Ainslee's, November 1903
The Ducal Rival
by Rafael Sabatini
Across the serene sky of the Duke of Starlingford's mind there fell a cloud in the shape of a letter from Vavasour.
"I don't know what you're thinking of," wrote that worthy gentleman, "that you don't look after your property. There is an outsider down here, a lawyer chap named Hawksley, who is making some devilish strong running with Miss Martingale. If I were you I should run down and put matters right, or, if filial awe renders this impossible, you might get your solicitors to write to the fellow and explain matters. His present address is Nayad House, Stollbridge."
As he read the duke grew very angry, Vavasour was not a man given to exaggeration, and he knew that he might believe every word that his friend wrote. In spite of the fact that he was very fond of Helen Martingale, he could not deny that she was a very impressionable, willful, and capricious young woman. This "lawyer chap" might be quite good-lookingit frequently happened that these plebian creatures were. That he might possess any mental attractions did not enter into the duke's considerations. He was a man of marked limitations, and his knowledge of the world and his fellowman was confined to that which he beheld upon the surface.
Now, it was common knowledge to everybody who was anybody both in his world and Helen Martingale'swhich were not quite the same worlds, after allthat between the duke and the lady a tacit understanding existed; that, in fact, she was secretly engaged to him, and that next year, when he came of age and could act independently, he would marry her. In the meanwhile a mother who was rather a dragon, and who by no meams approved of the affair, had insisted that the duke, her son, should not go near that impossible Martingale person. It was understood that a distant relative of hers had once manufactured something.
As the Duchess had it in her power to make things extremely uncomfortable for him during his minority, and as he, himself, was a poor, weak thing, morally (physically he had the attributes of a bulldog) a slave to the creature-comforts whereof his mother threatened to deprive him in quite an appreciable degree, he dared not defy her wishes for the present.
But that letter from Vavasour, as I have said, disturbed him. Preposterous though it appeared that Helen should for a moment seriously entertain the wooing of a bourgeois attorney, while he, the Duke of Starlingford, was behind the arras waiting for the hour to strike when he should come forth to claim her, still the duke's mindwhich was not a great matterwas far from easy.
He determined forthwith to go down to Stollbridge. And so it came to pass that, having changed into a suit of tweeds and a Panama, he left Paddington a couple of hours after the reception of Vavasour's letter.
On the platform at Stollbridge station he put his hand in his pocket for that letter, only to find that he had left it in his other garments. He had a bad memoryhe had really never had occasion to remember anything in his lifeand the name of the man he had come down to see was forgotten. He had only read it once. Then a doubt crossed his mind. Was it Nayad or Dryad? The duke knew of some vague connection between the two, and he naturally hit upon the wrong one. He hailed a hansom.
"I say, do you know of a place about here called 'Dryad House'?"
"D'yer mean Nayad House, sir?" inquired the driver, led to the conclusion by the similarity of sound.
"That's itNayad House. Can you tell meI mean, do you know the name of the occupier?"
"Mr. Lumley, sir," answered the man, promptly.
"That's itLumley; that's it. Drive me there, will you?"
He got in and recited the name half a dozen times in quick succession, so that he might not again forget it.
"I shall not be in for dinner to-night, Roody," said Hawksley, as he lounged into the poet's study.
The poet looked up languidly from the proof sheets of "Autumn Leaves"the embryo of his first book of poems.
"That," said he, "is an unnecessary announcement. You don't usually dress to dine with me. I am far from wishing in any way to restrain you from following the bent of your inclinations, but I should like to ask you whether, my dear Tommy, you are supposed to be staying with me, or merely sleeping at my house,"
Hawksley's chubby red cheeks grew a shade redder with indignation.
"I like that, Roody, on my soul, I do," he ejacualted. "You are so delightfully naïve at times."
"Yes," murmured Lumley, "I am considered rather guileless."
"I should like to ask you in return whether you ever heard of the duties of a host? If I have been occasionally absent, it is owing to the absolute impossibility of being anything but alone here. It isn't good for man to be alone, and in this house of yours I'm devilish lonely, thanks to the interminable proof-sheets of your 'Autumn Leaves.' I should say," he continued, opening his opera hat, and speaking in his most withering manner, "to judge by their quantity, that you have collected the cast-off clothing of every forest in England. By the time the book is thrown upon an unsympathetic world, I may begin to think about the holiday I came down here to spend in your company. Had you merely said 'in your house,' your invitation would at least have been a more accurate one." And, setting his hat on the back of his sleek head, the lawyer struck an attitude worthy of Cicero.
"That," said the poet, smiling, "is a beautiful oration, and when one hears your sonorous, forensic tones, and the pregnancy of your expositions, one wonders that you should have been such a failure in the profession to which you have been relegated."
