VOLUME ONE: PART TWO
Ada was outwardly more restless than usual. A taste for rambling possessed her; she disappeared for long afternoons, and did not take her sketching implements, though the country was in its finest autumn colouring. Probably she was weary, for the time, alike of books and drawing. In all her interests she had periods of enthusiasm and of disgust; days when she worked incessantly from dawn till midnight, grudging scanty intervals for meals, and others when nothing could relieve her ennui. She did not ride, in spite of her opportunities; walking was the only out-of-door recreation possible to her.
One evening, a week after Mr. Kingcote's visit, she returned only just in time for dinner at seven o'clock, and, after sitting in silence through the meal - she was alone with Mrs. Clarendon, who was likewise indisposed for talking, and had a look of trouble seldom seen on her face - went to the library to read or otherwise occupy herself. A servant brought a lighted reading-lamp, lowered the blinds, and drew the heavy red curtains across the window recesses.
Left alone, Ada consulted her watch, and, stepping to the window which looked from the end of the house on to a shrubbery, put aside one of the curtains. She had scarcely done so when she heard a light tap on the outside of the pane. The sound made her start and draw a little away; she looked nervously to the door, then ran across the room and, with precaution, turned the key in the lock. Her face was slightly flushed and her manner nervous. After the lapse of a minute there came a repetition of the tapping from without. She quickly raised the blind and lifted the lower sash of the window, then again drew back. A man forthwith vaulted into the room. He looked about him, closed the window, drew down the blind, and, turning once more, presented the familiar figure of Mr. Vincent Lacour.
"This is really awfully kind of you, Miss Warren," were his words, as he came forward to shake hands. He spoke with subdued voice, and his demeanour was not quite as self-possessed as usual "I was beset with doubts - whether you had my note safely, whether you could manage to be here alone, whether you would admit me at all. I know it is an unwarrantable step on my part, but I was bound to see you once more, and see you alone. I'm leaving England in a few days, so I'm not likely to annoy you after this."
He had expressive eyes, and put much into them, as he gazed at the girl after speaking thus. Ada's hands hung before her, nervously clasped, with the backs together.
"I of course ought not to consent to an interview of this kind," she said coldly. "Mrs. Clarendon would be much displeased - would altogether misunderstand it. I hope you will say what you wish to very quickly."
"Are we safe from disturbance?" he asked. "Do people come in?"
"No one will come in."
He uttered a sound of satisfaction.
"I discovered," he said, "that you and Mrs. Clarendon were alone, or of course I couldn't have ventured. If you knew what I've gone through in the last month, since I was talking with you in this room! And not an hour but your voice has been present with me. Do you know that your voice is unique? I have heard voices more musical - don't think I'm talking mere nonsensical flattery - but never one that dwelt with me for long after, as yours does. I suppose it is half your manner of expressing yourself - your frank directness."
Whether he was sincere or not, it was impossible at least to gather evidence of insincerity from his words and the way in which they were uttered. There was no touch of a wheedling note, not an accent which jarred on the sufficiently discriminating ear of the listener. He seemed more than half regardless of the effect his speech might produce; the last sentence came forth in a rather absent way, whilst his eyes were apparently occupying themselves with a picture hanging near him.
"What was it you wished to say to me, Mr. Lacour?" Ada asked, when she had let a moment of silence pass. She still stood in the same attitude, but was now looking at him, her hard features studiously impassive.
"To say good-bye to you, and - and to thank you."
It was uttered with an effort, as if the tone of mere frankness had been rather hard to hit, and might easily have slid to one of softer meaning.
"To thank me for what, pray?"
She was smiling slightly, perhaps to ease her features.
" For having shown me my ideal woman, the woman in whose existence I believed, though I never hoped to see her. I was tired of the women who cared for and studied nothing but the art of fooling men; I wanted a new type, the woman of sincerity. I don't know whether you've noticed it - I'm something of an artist in my way. I can't paint, and I can't write, but I believe I have the artist's way of looking at things. I live on refinements of sensation - you know what I mean? There's nothing good or valuable in me; I've no moral force; I'm just as selfish as I can be; but I have a sort of delicacy of perception, I discriminate in my likings. Now you've heard all sorts of ill of me, of course; you've been told I pitched away ten thousand pounds in less than a couple of years; that I've -- Well, never mind. But, Miss Warren, I haven't lived a life of vulgar dissipation; I have not debased myself. My senses are finer-edged than they were, instead of being dulled and coarsened. I've led the life a man ought to lead who is going to be a great poet - though, as far as I know, I haven't it in me to be that. But at least I understand the poetical temperament. I couldn't help my extravagance. I was purchasing experience; the kind of experience my nature needed. Others feed their senses grossly that would have cost less money, but my tendencies are not to grossness. I had certain capacities to develop, and I obeyed the need without looking very far ahead. Capacities of enjoyment, I admit; entirely egoistic. An egoist; I pretend to be nothing better. But believe me when I tell you that the admiration of a frank egoist is worth more than that of people who pretend to all the virtues. It is of necessity sincere."
Ada had seated herself whilst these remarkable utterances were falling upon her ear. Lacour knelt upon a chair near her, leaning over the back.
"You are leaving England?" she said, quietly reminding him of the professed object of his visit.
"A place has been offered me in a house of business in Calcutta; I have no choice but to take it. Or, rather, there is an alternative; one I can't accept."
"Will you tell me what that is?"
She looked up, and he smiled sadly at her. His face just then had all that a man's face can possess of melancholy beauty. The fineness of its lineaments contrasted remarkably with Ada's over-prominence of feature. Hers was the individual countenance, his the vague alluring type.
"My brother," he replied, "had been persuaded to offer me an allowance of two hundred a year, on condition that I do what I originally intended, read for the Bar."
"And that you can't accept? Why not?"
"For the simple reason that I should not read. I should take the money, get into debt, do nothing. I am past the possibility of voluntary work. In a house of business I suppose I shall be made to work, and perhaps it may lead to a competence sooner or later. But for reading here at home I have no motive. I lack an impulse. Life would be intolerable."
Ada did not raise her eyes. He was still leaning forward on the back of the chair, but now at length held himself upright, passed his fingers through his hair, and uttered an exclamation of weariness.
"So I go to India!" he said. "The climate is of course impossible for me; I suffer enough here. Well, it can't be helped."
He sat down opposite the girl, bent forward, and let his face fall upon his hands.
"Other men of my age," he murmured, "are beginning the work of their life. My life is as good as over. I have capabilities; I might do something if I had an impulse."
He looked at her. Her face was as impassible as stone, her eyes closed. Lacour reached forward and touched her hand, making her start into consciousness.
"Will you lend me your hand one moment?" he asked in an irresistible voice, a low, tired breathing.
Ada did not resist. She had to bend forward a little; he put her palm against his forehead. The man was not merely acting; not purely and simply inventing poses; if so, how came his brow so terribly hot? Yet at this moment the question uppermost in his brain was - whether Ada knew the contents of Mr. Clarendon's will. He had no means of ascertaining whether or not she had been enlightened. He could scarcely ask her directly.
The girl drew her hand away, and rose from her chair. She breathed with difficulty.
"How cool that was!" he said. Perhaps he had not noticed that her palm was like fire. "That is again something I never yet felt." Then, with sudden energy: "Miss Warren, what on earth do you think of me? Do you think I am unconscious of the supremely bad taste I show in coming here and talking to you in this way? I have kept away as long as ever I could - a whole month. I was absurd that last time I talked to you. I don't charge myself with iniquities; in fact, I don't know that I recognise any sin except sins against good taste. This present behaviour of mine is in the very worst. You understand me as well as if I had spoken out the whole monstrous truth; you judge me. Well, you shall do it in my absence. Good-bye."
She let him take her hand again. He looked at the palm, appeared to be following the lines.
"That is the line of the heart; that of the head. Both strong and fine. If I were a man of means, or even a man with a future, I would ask you to let this hand lie a little longer in mine, now and afterwards --"
He looked once more into her face; she saw that his eyes were moist.
"Mr. Lacour, please to leave me!" Ada suddenly exclaimed, rousing herself from a kind of heaviness which had held her inactive and irresponsive. Then she added: "I cannot aid you. We all have our lives to live; yours is no harder than mine. Try your best to be happy; I know nothing else to live for."
"Will - you - help me?" he asked, plainly enough at last. "It has come, you see, in spite of everything. Will you help me?"
"I cannot. You mean, of course, will I promise to be your wife. I shall make that promise to no one till I am one-and-twenty."
It was a flash of illumination for Lacour.
"Not even," he inquired, with a smile of quiet humour, "when Mrs. Clarendon marries?"
"When Mrs. Clarendon marries?" Ada repeated, not exactly with surprise, but questioningly.
"You know that she is going to marry Lord Winterset, and very soon? Why, there is another terrible mistake; I ought not to have mentioned it if you do not know it. I thought it was understood."
"Perhaps it is," returned Ada, a curious expression in her eyes. "It does not matter; it does not affect me. I beg you not to stay longer. Indeed, we have no more to say to each other."
"May I write to you from India?"
"If you still have the slightest interest in me; I shall be glad to hear you have got there safely. I must leave you now."
He had retained her hand for the last few moments, and now she felt herself being softly drawn towards him.
"My hand!" she exclaimed almost hysterically. "Release it I order you to leave me!"
She tore it away and fell back several paces; then, as he still remained motionless, she went to the door and opened it. Lacour turned away; it was to hide the smile which rose when he heard the lock. In another moment he was once more in the garden.
There was moonlight by this time; the lawn was unshadowed, and he had to pass before the house in order to get into the park, and thence by a track he had in mind which would bring him into the high road. Close at hand, however, was the impenetrable gloom of the shrubbery, and, just as he was moving away from the end of the house to make a bold start across the open, there issued from the trees the form of a lady, who stepped quickly up to him.
"Mr. Lacour," she said, recognising him without difficulty, "will you have the goodness to explain this to me?"
He had never yet heard Mrs. Clarendon's voice speaking thus; it impressed him.
"What is the meaning of your presence in my house, and your very unusual way of leaving it?"
Vincent owed it to himself to make the most of this present experience. He was not likely again to see such an embodiment of splendid indignation, nor hear a voice so self-governed in rich anger. It was a pity that he had for the moment lost his calmer faculties it cost him no little effort to speak the first few words of reply.
"I can only ask you to forgive me, Mrs. Clarendon --"
He was interrupted.
"Kindly follow me," Isabel said. She led the way along the edge of the bushes and out of sight of the house. Then she again faced him.
"It is all grievously irregular," Lacour pleaded, or rather explained, for the brief walk had helped him to self-command. "I need not say that I was alone in devising the plan. I wanted to speak with Miss Warren, and I knew her habit of sitting alone in the library. The window stood open; I entered."
"May I ask for what purpose you wished to speak with Miss Warren?"
"I fear, Mrs. Clarendon, I am not at liberty to answer that question."
"Your behaviour is most extraordinary."
"I know it; it is wholly irregular. I owe you an apology for so entering your house."
"An apology, it seems to me, is rather trivial under the circumstances. I don't know that I need pick and choose my words with you, Mr. Lacour. Doesn't it occur to you that, all things considered, you have been behaving in a thoroughly dishonourable way - doing what no gentleman could think of? If I am not mistaken, you were lately in the habit of professing a desire for my good opinion; how do you reconcile that with this utter disregard of my claims to respect?"
"Mrs. Clarendon, it is dreadful to hear you speaking to me in this way. You have every right to be angry with me; I reproach myself more than you reproach me. I did not think of you in connection with Miss Warren. I could not distress or injure you wittingly."
"I don't know that you have it in your power to injure me," was the cold reply. "I am distressed on your own account, for I fully believed you incapable of dishonour."
"Good God! Do you wish me to throw myself at your feet and pray you to spare me? I cannot bear those words from you; they flay me. Think what you like of me, but don't say it! You cannot amend me, but you can gash me to the quick, if it delights you to do that. I won't ask you to pardon me; I am lower than you can stoop. The opinion of other people is nothing to me; I didn't know till this moment that any one could lash me as you have done."
Isabel was frightened at the violence of his words; they must have calmed a harsher nature than hers. His earnestness was all the more terrible from its contrast with his ordinary habit of speech, and his professed modes of thinking. His voice choked. Perhaps for the first time in her life Isabel recognised the fulness of her power over men.
"Mr. Lacour," she said with grave gentleness, "is this the first of your visits to Miss Warren?"
"It is the first."
"Will you promise me that it shall be the last - I mean of secret visits?"
"I will never see her again."
"I exact no such promise as that; it is beyond my right. What I do regard as my right is the assurance that my ward has fair play. Her position is difficult beyond that of most girls. I have confidence in Ada Warren; I believe she respects me - perhaps I should say she recognises my claims as her guardian. My house is open to you when you come on the same footing as other gentlemen."
"I cannot face you again."
"Where do you intend to pass the night?" Isabel inquired, letting a brief silence reply to his last words.
"I have got a room at the inn in Winstoke."
"And to-morrow morning you return to London?"
"Mrs. Bruce Page tells me your brother is making you an allowance. I am glad to hear that, and I hope you will heartily accept his conditions."
"I shall try to read, but there's small chance of it ever coming to anything. I'm one of those men who inevitably go to the dogs. A longer or shorter time, but the dogs eventually."
"That is in your own hands. Shall I tell you what I think? Just one piece of my mind which perhaps you will rate cheaply enough. I think that a man who respects himself will make his own standing in life, and won't be willing to be lifted on to smooth ground by any one, least of all by a woman's weak hands. And now, good night to you."
She left him and entered the house by the front door.
After breakfast next morning, Ada was in the library, walking from window to window, watching the course of clouds which threatened rain, at a loss, it seemed, how to employ herself. She was surprised by Mrs. Clarendon's entrance.
"You haven't settled to work yet?" Isabel said, looking at her rather timidly.
Ada merely shook her head and came towards the table. Mrs. Clarendon took up a book and glanced at it.
"What are you busy with now?" she asked lightly.
"Nothing in particular. I've just finished a novel that interests me."
"A novel? Frivolous young woman! Oh, I know that book. It's very nice, all but the ending, and that I don't believe in. That extravagant self-sacrifice is unnatural; no man ever yet made such a sacrifice."
"It doesn't seem to me impossible," said Ada.
"No? It will some day."
Isabel's way of speaking was not altogether like herself; it was rather too direct and abrupt.
"Of a man, you think?"
"Oh, of a woman much more! We are not so self-sacrificing as they make us out, Ada."
She took a seat on a chair which stood edgewise to the table, and rested her head against her hand.
"Will you sit down?" she asked invitingly, when the girl still kept her position at a distance.
"You wish to speak to me ?"
Ada became seated where she was.
"You wish the distance to represent that which is always between us?" Isabel remarked, half sadly, half jestingly.
Ada seemed about to rise, but turned it off in an arrangement of her dress.
"When Mr. Asquith told you something from me a month ago," Isabel continued, "did it occur to you that I had any motive in - in choosing just that time, in letting you know those things just when I did?"
Ada had fixed a keen and curious look on the speaker, a look which was troublesome in its intensity.
"I supposed," was her measured reply, "that you thought I had come to the age when I ought to know something of the future that was before me."
"Yes, that is true. You will credit me, will you not, with a desire to save you from being at a disadvantage?"
The word was rather ironically spoken.
"You perhaps think I ought to have told you sooner?"
"I have had that thought."
"On the other hand, you do not forget that nothing obliged me to tell you for another year and a half."
"Nothing obliged you."
Isabel suffered from the keen annoyance which this dry manner of the girl's always occasioned her. She did not speak again till she felt able to do so with a voice as quiet as before.
"When I spoke of your being at a disadvantage, I meant, of course, that it was hardly right for others to be aware of facts about you which you yourself did not know."
"I gathered that from your words."
"Ada, I wish I had more of your confidence. I am not very good at this stagey sort of talk; it is not natural to me; it brings me into a tone which is the very last I wish to use to you. I asked my cousin to relieve me of the duty of telling you about the will because I did not feel quite able to do it myself; I was rather afraid of myself - of being led to say things I should be sorry for. As you know very well, I'm quick-tempered, and not quite as wise a woman as I might be. I feared, too, lest you might say things I couldn't bear to hear. Well, what I want to ask you is this: Do you understand how difficult my position is with regard to you? Do you see how we differ from ordinary guardian and ward, and how all but impossible it is for me to give you those pieces of advice, those warnings which, as an older woman, I should be justified in offering?"
