VOLUME TWO: PART ONE
Vincent Lacour rose at eleven these dark mornings; by half-past twelve he had breakfasted and was at leisure. To begin the day with an elastic interval of leisure seemed to him a primary condition of tolerable existence. From his bedroom windows he had a glimpse of a very busy street, along which, as he hummed at his toilet, he could see heavily-laden omnibuses hastening Citywards; he thought with contemptuous pity of the poor wretches who had to present themselves at bank, or office, or shop by a certain hour. "Under no circumstances whatever," he often said to himself with conviction, "would I support life in that way. If it comes to the worst, there are always the backwoods. Hard enough, no doubt, but that would be in the order of things. If I stick in the midst of civilisation, I live the life of a civilised man." A mode of looking at things wherein Vincent was probably rational enough.
On the present morning, about the middle of January, no sight of dolorous traffic had disturbed his soul. When he raised his blind, the gas had merely reflected itself against the window-panes; outside was Stygian darkness, vaguely lurid in one or two directions; the day was blinded with foul vapour. He shrugged his shoulders, and went through the operation of dressing in a dispirited way. In his sitting-room things were a trifle better; with a blazing fire and drawn curtains, it was just possible to counterfeit the cheerful end of day. The odour of coffee and cutlets aided him in forgetfulness of external miseries.
"I suppose," Vincent mused, as he propped the newspaper against the coffee-pot, "they go to business even such mornings as this. Great heavens!"
When the woman who waited upon him in his chambers had cleared the table and betaken herself to other quarters where her services were in request, Lacour placed himself in a deep chair, extended his limbs, and lit a cigarette from the box which stood on a little round table at his elbow. He was still in his dressing gown; and, as he let his head fall back and puffed up thin streams of smoke, the picture of civilised leisure was complete. His fine hair, suffered to grow rather long, and at present brushed carelessly into place till it should have dried in the warmth of the room, relieved the delicate tints of his complexion; his throat was charmingly white against the dark velvet collar of the gown. The only detail not in harmony with his attitude and surroundings was the pronounced melancholy of his expression, the habitual phase of his countenance whenever, as now, he lost self-consciousness in reverie. The look one bears at such times is wont to be a truthful representation of the inner man, not merely of the moment's mood but of personality itself.
When he had reposed thus for half-an-hour, he went to his writing-table, took from a drawer an unfinished letter, and, with the help of a blotting-pad, resumed the writing of it in his chair by the fireside.
". . . I am still waiting for an answer from Mrs. Clarendon to my last letter; no doubt she merely delays till she can tell me on what day she will be in London. I have told her with all emphasis that we would neither of us think of taking any steps until her health is completely restored and all her arrangements made; but she has assured me several times that it is her wish for our marriage to take place as soon as possible.
"There is a point, my dear Ada, which I have not hitherto ventured to mention to you; if I do so now, I feel sure I shall find that your ideas are precisely the same as my own. You know, of course, what Mrs. Clarendon's circumstances will be when her guardianship comes to an end, and you feel, as I do, that such a state of things is not practically possible. There can be no doubt of the truth of what I hear from several people, that she has refused an offer of marriage from Lord Winterset; it is astonishing, but the source of the statement is, I am told, the Earl himself. Well, you will see what I hint at; I know you have from the first had the same wish. Personally I shall have nothing to do with money matters; they are hateful to me, and, besides, are not your desires supreme? Whatever proposal you make will, doubt not, meet with my approval. Write to me in your own charming way of these matters; my words are blunt and rude.
"I am glad you share my dislike to settling down at once either at Knightswell or in London. My idea is that we should spend at least a year in travelling. We will go to the East. I believe Oriental modes of life will exactly suit my temperament. I dislike activity; to dream away days in some delightful spot within view of the Bosphorus, with a hookah near at hand, and you reading poetry to me - I think I could make that last a long time. You will educate me. I have all sorts of rudimentary capacities, which will never develop by my own efforts, but with you to learn from as we chat at our ease among orange-groves, I may hope to get some of the culture which I do indeed desire. I --"
The flow of first personal pronouns was checked by a knock at the outer door, the knock of a visitor. With some surprise Lacour rose and went to open. With yet more surprise he admitted a young lady, whose face, though it was half-hidden with a shawl, he knew well enough.
"Are you alone?" she asked in a muffled voice. "Can I speak to you?"
"Yes, I am alone. Pray come in."
When the shawl was thrown aside, Rhoda Meres stood looking nervously about the room. She was visibly in great agitation, and her appearance seemed to show that she had dressed hurriedly to come out. Lacour offered a chair by the fire, but she held at a distance, and at length sat on the couch which was near her as she entered. Clearly it was powerlessness to stand that made her seek the support. She held the shawl lightly across her lap; shame and misery goaded her, and she could neither raise her eyes nor speak.
"If you will allow me," said Vincent, whose lips had been moving curiously as he regarded her, "I will just make a little change in my costume. Do come nearer to the fire. I won't be a minute."
Left alone she began to cry quietly, and this gave her a measure of relief. Before Lacour returned, she had time to dry her eyes and survey the room again. Her prettiness was of the kind which suffers rather from the signs of distress; she knew it, and it was a fresh source of trouble. She still did not look up when Lacour, conventionally attired, took his stand before the fire-place.
"It's a hideous morning," he began, with as much ease of manner as he could command. "Whatever can have brought you out in such weather?"
"Is it true what father has just told me?" broke from her lips; "is it true that you are going to marry Ada Warren?"
"Yes," replied Lacour with gravity, "it is true. I supposed you knew long since."
"Oh, it is cruel of you! " cried the girl passionately. "How can you speak to me in that way?"
She hid her face upon the head of the sofa and wept unrestrainedly. Lacour was uncomfortable. He took up a paper-knife and played with it, then seated himself by the table, rested his elbow on it and watched her, his own features a good deal troubled.
"Miss Meres--," he began, but her smothered voice interrupted him.
"You did not call me that the last time we were together," she sobbed. "Why do you try to put a distance between us in that way? It is not three months since that day when I met you - you asked me to - at South Kensington, and you speak as if it was years ago. You must have gone straight from me to - to her!"
Lacour had an eye for the quiet irony of circumstances; it almost amused him to reflect how literally true her words were. None the less he was troubled by her distress.
"Rhoda," he said, leaning forward and speaking with calm reproof, "this is altogether unworthy of you. I thought you so perfectly understood; I thought it had all been made clear between us. Now do give up crying, there's a good girl, and come to the fire. You look wretchedly cold. Take your hat off - won't you?"
"No, no; how can you expect me to make myself at ease in that way! I ought not to be here at all; it is foolish and wrong to have come to you. But I couldn't believe it; I was driven to come and ask you to contradict it. And you only tell me it is true; that you thought I knew it! I don't understand how you can be so cruel."
"Now let us talk," said Lacour, tapping his knee with the paper knife. "Why should you be so surprised at what you hear? You know all about my position; we talked it over in full that day at the Museum, didn't we? I was absolutely frank with you; I concealed nothing, and I pretended nothing. We liked each other; that we had both of us found out, and there was no need to put it into words. We found, too, that there was a danger of our growing indispensable to each other, a state of things which had to be met rationally, and - well, put an end to. Had we been at liberty to marry, I should certainly have asked you to be my wife; as there was no possibility of that, we adopted the wisest alternative, and agreed not to meet again. I cannot tell you how I admired your behaviour; so few girls are capable of talking in a calm and reasonable spirit of difficulties such as these. Any one watching us would have thought we were discussing some affair of the most every-day kind. As I say, you were simply admirable. It grieves me to see you breaking down so after all; it is not of a piece with the rest of your behaviour; it makes a flaw in what dramatists call the situation. Don't you agree with me? Have I said anything but the truth?"
Rhoda listened, with her eyes fixed despairingly on the ground; her hands holding the edge of the sofa gave her the appearance of one shrinking back from a precipice. When he had finished his statement, she faced him for the first time.
"What would you have thought if I had gone at once and married somebody else?"
"I should have heartily wished you every happiness."
"Should you have thought I did right?" she asked with persistence, clinging still to the edge of the sofa.
"On the whole, perhaps not."
"You mean," she said, not without bitterness, a fresh tear stealing to her cheek, "that you believe in my feeling for you, and wish me to understand that yours for me hadn't the same seriousness?"
