VOLUME ONE: PART ONE
From Salcot East to Winstoke there are two roads, known respectively as the old and the new. The latter was made about the middle of the present century; the old road is immemorial. By the modern highway the distance between the two parishes is rather less than five miles; pursue the other, and you fetch a compass of well-nigh ten, taking into account all the inexplicable windings and angularities between the "White Hart Inn" at Salcot, where the roads disdainfully part company, to Winstoke Rectory, where they unite and form the village street. It says much for ancestral leisureliness in that north-west corner of --shire, that the old way ever established itself, or, being established, was used to so recent a date; on the other hand, the construction of the new thoroughfare looks remarkably like a practical joke, perpetrated at their own expense by the good people of the country side, seeing that this activity displayed itself just when it was least called for. Formerly, there was a silk manufactory at Salcot East, and direct communication with the neighbouring parish would have been a convenience; only when the industry in question had fallen into complete decay, and when it could not matter to any one whether it took one hour or two to reach Winstoke (where not even a market was held), did the inhabitants tax themselves for the great undertaking.
As regards picturesqueness, needless to say that the old road has enormously the advantage. A pedestrian with time on his hands and walking for walking's sake, could not hesitate between the hard white turnpike, running on into level distance between dusty hedgerows, and that charming glimpse of elm-shadowed lane, grass creeping from the densely verdurous bank on either side to the deep moistened ruts, and, twenty yards away, a sudden turn round a fantastic oak, all beyond a delightful uncertainty. Such a pedestrian was Bernard Kingcote, a man neither too old nor too busy to be rambling aimlessly on this Midsummer Day; over his shoulders a small knapsack, with a waterproof strapped upon it, in his hand a stick he had cut from an oak-tree. Since eleven in the morning the sun had shone as in England it shines but rarely - a steady force of fire which drew the perspiration from every pore of one standing unshaded. Under these circumstances, Kingcote had loitered about Salcot all the day, having reached the place after a four-mile stroll from another little town where he had passed the preceding night. There were leafy lurking-places here and there along the banks of the stream called Sale, and the "White Hart" gave promise of a comfortable, homely meal at mid-day. The time passed pleasantly enough till late afternoon, for he had a couple of books in his knapsack, and made purchase of another in a musty little shop full of miscellaneous rubbish, into which he was tempted by the sight of a shelf of ragged volumes ; then came tea at the "White Hart" again, and he was ready, after a survey of his Ordnance map, to use the cool of the evening for a ramble on to Winstoke. But as he came forth from the inn, unexpected entertainment presented itself. A dancing bear had just been led into the town, and the greater part of the population had assembled in the broad street to watch the poor dusty-coated beast. With a humorous sadness on his countenance, Kingcote stood in the doorway, observant of the artificial biped and the natural ones which surrounded it. As he waited, a trifling incident occurred which afterwards came back to his memory with more significance than he had attributed to it at the time ; somebody jolted against him from behind, and then a country fellow of evil appearance staggered out of the inn and mixed with the crowd; he was seemingly half-drunk, or but just awakened.
This gave the pedestrian the impulse needed to send him forth on his way. He looked for a moment along the new road, then his eyes wandered to the old, and he turned at once into the latter. There was a sign-post at the parting; both its arms said, "To Winstoke," but one was crumbling, fungus-scored, its inscription barely legible; the other a stout piece of timber, self-assertive, with rounded ends and freshly painted in black and white. Kingcote passed with a mental comment.
The road was just what it promised, perfectly rural, sweet with all summer growths, seldom without trees on both sides, ash predominating, oak and holly frequent. It mounted little hills where the least turn would have enabled it to keep level ; oftener still made a curve or a corner, to all appearances merely for the sake of constructing an exquisite little picture of banks and boughs and luxuriant vegetation. At times nothing was to be seen for the robust old hedges; then would come a peep over open country, a stretch of yellow fields bounded far away by the bare chalk-hills. No cottages, no trim borders of stately parks, seldom a gate giving into a grass meadow. It seemed that no one ever came this way; the new road had monopolised traffic of every kind. The gnats began to swarm; here and there a spider, acting with the assurance of long impunity, had carried his invisible silken thread right across the road; the birds were softening their multitudinous voices to sunset. Now and then was heard a sound of deep, steady breathing from behind the hedge, and an odour of warm, sweet breath filled the air; it was a cow that lay there chewing the cud. Or a horse, turned out to grass, would put his head up and look over into the lane, half-alarmed at the approach of a human being. The pedestrian had a friendly word for him.
Kingcote's way of walking was that of a man accustomed to his own society; he advanced slowly, yet without pauses, and often became forgetful of the things about him. His face was neither sad nor cheerful, but the tendency of its free play of feature was clearly in the direction rather of the former than of the latter expression. It was plain that he enjoyed to the full the scenes through which he passed, and enjoyed them as a man of poetic sensibilities, but there was no exuberance of vitality in his delight. He looked like one who had been walking all through the heat of the day, and was growing weary for his night's retreat. Evidently he had nothing of the naturalist's instinct; he never bent to examine a flower or leaf, and he could not indeed have assigned its name to any but the commonest; the very trees whose beauty dwelt longest in his eye did not suggest to him their own familiar appellations. To judge from his countenance, the communing which he held with himself was constant and lively; at times words even fell from his lips. It was not the face of a man at ease with his own heart, or with the circumstances amid which his life had fallen. A glance of pleasure hither or thither was often succeeded by the shadow of brooding, and this by a gleam of passion, brief but significant enough. This inward energy was brought to view on features sufficiently remote from any ordinary stamp to prove interesting in themselves; they were those of a young man - Kingcote was not quite thirty.
When he had been walking for a couple of hours, his thoughts began to turn to his plans for the following day; he took the map out again, and examined it as he proceeded. He had been away from home - from London - three days; to-morrow would be Friday and on Saturday he proposed to return. There came into his mind a question about money, and he felt for his purse. For the first time he came to a standstill; neither in the wonted pocket nor anywhere else was his purse to be found. It had contained all his immediate resources, with the exception of a few loose coppers. Then it was that the course of reflection brought him back to that incident in the doorway of the "White Hart," and he felt little doubt that the seemingly drunken boor who pushed against him had in the same moment dexterously picked his pocket. The purse had been safe when he paid his bill at the inn, and certainly he had not left it behind him by accident. At all events, purse and money were gone, and it was not our friend's temper to fall into useless lamentation over irremediable accidents. If, indeed, the case were one of theft - and no other explanation seemed possible - he wished the rascal luck of his three pounds or so, and, walking slowly on again, began to ask himself what was to be done.
To stop at Winstoke, take up quarters there at an inn, and wait till money could be sent to him from London, was the course which naturally first suggested itself. Yet the reasons against it were not long in being discovered. What guarantee could he give to his landlord - short of remaining shut up in the inn all day - of his honest intention to pay when money arrived? His knapsack and three old books were not much of a pledge. Another would perchance have never given this matter a thought, but a feature of Kingcote's character was concerned in it. He was too proud to subject himself to possible suspicion, especially that of his social inferiors; to explain his position to an innkeeper would have galled him exceedingly, still more so to live for a day under the innkeeper's eyes without an explanation. Things which most men accept as the every-day rubs of the world were to Kingcote among the worst evils of existence; the most ordinary transaction with uneducated and (as he held) presumably uncivilised persons at all times made him uncomfortable, and a necessity such as the present assailed his fastidiousness with no little severity. He reopened his map, and began to calculate the possibility of walking straight on to London. There was no possibility in the matter. He might sleep in the open air this midsummer night, and it would be rather pleasant than otherwise, but the situation would only be complicated by the pressing need of breakfast in the morning. Was there nothing for it but to face the innkeeper?
He moved on, and a turn in the road exposed a scene which for the moment made him lose sight of his annoyances. He had suddenly come in full view of a cottage, and, it seemed to him, a cottage of ideal rusticity. It was very old, built of brick which had become finely toned wherever it was not hidden by ivy, and the tiles of the roof were patched with richest hues of moss and lichen; its low upper storey had two dormer windows. The dwelling lay a few yards back from the road, and in the middle of the grass before the door stood the bowed trunk of an old, old oak-tree, branchless, hollow, killed by the parasites which clung about it in astonishing luxuriance. To the rear of the cottage, which seemed to be uninhabited, grew a cluster of tall trees, with a quantity of bushy undergrowth; the tree-tops were black with rooks' nests, and the birds themselves were loud in talk. This scene, with its background of magnificent evening sky above remote hills of the intensest blue, might well have brought the pedestrian to a pause; it was something else, however, that checked him with a movement of surprise. He was no longer alone with nature; facing the cottage sat a girl, busy over a water-colour sketch; she was working with rapid eagerness, and, as she sat with her back to him, she could not see, and had not heard, his approach. Kingcote would have liked to stay here awhile, but the stranger's presence made it difficult. Taking a step or two onwards, he speedily drew her attention; she suspended the work of her pencil and looked quickly round. Kingcote experienced a sense of profound disappointment; far from being in harmony with the scene, the face presented to him was irregular in feature and harsh in expression; the eyes seemed very large, and, having met his, did not at once remove themselves, but continued to gaze with something like defiance, whilst the lips worked in a curiously nervous way, not at all pleasant to watch. She was perhaps nineteen; her dress very plain, but that of a lady. With the observance of these details, Kingcote walked past her at a sharp pace, and did not venture to stay his steps again till the ever-winding road had taken him from the sketcher's sight.
"I never saw so uninteresting a girl," was his first thought, but it had scarcely passed through his mind when he felt that its hastiness did not in truth embody his impression. To say that he had never seen a less pleasing girl would be more accurate. A merely uninteresting face would not at once, and so forcibly, have printed itself upon his memory; he already felt that the unpropitiating gaze of those large, cold eyes would remain long with him. He wondered who she might be. Certainly no conventional young lady who came out to sketch in a feeble way, in the ordinary course of her mild domestic existence; more likely than that, a professional artist, or one studying to become such. There had been no opportunity for a glance at her work, but the earnestness with which she gave herself up to it inspired a certain confidence as to the results. Whence did she come, dressed as if for a brief walk, with her camp stool and sketching apparatus?
One more, and this the last, turn of the old road showed that she need not have come any very great distance. Kingcote found himself entering Winstoke. On his left hand was the village church, a low edifice with a solid, square tower, and, just beyond it, what was evidently the rectory. These occupied the angle made by the two roads as they reunited. Across the churchyard and the rectory garden was visible the white dust of the turnpike, along which on the further side ran a high brick wall capped with tiles, the enclosure of private grounds. The rectory thus stood with its back to the church; its front windows looked upon a large open space, grass-grown and shadowed with fine trees, the whole surrounded with iron chains loosely swinging from post to post. On the left proceeded the high wall just mentioned, leading to gates and a lodge; the dense foliage of a well-wooded park rose behind it. To the right stood a few picturesque houses, with little gardens before them. Straight on lay the main street of the village, the yellow-washed fronts vanishing at length amid yet more trees. Children were playing on the enclosed grass, and with their voices mingled the notes of a piano from an open window near at hand. It was all very beautiful in the light of sunset. For a minute or two Kingcote stood with a face of contentment, soothed and restful.
It was half-past eight; the chiming of the church clock proclaimed it. If he intended to pass the night in Winstoke it was time to make up his mind where he should seek quarters. He began to stray round the enclosure towards the houses of the street, walking slowly and with frequent stoppings, beginning at length to feel the full annoyance of his position, and in his somewhat hasty way inwardly cursing the whole social constitution which made such a disagreeable experience possible. As he drew near the lodge gates in the high wall, he perceived a handsome drinking fountain, built of marble and set in the wall itself. He was thirsty, and went to take a draught of water. Above the basin was an inscription, carved in old English letters, "The Knight's Well," and a recent date beneath it. The name struck him pleasantly; no doubt there was some legend attached to it, which he promised himself to seek out. He drank with delight of the sweet, cold water, and was about to fill the cup a second time, when a little boy, who had come up to his side unobserved, a youngster of six or seven, addressed him with curious gravity.
"That water is enchanted," said the child. "I wouldn't drink more than one if I was you."
Kingcote laughed with pleasure.
"Enchanted?" he exclaimed. "I feared there was none such left in the world. How do you know it is?"
The child was neatly dressed in light summer clothing, in knickerbockers, and round his waist was a green sash which held a toy bugle. He looked up with bright, intelligent eyes, not quite certain how to take the stranger's laughter.
"I know," he replied, "because my father has told me. One cup does you good, but after the first --"
He paused and shook his head. Possibly the evils which would result from a second draught were but darkly vague in his imagination.
"Who is your father?" Kingcote inquired after a moment's reflection.
"My father is the rector," was the little fellow's reply, not without dignity. Even as he spoke he caught sight of a lady and a gentleman walking towards them, the attire of the latter proclaiming the rector himself. The child at once drew out his bugle and blew a joyous blast of welcome - tarantar-ar-a!
"This is my father coming," he then explained to Kingcote. "Ask him about the Knight's Well, and he'll tell you, I've no doubt."
And he ran off to meet the pair. Already Kingcote had perceived that the lady was she whom he had passed in the lane. The reverend gentleman had relieved her of the camp-stool, and was talking in the manner of one who enjoys the exercise of his own voice, with something, too, of the tone and aspect observable in men who believe themselves not on the whole disagreeable to ladies. He seemed to be just on the hither side of middle age, had a very fresh complexion, and kept drawing himself up to the limit of his five feet six, like one who wishes to correct a habit of stooping. As he talked, he held his glasses in one hand, and with them tapped the other; the camp-stool was pressed under his left arm.
Kingcote drew aside, as if he would walk over to the enclosure. At the lodge gates the two paused; the clergyman was politely insisting on carrying the camp-stool up to the house, the young lady refusing with rather a hard smile. Kingcote saw now that she was tall, and held herself with the grace of strong and shapely limbs. When she had persuaded the rector to take his leave, and was on the point of entering the gates, she turned half round, and Kingcote once more found the large eyes fixed full upon him. She cast the glance without any embarrassment, and, having satisfied her curiosity, walked on and disappeared.
The rector and his little boy, to whom the young lady had paid no attention, came away and walked towards the rectory. Kingcote could see that the child was speaking of him. On the spur of a sudden determination, he followed, coming up to the two just as they reached the house. With a courteous raising of his hat, he begged the favour of a few words with the clergyman.
"By all means, sir," was the genial response. "Be off to bed, Percy; you've no business to be up at this hour, you rascal."
The boy blew a farewell blast and ran round to a garden entrance at the side of the house.
"Let us enter," said the clergyman - Mr. Vissian was his name - when he had taken another look at the stranger.
This was better than discussing awkward matters in the open street. Kingcote found himself with satisfaction in a cosy study, the windows of which looked upon a trim garden, with a view of the church beyond. Requested to seat himself he told, as well as he could, the story of his lost purse, dwelling on the humorous features of his situation, and frankly avowing the reasons which led him to apply to the rector of the parish rather than establish himself at an inn and wait for a remittance. Would Mr. Vissian lend him a sum of money sufficient for the night's expenses and for return to London on the morrow?
"With pleasure I will do so," responded the clergyman at once, plunging both hands into his trouser pockets. Then his face darkened. "I - really --" he began with hesitation, "that is if I --. Pray have the goodness to excuse me for a moment," he added with a jerk, and, his face reddening a little, he hurried out of the room.
Kingcote wondered what this might mean. Was it prudence coming rather late, or unanticipated poverty? He rose and looked at the volumes on the shelves behind him. They were not the kind of books one ordinarily finds in a country rector's library; instead of commentators and sermons there were rows of old English play-books beautifully bound - the collection of an enthusiast in such matters. The binding of a complete set of Dodsley was engaging his admiration when Mr. Vissian returned.
"Do you think a pound would suffice to your needs?" the clergyman asked, still rather disturbed in countenance.
"Amply," Kingcote hastened to reply; hesitation being impossible under the circumstances.
"You - you are quite sure?"
"Quite. I am greatly indebted to your kindness."
Mr. Vissian held out a sovereign with a smile of embarrassment; the other took it, and, to get past the delicate point, remarked with a glance at the book-shelves:
"You are interested in dramatic literature, I see. Pray let me show you something I picked up in a shop at Salcot this morning."
He quickly unstrapped his knapsack, and extracted from it a thin, backless book, the outside leaves crumpled and dirty, and held it out to the rector. Mr. Vissian had put on his glasses, and took the offered object with an expression of dubious curiosity. Could any good thing come out of Salcot East? But at the first sight of the title-page he positively flushed with excitement. It was the first edition of Otway's "Venice Preserved."
"You found this in Salcot?" he exclaimed. "My good sir, what did you give for it?"
"The sum of one penny," replied Kingcote, with a smile. "It was stuffed among a lot of trash; but for want of something to do I should never have looked through the heap."
"By the Turk!" Mr. Vissian ejaculated. "'As it is acted at the Duke's Theatre . . . Printed for Jos. Hindmarsh at the sign of the "Black Bull," over against the Royal Exchange in Cornhill. 1682.' Upon my word!"
He chuckled with gleeful appreciation; something of envy too was in the side glance he threw upon the happy possessor. Forthwith he became as friendly and unconstrained as if he had known Kingcote for years. Taking from his pocket a bunch of delicate little keys, he stepped up to a book-case with a glass front, opened it with care, and began to draw forth the treasures. He was boy-like in the exuberance of his zeal, rubbed his hands, uttered crows and chirpings, and grew the more delighted the more he became aware of his guest's congenial tastes. Kingcote was nothing of a genuine book-hunter; his years and temperament preserved him from that delightful pedantry; but he knew and enjoyed the literature in question. More than an hour passed in talk; it grew all but dark.
