BALNILLO FINDS PERFECTION

A SCONCE of candles beside a window-recess shed a collective
illumination from the wall, and Christian Flemington stood full in
their light, contemplating the company with superb detachment, and
pervaded by that air, which never left her, of facing the world,
unaided and unabashed, with such advantages as God had given her. Her
neck, still white and firm, was bare, for she wore no jewels but the
ruby earrings which shot blood-red sparks around her when she moved.
Long necks were in fashion in those days, and hers was rather short,
but the carriage of her head added enough to its length to do more
than equalize the difference. Her hair was like massed silver, and her
flesh–of which a good deal could be seen–rose like ivory above the
wine-colour of her silk gown, which flowed in spreading folds from her
waist to the ground. A Spanish fan with carved tortoiseshell sticks, a
thing of mellow browns and golds, was half closed between her fingers.
When she opened it, it displayed the picture of a bull-fight.

“That is Mrs. Flemington–Madam Flemington, as I am told many people
call her–I presume, because she came to Scotland from France. You
should know her, my lord,” she added, addressing Balnillo; “you are
from Angus.”

But Balnillo was speechless.

Grange, who was transferring a pinch of snuff from his box to his
nose, paused, his hand midway way between the two.

“Is she the widow of Andrew Flemington, who was in France with King
James?”

“The same,” replied Mrs. Cockburn, tossing her head.

She had small sympathy with the Stuarts.

“I had not expected to see the lady here. Not that I know aught about
her views. We have a bare acquaintance, and she is like yourself, Lord
Balnillo–just arrived in Edinburgh when our young hero has left
Holyrood.”

“She has been a fine woman,” said Lord Grange, his eye kindling.

“You may use the present tense, my lord,” said Mrs. Cockburn.

“Aha!” sniggered Grange, who adhered to the time-honoured beliefs of
his sex, “you dare to show yourself generous!”

“I dare to show myself what I am, and that is more than all the world
can do,” said she, looking at him very hard.

He shifted from foot to foot. At this moment the gallows, to which he
had condemned a few people in his time, struck him as a personal
inconvenience.

“Ma’am,” said he, swallowing his rage, “you must present Davie, or he
will lose what senses he has.”

“Come, then, my lord, I will befriend you,” said she, glad of the
chance to be rid of Grange.

Balnillo followed her, unable to escape had he wished to do so.

Christian was a woman who stood very still. She turned her head
without turning her body as Mrs. Cockburn approached with her request,
and Balnillo saw her calm acquiescence.

His breath had been almost taken away as he learned the identity of
the stranger. Here was the woman who knew everything about that
astounding young man, his late guest, whose alarming illness had
recalled him, who had lived at St. Germain with the exiled queen, yet
who was the grandmother of a most audacious Whig spy! There was no
trace of recent ill-health here. He had pictured some faint, feeble
shred of old womanhood, not the commanding creature whose grey eyes
were considering him as he advanced under cover of her leisurely
consent. She seemed to measure him carelessly as he stood before her.
He was torn asunder in mind, awestruck, dragged this way by his
surprised admiration, that way by his intense desire to wring from her
something about Flemington. Here was a chance, indeed! But Balnillo
felt his courage drown in the rising fear of being unable to profit by
that chance. Admiring bewilderment overcame every other feeling. He no
longer regretted the price he had paid for the lace on his cravat.

His name had roused Madam Flemington, though she gave no sign of the
thrill that went through her as it fell from Mrs. Cockburn’s lips. As
David stood before her in the correct yet sober foppery of his
primrose and mouse-colour, she regretted that she was quite ignorant
of the pretext on which Archie had left his picture unfinished, nor
upon what terms he had parted with the judge. She had no reason for
supposing Balnillo to be aware of the young man’s real character. He
had been fighting with James Logie, according to Skirling Wattie, yet
there seemed to be no enmity in the business, for here was his
brother, Lord Balnillo, assiduous in getting himself presented to her.
Mrs. Cockburn had put her request with a smiling hint at the effect
she had produced on his lordship. Christian glanced at David’s
meticulous person and smiled, arrogantly civil, secretly anxious, and
remained silent, ready to follow his lead with caution.