"Good-evening," said the lawyer, huffily, and was gone.
Rudolph Lumley laughed as the door closed upon his departing friend, and turned his mind again to his work. He was disturbed half an hour or so later by the entrance of his man.
"A gentleman to see you, sir."
Lumley took the card with an annoyed air. He did not wish to be interrupted. But the annoyance on his fine, young face melted quickly into wonder. The card bore the name of Starlingford, and though excellently connected, the poet did not number a duke among his callers.
"Humdid he say what he wanted, Martin?"
"No, sir," replied the man, in tones that intimated that a duke was not a tradesman. Lumley thought for a moment, then:
"Show him in here," said he.
An instant later the poet beheld a young man of middle height in a suit of tweeds, thick-set and ungainly of shape, with a brick-red face of coarse features. Lumley looked with interest at his patrician visitor, and inwardly commented that Lavater would, at sight, have pronounced him a plowboy. He arose and inclined his head slightly.
"You are Mr. Lumley?" the duke suggested.
"Lumley," amended the poet, "is my name."
"I have taken the liberty of calling upon you," said the duke aggressively.
"Ye-es," assented the poet, wondering vaguely what firm the duke might be traveling for. "Won't you sit down?"
"No thanks. I mean, I shan't stay long. The fact is, sirwhat I mean to say is that you are veryvery unwarrantably interfering with me."
"Iinterfering with you?"
"Yes, and II mean I'm not going to stand it."
"I see," said the poet. He wondered whether this might not be some escaped lunatic whom it were politic to humor. The man's preposterous statement, and his still more preposterous attitude, awakened in Lumley a spirit of gentle badinage.
"If I am interfering with you," said he, "I quite agree with your determination not to endure it. No self-respecting man could."
The duke was staggered. He had come to wage battle, and to beat down resistance. Acquiescence disarmed him, and he was at a loss how to proceed.
"If you will give yourself the trouble of reciting the sum of my interference, we may arrive at some mutually desirable understanding," said the poet.
"I refer to Miss Martingale," the duke announced, and the poet remembered suddenly that he had heard her name mentioned in connection with Starlingford's.
"I beg your pardon?" said he.
"I refer to Miss Martingale. You may not know that between the lady and meI mean that there is an understanding between us."
"I heard something to that effect, sir, and I'm sure that it is very flattering to have you come here to confide in me. But may I venture to inquire how the matter concerns me?"
"Damn it, Mr. Lumley, don't you think it would be as well if you stopped asking questions?" cried the duke, rudely.
"It certainly appears rather useless," sighed the poet.
"I am not a fool, sir," the duke protested, getting heated.
"Indeed?" murmured the poet.
"And I mean I'm not going to stand by and see another man pay attentions to her in my absence."
"May I suggest that such a coursethat of standing by and seeing things, and yet being absentwould border upon the miraculous?" quoth the poet, playfully.
The duke was speechless with rage for a second. It had just dawned upon him that this smiling bounder was pulling his ducal leg.
"I have warned you off, sir, and I shall be glad if you'll take my warning," he thundered.
"One moment, your grace," said the poet, in surprise, comprehension dawning at last upon him. "Do you lay it to my charge that I have been paying attentions, as you call it, to Miss Martingale?"
"Everybody knows it," growled Starlingford.
"Then everybody knows something that is false. I am happy to set your mind at rest, sir. You have been misinformed."
"Now, that's not true. I mean, it's a deliberate falsehood," cried the duke, goaded to it by his opponent's coolness.
Lumley's brows contracted suddenly. He pressed a button on his desk.
"I don't know where the devil you learned your manners, sir," said he, "but it must have been a low sort of place. Martin, show his grace to the door, will you?"
The duke grew livid.
"You shall hear from my solicitors," he threatened.
The poet bowed, and sat down once more to his proof-sheets, while the dukewho never in his twenty years of life had been so insultedsuffered himself to be shown out.
But when he was gone, Lumley found work impossible. He thought over the duke's accusation, and weighed the absurdity of it. Then he thought of the beautiful Miss Martingale, and, somehow, after a little more thinking, Starlingford's charge appeared less absurd. He had seen her quite frequently latelythey were neighbors of hisand she being usually the brightest and smartest girl available, it was natural that he had singled her out on most of these occasions. Clearly, people had noticed it, and talked; proverbially, onlookers saw more of the game. Perhaps she had noticed it herself. He remembered that she had always been particularly pleasant to him.