"We must have a light," cried Mr. Vissian.
"Is it not time that I saw after my room at the inn?" Kingcote asked, looking at his watch.
"Inn? Ah! to be sure. But - if I might offer - really I wish you'd let us give you a bed here for the night. It would save trouble."
"On the contrary, I fear it would give trouble somewhat needlessly."
But Mr. Vissian insisted.
"I will give directions at once. It must be supper time too. Mrs. Vissian has thought me busy, I fear, and has let the usual hour go by. Pray come into the sitting room. It's a year since I had any one to chat with over these things. It does me good; it does me good."
In the sitting-room supper was already spread - plain bread and cheese and draught ale. In an arm-chair, busy with sewing, sat the rector's wife. She looked very youthful, and was indeed only five-and-twenty, having been married at seventeen. She was delicate, pretty, and a trifle troubled in face.
"A friend of mine, dear," said the rector, with an affectionate courtesy which pleased Kingcote, "who will remain with us for the night."
Mrs. Vissian looked just a little startled, but speedily put on pleasant smiles, and went away to make her necessary preparations. On her return the talk turned to the son of the house, Master Percy.
"What did he mean," Kingcote asked, "by telling me that the water of the Knight's Well was enchanted, and that you must not drink more than one cup?"
Father and mother broke into laughter.
"You thought it an interesting local legend, no doubt," said Mr. Vissian. "I am sorry to disabuse you. That enchantment is merely a sanitary precaution of my own. It's not good for the child to drink much of the water this hot weather, so I hit on a device which has proved more efficacious than anything more literal would have done."
"But is there no legend connected with the well?" Kingcote asked.
"Oh yes. The spring has doubtless been used for centuries. I will show you the story, after supper, in the county history. The marble basin was built five years ago by Mrs. Clarendon, the lady who lives at the house over there, which is itself called Knightswell."
"The lady," Kingcote asked quickly, "whom I saw entering the gates?"
"No, no," corrected Mr. Vissian, with a smile, "Mrs. Clarendon is in London. That was Miss Warren, a - a distant relation."
"A very different person from Mrs. Clarendon," put in Mrs. Vissian, in a low voice.
The rector murmured assent.
"It was Miss Warren, then," Kingcote pursued, "whom I saw sketching a charming cottage in the lane not far away. What an exquisite spot that is!"
"Wood End - yes. The trees there are all that remains of a forest."
"The cottage is vacant, isn't it?"
"Yes, has been for a year. A labourer and his family left and went to Canada; Mrs. Clarendon gave the poor people the means to emigrate, and we hear they are already doing well."
"No one whom Mrs. Clarendon helps fails to do so," remarked the rector's wife.
"What may be the rent of such a cottage?" Kingcote inquired carelessly, leaning back in his chair.
"Half-a-crown a week is what Yardley wants for that, I think," replied the rector.
The guest sat upright.
"Half-a-crown? A delightful little place like that! Six pounds ten a year?"
"I believe so."
They were rising from the table. Kingcote stood in his place, meditating. Mrs. Vissian again left the room.
"Suppose," began Kingcote at length, "one took a fancy to live in that cottage, would it be possible to find a labourer's wife - or some person of that kind - to come and give one say an hour's service daily?"
"Very possible, I should say," returned the rector, with some surprise. "Do you contemplate such a step?"
"One might do worse, I fancy," was Kingcote's only reply.
Mrs. Vissian returned, bringing with her a large volume, the county history of which her husband had spoken.
"Always thoughtful, and always helpful," said the rector, with a smile which made his face look wonderfully good. "Thank you, Lucy. Now you shall read us the story yourself, if you will give us that pleasure."
Mrs. Vissian consented with a pretty blush. The story told how, in the troublous times of King Stephen, there stood in this place the stronghold of a great baron, who, shortly after he had wedded a noble and beautiful lady, fell in combat with another lord, the origin of their quarrel being obscure, and, indeed, nothing to the point. The lady, thus widowed, shut herself up in her castle and refused to yield to the victor, who had been one of many rejected suitors for her hand in former days, and now saw his opportunity of forcing her to become his wife. The stronghold being closely beleaguered for many days, and the garrison, too weak to make an effective sortie, already nigh to starvation, by the interposition of Providence there appeared upon the scene a certain knight, who also had been one of the lady's wooers, and who, in despair at her refusal of him, had betaken himself to fight in the Holy Land. Thence he was even now returned with a good band of tried followers. Learning how matters stood, he forthwith gave battle to the besiegers, hoping to rescue the lady he still loved, or, if that might not be, willing and glad to yield his life in her service. As indeed he did, for though victorious in the conflict, he was at the last moment mortally pierced by an arrow. In the ardour of pursuing the foe, his men lost sight of their leader; the wounded knight dragged himself to a spring hard by, and whilst endeavouring to slake his thirst, bled to faintness and so died. There his body was found by the lady of the castle when she came forth to give due thanks to her deliverer. In memory of his devotion, she built a basin of fair stone to gather the waters of the spring, and from that day forth it was known as the Knight's Well.
"We always call Mrs. Clarendon 'the lady of Knightswell,'" said Mrs. Vissian, when she had ceased to read.
"The name is a beautiful one," said Kingcote. "It suggests a fair and gracious and noble woman."
"Exactly what it should suggest," returned the lady, with a pleased laugh.
"And who is the lord of Knightswell?" asked the guest.
"There is none," the rector made answer. "Mrs. Clarendon has been a widow for a long time. But what say you to a pipe before bedtime, and a look at one or two old books? My dear Lucy," he exclaimed, turning to his wife, "our friend has just captured a first edition of the 'Venice Preserved.' And where, think you? In a miserable shop in Salcot East! - And what for, think you? One penny, by the Turk! One penny!"
Mrs. Vissian smiled, but at the same time shook her head; and Kingcote wondered why.
An hour later he was alone in a little bed-chamber which looked out from the front of the house. The sun had been so strong upon the roof all day that this upper room was overheated; he extinguished the light as soon as possible, and sat down to get a breath of fresh air at the open window. His eyes turned in the direction of Knightswell. The east lay over there, and already it seemed as though a new day were beginning to touch the heavens; there was a broad region of delicate dusky pink above the dark tops of trees, and outlined against it was visible the roof of Mrs. Clarendon's house. There was no shining of the moon, and but few stars anywhere in the sky; the night throbbed with a passion of silence. Just as Kingcote's eyes perceived the gables of Knightswell, somewhere in the park broke forth the song of a nightingale. For many minutes an unbroken stream of melody flooded the darkness; he all but sobbed in listening. Pain of the past and anguish of longing to the years which waited with unknown gifts of fate made his heart tumultuous. The kindness he had met with touched him; he had tender thoughts of the good rector and his sweet-faced, girlish wife. He loved this place; Knightswell was musical in his ears; he longed to see that gentle lady whose title has such a pleasant and stately sound of romance, and of whom such good things were spoken. As the nightingale sang he kept repeating to himself her name, "the Lady of Knightswell." She had been a widow for a long time, said the rector; yet they had not spoken of her as of one who was old. He pictured to himself the fair, sweet, queenly woman whom that name would become.
The bird ceased. Over the country passed a leafy murmur, a hushed whisper of the tall dark trees, growing to a sigh, almost to a low wail, dying over Knightswell. Then an owl hooted thrice. The night had turned cold.
When Isabel Maddison married Mr. Clarendon she was generally esteemed, among such as had any interest in the matter, a highly fortunate young woman. Handsome, penniless, but nineteen years old, at a step she had achieved social apotheosis. Six months prior to the event Isabel had been on the point of accepting an engagement as a governess at a salary of twenty-six pounds a year. By agreeing to the alternative proposal she became wife of a county member, mistress of a mansion in Mayfair and of a delightful estate in --shire, presumptive possessor, before many years should have passed, of a fortune solidly correspondent with such show of dignity. Whatever might be the drawbacks, there was much to be said for the bargain.
The event was not as entirely romantic as it might have been; she was not positively discovered with ink-stained fingers among school-girls' copy-books, and carried off by a masterful passion to grace a London season. The kindly interposition of a certain Lady Kent, an old friend of her mother's, bridged the gulf between social impossibility and that respectable limbo where every aspiration is sanctioned and a dutiful waiting upon Providence is taught to ally itself with the graces of self-assertion. Isabel was the daughter of a country solicitor, who, dying before middle age, left a widow and two children, a freehold worth about thirty-five pounds a year, and a policy of life insurance for two thousand pounds. Mrs. Maddison thus found herself not particularly well provided for, and, but for the assistance of a brother who farmed some three hundred acres in the same county, would have been at a loss how to educate her boy of ten and bring up (we do not speak of education in the case of girls) her little Bella of seven. With all the aid that others were able or disposed to render: the first years of widowhood saw a good deal of pinching and struggling in the home, which had to be kept on a footing of gentility with firm resistance of that terrible temptation, encroachment upon capital. The boy Richard eventually went to learn farming with his uncle, and, at the latter's death, being then nearly twenty, made use of a legacy of a hundred pounds to transport himself to Australia, where he flourished among sheep. Isabel was then seventeen. Her mother also received a small legacy at the uncle's decease, and it was decided to use this in "finishing off" Isabel, that is to say, in giving her a year or so of that kind of training which would enable her to earn her living as a governess.
Already there was an alternative. The gentleman who had succeeded to Mr. Maddison's practice, or rather, who had managed to establish one where only a shadow had existed, had kept an eye on Isabel through these past ten years, and, now that the girl was to be sent away from home, astonished both her and her mother by a proposal of marriage. He was a young Irishman, blessed with much self-confidence, and holding it for a certainty that he was destined to become Attorney-General. When Isabel reported the proposal to her mother she could scarcely speak for laughter. Mrs. Maddison was grave, and wanted time to think. But Isabel looked in the mirror over the mantelpiece, laughed yet more, and there was an end of the matter.
She went away to school, and remained there for a year and a half. Then it was that Lady Kent, now for two years a widow, her husband having died after a weary invalid vegetation at German baths, came to pay visits in her native county, and renewed a long-interrupted friendship with Mrs. Maddison. The two had been neighbours as children, had married about the same time - the one her luckless solicitor, the other a baronet who promised to live a year and lingered nearly twenty - and now, in spite of social differences, found that they still had a kindness for each other. Isabel was at home, advertising and answering advertisements. The first glance at this young lady satisfied Lady Kent that the projects in hand were not promising.
"I doubt whether any one will have her," she said to Mrs. Maddison. "I'm sure I wouldn't."
The poor lady looked up in astonishment at so unkind a speech.
"My dear," explained the woman of the world, "she is far too good-looking, has too much blood, doesn't at all belong to the governess breed. I would say, don't let her be thrown away, if I were not sure better things were in store for her."
What these better things might be it was not difficult to imagine; but the chance of their attainment seemed so remote that Mrs. Maddison was half disposed to resent such remarks as gratuitous cruelty. Lady Kent went away and reflected. She paid another visit in a day or two, and brought forth a startling proposal.
"I have no children of my own," she said, "and I shan't marry again - had enough of it. Let me take Bella to London and give her a season."
"But how will that --"
"Never mind; let us trust in Providence. She'll be none the worse, in any case. Depend upon it, she won't be a governess; and for looking about one London is the only place."
Mrs. Maddison shook her head. Her troubles were increased by the arrival just then of that offer of a place at six-and-twenty pounds. Isabel knew nothing of Lady Kent's proposal, and was willing to go away; but the mother's heart had been set in commotion by her friend's talk. There were days of miserable uncertainty, and ultimately Isabel herself was taken into consultation. Lady Kent, who was greatly struck with the girl, and foresaw congenial excitement in a plan which her native kindness made agreeable, repeated her proposal in serious form. Isabel (so she spoke in private to Mrs. Maddison) was made to shine in society. She had just been "finished off" with the ordinary accomplishments, and if she now "came out" there was much probability of her attracting a suitable husband. She should not incur the least danger, that Lady Kent would guarantee. What was the use of beauty to a poor girl if not to get her an establishment in life? There was no disgrace in standing up and proclaiming oneself to be disposed of; the folly and the danger would lie in trying to keep out of sight. Whether was it better, to be pursued by rascals as a beautiful governess, or to meet face to face with honest men who would be likely to fall in love with beauty for its own sake, or at all events be willing to purchase it respectably? In this way was the mother talked into compliance. Isabel herself had only to subdue her exultation. With the beginning of the season she and Lady Kent opened the campaign together.
The details are not of importance. The seat of war is a familiar region to my readers, and the engagements reported year after year so closely resemble each other that they have become by this time rather tedious in the chronicling. Lady Kent's prophecy was fulfilled. Isabel had at least three possible offers, and she selected that of Mr. Eustace Clarendon. For this gentleman's qualifications see above.
For the girl was charming; not beautiful as yet, that was to come later; but so blest with sweetness of virginal feature, so radiant with the joy of maiden health, so abundant in graceful and dainty instincts, with so rapturous a smile, with a laugh which came so direct from the source of nature's music, that her presence smote upon the heart like very sunshine. It mattered not where or when she was discovered, her grace was perfect. In a week she had all the pretty artificialities of the town in complete possession; one would have thought she had been born and bred in the atmosphere of refined insincerity. When she appeared on the Row, who would have thought that she had learned her riding on a saddleless colt at her uncle's farm? When she laughingly consented to play to a few friends, it certainly did not suggest itself that she had toiled at the instrument in order to teach children for six-and-twenty pounds a year. She was, as Lady Kent had seen, born for society; it was her element; it brought out all that was best and loveliest in her; it made her a complete being. Society could not give her more than it was in her to produce; but on the other hand, it planted not one seed of alien evil. Pure-minded she left her home, and, without a shadow on the purity of her thought, she entered the home of the man who had won so priceless a treasure. Throughout her life it was to be the same. Suffering what was in her to suffer, growing in self-knowledge, growing in tenderness of soul and in outward perfection, always a queen of society, always making her food of the best that mere society had to offer, Isabel Clarendon was but Isabel Maddison ripened and subdued in maturity of charm. Not the greatest and highest among women ; falling short of much that marks the noblest woman-soul; failing in force, failing in courage, with eyes too level on the surface of this world, but woman womanly in every fraction of her being, and, as such, infinite in suggestiveness, infinite in lovableness.
Of the two offers which Isabel declined, only one concerns us. One evening early in the season she was taken down to dinner by a gentleman named Asquith. They were introduced to each other just as the movement from the drawing-room began, and the mention of their respective names brought a look of surprise to either face.
"Have I not," asked Mr. Asquith, "the honour and pleasure of being related to you? Are we not cousins in some degree or other?"
"I really believe we are," Isabel replied, with her irresistible smile. "At least, I suppose you belong to the family of which I have heard."
"And assuredly I hope that you belong to the family of which I have heard," said the young man, whose arm trembled sensibly as she put her hand upon it.
Question and answer brought about a satisfactory establishment of identity, and the pleasure which Isabel experienced, without attempt at concealment, in having found a kinsman who belonged of right to the fashionable world, was anything but disagreeable to the kinsman himself. The Asquiths were connections of Mr. Maddison, but the family had been in Canada for many years, and since their return of late to England, had not come in contact with the widow and her children. Robert Asquith was three-and-twenty, without any definite occupation, save that he was nominally reading for the Bar, and possessed of an income of five hundred a year, which was not likely to grow to anything more respectable until he should perchance inherit from his father - a hale man with a number of daughters to look after. Very likely Isabel was just a little to blame for what ensued. Glad of having found a relation, she perhaps laid upon the frail tie of consanguinity rather more stress than it could be reasonably expected to bear, allowed, perhaps, rather too much of cousinly intimacy to forthwith establish itself, and, in pure innocence, gave Robert Asquith too much reason to believe that his society was agreeable to her for its own sake. She was never a coquette; but a man had to be as free-thoughted and sunny-tempered as herself to endure the halcyon weather of her intimate friendliness and not be tempted to change a smile for a sigh. Robert was specially exposed to such temptation, for he had rather more than average self-esteem, knew himself to be good-looking, and, despite his tatterdemalion five hundred a year, for the most part bore the attitude of a man who is looking deliberately about him to throw his handkerchief to the fairest and best, sure of its being eagerly stooped for. Of course he was conscious of an understanding that the fairest and best would, in the nature of things, have a gold pedestal for her loveliness, and, of all young men, he seemed the last to forget this essential element of womanly charm. There was a breezy coolness about him, a leisureliness of temperament manifesting itself for instance in perfection of toilette, a touch of ironical humour in his mode of speech, which from the first gave to Isabel a sense of safety in accepting his attentions. Lady Kent, of course, discovered at once the details of Mr. Asquith's position, and, in her lightly suggestive way, imparted the information to Isabel. But the latter smiled at the thought of Robert's seeking such a wife; she felt she understood him better than that. As it happened, she did not. Possibly she failed by miscalculation of her own witchery. However it came about, there, at length, was Robert Asquith at her feet, offering her, with a modesty she had not given him credit for, the devotion of his life. With a surprised shake of the head she reminded him that she had not a farthing. The usual tone of their conversation warranted a little levity on her part at this juncture. Behold! he knew it, and cared not. If his own income seemed paltry (alas! it was), would she not wait and let him seek a position? In brief, could she not love him a little, and try to love him more? for indeed his love for her was --
Foolish Robert Asquith! Love cometh not by endeavour; and, as for Isabel, how could she wait? Had it so pleased the Fates that she could have loved him, had there but fallen upon these maiden years a spark of that heaven's fire, so that calculation of income and other degradations might all at once have become as naught, to what heights of glorified womanhood might not this soul have risen, and what blessedness like unto his who should have held her in his sovereign hands?
