On a conveniently secluded bench facing the Northern Pheasantry in the Zoological Society’s Gardens, Regent’s Park, Courtenay Youghal sat immersed in mature flirtation with a lady, who, though certainly young in fact and appearance, was some four or five years his senior. When he was a schoolboy of sixteen, Molly McQuade had personally conducted him to the Zoo and stood him dinner afterwards at Kettner’s, and whenever the two of them happened to be in town on the anniversary of that bygone festivity they religiously repeated the programme in its entirety. Even the menu of the dinner was adhered to as nearly as possible; the original selection of food and wine that schoolboy exuberance, tempered by schoolboy shyness, had pitched on those many years ago, confronted Youghal on those occasions, as a drowning man’s past life is said to rise up and parade itself in his last moments of consciousness.
The flirtation which was thus perennially restored to its old-time footing owed its longevity more to the enterprising solicitude of Miss McQuade than to any conscious sentimental effort on the part of Youghal himself. Molly McQuade was known to her neighbours in a minor hunting shire as a hard-riding conventionally unconventional type of young woman, who came naturally into the classification, “a good sort.” She was just sufficiently good-looking, sufficiently reticent about her own illnesses, when she had any, and sufficiently appreciative of her neighbours’ gardens, children and hunters to be generally popular. Most men liked her, and the percentage of women who disliked her was not inconveniently high. One of these days, it was assumed, she would marry a brewer or a Master of Otter Hounds, and, after a brief interval, be known to the world as the mother of a boy or two at Malvern or some similar seat of learning. The romantic side of her nature was altogether unguessed by the countryside.
Her romances were mostly in serial form and suffered perhaps in fervour from their disconnected course what they gained in length of days. Her affectionate interest in the several young men who figured in her affairs of the heart was perfectly honest, and she certainly made no attempt either to conceal their separate existences, or to play them off one against the other. Neither could it be said that she was a husband hunter; she had made up her mind what sort of man she was likely to marry, and her forecast did not differ very widely from that formed by her local acquaintances. If her married life were eventually to turn out a failure, at least she looked forward to it with very moderate expectations. Her love affairs she put on a very different footing and apparently they were the all-absorbing element in her life. She possessed the happily constituted temperament which enables a man or woman to be a “pluralist,” and to observe the sage precaution of not putting all one’s eggs into one basket. Her demands were not exacting; she required of her affinity that he should be young, good-looking, and at least, moderately amusing; she would have preferred him to be invariably faithful, but, with her own example before her, she was prepared for the probability, bordering on certainty, that he would be nothing of the sort. The philosophy of the “Garden of Kama” was the compass by which she steered her barque and thus far, if she had encountered some storms and buffeting, she had at least escaped being either shipwrecked or becalmed.
Courtenay Youghal had not been designed by Nature to fulfil the role of an ardent or devoted lover, and he scrupulously respected the limits which Nature had laid down. For Molly, however, he had a certain responsive affection. She had always obviously admired him, and at the same time she never beset him with crude flattery; the principal reason why the flirtation had stood the test of so many years was the fact that it only flared into active existence at convenient intervals. In an age when the telephone has undermined almost every fastness of human privacy, and the sanctity of one’s seclusion depends often on the ability for tactful falsehood shown by a club pageboy, Youghal was duly appreciative of the circumstance that his lady fair spent a large part of the year pursuing foxes, in lieu of pursuing him. Also the honestly admitted fact that, in her human hunting, she rode after more than one quarry, made the inevitable break-up of the affair a matter to which both could look forward without a sense of coming embarrassment and recrimination. When the time for gathering ye rosebuds should be over, neither of them could accuse the other of having wrecked his or her entire life. At the most they would only have disorganised a week-end.
On this particular afternoon, when old reminiscences had been gone through, and the intervening gossip of past months duly recounted, a lull in the conversation made itself rather obstinately felt. Molly had already guessed that matters were about to slip into a new phase; the affair had reached maturity long ago, and a new phase must be in the nature of a wane.
“You’re a clever brute,” she said, suddenly, with an air of affectionate regret; “I always knew you’d get on in the House, but I hardly expected you to come to the front so soon.”
“I’m coming to the front,” admitted Youghal, judicially; “the problem is, shall I be able to stay there. Unless something happens in the financial line before long, I don’t see how I’m to stay in Parliament at all. Economy is out of the question. It would open people’s eyes, I fancy, if they knew how little I exist on as it is. And I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart.”
“It will have to be a rich wife, I suppose,” said Molly, slowly; “that’s the worst of success, it imposes so many conditions. I rather knew, from something in your manner, that you were drifting that way.”
Youghal said nothing in the way of contradiction; he gazed steadfastly at the aviary in front of him as though exotic pheasants were for the moment the most absorbing study in the world. As a matter of fact, his mind was centred on the image of Elaine de Frey, with her clear untroubled eyes and her Leonardo da Vinci air. He was wondering whether he was likely to fall into a frame of mind concerning her which would be in the least like falling in love.