The shrewd side of Balnillo was uppermost to-night, stimulated perhaps
by the sight of society and by the exhilarating sound of its voice. He
recovered his momentarily scattered wits and determined to approach
his new acquaintance with such direct and simple questions as might
seem to her to be the natural inquiries of a man interested in
Flemington, and innocent of any mystery concerning him. It was quite
possible–so he reasoned–that she was unaware of the details of what
had happened on Inchbrayock Island. Archie had fled, and the search
for him had produced no result; he was unlikely to have made for his
own home if he did not wish to be found, and he and Madam Flemington
might not have met since the affair of the _Venture_. It should be
his–Balnillo’s–task to convince her of his ignorance.

His intense curiosity about Archie was almost stronger than his wrath
against him. Unlike James, whose bitterness was too deep for words,
whose soul was driven before the fury of his own feelings like a
restless ghost, David still looked back with a certain pleasant
excitement to Flemington’s meteoric flash through the even atmosphere
of his daily life. He would dearly have liked to bring him to justice,
but he was anxious to hear a little more of him first.

He had a curious mixture of feelings about him. There was no vainer
man in Scotland than Balnillo, and if the mental half of his vanity
had suffered from the deception practised on it, the physical half was
yet preening itself in the sunny remembrance of the portrait at
home–the portrait of David Balnillo as he would fain have had the
world see him–the portrait, alas and alas! unfinished. He could not
feel quite as James felt, who had opened his purse, and, more–far
more than that–had laid open the most sacred page of his life before
Flemington. He had placed his personal safety in his hands, too,
though he counted that as a matter of less moment.

“Madam,” said Balnillo, “to see you is to rejoice that you have
recovered from your serious illness.”

“You are very obliging, my lord. I am quite well,” replied Christian,
concealing a slight surprise at this remark.

“I am most happy in being presented to you,” he continued. “What news
have you of my charming friend Mr. Flemington, may I ask?”

“When I heard your name, my lord, I determined to be acquainted with
you, if only to thank you for your kindness to my boy. He could not
say enough of yourself and your brother. I hope Captain Logie is well.
Is he with you this evening?”

The mention of James acted on David as he had designed that the
mention of Archie should act on Madam Flemington. These two people who
were playing at innocence were using the names of their relations to
scare the enemy as savage tribes use the terrific faces painted on
their shields. Balnillo, in beginning the attack, had forgotten his
own weak point, and he remembered that he could give no satisfactory
account of his brother at the present moment. But his cunning was
always at hand.

“I had half expected to see him here,” said he, peering round the
room; “there was some talk of his coming. I arrived somewhat late, and
I have hardly spoken to anyone but my Lord Grange and Mrs. Cockburn.
The sight of yourself, ma’am, put other matters out of my head.”

“Ah, sir,” exclaimed Christian, “I fear that your ardour was all on
behalf of Archie! But I am accustomed to that.”

She cast a look of indolent raillery at him, drawing back her head and
veiling her eyes, fiery and seductive still, with the momentary sweep
of their thick lashes.

Balnillo threw out his chest like a pouter pigeon. He had not been so
happy for a long time. As he did so, she remembered Archie’s account
of his silk legs, and his description of him as being “silly,
virtuous, and cunning all at once.” Silly she could well believe him
to be; virtuous he might be; whether he was cunning or not, time would
show her. She did not mean to let him go until she had at least
attempted to hear more about James Logie.

“Madam,” said he, “since seeing you I have forgotten Mr. Flemington.
Can I say more?”

So far she was completely puzzled as to how much he knew about Archie,
but it was beginning to enter her mind that her own illness, of which
she had just learned from him, had been the young man’s pretext for
leaving his work when it was only begun. Why else had the judge
mentioned it? And who but Flemington could have put the idea into his
head?

She determined to make a bold attack on possibilities.