Robert saw her no more. He was in London still at the date of her marriage, but shortly after that he had obtained a Government appointment in Turkey, and the ship bore him to Eastern lands. He was then three-and-twenty. Five years later news of her widowhood reached him in Constantinople, and he exchanged with her one or two cousinly letters. There was an interval, and correspondence renewed itself, this time begun by Isabel. But Robert began to travel; he wrote from India, Japan, California; then he was back in Constantinople. His father died, and Robert was wealthy; he came to England for a month, spent an hour with his cousin, returned to Turkey, still holding a Government appointment. Now at length he had returned to England for good, and was looking about for a settlement. He was forty.
So Isabel married Mr. Eustace Clarendon, M.P. At nine-and-forty he was held to be a handsome man, though in all probability he had been an ugly one twenty years before. His good looks consisted, if in anything, in a clean precision of nose and jaw, allying itself with the gray clearness of a cold eye and the display of a very satisfactory set of teeth. His hair was very scant, but he just escaped the charge of baldness; he had thin whiskers, high upon each cheek. His manners were a trifle frigid, and his eyes wandered absently as he talked with you, but it was said that he could make himself excessively agreeable when he pleased. Probably he did so to Isabel. He was much addicted to politics, and had all his life nourished political ambition; his failure to reach anything was perhaps responsible for a certain sourness of visage, a certain cynicism of tone, at times. Still, he impressed the ordinary observer as a man of parts; he had a way of uttering sententious truisms which imposed upon the average listener, and drew fine distinctions between Liberalism (which he represented) and Radicalism (which he shuddered at), calculated to make one reflect - on politics. He lived much at clubs, and, though he had purchased the fine estate of Knightswell, cared nothing for country pursuits.
They were married, and lived together for five years. Outwardly there was nothing whatever to suggest that they were not as happy as married people ordinarily are. They had no children, and Mr. Clarendon was said to be vexed at this, but such little vexations a wise man philosophically endures. And Mr. Clarendon laid claim to a certain kind of philosophy. In these latter years of his life his cynicisms of speech became rather more pronounced, but they were of a kind which with most people earned him credit for superiority. One favourite phrase he had which came to his lips whenever he happened to be talking of his worldly affairs; it was: "Après moi le déluge." He seemed to mean something special by this. Isabel grew to hate the sound of those words, as if they had been a formula of diabolical incantation.
At first she had life all her own way. They went on to the Continent, where her young mind grew, then came back to spend the winter at Knightswell. The house was kept incessantly full of guests, and Isabel shone. Mr. Clarendon never rode to hounds, but for his wife's sake hunters were bought, and Isabel proved herself the most splendid horsewoman in the field; that bareback riding at her uncle's farm had been of service to her. She entered into the joy of hunting with almost reckless abandonment; she risked leaps which made men stare, and was in at the death with a face and figure which took away one's breath. Mr. Clarendon stayed at home these days, and was in the doorway to receive her when she returned. They were not seen to greet each other.
Then Mr. Clarendon fell ill of the disease which was to kill him. It was horribly painful, necessitating hideous operations, renewed again and again; an illness lasting for three years. He went to London, and Isabel began her work of tending him. To move about his bedroom, with that clear, cold, gray eye of his following her wherever she went, was a ghastly trial, but she bore it. Society was renounced; only occasionally she went to see intimate friends. One day her maid, a woman who loved her, begged leave to tell her something - something of which she was not sure that she ought to speak.
"Whenever you leave the house, ma'am," she said, "a man follows you - follows you everywhere, and back home again."
"Why, what man?"
"A man, ma'am, who - who has been to see master several times," said the servant, with apprehension.
"You mean - a paid man? A man employed for this?"
It was enough. Isabel went out no more. A friend or two came to see her, but at length she was deserted. Her mother died, and she could not even attend the funeral. Then Mr. Clarendon was removed to Knightswell, where she tended him for yet another year. At length he died after an agony of twelve hours. His last words were: "Après moi le déluge."
It was said that he had left an extraordinary will; those who cared to do so discovered the details, and talked them over with much enjoyment of the sensation. Outwardly, Isabel's life soon returned to its former joyousness. In the season in London (though not in the former house; she took rooms each year for three months), the rest of the year at Knightswell, she pursued her social triumphs; people held that she was more charming than ever. One curious change there was in her circumstances. Immediately after her husband's death she took to live with her a little girl of seven, a very plain and unattractive child, whose name was Ada Warren. She seemed to have made of her an adoptive daughter. Those who knew Mr. Clarendon's will understood the child's presence in the house. Mrs. Clarendon never directly spoke of her.
And so twelve years of widowhood went by, and time brought the Midsummer Day which found Bernard Kingcote rambling between Salcot East and Winstoke. Mrs. Clarendon's age was now thirty-six.
One morning in August Mrs. Clarendon was sitting in the garden at Knightswell, with Ada Warren and a young lady named Rhoda Meres, a guest at the house. They had chosen a spot which was often resorted to for tea on hot afternoons, a little piece of lawn closely shut in with leafage, whence an overbowered pathway led out to the front garden. The lady of Knightswell sat reposefully in a round-backed rustic chair. She wore a pretty garden costume, a dainty web of shawl just covering her head, her crossed feet just showing below the folds of her dress. An open sunshade lay tumbled on the grass beside her, and on her lap was an illustrated paper, of which she turned the leaves with idle interest. Miss Warren sat a couple of yards away, reading a review. Her dress was plain, and of dark material, and she wore a brown broad-brimmed straw hat. The other young lady made no pretence of being occupied. With knit brows and bent head she walked backwards and forwards on the grass, biting a long leaf which she had pulled from a bough in passing. She was a pretty girl, fair-cheeked and graceful of form. She carried her hat by its ribbon, and let the stray sunlight make gleamings upon her golden hair. Her age was not quite nineteen, and the beautiful lines of her maiden figure lost nothing by her way of holding herself, whether she moved or stood.
After several side glances at her silent companions, she presently came to a pause before Mrs. Clarendon's chair, and, still holding the leaf between her lips, asked, rather plaintively:
"Why shouldn't I, Mrs. Clarendon?"
Isabel looked up with suave smiling features, and met the girl's eyes in silence for a moment.
"My dear Rhoda," she said then, "why should you?"
"No," urged the girl, "I think all the reasons are needed on the other side. I must do something, and this is what I think I'm suited for. Why shouldn't I?"
"For one thing, because you are a lady, and ladies don't do such things."
"There you have Mrs. Clarendon's last word," remarked Ada Warren, without looking up. Her voice contrasted strangely with those which had been just heard; it was hard in tone, giving clear utterance to each syllable, as if to accentuate the irony in her observation.
"Certainly," said Isabel, with good humour; "if Rhoda is content to let it be."
Still biting her leaf, Miss Meres held her head a little on one side, and, after glancing at Ada, turned her eyes again upon Mrs. Clarendon.
"But are you quite sure it is so, Mrs. Clarendon?" she urged. "I mean that ladies don't go on to the stage? It used to be so, no doubt, but things have been changing. I'm sure I've heard that both ladies and gentlemen are beginning to take to acting nowadays. And I can't see why they shouldn't. It seems to be better than --"
She stopped, and looked a little embarrassed.
"Better than doing nothing at all, you were going to say," Isabel supplied; "like myself, for instance? Perhaps it is. But I fancy that the ladies who go on to the stage are generally those who, for some reason or other, have lost their places in society."
"With a large S," put in Ada, still without looking up.
"Yes, a very large one," assented Isabel, smiling.
"And suppose," exclaimed Rhoda, suddenly bold, "I don't care anything about the society which spells itself with a large S."
Mrs. Clarendon shook her head indulgently.
"My child, you can't help caring about it."
"Not if I find something I like better outside it?"
Mrs. Clarendon crossed her hands upon the paper, and sighed a little before speaking.
"You think it would be nice to become a Bohemian, and live in contempt of us poor subjects of Mrs. Grundy. Rhoda, those Bohemians struggle for nothing so hard as to get into society. If they are successful, the best fruit of their success is an invitation to a lady's 'at home,' the unsuccessful ones would give their ears to be received in the most commonplace little drawing-room. Now you have already what they strive for so desperately. You'll see all this plainly enough when you know a little more of the world."
Rhoda turned away, and recommenced her pacing.
"What does your father say to it?" Mrs. Clarendon asked, after a short silence.
"Father? Oh! he shrugs his shoulders and looks puzzled. Poor father always does that, whatever the difficulty. If I ask him whether the butcher hasn't charged us too much a pound for veal, he shrugs and looks puzzled. I believe he'd do just the same if I asked him whether to morrow wasn't going to be the Day of Judgment."
Isabel raised her forefinger with a warning smile. Ada Warren laughed.
After another turn on the grass, the girl again paused before Mrs. Clarendon.
"Mr. Lacour told me the other day that he thought of going on to the stage himself. He didn't see any harm in it."
As she spoke, Rhoda examined the border of her hat.
"Mr. Lacour!" exclaimed Isabel. "Oh, Mr. Lacour says wonderful things, and has wonderful plans. So you confided your project to Mr. Lacour, did you?"
Isabel threw a rapid glance at Ada whilst speaking; the latter appeared busy with her book.
"No, no," disclaimed Rhoda rapidly, "I didn't say a word to him of my own idea. It only came out in conversation."
Mrs. Clarendon gave a little "h'm," and stroked the back of one hand with the fingers of the other.
"It's a mistake, my dear Rhoda," she said. "Like it or not, we have to consider our neighbour's opinion, and that doesn't yet regard the stage as a career open to gentlemen's daughters."
"There's no knowing what we may come to," remarked Ada absently.
"Then what am I to do, Mrs. Clarendon?" cried the other girl almost piteously.
"A great many things. To begin with, you have to help me to make my garden party on Monday a success. Then again oh, you have to become acquainted with my cousin, Mr. Asquith. Here he is!"
From the covered pathway issued a tall gentleman of middle age, dressed in a cool summer suit, holding his hat in his hands. His appearance was what is called prepossessing; by his own complete ease and air of genial well-being he helped to put others in the same happy state, his self-satisfaction not being of the kind which irritates by excess. His head was covered with a fine growth of black hair, which continued itself in the form of full whiskers, and with these blended the silken grace of a moustache long enough to completely conceal the lips. His features were slightly browned by Eastern suns. His eyes, as he viewed in turn each of the three ladies, had a calm, restful gaze which could have embarrassed no one, hinting only the friendliest of inward comment.
Isabel rose and stepped forward to meet him. In the act of greeting she was, perhaps, seen to greatest advantage. The upright grace of her still perfect figure, the poise of her head, the face looking straight forward, the smile of exquisite frankness, the warmth of welcome and the natural dignity combined in her attitude as she stood with extended hand, made a picture of fair womanhood which the eye did not readily quit. It was symbolical of her inner self, of the large affections which made the air about her warm, and of the sweet receptiveness of disposition which allowed so many and so different men to see in her their ideal of a woman.
"You found the trap at the station?" she asked, and, satisfied on this point, presented him to her companions. Though Asquith had just reached England in time to see his cousin once or twice before she left London, he had still to become acquainted with Ada Warren, who did not go to town with Mrs. Clarendon, but preferred to make her visits at other times, staying with Mr. Meres and his daughters. Ada was silent during the ceremony of introduction, and did not give her hand; Rhoda showed her more expansive nature and smiled prettily in Robert's face.
"I thought you would find it pleasant to come and sit here a little before lunch," said Isabel, by way of leading to conversation.
But Asquith merely bent his head; he seemed all at once to have become a trifle absent, and, after letting his gaze rest on Miss Warren for a few moments, had turned his look groundwards. But the interval was very short.
"That groom of yours who drove me over," he began, in a leisurely tone and with an appreciative smile, "is a wonderful man."
"That's interesting," said Isabel. "I fear I haven't discovered his exceptional qualities."
"They are remarkable. His powers of observation. I make a point of conversing whenever opportunity offers. The suggestive incident was a pig crossing the road; I remarked that it was a fine pig. By a singular accident I must have hit upon the man's specialty; he looked at me with gratitude, and forthwith gave me - you can't imagine - the most wonderful disquisition on pigs. He spoke as if he loved them. 'Now, a pig's heye, sir! Did you ever happen to notice a pig's heye, sir?' I was afraid to say that I had. 'There's more in a pig's heye, sir, than you'd find creditable,' - meaning credible, of course. 'There's that knowingness in a pig's heye, sir, it can't be described in words. When it isn't fierce, - and if it is, the fierceness of it there's no imagining!'"
This narration, given with much quiet humour, made Mrs. Clarendon and Rhoda laugh. Ada Warren had resumed her review, or at all events had it lying open on her lap, and showed no smile. Robert watched her with his quiet eyes. In Miss Meres he seemed to have little interest, and he looked far more frequently at Ada than at Mrs. Clarendon.
"By-the-bye, some one we passed on the road," he said presently. He had a curious habit of mentioning in this disjointed way the subject of the remark he was about to make, and, so reposeful was his habit of speech, it often seemed as if the comment would never follow. "A young man, rather good-looking, or perhaps, rather noticeable. My friend the groom told me he was a settler in these parts; a gentleman who has taken a labourer's cottage, and lives in a more or less eccentric way. It sounded interesting. Do you know anything of him?"
"Oh yes," said Isabel, "our rector, Mr. Vissian, knows him, and speaks of him in superlatives. His name is Kingcote."
"But what is he doing here? - reading, rusticating? I suppose he's taken the cottage just for the summer months?"
"Mr. Vissian says he has settled here for good - a philosopher, who is tired of town life. He comes from London. I haven't been favoured with a glimpse of him yet, but several people have spoken of him. I think I must ask Mr. Vissian to bring him here."
"A month or so of summer would be pleasant, spent in that way," observed Mr. Asquith; "but to settle finally! Something morbid about him, I suppose; he looks, in fact, rather bloodless, like a man with a fixed idea. Ten to one, he's on precisely the wrong tack; instead of wanting more of his own society, he ought to have less of it. I suppose he lives alone?"
"The worst thing for any man. I shouldn't dare to converse with myself exclusively for two consecutive days. The great preservative of sanity is free intercourse with one's fellow men - to see the world from all points, and to refrain from final conclusions."
Chat of this kind went on for a few minutes, all taking part in it except Ada.
"You are fond of the country, Miss Warren," Asquith said at length, addressing the latter directly.
"Yes, I'm fond of the country," was the reply, given in a mechanical way, and with a cold, steady look, whilst she ruffled the edges of her review. Asquith had found it at first difficult to determine whether the peculiarity of the girl's behaviour were due to excessive shyness or to some more specific cause; but shyness it certainly was not, her manner of speaking and of regarding him put that out of the question. Did she, then, behave in this way to every stranger, or was he for some reason personally distasteful to her; or, again, had something just happened to disturb her temper?
"Your liking for it, though, would scarcely go to the extent of leading you to take up a solitary abode in a labourer's cottage?"
"I can't say," Ada replied slowly. "One is often ready to do anything for the sake of being left alone."
"Ada would stipulate, however, to be supplied with the Fortnightly or the Nineteenth Century," put in Mrs. Clarendon laughingly.
"If anything could drive me into the desert," was Robert's remark, "it would be the hope of never again being called upon to look at them. I shouldn't wonder if Mr. - Mr. Kingcote, isn't it? - has fled from civilisation for the very same reason. Probably he has cast away books, and aims at returning to the natural state of man."
"By no means," said Isabel. "He has brought down quite a library."
"Alas!" exclaimed Robert, with a humorous shaking of the head, "then he is, I fear, engaged in adding to the burden which oppresses us. No wonder he hides his head; he is writing a book."
"Perhaps he is a poet, Mrs. Clarendon," puts in Rhoda.
"Perhaps so, Rhoda; and some day we may have pilgrims from all corners of the earth visiting the cottage he has glorified."
"With special omnibuses from Winstoke station," added Robert, "and a colony of licensed victuallers thriving about the sacred spot."
"Let us be thankful," exclaimed Isabel, "that a poet's fame is usually deferred for a generation or two. Ha, there's the first luncheon bell! It brings a smile to your face, Robert."
"Did I betray myself? I confess I breakfasted early."
The two girls walked towards the house together, their elders following more slowly.
"Isn't Rhoda Meres a nice girl?" said Isabel, when the object of her remark was out of hearing.
"Very," her cousin assented, though without enthusiasm. He seemed to be thinking of something else.
"The poor child has got a foolish idea into her head; she wants to go on to the stage."
"Does she - ha? Most young people have that idea at one time or another, I believe. In default of a special audience of one, you see --"
"And she is such a good, dear girl!" pursued Isabel, when Asquith showed no sign of continuing. "Her father is a literary man, the editor of a magazine called Roper's Miscellany - do you know it? He and I are the best of old friends. It's only with the thought of helping her father, I'm sure, that Rhoda has taken up this fancy; we must drive it out of her head somehow."
"Yes, I suppose so," remarked Robert, more absently than before.
