Long Odds

Chapter XXIX

Nearing the Brink

Marcus Clarke

CYRIL had been away three weeks. He could not instantly go back home, and so he wrote a letter to his wife, telling her that his father was anxious for him to stop, and he was afraid that if he hurried his departure he should offend him. The letter concluded with a “God bless you,” and contained a ten-pound note.

Carry pouted at the smallness of the sum. She had begun to be extravagant. She had begun to order new dresses, and fresh jewellery. This was a bad sign. Moreover, she always wore her new purchases in the afternoons when Mr. Dacre called. So she let the ten-pound note flutter contemptuously to the floor, and threw the letter into the fire.

“Only ten pounds,” she said, “and Madame Fouchet has called three times for her money!” Then a momentary pang smote her, and she snatched the letter from the coals. “Perhaps he cannot afford more. Poor Cyril!” and she picked up the note and sighed.

Cyril could not afford more. He was not very extravagant; but chambers in the Albany, two clubs, and a “separate establishment” in St. John’s Wood, cost money. In point of fact, he was nearly at the end of his tether, and intended to make his engagement to his cousin an excuse for asking for more money. He would not return to town yet. Carry was well enough alone, and he could not leave his cousin. Dacre sent him a letter brimful of anecdote and scandal, but advising him not to come up yet. “Nothing to do—nothing to see—I am bored to death.”

So far so good; he was happy in the present, and cared not to look beyond. “Carry can go to her mother if she feels dull,” he said, and thought no more about the matter.

But Carry did not feel dull. She had a daily visitor—Mr. Rupert Dacre. That gentleman, having once gained admittance under the title of l’ami du maison, had given up all mention of Cyril’s supposed iniquity. He said that he had been deceived, and that Cyril was merely amusing himself. “He must find town dull, you know—he has been used to go into society so much.”

This view of the case was not more pleasant for Carry than the other one. She did not like to be deserted by her husband for another woman; but to desert her because he was “dull” was not the less painful to talk of. She was very sorrowful at first, and cried, and sobbed, and vowed vengeance; then Dacre soothed her, and her vanity would not let her admit that there was a possibility of her husband leaving her because he loved another.

Mr. Dacre was kind and attentive, and praised her singing and her playing, and was everything that Cyril ought to have been. Carry had taken it into her silly head that she was a “femme incomprise,” that she was not understood. She was right to a certain extent. That she could not understand her husband’s cynicism and wit, and did not care for the books he cared for, she admitted; but, on the other hand, he did not appreciate her wealth of sentiment and love, and wounded her tender little heart twenty times a day by exhibitions of his own selfishness.

She loved him still, but her love was injured and hurt. Mr. Dacre was so good, and kind, and courteous that her first fear of him had worn off, and she regarded him as a friend. Dangerous friendship! She did not love him; she liked him. He pleased her. It flattered her vanity to think that such a great man as the private secretary of Lord Nantwich appeared to be, should take more pleasure in her society than in that of the numerous duchesses and marchionesses with whom she supposed him to be intimate. So she dressed to please him, and talked her best, and looked her best, and sang her best for him. She was a different creature in his presence. Neglect kills women.

When Cyril was yawning over a book, or talking borrowed cynicism which she did not understand, she was silent, weary, and distraite. When Dacre was with her, she was lively, piquante, witty even. Her nature expanded under the genial sun of Rupert’s delicate flattery, and she became a different woman. She was appreciated, she thought, and so she looked her best, not her worst. But still she did not love Dacre, and he knew it. Any feeling of the kind that arose in her heart was instantly banished. She meant no harm. Sometimes she thought that she ought to send him away, or tell her husband; but then he was so polite and deferential, and sympathy was so sweet. So she dallied on the brink of destruction, and there was no warning voice to tell her of her danger.

In the meantime Mr. Dacre pursued his usual avocations. He had much on his hands, but he was still outwardly calm, languid, and impassive. He had the happy faculty of being able to devote himself to the affair of the moment. He could always concentrate his ideas upon the immediate matter in hand, and when Lord Nantwich talked politics, or dictated official memoranda, he never found his secretary the less attentive, or clear sighted; for all that unread letters from creditor, mistress, or friend, were lying on the table before him. “A time for all things,” was Dacre’s motto, and he could banish all unpleasant thoughts until “a more convenient season.” When in the office, he was the secretary upon whose shoulders presumedly rested all the business of “Foreign Affairs;” when in the greenroom, or his stall at the opera, he was the bland, well-informed, influential critic; when in the smoking room of the club, the cynical commentator on men and manners, or the good fellow who would lose at billiards, or win at écarté with the same easy grace, and unruffled demeanour—it was only when he was alone that the spectres of debt, duns, intrigue, and difficulty arose before him.

The pleasant boobies who nodded so carelessly to Rupert, as he passed them in the “Row” thought that he was the easiest-going, most ordinary fellow alive, and the beaux sabreurs, whose credit at their Agents was not so good as heretofore, sighed as they heard his soft laugh, and watched his calm and placid bearing. “Careful fellow, Dacre!” was the comment of the gilded youths of fashion,—“Lives his life so easily!” But could they have known all the thoughts that passed behind that smooth white brow, they would not have envied him his fortune. At present he was—he confessed it—“in a deeper hole than ever.” As he mounted his horse for his accustomed “constitutional” on this particular afternoon, he felt that his outward demeanour was not so gay as of yore.

“If Nantwich fails in this business,” he muttered, “I am ruined—bills innumerable unpaid, fortune and fame staked at one throw. I have been a fool. I who thought myself so wise. I have had too many irons in the fire, and if I don’t take care I shall burn my fingers. The tide of bill discounting must ebb one of these days, and then I shall be left high and dry upon the shore—stranded. This Chatteris affair is foolish—what can I do with the woman if I get her? I will get her, though; so that does not matter. If Calverly ‘breaks,’ I suppose Ryle will come upon me, and if he does—crash! No fear of that though—at least I hope not. At all events I have made myself as safe as I can. If the Cardinal wins, Bob will be in funds; and if he loses—as he most probably will—I shall win enough to put me straight with Jewry.

If Nantwich forms a party, I shall be provided for; and if he doesn’t—well, I suppose something will turn up. I won’t give in without a struggle. It would be hard if I were beaten, after all my scheming. I won’t think of it. One might manage to squeeze some money out of Master Cyril,” and he laughed pleasantly. “Poor Cyril! Bah, what asses men make of themselves. Yet I don’t know; the love of a pure and virtuous woman is worth having—so romancers say. Perhaps it is—but then the difficulty is to find the woman—nowadays one believes in nobody but one’s own mother. Cynical philosophy!—wrong, too, I dare say. Ah me! virtue is best, I believe, after all—sin becomes so stupid after a little time.

We say of love—what is it?
Of virtue—we but miss it,
Of sin—we do but kiss it,
        And it’s no longer sin.

Kiss it!—Bah, the paint comes off. When I am rich I will be good; anybody can be righteous on ten thousand a year. Vogue la galére.” And as he reached the now desolate ladies’ mile, he put his horse into a canter and, Atra Cura, found the motion disagreeable, and dropped behind.

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