Ainslee's, September 1904
The Metamorphosis of Colin
by Rafael Sabatini
Colin Hartington came home to find himself famous.
He had left England four years ago, giving out that he was going abroad for pleasurethe pleasure, scandalmongers had it, being that peculiarly immoral delight which some people find in the evasion of clamorous and insistent creditors.
He had done himself pretty well, had Colin Hartington, in the three years that lay between his coming of age and his abrupt departure from England. He had done a littlea very littlework, made a little love, and spent a little moneythe "little" in the latter case representing all that had been left him by the none too wealthy gentleman who had the honor of being his father.
Abroad he had worked. Lacking the means to devote himself to the enjoyable idleness ever dear to his heart, he had turned to the cultivation of the gifts he unquestionably possessed, though mainly latent. He had sent his work home. It had found a ready market, grown in value, and in four little years brought him enough fame to turn the head of any ordinary young man of twenty-seven. But Colin was not an ordinary young man. Success left him cold and unchanged, not even going the length of straightening out the moral obliquity of his character concerning his debts. He overlooked them one and allif indeed the word may be employed to express an attitude wherein accident had no part.
And so it chanced that a few of his creditors, who had hailed his triumphs and his home-coming as the heralds of a settlement, discovered that they had run before their horse to market. Some went the length of bearding him with their claims; but he wriggled and slipped through their hands, as he wriggled and slipped through every other unpleasant thing that life offered him.
He was sorrythere were at times tears in his voice when he protested ithe was desperately sorry for the inconvenience they were suffering, but he besought themand here his accents would grow seductive as a siren'sto give him time. He had no means to speak of, and if they pressed him they would only disgrace him to no purpose, while if they waited and gave him an opportunity of earning something he would satisfy them. Fame was his. In the wake of fame, fortune has been known to journey.
"Give me a chance and you will see," was his manner of winding up his conciliatory, patience-inspiring addresses.
The last thing they thought they were likely to see was their money. Butrealizing perhaps what a broken reed for a creditor to lean upon is the lawthey reluctantly agreed to wait.
And while they waited, Colin Hartington spent his not inconsiderable earnings with that delightful recklessness characteristic of his happy-go-lucky nature.
How long this atrocious state of things might have prevailed but for the intervention of Mary Escott, there is no saying with any degree of certainty, though we might hazard a guess that it would have prevailed until a second flitting from England became imperative.
She, however, was destined to work his metamorphosis, to arrest his progress along the road of unconscious dishonesty that leads to perdition in the abstract and the County Court in the concrete.
In the years of his adolescence Colin had been very fond of Mary BishopBishop was her maiden name. There had been certain tender passages between them, and the building of a love that Colin's financial shortcomings had cruelly nipped. Abroad he learned that she had married. At the news he had sighed prettily, and smiled with fond, retrospective amusement, for he had known one or two other, and even greater, passions since that which Mary had inspired. Later he had learned that her husband was dead, and this time he had sighed perfunctorily and without smiling, believing himself genuinely affected by the picture of her widowhood which his mind had conjured up. Thereafter he had forgotten her, which platitude-monging cynics tell us is human nature's vile way.
And now of a sudden he came face to face with her once more. It was at a regimental dance in his native town of Stollbridge, and the colonel's wife had hustled him across and presented him as the lion of the hour.
They had smiled upon each other the quiet smile, fraught with never so little sadness, that is peculiar to souls stripped of their illusions.
The colonel's wife had gone far away, and Colin, seating himself beside her, was scribbling hieroglyphs on her dance card with a clumsiness that would never have led you to suspect his penmanship to be worth something like sixpence a word. Then he looked at her for a moment, and, in words robbed by the genuineness of their intonation of the last vestige of impertinence, whispered:
"Molly, how beautiful you have grown!"
"Colin," she mocked back, "how clever you have become!" And they laughed together.
"Tell me," said she presently, "how does it feel to be a lion?"
"One longs for the mouse to come and gnaw the cords and allow one to get up and stretch."
She knit her brows.
"What an artificial speech!" she cried. "Why do you talk like that?"
"It's expected of me, I suppose, and it illustrates my meaning when I refer to the cords that bind a lion and the stretching of the limbs so ardently desired."
"I have read your books, Colin," said she, after a pause.
"Can you see anything in them?" he asked, contemptuously.
"I can see you in them, Colin. They reflect you constantly, they sound like you."
He flushed with pleasure, not at the words, but at the laudatory tone in which they were uttered.
"No? Do they, though? Molly, I'm glad at last that I wrote them. I never thought much of them until now, but if they served to bring me to your memory, my work has not been wasted."
His fine, dark eyes were bent ardently upon her. She laughed and set herself to gently move her fan.