Isabel glanced at him, and kept silence till they reached the house.
There was nothing remarkable about the structure itself of Knightswell; the front was long and low, built of brick faced with stone, and the level entrance was anything but imposing. The main portion of the building was early eighteenth century, but in the rear there still existed a remnant of the sixteenth century manor-house which had once stood here; the ancient hall now served as kitchen, its fine stone fireplace being filled up with an incongruous modern range. The present hall was surrounded with oak panelling, which Mr. Clarendon had obtained at the dismantling of an old house in the neighbourhood; all else of the interior had become, by successive changes, completely modernised, with the exception of an elaborate chimney-piece in the drawing-room - massive marble-work resting on caryatides - always said, though without corroborative evidence, to be a production of Grinling Gibbons. The faces of the two supporters were curiously unlike each other: on the one side it was that of a youthful maiden, who smiled, and seemed to be upraising her arms in sport; the other was an aged but not unbeautiful face, wearing an expression of long-suffering sadness, worn under the burden which the striving arms sustained. In the dining-room were a few good pictures, taken with the house from the preceding occupants. For Knightswell was not the ancestral abode of Mr. Clarendon's family; it had passed, by frequent changes, from tenant to tenant, all inglorious. Notwithstanding his historic name, Mr. Clarendon was a novus homo; his father had begun life as an obscure stockbroker, had made a great fortune, and ended his life in a comfortable dwelling in Bayswater; his daughters, there were two, married reputably, and were no more heard of.
During luncheon Asquith was still much occupied in observing Ada Warren whenever he could unobtrusively do so. The young ladies were rather silent, and even Isabel showed now and then a trace of effort in the bright flow of talk which she kept up. Between herself and her cousin, however, there was no lack of ease; a graceful intimacy had established itself on the basis of their kinship, though not exactly that kind of intimacy which bespeaks life-long association. Their talk was of the present, or of the immediate past; neither spoke of things or people whose mention would have revived the memory of years ago.
"And what are you doing with yourself?" Mrs. Clarendon inquired, when Robert had abandoned another futile attempt to draw Ada Warren into converse.
"Upon my word," was his reply, "I hardly know. The town; I see a good deal of it, indoors and out; it still has the charm of novelty. I can't say that time has begun to hang heavy on my hands; in truth, it seldom does."
"Yes, I suppose so. I find that people have a singular capacity for being bored; I notice it more than I used to. For my own part, I generally find a good deal of enjoyment to be got out of the present moment; the enjoyment of sound health, at lowest. You know how pleasant it is to look back on past days, even though at the time they may have seemed anything but delightful. I account for that by believing that the past always had a preponderant element of pleasure, though disturbing circumstances wouldn't allow us to perceive it. It's always a joy to be alive, and we recognise this in looking back, when accidents arrange themselves in their true proportion."
He glanced at Ada; the girl was smiling scornfully, her face averted to the window.
"The present being so delightful," said Mrs. Clarendon, "what joyous pleasures have you for the immediate future?"
"Grouse on Wednesday next," Robert replied, after helping himself to salt in a manner which suggested that he was observant of the number of grains he took. "An acquaintance who has a moor, or a portion of one, in Yorkshire, has given me an invitation. As I have never shot grouse, I shall avail myself of the opportunity to extend my experience."
"Promise me the pick of your first bag."
There was a project for a long drive in the afternoon; the weather was bright but sufficiently cool, and Robert professed himself delighted. He had a few minutes by himself in the drawing-room when the ladies went up to make their preparations. He gave a careful scrutiny to the caryatides, smiling, as was generally the case when he regarded anything, then glanced about at the pictures and the chance volumes lying here and there; the latter were novels and light literature from Mudie's. Then he took up a number of the Queen, and began to peruse it, sitting in the window-seat.
"What a singular choice of literature!" exclaimed Isabel, as she came in drawing on her gloves.
"The Queen? It interests me. There's something so very concrete about such writing. I like the concrete."
"The first time I ever heard so learned a term applied to so frivolous a publication. After all, Rhoda, there may be more in us poor creatures than we gave ourselves credit for."
"Do tell me," said Robert, as he laid down the paper, "what is a - I hope I may ask - what is a 'graduated plastron'?"
"Oh, this is dreadful!" laughed Isabel. "Come along, the carriage is waiting; we'll discuss graduated plastrons on our way."
"Are we not to have the pleasure of Miss Warren's company?" Robert asked, as they entered the phaeton.
"Ada never goes out with us," was Mrs. Clarendon's answer as she took the reins and prepared to drive.
There was no additional guest at dinner; the evening was helped along by Rhoda's playing and singing. Her voice was good, and she had enjoyed good teaching; this at Mrs. Clarendon's expense. It was one of many instances in which Isabel had helped her friends the Meres, her aid being given in a manner of which she alone had the secret - irresistible, warm-hearted, delicate beyond risk of offence. Ada sat in the room, but, as usual, had a book in her hands.
"You read much," said Robert, seating himself beside her and perforce obtaining her attention.
"It is a way of getting through life," the girl replied, rather less abruptly than she had hitherto spoken.
"That means that life is not quite so attractive to you as it might be?" he returned, under the cover of the music which had just begun.
"I doubt whether life is attractive to any one - who thinks about it."
She had folded her hands on the pages and was leaning back in her chair. Robert examined her and came to the conclusion that she was not quite so disagreeable in countenance as the irregularity of her features at first led one to think. She had large eyes, and, to meet them, was to be strangely impressed, almost as with the attraction of beauty. Her evening dress was of black satin, a richer and more tasteful garment than he had expected she would wear, judging from her appearance earlier in the day. Her hair, too, was very carefully arranged. The foot, which just showed itself, was not small, but beautifully shaped. Ornaments she had none.
"That is censure clearly directed against myself," Robert said, with good humour. "And yet I fancy I have thought a good deal of life."
Ada did not seem disposed to pursue the argument.
"What are you reading?" Asquith inquired.
It was a volume of Comte. She showed the title without speaking.
"You are a Positivist?"
"No; merely an atheist."
The confession was uttered in such a matter-of-fact tone that Robert was disposed to think she used the word just for the pleasure of startling him. There was, in fact, a barely perceptible glimmer in her eyes as she sat looking straight before her.
"That's rather dogmatic, isn't it?" he remarked, smiling. "The word Agnostic is better, I fancy."
"I believe it comes to very much the same thing," said Ada. "The new word has been coined principally to save respectability."
"A motive with which you have small sympathy?"
There was a silence between them.
"You play?" Robert asked, Rhoda Meres having risen from the piano.
"Only for my own amusement."
"Then certainly you play things which I should like to hear. Will you play me something that has a tune in it? I don't mean to reflect upon Miss Meres' playing; but my ear is in a rudimentary state. I should be very grateful if you would play something."
Ada seemed to harden her face against an intruding smile. She rose, however, and walked over to the piano. Mrs. Clarendon and Rhoda looked at her with undisguised surprise. Asquith noticed that her walk might have been graceful, had she not affected a sort of indifference in gait.
She seated herself at the instrument and played an operatic air; it lasted about three minutes, then she ceased. Robert looked in expectation of her resuming her former seat, but she walked straight to the door and disappeared.
Mrs. Clarendon and Rhoda Meres exchanged glances, and for an instant there was a rather awkward silence. Isabel found a subject, and talked with her wonted vivacity.
Ada did not return. About half-past ten Rhoda began to make preparations for departure; she went to one of the windows, and held the blind aside a little to look out at the night.
"Oh I what a moon!" she exclaimed. "Mrs. Clarendon, do let us just go out for a minute on to the lawn; the country is so wonderful at night."
Wrappers were at hand for the ladies, and the three went out together. The whole scope of visible heavens was pale with light; the blacker rose the circle of trees about Knightswell. The leaves made their weird whispering, each kind with its separate voice; no other sounds came from the sleeping earth.
"We often hear the nightingale," Isabel said, lowering her voice. "Perhaps it's too early yet."
Then she added:
"This is the hour of our poet's inspiration."
"What poet?" asked Robert.
"Our poet in the cottage; don't you remember?"
"Ah, the morbid young man, Poor fellow!"
Isabel suppressed a low laugh.
"Come, Rhoda dear, it's cold," she said to the girl, who had drawn a little apart.
Rhoda followed in silence, her head bent. In the hall she took her candle, and bade the two a hasty good-night.
"Why is she crying?" asked Robert, under his voice, as he entered the drawing-room again with Isabel.
The latter shook her head, but did not speak. She moved about the room for a moment; the shawl had half slipped from her shoulders, and made a graceful draping. Asquith stood watching her.
She approached him.
"I half hinted," she began, "that I had a selfish object in asking you to come here. We are good friends, are we not? - old and good friends ?"
There was a beautiful appeal upon her face, anxiety blending with a slight embarrassment. She had put aside the mask of light-heartedness, and that which it had all day been in her countenance to utter freely exposed itself. It was not so much as distress; rather, impatience of some besieging annoyance. She was more beautiful now than when Robert had read her face seventeen years ago. Still, he regarded her with his wonted smile. There was much kindness in his look; nothing more than kindness.
"The best of friends, Isabel, I hope," he replied to her.
"I am going to ask you to do something for me," she continued. "Will you sit down and listen to me? I am not sure that I do right in asking this favour of you, but you are the only one of my relatives whom I feel able to talk freely with, and I think I had rather you than any one else did this thing that I am going to ask. Perhaps you will find it too disagreeable; if so, tell me - you will promise to speak freely?"
"Certainly, I promise."
They had taken their seats. Asquith rested one of his arms on a small table, and waited, the smile lingering. Isabel gathered the shawl about her, as if she felt cold. She was a trifle pale.
"You understand perfectly," she resumed, with a certain abruptness, which came of the effort it cost her to broach the subject, "the meaning of Ada Warren's presence in this house?"
"Perfectly, I think," her cousin replied, with a slight motion of his eyebrows.
"That is to say," pursued Isabel, looking at the fringe of her shawl, "you know the details of Mr. Clarendon's will?"
He paused an instant before replying.
"Precisely," was his word, as he tapped the table.
Isabel smiled, a smile different from that with which she was wont to charm. It was one almost of self-contempt, and full of bitter memories.
"I had never heard of her," she continued, "until I was called upon to take her as my own child. Then she was sent to me from people who had had the care of her since she was three years old."
Asquith slowly nodded, wrinkling his forehead.
"Well, we will speak no more of that. What I wish to ask you to do for me is this: - Oh, I am ashamed to speak of it! It is something that I ought to have done myself already. But I am a coward; I have always been a coward. I can't face the consequences of my own - my own baseness; that is the true word. Will you tell Ada Warren what her real position is, and what mine?"
Asquith raised his head in astonishment.
"She is still ignorant?"
"I have every reason to believe so. I don't think any one will have told her."
Robert bit his upper lip.
"Has she never asked questions about her origin?"
"Yes, but only once. I told her that her parents were friends of Mr. Clarendon, and that she was an orphan, therefore I had taken her. That was several years ago."
Again there was a pause in the dialogue. Isabel had difficulty in keeping her face raised; her cheeks had lost their pallor, the blood every now and then made them warm.
"She seems a strange being," Asquith remarked. "I am not as a rule tempted to puzzle about people's characteristics, but hers provoke one's curiosity."
"I cannot aid you," Isabel said, speaking quickly. "I know her as little as on the day when I first saw her. I have tried to be kind; I have tried to --"
She broke off. Her voice had begun to express emotion, and the sound seemed to recall her to self-command. She looked up, smiling more naturally, though still with a touch of shame.
"Will you help me, cousin?" she asked.
"Certainly I will do what you wish. Do you desire me to explain everything in detail --"
"The will, the will," she interposed, with a motion of her hand. "Yes, the full details of the will."
"And if she asks me --?"
"You know nothing - that is best. You cannot speak to her on such a subject. Will you wait for me a moment?"
She rose hastily and left the room. Asquith remained standing till her return. She was only a few moments absent, and came back with a folded paper in her hand.
"This," she said, "is a full copy of the will. It might be best to read it to her, or even to let her have it to read herself. She may keep it if she wishes to."
Asquith took the paper and stood in thought.
"You have well considered this?" he asked.
"Oh, for long enough. I thank you for your great kindness."
"When shall I see her? To-morrow is Sunday. Does she go to church?"
"Then I will take the opportunity, whilst you and Miss Meres are away."
Isabel gave him her hand, and they exchanged good-nights.
Robert Asquith was in the garden before breakfast next morning, with untroubled countenance, scrutinising objects in detail, now and then suppressing a tendency to give forth a note or two of song. He walked with his hands in his pockets, not removing them when he stooped to examine the gardener's inscription stuck by the root of a flower or shrub. He had no special interest in these matters, but the bent of his mind was to observation; he avoided as much as possible mere ruminativeness. The course of his wandering brought him round to the stables; the sight of their admirable order and of the beasts in the stalls - the carriage-horse, the two beautiful ponies that Mrs. Clarendon drove, and the five-year-old chestnut which at present she rode - gave him an Englishman's satisfaction. Isabel was as active and practical in the superintendence of her stables as in every other pursuit which she regarded as duty or pleasure; the most exacting squire could not have had things in better condition. Here Robert came in contact with his acquaintance, the groom, and received from him much information about the animals, also concerning their predecessors in the stables. Strolling back to the front lawn, accompanied by the house-dog, he met Ada Warren. She wore her ordinary brown straw hat, and seemed to be coming from the park. The dog began to leap about her, barking joyously.
She spoke a quiet good-morning, but did not offer to shake hands. Robert talked a little about the fine weather and the pleasure of breathing morning air; he elicited in reply a series of assents. Ada had taken one of the dog's silky ears in her hand, and the animal suffered himself very patiently to be led thus.
"Do you remain at home this morning, Miss Warren?" Robert inquired, as they approached the house.
"In that case, may I ask if you will favour me with half-an-hour's conversation some time after breakfast?"
She looked round with frank surprise, only turning away her gaze when she had assured herself of his seriousness.
"I shall be in the library till one o'clock," she said.
"Thank you; I will come there."
Watching her at breakfast, Robert thought he perceived some traces of curiosity and anticipation in the girl's face; once, too, he caught her eyes straying in his direction. "Come," he said to himself, "there is something human in her after all. We shall see if we can't make the exhibition yet more pronounced."
As soon as Mrs. Clarendon and Rhoda Meres were gone to church, Asquith made his way to the library, carrying the document which Isabel had entrusted to him the night before. The room remained very much as it had been in Mr. Clarendon's days. When gentlemen were at Knightswell, it was used as a retreat for smoking; Isabel herself scarcely ever entered, but Ada Warren used it regularly. There were on the shelves not more than four hundred volumes, and half of these were calf-bound legal literature and blue-books, representing periods of Mr. Clarendon's career. On the table lay volumes of a different kind, many of them showing Mudie's tickets; they were works of human interest of the day, food - or at least refreshment - for an active and independent mind; French and German books were here too. Asquith glanced at the names on one or two of the yellow backs in passing, and suppressed a smile. But he thought all the better of the girl for her intellectual enterprise.
Ada sat with her back to the window, reading; at his entrance she closed her book, but did not move. He placed a chair at a little distance from her, and leaned forward, as if about to talk in a familiar manner.
"I surprised you by my request?" he began, with a smile. "It was rather formal, and necessarily so, for it is strictly a matter of business that I wish to speak of."
Ada's position had not allowed him to get a clear view of her face at first. Raising his eyes after this introduction, he was startled by what he saw. The girl was the hue of death; all the natural tint had left her cheeks, and her lips were unnaturally pale. She was pressing one hand against her left side, and her eyes showed that she was suffering from scarcely controllable agitation. He was in doubt whether to take notice of it or not, when she suddenly rose from the chair.
"You are unwell, Miss Warren --?"
She turned sharply away, and walked the length of the room.
"Shall I postpone - this business?" said Robert, remarkably interested in observing her.
"Thank you, no," was her reply, as she seated herself further from him than before. "I shall be obliged to you if you will speak plainly and directly, whatever the business is. I have a headache; a long conversation will be disagreeable to me."
"I will speak as directly as possible. At Mrs. Clarendon's request I have undertaken to make known to you certain facts regarding your - your future, of which, I understand, it has not been deemed necessary to speak hitherto. I have, in short, to tell you what were the provisions of the late Mr. Clarendon's will; they concern you nearly."
Ada's aspect was calm, but he saw that her bosom rose and fell in a way which showed an inward struggle. She gave no sign of a wish to speak.
"I have here a copy of the will," he continued, unrolling the paper. "It is long, and of course full of technicalities. Perhaps I shall do best to put the gist of it into a few plain words. To begin then, Mr. Clarendon made you heiress of all but the whole of his real and personal estate, with possession upon your attainment of your majority, or, should you marry before that age, then at your marriage. Under the will two trustees are appointed, gentlemen who were Mr. Clarendon's friends - I need not mention their names. Until either of the events which should give you possession, Mrs. Clarendon had the use of Knightswell, with all it contained, and an income from the estate of two thousand pounds a year; this, however, only on condition that she took you into her house and brought you up in every way as her own child, with care for your education such as the trustees should approve. If Mrs. Clarendon declined to accept this condition, or if she married again prior to your entering into possession, her benefit by the will was limited to an annuity of three hundred pounds."
Robert paused. His tone was as matter-of-fact as if he were demonstrating a proposition of Euclid, but a smile had at length risen to his face. It came of his observation of the listener. Ada had closed her eyes; her hands were nervously clasped upon her lap.
