Chapter 12 - Penelope Intervenes
The perfume of countless roses, the music of the finest band in Europe, floated through the famous white ballroom of Devenham House. Electric lights sparkled from the ceiling, through the pillared way the ceaseless splashing of water from the fountains in the winter garden seemed like a soft undernote to the murmur of voices, the musical peals of laughter, the swirl of skirts, and the rhythm of flying feet.
Penelope stood upon the edge of the ballroom, her hand resting still upon her partner's arm. She wore a dress of dull rose-color, a soft, clinging silk, which floated about her as she danced, a creation of Paquin's, daring but delightful. Her eyes were very full and soft. She was looking her best, and knew it. Nevertheless, she was just at the moment, a little DISTRAIT. She was watching the brilliant scene with a certain air of abstraction, as though her interest in it was, after all, an impersonal thing.
"Jolly well every one looks tonight," her partner, who was Sir Charles, remarked. "All the women seem to be wearing smart frocks, and some of those foreign uniforms are gorgeous."
"Even the Prince," Penelope said thoughtfully, "must find some reflection of the philosophy of his own country in such a scene as this. For the last fortnight we have been surfeited with horrors. We have had to go through all sorts of nameless things," she added, shivering slightly, "and tonight we dance at Devenham House. We dance, and drink champagne, and marvel at the flowers, as though we had not a care in the world, as though life moved always to music."
Sir Charles frowned a little.
"The Prince again!" he said, half protesting. "He seems to be a great deal in your thoughts lately, Penelope."
"Why not?" she answered. "It is something to meet a person whom one is able to dislike. Nowadays the whole world is so amiable."
"I wonder how much you really do dislike him," he said.
She looked at him with a mysterious smile.
"Sometimes," she murmured softly, "I wonder that myself."
"Leaving the Prince out of the question," he continued, "what you say is true enough. Only a few days ago, you had to attend that awful inquest, and the last time I saw dear old Dicky Vanderpole, he was looking forward to this very dance."
"It seems callous of us to have come," Penelope declared. "And yet, if we hadn't, what difference would it have made? Every one else would have been here. Our absence would never have been noticed, and we should have sat at home and had the blues. But all the same, life is cruel."
"Can't say I find much to grumble at myself," Sir Charles said cheerfully. "I'm frightfully sorry about poor old Dicky, of course, and every other decent fellow who doesn't get his show. But, after all, it's no good being morbid. Sackcloth and ashes benefit no one. Shall we have another turn?"
"Not yet," Penelope replied. "Wait till the crowd thins a little. Tell me what you have been doing today?"
"Pretty strenuous time," Sir Charles remarked. "Up at nine, played golf at Ranelagh all morning, lunched down there, back to my rooms and changed, called on my tailor, went round to the club, had one game of billiards and four rubbers of bridge."
"Is that all?" Penelope asked.
The faint sarcasm which lurked beneath her question passed unnoticed. Sir Charles smiled good-humoredly.
"Not quite," he answered. "I dined at the Carlton with Bellairs and some men from Woolwich and we had a box at the Empire to see the new ballet. Jolly good it was, too. Will you come one night, if I get up a party?"
"Oh, perhaps!" she answered. "Come and dance."
They passed into the great ballroom, the finest in London, brilliant with its magnificent decorations of real flowers, its crowd of uniformed men and beautiful women, its soft yet ever-present throbbing of wonderful music. At the further end of the room, on a slightly raised dais, still receiving her guests, stood the Duchess of Devenham. Penelope gave a little start as they saw who was bowing over her hand.
"The Prince!" she exclaimed.
Sir Charles whispered something a little under his breath.
"I wonder," she remarked with apparent irrelevance, "whether he dances."
"Shall I go and find out for you?" Sir Charles asked.
She had suddenly grown absent. She had the air of scarcely hearing what he said.
"Let us stop," she said. "I am out of breath."
He led her toward the winter garden. They sat by a fountain, listening to the cool play of the water.
"Penelope," Somerfield said a little awkwardly, "I don't want to presume, you know, nor to have you think that I am foolishly jealous, but you have changed towards me the last few weeks, haven't you?"
"The last few weeks," she answered, "have been enough to change me toward any one. All the same, I wasn't conscious of anything particular so far as you are concerned."
"I always thought," he continued after a moment's hesitation, "that there was so much prejudice in your country against--against all Asiatic races."
She looked at him steadfastly for a minute.
"So there is," she answered. "What of it?"
"Nothing, except that it is a prejudice which you do not seem to share," he remarked.
"In a way I do share it," she declared, "but there are exceptions, sometimes very wonderful exceptions."
"Prince Maiyo, for instance," he said bitterly. "Yet a fortnight ago I could have sworn that you hated him."
"I think that I do hate him," Penelope affirmed. "I try to. I want to. I honestly believe that he deserves my hatred. I have more reason for feeling this way than you know of, Sir Charles."
"If he has dared--" Somerfield began.
"He has dared nothing that he ought not to," Penelope interrupted. "His manners are altogether too perfect. It is the chill faultlessness of the man which is so depressing. Can't you understand," she added, speaking in a tone of greater intensity, "that that is why I hate him? Hush!"