"You mustn't stare at me like that, Colin. People are looking at us."
But Colin was not to be repressed. The whole world might look on, for all that he cared. The old feelings of some four years ago were being resuscitated. He was quite conscious of the fact. "Love," he murmured rhapsodically, "is a flame difficult of reignition, where once it has been quenched. But let that reignition take place, and its blaze is all-consuming."
"Is this apropos of boots?" she inquired with a puzzled air.
"Perhaps," he answered boldly, "but it is something that I have just realized. I have cultivated the habit of thinking aloud."
"How uncomfortable!" she commented, nervously.
But however fully Colin realized his statement, he was to realize it more fully still when some two hours later toward the close of the eveninghe found himself at Molly's side in the conservatory. He rejoiced his eyes in the contemplation of the perfect curve of her white throat and the glistening masses of her ebony hair, while in the clear depths of her frank gaze his soul at last was drowned. His hand closed upon hers, his fine, foolish, young head was bent until he felt her tresses aginst his cheek.
"Molly," he stammered, before he knew what he was saying, "II love you."
She moved her head from the dangerous propinquity of his. The action was a rebuff, but the soft, seductive laughter that rippled from her lips negated what effect it might have had upon hot-headed Colin. He took it for a challenge, and upon the instant his arm was about her, and he was seeking to draw her to him. But she broke from his clasp, and pushing him forcibly backward, she stood up suddenly. She laughed no longer. Her breath came quickly, and her tone was one of stern rebuke.
"Colin, I am very disappointed in you."
Poor Colin sat morally crushed and defeated, where a moment ago he had tasted the joyous anticipation of victory. He felt extremely foolish and annoyed with himself and with her. It became now a matter of extricating himself from a situation that he realized to be extremely undignified. A retreat from the position he had taken up would, he felt, be more ridiculous still. At all costs he must push on.
"What have I dared that should offend you?" he demanded, in accents of beautifully modulated aggrievance. "Is it an insult to tell a woman that you love her?"
She made as if to answer, but before she had time, he was on his feet, close beside her, speaking very fast.
"There are some things in life that endure as long as life itself, things that we cannot blot out, strive as we will. My love for you, Molly, is one of those things. When four years ago I left England you cannot dream how it hurt me to go from you. But I hopedI I don't know what I hoped. Then I heard abroad of your marriage, and I never wished to return home. I was crushedbroken-hearted, people call it. Then, later, I heard of your widowhood, and in my selfishnessfor what love worthy of the name is not selfish?I was almost glad of it. Success came at last, and thinking ever of you, I determined to come home and lay my laurels at your feet, asking you, as I ask you now, Molly, to do me the honor to become my wife."
Her attitude during that lengthy address of his had been one of forebidding iciness. But as he brought it to a conclusion with the offer of his hand and name, a change seemed suddenly to come over her. She bent towards him, and on her face he might have read surprise, wonder and some pleasure tooor perhaps it was amusement. You see, she knew him so very well.
"Molly!" he cried, and put forth his arms. But she drew back again. Some one had entered the conservatory.
"Come and see me to-morrow," she had murmured, and slipping her hand through his arm, impelled him to conduct her back to the ballroom.
When he reviewed the scene in the sober light of the following day, Colin was not a little surprised at himself. He had made a mistake, and to get out of offending her he had lied like a gentleman and asked her to marry himthan which nothing could have been farther from his intentions. Her beauty, however, tempered his dismay, and pursuing his reflections he concluded that he might do much worse than wed her. He came to the conclusionamong othersthat it was just by such accidents of a momentary concession to the emotions that half the world's matches were effected.
In the afternoon he called upon her. She welcomed him as though there had been no such scene as that of the night before between them, and seating him in a wicker chair she gave him tea under the beeches on the lawn. He dissembled as best he might the nervousness that despite himself possessed him, sipped his tea and talked small talk in his best society manner, Gradually her admirable self-control thawed him, and at length, as he set down his cup, he opened his batteries.
"Molly, I have come for my answer."
"Answer?" Her eyebrows went up and her blue eyes looked at him in silent surprise.
"To my last night'ser question," he enlightened her.
Her gaze fell and became engrossed in the white, shapely hands so demurely folded in her lap.
"You were in earnest, then?"
He murmured some triteness about the earnestnessthe solemnityof the subject, which entailed a lifetime of devotion. He attempted to tell her how much she was to him; failed in a masterly manner, and broke down with a touching suggestion that no words could do justice to his feelings.
"You do me a great honor, Colin. II never thought that you felt like that."
"How could you mistake me?" he cried, reproachfully
"Before I answer you, Colin," she said, disregarding his outcry, "I have something to say to you. You see I am not like a foolish young girl, ignorant of the world and its ways. Matrimony has taught me a certain wisdom which prompts mecold and sordid though it may appearto remind you that your reputation is in rather a bad way and requires mending."
