who guide the destinies of the nation. Rich men came to his house, men great in the world of finance; but men great in the world of politics and science and letters were unknown to him. Perhaps this was his own fault, or perhaps it was because his tastes were simple and because he did not possess the qualities which would attract men of influence and power to his house. For John Castlemaine was a plain man. He belonged to the merchant class, and he prided himself on the position he held.
As we have said, his daughter, Olive Castlemaine, had had many suitors for her hand, but she had refused them all. Among those who had been unfortunate were Harold Sprague and Herbert Purvis. They were both mediocre but respectable young men. Both had been in love with her, and both were wounded at her refusal. Perhaps this was why the mention of her name made them start as if with pain.
"Do you accept?" said Winfield.
"What do our pattern young men say?" sneered Leicester, and he looked from one to another as if awaiting their answer.
На этой странице вы можете прочитать онлайн книгу «The Man Who Rose Again», автора Joseph Hocking. Данная книга имеет возрастное ограничение 12+,.. Книга «The Man Who Rose Again» была издана в 2017 году. Приятного чтения!