She gripped his sleeve warningly. There was suddenly the murmur of voices and the trailing of skirts. A little party seemed to have invaded the winter garden--a little party of the principal guests. The Duchess herself came first, and her fingers were resting upon the arm of Prince Maiyo. She stopped to speak to Penelope, and turned afterwards to Somerfield. Prince Maiyo held out his hand for Penelope's programme.
"You will spare me some dances?" he pleaded. "I come late, but it is not my fault."
She yielded the programme to him without a word.
"Those with an X,'" she said, "are free. One has to protect oneself."
He smiled as he wrote his own name, unrebuked, in four places.
"Our first dance, then, is number 10," he said. "It is the next but one. I shall find you here, perhaps?"
"Here or amongst the chaperons," she answered, as they passed on.
"You admire Miss Morse?" the Duchess asked him.
"Greatly," the Prince answered. "She is natural, she has grace, and she has what I do not find so much in this country--would you say charm?"
"It is an excellent word," the Duchess answered. "I am inclined to agree with you. Her aunt, with whom she lives, is a confirmed invalid, so she is a good deal with me. Her mother was my half-sister."
The Prince bowed.
"She will marry, I suppose?" he said.
"Naturally," the Duchess answered. "Sir Charles, poor fellow, is a hopeless victim. I should not be surprised if she married him, some day or other."
The Prince looked behind for a moment; then he stopped to admire a magnificent orchid.
"It will be great good fortune for Sir Charles Somerfield," he said.
Somerfield scarcely waited until the little party were out of sight.
"Penelope," he exclaimed, "you've given that man four dances!"
"I am afraid," she answered, "that I should have given him eight if he had asked for them."
He rose to his feet.
"Will you allow me to take you back to your aunt?" he asked.
"No!" she answered. "My aunt is quite happy without me, and I should prefer to remain here."
He sat down, fuming.
"Penelope, what do you mean by it?" he demanded.
"And what do you mean by asking me what I mean by it?" she replied. "You haven't any especial right that I know of."
"I wish to Heaven I had!" he answered with a noticeable break in his voice.
There was a short silence. She turned away; she felt that she was suddenly surrounded by a cloud of passion.
"Penelope," he pleaded,--
She stopped him.
"You must not say another word," she declared. "I mean it,--you must not."
"I have waited for some time," he reminded her.
"All the more reason why you should wait until the right time," she insisted. "Be patient for a little longer, do. Just now I feel that I need a friend more than I have ever needed one before. Don't let me lose the one I value most. In a few weeks' time you shall say whatever you like, and, at any rate, I will listen to you. Will you be content with that?"
"Yes!" he answered.
She laid her fingers upon his arm.
"I am dancing this with Captain Wilmot," she said. "Will you come and bring me back here afterwards, unless you are engaged?"
The Prince found her alone in the winter garden, for Somerfield, when he had seen him coming, had stolen away. He came towards her quickly, with the smooth yet impetuous step which singled him out at once as un-English. He had the whole room to cross to come to her, and she watched him all the way. The corners of his lips were already curved in a slight smile. His eyes were bright, as one who looks upon something which he greatly desires. Slender though his figure was, his frame was splendidly knit, and he carried himself as one of the aristocrats of the world. As he approached, she scanned his face curiously. She became critical, anxiously but ineffectively. There was not a feature in his face with which a physiognomist could have found fault.
"Dear young lady," he said, bowing low, "I come to you very humbly, for I am afraid that I am a deceiver. I shall rob you of your pleasure, I fear. I have put my name down for four dances, and, alas! I do not dance."
She made room for him by her side.
"And I," she said, "am weary of dancing. One does nothing else, night after night. We will talk."
"Talk or be silent," he answered softly. "Myself I believe that you are in need of silence. To be silent together is a proof of great friendship, is it not?"
"It seems to me that I have been through so much the last fortnight." she said.
"You have suffered where you should not have suffered," he assented gravely. "I do not like your laws at all. At what they called the inquest your presence was surely not necessary! You were a woman and had no place there. You had," he added calmly, "so little to tell."
"Nothing," she murmured.
"Life to me just now," he continued, "is so much a matter of comparison. It is for that, indeed, that I am here. You see, I have lived nearly all my life in my own country and only a very short time in Europe. Then my mother was an English lady, and my father a Japanese nobleman. Always I seem to be pulled two different ways, to be struggling to see things from two different points of view. But there is one subject in which I think I am wholly with my own country."
"And that?" she asked.
"I do not think," he said, "that the rougher and more strenuous paths of life were meant to be trodden by your sex. Please do not misunderstand me," he went on earnestly. "I am not thinking of the paths of literature and of art, for there the perceptions of your sex are so marvellously acute that you indeed may often lead where we must follow. I am speaking of the more material things of life."
She was suddenly conscious of a shiver which seemed to spread from her heart throughout her limbs. She sat quite still, gripping her little lace handkerchief in her fingers.