"Advice, warning?" repeated Ada, without much curiosity.
"Both. You have had very slight opportunities of getting to know the world. You prefer your books to society, and perhaps rightly; but that must not bring you to forget that you are heiress to a large fortune, and - and that other people - our friends - are well aware of it."
Ada laughed silently.
"You wish, Mrs. Clarendon, to put me on my guard?"
The silent laugh had covered a distortion of features, as if by bodily pain. The girl's eyes began to take on that wide, dangerous look which Isabel knew well and feared; there was a motion of her shoulders also, like a result of physical uneasiness.
"Wishing me," Ada pursued, in a higher note, "at the same time to understand that no one is at all likely to seek me out for my own sake."
"Ada, I did not say that, and I did not mean it; you might at least spare to charge me with malice which is not in my nature. Let us speak freely to each other now that we have begun." Isabel's colour had heightened, and her words lost their deliberateness. "I know too well what your opinion of me is. You think me a vain, superficial, worldly woman, ready to make any sacrifice of my pride - the poor pride that every creature has - just for the sake of keeping my place and the means to support it, and overflowing with bitterness against the one who will some day take everything from me. It is natural; you have never exerted yourself to know me better. It is natural, too, because I have, in fact, made an extraordinary sacrifice of my pride, have eaten my own shame with every mouthful under this roof since my widowhood - oh, since my marriage! For all that, I am not evil-natured; it is not in my heart to cherish malice. I do not feel hardly to you. Put it down to my poor spirit if you like, but the resentment I once had I have quite got over, and I wish you nothing but good. Why do I say all this? Only because I want to convince you that, if you ever take me into your confidence, I shall not advise you with selfish motives. And there was no selfishness in what I said to you just now. It was my duty to say it, misunderstand my words how you may."
The silence which followed seemed a long one. Isabel had hidden her face. Ada was making marks on the table with a pencil.
"I don't think," replied the latter at length, "that I have ever charged you in my mind with this kind of selfishness; you are quite mistaken in what you say of my opinion of you. Please to remember, Mrs. Clarendon, that I too have my difficulties. I have not reached this age without questioning myself about many things. I have long ceased to be a child; the world is not so simple to me as it was then. Many things require explanation which as a child I scarcely troubled about or explained as a child does."
Isabel uncovered her face and regarded the girl gravely. Ada returned the look.
"I once asked you," the latter continued, in a lower voice, and with hurried utterance, "to tell me something about myself - how I came to be living with you. You only tell me that I was an orphan. Am I ever to know more?"
"I cannot tell you more than was told to me," Isabel replied coldly. "When I myself sought an explanation of Mr. Clarendon's will, Mr. Ledbury, one of the trustees, for answer put into my hands two papers. One was a formal letter addressed to Mr. Clarendon, and signed 'Marian Warren,' in which the writer said that she consented to her child Ada being given into Mr. Clarendon's care, and renounced all authority over the child henceforth. The other was a certificate of the same child's birth; the parents' names, Henry and Marian Warren. That, as you know, is how you are described in the will. My solicitor made inquiries for me. Your mother was found to be a widow; her husband had been dead not quite a year."
She paused, then added in the same distant way, but with a softer voice:
"I know nothing more, Ada."
"Not whether my mother still lives or not?"
"No. If you wish to seek further, it is to Mr. Ledbury, I suppose, that you must apply. I am not in personal communication with him, but I can give you his address."
"Will you kindly do so now, then we shall not need to speak of this again."
Ada wrote it as it was spoken. Then they both sat in silence, Ada playing with her pencil. When Mrs. Clarendon rose the girl did not at once seem to notice it; but Isabel remained standing before her, and Ada, rising at length, stood with averted face. Isabel spoke:
"Only one word more, Ada. We will not speak again of my duties, but I think you will admit that I have certain rights. Will you promise me that I shall not be left in ignorance of any - any step of importance that you may take - anything you may do that - selfishly speaking - could affect my own position?"
"That is clearly your right," was the answer. "There is no need to ask me for such a promise."
Isabel bowed her head and passed from the room, Ada standing with her face still averted, a nervous tension in her whole frame. They were no nearer to each other for this scene, ending in humiliation which was mutual though differently felt.
Here are portions of two letters written by Bernard Kingcote to correspondents in London. The first is to his friend Gabriel, the artist.
". . . There is no doubt about its being a mistake, but what step that I have hitherto taken in my life of nine-and-twenty years has been anything else? Whether I act on impulse or after grave deliberation, is all one. You prophesied that I should be miserable in three months; it was a generous limit. I have been here three months, and have been miserable already for two. The idea of this kind of life for a permanency was as absurd as most other ideas which I embrace in splenetic moods. The serious thing is that circumstances seem conspiring to keep me here; I am considerably poorer than when I came, and the possibility of returning to live in London grows dubious. And why should I return? I have as little business there as here.
"I believe I had a thought in coming to this cottage, something more definite than the mere revolt of weariness with old conditions. It ran in my head something like this. If I was such a superlatively bilious and contumacious being, if life refused to present to me any feature by which I might clutch it, if eating my heart out appeared to be the sole occupation which I pursued unremittingly, surely there must be some discoverable reason of all this, must be some explanation of myself to be got at by diligent search. It struck me that in absolute solitude, in the remoteness of a corner of the world such as this, I might perchance have it out with myself, grip myself by the throat as it were, and force a confession of my own secret. There in London I was too closely guarded by habits, occupations, prejudices, conventional modes of thought; the truth would not be uncovered. Perhaps an utter change of conditions would make me clearer-brained, more capable of discerning the powers at work in me, of discovering whether there was not some compromise with life still possible. This was not unreasonable, it seems to me, and indeed I persuade myself that one or two points have come out where before was nothing but darkness. Unfortunately, to formulate my needs is not the same thing as to satisfy them, and satisfaction being as remote as ever, I fear I am not much advanced.
"I pass my days in a dream, which too often becomes a nightmare. It is very likely you are right, and that with every day thus spent I only grow more incapable of activity, instead of making advance by a perception of what I could and ought to do. I find myself regarding with a sort of dull amazement every species of active and creative work. A childish wonder at the commonest things besets me. For example, I fall a-thinking on this cottage in which I live, speculating as to who may have originally built it; and then it strikes me as curious that I dwell beneath its roof, waking and sleeping, with such complete confidence, taking for granted that the workmanship was good, the material sound; no flaw here or there which will some day bring the timbers down upon my head. It leads me on to architecture in general; I ponder on huge edifices, and stand aghast before the skill and energy embodied in them. In them, and in all the results of the world's work. The sum of human endeavour weighs upon me, something monstrous, inexplicable. I try to realise the motive force which can have brought about such results, and come only to the despairing conclusion that I am not as other men, that I lack the primal energies of human life. You and your ceaseless striving come before me: I marvel. What is it that drives you on ? What oestrus possesses you? What keeps your brain resolute and your hand firm?
"I buy a newspaper now and then. You cannot imagine how strangely those world-echoes impress me. The sage gravity of leading articles, the momentousness of this or that piece of news, the precision of reports, the advertisements, - is it I who am moonstruck, or the living puppets that play in this astonishing comedy? Once or twice I have been so overcome with a perception of ludicrousness as to fall back in my chair and make the roof ring with laughter.
". . . A favourite walk is up to the old entrenchments on the Downs, six or seven miles away. They are of præ-Saxon times, I am told, points of desperate resistance by the aboriginal people against vaguely-named invaders, scenes of battle whereof no spear-clang echoes in the pages of history. I like to lie on the ground and dream myself into realisation of those old struggles, to make the fight a present fact, and hear the cries of victory and death. They were in earnest! If one could have lived in such times, when the conditions of life were frankly bestial, and every man's work was clear before him, not a doubt to begin with, so no regret in the end! One would have been dead so long since, resting so long.
". . . I delight in the conditions of rustic life as it exists here about me. At times I talk with a farm-labourer, for my solace; to do so I have to divest myself of the last rag of civilisation, to strip my mind to its very kernel. Were oxen suddenly endowed with speech they would utter themselves even as these peasants do so and no otherwise. The absence of any hint of townish Radicalism is a joy to me; I had not expected to find the old order so undisturbed. Squire and parson are still the objects of unshaken reverence. It is not beautiful, but how wholesome! If only the schoolmaster could be kept away; if only progress would work its evil will on the children of the slums, and leave these worthy clodhoppers in their ancient peace! They are happy; they look neither before nor after, for them the world has no history, the morrow no futile aspirations; their county is the cosmos, and around it still flow the streams of ocean. Local charity abounds; in the cottages there is no hunger, no lack of clothing. Oh, leave them alone, leave them alone! Would I had been born one of these, and had never learned the half knowledge which turns life sour!
"But I have news for you. I have lunched at Knightswell, and in a manner have made acquaintance with Mrs. Clarendon. She astonished me by presenting herself at my cottage door, holding in her hand a book which I had left by chance out in a field, and which had been shown her by the finder. Here was condescension! However, she spoke to me with extreme friendliness, seemed anxious to know more of me, asked me at once to lunch. I went, and was alone for a couple of hours with her and Miss Warren. The latter is as cold and hard as I expected to find her; intellectual, I should fancy, but in the way one does not desire in a woman. She says disagreeably sharp things in precisely the most disagreeable manner. It puzzles me to imagine the kind of life those two lead together, or what may be the explanation of their living together at all. I fancy the Vissians know all about it, but their loyalty to the Lady of Knightswell is magnificent. I am sure they would not feel justified in uttering a word about her private concerns, in however harmless a fashion.
"Mrs. Clarendon is to me a new type of woman - new, that is, in actual observation. She is a woman of the world; perhaps even a worldly woman. I was never before on terms of friendly intercourse with her like, and she interests me extremely. She is beautiful, and has every external grace, I should think, wherewith woman can be endowed; but I am disposed to think her cold. I mean she does not seem to me capable of passion; probably she never loved any one. About her husband - dead for twelve years - I can learn nothing; her marriage with him was most likely one of convenience. At all events she lives in joyous widowhood; enough to show - all things considered - that her nature is very placid. The kind of woman, no doubt, who appreciates this freedom and realises no disadvantages attendant upon it. Another conclusion I have arrived at is, that her charm has gained in the course of years; she is more delightful now than she was in her girlhood, it may be, even more beautiful. This is mere assumption, of course; but warrantable, I think. It may come of my distaste for young girls. I never met one who did not seem to me artificial, shallow, illiberal, frivolous, radically selfish. A girl's ignorance of the world is portentous, the natural result of her education; and it is only with knowledge of the world that sweetness and charity and steadfastness develop. Heaven preserve me from falling in love with a young girl who still has her first man's heart to break!
"Her charm is, I think, largely unconscious. I mean, though she must know that she is charming - how many must have told her so! - she does not appear to use the quality as another would. What strikes one from the first is her frankness, her exquisite openness. She seems to speak to you from her heart, to conceal nothing. Of course it may very well be that there is nothing to conceal, that her life is on the surface, that she displays at once the whole of a being which has no complexity. Still, I do not rate her so poorly. Though she is anything but intellectual, her mind has delicacy and activity; her judgments of people are probably not wide of the mark. Then her tenderness, she shows it in every glance; and her bright, free gladness. A woman to the tips of her fingers, a womanly woman - everything that Miss Warren, for instance, is not. In fact, the latter's presence throws Mrs. Clarendon's womanliness into relief. Mrs. Clarendon will henceforth be to me the type of perfectly sweet womanhood.
"Of course, her interest in me is a mere freak. She is at a loss for entertainment now and then at Knightswell - for, alas! she does not read - and the discovery of a curious creature like myself is a source of amusement. I do not flatter myself that anything like friendship between us is possible; social distance would hinder that, if nothing else. She was kind in her manner, kinder than I can at all convey to you, and, I am sure, with complete sincerity; it is her nature to let her light shine on all, to be sweet and gracious to every one with whom she comes in contact. If, indeed, I thought friendship were attainable, I would pursue it as the main end of my existence. Her presence refreshes me, her talk is like the ripple of cool waters, her smile makes its healing way to all the hidden wounds of my wretched being. But I dare not hope for more than she gives to hundreds of others, calling them friends. She will exhaust my novelty, she will find my talk wearisome - great heavens! is it worse than that she listens to in her drawing-room in London? - she will pass on her way and leave me with a memory as of a cool, delicious summer day.
"Why should she enjoy life as she does? Why is there given to her this calm, this happy grace, the freedom from apprehension, regret, desire? I have written thus praisingly of her, and yet I could unpack my heart of a whole burden of fierce, and injurious, and reproachful words when I compare her existence with mine. Could not I, too, be gently gracious to all and sundry if I had wherewith to keep my soul from the bitterness of hunger? How easy to cultivate a charm of manner when every need is so waited upon with fruition! How easy to be sweetly placid when nature has spared you the abiding of a furious passion in your heart of hearts! I shall see as little of her as may be. She breaks my sleepy habit, and reminds me of things I want to forget.
". . . Oh! I am weary of this solitude, this daily sameness of empty life. My books are no comfort; I can no longer interest myself in what is really so precious to me; the chiming of sweet words is a burden to my ear. I have no will; mere whims make a plaything of me. When I have dragged my chain to the limit of the day, I lie down in miserable anticipation of what waits me on the morrow, whether I shall rise to an hour or two of resigned quiet, or in dull wretchedness, which makes me curse the return of the sun; the fate which tortures me will choose. If I had but something to distract my thoughts. What I would give for the feeblest novel in red or blue back which lies to-day on the library counter, smelling sweet from the press. Anything, so that it were new, so that it spoke to me of men and women who are at this moment looking into the eyes of destiny, even as I am. Those old writers, who have so long ago solved the problem and gone to their rest, burden me with their unconscious gravity; their time-tested wisdom goads me to peevishness. What to them the present anguish which makes my life a disease? Nay, what to any one, what to you, long-enduring friend, who go your way to join hands with the immortals?"
The other letter, written on the same day, is to his sister, Mrs. Jalland.
"I suffer in your distress, dear Mary, and would that I could do more to help you. We have drifted so far from each other that it is difficult for me to try to comfort you with words; to my own ear they sound inefficient, and to you they would come much like mockery. In truth, no one of us poor mortals has it in his power to heal another's wounds; in our suffering we can only look forward to the end of all things.
"I cannot grieve with you at your husband's ill-health, that you know; but neither shall I speak words of him that would pain you. I hold no man responsible for his deeds in this world; we all act and refrain from acting as fate will have it, and to rail against fate will not, I fear, avail us much. It's good, however, that the children are well and happy; they, I doubt not, are often a solace to you. I suppose they are much grown and changed since I saw them. Do not grieve, dear sister, that you are unable to give them the kind of education you would desire. Of no greater unkindness can parents be guilty than to train as if for a life of leisure children whose lot will inevitably be to earn a livelihood by day-long toil. It is to sow in them the seeds of despair. Do not heed the folly of those who say that culture is always a blessing; the truth is that, save under circumstances favourable to its enjoyment and extension, it is an unmitigated curse. Had I children, I would have them taught just enough to aid them in such craft or trade as a man without means could put them to. It is no reason for lament that you have not books to put into their hands, rather be glad that they are thus saved from drinking of a well which for them would be poisoned. I give you this counsel in saddest sincerity. What seems to you now cruelty, will hereafter prove to have been the best.
"And now for the only way in which I can aid you. I have written to R--, asking him to sell for me, as soon as possible, a certain number of my shares, and this money I will gladly send you as soon as it is in my hands. I suppose it is necessary to speak of the matter to your husband, though I wish that could be avoided. It will help you out of immediate embarrassments, and leave you at peace for a little while. But -- well, why should I hesitate to tell you frankly, Mary? I shall henceforth have an income of something less than sixty pounds a year. I do not mean that this involves hardship; for me, nothing of the kind. But I do not well see how I can draw further upon the principal and still be able to live. It is less probable than ever that I shall find a way of earning my own living, unless I bring myself to the point of abandoning civilisation, and going to work with my hands in some other part of the world. I have no doubt that would be the very best thing for me, the gulf once crossed. Yet it would be a hard thing to leave you alone, struggling in that inferno; in truth, I could not bring myself to do that. Imagine you left with your children, and not a friend to turn to! Poor girl! that would be more than I could bear to think of.