“I shall mind horribly,” continued Molly, after a pause, “but, of course, I have always known that something of the sort would have to happen one of these days. When a man goes into politics he can’t call his soul his own, and I suppose his heart becomes an impersonal possession in the same way.”
“Most people who know me would tell you that I haven’t got a heart,” said Youghal.
“I’ve often felt inclined to agree with them,” said Molly; “and then, now and again, I think you have a heart tucked away somewhere.”
“I hope I have,” said Youghal, “because I’m trying to break to you the fact that I think I’m falling in love with somebody.”
Molly McQuade turned sharply to look at her companion, who still fixed his gaze on the pheasant run in front of him.
“Don’t tell me you’re losing your head over somebody useless, someone without money,” she said; “I don’t think I could stand that.”
For the moment she feared that Courtenay’s selfishness might have taken an unexpected turn, in which ambition had given way to the fancy of the hour; he might be going to sacrifice his Parliamentary career for a life of stupid lounging in momentarily attractive company. He quickly undeceived her.
“She’s got heaps of money.”
Molly gave a grunt of relief. Her affection for Courtenay had produced the anxiety which underlay her first question; a natural jealousy prompted the next one.
“Is she young and pretty and all that sort of thing, or is she just a good sort with a sympathetic manner and nice eyes? As a rule that’s the kind that goes with a lot of money.”
“Young and quite good-looking in her way, and a distinct style of her own. Some people would call her beautiful. As a political hostess I should think she’d be splendid. I imagine I’m rather in love with her.”
“And is she in love with you?”
Youghal threw back his head with the slight assertive movement that Molly knew and liked.
“She’s a girl who I fancy would let judgment influence her a lot. And without being stupidly conceited, I think I may say she might do worse than throw herself away on me. I’m young and quite good- looking, and I’m making a name for myself in the House; she’ll be able to read all sorts of nice and horrid things about me in the papers at breakfast-time. I can be brilliantly amusing at times, and I understand the value of silence; there is no fear that I shall ever degenerate into that fearsome thing–a cheerful talkative husband. For a girl with money and social ambitions I should think I was rather a good thing.”
“You are certainly in love, Courtenay,” said Molly, “but it’s the old love and not a new one. I’m rather glad. I should have hated to have you head-over-heels in love with a pretty woman, even for a short time. You’ll be much happier as it is. And I’m going to put all my feelings in the background, and tell you to go in and win. You’ve got to marry a rich woman, and if she’s nice and will make a good hostess, so much the better for everybody. You’ll be happier in your married life than I shall be in mine, when it comes; you’ll have other interests to absorb you. I shall just have the garden and dairy and nursery and lending library, as like as two peas to all the gardens and dairies and nurseries for hundreds of miles round. You won’t care for your wife enough to be worried every time she has a finger-ache, and you’ll like her well enough to be pleased to meet her sometimes at your own house. I shouldn’t wonder if you were quite happy. She will probably be miserable, but any woman who married you would be.”
There was a short pause; they were both staring at the pheasant cages. Then Molly spoke again, with the swift nervous tone of a general who is hurriedly altering the disposition of his forces for a strategic retreat.
“When you are safely married and honey-mooned and all that sort of thing, and have put your wife through her paces as a political hostess, some time, when the House isn’t sitting, you must come down by yourself, and do a little hunting with us. Will you? It won’t be quite the same as old times, but it will be something to look forward to when I’m reading the endless paragraphs about your fashionable political wedding.”
“You’re looking forward pretty far,” laughed Youghal; “the lady may take your view as to the probable unhappiness of a future shared with me, and I may have to content myself with penurious political bachelorhood. Anyhow, the present is still with us. We dine at Kettner’s to-night, don’t we?”
“Rather,” said Molly, “though it will be more or less a throat- lumpy feast as far as I am concerned. We shall have to drink to the health of the future Mrs. Youghal. By the way, it’s rather characteristic of you that you haven’t told me who she is, and of me that I haven’t asked. And now, like a dear boy, trot away and leave me. I haven’t got to say good-bye to you yet, but I’m going to take a quiet farewell of the Pheasantry. We’ve had some jolly good talks, you and I, sitting on this seat, haven’t we? And I know, as well as I know anything, that this is the last of them. Eight o’clock to-night, as punctually as possible.”
She watched his retreating figure with eyes that grew slowly misty; he had been such a jolly comely boy-friend, and they had had such good times together. The mist deepened on her lashes as she looked round at the familiar rendezvous where they had so often kept tryst since the day when they had first come there together, he a schoolboy and she but lately out of her teens. For the moment she felt herself in the thrall of a very real sorrow.
Then, with the admirable energy of one who is only in town for a fleeting fortnight, she raced away to have tea with a world-faring naval admirer at his club. Pluralism is a merciful narcotic.