"No, I didn't mean that. You must remember that I am not defending this step of mine, only showing you that I have not violated any compact between us. We were both left free, that's all."
" Then you don't care for her!" the girl exclaimed, with mingled satisfaction and re proof.
Lacour threw one leg over the other, and bent the paper-knife on his knee.
"You must remember," he said, "that marriages spring from many other motives besides personal inclination. I have told you that I don't defend myself. I'm afraid I mustn't say more than that."
Rhoda let her eyes wander; agitation was again getting hold upon her.
"You mean that I have no right to question you. I know I haven't, but - it all seems so impossible," she burst forth. " How can you tell me in such a voice that you are doing what you know isn't right? When father told me this morning I didn't know about that will; he only explained, because there was no use in keeping it secret any longer, and of course he knew nothing of - of the way it would come upon me."
"Ah, you know about the will? I am very glad of that; it makes our explanation easier."
She fixed her eyes upon him; they were only sad at first, but expanded into a despairing amazement.
"How can you speak so to me?" she asked in a low and shaken voice.
Lacour threw away the paper-cutter, and once more stood up.
"How am I to speak, Rhoda? Should you prefer to have me tell you lies? Why couldn't you accept the fact, and, knowing all the details, draw your own conclusion? You were at liberty to hold me in contempt, or to pity me, as you thought fit; you were even at liberty to interfere to spoil my marriage if you liked --"
"You think me capable of that? No wonder you part from me so easily. I thought you knew me better."
She put her hands over her face and let her tears have way.
"Rhoda," he exclaimed nervously, "there are two things I can't bear - a woman angry and a woman crying; but of the two I'd rather have the anger. You are upsetting me dreadfully. I had ever so much rather you told me in plain, knock-down words just what you think of me. If you distress yourself in that way I shall do something absurd, something we shall both of us be sorry for. Really, it was a horrible mistake to come here; why should we have to go through a scene of this kind? You are giving me - and yourself - the most needless pain."
She rose and sought the door with blinded eyes, as if to go from him at once. Lacour took a step or two towards her, and only with difficulty checked himself.
"Rhoda!" he exclaimed, "you cannot go out in that way. Sit down; do as I tell you!"
She turned, and, seeing his face, threw herself on her knees before him.
"Vincent, have pity on me! You can't, you won't, do this! I will kneel at your feet till you promise me to break it off. I can't bear it! Vincent, I can't bear it! It will drive me mad if you are married. I can't live; I shall kill myself! You don't know what my life has been since we ceased to meet; I couldn't have lived if I hadn't had a sort of hope that - oh, I know it's all my own fault; I said and did things I never should have done; you are blameless. But you cannot marry another woman when you - I mean, not at once, not so soon! It isn't three months, not three months, since you said you liked me better than any one else you had ever met. Can't you be sorry for me a little? Look at me - I haven't even the pride a woman ought to have; I am on my knees to you. Put it off a little while; let me see if I can get to bear it!"
She had caught and held the hand with which he had endeavoured to raise her. The man was in desperate straits; his face was a picture of passionate torment, the veins at his temple blue and swollen, his lips dry and quivering. With an effort of all his strength he raised her bodily, and almost flung her upon the sofa, where she lay with half-closed eyes, pallid, semi-conscious.
"Lie there till you are quiet," he said with a brutality which was the result of his inner struggle, and not at all an utterance of his real self, "and then go home. I am going out."
He went into an inner room, and reappeared in a moment equipped for walking. Rhoda had risen, and was before him at the door, standing with her face turned from him.
"Wait till I have been gone a minute," she said. "Forgive me; I will never come again."
"Where are you going?" he inquired abruptly.
A sudden, violent double-knock at the door made them both start.
"It's only the postman," Lacour explained. The interruption had been of good effect, relieving the overcharged atmosphere.
"Listen to me for one moment before you. go" he continued. "You must see perfectly well that you ask what is impossible. Mistake or not, right or wrong, I cannot undo what I have done; we must consider other people as well as ourselves. For all that, we are not going to part in an unfriendly way. I am sensitive; I could not be at my ease; I think you owe it to me to restore our relations to their former reasonable state."
"I will try," came from the girl in a whisper.
"But I must have your promise. You will go home to your father and sister, and will live as you have been doing."
"Do you know how that has been?" she murmured.
"In future it must be different," he urged vehemently. "Cannot you see that by being unhappy you reproach me?"
"I do not reproach you, but I cannot help my unhappiness."
"But you must help it," he cried half-angrily. "I will not have that laid to my account. You must overcome all such weakness. The feeling you profess for me is unreal if you are not capable of so small an effort on my behalf. Surely you see that?"
"I will try."
"Good. And now how are you going home? By train? No, I shall not let you go by train; you are not fit. Come to the foot of the stairs, and I will get you a cab. Nonsense, you need not drive as far as the house. Why will you irritate me by such resistance? The fog? It is as good as gone; it was quite light in the other room. Please go before me down stairs, and stop at the bottom. Now that is a good girl."
She held her hand to say good-bye, saying: "It is for the last time."
"No, but for a long time. You are a brave girl, and I shall think very kindly of you."
He found a cab, prepaid the fare, and waved his hand to her as she was carried off. The. fog had become much thinner, but there was nothing to be seen still save slush underfoot and dim lights in the black front of the opposite house. Lacour hastened up to his rooms again, suddenly mindful of the letter which the postman had left and which was very possibly from Mrs. Clarendon.
No; the envelope showed an unknown hand. He opened it with disappointment, and found a folded sheet of letter-paper, on which was written something which had neither the formal commencement nor the conclusion of an ordinary letter; it was dated but not signed, and the matter of it this:
"The writer of this is personally acquainted with you, and desires to save you from the disagreeable consequences of an important step which you are contemplating. This step you are about to take in reliance upon the testamentary document which has hitherto been accepted as the late Mr. Clarendon's valid will. My friendly object is to warn you that the document in question will prove inoperative, seeing that Mr. Clarendon left a will of more recent date, which disposes of his property in a wholly different manner. This will is being kept back in accordance with express private injunctions of the testator; its very existence is unknown to any save the writer of this. It will be produced either immediately after Miss Warren's marriage or upon her coming of age, should the latter event precede the former.
"The writer of this cannot of course make any bargain of secrecy with you, but he trusts that you will manifest your gratitude by heeding his desire and keeping silence in a matter which henceforth cannot affect you."
This astonishing communication, awakening memories of old-fashioned melodrama, was penned in firm, masculine handwriting, not unlike that of a legal copying clerk. Lacour read it again and again, his amazement at first rendering him incapable of scrutinising each particular. He stood for a quarter of an hour with the paper in his hand, oblivious of everything in life save those written words. Recovering himself somewhat, he picked up the envelope from the floor and examined its postmarks; they were metropolitan. At last he seated himself to think.
Anonymous letters are, to all save Cabinet Ministers and police officials, agitating things, if only as examples of a rare phenomenon. The tendency is to attach importance to them, however strong the arguments making for a less grave consideration. An anonymous letter concerning some matter of vital importance to the recipient will rarely leave him at ease until events have adduced their final evidence on one side or the other; mystery wholly impenetrable will often exert a moral influence which no lucidity of argument, no open appeal, could ever have attained. The present missive had everything in its favour; it could not have come at a more opportune moment, it could not have found a mind better prepared to receive and be affected by it. Lacour must have been singularly free from those instincts of superstition which linger in the soundest minds not to be struck with something like awe at the fact of the postman's knock which signalled such an arrival having come just when it did, at the moment when he had, after a hard struggle, crushed down a generous impulse, and was congratulating himself upon his success. He did not care to handle the paper, but let it lie before his eyes on the table. He was nervously excited. This message from the unknown was at once a reproach and a command; as a mere warning on behalf of his material interests he was not yet able to regard it.