Then an all-illuminating flash fell across his brain. Good Lord, how blind he had been! How blind to his own feelings, even! She was a charming creature, he swore, and from his present introspection he discovered that he had fallen in love with her without noticing it. It had taken this yokel-duke of hers to pluck the scales from his eyes, and he had actually told the duke an untruth. Well, the duke was clearly an ass, and if the duke intended to be jealous of him, he would see to it that the duke should not lack for cause. If he should end by cutting Starlingford out altogetherwhich then seemed to him an eminently probable solution of the problemthe duke had only himself to blame for it. She should find the laurels that would anonin a figurative senseencircle his poet's brow, more alluring than the strawberry leaves with which an accident of birth had crowned his grace of Starlingford.
Thus ran the poet's thoughts, and by such sophisms did conviction sink into his soul, inspiring a vista of the future which he should tread on rose-strewn paths beside the beautiful, the ravishing Helen Martingalewho had preferred to know a great love rather than to share a ducal coronet.
That he had frequently had such visions in which other women were to have been his companions did not at the time occur to him.
The poet and his guest, the lawyer, met at breakfast the next morning.
"Been in long?" inquired Lumley, as Tommy entered the room.
"Sweetest of youths, most gifted of poets, let me recommmend you a little gentle exercise as an antidote for the ugly matutinal penchant for sarcasm."
"And what," inquired the poet, selecting a kidney, "is your programme for to-day?"
"In the morning I am doing nothing. In the afternoon I am going to a garden party at the Loddingtons. In the evening I shall be at your disposal if you can tear yourself away from those withered 'Autumn Leaves' of yours."
"Will the Martingales be at the garden party?"
Hawksley looked up quickly. Had the poet got wind of his attachment to the divine Helen?
"I believe they willI have heard so," he replied, cautiously.
"A fatal name, Helen," murmured the poet, rhapsodically.
"There was, I believe," said the lawyer, "a lady of that name in a place called Troy, a little while ago. She gave me no end of trouble, I know, because a gentleman of your profession wrote some verses about her. Rather a flirt, wasn't she?"
"I dare say. Most women are, when they are good-looking enough to be flirted with."
"You've found them so, have you? Hum ! Some more coffee?"
"I'm going with you to the Loddingtons," said the poet.
Hawksley grew uneasy.
"What about the 'Autumn Leaves'?"
"They're certainly dry enough."
He affected nonchalance, but in reality Hawksley was alarmed. He knew the poet's susceptible heart, and the tornado-like manner in which it was his habit to sweep all before him when he set himself to play the game of dalliancewhich was unconscionably often. The situation was trying enough already, with a duke in the background. With the poet on the spot, it must become positively unbearable.
So he set himself to dissuade his friend; he assured him that the affair would be an awfully slow one.
"I like 'em slow." said the poet, inscrutably, and he went.
Helen was there; very beautiful; very vivacious; very fascinating. The poet's fall was consummated when his eyes alighted on her. He approached, and her reception of him proved to him what a blind fool he had been in the past. The brightening of her eye as it met his was a thing unmistakable. The beautiful Helen was conquered. He would sing of her as Homer never sang of that other ancient Helen.
The brightness of her mood infected him. It usually did infect such men as were capable of infection. He talked with a glib smartness that amazed himself. The little knot of men about her grew silent at his coming, and gradually melted away until only Hawksley was left to look on with a gloomy countenance, and make monosyllabic and unheeded efforts to obtain a share in the conversation. At last she dispatched him on some useless errand to her mother, and Lumley was alone with her. She asked him had he seen the boxwood alley. He answered her that he had not, and together they wandered toward it, vanishing from the sight of the other guests.
"You haven't a flower, Mr. Lumley," said she, presently.
"I never wear one."
"But if I offer you one, I defy you to refuse it."
"Give me the flower, but spare me the defiance. From your hands, dear lady, there is nothing that I could but receive upon my knees."
She laughed, and broke a rosebud from a bush in passing. He observed the act, noted that the rose was red, and prepared a speech of dainty metaphor wherewith to receive it.
"There, sir." And she held it out to him.
"Dear lady," he began, theatrically, bending over her hand as he took the flower. Then the little gasp that broke from her lips made him look up. He met the eyes of the Duke of Starlingford, who was approaching them.
Lumley straightened himself, wondering what would be the most convenient pose, and determined upon the adoption of persiflage and effrontery. Starlingford raised his hat coldly to the lady.
"May I ask you, NellI mean will you allow me to have a word with this gentleman?" said he.
"Why, certainly not," cried Nell, with a coolness that won her the poet's profoundest admiration. "I am showing Mr. Lumley the grounds, and I am not going to relinquish him."
"Which, though they be of small account," put in the poet, gracefully, "are quite my own feelings in the matter."
"Perhaps you, sir, will allow me to say a word to this lady?"
The poet's eyes asked Nell a question.
"If you don't mind waiting for me, I shall not keep you a moment," said she, and withdrew.
