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- Cashel Byron's Profession - 20/49 -
said, shortly, "I may say that your theory, if it can be called one, is manifestly absurd."
Cashel, apparently unruffled, but with more deliberation of manner than before, looked about him as if in search of a fresh illustration. His glance finally rested on the lecturer's seat, a capacious crimson damask arm-chair that stood unoccupied at some distance behind Lucian.
"I see you're no judge of a picture," said he, good-humoredly, putting down the candle, and stepping in front of Lucian. who regarded him haughtily, and did not budge. "But just look at it in this way. Suppose you wanted to hit me the most punishing blow you possibly could. What would you do? Why, according to your own notion, you'd make a great effort. 'The more effort the more force,' you'd say to yourself. 'I'll smash him even if I burst myself in doing it.' And what would happen then? You'd only cut me and make me angry, besides exhausting all your strength at one gasp. Whereas, if you took it easy--like this--" Here he made a light step forward and placed his open palm gently against the breast of Lncian, who instantly reeled back as if the piston-rod of a steam-engine had touched him, and dropped into the chair.
"There!" exclaimed Cashel, standing aside and pointing to him. "It's like pocketing a billiard-ball!"
A chatter of surprise, amusement, and remonstrance spread through the rooms; and the company crowded towards the table. Lucian rose, white with rage, and for a moment entirely lost his self-control. Fortunately, the effect was to paralyze him; he neither moved nor spoke, and only betrayed his condition by his pallor and the hatred in his expression. Presently he felt a touch on his arm and heard his name pronounced by Lydia. Her voice calmed him. He tried to look at her, but his vision was disturbed; he saw double; the lights seemed to dunce before his eyes; and Lord Worthington's voice, saying to Cashel, "Rather too practical, old fellow," seemed to come from a remote corner of the room, and yet to be whispered into his ear. He was moving irresolutely in search of Lydia when his senses and his resentment were restored by a clap on the shoulder.
"You wouldn't have believed that now, would you?" said Cashel. "Don't look startled; you've no bones broken. You had your little joke with me in your own way; and I had mine in MY own way. That's only--"
He stopped; his brave bearing vanished; he became limp and shamefaced. Lucian, without a word, withdrew with Lydia to the adjoining apartment, and left him staring after her with wistful eyes and slackened jaw.
In the meantime Mrs. Hoskyn, an earnest-looking young woman, with striking dark features and gold spectacles, was looking for Lord Worthington, who betrayed a consciousness of guilt by attempting to avoid her. But she cut off his retreat, and confronted him with a steadfast gaze that compelled him to stand and answer for himself.
"Who is that gentleman whom you introduced to me? I do not recollect his name."
"I am really awfully sorry, Mrs. Hoskyn. It was too bad of Byron. But Webber was excessively nasty."
Mrs. Hoskyn, additionally annoyed by apologies which she had not invited, and which put her in the ignominious position of a complainant, replied coldly, "Mr. Byron! Thank you; I had forgotten," and was turning away when Lydia came up to introduce Alice, and to explain why she had entered unannounced. Lord Worthington then returned to the subject of Cashel, hoping to improve his credit by claiming Lydia's acquaintance with him.
"Did you hear our friend Byron's speech, Miss Carew? Very characteristic, I thought."
"Very," said Lydia. "I hope Mrs. Hoskyn's guests are all familiar with his style. Otherwise they must find him a little startling."
"Yes," said Mrs. Hoskyn, beginning to wonder whether Cashel could be some well-known eccentric genius. "He is very odd. I hope Mr. Webber is not offended."
"He is the less pleased as he was in the wrong," said Lydia. "Intolerant refusal to listen to an opponent is a species of violence that has no business in such a representative nineteenth-century drawing-room as yours, Mrs. Hoskyn. There was a fitness in rebuking it by skilled physical violence. Consider the prodigious tact of it, too! One gentleman knocks another half-way across a crowded room, and yet no one is scandalized."
"You see, Mrs. Hoskyn, the general verdict is 'Served him right,'" said Lord Worthington.
"With a rider to the effect that both gentlemen displayed complete indifference to the comfort of their hostess," said Lydia. "However, men so rarely sacrifice their manners to their minds that it would be a pity to blame them. You do not encourage conventionality, Mrs. Hoskyn?"