The rest of the day was none too long to be wholly given up to brooding on the one subject. With calmness naturally came a consideration of the possibility that the letter was a mere hoax; yet he could not earnestly entertain that view. Who should send it? His intended marriage was known, he felt sure, to very few people; certainly to none of those frisky spirits who were his associates in London, and who alone would relish such a form of amusement. Mrs. Clarendon? Her name haunted him suggestively from the first. But in that case it would be no mere joke, but a trick seriously meant to succeed. Was Mrs. Clarendon capable of such a trick to maintain her position yet a little longer? That was not to be easily credited; yet Lacour had sufficient insight into his own being to understand how very possible it is for a character of pure instincts to reconcile itself with the meanest motives in special circumstances. Of men and women most justly deemed noble there is not one of whom it is safe to predict a noble course of conduct; the wise content themselves with smiling approval after the event. He knew how terribly hard it must be for her to come down from her position of comfort and dignity, how strong the temptation must be to postpone her fall by any means. But in that case - why had she refused marry Lord Winterset, and thus not only make herself independent of Ada's actions, but rise at once to a social standing compared with which her present one was insignificant? This was final, one would think, against the supposition of her being guilty of such a stratagem. On the other hand, if it were no mere fiction, if this will did in truth exist, could Mrs. Clarendon be the person who was keeping it back? It seemed ridiculous to suppose such a thing, though of course the nature of the will might reveal unimaginable reasons. What was the law on the subject? Could any one with impunity act thus? Lacour half rose to get at his tomes of legal lore, but a reflection checked him: wills have often come to light long after the testator's death, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to create an appearance of chance discovery.
When evening came, he went to his restaurant and dined poorly, then walked for a long time about the streets, grievously perplexed. Some action he must take, and at once, but the conflicting reasons which swarmed in his mind were as far as ever from subordinating themselves to the leadership of a satisfactory argument. Probabilities were exasperatingly balanced. At one moment he had all but resolved to go down at once to Chislehurst and put the letter before Mrs. Clarendon. But what was the use? If she already knew of it, she would only profess ignorance of the whole matter; if she knew nothing, she could afford no help. Equally useless to seek the counsel of indifferent people; they could do no more than run through the conjectures with which he was already too familiar, and would naturally derive high amusement from his dilemma. The joke would spread. With a sense of relief he arrived at one conclusion: he must decide for himself and keep the anonymous letter a secret.
This meant, of course, that his marriage must be postponed. It was all very well to smile at the extreme improbability of the danger revealed to him, but the recollection of how improbable it had seemed would not go far in the way of consolation if he found himself married to Ada Warren and divorced from her possessions. There was, from one point of view, some comfort in the thought that his predicament would be just as grave if he had been about to marry Ada from pure affection; in no case could they live on his bachelor allowance. Lacour persuaded himself that this reflection would help him in the disagreeable task which he had to face. The marriage must be postponed; not, of course, in a sudden, crude, business-like way, but with ingenuity and tact, by the exertion of that personal influence which he believed to be supreme with Ada. All sorts of occasions for delay would present themselves. Mrs. Clarendon seemed anxious to have it over (a suspicious circumstance, by-the-bye), but Ada herself could not of course take any initiative in the matter, and would be the ready dupe of plausible representations. That she was deeply in love with him he took for granted; the pleasant flattery of a supposition which agreed so well with our friend's view of his own advantages was not to be resisted. In a year and a half she would be of age; it was a long time to wait, with a prospect of mere frustration in the end, but there was no choice. If the danger proved illusory, after all he would not have lost much; nay, it was to be remembered that Ada's inheritance increased in value from accumulation, and would be yet more desirable after another eighteen months. Truly, there was a much-needed point of support; he must keep that well in mind. Of course, if any considerable heiress, with a more agreeable person, fell at his feet in the meantime, he held himself free to review his position; another advantage of delaying, if it came to that.
You will naturally understand that these reflections are not to be taken baldly as representing the state of Lacour's mind. He thought all these things, but he felt many other things simultaneously. I will just barely hint that when excitement had allayed itself, there might have been some dim motive, of which Lacour was himself unconscious, operating towards acquiescence in the unexpected turn things had taken. This, at all events, is one of the suggestions helping me to account for the fact that Lacour put away the anonymous letter that same night and adhered to his purpose of revealing its existence to no one. He would scarcely have done so if that day's mental perturbation had not brought into activity certain forces of his nature previously without influence on his decisions.
Mrs. Clarendon being with the Strattons at Chislehurst, Ada was living by herself at Knightswell. Instead of finishing the letter to her upon which he was engaged when interrupted by Rhoda Meres, Lacour, having let a day or two pass in nervous awaiting of each post, rose one morning with the determination to take train to Winstoke. On his breakfast-table he found a letter from Mrs. Clarendon - a brief matter-of-fact communication - telling him that she hoped to be in London that day week, and requesting him to previously pay a visit to her solicitor, who would discuss with him the business matters which it was needful to arrange. He pondered the words of this note, but only with the result of strengthening his resolve. After very little hesitation he penned a reply, begging that there might be no needless haste, and intimating, with skilful avoidance of direct falsehood, that he consulted Ada's wish in suppressing his own anxiety for a speedy marriage. "There are circumstances, as you know," wrote Vincent, "which make it my duty to exercise the utmost delicacy and discretion in all that concerns my marriage. I esteem you my true friend; I have often given you my perfect confidence, and in return I have asked for your forbearance when I showed myself weak or inconsistent. You will believe that I am not incapable of generosity, that I would not selfishly exact the fulfilment of any pledge which a hint should prove to have been rashly given. I am but too well aware of my own shortcomings, but after all there is a certain pride in me which will preserve me from the errors of vulgar self-confidence. I beg of you, dear Mrs. Clarendon, not to see in this more than I would imply. I only desire that there should be no unbecoming haste. Ada and myself are both, thank goodness! young enough, and, I believe, are sincerely devoted to each other. Let everything be done with careful preconsideration."
He read this through with an air of satisfaction, and posted it on his way to Waterloo Station. The train by which he travelled reached Winstoke at two o'clock. As it was a clear day he walked from the station to the village, which was nearly a mile, then took luncheon at the inn, and reached Knightswell about half-past three. On asking for Miss Warren he was led to the drawing-room.
Ada entered almost immediately. They had not seen each other since the day at South Kensington, and he was astonished at the girl's appearance. Her face had every mark of illness; there were dark rings about her eyes, her cheeks were colourless, her lips dry and nervous; she had a worn, anxious, feverish look, and the hand she gave him was hot. They exchanged no more than an ordinary friends' greeting, and Ada seated herself without having met his eyes.
Lacour drew his chair within reach of her, and leaned forward to take one of her hands, which she surrendered passively.
"What has made you look so ill?" he asked, with surprise. "Is it the result of your anxiety for Mrs. Clarendon? Why didn't you tell me that you were not well?"
"There was nothing necessary to speak of," she answered, in a voice which seemed to come from a parched throat. "I think I am not quite well, but it's nothing more than I am used to; I have headaches."
"You haven't written to me for a fortnight. Why didn't you ask me to come and see you?"
"I supposed you would come before long."
"You don't seem very glad to see me, now I have come," said Lacour musingly.
"Yes, I am glad."
The words had not much life, and the smile with which she accompanied them was as pain-stricken as a smile could be. Lacour, still holding her hand, looked down, his brows contracting.
"You haven't had any bad news?" he asked all at once, facing her.
"It is not anything you have heard that has made you ill?"
"Certainly not. What should I have heard?"
Her tone had sincerity in it, and relieved him from the suspicion that she too might have received an anonymous letter. He leaned back in his chair smiling.
"What should I have heard?" Ada repeated impatiently, examining his face.
"Oh, I don't know. We are always getting news, and there is so much more of bad than good. Mrs. Clarendon seems to be much better," he added, slapping his leg with his gloves.
"Yes. You have heard from her?"
"Several times. I had a letter this morning."
"What did she say?"
"She spoke of the necessary preparations for our marriage."
Ada was silent. She had several times moved nervously on her chair, and now she seemed compelled by restlessness to change her position. A small ornament on a bracket had got out of position; she went and put it right.
"What preparations?" she asked, walking to the window.
"I don't exactly know. She wishes me to see her lawyer. Unfortunately," he added in a joking tone, "you are not one of those girls whose marriage is a simple matter of the ceremony."
She turned and came towards him, her hands hanging ,clasped before her.
"That is something I have to speak of. I cannot mention it to Mrs. Clarendon, and if I tell you now it will be done with. I desire, there shall be no kind of settlement. Nothing of the kind is enacted by the will, and I do not wish it. Will you please to see that my wish is respected?"
"Why is it your wish?"