"I write to the address you have given me. Do you fear to receive my letters at home?"
The rectory was at all times open to Kingcote. Mr. Vissian welcomed him as the only man within reach who could talk on congenial topics; Mrs. Vissian liked him personally, and for the sake of the romantic stories which she wove about him in her imagination. To Percy Vissian he had become an object of a child's affectionate regard, as well as of the reverence which attaches to men of mystery. Percy not infrequently made his way to the cottage, but never outlived that fairy-tale sensation with which he had first crossed its threshold. That Kingcote lived here absolutely alone, that he passed nights in the dread solitude of this ivy-wrapped cell, that he had nothing to do but to read the books which contained such deep and wondrous things, invested him in the child's eyes with something of the unearthliness of a wizard. Anything but a youngster of boisterous instincts, Percy moved about in the cottage with the gravest gait; as he never went up the dim, narrow staircase, there still remained a portion of the abode of which his fancy was free to make what it would, and it often seemed to him that a strange light footfall came to his ears from the floor above. He would not have ventured to ask about this, which in truth was only the product of his excited imagination. When he had tea with his friend everything tasted to him quite differently from the flavours of home; the mere bread became cake - he munched dry pieces with a strange relish, and the milk did not come from ordinary cows. But his great delight was when, after such a meal, he settled himself on his uncomfortable chair and saw Kingcote preparing to read to him. Often the reading was of English poetry, and that was enjoyable; but better still was when the wizard took down one of those books of which the mere character suggested magic lore - a German book, and, turning it into free English, read a tale of Tieck, or Musäus, or Grimm, or Bechstein, or Hauff. Then did the child's face glow with attention, his features become elf-like with the stirring of phantasy; and, when Kingcote ceased, he would move with a deep sigh and peer curiously about the room. He would beg to be allowed to look at these volumes for himself, touching the pages with delicate finger, spelling here and there a word and asking its meaning. There was a book of German ballads, plentifully illustrated, and over these pictures the boy was never tired of musing. Percy Vissian owed not a little to his friend for these afternoons at Wood End.
With the elder people Kingcote's intimacy was not one of unrestrained confidence, though it only fell short of it by that degree which marks the superficiality of most friendships. For instance, he never felt tempted to speak to Mrs. Vissian, even after months of familiar intercourse, as he had spoken to Isabel Clarendon in their first conversation. The bright little woman did not exercise a compelling power upon his inner self, as Isabel had already done. There was much mutual kindness between them, and, it might be, as nearly a genuine friendship as is possible between man and woman; for such association gains in completeness only at the loss of the characteristics which justify it for friendship's name. Mrs. Vissian showed this supreme wisdom, of never offering sympathy. It was by no means always with a conventionally smooth face that Kingcote came into her presence; at times he sat in her parlour, a picture of wretchedness, and scarcely answered when she spoke to him. For to Kingcote there came more of misery than of consolation from the aspect of this gentle peaceful home; often enough he was stirred to bitterness by the sight of this perfect content, this ideal domesticity, this sweet assuagement of the evils of life; the contrast with his own position was not fruitful of soothing. When he sat with her in that state of mind Mrs. Vissian seemed not to perceive it, or at most uttered a light word about low spirits. Of course she thought a good deal about it, but the blessed wisdom of content was strong in her, and not even by a look did she display special interest.
Mr. Vissian himself was amusing. His bibliomania and kindred interests never for an instant lost their hold upon him. When Kingcote once asked whether he did not at times weary of such things, the rector stared in amazement. The study was not the only room in which precious books were stored; upstairs was a chamber packed almost solidly with volumes, old and new. Mr. Vissian boasted that he knew every book in the mass, and could at any time make his way to any he desired to consult; it was only a matter of excavation. One slight anxiety his collection cost him; the upper walls of the house had begun to show rather large cracks, and it was possible that eventually the burden of literature would bring the roof down. But that was a risk which must take its place in the ordinary count of human contingencies. The rector subscribed to a considerable number of literary societies: the "Shakespeare," the "Chaucer," the "Early English Text," and others of the kind, receiving their publications and having them duly bound for a place on shelves in some commodious dwelling of the future. In the course of talk over such things, Kingcote was by chance enlightened as to the meaning of that little incident which had struck him in his very first interview with Mr. Vissian - the latter's momentary doubt, or seeming doubt, whether he could produce the money which was requested. Kingcote discovered that his friend lived in perpetual pecuniary embarrassment. Mrs. Vissian exercised control over her husband's expenditure to the point of preventing its exceeding their income, but that was all. The quarterly cheque was invariably demanded by outstanding liabilities as soon as it arrived, and unfortunately the cheque was not a very large one. It often happened that neither the rector nor his wife had half a sovereign in the world, a singular state of things in so otherwise orderly a household. In lending Kingcote that sovereign they had just then left themselves literally penniless. Fortunately the cheque was due. Mrs. Vissian dreaded the arrival of a bookseller's second-hand catalogue; whenever it was possible, she intercepted all such, and mercilessly committed them to the flames. Yet the subject never occasioned a moment's trouble between husband and wife; Mr. Vissian pursued his course in calmness. He was working (as a volunteer, of course) for a great English dictionary, which a certain society had it in view to produce. Also, he had taken up the new ideas of textual criticism in Elizabethan literature, and spent hours in counting the syllables in each line of a scene of this or the other dramatist. Though such a placid little man, he revelled in literary horrors. It delighted him to read aloud ghastly scenes from Webster, dwelling with gusto on the forceful utterances. Withal his orthodoxy was unimpeachable, it never occurred to him to carry his criticism into Biblical spheres. To please him, Kingcote now and then attended his services; naturally there was no further discussion on religious topics between the two.
As October drew on, and evenings began to be dark and cold, the comfort of Mr. Vissian's study and of his wife's sitting-room assuredly lost nothing in the eyes of the hermit of Wood End, yet his visits became less frequent. He presented himself, however, about nine o'clock one night, and was received by Mrs. Vissian with the usual friendliness. The rector was expected home every moment.
It had been raining all day, and the temperature justified the first fire, which crackled merrily and made the bright little room look cheerier than ever. The table was laid for supper (the Vissians dined at one o'clock) and a pleasant odour as of toasted cheese took advantage of the door being ajar to creep insidiously about the room. Mrs. Vissian sat with her feet on a stool, mending a pair of Percy's stockings.
"You look tired," she said, as Kingcote sat in silence and watched her out of half-closed eyes.
"I am, a little. I have been walking."
"But in this dreadful rain?"
"Has it rained? I don't think I noticed it."
Mrs. Vissian regarded him for an instant with surprise, then laughed a little, and bent over her work. Her left hand and arm were thrust into the stocking, and she held her head sideways, observing the growth of her darning with a kind of artistic earnestness and pleasure. A small black cat, which had just come in licking its mouth, put its fore feet on to the stool and looked up into its mistress's face. The fire crackled, and a sound of clattered plates came from the kitchen. Then was heard another sound, that of the rector's latch-key at the front door. Mrs. Vissian quickly put down her work, and, with a bright look, went from the room.
Kingcote gripped the arm of his chair and uttered a low moan.
"Ha, well met!" exclaimed the rector, as, after divesting himself of a wet overcoat, he entered, flicking his black trousers with his handkerchief and dubiously regarding his boots. His cheeks, as always, were aglow with health and spirits; on his whiskers gleamed drops of rain. He stood with his back to the fire, and passed his finger round between collar and neck, a habit of his which always seemed to give him ease. "I have a message for you --"
The servant entered with a tray of savoury viands. The rector broke off in his speech to regard the goods which the gods were providing; he did so with a critical, yet a satisfied, eye.
"A message for me?" Kingcote asked indifferently.
"Ha, yes!" Mr. Vissian had been led off into a different train of thought, it seemed. "Mrs. Clarendon wants you to go to see her."
"Where did you meet her, dear?" Mrs. Vissian inquired, as she bundled away her work in preparation for the meal.
"She's going to sit through the night with Mrs. Stigard. I shall be surprised if the poor old woman lives till morning; ten to one I shall be sent for Lucy," he added, as if a semi-conscious process of reflection had just come to clear issue in his mind, "that parcel for the binder is still lying upstairs. I saw it this morning with amazement; thought it had gone a week ago."
"I'll see to it, dear," replied his wife, without looking up from the bread she was cutting. Pity it has been forgotten."
"Forgotten! And you, who never forget anything!"
Then, turning to Kingcote, he declaimed, with humorous gesture and emphasis:
"By-the-bye," he continued, as he poured out a glass of ale from the foam-capped jug, it's beyond all doubt that Grubb is wrong in his calculation. He says, you remember, that the proportion of unstopt lines in the 'Two Gentlemen' is one in eleven. Now I make it one in nine decimal fifteen, and I've been over it twice with the utmost care. This is a point of considerable importance. Take that chair, Kingcote."
"Thank you," Kingcote said, "I shall not eat."
"Why not? There's pippins and cheese to come. Then, at least, as Claudius said to the chickens, drink."
Kingcote declined, in spite of much hospitable pressure, and kept his arm-chair. Mr. Vissian applying himself to his supper, talked in intervals of mastication.
"Mrs. Clarendon wishes you to call tomorrow or next day; pray do so. I can't quite make out that mistake of Grubb's; he must have calculated from an edition in which the lines are differently arranged. I shall communicate with him. Lucy, my love, I beg of you to see that those books are dispatched the first thing to-morrow; the dilatory scoundrel always keeps me waiting, and there's a 'Cursor Mundi' I want to work at."
Kingcote suddenly rose and stepped to Mrs. Vissian to bid her good night.
"Going, what?" exclaimed the rector, turning round, with an end of his napkin in each hand. "But I wanted to ask your opinion about -- You don't look well, my dear fellow; what is it?"
"Nothing, nothing. I've tired myself with walking. I'll get home."
"You have an umbrella? Then you must take one of mine. But, I tell you, you must; it's raining like a waterspout. Shall I walk with you?"
Kingcote had gone off into the darkness with inaudible replies.
"What is the matter with him?" asked the rector, standing in surprise. "Is he going to be ill? An awkward look-out in that cottage, with not a soul near."
"He was very strange when he came," Mrs. Vissian remarked. "He said he'd been walking, and yet wasn't aware that it had rained."
"Wasn't aware? Curious fellow, Kingcote."
"Don't you think, Walter, there's something about him we don't understand - something in the circumstances of his life, I mean?"
"A good deal. But he's a thoroughly good fellow; I must look in at Wood End the first thing in the morning."
They resumed their seats.
"Lucy," observed the rector, "you are blooming to-night! Upon my word, every year makes you younger and more beautiful."
"What makes you think of such a thing just now?" asked the other, laughing as she shook her head.
"I don't know. I suppose half the joy of happiness comes of contrast with others' less fortunate lot."
"Oh, I don't like to think that, Walter," protested the wife rather sadly.
"Many things are true, my dear, which we don't like to think."
Lucy moved to reach something, and took the occasion to kiss her husband's forehead.
And Kingcote, plodding through the lane's mud, reached his door. The old oak-stump in front of the cottage stood like a night-fear; the copse behind, all but stripped of leaves, gave forth dismal whisperings; rain beat hard upon the roof-thatch. The tenant took the key from his pocket and entered the cold room; he could not see his hands. Without seeking any light he felt his way up the crazy stairs, and lay down to such rest as he might find.
It rained till noon of the following day, then began to clear. When a couple of hours of pale sunshine had half dried the hedges, Kingcote set forth to walk to Knightswell. Mr. Vissian had been as good as his word in calling.
"Oh, nothing; a headache," was the answer he received to his anxious inquiries. "I hope I wasn't more than usually ill-mannered; pray ask Mrs. Vissian, to try and tolerate me."
"You're getting a little low, it strikes me; too much solitude. By-the-bye, you'll look in at Knightswell this afternoon?"
"I suppose Mrs. Clarendon feels obliged to ask me; I dare say she'd rather I kept away."
"My dear sir, these are outcomes of the black humour; you are not yourself. Mrs. Clarendon will be very glad indeed to see you; so she assured me. I pray you, fight against this tendency to melancholia."
It was difficult to reach the gates without having previously collected considerably more mud than one cares to convey into a lady's drawing-room. Kingcote endeavoured to remove some of this superfluous earth as he walked up the drive by rubbing his boots in the wet grass; the result was not inspiriting.
"Pooh!" he exclaimed impatiently. "If she really cares to see me, she won't regard the state of my boots; any one who accepts such as I am, must take mud and all."
The thought appeared to amuse him, he walked on with a laugh.
As he entered the garden, he met the trap just driving away from the house. A gentleman was seated in it. He had rather the look of a man of business, and was reading a letter. He scanned Kingcote, then resumed his reading.
Disturbed with the thought that there might be other visitors in the house, Kingcote hesitated, doubted whether to go on. He made up his mind to do so, however, not without sundry fresh communings with himself of a bitter kind. On inquiry he found that Mrs. Clarendon was at home, and, after a moment in the hall, he was led to the dining-room. Mrs. Clarendon was writing letters at a table by the window; as she rose, he thought he detected annoyance on her face.
"I fear I disturb you," he said coldly.
"You don't at all; or rather, you will not, if you'll let me treat you as a friend. I have just one letter I am obliged to write; I asked the servant to bring you here, thinking you might like to look at the pictures till I have done. One or two are thought good, I believe - that Veronese, and that Ruysdael, and the Greuze yonder. May I?"
It was hard not to smile in reply to her voice and look as she spoke the last two little words, the more so that it was clear she had something just now to trouble her quite other than the inopportune arrival of a visitor. Kingcote walked to the picture she had indicated as a Veronese, and, affecting to view it, let his eyes wander to Isabel at the writing-table. She was thinking, previous to commencing her letter. Her left arm rested on the desk, and the thumb and middle finger of the hand pressed her forehead; with the end of the penholder she tapped her chin. He noticed how beautiful was the outline of her head, relieved against the bright window; noticed, too, the grace of her neck when she bent forward to write. The scratching of her pen - she wrote very rapidly - was the only sound in the room.
Kingcote went from picture to picture, his mind not quite tuned to judge and enjoy their merits. One, however, held him. When lunching here, he had sat with his back to the wall of which this canvas was the central ornament, so had not observed it. It was a portrait of Mrs. Clarendon, painted probably at the time of her marriage, an excellent picture. As he gazed at it, Isabel came forward.
"Do you recognise it?" she asked, tapping on one hand with the letter she held in the other.
"And moralise? But," she added quickly, "I want you to look at this child's head. Isn't it exquisitely sweet?"
His eyes wandered back to the portrait, and, on their way to the door, he again paused before it.
"Did I show you my ferns the last time you were here?" Isabel asked. "Will you walk so far?"
She led to the rear of the hall, thence, by a glass door, into a short glass-roofed passage, the door at the end of which opened into the conservatory. The first section was a small rotunda, twenty feet in diameter and twelve feet high. The floor was of unglazed tiles, the ceiling of ornamental stucco; round the wall was a broad cushioned seat, above which, commencing at a height of some four feet from the ground, were windows of richly coloured glass, pictured with leaves and flowers and fruit. A stand for plants occupied the centre, but at present the shelves were almost bare.
Mrs. Clarendon threw back one of the windows.
"There is a good view from here," she said. "A tree used to intercept it, but we had it cut down in the spring to clear a piece of ground for tennis."
From the hill, on which the house was built, a broad stretch of green park led the eye to a considerable distance in the direction of Salcot. The roof of the cottage at Wood End was just visible. Kingcote drew attention to it.
"I don't see any smoke from the chimney," Mrs. Clarendon remarked, with a pleasant glance. "It is to be hoped you keep good fires this damp weather. Is the place rain-proof? These last two days will have tested it."
"It seems to be sound."