"I mean," he continued, "the paths which a man must tread who seeks to serve his country or his household,--the every-day life in which sometimes intrigue or force is necessary. Do you agree with me, Miss Morse?"
"I suppose so," she faltered.
"That is why," he added, "it was painful to me to see you stand there before those men, answering their questions,--men whose walk in life was different, of an order removed from yours, who should not even have been permitted to approach you upon bended knees. Do not think that I am suggesting any fault to you--do not think that I am forcing your confidence in any way. But these are the thoughts which came to me only a little time ago."
She was silent. They listened together to the splashing of the water. What was the special gift, she wondered, which gave this man such insight? She felt her heart beating; she was conscious that he was looking at her. He knew already that it was through her medium that those despatches which never reached London were to have been handed on to their destination! He must know that she was to some extent in the confidence of her country's Ambassador! Perhaps he knew, too, those other thoughts which were in her mind,--knew that it had been her deliberate intent to deceive him, to pluck those secrets which he carried with him, even from his heart! What a fool she had been to dream, for a moment, of measuring her wits against his!
He began to speak again, and his voice seemed pitched in lighter key.
"After all," he said, "you must think it strange of me to be so egotistical--to speak all the time so much of my likes and dislikes. To you I have been a little more outspoken than to others."
"You have found me an interesting subject for investigation perhaps?" she asked, looking up suddenly.
"You possess gifts," he admitted calmly, "which one does not find amongst the womenfolk of my country, nor can I say that I have found them to any extent amongst the ladies of the English Court."
"Gifts of which you do not approve when possessed by my sex," she suggested.
"You are a law to yourself, Miss Morse," he said. "What one would not admire in others seems natural enough in you. You have brains and you have insight. For that reason I have been with you a little outspoken,--for that reason and another which I think you know of. You see, my time over here grows nearer to an end with every day. Soon I must carry away with me, over the seas, all the delightful memories, the friendships, the affections, which have made this country such a pleasant place for me."
"You are going soon?" she asked quickly.
"Very soon," he answered. "My work is nearly finished, if indeed I may dignify it by the name of work. Then I must go back."
She shrank a little away from him, as though the word were distasteful to her.
"Do you mean that you will go back for always?" she asked.
"There are many chances in life," he answered. "I am the servant of the Emperor and my country."
"There is no hope, then," she continued, "of your settling down here altogether?"
For once the marble immobility of his features seemed disturbed. He looked at her in honest amazement.
"Here!" he exclaimed. "But I am a son of Japan!"
"There are many of your race who do live here," she reminded him.
He smiled with the air of one who is forced to humor a person of limited vision.
"With them it is, alas! a matter of necessity," he said. "It is very hard indeed to make you understand over here how we feel about such things,--there seems to be a different spirit amongst you Western races, a different spirit or a lack of spirit--I do not know which I should say. But in Japan the love of our country is a passion which seems to throb with every beat of our hearts. If we leave her, it is for her good. When we go back, it is our reward."
"Then you are here now for her good?" she asked.
"Assuredly," he answered.
"Tell me in what way?" she begged. "You have been studying English customs, their methods of education, their political life, perhaps?"
He turned his head slowly and looked into her eyes. She bore the ordeal well, but she never forgot it. It seemed to her afterwards that he must have read every thought which had flashed through her brain. She felt like a little child in the presence of some mysterious being, thoughts of whom had haunted her dreams, now visible in bodily shape for the first time.
"My dear young lady," he said, "please do not ask me too much, for I love to speak the truth, and there are many things which I may not tell. Only you must understand that the country I love--my own country--must enter soon upon a new phase of her history. We who look into the future can see the great clouds gathering. Some of us must needs be pioneers, must go forward a little to learn our safest, and best course. May I tell you that much?"
"Of course," she answered softly.
"And now," he added, leaving his seat as though with reluctance, "the Duchess reminded me, above all things, that directly I found you I was to take you to supper. One of your royal princes has been good enough to signify his desire that we should sit at the same table."
She rose at once.
"Does the Duchess know that you are taking me?" she asked.
"I arranged it with her," he answered. "My time draws soon to an end and I am to be spoilt a little."
They crossed the ballroom together and mounted the great stairs. Something--she never knew quite what it was--prompted her to detain him as they paused on the threshold of the supper room.
"You do not often read the papers, Prince," she said. "Perhaps you have not seen that, after all, the police have discovered a clue to the Hamilton Fynes murder."
The Prince looked down upon her for a moment without reply.
"Yes?" he murmured softly.
She understood that she was to go on--that he was anxious for her to go on.
"Some little doctor in a village near Willington, where the line passes, has come forward with a story about attending to a wounded man on the night of the murder," she said.
He was very silent. It seemed to her that there was something strange about the immovability of his features. She looked at him wonderingly. Then it suddenly flashed upon her that this was his way of showing emotion. Her lips parted. The color seemed drawn from her cheeks. The majordomo of the Duchess stood before them with a bow.
"Her Grace desires me to show your Highness to your seats," he announced.
Prince Maiyo turned to his companion.
"Will you allow me to precede you through the crush?" he said. "We are to go this way."