“Archie was distracted by my illness, poor boy, and I fear that your
lordship’s portrait suffered. But you will understand his anxiety when
I tell you that I am the only living relation that he has, and that
his devotion to me—-”

“He needs no excuse!” cried David fervently.

She laid her hand upon his arm.

“I am still hardly myself,” she said. “I cannot stand long. Fetch me a
chair, my lord.”

He skipped across the floor and laid hold upon one just in time, for a
gentleman was on the point of claiming it. He carried it back with the
air of a conqueror.

“Apart–by the curtain, if you please,” said Christian, waving her
hand. “We can speak more comfortably on the fringe of this rout of
chattering people.”

He set the chair down in a quiet place by the wall, and she settled
herself upon it, leaning back, her shoulder turned from the company.
Balnillo’s delight deepened.

“And the portrait, my lord. He did not tell me what arrangement had
been made for finishing it,” said Christian, looking up at him as he
stood beside her.

She seemed to be completely unconcerned, and she spoke with a
leisurely dignity and ease that turned his ideas upside down. He could
make nothing of it. She appeared to court the subject of Archie and
the picture. He could only guess her to be innocent, and his warm
admiration helped his belief. At no moment since he knew the truth
from his brother’s lips had Archie’s character seemed so black as it
did now. David’s indignation waxed as he grew more certain that
Flemington had deceived the noble woman to whom he owed so much, even
as he had deceived him. He was becoming so sure of it that he had no
desire to enlighten her. He longed to ask plainly where Archie was,
but he hesitated. Even the all-wise Mrs. Cockburn was ignorant of this
lady’s political sympathies, and knew her only as the widow of a loyal
exile. What might–what would be her feelings if she were to see her
grandson in his real character?

Righteous anger smouldered under Balnillo’s primrose waistcoat, and
his spasmodic shrewdness began to doze in the increasing warmth of his
chivalrous pity for this new and interesting victim of the engaging
rogue.

“Mr. Flemington’s concern was so great when he left my house that no
arrangement was made,” said he. “I had not the heart to trouble him
with my unimportant affairs when so much was at stake.”

Of the two cautious people who were feeling their way in the dark, it
was the judge who was the more mystified, for he had laid hold of a
definite idea, and it was the wrong one. Christian was merely putting
a bold face on a hazardous matter, and hoping to hear something of
Logie. She had not sought the introduction. David would have been the
butt of her amused scorn had she been free enough from anxiety to be
entertained. But she could not imagine on what footing matters really
stood, and she was becoming inclined to suspect the beggar’s statement
that Flemington had been fighting with James. Her longing to see
Archie was great.

She loved him in her own way, though she had driven him from her in
her mortification and her furious pride. She had not believed that he
would really go there and then; that he, who had served her purposes
so gallantly all his life, would take her at her word. What was he
doing? Why had he gone to Edinburgh? Her own reason for coming had
been the hope of seeing him. She had been four days in the town now,
and she dared not make open inquiries for him, not knowing how far his
defection had gone. She had accused him of turning to the Stuarts, and
he had denied the accusation, not angrily, but with quiet firmness.
Two horrible possibilities had occurred to her: one, that he was with
the Prince, and might be already known to the Government as a rebel;
the other, that he had never reached Edinburgh–that his hurt had been
worse than the beggar supposed, and that he might be ill or dying,
perhaps dead. But it was only when she lay awake at night that she
imagined these things. In saner moments and by daylight she put them
from her. She was so well accustomed to being parted from him, and to
the knowledge that he was on risky business, that she would not allow
herself to be really disturbed. She assured herself that she must wait
and watch; and now she was glad to find herself acquainted with
Balnillo, who seemed to be the only clue in her hand. Mercifully, he
had all the appearance of being an old fool.

“I see that you are too modest to tell me anything of the picture,”
she began. “I hope it promised well. You should make a fine portrait,
and I believe that Archie could do you justice. He is at his best with
high types. Describe it to me.”

David espied a vacant chair, and, drawing it towards him, sat down to
the subject with the same gusto that most men bring to their dinners.
He cleared his throat.