"I can give no reason. I wish it."
"I imagine there will be very strong opposition, and not only from Mrs. Clarendon. I expect the trustees will have something to say."
Ada's eyes flashed; her whole face showed agitation, passionate impatience.
"What does it matter what they say?" exclaimed. "What are they to me? What is my future to them? If you refuse to give me an assurance that my one desire shall be respected I must turn to Mrs. Clarendon, and that will be hateful to me! I have asked nothing else; but this I wish."
"You put as much persistence into it as another would in pleading for exactly the opposite," remarked Lacour, his coolness contrasting strangely with her agitated vehemence. "You know that a wish of yours is a law to me, and I promise you to agree to nothing you would dislike; remember that they cannot do without my assent. But you see," he added, "that it is not a very easy thing for me to urge. I have already been made to feel quite sufficiently --"
He interrupted himself. Ada waited for him to resume, still standing before him, but he kept silence.
"What have you been made to feel?" she asked, more quietly, her eyes searchingly fixed on him.
"Well, we won't speak of that. Why do you stand? Come and let us talk of other things. You do indeed, Ada, look wretchedly ill."
She averted her face impatiently. Though he had risen and was placing a chair for her, she moved to the window again.
"For my own part," said Vincent, watching her, "I am grieved that you have set your mind on that. My own resolve was that everything should be settled on you. I hadn't given the matter a thought till just lately, but well that is what I had determined."
Ada turned in his direction.
"You have been corresponding with Mrs. Clarendon?" she said, only half interruptedly. "Yes, you told me. I understand."
What she understood was clear enough to Lacour, and his silence was filled with a rather vigorous inward debate. A protest of conscience-strengthened by prudential reasons - urged his next words.
"You mustn't let me convey a false impression. Mrs. Clarendon is delicacy itself; I am quite sure she would not mean --"
He checked himself, naturally confirming the false impression. Conscience had still a voice, but the resolve with which he had come into Ada's presence grew stronger as he talked with her.
Then she did a curious thing. Coming from the window, she seemed about to walk past him, but, instead of passing, paused just when her dress almost brushed his feet, and stood with her eyes fixed on the ground.
"Do sit down," Lacour forced himself to say, rising again and laying his hand on the other chair.
He saw that she trembled; then, with a quick movement, she went to a chair at a greater distance.
"These things are horribly awkward to talk about," he said, leaning forward at his ease. "Let's put them aside, shall we? We shall have plenty of time to consider all that."
Ada raised her face and looked at him.
"Plenty of time?"
"Surely. I have begged Mrs. Clarendon to remember how anxious we both are to do nothing hastily, to leave her ample time for the arrangements she will find necessary, - her own, I mean. I am sure I represented your wish?"
"Certainly," was the scarcely audible reply.
"It will of course be some time before she is perfectly strong," Vincent pursued, noting with much satisfaction what he deemed a proof of the strength of her passion for him; she was so clearly disappointed. "Such an illness must have pulled her down seriously. I should think by the summer she will be herself again. It is wretched that we are so utterly dependent on others, and are bound to act with such cautious regard."
"You have fixed the summer, in your correspondence with her?"
"Oh no! I leave it quite open. But we cannot, of course, wait for ever."
Ada sat motionless, her hands in her lap. Her features were fixed in hard, blank misery. No wonder the girl looked ill. Ever since the day on which she wrote to Lacour her acceptance of his offer, life had been to her a mere battle of passions. When time and the events which so rapidly succeeded had dulled the memory of that frenzy which drove her to the step, of set purpose she nursed all the dark and resentful instincts of her nature, that they might support her to the end. Pride was an ally if it cost her her life she would betray by no sign the suffering she had brought upon herself. She blinded her feelings, strove to crush her heart when it revolted against her self imposed deception that she loved this man who would become her husband. Had she not found a pleasure in his society? Did not his attentions flatter and even move her? And ever she heard a voice saying that he cared nothing for her, that she had a face which could attract no man, that her money alone drew him to her, and that voice was always Mrs. Clarendon's. Hatred of Isabel was in moments almost madness. It seemed in some horribly unnatural way to be increased by the sight of the pale and suffering face; a wretched perversion poisoned the sympathy which showed itself in many an act of kindness. The struggle with her better nature brought her at times near to delirium. When Isabel's convalescence began, Ada counted the days. She knew that Lacour would not postpone their marriage an hour later than necessity demanded; her strength would surely hold out a few more weeks. That he did not come to see her was at once a relief and a source of bitterness; his letters she read with a mixture of eagerness and cold criticism. She stirred herself to factitious passion, excited all the glowing instincts, all the dormant ardours, of her being - and shivered before the flame. Every motive that could render marriage desirable she dwelt upon till it should become part of her hourly consciousness. The life she would lead when marriage had given her freedom was her constant forethought. She was made for enjoyment, and would enjoy. For her should exist no petty social rules, no conventional hypocrisies. In London her house should be a gathering-place of Bohemians. She herself did not lack brains, and her wealth would bring people about her. She would be a patroness of art and letters, would make friends of actresses who needed helping to opportunities of success, of artists who were struggling against unmerited neglect. Reading had filled her mind with images of such a world; was it not better than that dull sphere which styled itself exclusive? . . . When at length Mrs. Clarendon left Knightswell to go to the Strattons, Ada promised herself that any morning might bring a definite proposal of a day for her wedding. With difficulty she restrained herself from asking when it was to be. She had put aside every doubt, every fear, every regret; her life burned towards that day which would complete her purpose. And now. . . .
"But we must see each other oftener," Lacour was saying. "If Mrs. Clarendon will welcome me --"
She interrupted him harshly.
"Is Mrs. Clarendon the only person you consult henceforth?"
"My dear Ada, you mustn't misunderstand a mere form of politeness."
"Such forms have always been disagreeable to me."
She rose and moved to the fire-place. Lacour watched her from under his eyebrows. It grew more and more evident how strong was his hold upon her; he asked himself whether a little innocent quarrel might not best serve his ends.
"I am wearying you," he said, rising.
She could not let him go without plain question and answer; it seemed to her that she had reached the limit of endurance, that her strength would fail under the trial of another hour. Yet her lips would form no word.
"In what have I displeased you, Ada?" Vincent inquired, with an air of much surprise. "Clearly I have done so. Pray tell me what I have said or done."
She turned from the fire and faced him.
"When is it your intention for our marriage to take place?"
Lacour was suspicious again. This astounding eagerness must be the result of some information she had received; she dreaded to lose him. Did not her desire about the settlement somehow depend upon the same cause?
"Surely I have no interest in putting it off," he said, his head a little on one side, his most delicate smile in full play.
"But you think it had better not be before the summer?"
"Is not that best? I have no will but yours, Ada."
"I think," she replied slowly," that it shall be, not this summer, but the summer of next year."
"A year and a half still? For whatever reason?" he cried.
"I shall come of age then," she continued, looking past him with vague eyes. "I need consult no one then about my wishes."
"My dear Ada, you surely do not think I hesitated --"
"No," she said firmly, "but it will be better. Have I your consent to this?"
He walked away a few steps, desperately puzzled, exasperated, by the necessity of answering yes or no, when more than he could imagine might depend upon the choice.
"This is a joke, Ada!" he said, coming back with disturbed countenance.
"Nothing less. I ask you to postpone our marriage till I am twenty-one."
Her eyes did not move from his face. If he had said, "We will be married next week," she would have given him her hand in assent. Surely at that moment the air must have been full of invisible mocking spirits, waiting, waiting in delicious anticipation of human folly.
"If that is your wish," Lacour said, "I cannot oppose it." He had assumed dignity. "My constancy, Ada, can bear a test of eighteen months."
"I will let Mrs. Clarendon know," Ada observed quietly. "It will relieve her mind."
Should he leave her thus? He hesitated for a moment. Pooh! As if he could not whistle her back whenever it suited him to do so; women appreciate a display of dignity and firmness. He held his hand in silence, and, when she gave him hers, he just touched it with his lips. As he moved to the door he expected momently to hear his name uttered, to find himself recalled. No; she allowed him to disappear. He left the house rather hurriedly, and not in an entirely sweet temper, in spite of the fact that he had gained the very end he had in view, and which he had feared would be so difficult of attainment, would necessitate such a succession of hypocrisies and small conflicts.