"And you still find it your ideal?"
"The cottage? I did not choose it as an ideal abode."
"But the quietness, the retirement, I mean. In that, at all events, you have not been disappointed."
"How you live there I can't understand. But I suppose you find it best for your studies."
"I don't study," returned Kingcote, rather vacantly, looking at the pictured glass of the window.
Isabel closed the window and passed to the next door.
"I am so sorry Miss Warren is not at home," she said. "I quite thought she would be, but at the last moment she decided to go to London to see something in the South Kensington Museum - oh, Schliemann's discoveries!"
"Does Miss Warren read Greek and Latin?"
"Latin she does, and is just beginning Greek. She's a wonderfully clever girl, but it's difficult to get her to talk. I am sure you will find her interesting when you have had opportunities of talking with her."
They were now in an ordinary hot-house. Isabel pointed out the plants which interested her.
"I have just had a visit from my lawyer," she said, as she plucked away some dead leaves. "What tedious people lawyers are, and so dreadfully indispensable."
"I suppose I passed him on the drive."
"No doubt. But I mustn't speak ill of the good man; he came all the way from London to save me a journey."
They moved about for a few moments in silence.
"There's nothing here to look at, really," Mrs. Clarendon said. "If I could afford it I should have the place kept in good order; but I can't."
She did not appear to notice the look of surprise which Kingcote was for a moment unable to suppress. Leading the way back to the rotunda, she placed a loose cushion and seated herself. The warmth here was temperate, not more than the season required for comfort.
"So you don't study?" she began, with friendly abruptness, when she had pointed to a place for her companion. "What, then, do you do? I am rude, you see, but - I wish to know."
"I wish I could satisfactorily account for my days. I read a little, walk a good deal, see the Vissians now and then --"
"And cultivate ennui - isn't it so? A most unprofitable kind of gardening. I believe you are thoroughly miserable; in fact, you are not at much pains to hide it."
"Scarcely as much as courtesy requires, you would say. I wish I could be more amusing, Mrs. Clarendon."
"I don't ask you to be amusing - only to show yourself a little amused at my impertinent curiosity. Why should you have so forgotten the habit of cheerfulness ?"
"Certainly. Is it not a habit, as long as we are in health?"
"In people happily endowed, I suppose. Temperament and circumstances may enable one to keep a bright view of life."
"Rather, a reasonable effort of the will, I should say. I am often tempted to be dreary, but I refuse to give way."
Kingcote smiled, almost laughed.
"You think I have nothing to be dreary about?" she asked, gazing at him as if trying to read his thoughts. "That is a mistake; I don't speak idly. It would be excusable enough if I lost my cheerfulness. But with me it is a habit. Under any circumstances there's a great deal of entertainment to be got out of life. Of course, if one puts oneself under the most unfavourable conditions - goes to live in a remote hermitage, shuts oneself from social comforts,. reads doleful books about funeral urns --"
She caught his eye, and broke off with bright laughter.
"You don't care for Sir Thomas Browne?" he asked.
"I shouldn't be honest if I said I did. I am afraid that kind of reading is beyond me. Ada - Miss Warren - enjoys it; but she is intellectual, and I cannot pretend to be."
"What do you read, Mrs. Clarendon?"
"The newspapers, and now and then a novel - voilà tout!"
"There are better things than books," observed Kingcote.
A footstep was heard in the inner house.
"Is that you, Reuben?" the lady called, causing the gardener to put his head through the door with the admission, "It be me, ma'am."
She exchanged words with him, then proposed to Kingcote that they should go to the drawing-room for tea. On their way she paused in the hall, with talk about the panelling. Pointing to a fox's head:
"A trophy of last season. We killed that day, a couple of fields behind Wood End."
Tea appeared in a few minutes. As Isabel poured out two cups, her guest made a feint of closely examining a framed photograph of Knightswell, which stood on the table. He was less at his ease than on the tiled floor of the conservatory; the dried mud upon his boots showed brutally against the dark carpet, disposing him to savage humorousness. He became aware that the beverage was silently held out to him. Her own cup in hand, Mrs. Clarendon reclined in her chair, and gradually her eyes fixed themselves upon him. He was conscious of the look before he returned it, and, speaking at length, did so as if in reply to a question, though himself interrogative.
"Did you ever visit a London hospital?"
Isabel manifested no surprise; her face had even a quiet smile of satisfaction.
"Yes," she answered. "I once went to see a servant in St. Thomas's."
"Ah, I was studying there - let me see, six years ago. My father was a medical man, and determined that I should be the same. At his death I gave it up; I hadn't finished my course."
"It was not to your taste?"
"I loathed it. My bad dreams are still of hospital wards and dissecting-rooms. I cannot bear to see the word 'hospital' in print. The experience of those years has poisoned my life, as thoroughly as a slip of the lancet would have poisoned my blood."
"Had you that dislike from the commencement?" Isabel asked, after putting down her empty cup, and crossing her hands on her lap with an air of attention.
"No, not in the same degree. I thought this profession would do as well as another. I believe I even had philanthropic glows now and then, and perhaps even a period of scientific interest. The latter did not survive the steps from theory to practice; the former --"
He made a motion with his hand, and smiled.
"The very last thing I should ever have associated with you," remarked Isabel, with puzzled thoughtfulness.
"A philanthropic zeal?"
"I didn't mean that, but I am not sure that I mayn't include it. Please go on."
Kingcote was resting his forehead on his palm; he resumed without raising his eyes.
"My father practised at Norwich - by-the-bye, our friend, Sir Thomas Browne's city. When he died, I went to live with my mother for a while; my sister had just married and gone to London and a sister of my father's shared our house. I thought of all sorts of things - law, literature (of course), even commerce. For I had a small capital - some shares in a joint-stock bank; they gave me a sufficient income, and I could realise when I needed. For a year I made plans; then of a sudden I found myself in Paris. You know the Continent?"
"I was in the Riviera for a month, some years ago," Isabel answered, without interest. "I can't afford to go abroad now."
It was the second time she had used this phrase. Kingcote watched her countenance.
"What took you to Paris?" she inquired, ignoring the diversion.
"Nothing. I was turning over an old Bradshaw, and details of the journey caught my eye. Next morning I left Norwich. I was abroad two years."
"In France all the time?"
"No. France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy. Perhaps I saw the countries all the better for the necessity I was under of travelling very cheaply - so cheaply, indeed, I wonder how I did it. I walked oftener than rode, and dispensed with hotel dinners whenever possible. I have a diary of the two years' travel."
"You will let me read that?" Isabel asked quietly.
He hesitated; his eyes fixed absently on the windows.
"Yes, I will let you read it. It is foolish, boyish; I dare not read it myself."
"For what reason?"
"Because there is nothing I hold more in horror than the ghost of my former self. I deny identity," he added with sudden bitterness. "How can one be held responsible for the thoughts and acts of the being who bore his name years ago? The past is no part of our existing self; we are free of it, it is buried. That release is the pay Time owes us for doing his work."
Isabel regarded him earnestly; her cheek gathered a warmer hue for a moment.
"You may read it if you care to," he resumed, falling back to calmness. "There is no one else to whom I would show it."
Isabel waited for him to continue. He sat, bent forward, his hands about one knee.
"And you returned to England with plans?" she asked at length, finding him persevere in silence.
"No, only with experience. I came back because I had news of my mother's illness. She was dead and buried before I got home."
"It strikes me as curious," he resumed rapidly, "that my childhood, boyhood in fact, has utterly gone from my memory. I suppose that is why I have such slight sympathy with children. I have often tried desperately to recover the consciousness of my young days: it has gone. My father, my mother, I cannot recall their relations to me, nor mine to them. Nay, facts even have left my memory. I know scarcely anything before the beginning of my student years, and even those are vanishing, I find. I live only in the present."
"But the future?"
"No, from looking forward I shrink as much as from looking back."
There was another silence.
"But since you returned to England?" Isabel inquired, "have you never thought of another profession?"
"I had crazy projects for studying art. Gabriel put that into my head. But my zeal did not last. It is the same in everything; I lack persistence."
"And you have --"
"Done nothing, you would say," Kingcote supplied in the pause she made. "Literally nothing; wasted my time, lost my best years. The necessary consequence of being made up of wants, without the powers which could satisfy them. At present I am engaged in the first work I have done for years."
"At last, then!" Isabel exclaimed.
"Yes, the work of resigning myself to being nothing, of casting off the last foolish flattery of self-conceit, of resolutely bidding myself understand that fate will bear any amount of idle fuming and remain unchanged. It is a task which has its difficulties; rather harder, on the whole, than the realisation of death. Did you ever force yourself to realise death, not to admit it in idle words, but to --"
Isabel motioned him to silence; her face was darkened with a look of pain, of fear.
"Forgive me," he said in a lower voice; "to me it is such a familiar thought. I talk so seldom that I forget the difference between reflection and conversation."
She spent a moment in clearing her mind of the disturbing thought - it seemed strangely disturbing, and at length banished it with the laugh occasioned by a new idea.
"I wonder," she said, changing her attitude, "what you --"
"You were going to say --?"
"You spoke of having thought of commerce. Suppose you had become a man of mess, and had made your fortune, what would your views of life be?"
"Who can say? To begin with, I should only have ruined myself; no fortune would ever have come in that way. Conceiving that it had, why I should not be the same person that I am. Circumstances are the mould which give shape to such metal as we happen to be made of. The metal is the same always, but it may be cast for mean or for noble uses."
"I do not think," Isabel said with gentle reassurance, "that Fate uses the nobler metals for mean service; it has abundance of the poorer stuff at hand."
"That is very well said; if I dared apply it to myself I might yet live awhile in the old fool's paradise. But there is one gain which saves my past years from utter vanity - I have learnt to know myself."
"You say that sadly. Yes, you are quite right. Self-knowledge, in my case, is equivalent to disillusion, loss of hope."
"I meant nothing of the kind," she rejoined, after reflecting a moment on the intention of his words, which she had not at first quite caught. "I doubt whether you do know yourself. If you did, you would have more confidence."
"That is the kindness natural to you. But," he added, softening the words by his tone, "you do not know me."
"No - not yet. It is not easy to know you. I cannot judge you by other people."
Kingcote rose and walked to the fireplace; Mrs. Clarendon watched him, but kept her seat.
"You know many people," he said, speaking with his peculiar abruptness, which was quite different from the tone of mere familiarity, seemed indeed rather to accentuate the distance between them.
"Many," Isabel returned, "in a way."
"It must be strange to have so many acquaintances. It gives you the sense of belonging to the world; you do not stand on the outside and look on."
"In a theatre - watching from an uncomfortable back seat? The stage is open to you."
"And the parts ? Even if I were cast, think of my poor memory. The words are so hard, so artificial. At most I could play the walking gentleman, and in truth I have no mind for that."
Isabel smiled, as if involuntarily, and, after glancing round the room, quitted her seat.
"A friend is coming in a day or two to stay with me," she said; "not a mere acquaintance, but really a friend. I should like you to meet her: you won't refuse?"
He looked at her and hesitated.
"You can't help liking Mrs. Stratton. She has been my nearest friend for years."
"I may be gone," Kingcote said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
"Gone? But you have no intention of leaving?"
"Yes, a half-intention."
"To return to London?"
"I suppose so."
She kept silence, and he added:
"My sister's husband is ill. Circumstances might compel me to return."
"But you are not summoned? You won't leave your cottage unless there is a necessity?"
"Perhaps not; yet I can't be sure. I act very much on impulse."
"That phrase reminds me of some one - a very foolish young man, whom you don't at all resemble."
"Some one you know?"
"One of the many; never mind him. But you will not be gone before next Wednesday; that we may take for granted; unless, of course, you have bad news. You will come and lunch with us on Wednesday?"
"With yourself and Mrs. Stratton?"
"And Miss Warren. I want you to know her better."
"Yes, I will come, if I am still at Wood End."
He held his hand to take leave. Isabel retained it as she spoke.
"In any case you will not go without coming to say good-bye?"
"I could not easily do that, Mrs. Clarendon."
She went with him into the hall, and, when he had left the house, watched him from the drawing-room windows till the trees intervened.
To Mr. Vincent Lacour, issuing from the precincts of the South Kensington Museum, and about to walk towards the railway station, came the vision of a face that he knew, borne past him in a hansom cab, which in a moment stopped. It was raining slightly. Lacour used his umbrella for self-concealment, and, at the same time, contrived to watch his acquaintance descending from the vehicle. She (it was a lady) handed up her fare and passed into the Museum.
The young man invoked aloud the divinity of Jingo.
"A minute later," he continued to himself, "and we should have come face to face with her. A chance meeting, of course; why shouldn't people have met by chance? But I'm glad she didn't see us together."
A miserable, drizzly day; the sky and earth a uniform mud colour. Lacour watched his boots degenerating. He consulted his watch; it was half an hour past noon. An engagement to lunch with a friend at one stood before him; he disregarded it, and went in pursuit of the lady
"Come to see Hecuba's kitchen-pots, no doubt," he mused. "Yes, there she is! She has a good figure, seen from behind, and she always dresses well. I wonder what countenance she will show me; there's no foreseeing."
Ada Warren happened to raise her eyes, and beheld Lacour approaching, a smile of frank surprise on his handsome face. She was startled, and could not help showing it. Lacour, on the other hand, was very much at his ease, talked in a lightly facetious way of the antiquities in the case before them, now and then putting in a personal question.
"You are in town?" he asked by parenthesis.
"I am, for one day."
"I hope Mrs. Clarendon is well? Turning her thoughts, no doubt, to fox-hunting. You don't hunt, I believe? No more do I. Fortunate I haven't the taste, isn't it?"
Ada made no reply, continuing her inspection of the contents of the case, or appearing to do so. He moved a little away, as if to examine other cases, but was presently at her side again. Her curiosity seemed to be satisfied, and she let her eyes wander rather vaguely.
"Do you often come here?" she asked, as they passed from a little group of people to an uninvaded spot a few yards away. She spoke as though against her will, merely to escape from embarrassment.
"No, indeed; I am here by the merest chance, but a most happy one. I haven't much time as a rule. The weather drove me out to-day. Are you sensitive to the weather? A sky like this weighs upon me; I haven't a thought; I can't follow an argument through three successive lines. You know I'm reading law?"
"I rather thought you had left England."
He looked at her, raised his eyebrows slightly, and shook his head.
"You don't mean that you wish I had?"
"Why should I wish it?"
"I am used to that feeling in my acquaintances; they exhaust their powers of indirect emphasis in conveying to me the fact that I am de trop. It is refreshing to find one exception, and the one I should have desired."
Whilst speaking he took out a pocket-book, which contained loose papers; one of these he removed; but only to return it to his pocket together with the book.
"Do I bore you?" he asked, bending his head down to her with graceful expectation of her reply; "or will you let me walk on with you?"
"Is there anything you wish particularly to see?" Ada returned, still in the same mechanical way.
"Yes; I should like you to come upstairs to the pictures. You really understand art; you can help me to appreciate the right things."
She walked on without hesitation, and they spent nearly an hour in the galleries. It was as though, in consenting to accompany him, Ada had overcome an inward restraint, and was now expanding in a sense of freedom. Her face cleared, her eyes grew bright, her tongue was loosened; she talked of the pictures in a natural, easy, and sensible way, quite without self consciousness. Lacour was, as always, frankly egoistic; everything became to him a text for effusive utterance on his subjective experiences. As on a previous occasion, he spoke of the artistic instincts which made the basis of his nature, and went on to sketch a plan of æsthetic education, such as he hoped some day to carry into effect. The unction of his self-flattery was irresistible; to listen was to become insensibly as interested in him as he was in himself. The mere quality of his voice was insinuating, seductive and delicately sensual, and the necessity of speaking low when strangers were at hand gave him the advantage of intimate notes and cadences. His faculty for making himself and his circumstances a source of pathetic suggestion did in fact almost amount to artistic genius; there was at times a fall in his voice which caressed the ear like certain happiest phrases in sad, simple music, and his eyes would fix themselves on a beautiful picture with an apprehension of melancholy so remote, so subtle, that to perceive its reflection was to feel a thrill on the finest chords of sympathy. Then a lighter mood would succeed, comment would take a humorous turn, not without hints of interpretation generally reserved for masculine colloquy, ambiguities which might or might not be intentional, a glancing in directions whence it is usual to avert the mental eye. At the end of the hour Ada was laughing and talking in a way quite new to her, doing her best to say clever things which yet had no point of sarcasm, even speaking a little of herself, though this was a subject upon which Lacour could not get her to dwell.