“I should have wished it to be full length,” said he, “but Mr.
Flemington had no suitable canvas with him. I wore my robes, and he
was good enough to say that the crimson was appropriate and becoming
to me. Personally, I favour quiet colours, as you see, ma’am.”

“I see that you have excellent taste.”

He bowed, delighted.

“I remarked you as you came in,” continued she, “and I asked myself
why these gentlemen looked so garish. Observe that one beside the door
of the card-room, my lord. I am sure that he chose his finery with
some care, yet he reminds me of a clown at a merrymaking.”

“True, true–excellently true!”

“In my youth it was the man of the world who set the fashions; now it
is the tailor and the young sir fresh from his studies. What should
these persons know of the subject?”

Balnillo was in heaven; from force of habit he ran his hand down the
leg crossed upon his knee. The familiar inward curve of the slim silk
ankle between his fingers was like the touch of a tried and creditable
friend; it might almost be said that he turned to it for sympathy. He
would have liked to tell his ankle that to-night he had found a
perfection almost as great as its own.

Lord Grange, who had taken leave of his hostess and was departing,
paused to look at him.

“See,” said he, taking an acquaintance by the elbow, “look yonder at
that doited Davie Balnillo.”

“He is telling her about his riding of the circuit,” said the other,
grinning.

“The circuit never made him smile like that,” replied Grange
sardonically.

An hour later Christian Flemington stood at the top of the circular
staircase. Below it, Balnillo was at the entrance-door, sending
everyone within reach of his voice in search of her sedan chair. When
it was discovered, he escorted her down and handed her into it, then,
according to the custom of the time, he prepared to attend its
progress to her lodgings in Hyndford’s Close. The streets were even
dirtier and damper than before, but he was as anxious to walk from
Lady Anne’s party as he had been determined to be carried to it. He
stepped along at the side of the chair, turning, when they passed a
light, to see the dignified silhouette of Madam Flemington’s head as
it appeared in shadow against the farther window.

Speech was impossible as they went, for avoidance of the kennel and
the worse obstacles that strewed the city at that hour, before the
scavengers had gone their rounds, kept David busy. The only profit
that a man got by seeing his admired one home in Edinburgh in 1745 was
the honour and glory of it.

When she emerged from the chair in Hyndford’s Close he insisted upon
mounting the staircase with her, though its narrowness compelled them
to go in single file; and when they stopped halfway up at the door in
the towering ‘land,’ he bade her good-night and descended again,
consoled for the parting by her permission that he should wait upon
her on the following day.

Christian was admitted and sailed into her little room. A light was in
it and Archie was standing at the foot of the bed.

Surprises had been rolling up round Madam Flemington all the evening;
surprise at meeting Balnillo, surprise at his attitude; and this
crowning surprise of all. She was bewildered, but the blessing of
unexpected relief fell on her. She went towards him, her hands
outstretched, and Flemington, who was looking at her with a
wistfulness she had never seen in him before, took them and held them
fast.

“Oh, Archie!” she exclaimed.

She could say no more.

They sat down at the wide hearth together, the shadow of the great
carved bed sprawling over the crowded space between the walls and over
Christian’s swelling silks. Then he told her the history of the time
since they parted in Ardguys garden; of his boarding of the _Venture_;
of the fight with the rebels at Inchbrayock; of his meeting with
Wattie; of how he had reached Aberbrothock half dead, and had lain
sick for two days in an obscure tavern by the shore; how he had
finally sailed for Leith and had reached Edinburgh.

Christian heard him, her gaze fixed upon the fire. She had elicited
nothing about James Logie from Balnillo, and there was no word of him
in Archie’s story. She longed to speak of him, but would not; she
longed to know if the beggar had told the truth in saying that the two
men had actually fought, but she asked nothing, for she knew that her
wisest part was to accept the essentials, considering them as the
whole. She would ask no questions.

Archie had come back. She had forbidden Ardguys to him and he had
evaded her ban by coming here. Yet he came, having proved himself
loyal, and she would ignore the rest.

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