How the imps in the air exploded as soon as he was gone!
Mrs. Stratton was summoned home by her husband's arrival just before Christmas. Isabel preferred to delay yet a little, and reached Chislehurst a fortnight later, accomplishing the journey with the assistance of her maid only. It proved rather too much for her strength, and for a day or two she had to keep her room. Then she joined the family, very pale still, and not able to do much more than hold a kind of court throned by the fireside, but with the light of happiness on her face, listening with a bright smile to every one's conversation, equally interested in Master Edgar's latest exploit by flood or field, and in his mother's rather trenchant comments on neighbouring families.
All the Strattons were at home. The four British youths had been keeping what may best be described by Coleridge's phrase, "Devil's Yule." Colonel Stratton was by good luck a man of substance, and could maintain an establishment corresponding to the needs of such a household. Though Mrs. Stratton had spoken of her house as being too large, it would scarcely be deemed so by the guests of mature age who shared it with the two young Strattons already at Woolwich and Sandhurst, and the other two who were still mewing their mighty youth at scholastic institutions. There was a certain upper chamber in which were to be found appliances for the various kinds of recreation sought after by robust young Britons; here they put on "gloves," and pummelled each other to their hearts' satisfaction - thud - thud! Here they vied with one another at single-stick - thwack - thwack! Here they swung dumb-bells, and tumbled on improvised trapezes. And hence, when their noble minds yearned for variety, they rushed headlong, pell-mell into the lower regions of the house, to the delights of the billiard-room. They had the use of a couple of horses, and the frenzy of their over-full veins drove them in turns, like demon huntsmen, over the frozen or muddy country. They returned at the hour of dinner, and ate - ate in stolid silence, till they had appeased the gnawing of hunger, then flung themselves here and there about the drawing-room till their thoughts, released from the brief employment of digestion, could formulate remarks on such subjects as interest youth of their species.
Mrs. Stratton enjoyed it all. Her offspring were perfect in her eyes. Had they been less riotous she would have conceived anxiety about their health. When her third boy, Reginald, aged thirteen years, fell to fisticuffs with a youthful tramp in a lane hard by, and came home irrecognisable from blood and dirt, she viewed him with amused astonishment, and, after setting him to rights with sponge and sticking-plaster, laughingly recommended that in future he should fight only with his social equals. With the two eldest she was a sort of sister; they walked with her about the garden with their arms over her shoulders; the confidence between her and them was perfect, and certainly they were very fond of her. They were stalwart young ruffians, these two, with immaculate complexions and the smooth roundness of feature which entitles men to be called handsome by ladies who are addicted to the use of that word. Mrs. Stratton would rather have been their mother than have borne Shakespeare and Michael Angelo as twins.
Their father - one may be excused for almost forgetting him - was a man of not more than medium height, but very solidly built, and like all his boys, bullet-headed. His round chubby face was much bronzed, his auburn hair and bushy beard of the same colour preserved to him a youthful appearance, which was aided by the remarkably innocent and soft-tempered look of his eyes. He was a man of weak will and great bodily strength; his sons had a string of stories to illustrate the latter - the former would perhaps have been best discoursed upon by Mrs. Stratton. A man of extreme simplicity in his habits, and abnormally shy; with men he was by no means at his ease till they became very old acquaintances, and with women ease never came to him at all. The defect was the more painful owing to his very limited moyens in the matter of conversation; had it not been for the existence of weather, the colonel would, under ordinary circumstances, have preserved the silence for which nature intended him. Of Mrs. Clarendon in particular he had a kind of fear, though at the same time he was attracted to her by her unfailing charm; he knew she sought opportunities of teasing him, and, though it cost him much perspiration, he did not dislike the torment. With her he would have been brought to talk if with any one; a fearful fascination often drew him to her side, only to find, when he valorously opened his lips, that a roguish smile had robbed him of every conception of what he was going to say.
"Well, colonel?" she began, on a typical occasion, one morning when they were alone together for a few minutes.
The colonel turned his eyes to the windows, coughed, and, looking uneasily round, observed that it was astonishingly warm for the season.
"It is," assented Isabel gravely. Whereupon, as if struck by the similarity of their sentiments, he looked into her face, and repeated his assertion with more emphasis.
"Astonishingly warm for January. You find it so? So do I. Yes, you really notice it?"
"I have been thinking over it since I got up," said Isabel. "I wonder how many degrees we have in this room?"
With the delight of a shy man who has found something definite to speak of, Colonel Stratton at once started up to go to the thermometer which hung in the window; a half-suppressed laugh made him stop and turn round.
"You don't really care to know," he said, flushing up to the eyes. "That's one of your jokes, Mrs. Clarendon. Ha, ha! Good!"
He stood before her, desperately nibbling both ends of his moustache - he had acquired much skill in the habit of getting them both into his mouth at the same time.
"You are in a - a frisky mood this morning, Mrs. Clarendon," he burst forth, laughing painfully.
"A what kind of mood?"
"I beg your pardon. I should have chosen a better word," he exclaimed, in much confusion. " It really is wonderfully warm for the season - you notice it?"
"Colonel, I assure you I notice it."
Fear at length overcame fascination.
"I must go and have a look at that new bay," he murmured. "You - you'll excuse me, Mrs. Clarendon? Ah, here's Rose! Don't you notice how very warm it is, my dear?"
"Rose," said Mrs. Clarendon, when the colonel had made his escape at quick time, "come here and answer me a rude question. Don't be shocked; it's something I do so want to know. How did the colonel" - she lowered her voice, her eyes were gleaming with fun - "how did the colonel propose to you?"
"My dear," was the reply, given in a humorous whisper, "I did it myself."
On another occasion, Colonel Stratton came into the room when Isabel was reading. She just noticed his presence, but did not seem inclined to talk, had, in fact, a shadow on her brow. The colonel observed this, by side glances. He moved about a little, and somehow managed to get behind her chair. Then, tapping her on the shoulder - it was his habit with male acquaintances, and he was probably unconscious of the act - he said, in a low voice. but with much energy:
"It's a damned shame! A damned shame!"
He had disappeared when Isabel turned to look at him.
She was not quite well that day, or something troubled her. After lunch she went to her own room, and, when she had sat for some time unoccupied, took from her writing-case a letter which she had written the day before. It was to Ada. As she glanced over it, some painful emotion possessed her.
"I can't send it! I am ashamed!" Her lips uttered the words which she had spoken only to herself.
She crumpled the sheet, and threw it into the fire.
She dined alone, and, a little later, Mrs. Stratton came to sit with her. After various talk, Mrs. Stratton said:
"A couple of friends are coming from town to-morrow - one of them a friend of yours."
"Rather more than a friend; a relative, I suppose."
"Robert Asquith?" said Isabel, surprised.
"Yes; I invited him some time ago, at Knightswell."
"Why, I had a letter from him just before I left, and he didn't say anything about it. How came you to make such friends with him?"
"Oh, he took my fancy! And I thought it might be pleasant for you to meet here."
"Certainly; I am delighted."
"I'm so glad you like him," she added, after a pause. "I had no idea you got on such good terms when he came down."
"Why do you never speak of him?" Mrs. Stratton asked, smiling slightly.
"Don't I? I really can't say. I suppose I take Robert for granted. I dare say he speaks as little of me as I of him."
"Perhaps so," said the other, in an unusually absent way. Then she asked:
"He has never been married?"
"Oh no! Robert is a confirmed old bachelor."
"Rather strange that, don't you think? He is in easy circumstances, I think you told me?"
"You think so? Yes, I suppose he is," mused Isabel.
"Suppose? You know very well he is, my dear. And what is he doing, pray?"
"I really can't say. He has rooms, and lives, I suppose, a very idle life. I shouldn't wonder if he goes back to the East some day."
"Very much better for him to stay in England, it seems to me," remarked Mrs. Stratton drily. Isabel changed the subject.
She went to her bedroom early, and, when her attendant had helped her into the easy costume of a dressing-gown, sat by the fire and let her eyes dream on the shapes of glowing coal. Presently she shook loose her hair, which was done up for the night, and spread it over her shoulders. She took a tress between the fingers of her left hand and stroked its smoothness, a smile growing upon her lips. Then she paced the length of the room several times, standing a moment before the mirror when she reached it. The dressing-gown became well the soft outlines of her form; the long, dark hair, rippling in its sweep from brow to shoulder, changed somewhat the ordinary appearance of her face, gave its sweetness a graver meaning, a more earnest cast of thought.