"Now look here, Nell," the duke threatened, "I mean, if you have anything more to say to that fellow, I shall never speak to you again. What I mean to say is, people are talking about you, and I won't stand it. I came here to speak to you about it, and I hardly expected towellI mean"
"Oh, yes, you always mean well," she cried, impatiently, "But isn't your coming here rather imprudent? Your mother, you know, might hear of it."
What the duke said may be charitably described as discourteous.
"I shan't speak to you again, Helen," he wound up, "unless you do as I wish."
"I shall be sorry, of course," she answered coldly, "but you must please yourself."
The duke was even more impolite in his utterance than before. Her cheeks grew scarlet.
"You forget yourself." she cried. "And you forget that the fact of your having been born a duke does not relieve you from the ordinary obligations of a gentleman." And with that parting sting she left him to rejoin the poet.
Now, as it happened, the Duchess of Starlingford did come to hear of her son's transgression, and he spent an uncomfortable half hour with her next day. This resulted in his leaving England on the morrow by her command and on pain of the cessation of the liberal allowance which she made him.
Curiously enough, Lumley crossed the channel on the same day, summoned suddenly to Cannes to the deathbed of one of his aunts. He left the lawyer to make his excuses and explain his sudden departure to a host of common friends. But to Helen he wrote, himself, a letter rather longer than the mere communication of his departure demanded, and containing dark hints of happenings when he should return.
But he returned not so speedily as he expected. His aunt recovered, and expressed the hope that he would stay onshe found him so useful. His cousin Marjory had grown up a remarkably good-looking young woman, he discovered, and so he stayed until the winter had set in.
Some friends of his aunt's who had stopped at Cannes on their way to Algiers in December, invited him to join them. The party contained a delightful creature fresh from a Paris convent school, untouched as yet by sophistication. The poet tore himself away from his cousin Marjory, and went.
He wintered in Algiers, and in England none but his solicitors knew of his whereabouts. In April he proposed to the lady who was to blame for this, and was refused. For two days he was very miserable, then suddenlysimilia similibus curanturhe remembered Helen Martingale, and marveled that in the contemplation of a shallow schoolgirl he should have so long forgotten her.
Three days later he left for England. At Calais the first man he saw on the packet was the Duke of Starlingford. His grace treated him to a glare, and he the duke to a mild irrecognizing glance.
He put up at a hotel in town; looked in at his club, and permitted a man he knew to carry him off to a reception. There again one of the first men he met was his grace of Starlingford. It occurred to him that the duke must by now be of age, and he wondered whether his grace would enter the lists with him again. He rather hoped he would; he would enjoy the contest.
The duke looked at him, and speculated upon the uses to which Lumley might have put his absenceignorant also of the fact that Lumley had been out of England for the past ten months.
That very morning Starlingford had come across the year-old letter from Vavasour. "There is an outsider down here, a lawyer chap named Hawksley, who," etc. The duke had smiled over Vavasour's mistake in the name. "So like Vavvy," he said to himself, "he always did mix up these bourgeois names horribly."
He looked across at the poet now, and scowled. But the poet was smiling ecstatically. His gaze had just rested upon Helen Martingale's face. She came toward him, smiling also. The poet was transported by the sweetness of that smile. What a fool he had been to have lingered abroad !
They shook hands effusively.
"Wherever have you been hiding all these months?" she cried. And the duke, within earshot, winced and wondered.
"Hiding from the sun," murmured the poet.
"Sh!" she laughed. "Tommy will be jealous if he hears you."
Just then Lumley caught sight of Hawksley's rubicund visagemore rubicund even than when last he had seen it. The man of law grinned a welcome.
"Nellie has wonderful eyes," he cried, "she spotted you the moment you entered the room."
The poet was mystified. No less so was the duke in the background. Then a lady swept up to them.
"Ah, my dear Mrs. Hawksley, there you are," she cried.
The poet felt a cold perspiration start on his brow, and glanced at Tommy with a smile that was positively sickly.
"Hawksley," muttered the duke in the background. "Hawksley !"
Then realization swept down upon him like a flood.
"Well, I'm hanged," said he.
As Lumley, in a very dejected frame of mind, was leaving the house, some one touched him on the shoulder. It was the Duke of Starlingford.
"I owe you an apology, Mr. Lumley, for not believing you last year at Stollbridge. I mean that in fact there was a mistake. I was told that a man named Hawksley waswell, I meanwas paying address to Miss Martingale. I somehow mixed up his name with yours, and wellI mean, I'm sorry."
"You mixed up his name with mine," echoed the poet. And his memory calling up his interview with the duke that day, he also realized even as the duke had done a few moments before. And even as the duke had muttered so did he now mutter :
"Well, I'm hanged," or words of very similar sound. Which shows that in moments of great emotion a duke and a poet may avail themselves of very similar phrases to express very similar feelings.