"You follow this, Miss Warren?"
She raised her lids and regarded him. Her bosom had ceased to heave; she seemed to have regained her ordinary state of mind.
"I follow it," she said.
"Should you die, unmarried, before the end of your twenty-first year," Asquith pursued, "the whole of the estate goes to certain very remote connections of Mr. Clarendon. - No other contingency is provided for."
"No other contingency is provided for," repeated the girl mechanically. "What do you mean by that?"
"I mean --"
Robert interrupted himself; and resumed in an off-hand way:
"Oh, other possible cases which will occur to one thinking the matter over."
Ada appeared to reflect. Her face was turned slightly upwards, and a restful expression had come upon it.
"Is it," she asked at length, "within your province to tell me any more than this?"
"I think," Robert replied, "that I have nothing more to tell. If you wish it, I will leave this copy with you; I understood Mrs. Clarendon to say that you might keep it."
"Thank you, I will do so."
She rose and took it from his hand.
"There is one thing," she said, "that I should like to ask you; I dare say you will have no objection to answer. Are the provisions of this will generally known - to Mrs. Clarendon's friends, I would say?"
"In all probability they are," was his reply.
Clearly there was nothing more to be said on either side. Any comment from Asquith was of course out of the question, and Ada, at all times so chary of her conversation, was not likely to give utterance to her feelings under the present circumstances. She moved away, slightly returned the other's bow, and went from the room.
At luncheon Ada did not appear. It was not an uncommon thing for her to take meals by herself; but Mrs. Clarendon and Robert felt that her absence to-day had a significance. She was at dinner, however, and behaved as usual. Nothing in her betrayed a change in her state of mind.
Whilst Rhoda was reading in the garden in the afternoon, Mrs. Clarendon strayed apart with her cousin.
"You have told her?" she said, meeting Robert's look.
"Yes, and left the copy of the will with her. It seems to have made her oblivious of lunch."
The exclamation was a sincere one. Robert looked surprised.
"Did she ask you many questions?" Isabel continued.
"Two: whether I had anything more to tell her; and whether I thought that the will was generally known? To the former I said 'No;' to the latter 'Yes.'
"Whether it was generally known," repeated Isabel, with a low laugh of a not very mirthful kind. Then, after a pause, "What do people say of me? What is the common talk about me? What do the men say? and - oh! the women?"
"My dear cousin, you know perfectly well what they say; what they have been saying since they first began to talk about you - that you are a charming woman, and so goodhearted that no one can for shame breathe a word against you."
"Rather, so shameless that gossip has not yet found the proper term to characterise me. Well, never mind myself; happily I shall soon cease to be an object of any general interest. But did she not ask any question about the value of the property?"
"No word of it. She kept me strictly at arm's length."
"And she displayed no - no emotion?"
"At first, yes; she was extremely agitated. But she held it down. I imagine she is what is called a woman of character. I had rather not be her husband."
Isabel made no reply, but walked on with her head bent.
"Will you let me ask you," Robert began, "had you any particular reason for wishing to inform her of these matters just now?"
"Yes, I had. There is no reason why I shouldn't tell you. There is a certain Mr. Lacour - you'll meet him here to-morrow afternoon - a young man whom I have known for some time as a friend of the Bruce Pages; their place is at Hanford, five miles off. He's a brother of Sir Miles Lacour. Well, Mr. Vincent Lacour has called on me often in town, and a week ago he lunched with us here; he's staying at the Bruce Pages' again. I rather like him, and I believe there's not a bit of harm in him really; but he seems to have been terribly wild, and he's quarrelled with his brother, the baronet. I don't suppose he's anything left to live on, and Sir Miles refuses to help him any more. We learn all this from young Lacour himself; he's remarkably frank, embarrassingly so at times. Now I half fancy he's made an impression on Ada; certainly I never knew her talk so freely with any one, or show such healthy signs of interest. It wouldn't be surprising; he's a charming young fellow, decidedly handsome, and the strangest talker. I fancied Ada looked pleased when I mentioned that he was coming to the garden party tomorrow. I don't know whether he ought to be put in the girl's way, but I had to ask the Bruce Pages, and I couldn't leave him out very well. Now you see my reason. I have never before been obliged to think of such a thing. It would be unjust to Ada to leave her in the dark as to her true position."
"This Mr. Lacour is doubtless aware of the circumstances?"
"Without a doubt."
"And you think he might --"
"It is not impossible. He must be in desperate straits."
"How old is the individual?"
"About three-and-twenty, I think. He had ten thousand pounds of his own when he came of age."
"Wherewith he has purchased experience. He must be rich in that article."
"I'm afraid he is; but I confess I like him. I don't think he would be a bad husband. I believe his oats are sown."
"I can, of course, have no opinion; but the situation is an interesting one."
They turned about, and walked a stretch of the lawn in silence.
"I wish it were over," Isabel said with a sigh. "I wish the poor girl had a good husband and all were well settled. I am tired of playing the farce."
"You look forward with - with equanimity?" Robert said hesitatingly, with a glance at her face.
"More, with eagerness. I want to throw off a weight. I shall be the happiest woman in England."
"On three hundred a year, cousin Isabel?" ventured Asquith.
"On three hundred a year, cousin Robert. I wish I had never had more. Come, we must go back to Rhoda. Isn't Rhoda a dear girl?"
On specified occasions of assembly at Knightswell, Ada did not ordinarily present herself. Mrs. Clarendon made excuses for her on the plea of indifferent health; habitual visitors understood that Miss Warren suffered much from headaches, and that she could not with impunity expose herself to unusual excitement. The headaches were a fact, but it was probably not on their account that Ada preferred as a rule her own company. Her frequent caustic utterances on the subject of the persons whom society considers, and the things with which society occupies itself, were a sufficient index of her views; the views themselves being a natural outcome of her temperament and the circumstances of her life.
But on the present Monday she appeared. To the last moments Mrs. Clarendon had been in uncertainty as to the likelihood of her doing so, though she had laughingly prophesied the event to Rhoda Meres, and persisted in spite of the latter's incredulity. Ada had made no great preparations, but was well and suitably dressed. Robert Asquith, to whom all the girl's movements were of extreme interest, promised himself the pleasure of closely observing her throughout the afternoon.
"Tell me something of the people who are coming, will you?" he asked, as he met her in the hall. "The interesting people, I mean, of course."
"That limitation will make the task an easy one," Ada replied as she buttoned a glove. Her colour was rather higher than usual, and her tone was less dry; she looked almost cheerful.
"Then of the less uninteresting; that will leave a margin for conversation, surely?"
"It all depends, of course, on one's point of view. I believe you have considerable powers of being interested, have you not?"
"Yes; I fear I boast of them. You see I find the gift valuable. In my sane moods I had rather have the dullest conversation than none at all."
"Therefore you come to me, waiting for others to arrive."
"Spare me, Miss Warren. You wouldn't believe what toil it costs me to frame and polish a compliment. I am sure you are naturally humane."
"You are sure of that? To dumb animals, I hope."
"Alas! it brings us back to the animals who are gifted with speech. Shall we have any one who talks well, independently of the matter of discourse? Remember, I am new to English society. I enjoy the gossip of idle people, provided it be good of its kind."
"I am no judge," said Ada; "but I should think Mrs. Bruce Page will satisfy you. Her tongue is so trained in current forms of speech that it has come at last to save her all trouble of superintendence. As far as my experience goes, she is nearly all that the most exacting could require."
"I must study that lady. And what of Miss Saltash, of whom I have heard?"
"Oh, she is interesting!" Ada exclaimed. "I have seen her grow red in the face in support of faith in eternal damnation. If that goes, she has nothing to live for."
Robert was obliged to confess to himself that Miss Warren was yet a trifle crude; she amused him, but he took an early opportunity of refreshing his palate from a less acid source. His thoughts continued, however, to busy themselves with her; he awaited impatiently the arrival of the young man who was supposed to have tenderly impressed this singular heiress.
But the Bruce Pages were late. Before them came Mrs. Saltash of Dunsey Priors, accompanied by her daughter Irene, whom Ada had characterised, and Lady Florence Cootes. The latter was a daughter of the Earl of Winterset; she was a constant guest at Dunsey Priors, being united in bonds of the closest friendship with Irene Saltash. It was a union very greatly indebted to ecclesiastical cement, the young ladies both holding the most pronounced views on the constitution of the world to come, and seemingly desiring to compensate themselves for a gloomy future by enjoyment of a present fruitful in consolations. They seldom quitted each other, and their chatter was lively in the extreme. Other maidens there were, who, in company with two or three young men of unimpeachable dress and converse, speedily betook themselves to lawn-tennis. Mr. and Mrs. Vissian were shortly to be seen among the guests, the lady looking very young and very pretty; she and Rhoda Meres seemed to have a good deal to say to each other. Then, as Asquith walked about with his hands behind him, the wonted smile on his lips, he heard the bustle of a new arrival, and turning, was aware of Mrs. Bruce Page. He felt sure of her identity before he had heard her name pronounced. She seemed about the same age as Mrs. Clarendon, and in some eyes probably excelled the latter in attractiveness. With rather too high a colour, she was still decidedly good-looking; not handsome, nor beautiful, but beyond dispute good-looking. Her bodily activity was surprising; she walked with the grace and liveliness of a young girl, and, as she shortly showed at tennis, could even run without making herself in the least ridiculous. Her voice, though a note or two higher than it should have been, had yet musical quality. And the use she made of it! Her greeting of the hostess was one unbroken articulate trill, lasting two minutes and a half; it embodied inquiries, responses, information, comments, forecasts, and ejaculation. All who stood around came in one by one for a share of her exhaustless utterances. She was never at a loss for an instant. Robert was presented to her, and she at once talked to him as if they had been on a footing of intimacy for years. When she interrupted her speech, it was to laugh, and this laugh was perhaps a yet more wonderful phenomenon, so clear and fresh and buoyant was it, and yet so obviously a mere outcome of the automatic contrivance which formed this lady's social vivacities. She laughed because it helped her to show her teeth, and in general became her features.
"How is it she doesn't lose breath?" Robert whispered presently to Mrs. Clarendon, his face expressive of amazement.
"Hush, that is a secret!" was the reply.
Yet Mrs. Bruce Page was not (I use the conventional standard) vulgar; she never said (as far as one could follow her) a malicious thing, was guilty of no bad taste in choice of expressions, seemed to overflow with the milk of human kindness. A silly woman, but scarcely an offensive one; probably in intimacy capable of making herself delightful and something more. Society was to be credited with this public manner of hers, and society on the whole admired the fruit of its systems.
Behind her came a young lady of seventeen, her daughter, and two young gentlemen, one her brother, the other Mr. Vincent Lacour. The girl was extremely shy, and had not a word to say for herself; having secured Mrs. Clarendon's hand, she continued to hold it, shrinking, as it were, into the shadow of the dear lady whom all who needed a protector loved. The brother, Mr. Selwyn Parkes, was a pleasant-looking young fellow, of eight-and-twenty. It was in the quality of Mr. Parkes's friend that Vincent Lacour resided at present with the Bruce Pages. Mr. Lacour himself was the last to shake Isabel's hand; her greeting was that one gives to a favourite, of whom one yet entertains a certain amount of moral disapproval. That Vincent should be a favourite where ladies were concerned was natural enough. His personal advantages were striking. Tall, slim, with a handsome head poised on a delicate neck, he exhibited much of female grace and delicacy, without the possibility of being regarded as effeminate. Of a man's health and muscle he had all that even women demand in their ideal. Black hair and a well-educated black moustache, fine, irresponsible eyes; these also were properties not to be resisted. If anything, he looked a trifle too intellectual, but this would be pardoned by those to whom it was merely suggestive of the mysterious. Of course Mr. Lacour was conscious enough of the attention he drew, and, to judge from his smile, not at all disposed to shrink from it. He might be a trifle fatuous, but he was very far from being a fool; his forehead suggested capacity for better things than those he was at present put to.
One of the first things he did was to draw Mrs. Clarendon a little aside, and speak to her in a hasty whisper.
"I beg of you to keep Mrs. Bruce Page occupied somehow or other. She'll never let me go, and I'm bored unspeakably. Help me, and I am your slave for ever!"
Isabel subdued a smile, and made no direct answer. Just as Vincent made off into a cluster of people, the lady in question hastened to Isabel's side.
"What has that boy been whispering to you?" she asked. "He's in the most execrable temper; it was all we could do to persuade him to come. He vows that his liver is out of order, and that he is possessed by diabolical promptings. Pity me for what I suffer in discharging a mother's duties to him. And, oh, Mrs. Clarendon! let him talk to your cousin - that really charming man! He's got the Civil Service into his head, now, and I'm sure Mr. Asquith can give him useful advice - about offices, and that kind of thing, you know. What is to become of the poor boy, I can't imagine! I've been at Sir Miles, in letters, for the last ten days, till at length he's as good as told me to mind my own business. Surely, never were brothers so unlike! One satisfaction is that Sir Miles can't possibly live long - if it isn't wicked to say such a thing, and I suppose it must be. He has heart disease, my dear, and in an aggravated form; so Doctor Norman Rayner tells me. I fear I have increased it by my correspondence. Where is the boy gone to? I must take him to Mr. Asquith."
"The boy" had found a pleasant seat by the side of Miss Rhoda Meres.
"You're not going to play?" he asked, seeing a racket in her hand.
"I'm in the next set," Rhoda answered. She had flushed a little as he took his place by her, and there was a sparkle in her eyes as she looked up at him.
"Can't you throw it over? Do get Sophy Page to take your place."
"Why shouldn't I play?" she asked, examining the handle of the racket.
"Oh, I don't know," replied Vincent languidly, leaning back and half-closing his eyes."Do if you like, of course."
"Have you a headache, Mr. Lacour?" asked. "Don't you feel well?"
"The fact is I don't. I feel seedy and bored."
"Pray don't let me bore you --"
She half rose.
"You know very well you don't bore me," he said, looking directly at her. Then he added, "I -- I half supposed you would have left Knightswell."
She had a quick reply on her lips, but checked it, and merely said:
"I have not."
"When do you go back to London?" he inquired, throwing one leg over the other and clasping his hands behind his head.
"I suppose I shall be back there before very long," said Vincent, looking meditatively at the sky. "Probably I shall get a clerkship at five-and-twenty shillings a week."
"I'm afraid you don't show much energy," said Rhoda, in a voice which lacked something of the indifference she meant to put into it.
"I've told you often enough I have none, Miss Meres. I'm like a piece of sea-weed; my condition is dependent on the weather."
"It's fine enough now, at all events," she said, with an attempt at a laugh.
"Oh, yes; but there's the very deuce brewing," returned Vincent, with characteristic freedom of expression. "I wish," he added slowly, "I'd somebody to help me - somebody who has energy."
"Doesn't Mr. Parkes --"
There was silence. Cries came from the tennis players, who were just out of sight, and a hum of conversation from nearer groups.
"What are you going to do when you get back to town, Miss Meres?" Vincent asked, regarding her again.
"I don't know, I'm sure," she answered vaguely. "Live as usual, I suppose; unless I take some decided step."
"Decided step? By Jove, how it refreshes me to hear you speak like that! What decided step?"
"I don't know. I'm very much in your own position, you know; I shall have to earn a living somehow."
She said it very simply, looking down, and making marks on the grass with the handle of the racket.
"A living? Women don't make a living; that's all done for them."
"Is it?" said Rhoda, and, as soon as the words were spoken, she rose, averting her face.
"There's our set called!" she exclaimed; "I must go."
He made a slight gesture as if about to exert himself to detain her; but she was gone. His eyes followed her dreamily.
"Oh, here you are, Vincent!" cried Mrs. Bruce Page, close at hand. "Have you really a headache, now? Poor boy! you don't look well. Come along with me, I want you to talk with Mr. Asquith, Mrs. Clarendon's cousin, you know. He knows all about the Civil Service."
Robert received the young man with a look critical indeed, but good-humouredly so. He did not seem to be able to take Mr. Lacour quite seriously, yet could not refuse a certain admiration.
"You are thinking of the Civil Service examinations?" he began.
"Well, I can't say I've thought much about them," Vincent replied, in his manner suggestive of easy achievement. "I suppose they're very much a matter of form - the elements - and - and so on?"
"Not quite that. And competition, you remember."
"Yes. The truth is, I haven't looked into the thing. What do they expect you to know?"
Asquith gave an outline of the attainments looked for in a candidate for the higher clerkships.
"By Jove, that's pretty strong!" was Vincent's comment.
"The competition," remarked Asquith, "makes it about the severest examination you can undergo."
"Then that's all up!" exclaimed the young man. "What would the screw be?"
"You would begin with a hundred a year, and by slow degrees rise to four," said Robert, curling his moustache.
"The deuce you would! Then I may with honour withdraw from so ignoble a competition. You can't suggest any way of making the four hundred at start? I dare say Mrs. Clarendon's told you all about me. I don't mind who knows. There's a great deal of false shame in the world, it seems to me; don't you think so? But I really think it's time I turned to something, and what's the good of one's friends if they can't suggest a plan? Of course the social structure is radically wrong. A man like myself - I have brains, I beg you to believe - oughtn't to find himself thrown out of it in this way. I shall be infinitely obliged to any one who suggests something."