"If he saw me now he would tell me I was beautiful."
She smiled at herself; sighed a little, and, before resuming her seat, took from a drawer three letters which she had received during her stay here. Each was of many pages, closely written; he who wrote them had much to say. Isabel had read them many, many times. No such letters had ever before come to her; her pride and joy in them was that of a young girl, touched, however, with the sadness and regret never absent from joy which comes late. She thought how different her life would have been if she had listened to words like these when the years spread out before her a limitless field of hope. It seemed too much as if these letters were addressed to some one else, and had only been given her to read. She had to bring herself with conscious effort to an understanding of all they implied, all they demanded. Yet they moved her to deepest tenderness.
And that was the most marked quality of the letters themselves. In them was sounded by turns every note of love. There was the grace of pure worship, the lyric rapture of passion and desire, the soft rhythm of resigned longing, the sweet sadness of apprehension; but the note of an exquisite tenderness was ever recurrent, with it the music began and ended. They were the love letters of a poet, one in whom melancholy mingled with every emotion, whose brightest visions of joy were shadowed by brooding mortality. There was nothing masterful, no exaction, no distinctly masculine fervour. If a dread fell upon him lest the happiness promised was too great, it found voice in passionate entreaty. He told her much of his past life, its inner secrets, its yearnings, its despair. Of her infinite pity she had chosen him; she would not let him fall again into utter darkness? Love did not stir in him vulgar ambitions; to dwell in the paradise of her presence was all that his soul desired; let the world go its idle way. Too soft, too tender; another would have read his outpourings with compassionate fear, dreading the future of such a love. He visioned a happiness which has no existence. Men win happiness, but not thus. To woo and win as pastime in the pauses of the world's battle, to make hearth and home a retreat in ill-hap, a place of rest between the combats of day and day, to kindly regard a wife for her usefulness, and children for the pride they satisfy, thus, and not otherwise, do men come to content. Content that is not worth much, perhaps; but what is the price current of misery?
Isabel wrote in reply to each letter; Kingcote would have liked to pay in gold the village postman who brought her writing to his door. She, too, spoke with love's poetry, and her passion rang true. How strange to pen such words! She had always thought of such forms of expression with raillery, perhaps with a little contempt. Boys and girls of course wrote to each other in this way; it was excusable as long as one did not know the world. For all her knowledge of the world she would not now have surrendered the high privilege of language born of the heart. And in all that she wrote - in her thoughts too - it was her effort to place him in that station of mastery which he would not claim for himself. Was there already self-distrust, and was it only woman's instinct of subjection? She would have had him more assured of his lordship, would have desired that he should worship with less humility. If a man have not strength, love alone will not suffice to bind a woman to him; she will pardon brutality, but weakness inspires her with fear. Isabel had no such thoughts as these, but perchance had his letters contained one sentence of hard practical planning at the end of all their tenderness she would have found that something which unconsciously she lacked. She had bridged the gulf between him and herself; she was ready to make good words by deed, and, in spite of every obstacle, become his wife; it must be his to bear her manfully from one threshold to the other. Once done, she felt in her soul that she should regret nothing; she loved him with the first love of her life. But his hand must uphold her, guide her, for she would close her eyes when the moment came. . . .
She was alone in Mrs. Stratton's boudoir next morning, when the door was pushed open; turning, she saw her cousin.
"I was told that I might come here in search of you," said Robert, with his genial smile. "How are you?"
"Very well, thank you. How do you do? - as the children answer. But I needn't ask that; you have a wonderful faculty for looking healthy."
"I don't think there's often much amiss with me. Setting aside the chance of breaking my neck over a fence, I think I may promise myself a few more years."
"And the risk of fences you are wise enough to avoid."
"Nothing of the kind. I was hunting in Leicestershire only yesterday."
"Indisputable fact --" He had it on his lips to call her "Isabel," but for some reason checked himself. "A friend of mine took me down and mounted me. I enjoyed it thoroughly."
"But you are becoming an Englishman."
"Was I ever anything else?"
"I believe I generally think of you in an Oriental light. At all events, you smoke a hookah, and very much prefer lying on a rug to sitting on a chair."
"The hookah I have abandoned; the rug comes of your imagination."
"Oh dear no; it was one of the first things you said to me when you came to see me last spring in town. It stamped you in my mind for ever."
"But I want to know how you are?" Robert resumed, leaning to her, with his hands on his knees. "Mrs. Stratton's account is too vaguely ladylike. How, in truth, are you?"
A ripple of laughter replied to him.
"You show me that you can be mirthful; that is much, no doubt. But you must have a change."
"Am I not having one?"
"Oh, I don't call this a change. You must get fresh air."
Asquith's way of speaking with her was not quite what it had formerly been. He assumed more of - was it cousin ship? - than he had done. Possibly the man himself had undergone certain changes during the last few months. Oriental he had been to a certain extent; something of over-leisureliness had marked his bearing; there had been an aloofness in his way of remarking upon things and people, a kind of mild fatalism in his modes of speech. An English autumn with its moor-sport and the life of country houses; an English winter with growth of acquaintances at hospitable firesides had doubtless not been without their modifying influence; but other reasons were also discoverable for the change in his manner towards Isabel. For one thing, he had heard of her refusal of Lord Winterset; for another, he knew of Ada's approaching marriage.
She made no reply to his advice, and he continued.
"You know Henry Calder?"
"You know that he has been absolutely ruined by a bank failure?"
"You don't say so?"
"Indeed. The poor fellow is in a wretched state - utterly broken down; they feared a few weeks ago that he was going crazy. You know that he was great at yachting; of course he has had to sell his yacht, and I have bought it."
"What will you tell me next?"
"Why, this. It is essential that poor Calder should get away to the South, and nothing would do him half as much good as a sail among the islands. Now I propose to ask him to accompany me on such a cruise, say at the beginning of next month. He and I have been on the best of terms since we were lads, and there's no kind of awkwardness in the arrangement; he goes to put me up to the art of seamanship. Of course his wife accompanies him, and probably their eldest girl."
"That's the kindest thing I have heard for a long time, Robert," said Isabel, giving him a look of admiration.
"Oh dear no; nothing could be simpler. And now - I want you to come with them."
Isabel shook her head.
"But what is your objection?"
"I cannot leave England at present."
"I don't ask you to. We are at the middle of January; it will be time enough in three weeks."
"Out of the question."
She still shook her head, smiling. Robert reflected for a moment.
"When does this marriage take place?" he asked abruptly.
"Very shortly, I suppose. I have written to Mr. Lacour to request him to make arrangements as soon as he likes. I shall meet him in London on Monday."
"Good. Then you are absolutely free."
"I am not free."
He glanced at her inquiringly.
"I am not free," Isabel repeated, looking straight before her.
"I suppose I shall be grossly impertinent if I ask what it is that holds you?"
"I cannot now tell you, Robert, but - I must remain in England."
Her voice had a tremor in it, which she did her best to subdue. She was smiling still, but in a forced, self-conscious way.
Asquith leaned back; he had lost his look of cheerful confidence.
"But it isn't such a grave matter, after all," said Isabel, restoring the former tone. "It was a very kind thought of yours, very kind - but you won't quarrel with me because I can't come? It will make no difference in your plan for the Calders, surely?"
"I can't say, I'm sure," Asquith replied, in an almost petulant manner, strangely at variance with his ordinary tone. He had thrust his hands into his pockets, and was tapping the carpet with his foot.
"What nonsense!" Isabel exclaimed, with growing good humour. "As if you would allow such a scheme to be overthrown just because one of the party failed you! I can suggest half a dozen delightful people who will be happy to go with you."
"No doubt; but I wanted you."
"Robert, you are undeniably Oriental; the despotic habit still clings to you. If one swallow doesn't make a summer, neither does one day's hunting make an Englishman."
His countenance cleared.
"Well," he said, "this is certainly not final. Let us wait till that wedding is over."
"It is final," she returned, very positively. "The wedding will not in the least alter things."
"What then are you going to do?" he asked, with deliberation, gazing at her steadily.