"It's a quarter to two," he exclaimed at length. "Are you not hungry?"
"I meant to lunch here; perhaps it is time."
"In that case we'll lunch together - if you permit it?"
They did so in complete good-fellowship, the only difficulty arising when Lacour desired to pay for both. Ada opposed this, and in a manner which proved her in earnest.
"You return to-night?" he asked, leaning towards her on the table when the waiter's demands had been severally met.
"To-morrow morning. I stay with friends."
"At the Meres'?" he asked quickly.
He fingered a bottle in the cruet-stand, his lips slightly drawn together.
"You do not know them intimately?" Ada asked, observing him.
He shook his head.
"No; they would not be interested in hearing that it was I who spoilt your purposes of study."
Ada did not reply to this, save by a slight change of countenance. Before he spoke again she saw him take an envelope from the inner pocket of his coat.
"I have something here which belongs to you," he said, "though it is not addressed. It was written a week ago, but for one or two reasons I delayed putting it in the post. Will you let me be my own postman?"
Ada had just drawn on her second glove, and was preparing to rise. She set her face in hard outlines and remained motionless, her hands on her lap.
"Won't you save me a penny?" Lacour pleaded with gravity. "Economy is essential with me: I have not concealed the fact."
Ada's lips quivered to a smile; she took the letter from where it lay on the table, and moved away without facing him. There was colour on her cheeks.
"Are you going straight to your friends?" Lacour inquired, with some difficulty coming up to her side.
"No; I have some purchases to make. I shall take a cab."
"I will get you one."
With every politeness of manner he led her from the door to the vehicle, saw her comfortably seated, gave the driver his orders, and took a silent leave. The envelope was crushed in her hand as she drove away.
Not many days later Mrs. Stratton arrived at Knightswell, bringing her youngest boy, a ten-year-old, whose absence from school was explained by recent measles. This lady was the wife of an officer at present with his regiment in Africa; her regret at the colonel's remoteness, and her anxiety on his behalf in a time of savage warfare, were tempered by that spirit of pride in things military which so strongly infuses a certain type of the British matron, destined to bring forth barbarians and heroes. At the age of forty Mrs. Stratton had four children, all boys; the two eldest were already at Woolwich and Sandhurst respectively, the third at Harrow, extracting such strategic science as Thucydides could supply, boastful of a name traceable in army lists three generations back. These four lads were offspring whereof no British matron could feel ashamed: perfect in physical development, striking straight from the shoulder, with skulls to resist a tomahawk, red-checked and hammer-fisted. In the nursery they had fought each other to the tapping of noses; at school they fought all and sundry up through every grade of pugilistic championship. From infancy they handled the fowling-piece, arid killed with the coolness of hereditary talent. Side by side they walked in quick step, as to the beating of a drum; eyes direct, as looking along a barrel, ears pricked for the millionth echo of an offensive remark. At cricket they drove cannon-balls; milder games were the target of their scorn. Admirable British youths!
"How can they make such a milk-sop of that child!" Mrs. Stratton exclaimed when she had renewed her acquaintance with Percy Vissian, summoned to "play with" Master Edgar Strangeways Stratton, and showing no great appreciation of the privilege.
"Percy's tastes are very quiet," Mrs. Clarendon explained. "He likes reading more than anything else."
"What does he read? I'll examine him.. Come here, Percy?" she called; the two ladies were on the lawn, and the boys at a little distance.
Percy looked round and prepared to walk towards Mrs. Stratton, but the other boy suddenly caught his two arms, pinned them behind his back, and ran him violently over the grass.
"Gently, Edgar, gently," said his mother, smiling reproof. Little Percy stood red and flustered, ashamed at a personal indignity, as children with brains are wont to be.
"Percy," interrogated Mrs. Stratton, "when was the battle of Inkerman fought?"
The lad shook his head, regarding Mrs. Clarendon appealingly.
"Don't be ashamed, Percy," said the latter, holding to him her hand. "I'm sure I couldn't say."
"You couldn't? Ah-yah!" shrieked Edgar Stratton, flinging up his cap and leaping to catch it. He was a fat, bullet-headed boy, generally red as a boiled lobster, supple as an eel.
"Well, you tell us," ventured Percy, emboldened by the grasp of Isabel's hand.
"Think I can't, you silly? - Fifth of November, 1854; began at seven o'clock in the morning. For three hours eight thousand British infantry supported the attack of forty thousand muffs of Russians. Wish I'd been there, don't I just! Four English generals were killed and four wounded."
"He knows all the battles like that," remarked his mother with pride.
She was a short, dark woman, growing rather stout, and with no very graceful walk; her face was attractive, and constantly wore a smile; she dressed with extreme elegance. In converse she displayed a heartiness and independence which were a little too masculine; her hand-clasp was a direct invitation to free companionship, and her manner suggested a rejection of soft treatment on the score of her sex. The military gentlemen with whom she associated spoke of her "pluck"; she was capable, they said, of leading a charge of cavalry; and indeed to see her in the hunting-field was to realise in a measure the possibility. Fearlessness is generally equivalent to lack of imagination, and in Mrs. Stratton's case the connection was clearly established, but on this very account she was admirable in the discharge of many distinctly feminine duties. In an accident, a sudden calamity, her steadiness of nerve was only matched by the gentleness and efficiency of her ministering zeal. In her nature the maternal element was all-absorbing; to produce and rear fine animals of her species, to defend them if need be with the courage of a tigress, to extend her motherly protection and pride to those she deemed worthy, these were her offices. No man approached her with thoughts of gallantry for all her comeliness, and certainly she thought of no man more warmly than as a jolly good fellow and a boon companion, her husband being at the head of such. The latter's absence was no harder to bear than that of any valued friend had she not her boys? These youngsters she would treat with the demonstrative affectionateness which is a proof of incapacity for deeper emotions. She was all instinct, and as intolerant of alien forms of thought and feeling as even an Englishwoman can attain to be. Fortunately the sphere of her indifference was immense; with wider knowledge her lack of charity would have been far more unpleasantly obvious. As it was, she never made a statement which fell short of finality; argued with, pressed to reconsider, she would put the matter aside with a smile and pass on to a new subject - the maternal does not reason.
Between her and Isabel undoubtedly existed a strong mutual attachment. Whereon this was based could not at first sight be determined; the two appeared different in most things. Possibly it was one of those cases which occur, of attraction to and by qualities, which, owing to circumstances, remain potential. Had Isabel's marriage resulted in offspring, she might have developed maternal passion in no less a degree than her friend; the sweet and lovable nature, which now exercised such a universal charm in virtue of its wide activity, might very well have concentrated itself on those few objects, with an intensity detrimental to the broader influences of her womanhood. The story of her relations with Ada Warren, viewed aright, perhaps tells in favour of this idea. She could not herself have explained to you her affection for Mrs. Stratton, and he who is giving these chapters of her history may not pretend to do much more than exhibit facts and draw at times a justifiable inference. He is not a creator of human beings, with eyes to behold the very heart of the machine he has himself pieced together; merely one who takes trouble to trace certain lines of human experience, and, working here on grounds of knowledge, there by aid of analogy, here again in the way of bolder speculation, spins his tale with what skill he may till the threads are used up.
Ada, as one would have anticipated, thoroughly disliked Mrs. Stratton, and avoided intercourse with her as much as possible. When the lady was at Knightswell, Ada would frequently keep apart for a whole day; even in the visitor's presence she could not feign friendliness. Mrs. Stratton's manner to her was one of genial indifference, with no suggestion that she felt herself slighted.
"I see no change," said Isabel's friend, the day after her arrival, knowing, of course, of the enlightenment which had come to the girl. "She seems to me exactly the same."
"She is not," returned Isabel. "Her life is twice as intense and varied. She is happy, or nearly so, and conceals it to spare me."
"H'm; you think her capable of that?"
"By-the-bye, does she correspond with young Lacour, do you think?"
"I fancy not. I believe she would tell me."
"You have astonishing faith in her uprightness."
"She is a strange girl, but she is honourable," affirmed Mrs. Clarendon.
Isabel was not wrong as to the change in Ada. Outwardly there was not much evidence of the processes at work in the hidden places of her being, yet sufficient to prove to just observation whither they tended. Formerly Ada had kept to herself to hide her misery, had striven in solitude with passions which left their mark upon her face when she reappeared, had been worn with listlessness, when not overtaxing her strength to escape the torments which assailed her leisure. Now, she was seldom actively employed, yet solitude was precious to her; Isabel saw her pacing up and down the garden paths, no longer with dark and troubled face, but with the light of earnest preoccupation in her eyes, and a clear brow, which was often raised as if at the impulse of intense feeling. There was more of healthful girlishness in her motions, her smile; she would spring and catch a bough swaying above her, would run a space with the big house-dog bounding beside her. Once she came in at the front door with her breath gone, her cheeks in high colour, her hat in her hand; Isabel met her in the hall, and in surprise asked her what was the matter.
"A race with the rain!" Ada panted, sinking on a chair. "I could see it coming, nearer every second; I got in as the first drop fell!"
She showed a childish delight in her achievement; perhaps she enjoyed the sense of her health and strength, scarcely ever tried in active exercise. After this, running with the big dog became a daily pastime. Young Stratton caught a glimpse of her at it in the park one day, and rushed to join the sport.
"After a rabbit, eh?" he shouted, coming up with them.
Ada at once dropped to a walk, and spoke to the dog, instead of answering the boy's question.
"I say, you look here!" Edgar suddenly exclaimed in a whisper.
She turned, and saw him aiming with a catapult at a bird perched on a bush hard by. Before the aim was perfect, Ada had snatched the tool from his hands.
"Well, I call that --!" cried the youngster, at a loss for words. "What do you want to spoil my shot for?"
"Can't you amuse yourself without murdering!" returned the girl, hot in anger. "Shoot at that tree-trunk if you must shoot."
"Murdering!" echoed the youth, in blank astonishment. "Come now, Miss Warren Murdering a bird - I call that good!"
"What else is it? What right have you to rob the bird of its life? What is it that drives you to kill every creature that you safely may?"
"It's fair sport!" urged the young Briton, in amaze at this outlandish mode of regarding things.
She stood regarding him, the catapult stilt in her hand.
"What are you going to be when you grow up?"
"What am I going to be? A soldier, of course."
"I thought so; then you can murder on a large scale."
"You call killing the enemy in battle, murder?"
"What do you call it? Fair sport?"
"I say, Miss Warren, you're a rum 'un, you are!" observed Edgar, shaking his round head in wonder. "Are you joking? - though you don't look like it."
Ada held the catapult out to him.
"Here, take it and run off," she said, shortly.
He obeyed, and brought down a blackbird not fifty yards away, then ran to Mrs. Clarendon and his mother, who laughed at the story. The ladies' ideas of sport did not greatly differ; were not the fowls of the air, the fishes of the deep and the foxes of the field created for the British sportsman? Surely no piece of teleology was clearer.
Ada had no one whom she could take into her confidence, no soul to which she could speak out the sincerity of her own. With Rhoda Meres she exchanged letters at long intervals, but the thoughts they expressed to each other were only from the surface of their lives; the girls were friends only in the slightest sense of the word. It was true that she had in her possession just now a letter from another correspondent, awaiting an answer; that reply she could not bring herself to write; and, when she did so, the words would not be those it was in her to say. Her isolation was absolute. Whatsoever force of waters beat against the flood-gates of her heart, she could not give them free passage. She was driven to commune with herself in set speech; by degrees, to take her pen and write the words she would have uttered had any ear been bent to her. She resumed her habit of spending the mornings in the library, but no longer with books; either she sat in reverie, or, at her desk, filled sheet after sheet with small, nervous handwriting, her features fixed in eager interest, her whole body knit as if in exertion, in sympathy with the effort of her mind. When she came forth to meet the other inmates of the house, she did not speak, but looked quietly cheerful.
She had been thus occupied through the morning of the day on which Kingcote was expected to appear at luncheon. Entering the drawing-room shortly after the first bell rang, she found no one there; a moment later a servant opened the door and announced the visitor.
As they exchanged such phrases as the situation gave rise to, Kingcote found himself reflecting on the familiar fact that our first impression of a face is greatly modified by acquaintance. The girl's features no longer appeared to him irredeemably plain, though their variance from types of smooth comeliness was obvious enough. In profile it was a very harsh visage, the nose irregular, the chin too prominent, the cheek-bone high, the ear seemingly too far back on the head; viewed in full, details were lost in the general expression of force and passionate life. The jaw was heavy, the lips large, yet these not ill-shaped, the contrary rather; but all the upper part bore the stamp of character and intelligence. The deep eyes had no unkindly light, and readily answered to a humorous suggestion. Perhaps it was the hint of hard endurance which struck an observer first of all, and left him with the idea of a sullen, resentful face; for her brows had a way of nervously wrinkling up between the eyes, and her lips of making themselves yet fuller by compression at the corners. Her gaze was not one of open friendliness, but Kingcote was beginning to discover something in its reserve quite different from mere irresponsive egoism. Her forehead, taken apart with its weight of dark hair, might have been modelled for Pallas.
But whilst justice was thus being done, Mrs. Clarendon entered, sweet, smiling, irresistible from the first glance, and was followed by Mrs. Stratton. When all proceeded to the dining-room, Master Edgar was found already in possession, seated at table, waiting with impatience. Meals were with him a matter of supreme importance; he ate his way stolidly and steadily through all courses, scorning the idleness of conversation.
There was much talk between the two elder ladies of a meet on the following day; both proposed joining the field, Mrs. Stratton having brought horses of her own with that view. Edgar had his pony, and would follow the hunt in his own fashion.
"Where is the meet?" Kingcote inquired.
"At Salcot," replied Isabel. "Do let us drive you over. Don't look so scornful, Ada; I'm sure Mr. Kingcote would enjoy it."
"I think it very likely," the girl remarked quietly.
"Your judgment on us, one and all," laughed Mrs. Stratton.
"Miss Warren calls it murder," cried Edgar derisively, with his mouth full.
Kingcote gave his assent to the proposal that he should drive with the ladies and witness the meet. They promised to take him up at the junction of the old and the new roads.
He talked with Mrs. Stratton in the drawing room after luncheon. Edgar came and reclined on the carpet, resting his head against his mother.
"Get up, sir!" Mrs. Stratton addressed him. "I won't have this laziness after meals. Look at him, Mr. Kingcote; don't you think it high time he was packed off to school again?"
"Well, I shan't be sorry," observed the youth, reluctantly rising to his feet.
"I suppose you are eager to get back to cricket?" said Kingcote.
"Cricket! Why, you don't play cricket this time of year!" cried Edgar, with scornful laughter.
"Indeed? What is the game, then? Football?"
"I should think so."
"You must mend your manners, Edgar," observed his mother. "Now run out into the garden, and don't trouble us. His body is getting rather too much for him," she continued playfully to Kingcote. "He must get back to his fagging. I wouldn't for the world send a boy of mine to a school where there was no fagging."
"Capital thing, no doubt," said Kingcote. "He's a fine boy."
"A little too noisy just at present."
"Oh, it's a sign of his perfect health. Surely you wouldn't see him mooning about, or shutting himself up with books?"
"Like that poor little fellow of the rector's," said Mrs. Stratton. "That child ought to be sent off to school."
"Certainly. They'd soon knock him into shape, take the dreaminess out of him. Robust health before everything. Are your other boys as hearty as this one?"
"Oh, every bit! My eldest lad has broken almost every bone in his body, and seems all the better for it."
"Why, that's magnificent. Their lives will be a joy to them. Constitution, of course, is much; but I'm sure they have to thank you for an admirable bringing-up."
Ada, who sat close by, was regarding Kingcote curiously, just suppressing a smile as she caught a glimpse of Mrs. Stratton's gratified face.