It seemed to Robert, as he listened, that this young man had a turn for affecting an imbecility which was not in truth part of his character; in the matter and manner of his talk, Lacour appeared rather to yield to physical inertness than to disclose natural vacuity. It might be that he was, as he professed, suffering in body; it seemed more probable that he found a luxury in abandoning his mind to sluggish promptings, even as he showed a pronounced disinclination for activity in the disposal of his limbs. His disastrous circumstances displayed their influence in the whole man. The rate at which he had lived for the past two years was no doubt telling upon him, and nothing tended to counteract, everything rather to foster, the languor which possessed him. His vanity, doubtless, was extreme; the temptation to indulge it no less so. Mrs. Bruce Page, with her semi-sentimental coddling, her pseudo-maternal familiarity, was alone enough to relax the springs of a stronger individuality than Vincent's. Reflecting thus, Asquith maintained silence; when he raised his eyes again he saw that Ada Warren had drawn near.
Lacour gave the girl his hand, and, in a tone of almost ludicrous dolorousness, asked her how she was.
"I think I should rather ask you that," she said, with a laugh; "you have a woful countenance."
"You, at all events, are in excellent spirits," he returned.
It was true, comparatively speaking. A sudden access of self-confidence had come to her, and her manner was at moments almost joyous.
"Have you observed Ada?" Isabel took an opportunity of saying to her cousin apart. "I see now how wrong and selfish I have been."
And to Ada herself she spoke, finding the girl standing aside whilst general attention was being given to tea and ices.
"You feel well to-day?" she said, with her kindest smile.
Ada murmured something unintelligible and turned away. Mrs. Clarendon reddened slightly and, passing on, met with Vincent Lacour, who was pacing with his hands behind his back.
"Won't you have an ice ?" she asked.
"Ice? Great heavens! I should die of dyspepsia. But, Mrs. Clarendon, what is it? Why do you speak and look at me in such an unfriendly way?"
"I am not conscious of doing so. Sit down, and tell me what you have been talking about with Mr. Asquith. Has he given you useful information?"
"Decidedly useful; he's effectually knocked all those plans on the head."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. What is the difficulty?"
"There are just seventeen, one for every minute of our conversation. But very seriously, want your advice. You know, Mrs. Clarendon, I think a good deal more of your advice than of any one else's; pray don't begin to be rusty just when I've most need of you."
"Go on; I promise not to be rusty," said Isabel, laughing.
"But you are a little rusty, for all that. You're not so free and easy with me as you used to be. I suppose you've heard something new. I can't get on with people - especially women - who won't take me just as I am. You're beginning to disapprove of me, I can see that."
"My dear Mr. Lacour, I have always disapproved of you - in a measure."
"Of course; but the measure is extending. There's something in your tone I don't like. I always say yours is the one woman's voice I would walk a mile to hear, and to-day it has lost something of its quality for me."
"I grieve exceedingly - except that henceforth you will be saved from the terrible temptation to over-exert yourself. But hadn't we better talk seriously? What can I advise upon?"
"Well, it has come to this. Either I go on to the stage, or I go to Texas. Which do you recommend?"
"Of the two, Texas."
"That is not complimentary, you know."
"I only mean it to be sincere. And I think it not unlikely that you would do well in Texas. You need that kind of shaking up."
"On the other hand, my advantages are thrown away," remarked Vincent, stroking his chin. He spoke with the completest frankness; it was scarcely possible to call the speech conceited.
"I doubt whether you have any advantages for the stage," said Isabel gravely.
"But, my dear Mrs. Clarendon --"
The talk was interrupted. Lady Florence Cootes came running up.
"Oh, Mrs. Clarendon, I had all but forgotten! I am charged with a message for you from my father. He bids me tell you that he has won his bet, and that it was Charibert won the Two Thousand the year before last. It seems you had an argument about it. Do tell me what you've lost?"
"I can't, because I don't know," replied Isabel merrily.
"You don't know? Have you forgotten what the bet was?"
"The stakes were kept secret. If I won I was to ask for anything I chose if Lord Winterset won he was to do the same."
"If Lord Winterset originated that," observed Vincent, "he's an uncommonly shrewd man. I shall introduce the idea forthwith to all my female acquaintances."
Lady Florence turned away, with the face of an English virgin.
"Not with mention of the source, Mr. Lacour," said Isabel, in a manner which he could not misunderstand.
And she moved away to mingle with other ladies, a slight shade of vexation on her countenance.
Lacour rose with rather a sour face, and strolled across the lawn, looking about him as if in search of some one. Apparently his search was unsuccessful. The sun was still warm, and he sought for a shady spot, eventually getting to the east side of the house, the opposite to that where the tennis-court lay. A yew-tree hedge divided this part of the garden from the front lawn, and it was free of people. Vincent found himself by the library window, which was low, not more than three feet from the ground. The window standing wide open, he glanced in, and no sooner had done so than he laid his hands upon the sill and neatly vaulted into the room.
Ada Warren was sitting alone. She looked, and was, in fact, a little tired, and had come there for the sake of quietness.
"I have been looking for you, Miss Warren," was Vincent's excuse for the intrusion. "You'll let me sit here, won't you?"
"I shall not be so rude as to tell you to go away," she answered in a rather undecided tone.
"That's good of you. Do you know I find it restful to talk to you? I do believe you're the only person I ever spoke to quite seriously. - You don't answer?"
"I was wondering how far that might be a compliment."
"To the very tail of the last word."
"And that was - ly, if you remember," said Ada drily, giving the letter y its broader value. She looked confused as soon as she had spoken, feeling that the remark ought to have been made in a lighter tone to be quite within the limits of becoming repartee.
Vincent looked at first surprised, then leaned back and laughed.
"I'd no idea you were so witty."
"Nor, perhaps, so ill-mannered?"
It was a little piece of reparation, and probably carried her further than she intended. Vincent leaned forward on a chair which stood between them.
"You study here, don't you?" he asked, with a glance at the books on the table.
"I read here sometimes."
"I suppose you're very clever and very learned, Miss Warren?"
She moved her head slightly, and seemed unable to find a ready answer.
"Your contempt for me," he pursued, "must be unbounded."
"I don't allow myself to despise people with whom I am very slightly acquainted," said Ada; again rather more positively than she had meant. She found such a difficulty in striking with her voice the note corresponding to that which she had in her mind - a difficulty common in people who talk little and think rapidly.
"Well, yes, I suppose there is only a slight acquaintance between us," admitted Vincent. "Not so much, for instance, as would warrant my jumping in by the window just now. I do things on impulse a good deal."
"So do I," said Ada.
"You do? Why, then, there's a point of contact - of sympathy - it would be better to say, I suppose. There are very few people whom I find sympathetic. Do you fare better?"
"I can't say that I do."
Lacour allowed a moment or two to this assertion before he continued
"I've been trying to get Mrs. Clarendon's help in my difficulties," he said. "She's generally pretty sympathetic, but I believe she's giving me up. Have you heard her say anything rather savage about me of late?"
"It would be unusual energy in Mrs. Clarendon," was the girl's reply.
"Energy? Well, I don't know; I always thought she had plenty of that. But I understand you. You mean that that kind of society life doesn't conduce to activity of mind - to sincerity, shall we say?"
Ada had meant this, but it did not exactly please her to hear it from Lacour's lips.
"I don't think I ever heard Mrs. Clarendon speak evil of any one," she said, with seemingly needless emphasis, measuring her words as if in scrupulous justice.
"I'm glad to hear you say that," he observed; "and it's just what I should have thought. I like Mrs. Clarendon very much, but - well, I can't say that I find in her the moral support I am seeking."
"You are seeking moral support?" Ada asked, looking at him in her direct way, with no irony in her expression.
"Well, that's rather a grand way of putting it, after all, for one who isn't accustomed to pose and use long words. I want help, there's no doubt of that, at all events."
"Help of what kind?"
"Moral help - it's the only word, after all. Material help wouldn't be out of place, but one doesn't go round with one's hat exactly - till, that is, one's driven to it by what Homer calls a shameless stomach. Don't think I know Homer, Miss Warren; it's only a phrase out of a crib, which somehow has stuck in my mind."
"Now, if you hadn't told me that," she said, "I might have been greatly impressed."
"Pay tribute to my honesty then."
He rose from his leaning attitude and walked a few paces.
"You've no idea," he resumed, facing her, "how much better I feel since I've been talking to you; upon my word I do. As I said, there's something so restful in your society. You give me ideas, too. I don't feel sluggish as I do at other times."
He paused again, and again resumed. This time with a rather pathetic resignation in his voice.
"I suppose Mrs. Clarendon's advice is the best."
"What was that?" Ada inquired, her tone colder.
"She said I'd better give up hope in England, and go to some other country. Texas was proposed."
The girl kept silence. If Lacour gauged her rightly she was reflecting upon this advice as coming from Mrs. Clarendon. Her brows drew together, and there was the phantom of a bitter smile at her lips.
"Mrs. Clarendon thinks you would be better off in Texas?" she asked, with indifference not so skilfully assumed but that this shrewd young man could see through it.
"Yes; she seems to think I should be better off anywhere than in England. I dare say she's right, you know. My friends are about getting tired of me; it's time I made myself scarce."
"And what would you do in Texas?
"Oh, pretty much anything. The kind of work you see farm labourers doing here - rail-splitting, sheep-washing and driving, and so on."
"You feel a call to such occupations?"
"Well, I have Mrs. Clarendon's advice."
"Mrs. Clarendon's advice!" she repeated. "Is Mrs. Clarendon's advice decisive with you?"
"I believe she has a friendly interest in me, and I shouldn't wonder if she's right. Other people have advised the same thing. They've given me up, you see, one and all."
His voice was more pathetic still. He had reseated himself; and leaned back with his eyes closed. Mr. Lacour did this not unfrequently when speaking with persons whom he desired to interest.
She did not speak, and he rose, as if with an effort.
"Well, I'll be off; I bore you. Will you permit me to make use of the window for exit?"
"Why not?" she replied mechanically.
He turned and faced her again.
"Of course fellows sometimes make a fortune out there. I might do that, you know, if only - well, if I only had something to work for."
"A fortune," Ada suggested.
"No, I don't mean that," he replied, with fine sadness. "That doesn't appeal to me. If you can only believe it, I have other needs, other aspirations. The fortune would be all very well, but only as an adjunct. A man doesn't live by bread alone."
"Of course it's absurd," he resumed, making an impatient motion with his hand; "but if only I had a little more impudence I should like to tell you that - well, that it was never so hard for me to bring a talk to an end as this of ours, Miss Warren. You've given me what no one else ever did, but you've - you've taken something in exchange. I dare say I shan't see you again; will you shake hands with me before I go?"
She stood looking straight into his face, her eyes larger than ever in their desperate effort to read him. Vincent approached to take her hand.
"Ah, there you are!" cried a voice from outside the window. "Vincent, I've been looking for you everywhere; you're keeping us waiting. Miss Warren, I beg your pardon a thousand times; I was so taken up with the thought of that boy that I only saw him at first. I know I shall have your gratitude, however; poor Mr. Lacour is decidedly ennuyeux to-day."
His face seemed to indicate a rather more positive state, but it was only for an instant. Then he shook hands hastily, without speaking, and vaulted out into the garden.
"Well!" exclaimed Mrs. Bruce Page, "that's a nice way of leaving a lady's presence. But I suppose he's practising Texan habits. Good-bye, Miss Warren. Do so wish you'd come over and see us. May I shake hands with you through the window? Indeed, we are bound to be off this instant. Good-bye!"
Rhoda Meres was standing by Mrs. Clarendon in front of the house when Mrs. Bruce Page came round with her captive.
"You'd never believe where I found him!" cried the voluble lady. "Having exhausted the patience of every one else, he'd positively tracked poor Miss Warren - who I'm sure isn't looking very well - to the library, and was boring her shockingly."
Lacour did his bowing and hand-shaking with the minimum of speech. When he touched Rhoda's hand there was something so curious in its effect upon his sense of touch that he involuntarily looked at her face. She was very pale.
On the following morning Robert Asquith returned to London, to make ready for his grouse-shooting expedition on Wednesday. Rhoda Meres remained at Knightswell one more day. On Tuesday she was not at all well. Between Ada and her very fair relations existed; the girls were not intimate, but they generally discovered a common ground for companionship, which was more than could be said of Ada's attitude towards any other female acquaintance. When Rhoda kept her room in the morning it was natural that Ada should go to her, and seek to be of comfort. She could be of none, it proved; after a few efforts, Rhoda plainly begged to be left alone with her headache.
At midday Mrs. Clarendon herself entered the room, bringing in her hand a little tray. Rhoda was by this time sitting in a deep chair, and professed herself better. She had not slept during the night, she said, and was feeling the effects; doubtless the unwonted excitement of the party had been too much for her. Isabel talked to her quietly, and saw that she ate something, then sat by her, holding the girl's hands.
"I have a letter from your father this morning," she said. "He seems to miss you sadly. But for that, I should keep you longer."
"I'm afraid he must get used to it," was Rhoda's reply, cheerlessly uttered.
"I shall not stay at home."
"What shall you do?" Isabel asked quietly.
"Go somewhere - go anywhere - go and find work and earn a living!"
"But I think you have work enough at home."
"I am not indispensable."
"I believe you are. I don't think your father can do without you."
"Why can't he? Hilda is at home quite enough to look after the servant. What else does he want with me?"
"Much else, dear Rhoda. Your sympathy, your aid in his work, your child's love. Remember that your father's life is not a very happy one. You are old enough to understand that. You know, I think, that it never has been very happy. Can't you find work enough in cheering him?"
For reply the girl burst into tears.
"Cheer him!" she sobbed. "How can I cheer any one? How can I give comfort to others when my own life is bare of it? It's easy for you to show me my duty, Mrs. Clarendon. Tell me how I am to do it!"
Isabel put her arm about the shaken form, and there was soothing in the warm current of her blood.
"I cannot tell you how to do it, Rhoda," she said, when the sobs had half stilled themselves. "My own is too much for me. But I can - with such force of love as is in me - implore you to guard against mistakes, beseech you not to heap up trouble for yourself through want of experience, want of knowledge of the world, through refusal to let older ones see and judge for you. My own life has been full of lessons, though I dare say I have not suffered as much as others would have done in my place, for I have a temperament which easily - only too easily - throws aside care. If only I could live it over again with all my experience to guide me!"
"You don't understand me," said the girl, with a fretfulness she tried to subdue. "You don't know what my trials are. No amount of experience could help me."
"Not against suffering; no. I won't talk nonsense, however well it may sound. But you speak of taking active steps, Rhoda. There experience can give very real aid."
"Mrs. Clarendon," said Rhoda, after a short silence, "I'm afraid I haven't a very good disposition. I don't feel to my father as I ought; I don't care as much for anybody as I ought - for any of my relations, my friends. I'm not happy, and that seems to absorb me."
"You don't care for me, Rhoda? - not for me, a little bit of sincere affection?"
The voice melted the girl's heart, so wonderful was the power it had.
"I love you with all my heart!" she cried, throwing her arms about Isabel. "You make me feel it!"
"Dear, and that is what I cannot live without," said Isabel. "I must have friends who love me - simple, pure, unselfish love. I have spent my life in trying to make such friends. I haven't always succeeded, you know, just because I have my faults - oh, heaps of them! and often I'm as selfish as any one could be. But a good many do love me, I think and trust. Love has a different meaning for you, hasn't it, Rhoda? I don't think I have ever known that other kind, and now I certainly never shall. It asks too much, I think; mine is not a passionate nature. But if you could know how happy I have often been in the simple affection of young girls who come and tell me their troubles. If I had had children, I should have spoilt them dreadfully."
Her eyes wandered, the speech died for a moment on her lips.
"Rhoda," she continued, taking both the girl's hands, "some day, and before long, I shall want your love and that of all my dear friends more than ever. Something - never mind, I shall want it, and I have tried so hard to earn it, because I looked forward and knew. All selfish calculation, you see," she added, with a nervous laugh, "but then it's only kindness I ask for. You won't take yours away? You won't do anything that will put a distance between us? Nothing foolish? Nothing ill-considered? You see, I'll put it all on my own account. I can't spare you, I can't spare one who loves me!"
Mrs. Clarendon accompanied Rhoda next day to Winstoke station. On her way back she drove to several cottages where it was her custom to call, and where the dwellers had good cause to welcome her. Of sundry things which occurred to her in the course of these visits, she desired to speak with Mr. Vissian, and accordingly stopped at the rectory before driving through her own gates. The front door stood open, and with the freedom of intimacy, she walked straight in and tapped at the parlour door, which was ajar. That room proving empty, she passed to the next, which was the rector's study, and here too tapped. A Voice bade her enter - to her surprise an unfamiliar voice. She turned the handle, however, and looked in.
A young man was sitting in the rector's easy-chair, a book in his hand. He rose on seeing an unknown lady. They looked at each other for a moment, with a little natural embarrassment on both sides. Each rapidly arrived at a conclusion as to the other's identity, and the smile in both cases expressed a certain interest.
"Pardon me," Mrs. Clarendon said; "I am seeking the rector, or Mrs. Vissian. Can you tell me if either is at home?"
"The rector, I believe, is still away," was the reply, "but Mrs. Vissian is in the garden. I will tell her."
But in the same moment Mrs. Vissian appeared, carrying a basket of fruit. She had garden gloves on her hands. Behind her came Master Percy. There was exchange of greetings; then, in response to a look from Mrs. Clarendon, the youthful matron went through a ceremony of introduction. Mrs. Clarendon and Mr. Kingcote were requested henceforth to know each other, society sanctioning the acquaintance.