Her eyes fell, and she seemed half to resent his persistence, as she answered:
"I am going to live on three hundred a year."
"H'm! Do you think of living in London?"
"No; I do not think of living in London. Proceed, sir, with the cross-examination."
"I think I have been rude enough for one day," he returned, with a quiet smile as he rose from his chair.
She held her hand to him with the friendly grace which could repay even when it disappointed.
"Thank you, with all my heart," she said. "Only - remember how dear independence must be to me."
"Are you acquainted with Mr. Lyster?" Robert asked, with a transition to easier topics.
"I don't think I know any one of that name."
"Some one who arrived here a few minutes after I did. It seems we came in the same train."
"To be sure; a friend, the Strattons were expecting. Shall we go to the drawing-room?"
There they found the gentleman in question conversing with Mrs. Stratton, a man of smooth appearance and fluent speech. His forte seemed to be politics, on which subject he discoursed continuously during luncheon. There happened to be diplomatic difficulties with Russia, and Mr. Lyster - much concerned, by-the-bye, with Indian commerce - was emphatic in denunciation of Slavonic craft and treachery, himself taking the stand-point of disinterested honesty, of principle in politics.
"We shall have to give those fellows a licking yet," remarked Colonel Stratton, with confidence inspired by professional feeling.
"I should think so, indeed!" put in Frank Stratton, "the eldest son. The two schoolboys had by this time returned to their football, and only the representatives of Woolwich and Sandhurst remained to grace the family table. "And the sooner the better."
"What I want to know," exclaimed Mr. Lyster, "is whether England is a civilising power or not. If so, it is our duty to go to war; if not, of course we may prepare to go to the --"
"Don't hesitate, Mr. Lyster," said Mrs. Stratton good-naturedly, "I'm sure we all agree with you."
"Civilisation!" proceeded the politician, when the laugh had subsided; "that is what England represents, and civilisation rests upon a military basis, if it has any basis at all. It's all very well to talk about the humanity of arbitration and fudge of that kind; it only postpones the evil day. Our position is the result of good, hard fighting, and mere talking won't keep it up; we must fight again. Too long a peace means loss of prestige, and loss of prestige means the encroachment of barbarians, who are only to be kept in order by repeated thrashings. They forget that we are a civilising power; unfortunately we are too much disposed to forget it ourselves."
"The mistake is," remarked Frank Stratton, to treat with those fellows at all. Why don't we take a map of Asia and draw a line just where it seems good to us, and bid the dogs keep on their own side of it? Of course they wouldn't do so - and then we lick 'em!"
His mother looked at him with pride.
"I respect our constitution," pursued Mr. Lyster, who was too much absorbed in his own rhetoric to pay much attention to the frivolous remarks of others; "but I've often thought it wouldn't be amiss if we could have a British Bizmarck" - so he pronounced the name. "A Bizmarck would make short work with Radical humbug. He would keep up patriotism; he would remind us of our duties as a civilising power."
"And he'd establish conscription," remarked Frank. "That's what we want."
"Eh? Conscription? Well, I won't go quite so far as that. It is one of our English glories that there are always men ready to volunteer for active service; men who are prepared to fight and, if need be, to die for their country. I shouldn't like to see that altered. I think the voluntary system a good one. We are Englishmen; we don't need to be driven to battle."
Robert Asquith glanced at Isabel and smiled.
The weather was so bad in the afternoon that it was impossible to leave the house. The two young Strattons went to try and break each other's heads at single-stick; the colonel, with his guests, repaired to the billiard-room, where they smoked, talked, and handled the cues. Asquith was not quite in the mood for billiards. When he had played with the colonel for half an hour, Mr. Lyster took his place, and he strolled round the room, examining the guns, cricket-bats, horse-whips, and pictures, which invited observation. Going to one of the seats to repose himself, he found a book lying close by on the floor, open leaves downwards, just as it had fallen. It was one of Captain Marryat's novels. Robert threw up his legs on to the couch, and began to read.
Our friend was anything but a man of literary tastes; with the exception of purchases at railway stations, it is doubtful whether he had ever bought a book in his life. He read newspapers assiduously; they satisfied his need of mental pabulum. For the rest, he made the world his book, and had the faculty of extracting amusement from it in sufficient quantities to occupy his leisure time. He was anything but an ignorant man; conversation, and the haphazard experiences of life, had supplied him in a living way with knowledge which ordinarily has to be sought from the printed page; but intellectual tendencies, properly speaking, he had none. Art he only cared for in the elementary way; for music, he plainly confessed he had no ear. On men and manners, he habitually reflected, and had fair natural power of insight; problems of life were non-existent for him.
The story which he had picked up absorbed him; he read on and on with a boy's simple enjoyment. His body rested in a corner of the seat, his legs were stretched at full length, one over the other, he held the book up in both hands; often he laughed aloud, and at other times his face wore an expression of the gravest interest. The billiard players had passed out of his world.
When at length he put down the book, he found himself alone in the room. He jumped up, flung the book on to the green table, yawned, stretched his arms, slapped his legs to restore circulation, and walked to the window. It was growing dark. In the leafless garden the rain fell steadily; occasionally drops made their way down the chimney, and hissed upon the fire. Robert had the feeling of one who awakes after dissipation, a debauched and untidy sensation. He felt the necessity of plunging his face in water.
Having done so, he made his way to the drawing-room. Visitors were not to be expected such an afternoon as this, and at first he thought the room was empty. But Mrs. Stratton was sitting with her back to him; the ruffling of a newspaper she held apprised him of her presence.
"So some one has appeared at last," said the lady, "not for my company, of course, but for a cup of tea. Would you be so good as to ring the bell?"
"The tea will be grateful, I admit," returned Robert, doing her bidding, "but your society no less. In fact, I want to speak to you."
"Mrs. Clarendon refuses my invitation - that I mentioned in my letter, you remember."
"Refuses? What is her objection?"
"Nothing definite. She says she cannot leave England, that's all. Has she - I don't think there's any harm in asking you, is there? - has she spoken with you at all of what she is going to do?"
"Well, no, In fact, it's a subject she won't approach. I don't think she has formed any plans whatever yet."
Asquith reflected, and at the same time tea was brought in and lamps lit.
"I half supposed," said Mrs. Stratton, glancing aside at him, as she held up the teapot, "that you were the most likely person to know of her plans."
"I assure you, Mrs. Stratton, that was a mistake, an entire mistake."
The lady raised her eyebrows a little and carefully removed a tea-leaf from her cup.
"You take it for granted," she asked, after a moment, "that she will really quit Knightswell?"
"How otherwise? I am perfectly sure that nothing would induce her to continue living there under the new régime. If the persons concerned had been - had been other than they are, of course the affair might have been very simple. But not as it is."
"By-the-bye," he added, "she gave me one piece of information. She does not intend to live in London."
"Where then, I wonder?"
"I can't conjecture."
"I would repeat the invitation, I think," said Mrs. Stratton, looking at him.
"I shall do so, though not just yet."
The colonel and Mr. Lyster came in talking loudly.
"Ah, we left you asleep," said the former to Robert. "Didn't like to disturb you. We've had a walk."
"A walk, in this weather!" exclaimed his wife.
"Oh yes; a little rain does one no harm. Not a bad afternoon; there's a pleasant warmth in the air. Don't you notice a warmth in the air, Asquith?"
"Yes, here in the drawing-room. I can't answer for outside."
"Oh, it's distinctly warm. Eh, Lyster?"
Mrs. Clarendon appeared in the room. The colonel lost his ease, and began to walk about. The conversation became general.
There were several other people at dinner. It fell to Asquith to take down a certain Miss Pye, a tall young lady with a long thin nose, simply dressed in white, with much exposure of bust. This décolleté costume was a thing Robert found it impossible to get used to; he felt that if he went on dining with ladies for another five-and-twenty years there would still arise in him the same sensation of amazement as often as he turned to speak and had his eyes regaled with a vision of the female form divine, with its most significant developments insisted upon. Singular questions of social economy invariably suggested themselves. How far was this fashion a consequence of severe competition in the marriage market? He always found it a little difficult to look his fair neighbour in the face, and, when he at length did so, experienced surprise at her placid equanimity. Miss Pye's equanimity it would have taken much to disturb. As in duty bound, Robert made his endeavour to interest her in various kinds of conversation. The affirmative and negative particles alone replied to him. She ate with steady application; she smiled feebly when he attempted a very evident joke; she appeared to have no concern in any of the things about which men and women use or abuse the gift of speech. Yet he succeeded at last.