"This is your ideal of education?" she put in gravely.
"Assuredly it is," was Kingcote's answer. "Surely that education is best which leads to happiness. That boy will never be afflicted with nervous disorders; he will never be melancholy, hypochondriacal, despairing; he will never see the world in any but the rosiest light, never be troubled by abstract speculation, never doubt for a moment about his place and his work. The plan of education which has such a result as that is beneficence itself. Don't you think so, Miss Warren?"
"To be sure I wouldn't have the minds altogether neglected," said Mrs. Stratton. "Come and listen, Isabel; Mr. Kingcote is saying the most interesting things."
"Let the mind take care of itself," continued Kingcote, smiling slightly as he looked at Mrs. Clarendon. "If a boy has a bent for acquiring knowledge, he will manage that later. I wouldn't encourage it. Make him a sound creature, that's the first thing. Occupy him with vigorous bodily pursuits; keep his mind from turning inwards; save him from reflection. If every boy in England could be so brought up, they would be a blissful generation."
"How about the girls?" questioned Isabel. "Would you educate them in the same way?"
"Precisely, with yet more wholesome effect. Nay, I would go further; they should never open a book till they were one-and-twenty, and their previous training should be that of Amazons."
"That is a merciful provision," said Ada, meaning possibly more than her hearers understood.
When Kingcote took his leave the ladies separated. Mrs. Clarendon had before her a dinner party at Dunsey Priors, and it was necessary to give certain orders. Mrs. Stratton took up The Times till tea should appear. Ada, after pacing about the library for a quarter of an hour, took her hat and went into the open air. Her mind was disturbed in some way; the darkness of trouble was back again in her eyes. She walked among the evergreens of the shrubbery, then strayed to a seat which stood against the wall of the circular portion of the conservatory. The landscape before her was wild with the hues of a sky in which the declining sun fought against flying strips of ragged cloud. The wind was kept off from this part of the lawn, but in the distance it made a moaning over the fields. She watched a cohort of dead leaves sweeping in great curves along the side of the house.
A voice spoke very near to her. It came from within the rotunda; the stained-glass window just above her head was partly open.
"It would be infinitely better," Mrs. Clarendon was saying, "than that a man like Vincent Lacour should make a prize of her."
"But she cannot be so infatuated," returned Mrs. Stratton. "She has sense enough to understand her own position and to take care of herself. My idea is that she won't marry for some time, perhaps not at all."
There was silence, then the last speaker resumed.
"She certainly has no interest in Mr. Kingcote."
"You can't judge so speedily. I don't say that I desire it," Isabel added with an uncertain voice. "But I am sure it would be a happy thing."
"Then why not desire it?"
"I don't know, I can't quite explain. And I half think she has an interest in him; but then - poor Ada!"
"She isn't so ugly as she was," remarked Mrs. Stratton's matter-of-fact voice. "I notice that distinctly."
Ada rose and walked away with quick steps. At the corner of the house, as she passed it to reach the front door, a great gust of wind met her, and a troop of dry crackling leaves swarmed about her feet and dress; she bent her head and hastened on, not staying till she had reached her bedroom. There she stood, just within the door, motionless and purposeless. Her face was pale, her lips set at their hardest and cruelest. When at length she stirred, it was to go to the glass and view herself. She turned away with a laugh, no pleasant one. . . .
As Isabel came downstairs a few minutes before the time for which the carriage had been ordered, she saw Ada standing in the doorway of the library.
"Don't, of course, sit up for me, Ada," she said.
"I will not. But I should be glad to speak to you now, if you could spare me a moment."
Isabel gazed, surprised at her tone.
"Certainly," she acceded, and passed into the library. Ada closed the door behind her. Isabel was resplendent in her evening costume; her pure, shapely neck and shoulders gleamed above the dark richness of her robe, the gold and jewels made worthy adornment of her beauty. Her colour a trifle heightened, her eyes lustrous with foresight of homage, her white, womanly brows crowned with the natural tiara of her hair - fine and rich still as in her girlhood - the proud poise of her small and perfect head, these things were lovelier to-night than on the day when her picture had been painted as a young bride. Maturity had rewarded her with its dower, which so few dare count upon. To-night she was a woman whom men of ripe experience, men of the world, would take for herself, asking no wealth but that of her matchless charm, a woman for whom younger and more passionate hearts would break with longing.
"What is it, Ada?" she asked in a voice of concern.
"This, Mrs. Clarendon. You rightly required of me that I should keep secret no step that affected us both. I wish to tell you that I have accepted an offer from Mr. Lacour - that I am going to be married to him."
She spoke neither hurriedly nor vehemently. The only measure of her feeling was in the words she used, the plainest and directest which came into her mind.
Isabel regarded her steadily for a moment. The look was grave, not hostile. Her eyes were dulled a little, her cheeks less warm, the jewels on her breast rose and fell; but she mastered the emotions which such an announcement could not but cause, forced back that cold, heavy flood which just touched her heart, held her own against the onset of fears.
"You have well considered this, Ada?"
Her hand sought the nearest chair, but she resisted the need of seating herself, merely rested her gloved fingers on the back.
"Yes, I have given it all the consideration that is necessary," was Ada's reply, less self-controlled than her last speech.
"But why do you tell me in this way?" Isabel inquired, when she had again regarded the girl's pale anguish. "What has happened? What has offended you?"
"I have said all that I wished to say, Mrs. Clarendon," continued the other, regardless, seeming not to hear what was asked of her. "Please to tell me whether I am free to act, whether, as I am still under your authority, you will use it or not to oppose my marriage?"
"I cannot understand you, Ada. Why do you speak to me so harshly? What unkindness have I been guilty of, and so recently?"
She stopped, her eyes fell, a thought seemed to strike her.
"Have I said anything to hurt you?"
Ada made a nervous movement, then spoke more calmly.
"I should not allow anything you say to influence my actions. Will you please tell me what I wish to know?"
"I shall offer no opposition of that kind," Isabel said. "You are old enough to think and act for yourself. If you had come and told me of this in a friendly way I should no doubt have used the privilege of my age and experience --"
"To tell me what you have already on several occasions said indirectly," broke in the girl, again passionate. "Thank you; I can make all such reflections for myself."
"I think you are unjust to me, Ada," said Mrs. Clarendon, in a lowered voice. Her fingers were now grasping the chair, instead of resting upon it. "When you have had time to reflect I am sure you will speak to me differently."
Ada stood silent.
"You propose to be married shortly?" Isabel asked, joining her hands together before her.
"As soon as will suit your convenience, Mrs. Clarendon."
"Pray do not consult that."
She could not hold back this little note of resentment, and, having uttered it, she turned and left the room. As she drew the door to, a servant approached to say that the carriage waited.
"I shall not want it," Isabel replied shortly; "let it go back."
She moved to the foot of the stairs, and in doing so, had to pass the drawing-room door, which stood open. Mrs. Stratton was within. Hearing the rustle of Isabel's dress she came forward.
"Ready?" she said; and added with a smile, "pray remember me to Lord Winterset; he is sure to be there."
Isabel was pale now. She stood with one foot on the stairs and a hand pressed against her side. For a moment she looked strangely into her friend's face, then turned and called to the footman, who was in the doorway of the house.
"Ward, stop the carriage!"
"What's this?" inquired Mrs. Stratton, looking puzzled. Only an extreme occasion would have called alarm to that heroic lady's face.
"I sent the carriage away," Isabel explained. "I had a faintness - thought I wouldn't go. It has gone! I shall be late."
"You certainly don't look very well. A glass of sherry, dear --?"
"No, no; it has gone. Don't sit up for me, Rose. Good-bye, dear."
They kissed each other, and Mrs. Clarendon rustled to her carriage.
Mr. Saltash of Dunsey Priors was, by profession, a master of fox-hounds; in his leisure, Member of Parliament. He had won the county, in the Conservative interest, on the death of Mr. Clarendon, and proved an extremely useful man. His specialty consisted in "pairing" with Members of the opposite party. In his graver pursuit he held a high place, his knowledge and zeal being brought into brilliant evidence by the wealth which enabled him to entertain sumptuously those leaders of society whose appreciation grows keen on a satisfied palate. Essentially a country gentleman, he lived almost entirely at the Priors, a fine old dwelling of considerable archæological interest; known, among other things, for its piece of Roman pavement, discovered by Mr. Saltash himself, in the building of new stables. During the hunting season, he gathered at his table a succession of English and foreign notabilities. Half the Cabinet had been known to meet in festivity at Dunsey Priors, and men from other lands, desirous of studying British social life, were directed thither as to one of the most fruitful fields of observation. The misfortune of the house was, that it contained no son and heir; Miss Irene Saltash was her parent's only child, and she, as we have seen, had degenerated from the type whereby her father leisured to be represented. She did not even hunt, and was given over to ecclesiastical interests, which Mr. Saltash, utterly at a loss to account for, qualified with no reticence as condemned tomfoolery. Whether it was she who had infected Lady Florence Cootes with this singular frenzy, or who was the sufferer by contagion from Lord Winterset's daughter, could not clearly be determined. At all events, she had it not from her mother. Mrs. Saltash possessed that solidity of physique and sterling commonplaceness of character which are, perhaps, the best qualifications of a country hostess. With every endowment of an admirable cook and housekeeper, the addition of aristocratic descent made her dulness respectable. She exacted nothing from her guests but the enjoyment of the fare she had provided; satisfied repose was the note of her conversation.
It was rather a large party to-night at the Priors; Mrs. Clarendon, arriving a few minutes after the dinner-hour, entered a great room murmurous with conversation, and striking in effects of costume; the men were in pink. The announcement of her name turned all faces to the door; male eyes glimmered with passive and polite satisfaction, those of the opposite sex wandered a little about the company. There were very few present who had not the pleasure of acquaintance with the Lady of Knightswell; greetings were abundant and cordial. It was a singular thing that the looks of most, after observing her, were bent, as if involuntarily, on a tall, baldish, handsome gentleman, who stood in conversation with Miss Saltash, stooping a little from his inconvenient height, and swinging an eyeglass round and round his fore-finger. This gentleman had precedence in rank, and very possibly in intellect, of all the assembled guests; the Earl of Winterset needed no introduction to any one familiar with the photograph-shops and illustrated papers of the day. Strong in politics and social enterprise, he was no less prominent on the turf and in the hunting field; the public had it on his own assertion that a good speech and a good horse were the prime joys of his life. Consequently he was popular. Had he said a good book and a good horse - but he was too wise for that, though the measure of truth in the phrase would have been larger. He was, in fact, a singular combination of a critical intellect with a conservative temperament. He knew himself, could joke on the vulgarity of his ruling instincts, could despise those who, resembling him fundamentally, lacked the refinement of his superstructure.
Whilst conversing affably with Irene Saltash on the subject of a recent Ritualist trial, Lord Winterset's eyes strayed to the group amid which stood Mrs. Clarendon. He pursed his lips held his head on one side, in seeming reflection upon an argument Miss Saltash had just advanced, then nodded gravely three times. But Irene had to ask twice for an answer to a question she was putting. Before she received it, dinner was announced.
The happy man to whose lot it fell to conduct Isabel was a certain Mr. Ladbroke Ruff, foxy from the summit of his cranium to the sole of his feet; there were titled dames present, otherwise Mr. Ruff would scarcely have been so honoured. The musicians' gallery in the old feasting hall was occupied by a band which discoursed old English strains; Mr. Ruff discoursed foxes. His "place" was in Leicestershire; a week's visit to his old friend Saltash was detaining him in this less interesting county. His talk was of "oxers," of "bullfinches," and of "raspers"; he overflowed with genial reminiscences of the Quorn, the Pytchley, and the Cottesmore. A certain "hog-maned chestnut" of his came in for a vast amount of praise.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "one of the very finest things in the way of a run that I remember! Forty-eight minutes, Mrs. Clarendon - on my word of honour, forty-eight minutes without a check, and a kill in the open. That was the day when poor Lewin Copstake broke both his legs. Ah! you know Copstake? Delighted, delighted! A mare he would ride - not up to the country; kneed the rails just in front of me, and came down a cracker."
Mrs. Clarendon related a similar incident from her own experience, giving Mr. Ruff an opportunity to get through an entrée.
"You don't say so, you don't say so! Extraordinary recklessness! By-the-bye, you know Mrs. Scarlett Slapton? Know of her, to be sure. Who doesn't? - ha, ha! Which season was it? Oh, she had a clever flyer - Meg Merrilies, bought from Lord Wakefield, I believe. I shall never forget one day in December, '72 - yes, '72 - with the Quorn."
Then followed excited particulars. "The fox broke for --," "a burning scent," "never dwelt between -- and --," "had our work cut out to live the pace," - and so on.
Isabel talked eagerly; the flush had come back to her cheeks, her gaiety was inexhaustible. She ate little, however, and only touched with her lips a glass of champagne. Her answers now and then were a trifle wide of the mark, but she never failed in outward attentiveness. Mr. Ruff probably did not catch the sigh of relief with which she at length obeyed the signal to rise.
Mrs. Bruce Page got to her side in the drawing-room, and chattered with accustomed energy. Isabel encouraged her, heedless of subjects; the advantage was that a word or two put in edgewise every few minutes sufficed to this lady's colloquial demands, and at present Isabel did not feel capable of taking a more active part in conversation.
"You know," said the gossiper, after exhausting all other topics, "that the boy Vincent has settled down at length in the most orderly way"
"Mr. Lacour?" Isabel asked, watching the speaker's face.
"Yes. He is becoming exemplary; reads law all day, like the good boy he ought to be. I'm so glad, for - to tell you the truth --"
She stopped in hesitation, a most unusual thing. Isabel looked inquiringly, but with preoccupied countenance.
"To tell you the truth," Mrs. Bruce Page resumed, ruffling her fan, "I have been a little anxious about my eldest girl. I dare say you have noticed my eagerness to get Vincent settled in some way? There is no reason in the world why it shouldn't come to something, some day, you know; but for the present --"
"Does it amount to an engagement?" Isabel asked, rather bluntly, but still without much show of interest.
"Oh, my dear, nothing so premature as that. In fact, I ought not to have breathed a syllable, but to you!"
Mrs. Bruce Page put her head on one side, and looked fascinatingly. Isabel reflected, seemed about to put another question, altered her mind and said to herself:
"Now what is the woman's precise object in telling me that - that fib?"
They gossiped a little on sundry other topics, then, another lady coming up, Isabel withdrew to a more retired part of the room. The windows were deep recesses, comfortably cushioned, with a heavy, shadowing curtain on each side; in one of these retreats she established herself, watching those who moved about before her. Soon she ceased consciously to watch, her gaze grew fixed, her features made of themselves a mask woefully unlike Isabel Clarendon.
"You are not looking yourself to-night, dear Mrs. Clarendon," said the voice of Lady Florence Cootes, as that playful young religionist crouched on a stool by Isabel's side. "Have you a headache?"
"Yes, a little. No matter, I shall hunt to-morrow, Flo, and that always sets me up."
"Oh, I'm sure I hope so. Have you seen father yet?"
"Seen him, but not spoken," Isabel returned, seeming to regard a lady who stood near. "I rather thought this troublesome news from Egypt would have taken him up to town."
"Oh, he's like you, he won't miss his hunting to-morrow!"
The gentlemen entered the room, and Lady Florence went off to the warmer regions. In her recess Isabel was conscious of some one moving gradually towards her, stopping here and there to exchange a few words, often glancing about him, slowly but surely moving her way. A dreadful nervousness took hold of her; she wished to quit her place, to stir, to breathe freely away from the shadowing curtain, but she could not rise. She was in terror lest some flagrant weakness should entirely overcome her, an hysterical burst of tears, or a fit of faintness. Indeed, the latter seemed imminent; she could not fan herself. Just then Lord Winterset perceived her, and at his recognising smile her agitation suddenly calmed.
"Well, my fair enemy!" he exclaimed, sinking on the cushion by her side. "How long it seems since we had an opportunity of quarrelling! You have been at Knightswell through the autumn, I understand."
"With the exception of a week or two. You have been travelling."
"Nothing to speak of; Spain, and a peep at Algiers."