"Your name is already familiar to me," said Isabel; "I have been looking forward to the pleasure of meeting you some day. It was in fear and trembling that I knocked at the sanctuary; Mr. Vissian will congratulate himself on having left a guardian. Those precious volumes; who knows, if there had been no one here --?"
"And how are you, Percy?" she asked, turning to the child, who had come into the library, and holding to him her hand. Percy, instead of merely giving his own, solemnly knelt upon one knee, and raised the gloved fingers to his lips. His mother broke into a merry laugh; Mrs. Clarendon smiled, glanced at Kingcote, and looked back at the boy with surprise.
"That is most chivalrous behaviour, Percy," she said.
Mrs. Vissian still laughed. Percy, who had gone red, eyed her reproachfully.
"You know I am a page to-day, mother," he said, "that's how a page ought to behave. Isn't it, Mr. Kingcote?"
Isabel drew him to her and kissed him; a glow of pleasure showed through her smiling.
"Percy is a great many different people in a week," explained Mrs. Vissian. "To-morrow he'll be a pirate, and then I'm afraid he wouldn't show such politeness."
"That shows you don't understand, mother," remarked the boy. "Pirates are always polite to beautiful ladies."
There was more laughter at this. Kingcote stood leaning against the mantelpiece, smiling gravely. Percy caught his eye, and, still confused and rather indignant, went to his side.
"Percy still has ideals," Kingcote observed, laying his hand on the child's head.
"Ah, they're so hard to preserve!" sighed Isabel. Then, turning to Mrs. Vissian, "I want a word or two with you about things that are painfully real. Shall we go into the sitting-room?"
She bowed and said a word of adieu to Kingcote, who stood looking at the doorway through which she had disappeared.
Two days later fresh guests arrived at Knightswell, and for a week there was much riding and driving, lawn-tennis, and straying about the garden and park by moonlight. Then the house of a sudden emptied itself of all its occupants save Ada Warren. Mrs. Clarendon herself went to stay at two country places in succession. She was back again about the middle of September. Ada and she found themselves once more alone together.
Early on the day after her arrival Isabel took a turn of several miles on horseback. She had risen in the morning with somewhat less than her customary flow of spirits, and the exercise would no doubt help her to become her self again. It was a very soft and balmy autumn day; the sky was cloudy, but not with presage of immediate rain, and the distance was wonderfully clear, the rolling downs pencilled on sky of bluish gray. Sounds seemed unnaturally audible; she often stayed her horse to listen, finding something very consonant with her mood in the voices of the resting year. When she trotted on again, the sound of the hoofs on the moist road affected her with its melancholy monotony.
"Am I growing old?" she said to herself. "It is a bad sign when riding fails to put me into good spirits. Perhaps I shall not care to hunt; a good thing, if it prove so. I lose less."
She was returning to Winstoke by the old road from Salcot East, and presently rode past the cottage at Wood End. A window on the ground floor was open, and, as she went by, Kingcote himself came to it, having no doubt heard the approaching horse. Isabel bowed.
"Why didn't I stop and speak?" she questioned herself. "It would have been kind. Indeed, I meant to, but my hands somehow wouldn't obey me at the moment."
A hundred yards farther she met a village lad, carrying a very unusual burden, nothing less than a book, an octavo volume. Isabel drew rein.
"What have you got there, Johnny Nancarrow?" she asked.
The youngster turned the book over, regarding it much as if it were a live thing.
"Fayther picked un oop corner o' Short's Aacre," he replied. "He says it b'longs to the stranger at Wood End, and I've got to taake it there."
"Let me look."
It was a volume of the works of Sir Thomas Browne. Turning to the fly-leaf; Isabel saw the name, "Bernard Kingcote," written there.
"How did it come at the corner of Short's Acre, I wonder?"
"Fayther says the stranger ligs aboot, spellin' over his books, and he'll have left this behind un by hap."
She turned over the leaves, absently; then her face brightened.
"Don't trouble to go any farther, Johnny," she said. "I'll take the book to its owner myself; I know him. And here's something for your good intention."
She turned her horse. The boy stood watching her, a gape of pleasure on his face, and still gazed, cap in hand, till a turn of the road hid her; then he jogged back home, whistling. The sixpence had something to do with it no doubt; yet more, perhaps, the smile from the Lady of Knightswell.
Isabel rode at a very gentle pace; once she seemed on the point of checking her horse. But she was already within sight of the cottage, and she went at walking pace up to the door. The window still stood open, and she could see into the room, but it was empty. Its appearance surprised her. The flagged floor had no kind of covering; in the middle stood a plain deal table, with a writing desk and books upon it, and against the opposite wall was a bookcase full of volumes. A less luxurious abode it would not have been easy to construct. The sides of the room had no papering, only whitewash; one did not look for pictures or ornaments, and there were none. A scent of tobacco, however, came from within.
"One comfort, at all events, poor fellow," passed through her mind. "He must have been smoking there a minute or two ago. Where is he now?"
She knocked at the door with the handle of her whip. At once she heard a step approaching, and the door was opened. Kingcote stood gazing at her in surprise; he did not smile, and did not speak. He had the face of one who has been in reverie, and is with difficulty collecting himself.
"How do you do, Mr. Kingcote?" began Isabel. "I am come to restore to you a book which has been found somewhere in the fields. I fear it has suffered a little, though not so much as it might have done."
He took the volume, and reflected for an instant before replying.
"I thank you very much, Mrs. Clarendon. Yes; I had quite forgotten that I left it behind me. It was yesterday. I should have been sorry to have lost him."
"The book is evidently a favourite; you handle it with affection."
"Yes, I value Sir Thomas. You know him?"
"I grieve to say that I hear his name for the first time."
"Oh, you would like him; at least, I think you would. He is one of the masters of prose. I wish I could read you one or two things."
"I'm sure I should be very glad. Will you come and lunch with us to-day, and bring the book with you?"
Kingcote had his eyes fixed upon her; a smile gathered in them.
"I'm afraid --" he began; then, raising his eyebrows with a humorous expression, "I am in no way prepared for the ceremony of visiting, Mrs. Clarendon."
"Oh, but it will be in no way a ceremony!" Isabel exclaimed. "You will do me a great pleasure if you come wholly at your ease, just as you would visit Mr. Vissian. Why not?" she added quickly. "I am alone, except for the presence of Miss Warren, who always lives with me."
"Thank you," said Kingcote, "with pleasure I will come."
"We lunch at half-past one. And you will bring Sir Thomas? And let me keep him a little, to remove the reproach of my ignorance?"
Kingcote smiled, but made no other reply. She leaned down from her horse and gave him her hand; he touched it very gently, feeling that little Percy Vissian's fashion of courtesy would have been far more becoming than the mere grasp one gives to equals. Then she rode away. Isabel was, as we know, a perfect horsewoman, and her figure showed well in the habit. Kingcote fell back into his reverie.
He had but one change of garments at all better than those he wore; not having donned them for more than two months, he found himself very presentable, by comparison, when he had completed his toilet before the square foot of looking-glass which hung against the wall in his bedroom. His hair had grown a trifle long, it is true, but that rather became him, and happily he had not finally abandoned the razor. His boots were indifferently blacked by the woman who came each day to straighten things, so he took a turn with the brushes himself.
"After all," he reflected, "it is a ceremony. I lack the courage of the natural man. But I would not have her accuse me of boorishness."
And again: "So this is the Lady of Knightswell? The water of the well is enchanted, Percy told me. Have I already drunk the one cup which is allowed?"
He reached the house-door just before the hour appointed for luncheon. With heartbeats sensibly quickened he followed the servant who led him to the drawing-room. Mrs. Clarendon and Ada were sitting here together. Isabel presented him to Miss Warren, then took the volume from his hands and looked into it.
"You know Sir Thomas Browne, no doubt, Ada," she said.
"I know the 'Urn-burial,'" Ada replied, calmly examining the visitor.
"Ah me, you put me to shame! There's the kind of thing that I read," she continued, pointing to a "Society" journal which lay on the table. "By-the-bye, what was it that Mr. Asquith said in defence of such literature? I really mustn't forget that word. Oh, yes, he said it was concrete, that it dealt with the concrete. Mr. Kingcote looks contemptuous."
"On the whole I think it's rather more entertaining than Sir Thomas Browne," remarked Ada. "At all events, it's modern."
"Another argument!" exclaimed Isabel. "You an ally, Ada! But don't defend me at the expense of Mr. Kingcote's respect."
"Mr. Kingcote would probably respect me just as much, or as little, for the one taste as for the other."
"Miss Warren would imply," said Kingcote in a rather measured way, due to his habits of solitude, "that after all sincerity is the chief thing."
"And a genuine delight in the Newgate Calendar," added the girl, "vastly preferable to an affected reverence for Shakespeare."
Kingcote looked at her sharply. One had clearly to take this young lady into account.
"You sketch from nature, I believe, Miss Warren?" he asked, to get the relief of a new subject.
"To please myself; yes."
"And to please a good many other people as well," said Mrs. Clarendon. "Ada's drawings are remarkably good."
"I should so much like to see your drawing of the cottage at Wood End," said Kingcote.
"When was that made?" Isabel inquired, with a look of surprise.
Luncheon was announced. As they went to the dining-room, Kingcote explained that he had passed Miss Warren when she was engaged on the sketch, before ever he had thought of living in the cottage.
"Was it that which gave you the idea?" Isabel asked.
"Perhaps it kept the spot in my mind. I was on a walking tour at the time."
"Not thinking of such a step?"
"No; the idea came subsequently."
During the meal, conversation occupied itself with subjects such as the picturesque spots to be found about Winstoke, the interesting houses in that part of the county, Mr. Vissian and his bibliomania, the precocity of Percy Vissian. Ada contented herself with a two-edged utterance now and then, not given however in a disagreeable way; on the whole she seemed to like their guest's talk. Kingcote several times found her open gaze turned upon himself; and was reminded of the evening when she parted from Mr. Vissian at the gates of Knightswell.
The drawing-room had French windows, opening upon the lawn. When they had repaired thither after lunch, Ada, after sitting in silence for a few moments, rose and went out into the open air. Mrs. Clarendon followed her with her eyes, and seemed about to speak, but in the end let her pass unaddressed.
Kingcote was examining the caryatides on either side of the fireplace. He turned, saw that his hostess was alone, and came to a seat near her.
"Are you not very lonely in your cottage?" Isabel asked.
"Sometimes, yes. But then I went there for the sake of loneliness."
"It isn't rude to ask you? You are doing literary work, no doubt?"
"No; I am doing no work at all."
"But however do you spend your time in that dreadful place?"
"Dreadful? Does it show to you in that light?"
"Picturesque, I admit; but --"
She paused, with her head just on one side.
"I can well understand the horror with which you regard such a mode of life," said Kingcote, laughing. "But I have never had the habit of luxury, and, so long as I am free, nothing else matters much."
"Free from what?"
"From sights and sounds which disgust me, from the contiguity of mean and hateful people, from suggestions which make life hideous; free to live with my fancies, and in the thoughts of men I love."
Isabel regarded him with a half-puzzled smile, and reflected before she spoke again.
"What and where are all these things which revolt you?" she asked.
"Wherever men are gathered together; wherever there is what is called Society, and, along with it, what is called a social question."
"But you are not a misanthropist?"
Kingcote was half amused to perceive the difficulty she had in understanding him. Suggestions of this kind were evidently quite new to her; probably she did not even know what he meant by the phrase "social question."
"I am not, I believe, a misanthropist, as you understand the word. But I had rather alone than mix with men in general."
"To me it would be dreadful," said Isabel, after a moment's thought. "I cannot bear solitude."
"The society of refined and cultured people is the habit of your life."
"Refined - in a sense. Cultured? - I am not so sure of that. You would not call them cultured, the people I live amongst. I am not a clever woman, Mr. Kingcote. My set is not literary nor artistic, nor anything of that kind. I am disposed to think we should come into the category of 'mean and hateful people' - though of course you wouldn't like to tell me so."
"I was thinking of quite other phases of life. My own experience has not been, on the whole, among people who belong to what is called society. I have lived - in a haphazard way - with the classes that have no social standing, so, you see, I have no right to comment upon your circles."
Isabel glanced at him, and turned her eyes away. A fan was lying on the table close by her; she reached it, and played with the folds.
"But at all events," she resumed, as if to slightly change the tone, "you have had the Vissians. Don't you find them delightful? I do so like Mr. Vissian, with his queer book-hunting, and Mrs. Vissian is charm itself. These are congenial associates, no doubt?"
"Very; I like them extremely. Has Mr. Vissian told you how my acquaintance with him began?"
"Nothing, except that you met somehow in connection with the cottage."
"The good rector is wonderfully discreet," said Kingcote, with a smile. And he related the story of the Midsummer Day on which he walked from Salcot to Winstoke.
"It really was an act of unexampled generosity on Mr. Vissian's part, to trust a stranger, with so dubious a story. But the first edition of 'Venice Preserved' no doubt seemed to him a guarantee of respectability. I had the book bound during the few days that I spent in London, and made him a present of it when I returned."
"You have friends in London?" Isabel asked. "Relations?"
"A sister - married. My parents are not living."
"But of friends, companions?"
"One, an artist. Did you visit the Academy this year? There was a picture of his - his name is Gabriel - a London street scene; perhaps you didn't notice it. You would scarcely have liked it. The hanging committee must have accepted it in a moment of strangely lucid liberality. By which, Mrs. Clarendon, I don't mean to reflect upon your taste. I don't like the picture myself; but it has great technical merits."
"Is he young, like yourself?"
"Like myself?" Kingcote repeated, as if struck by the expression.
"Certainly. Are you not young?"
"I suppose so," said the other, smiling rather grimly. "At all events, I am not thirty in years. But it sounded curious to hear the word applied to myself."
Isabel laughed, opening and closing the fan.
"But Gabriel is a fine fellow," Kingcote exclaimed. "I wish I possessed a tenth part of his energy. There he works, day after day and week after week, no break, no failing of force or purpose, no holiday even - says he hasn't time to take one. He will make his way, of course; such a man is bound to. Resolutely he has put away from himself every temptation to idleness. He sees no friends, he cares for no amusement. His power of working is glorious."
"He is not, of course, married?"
Kingcote shook his head.
"That singleness of purpose - how splendid it is! He and I are opposite poles. I do not know what it is to have the same mind for two days together. My enthusiasm of to-day will be my disgust of to-morrow. I am always seeking, and never finding; I haven't the force to pursue a search to the end. My moods are tyrannous; my moods make my whole life. Others have intellect; I have only temperament."
There was no excitement in his way of uttering these confessions, but he began reflectively and ended in a grave bitterness.
"I think I know something of that," Isabel said in return. "I, too, am much subject to moods."
"But they do not affect the even tenor of your life," said Kingcote. "They do not drive you to take one day an irrevocable step which you will repent the next. They have not made your life a failure."
"Have they done so in your case?" Isabel asked, with a look of serious sympathy. "Pray remember your admission that you have not yet thirty years."
"The tale of my years is of small account. I shall not change. I know myself; and I know my future."
"That you cannot. And, from what you have told me, I think your present mode of life most unfortunate, most ill-chosen."
There was a shadow at the window, and Ada re-entered the room.
"Won't you let us see the sketch that was spoken of?" asked Mrs. Clarendon, turning to her.
"I don't know where to find it at present," Ada replied, moving to a seat in a remote part of the room.
"Do you think of living in that cottage through the winter?" Isabel asked of Kingcote, when there had been silence for a moment.
"Probably through many winters."
"You remember that there is a considerable difference between our climate at present and what it will be in a couple of months or less."
"I shall lay in a stock of fuel. And it will interest me. I have never spent a winter in the country; I want to study the effects."
"The effects, I fear," said Isabel, smiling, "are more likely to be of interest to our good friend Doctor Grayling."
"Or even to the respectable undertaker, whose shop is in the High Street?" added Kingcote, with a laugh. "It doesn't greatly matter."
He rose and walked to the window.
"Do you remain here through the winter?" he asked.
"I believe so; though I cannot say with certainty. I like to be here for the meets."
"The hunting, you know."
"Ah, you hunt?"
"Mr. Kingcote is shocked, Ada. He thinks that at my age I should have abandoned all such vanities."
"Or perhaps wonders more," remarked the girl, "that you ever indulged in them."
Kingcote looked from one to the other, but kept silence.
"Oh, but we have altogether forgotten Sir Thomas!" Isabel exclaimed. "Where is he? Do read us something, Mr. Kingcote."
"There are many passages marked in the book," he said. "Will you let me leave it with you, that you may glance through it? Perhaps it is better suited for reading to oneself."
"Very well; but I will do more than glance. I once knew what it was even to study, Mr. Kingcote, though you will have a difficulty in believing it."
"The idea is not so incongruous," he said, half seriously.
"Though passably so. You are not going?"
"I will, if you please."
A heaviness seemed to have fallen upon him during the last few minutes; a smile was summoned only with difficulty, and his eyes had a weary look.
"But now that we know each other by more than hearsay," said Isabel, "you will come and see us again?"
"Yourself and Miss Warren, gladly; but if I am remiss in visiting you will not misunderstand the reason that keeps me away?"
"It shall be as you wish. Ada and I will let you know when we are alone."
Kingcote made his way back to Wood End.