"My reputation?" he cried, aghast. She nodded.
"But what can anyone say against it? I have only been a week or so at home, and during the time, I can assure you that my circumspection has been in every way above reproach."
"Oh, I know all that. We are at cross-purposes perhaps. I refer to your debts."
"Oh!" said Colin, and his jaw fell. She had touched the weak spot in his armor.
"You do not deny them?"
"Deny them?" he echoed, with a touch of satire. "No fear of that. My creditors might proceed to extremes if I did."
"You speak with a levity that hurts me, Colin."
"Good Lord! Molly, we are not discussing religion."
"I am not so sure. We are discussing what appears to be your religionthat of not paying your just debts."
"But, my dear child," he protested, "this is absurd. Where is the man who is without them?"
"In moderation, perhaps."
"Moderation? And does anyone dare to suggest that mine are immoderate?"
"Oh, I say. Come now. A few thousand would clear them all up."
"Then why don't you clear them all up?"
"Becausewell, because I haven't thousands enough."
"But surely you might pay the more important ones. You know, Colin, it hurts me to talk to you on such a subject, but I do so because, knowing you as I do, I feel that you do not realize the positive dishonesty of your behavior."
"Dishonesty?" he gasped.
"It never occurred to you in that light, did it?"
Colin got up. He felt that she was going rather too far.
"Look here, Molly, what on earth are we discussing this for? I am sure I didn't come here to talk about my debts."
"I am quite sure you didn't. But I thought that, after what you said last night, I had a right to go into it. I could never consent, under any circumstances, to listen to the advances of a man who deliberately refuses to pay what he owes."
"But I do not deliberately refuse," he answered with some heat. "I intend to pay every penny. Besides, Molly, these debts of mine are vastly overrated, no doubt by those people who do me the questionable honor of talking of my affairs. I have really only one formidable creditor. To the others I owe perhaps a couple of thousand in all. I'll settle up those to-morrow if you wish it and clear off the other onethe big oneas soon as I can comfortably manage it. Will that convince you of my good intentions?"
"How much does the big debt amount to? she asked, implacably.
"About seven thousand."
"Heavens, Colin! How did you manage it?"
"Well, you see, they were my father's solicitors, and they advanced me moneyabout ten thousand or soon stock that I inherited and which I was holding for a rise. I was unlucky; instead of the rise there was the deuce of a slump, leaving me in Wilfrid and Lagdale's debt to the tune of some seven thousand pounds. Sheer ill luck, Molly!"
"And you wish to leave such a debta debt of honorto be paid when you can comfortably manage it," she cried in horror. "Colin, I am ashamed of you."
"But what am I to do? If I were to scrape together every available penny I might just manage to pay it. But the inconvenience would be appalling."
"No matter what the inconvenience, you should liquidate that debt without a moment's delay. It is worse with you than I thought, Colin. This is no ordinary debt. It's payment at the earliest moment is a sacred duty."
Colin hung his head, realizing that she was quite right. It was a sad reflection. Then he raised his eyes and they met hers. She smiled at him, and he told himself that she was very beautiful. To win her even the effortthe sacrificeshe demanded would be but little.
"Molly," he declared, "for your sake I will do it, no matter how much it hampers me. But when it is done"
"Do it first," she checked him with a laugh. "We will talk about the rest afterwards."
Thus was the metamorphosis of Colin effected, and thus was he prevailed upon to pay the heaviest portion of his debts and abandon the careless ways he had trodden.
He posted a check to Wilfrid and Langdale, and two days later he called upon Mary Escott with the receipt in his pocket and a fever of anticipation in his soul which he mistook for the glow of satisfaction said to result from the performance of one's duty.
She received him with metaphorically and only metaphoricallyopen arms.
"My dear Colin," she cried before he had said a word, "you have behaved nobly, and I shall ever feel proud to think that I was instrumental in recalling you to a sense of your duty."
Colin looked askance.
"You know that I have paid Wilfrid and Langdale?" he faltered.
"Why, yes. I had a letter from my husband this morning, in which he mentioned that he had received your check."
"Your husband!" he echoed, with mouth agape.
"Yes; Mr. Escott, you know, is the present Wilfrid and Langdalehas been for the past two years."
"ButbutWhat are you talking about, Molly? Mr. Escott has been dead for over two years."
"Oh, dear no, Colin. Surely I should know. You are thinking of Mr. Plunkett, my first husband."
Colin's eyes seemed to roll in his head. He certainly turned pale. For a moment she thought he would burst out into denunciations. Then with a sudden, jerky movement he reached out for his hat.
"Good morning," said he, and was gone before she could say another word.