Isabel put some questions which led to talk of the countries he had visited. He talked well, with a pleasantly graphic manner, and in a tone of good-humoured criticism, the tone of a man who had no illusions, and who made every allowance for the defective construction of the world. Dropping gradually upon one elbow, that nearest to his companion, he played with the seals on his watch-guard, and let the current of his descriptive eloquence glide into any pleasant channel which offered itself. One or two stories of adventures he had met with were recounted very gracefully - one, at least, was just saved by its manner from being the kind of thing better suited to the club than the drawing-room. Isabel laughed freely.
"How is it," he asked pleasantly, "that no one I know has your secret of laughter? You laugh with such complete naturalness and enjoyment, and yet it is only a delightful smile accompanied by music. I should not like to say that any lady's laughter is unmusical, but the smile is shockingly spoilt. Poor Flo, for instance, laughs most deplorably. Many ladies know the difficulty, and never venture on a laugh at all; alas, they grin!"
Isabel laughed again, though not quite as before.
"What have you to report of the Spanish ladies?" she asked.
"Beautiful; some I saw beautiful exceedingly; but their complexion too hot. I seemed to feel the need of fresh air. The northern type is my ideal; faces which remain through a lifetime fresh as a flower, which exhale the coolness of an early summer morning. They are graceful, but I often thought of a certain English lady, who has more natural grace of bearing than any one of them."
He has fixed his look upon her; Isabel tried to make some light response, but her voice failed.
"By-the-bye," he asked, "Flo gave you that message of mine - a message I sent from Seville?"
"About the winner of the Two Thousand? Oh yes; I was duly humiliated. How could I have erred, in a matter of such moment!"
"You remember - there was a wager."
"Certainly. You have not forgotten the terms?"
Isabel held her fan by its two ends, and, as if to recollect, pressed it across her forehead. There was a terrible throbbing there; the cool ivory was very pleasant.
"I must claim payment," Lord Winterset pursued playfully, whilst he glanced about him to see that neighbours were minding their business. "You remember it was to be anything I chose to ask for."
"Lord Winterset! How foolish! There was really no wager at all; that was a mere joke, a piece of nonsense."
"Indeed, I did not regard it as anything of the kind," he continued imperturbably, still fingering his seals. "I knew perfectly well that I should win, and I knew just as well what payment I should beg for."
Her beautifully gloved hand rested on its open palm by her side; there was pressure on it, the nerves were strung. She gazed straight before her and saw nothing.
Lord Winterset looked at the hand, and touched it with two fingers.
"That is what I ask," he said, just audibly.
Isabel drew the hand back to her lap, then faced him, with a great effort of self-control.
"I cannot answer you at once, Lord Winterset," she said, almost calmly, though in very truth the words were a mere buzzing in her own ears. "Not to-night. Grant me a day or two."
"Is that necessary?"
"It is - indeed it is! I can say nothing whatever to-night. You must not interpret my behaviour at all."
"We hunt together to-morrow. May I see you in the evening?"
"Yes, after the hunt. I will answer you then. May I, please, be left to myself now?"
"Till to-morrow evening."
Lord Winterset smiled, bowed to her with informal grace, and passed to the nearest group. In a few moments, Isabel too moved away. She had but to appear in the centre of the room to attract half-a-dozen loiterers. Never had her social instincts triumphed as they did now; never had she governed herself with such perfection of skill. For five minutes she was an enchantress. Then she drew aside, and presently had disappeared.
At the appointed time and place, Kingcote saw the carriage pulling up for him, Edgar Stratton having ridden his pony on before. It was a dull morning, but perfect for hunting purposes, as Mr. Vissian declared when Kingcote chatted with him for a moment in front of the rectory. The two ladies seemed in excellent spirits; they wore their habits, ready to mount the horses which would have reached Salcot before them. Mrs. Clarendon pressed Kingcote's hand warmly when he had taken his seat opposite her, held it a moment longer than was necessary, indeed, and looked with earnestness into his face. The night had been sleepless for her, but whatever traces her watching might have left had at once been carried away by the air which breathed past the light-speeding vehicle. She talked and laughed without ceasing; the prospect of a delightful day appeared entirely to occupy her. On Mrs. Stratton's making some reference to an engagement for the morrow,
"Oh, I can't look so far forward!" Isabel exclaimed. "To-day is only beginning; what is the good of remembering that it will ever come to an end?"
"That reminds me," said Kingcote, "of those stories of impious huntsmen, who wished to ride on for ever, and had the wish terribly granted."
"I am not sure that I shouldn't follow their example, whoever offered me the choice," Isabel said. "Ah, it is good to get rid of the world! To forget everything but the delight of your headlong speed!"
"At all events," said Kingcote, "it is a form of dissipation which brings no headache on the morrow."
"Now, you too talk of the morrow! Perish the word! I live in to-day. Who knows what may happen before nightfall? I may be killed."
Kingcote's ear was struck with something singular in the note of these last words. When he looked at Isabel she did not avert her eyes, but smiled with a touching familiarity.
"Have you news from London?" she asked of him unexpectedly.
"Yes; things are still bad."
"I am very sorry."
He had never heard conventional politeness so sweetly expressed; there was a real sorrow in her voice.
Arrived at the scene of the meet, at the end of the main street of Salcot, the ladies at once mounted their hunters and mixed with pink-coated men, who were present in considerable numbers. Kingcote drew to a little distance from the crowd of villagers, and, when a move was made to covert, he just kept the motley troup in sight. The ladies from Knightswell were the only representatives of their sex. When at length there was a find, and strange utterances of man and beast proclaimed the start, he saw Isabel turn round in her saddle, and, to the last moment, wave her hand to him. Then he went back to find the carriage.
A heaviness weighed upon him during the drive home, and for some hours afterwards. It was not the ordinary depression which he had to struggle with day after day, but a feeling which would not yield itself to analysis, which vanished when he questioned himself, yet was back again as soon as he relapsed into vague musing. The white face and waved hand of Isabel Clarendon, that last glimpse he had had of her, would not go from before his mind's eye; her speech and her manner assailed his memory with indefinable suggestions. It was as if he had lacked discernment at the time, as if he ought to have gathered something which escaped him. He was impatient for another opportunity of observing her, and when would that come? For the first time he felt that it would be impossible to let day after day go by without approaching her. Why had he not used more liberally her invitation to give her his confidence? He had been too reticent, had failed to say a hundred things which now rang in his head. He could not put off the irrational fear that there might be no other chance of speaking freely with her, that something would interpose between her and himself, the something which already cast this shadow upon his imagination.
It was nonsense! Had she not waved her hand to him as she could only do to a friend whom she regarded very kindly? Was it not an assurance of meeting again, and with strengthened friendship? Yet it haunted him with good-bye.
About four o'clock he could bear his solitude no longer, and set out to walk towards the rectory. He was near the door, when he saw the figure of Mr. Vissian running towards him from the village street. His surprise at the sight increased when the rector drew near enough to show a face stricken with alarm.
"Have you heard anything, Kingcote?" the clergyman gasped forth. "Are you coming to tell me something?"
"No; what should I tell you? What is the matter?"
"Great God! They say in the village that Mrs. Clarendon has been brought home dead-killed in a fall!"
They stared at each other.
"I daren't go in and tell my wife," went on Mr. Vissian, in a hoarse whisper. "I must go up to the house at once."
"I must come with you."
"Do, that's a good fellow. Let me - let me lean on your arm. Pooh! I must have more self-control than this. It came like a stunning blow on the head; I all - all but dropped!"
Tears were streaming down his cheeks; his voice choked. Kingcote felt his arm quiver.
"I can't believe it! I won't believe it!" the rector pursued, crying like a child at last. "An accident, but not killed - great Heaven, no! I never had such a ghastly shock in my life. One moment, Kingcote; I am ashamed to pass the lodge like this. I never thought I should be so weak. But if it were my own wife I scarcely could feel it more. I pray to Almighty God that it may be a mistake!"
The lodge was vacant.
"They're up at the house," said Mr. Vissian, under his breath. "Oh, that looks bad! That dear, dear lady - it cannot be, Kingcote!"
Kingcote walked on in perfect silence, his looks on the ground, no muscle of his face moving. He did not seem to hear his companion's talk. It was just beginning to rain; drops pattered on the dead leaves which lay about the grass. Kingcote heard the sound; he could never afterwards hear it without the return of this hour in terrible vividness. The air seemed stifling; perspiration came out on him as he walked. At length the rector had ceased to speak. The drive grew moist, and rain splashed upon it; on the dead leaves the rain still pattered.
As they were entering the garden they met the porter on his way back to the lodge.
"What has happened?" Mr. Vissian asked, catching his arm and waiting with dread for an answer. "An accident; a bad accident?"
"Yes, sir; a bad fall," the man replied.
"She is alive?"
"Thank God, sir, it's not so bad as that."
He went on to explain that the horse had breasted a fence and rolled over, inflicting grave injuries upon its rider. The accident had occurred not three miles away. Mrs. Clarendon had first been removed to a cottage, then brought home by carriage as soon as she recovered consciousness. Mrs. Stratton was with her. The doctor had just arrived, and another from London had been telegraphed for.
"I think I'll go in and hear the doctor's report," Mr. Vissian said.
"May I wait for you at the rectory?" asked Kingcote.
"Yes; but I beg of you, not a word to my wife; unless, of course, some one has spread the news; not a word else, Kingcote. You don't know the effect it will have upon her. I beg you to be cautious."
Kingcote retraced his steps through the rain. Overtaking the porter, he got such further details as the man could furnish. Then he went on to the rectory. Mrs. Vissian had heard nothing. He entered the study and awaited the rector's arrival.
The three sat together through the evening. Even in its modified form, the news was bad enough. Mr. Vissian softened it a little in telling his wife. She, good-hearted creature, shed many tears. Percy, when he heard what had happened, said nothing; but his imagination evidently became very busy: he sat on the hearth-rug before the fire, till at length a question shaped itself.
"Has Mrs. Clarendon hurt her face?" he asked.
"I think not," replied his father.
"It won't be altered? It'll be the same as it was before?"
"I hope so, my boy."
Percy sighed, and returned quietly: "I'm glad of that."
At ten o'clock Mr. Vissian walked over to the lodge to make inquiries. The doctor, he heard, had just gone away, but would return during the night. Mrs. Clarendon lay unconscious.
Shortly after hearing this, Kingcote took leave of his friends. He found it raining hard, not a glimpse of light in heaven. Instead of turning homewards, he went across to the gates of Knightswell. Just as he reached them they were being thrown open, and he heard the sound of a vehicle coming down the drive. It was a trap, with two men; they drove away in the direction of Salcot.
"Who was that?" Kingcote asked of the porter, as the gates closed again.
"Lord Winterset, sir," was the reply.
The spreading of the news in private channels and by newspaper paragraphs brought numbers of people on missions of inquiry to Knightswell. For several days the life of little Winstoke had its central point of interest at the lodge, where the humbler of Mrs. Clarendon's friends, the village people and the peasantry, who knew so much of her kindness, incessantly sought information as to her progress. For nearly a week it was all evil rumour, the sufferer could only be reported "Very much the same." During that week Lord Winterset thrice made the journey from London to see Mrs. Stratton, and receive the fullest details. The people from Dunsey Priors, the Bruce Pages, and a procession of county families were, in one way or another, represented daily. Not least anxious of those who presented themselves was Robert Asquith, who came post haste from Paris, where he was spending a few weeks in fault of anything better to do. After remaining for a day at Knightswell, he presented himself at Winstoke Rectory, and got Mr. Vissian to promise him a daily bulletin.
But the point of danger was passed, and Isabel's natural strength helped her through the suffering which preceded convalescence. The special prayer which Mr. Vissian had read forth on two Sundays, was, on the third, commenced with a phrase of thanksgiving. Robert Asquith, opening his Winstoke letter every morning with fingers which trembled in spite of all his efforts, smiled with satisfaction at length, and, though he disliked travelling, set off to make another call at Knightswell. Mrs. Stratton assured him that all was well, that Isabel had begun to sleep soundly through the night without artificial aids, and that she was capable of attending, for short periods, whilst Miss Warren read to her. At the mention of Ada's name, Robert turned a sharp look on the lady.
"Ah, Miss Warren reads to her, does she?"
"Yes. She has been admirable all the time."
These two had made acquaintance for the first time on the occasion of Asquith's former visit, but already they met with an air of mutual understanding.
"I suppose you have heard my name from Mrs. Clarendon?" Robert had asked in the course of their first conversation; and the lady had given an affirmative, with a smile which might or might not have meaning.
"If Miss Warren has been admirable," Robert remarked, "you, Mrs. Stratton, have been indispensable. What on earth should we have done without you?"
"Oh, I have done nothing, except keep guard. But I shall carry her off as soon as I can."
"First of all to my own home. I live at present at Chislehurst, and have a house much too big for me. Colonel Stratton will probably be home before Christmas, and we shall make a party. I wish you could make it convenient to join us for a few days."
"It's very good of you," Robert replied with deliberate gratitude. "If all goes according to your expectation, I will come with pleasure."
They parted the best of friends, looking mutual compliments.
"Now, why couldn't Isabel be open with me?" mused Mrs. Stratton, after he had gone. "Several things begin to be a little clearer, I fancy."
"A capital little woman," meditated Robert, on his way to the station. "I shouldn't wonder if her friendship prove valuable."
And all three weeks it rained, rained with scarcely a day's intermission. If the new road to Salcot was a mere mud-track, the state of the old road can be conjectured; its deep ruts had become watercourses, its erewhile grassy prominences were mere alluvial wastes. The piece of sward before the cottage gradually turned to swamp; the oak torso stood black with drenching moisture, its clinging parasite stems hung limp, every one of its million bark grainings was a channel for rain-drops. Behind, the copse was represented by the shivering nakedness of lithe twigs, set in a dark, oozy bed of decaying leaves and moss and fungi. Sometimes the rain fell straight from a gray sky without a rack feature from end to end, till all Nature seemed to grow of one colour, and the space between morning and evening was but a wan twilight of indistinguishable hours. Sometimes there glimmered at midday a faint yellowness, a glimpse of free heaven athwart thinning vapour, a smile too pale to hold forth promise. Sometimes there came towards nightfall a calling from the south-west, the sky thickened with rolling battalions over-flashed at instants with an angry gleam, and blasts of fury drove the rain level with the reeking earth. Then there would be battle till dawn, followed, alas! by no glorious victory of the sun-god, but with more weeping of the heavens and sighing of the worn-out winds.
In spite of the fearful weather, Kingcote walked incessantly. The solitude of his cottage was hideous. Every little familiar sound - the rattling of a window or a door, the endless drip of rain, the wind moaning in the chimney - became to him the voice of a tormenting demon. He loathed the sight of every object around him; the damp odour which hung about the place and greeted him whenever he entered from the open air brought a feeling of sickness; he dreaded the hour of going upstairs to the bare bed-chamber, where the cold seized him as in a grip, and the darkness about his candle was full of floating ghosts. The sound of the rain, as he lay longing for the sleep that would not come, weighed upon his spirit to the point of tears; he wept in his gulf of wretchedness. He could not read; the hours of the day would have been interminable but for the regular walk, which killed a portion of time. And occasionally he could spend an evening at the rectory.