Since the disclosure made by Asquith to Ada Warren, the latter and Mrs. Clarendon had continued to live on precisely the same terms as before; no reference, however little explicit, had been made on either side to the subject which naturally occupied the thoughts of both. Ada was not in herself the same as before she understood her position; many little indications which had been wrought in her showed themselves involuntarily. But not in her behaviour to Mrs. Clarendon; that, as hitherto, was cold and reserved, at most the familiarity which comes of companionship in the external things of life.
It had always been so; there was a barrier between the two which only united effort could remove, and, though there had been impulses on both sides, a common emotion had never arisen to overthrow the obstacle. They did not understand each other, and, after so many years, there was small chance that they ever would.
Very dear in the memory of both was that day when Ada was first seen at Knightswell. Mr. Clarendon died at the end of January; a fortnight later the child was brought over from London by a member of the deceased man's firm of solicitors. She was poorly dressed, and her teeth chattered after the cold journey. She was handed over to a servant to be attended to, whilst Mrs. Clarendon held a conversation with the lawyer in the library. When the legal gentleman had lunched, and was on his way back to town, Ada was sent for to the boudoir.
An overgrown girl of seven years, with a bad figure, even for a child of that age when grace is not a common attribute, with arms which seemed too long, and certainly were so in relation to the sleeves which cased them, with a thin neck, and a positively ugly face - that was what Isabel saw when she raised her eyes in anticipation at the opening of the door. A face decidedly ugly, and, for Isabel, with something in it more repellent than mere ugliness; something for which she had at once looked, and which she found only too unmistakably. The face regarded her half in fear, half in defiance; there seemed no touch of shyness in the gaze, and Isabel was not in a mood for perceiving that it was really excess of shyness which formed the expression. The child had been washed and warmed, but had not eaten yet; she had refused to eat. She and Isabel looked at each other for a little space; then the latter summoned the attendant maid by a gesture to her side.
"Have her properly clothed," she said in a low voice, "and do what you can to make her at home in the room upstairs. Her own maid will be here to-morrow."
"Yes, ma'am," said the servant; adding, with a nervous cough, "must it be mourning, ma'am?"
Mrs. Clarendon uttered a very clear "No," and gave a few other directions.
"Let her be put to bed at seven o'clock, and tell me to-morrow morning how she has passed the night."
All that was as living to-day in Ada's memory as if but a week had intervened. She saw the beautiful black-clad lady sitting by the fire, holding a fan to guard her face against excessive heat, and she heard several of the orders given. That night she had gone to bed hating the beautiful lady with a precocious hatred.
Three days went by before the two met again. Ada was now neatly attired, and her long hair, previously unkempt, had been done up and made presentable. It only made her neck look the longer and thinner, and put into relief the hard lines of her thin face. The probability was she had hitherto been half-starved. She was brought to the boudoir, and Mrs. Clarendon bade the servant go.
"Will you come and sit here by the fire?" Isabel said, speaking as softly as she could.
A low seat had been put by the hearth-rug in readiness. The child approached, swinging her long arms awkwardly, and seated herself on the edge of it.
"Your name is Ada, isn't it?"
"You haven't a father or mother, have you, Ada?"
"That is why you are come to live with me. I haven't a little girl of my own, so I'm going to take care of you, and treat you like my own child. Do you think you can be happy with me?"
"I don't know."
The child spoke with a detestable London-working-class accent, which made her voice grate on Isabel's ears even more than it otherwise would have done.
"I shall do my very best to be kind to you," Isabel continued, after a struggle with her feelings. "Have you been happy till now - I mean with the other people in London?"
"No," was the decided answer.
"Weren't they kind to you?"
"I don't know."
Isabel rose and walked about the room. The little creature was loathsome to her.
"Do you like the toys I've got for you?" was her next question from a distance.
"I don't care for toys."
There was another silence.
"Would you rather sit here with me, or be up in your own room?"
"Rather be upstairs."
"Then I'll take you. Will you go hand-in-hand with me?"
She led the child back to the room which had been made into a nursery, and where there were dolls, and bricks, and other things of the kind supposed to be delightful to children.
"Wouldn't you like to dress this nice doll?" Isabel asked, taking up one of the unclad abortions.
"Have you been to school yet, Ada?"
"And can you read ?"
Isabel tested her, and found that the reply had been accurate; but for the ear-jarring pronunciation, the reading was remarkable for a child of seven.
A person answering to the description of nursery-governess had been found for the child, and to her care Ada was for a long time almost exclusively left. Isabel went into the nursery daily and spoke a few words. More than this she could not do, her soul was in revolt.
She did not quit Knightswell throughout the summer, but in September she went with friends to the south coast. On her return she paid an early visit to the nursery. It was afternoon, and darkness was gathering. Ada was lying on the floor asleep, a book which she had been reading lying beside her. Isabel knelt down and looked at the child, whose face was still almost haggard, and had an expression of suffering beyond her years.
"You poor, poor thing!" she said to herself, pitying at last, though she could not do more. "I will try hard to do my duty by you. You will never love me, and will think meanly enough of me some day."
As Ada grew older, the extreme sullenness, which seemed to be her disposition, wore off a little. She was outwardly civilised, she learned to speak the English of refinement, she made for herself all manner of interests, none of them very childlike; and to Mrs. Clarendon she assumed the demeanour which was to persist, with very slight alteration, from that time onwards. When she was ten years old Isabel engaged a better governess for her. It became evident that the girl had brains. She showed, too, a pronounced faculty for drawing; a teacher accordingly came over once a week from the nearest town. At the age of fourteen she for the first time accompanied Mrs. Clarendon to London, and stayed with her there for the couple of months which were all that Isabel permitted herself that year. Ada had her own rooms, and only saw Isabel's most intimate acquaintances; her time was chiefly devoted to lessons of various kinds.
Isabel took this step in consequence of troublous symptoms in the girl's life. Ada had always been a perfectly tractable child, and had given as little trouble as a child could. She never cried; her way of expressing indignation or misery was to hide herself in the remotest corner she could find, and there remain till she was discovered, when she suffered herself to be led away in silence. Only once had Isabel, softly approaching the half-open door of Ada's bedroom at night, believed that she heard a sob. She entered and spoke; Ada was awake, but indignantly protested that she had not been crying. Isabel felt that there was not a little obscure suffering in the child's existence, and once or twice, overcome by her compassionate instincts, tried to speak warmly, if perchance she might find a means of winning the confidence which she had not felt able to seek; but the result was not encouraging. At length it seemed that the hidden misery was taking a form which could not be disregarded, which demanded sympathy and motherly tenderness. Hitherto Ada had shown no objection to meet and speak with the visitors or guests at Knightswell; all at once she refused to see any stranger, and resolutely kept her own rooms whenever Mrs. Clarendon had company. She would give no explanation; her eyes flashed passionately, as if in irrepressible irritation, when she was appealed to. And, for the first time in her life, she suffered from ill-health; severe headache racked her for days in succession.
The attempt which Isabel made to draw near to her in this crisis was the occasion of a scene entirely new in their relations, and not thereafter to be repeated. There were guests at Knightswell, and Ada did not appear. Isabel went to the girl's room, and obtained admission.
"Have you a headache, Ada?" she asked.
The reply was a short negative.
"Then, why don't you come down? I very much wish you would. Will you come down to please me?"
The girl was sitting at a table, seemingly engaged with her books. In reality she had been motionless and unemployed for a couple of hours. She was pale and her eyes bloodshot.
"No, Mrs. Clarendon," she exclaimed; "I cannot come down to please you! Why should I torture myself to give you pleasure?"
She had risen, and stood with a face of passionate anguish.
"Torture yourself?" Isabel repeated, almost in fear.
"Yes; it is torture, and you might know it. You ask me to meet your friends because you think it, I suppose, a duty to do so; in truth, you are ashamed of me, you had far rather not see me downstairs. I know myself well enough, and I have glasses in my room. I know what these people say and think of me. I can bear it no longer; I want to leave you! I cannot live with you!"
Isabel could not find words to reply. There was a horrible element of truth in the girl's suspicions, though Ada did not and could not know its meaning. It was, indeed, out of mere consideration for her feelings that Isabel was pressing her to show herself.
"You can't live with me, Ada?" she said at length, in despair that she could not speak with the utterance of true feeling. "Am I unkind to you?"
"You are nothing to me!" was the passionate reply. "Neither kind nor unkind - you are nothing to me, and I am nothing to you! Why did you take me into your house? What interest had you in me? Who am I?"
"Ada, you are the child of a friend of Mr. Clarendon's. Mr. Clarendon desired that I should take you and bring you up, as you had lost your own parents. That is all I know of you - all."
"Then you have done your best, and now let me go. We shall never like each other. You took me from a poor home, and I suppose my parents were poor people. It is not in my blood to like you, or to live your life. When I was a child it didn't matter; but, now I see and understand, I know the difference between us. I will never meet people who look on me with contempt! Let me go. I will be a servant; it is what I am suited for. You can't keep me against my will, and I wish to leave you!"
For more than an hour Isabel strove against this resolve. Her task was a hard one. By mere cold reasoning she had to face the outburst of a nature which was all at once proving itself so deep and vehement. Could she but have called emotion to her aid! Her own impassiveness was her despair. That Ada should leave her was out of the question, yet by what means could she restrain the girl if the latter proved persistent? She could not tell her the truth; that was something she had put off to an indefinite future, it was beyond her strength to face it as a present necessity. The only appeal she could make was one which it cost her unspeakable self-contempt to utter. To tell Ada that it would be gross ingratitude to make this return to her mother by adoption. Well, what else could be said? The misery of degradation brought the first tears to her eyes.
"You don't care whether I am grateful or not," Ada replied, calmer at length, because weak from nervous overstrain. "You care for me less than for your servants. No soul cares for me."
It was this feeling of desolation which had suddenly taken hold of the developed girl. A heart craving for warmth had come to life within her; her senses had awakened to desperate hunger. The pathos in her last utterance was infinite; it touched Isabel to the core.
"It shall not be so, Ada," was her answer to the cry. "We will be more to each other; you shall not suffer from loneliness, poor child! I will never ask you to see people you do not wish to, and I will give you all I can of my own life. Be kind and childlike with me. My heart is not hard, dear."
Not hard, the heart of Isabel Clarendon, but very human, very womanly. It could not throw open its gates unreservedly to this child who had been forced upon her. The tears she shed at Ada's side were bitter and choking; they brought no solace of moved tenderness.
It was the first and the last of such scenes. A couple of years later Ada looked back upon her part in it with that brain-scorching shame to which an intense nature is so subject in recalling immature impulsiveness. For a week or two at most it made anything of sensible difference in her own or Mrs. Clarendon's behaviour, then the unconquerable coldness returned, with an appearance of finality. Their conversation limited itself to superficial matters, and even here occasions of difference not seldom offered, exacting self-control on both sides. Lacking conscious spiritual life, and all but void of intellectual interests, Isabel Clarendon could hardly be credited with principles, but for that reason her prejudices were the stronger. As Ada grew in mental stature, she found it difficult at all times to avoid involuntary collision with these prejudices, or even to refrain from impatient comment of a kind very irritating to Isabel. Small points of social observance first began to excite the girl's indignant or ironical remark, then graver matters of tradition arose between them - stumbling-blocks for the one, to the other accepted sign-posts. Ada read much, and procured books from very various sources; even had Isabel been sufficiently familiar with the characteristics of authors to judge from their outsides the books she saw. lying about, she did not feel strong enough to attempt to impose restrictions on her ward's reading; such a step would assuredly have led to conflicts, and from this Isabel shrank. Ada's tastes seemed to her deplorably masculine; it was very likely, she said to herself, that no positive harm would result to such a nature from literature poisonous to ordinary girls. Fortunately Mrs. Clarendon's conception of responsibility was not that ever-besieging consciousness which leaves some women no rest in a position of superintendence. The instinct of procrastination was strong in her; a thought which troubled her she could, without much difficulty, set aside for entertainment on the morrow. Promising herself that some day she would have a long and very serious talk with Ada on the grave matters which she ordinarily shunned, for the present she allowed the girl to take her course, and the opportunity to which she often mentally referred never seemed to present itself.
Had Mrs. Clarendon understood the progress of Ada's development she would have been greatly struck with the girl's moderation and self-restraint, instead of being, to her own distress, repelled and hardened by each new manifestation of independence. Regarding Ada's expressions of revolt as mere disconnected phenomena, she was puzzled to account for such evil features in a girl who had been well taught, held apart from the contamination of low associates, and trained in the habits of a refined and wealthy home. One explanation alone occurred to her - the base blood in the child's veins manifested itself in spite of education to a different social sphere. Such a thought was natural and characteristic. Isabel called herself a Conservative in politics; in social matters she reconciled maxims of intolerance with practical virtues such as we are apt to call divine, because we find them so seldom in humanity. What is called the spirit of the times had access to her only in frivolous babble or inimical caricature. Living on the surface, she had never been instructed to think for herself in any matter of grave concern; the criminality of doubt and the obligation of social conformity were formulæ which served her sufficiently for guidance whenever she might feel herself in danger of going astray. With pretty extensive knowledge of the world, her acquaintance with human nature was elementary; to be forced upon the study of a typical case of divergence from the broad characteristics of respectable upper-class mankind was to have demanded of her an exercise of intellectual charity of which she was incapable.
From one friend alone did she derive assistance in the practical details of her task. This friend was Mr. Thomas Meres, of whom we have already heard as Rhoda's father. His acquaintance she had made in the earliest days of her married life; he acted as secretary to Mr. Clarendon. Thomas Meres was then a man of thirty; he had attempted literature, and failed to get a living by it, and had gladly accepted a position which for a time brought means of support for himself and others dependent upon him. These others - Isabel only discovered it after Mr. Clarendon's death - were a wife and two children. One day, when Isabel had been six months a widow, she received from the late secretary a letter of appeal for aid in desperate circumstances; a letter which she answered by at once summoning to Knightswell the writer and his two children, girls of four and six respectively. She had always regarded Mr. Meres with favour; without information as to his private life, she felt that some hidden misery weighed upon him, and that he was a man of much capability and goodness sadly at odds with fortune. At Knightswell she won his confidence, and heard from him a dismal tale of domestic wretchedness. Happily, the main cause of his sufferings had at length abandoned the home she had made no home, and the only present difficulty was to find a means of livelihood. The man himself was starving; the children were sad-looking little creatures, victims of cruelty and a hard lot. The three remained at Knightswell for several weeks, being of course on the footing of visitors, and receiving kindness which put poor Tom Meres into spiritual bondage for life, bondage he would not have cast off for any luxurious freedom the world could offer him. Eventually a position was found for him, and he returned with his children to London.
Having made Ada's acquaintance in those early days of her rescue from savagery; Meres continued to regard her with living interest, often prophesying to her guardian that she would grow into a remarkable woman. At least once a year he was at Knightswell, and he followed the course of the child's education with attentive scrutiny. Ada came to like him; she displayed no childlike fondness for him, any more than for any one else, but she listened with pleasure to his talk, and in turn spoke to him of things of which to all others she kept silence. If Tom did not positively encourage her critical propensities, he was at all events at no pains to check them, and it was from his library that she received books which set her on the track of modern literature, which otherwise she would have discovered much later. Isabel, when her troubles of conscience began, taxed her friend with this.
"It is true," Tom admitted, "I have advised her to read books which I shouldn't give to ordinary girls. Ada is not an ordinary girl. Do not distress yourself, dear lady; no ill will come of it. It is only making smooth for her a path which would otherwise be intolerably rough."
"But isn't it leading her where she wouldn't otherwise be tempted to go?" asked Isabel.
"I can assure you, no. Rough or smooth, she will take this direction. But would you rather I did no more? Your wish is supreme."
"You are a vastly better judge in these matters than I am," said Isabel modestly (meaning what she said, though not perhaps quite feeling it), "and I know you will be careful. I myself am helpless with Ada; my guardianship is nominal, I am sorry to say."
To this friend it was that Ada had now of late been in the habit of going when she wished to have the change of London life, and now that she no longer accompanied Mrs. Clarendon during the season. The arrangement was a good one. Isabel had in the first place protested, trying to point out to the girl the advantage of making acquaintances in London other than those which Mr. Meres could offer her. Ada smiled in her least pleasant way, and Isabel surrendered the point, not in her heart sorry to be free when she took her own recreation.
"What do you think of Mr. Kingcote?" Isabel asked Ada, as they drank tea together after the visitor had left.
"I can't judge him on so slight an acquaintance," the girl answered. "I like his voice."
"Strange that I was going to say the same thing. You shouldn't have gone out whilst we were talking. He, at all events, will not drive you away with - what do you call it? - imbecile chatter."
"He seems to be a man of some culture. I don't know that he will find us very attractive."
"My poor self, certainly not. But it would be pleasant if he and you found some interest in common, wouldn't it? We must have him with the Vissians to dine."
"Your social instincts are really remarkable." It was a noteworthy point that Ada had never learnt to address Mrs. Clarendon by any name save the formal one. "Do you think Mr. Kingcote is prepared for formal dining?"
"By-the-bye, most likely not," said Isabel, laughing. "But it will be a charity to persuade him to come here sometimes. However, I don't think he'll live there through the winter."
"Doesn't it occur to you that he may have gone there because he finds a difficulty in living in ordinary ways?"
"Yes, very likely."
She reflected, adding presently:
"He has a nice voice."