"I encourage good manners, though certainly not conventional manners."
"And you think there is a difference?"
"I FEEL that there is a difference," said Mrs. Hoskyn, with dignity.
"So do I," said Lydia; "but one can hardly call others to account for one's own subjective ideas."
Lydia went away to another part of the room without waiting for a reply. Meanwhile, Cashel stood friendless in the middle of the room, stared at by most of his neighbors, and spoken to by none. Women looked at him coldly lest it should be suspected that they were admiring him; and men regarded him stiffly according to the national custom. Since his recognition of Lydia, his self-confidence had given place to a misgiving that he had been making a fool of himself. He began to feel lonely and abashed; and but for his professional habit of maintaining a cheerful countenance under adverse circumstances, he would have hid himself in the darkest corner of the room. He was getting sullen, and seeking consolation in thoughts of how terribly he could handle all these distantly-mannered, black-coated gentlemen if he chose, when Lord Worthington came up to him.
"I had no idea you were such an orator, Byron," he said. "You can go into the Church when you cut the other trade. Eh?"
"I wasn't brought up to the other trade," said Cashel; "and I know how to talk to ladies and gentlemen as well as to what you'd suppose to be my own sort. Don't you be anxious about me, my lord. I know how to make myself at home."
"Of course, of course," said Lord Worthington, soothingly. "Every one can see by your manners that you are a gentleman; they recognize that even in the ring. Otherwise--I know you will excuse my saying so--I daren't have brought you here."
Cashel shook his head, but was pleased. He thought he hated flattery; had Lord Worthington told him that he was the best boxer in England--which he probably was--he would have despised him. But he wished to believe the false compliment to his manners, and was therefore perfectly convinced of its sincerity. Lord Worthington perceived this, and retired, pleased with his own tact, in search of Mrs. Hoskyn, to claim her promise of an introduction to Madame Szczymplica, which Mrs. Hoskyn had, by way of punishing him for Cashel's misdemeanor, privately determined not to redeem.
Cashel began to think he had better go. Lydia was surrounded by men who were speaking to her in German. He felt his own inability to talk learnedly even in English; and he had, besides, a conviction that she was angry with him for upsetting her cousin, who was gravely conversing with Miss Goff. Suddenly a horrible noise caused a general start and pause. Mr. Jack, the eminent composer, had opened the piano-forte, and was illustrating some points in a musical composition under discussion by making discordant sounds with his voice, accompanied by a few chords. Cashel laughed aloud in derision as he made his way towards the door through the crowd, which was now pressing round the pianoforte at which Madame Szczymplica had just come to the assistance of Jack. Near the door, and in a corner remote from the instrument, he came upon Lydia and a middle-aged gentleman, evidently neither a professor nor an artist.
"Ab'n'gas is a very clever man," the gentleman was saying. "I am sorry I didn't hear the lecture. But I leave all that to Mary. She receives the people who enjoy high art up-stairs; and I take the sensible men down to the garden or the smoking-room, according to the weather."
"What do the sensible women do?" said Lydia.
"They come late," said Mr. Hoskyn, and then laughed at his repartee until he became aware of the vicinity of Cashel, whose health he immediately inquired after, shaking his hand warmly and receiving a numbing grip in return. As soon as he saw that Lydia and Cashel were acquainted, he slipped away and left them to entertain one another.
"I wonder how he knows me," said Cashel, heartened by her gracious reception of a nervous bow. "I never saw him before in my life."
"He does not know you," said Lydia, with some sternness. "He is your host, and therefore concludes that he ought to know you."
"Oh! That was it, was it?" He paused, at a loss for conversation. She did not help him. At last he added, "I haven't seen you this long time, Miss Carew."
"It is not very long since I saw you, Mr. Cashel Byron. I saw you yesterday at some distance from London."
"Oh, Lord!" exclaimed Cashel, "don't say that. You're joking, ain't you?"
"No. Joking, in that sense, does not amuse me."
Cashel looked at her in consternation. "You don't mean to say that you went to see a--a--Where--when did you see me? You might tell me."
"Certainly. It was at Clapham Junction, at a quarter-past six."
"Was any one with me?"
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