Only a man capable of settling at Wood End as Kingcote had done would have been capable of living thus through these late weeks of the year. It needed a peculiar nature to go through with such self-torment - a nature strangely devoid of energy, and morbidly contemplative. He would not admit to the Vissians that he suffered in any way; he even visited them less often than he otherwise would have done, that he might not appear to seek refuge in their house. Bodily ill-health had much to do with his singular state - ill-health induced by long mental suffering and the unwholesome conditions of his life; it aggravated his moral disorder and made him physically incapable of the step he would otherwise have been driven to. To quit the cottage and return, if only for a time, to London, he had persuaded himself was impossible; whilst Isabel Clarendon lay on her sick-bed he could not go away. During the first two weeks, he himself had fallen little short of grave illness; his nights were feverish: once he found himself standing at the gates of Knightswell, without being able to summon consciousness of his walk from home, the hour being just before dawn. Upon this had followed lassitude; he heard almost with indifference of Isabel's improved condition, and for a few days did not care to move from his fireside. The fever left him, however, and mental disquietude took its place. A source of misery and exasperation was the number of people he knew to be calling at Knightswell; the multitude of her friends excited his jealousy; he himself was of no account among them, the very least of these people, who made their conventional visits and left their respectable cards, was more to her than he. Even if a voice assured him that it was not so, he refused to listen; the fascination of self-torture will not brook a moment's consoling. He called twice, at long intervals, partly because it was not decent to neglect the duty, partly because a longing to draw near to her anguished him; but each time he came away maddened with jealous suspicions. The servant had stood across the door, as if to bar his possible entrance, and had replied to his question with supercilious negligence; the very windows of the house had looked upon him with the contemptuousness of a vacant stare. Of such nothings it was his fate to make hours of suffering. The most absurd thoughts possessed him. She would return to the world a changed woman; even if she cared ever to receive him again, it would be with the cold politeness of a slight acquaintance. She would associate him always with that day's meet, and the thought of him would be always something to dismiss from her mind as painful. A thousand such fantastic webs did he spin in his brain, each an hour's distress. Yet nothing could have taken him from the neighbourhood. To go now would be to have seen her for the last time, to make her henceforth only a name in his memory, and he felt that death would be preferable to that.
Time lost its reality. Sunday he knew, because of the church bells; of other days he kept no count, one was even as another. But it befel at length that the rain ceased, and the first sunlight which awoke him at his bedroom windows was like the touch of a soft, kind hand. It brought to his mind all pleasant and beautiful things: the sound of her voice, the clear vision of her countenance, the white waving of her hand as she rode away, the promise that was in one and all of these. Upon sunlight followed frost; at night-time a dark blue heaven with burnished stars, and the gleaming rime of early hours. The spirit of the healthful air breathed upon him, and gave his blood fresh impulse. He heard that she had left her bed, was all but able to sit up through the day. Might he not before long hope to see her?
One Sunday morning as he sat at breakfast - it was a strange-looking meal, laid out upon a bare deal table, much the kind of breakfast that the labouring men in other cottages sat down to - a shadow passed before the window, and there followed two sharp blows with a stick at his door. It was the postman's knock; Kingcote started up eagerly to answer. There were only two probable correspondents, his sister and Gabriel, and it was some time since he had heard from either. But the letter which the man put into his hand had travelled a shorter distance; it bore only the Winstoke mark. The handwriting he did not know, but it was a woman's, and, it seemed to him, written under some infirmity. In his agitation, he made scant reply to the postman's remark about the weather; yet he noticed that it had just begun to snow, and that the light flakes were silver in sunlight. it was not a letter - a mere note of one side, but it ended with the name of Isabel Clarendon.
"DEAR MR. KINGCOTE,
"Why have you not been to see me? Several people who brought me nothing but their dulness have found their way here the last few days. Will you come to-morrow at eleven - if you can miss Mr. Vissian's sermon for once?"
The snow fell, but from a rift of glory up above streamed one broad beam, which made the earth shimmer. Presently began the Winstoke bells; their music was carried off to the south by a shrewd wind, whose task it was to bake the ground that the snow might lie. Wind and snow had their way; the sun drew back and veiled itself; the white downfall thickened, chased and whirled into frenzy by the shrilling north. The turmoil made Kingcote laugh with pleasure. When he quitted the cottage, he had to leap over a high ridge of driven snow. The oak-stump had a white cloak on its back; the road was a smooth white surface, not a little treacherous whilst still unhardened. But there was life in the keen air, and the delight of change in the new face of each familiar thing.
It cost some stamping of the feet and shaking of upper garments before he could pass from the threshold of Knightswell into the hall. The footman seemed prepared for his arrival, and bade him follow him up the stairs. The chief rooms of the house were all on the ground floor; Kingcote had never yet ascended. The room into which he was ushered was Isabel's boudoir, small, with only one window, daintily furnished. It caught his senses with a faint pervading perfume, a soft harmony of clear colours, a witchery of light broken by curtains and tinged with hues from gleaming surfaces; his foot was flattered by the yielding carpet. He did not at first see where she sat, for her chair was in a dim corner; besides, the fireplace intervened with its great blaze.
"I never thought you would face this terrible weather!"
"The weather? What of that? Was I not to see you at eleven?"
She might not stand yet, but both her hands were held out to him. There was a low chair not far from her; he drew it nearer and sat looking into her face. It was of an exquisite pallor, just touched on either cheek with present emotion; thinner, but only - at all events to his eyes - the more beautiful. There was an indescribable freshness in her appearance - her white neck caressed by soft lace, the lines which her hair made on the purity of her brow, her bright, just-moistened eye, the graceful repose of her still feeble frame.
"You find me changed?" she asked, in a voice which trembled in trying to be merely mirthful.
"I see no change. You are pale, but your face is what it always was."
"You are growing stronger?" he asked, when she kept silence. "Danger is past?"
"Oh, long past!"
He hesitated for the next words.
"Wasn't it strange?" Isabel went on, regarding him with wide-eyed intimacy, which thrilled his nerves. "You remember the things I said that morning? What did you think when you heard of the accident?"
"They told me you were dead - that was the first news."
Her eyes fell before his steady look.
"I half wished it," she said. "In the moment when I knew what was coming, I had a strange hope that my words might have brought it in reality; I closed my eyes, and tried to think it would be like sleep."
"Why should you have such thoughts? What has life ever brought you but joy?"
"A few things not quite joyful, and which most women would find rather hard to bear. You know nothing of my story? No? Not by chance in talking about me of late? I suppose there has been much talk about me?"
"Will you not tell me what it is you speak of? Remember that I talk to no one."
"To be sure. You are so unlike all other men. You are apart in my thoughts - you seem to be in a wholly different world from that I know. Your judgment of me will be sterner than that of mere men of the world, who take self-seeking and dishonour for granted. Yes, it will, it will!"
Her breath was caught, and nervous agitation so gained upon her weakness as almost to make her hysterical. Kingcote bent forward and imprisoned one of her hands.
"Speak calmly," he urged, in a voice just above a whisper. "Why do you agitate yourself so? Why should you tell me anything that it is painful to speak of?"
His own emotion all but overcame his power of utterance. She did not try to draw away her hand; holding it in one of his, with the other he caressed it soothingly. Isabel smiled at him.
"You are deceived in me," she pursued, becoming quieter by self-yielding. "You see only appearances. This house and all it represents is not mine; I am only allowed to use it and to make a show till the owner claims it: everything belongs to Miss Warren."
A minor emotion like surprise could not affect Kingcote in his present mood.
"And I am to judge you sternly for not having told me that?" he asked, his veins on fire from the touch of the hand he held.
"Listen to me. When she marries I lose everything, all but an annuity of three hundred pounds. And that will be in a few weeks, as soon as I am strong enough to go in search of a new home."
"Yes? Does that call for my judgment?"
"I want to show you something, but I cannot rise to get it. Will you go for me? You see the small writing-desk on the further table?"
Kingcote rose, but with her hand still in his. He could not release it. She, with eyes turned upwards to regard him, her face flushed, her throat quivering, was as loth to be severed from his grasp. Instead of moving away, he bent and put his lips to her forehead. Then the rose-hue clothed her with maidenhood, her head fell, and he felt the pulse at her wrist leap like flame.
"Will you fetch me the desk?" she asked, without meeting his look.
He fetched it, and with a key from her pocket Isabel opened it. Below other papers she found an envelope, and from this took a photograph.
"Will you look at that?" she said, holding it to him.
Kingcote's face expressed recognition.
"This," he said, "is, I suppose, Miss Warren's father? The resemblance is very strong."
"It is a portrait of Mr. Clarendon," was her answer, given in a tone of such cold self-command that Kingcote turned to look at her with a movement of surprise.
"I will put it away again, if you please."
He let her do so, and removed the case. When he drew near her, Isabel regarded him with a passionless face, and pointed to the chair he had risen from.
"He knew me well," she said, with a bitterness which made all her words clear-cut and her voice unshaken. "He calculated my weakness, and devised my punishment skilfully. That I should take the child and rear it to inherit his property, or else lose everything at once. With a woman of self-respect, such a scheme would have been empty; she would have turned away in scorn. But he knew me well; he knew I had not the courage to go back to poverty; that I would rather suffer through years, be the talk and pity and contempt of every one, face at last the confession to her, - all that rather than be poor again!"
Kingcote once more held her hand, and, when she paused, he kissed it passionately.
"You were poor once?" he asked gently, tenderly.
"That is my only excuse. We were wretchedly poor, my mother, my brother, and myself. I have been hungry often and often. We had to keep up a respectable appearance; we starved ourselves to buy clothing and to avoid being indebted to people. I have often gone to bed - when I was a strong, growing girl - and cried because I was so hungry; though I had just before been pretending I could eat no more, as we all of us did, poor mother as well. I was to be a governess; but then a lady took me to London, was wonderfully kind to me, treated me as her daughter. She said" - Isabel half laughed, half cried - "she said I was too good-looking to be a governess."
"Wasn't it true? Are you not now so beautiful that my heart faints when I look at you?"
"If I were not so contemptible - if I deserved any recompense for what I have suffered - it would be a priceless one to hear you say so."
"Tell me more."
"I married at the end of my first season; made what was called a wonderful marriage. I hadn't a farthing, and became all at once wealthy. I caught at the best that offered; the best in the world's sense. I was old enough; I understood what I was doing. No one was to blame but myself. You saw that hard strong, coarse face? He often looked at me as if he were coldly calculating the risks of murder; but as he got to know me better, he found better punishments. I did not disobey him. I never gave him cause for anger by word or deed; could I help it that I - that I hated him?"
The excitement was again overpowering her strength. She sobbed tearlessly.
"You shall speak no more of that," Kingcote said; "leave it all in the past; forget it, dearest."
"Am I dearest to you?" she asked, looking into his eyes with yearning tenderness. "Oh, I have never felt till now what it would be to lose wealth and the power of bestowing it! May I tell you, only to justify myself - to make myself better in your sight? I might so often have married, and freed myself, men to whom wealth was nothing, who would have taken me for myself: but I could not, not even to gain an honourable position. I had always the hope that I might know what love meant. I have gone through the world and enjoyed it. I have had, I suppose, something of what is called success; it left me cold. Only when you came into my life then it began to be all different. I felt that you were come to save me; you were so unlike others, you interested and attracted me as no one else ever did. You remember our first meeting in Mr. Vissian's study? I went away and could think of nothing but you; wondered what your story was, tried to understand what it was in you that affected me so strangely."
"My sovereign lady!"
"If you knew the foolish tricks I played myself! I would not face the truth; I invented all sorts of explanations and excuses when I longed to see you. It occurred to me that you might perhaps come to care for Ada. I persuaded myself that it would make me happy if you married her and became rich. And I can give you nothing!"
"You give me nothing, Isabel? Yesterday I was the poorest creature in this world, without strength, without hope, sunk in misery; now every pulse of my heart is happiness."
She sighed with pleasure.
"Turn your face to me, Isabel; let me try to read it there, to believe it, to make it part of my life. Let me hear you say those three words - I do not know their sound - those three words I hunger for!"
"Three? Have I not said them? Was it only in my thought? I love you, dearest."
"Four! And from your lips, whose music came to me from another sphere, so far you seemed! You, the throned lady, the queen with the crown of loveliness; so gracious, so good, so noble --"
"Hush! you may not praise me. Dear, you know those words do not describe me, you know how unworthy I am."
"I will praise you whilst I have breath for speech! What are our paltry conventional judgments? In that I love you, you are to me a peerless woman. Have you not stooped to me from the circle of your glory? Are you not to me embodied goodness, purity, truth? What am I that you should love me, my soul's worship? Yet your eyes say it, your smile says it, your lips make golden music of the words."
She sighed again, drinking in his rapturous adoration with closed eyes.
"And you?" she asked. "When did you first love me? Did I not seem to you a very silly, empty, frivolous woman?"
"I loved your name long before I saw you. They talked to me at the rectory, and called you the Lady of Knightswell. I pictured you, and indeed not far unlike yourself; just so gracious, so bright, so gloriously a woman. I looked over to Knightswell from my window, and wondered if ever we should meet. What kindness of fate that brought me that day past the cottage!"
She was still musing over the growth of this flower in her heart.
"I knew it when the pain was over, and I could lie and think. It was all so clear to me then. I had escaped a terrible danger; but for the fall" - her voice sank - "I might never have known this happiness. I was in ceaseless fear lest you should have gone. I asked often if you had called; if you had known how I longed for your name among those who called! There was no need of occupation for me. It was quite enough to lie and think of our talks together, to call back your voice and your look. Oh, I longed to send a word to you; you were so lonely, so unhappy. All that is over now, dearest? You will never again be comfortless?"
"Dare I think that, Isabel?"
"When I love you?"
"That again!" He covered his face with his hands. "Once more!"
"With my soul I love you!"
"If I could but hear that for ever! Shall I hear it when this hour has become part of our memory, in days after this? Dare I think of it as music that I may hear at will?"
"It shall never fail you, if your ear does not weary."
"If my eyes weary of the light of heaven?"
There was silence before Isabel spoke.
"Ada's marriage has been postponed on account of my illness; it would have taken place before this. When it is over, and I have discharged my duty to the end, then --"
She paused, not avoiding his gaze, but meeting it with simplest truth, her lips trembling a little.
"I shall have my three hundred a year," she added, almost pleadingly. "Can we not make it enough? Do you know that the Vissians live on less than that?"
Kingcote dropped his eyes, and spoke with embarrassment.
"To me it is wealth. For you, even alone, it would be miserable poverty. How can I accept such a sacrifice?"
"A sacrifice? Is that your measure of my love?"
He kissed her hand, then asked laughingly:
"What do you think my own income is? You dare not guess. I am richer than Goldsmith's country parson; I have full sixty pounds."
"Why, then, are we not wealthy? That is the rent of a delightful house, somewhere far away. Might we not go abroad? Would you," she added anxiously, "go abroad with me?"
"Dear, can you so change your life?"
"It is changed. There is no effort asked of me. I live only for you."
"My friends? One, two, three at most; those I need not lose. My acquaintances, three hundred at least; ah! let them go! It shall be a new world. What need have I of friends? You are my friend, my one, sole friend! I will have no other. Oh, you will not weary of me? I bring you so little - my ignorance, my foolish habits of thought. You will be patient with me, and help me to become more the kind of woman suitable for - for your wife?"
The flush in her cheeks had become steadfast; her eyes gleamed unnaturally. Each word she spoke heightened the fever which was gaining upon her. He noticed this.
"I have been wrong to let you talk so much," he said gravely. "You are tired; you will suffer."
"No, I shall sleep, and with such peace in my heart as I have never known."
She closed her eyes for a moment, and murmured words that he did not hear.
"Is Mrs. Stratton still with you?" he asked.
"At church; it must be nearly time for her to return."
"And Miss Warren?"
"She is reading, I suppose; she always prefers to be alone."
"Dear, you are suffering."
"No, indeed no. Is my face worn? Do I look - old?"
"What was that word? You are as beautiful as day."
"You will come very soon again? I will write and tell you when."
"I dare not let you speak more."
"I am still weak," she said with a smile. Her voice was failing.
He knelt by her side, and she, bending forward with modest grace, gave him the sweetness of her lips.
The storm still raged; nothing was to be seen beyond a few yards through the white whirl. As Kingcote struggled against it with bent head, a carriage passed him, moving silently over the snow; it was bringing Mrs. Stratton from church. This made him fear lest he should meet the Vissians near the rectory; he could speak with no one now; there was a voice in his ears which for his life he would not have silenced. He turned off into the trackless park, and walked in a direction which would bring him out at a lonely part of the new road. With a boy's delight he leapt through the deep snow, and fought his way against the whirlwind. He lost his bearing; the white outlines of the country were irrecognisable; there was nothing for it but to push on, and come out where he might. It was two hours at least before he at length got into a track that he knew, and which led him homewards. He reached the cottage in complete exhaustion, chilled, feeble with hunger. Unable even to cast off his wet clothing before he had rested, he threw himself into a chair. He laughed; it would be something to tell her when they met again.