"Did you ever read a book called --?" he asked, naming the novel of Marryat's which had absorbed him through the afternoon.
"I should think so!" exclaimed Miss Pye, her eyes gleaming with appreciation. "Isn't it awfully jolly? And --"
She proceeded to name half a dozen other works by the same refined and penetrating author.
"That's the kind of book I like," she said. "I believe I ought to have been a boy by rights. My brothers have all Marryat, and Mayne Reid, and Cooper; and I know them all by heart. 'Valentine Vox,' too; do you know that? Oh, you just get it, as soon as you can. And 'Tom Burke of Ours'; that's Lever. And 'Handy Andy.' You haven't read 'Handy Andy'? But what a great deal you have to read yet."
Robert admitted that such was the case. Miss Pye had got upon her subject, and Asquith drew her out. She was something of a new female type to him; but only so because he had long been unused to the society of English girls. Had he mentioned a book by George Eliot she would have told him that her mother didn't approve of that writer, who was an atheist and immoral.
Later he found himself by Isabel. Her proximity was pleasant to him. He would have preferred just now to sit by her in silence, an glance at her face occasionally, but that was scarcely possible.
"You will let me hear from you when that business is over?" he said.
"I will. Remember it is not my function to send invitations for the wedding."
"I suppose not."
Somebody else drew near.
As they passed from the dining-room after breakfast next morning, Isabel said to Mrs. Stratton:
"Come to the boudoir; I have a letter I want to show you."
The letter was this:
"DEAR MRS. CLARENDON,
"I want to tell you in as few words as possible that my marriage is indefinitely postponed. It will not, in any event, take place before I complete my twenty-first year. My second purpose in writing to you is to ask your permission to go at once to London and live in Mr. Meres' house. This is for purposes of study. I am unable to procure at Knightswell the materials I need. Will you oblige me with a reply as soon as you can?
"It does not in the very least surprise me," observed Mrs. Stratton, smiling urbanely.
"I don't think I could say that. I am surprised. I believed Ada would stick to a purpose through thick and thin."
"My dear, she accepted that man in a moment of pique, and she has very wisely repented whilst there is time."
Isabel was silent.
"And her wanting to go to London," pursued the other. " It's all perfectly clear. She's ashamed of herself; she can't face you."
Isabel seated herself and mused, the letter on her lap. Her cheek had a flush of excitement, and her eyes were very bright.
"Look at this, too," she said, with a laugh, taking from its envelope another letter she was holding. "From Mrs. Bruce Page. I wonder she is not ashamed of herself, I really do!"
"My dearest Mrs. Clarendon," ran this epistle, "it would be a mercy if you would let me know what your latest news is about that boy. Do you hear from or of him? Has he done anything surprising yet? I shouldn't a bit wonder if he does - I mean in this affair. He is capable of anything. Do let me know at once if you have any curious news either from him or Ada."
"It looks as if she anticipated it," said Mrs. Stratton.
"It does. It would be no great wonder if she proved to be at the bottom of it."
"Of the postponement, or rupture, or whatever it is?"
"But what shall you do immediately?"
"Nothing. What is there to do? Merely write and give her the permission she asks for."
"I am really delighted at this!" Mrs. Stratton exclaimed.
"Why should you be delighted? I assure you it is nothing to me."
"My dear, it is everything - you will tell Mr. Asquith?"
"I suppose so. It will annoy him."
She reddened, and corrected herself.
"Nonsense, I didn't mean to say that. I dare say he will take it very much as you do. But you will both be wrong, both be wrong."
"Isabel, you are mysterious."
"Am I?" she asked with a laugh, not a very joyous one.
"Yes, more mysterious than I like."
"Then indeed it won't be mysterious at all. It's only in your imagination, Rose. Oh dear, oh dear!" she sighed, "this world is a hard one!"
"I wonder whether you will hear from Mr. Lacour?" Mrs. Stratton asked, after trying to read her friend's face.
"I wonder," said Isabel absently.
Their conversation soon came to an end. There was to be driving before lunch as the sky had cleared, and it was not till afternoon that Isabel had an opportunity of informing her cousin of the news she had received.
Robert heard it calmly.
"I really do not know whether to congratulate you or not," he said, with meaning.
"At all events, you may congratulate Ada."
"Probably. Do you stay here much longer?"
"I go at the end of the week, the day after to-morrow."
"Yes, Knightswell must not be left empty."
They gazed at each other without definite expression.
"I shall be home on Saturday," wrote Isabel, at the close of a letter addressed to Wood End. "I am writing to Mr. Vissian, to ask him to come and see me before his afternoon service on Sunday, as I want to speak with him of several things. Will you come at three? He will leave shortly after, and you - perhaps will not care to stay?"
She said nothing of the event which had hurried her return, neither did she mention it in her letter to the rector. Mr. Vissian called at the cottage on Friday.
"I have a message for you from Mrs. Clarendon," he said. "She is returning, and will be glad to see you any time after three on Sunday. I shall be at the house between two and three myself - have to go specially - your audience will succeed mine."
Kingcote smiled as he promised to obey the summons.
"We shall see you to-morrow as usual," said Mr. Vissian, in going. "I believe I have got hold of something that will startle you. Nothing, nothing; merely the solution of a crux which has defied every Shakespearean critic hitherto. Don't be too excited about it; it may prove a mare's nest; but -," the rector half closed his eyes and nodded twice - "we shall see."
He went off in his usual high spirits. Sundry Christmas bills had just reduced him to penury, but that was a care he did not allow to weigh upon him, for all that his black suit of daily wear cried shame upon him at the elbows - yet weaker points were happily concealed by pendent cloth. Had he not on his shelves the last year's publications of the Early English Text Society, bound in half-calf extra?
To his infinite annoyance, he waited in vain for Kingcote on Saturday evening. The discovery at which he had hinted, had become overnight a certainty; he was convinced that he had explained "the Lady of the Strachy!" (See, loc. cit., the critical edition of Twelfth Night, which Mr. Vissian subsequently put forth - a work deserving more attention at the hands of Shakespearean scholars than it has received.)
"What can ail the man?" he exclaimed impatiently, as he kept coming forth from his study to Mrs. Vissian. "He never failed us before. If he only knew what I've got for him!"
But Kingcote did not appear, and Mr. Vissian only saw him on the morrow in Mrs. Clarendon's drawing-room. Kingcote came in with a grave look, and shook hands with Isabel in silence.
"I hope you have come back quite restored," he said, rather awkwardly, when it became incumbent upon him to speak. He was not good at acting.
"Why did you fail me last night?" inquired Mr. Vissian.
"I am very sorry. I was not well," was the brief reply.
He seated himself and was mute. Isabel kept up a lively conversation with the rector, till the latter declared he would be late for church, and hurriedly made off. When he had closed the door behind him, Isabel rose softly, her face all joy; Kingcote moved to meet her, and she fell upon his neck.
"You are not well, dear?"
"That was only an excuse. How well you look, my beautiful!"
"You are glad to see me again?"
"Glad and sorry, for I have bad news to tell you."
"You too have bad news?" she said anxiously.
"Come and sit by me."
They sat side by side.
"Oh, let it wait!" he whispered. "Forget both yours and mine for these few moments. Look at me; let me drink at your eyes. Speak, and call me by my name. I have only lived on the echoes of that voice. Where did you learn that music, Isabel? My pure-browed lady! Your head is like those which come before us in old songs, dark against gold tapestry, or looking from high castle-windows. You should have lived when queens paced in moon-lit galleries, and heard below the poet softly singing to their beauty. Isabel! Is not that a sweet and queenly name? - and I may speak it."
She listened, trembling with pleasure. Was not the world well lost for such worship? She all but forgot his mention of ill-hap, till the mute pain of his lips brought it back to her mind.
"What has happened, Bernard?"
"What I scarcely dare tell you. Let me kiss your lips once, and then move away and try to realise what it will be to leave you."
"It has come at last. I have known that it must come, and yet I have closed my eyes against the certainty. I could not go to the Vissians' last night because I was overcome with misery. In the morning I had heard from my sister that her husband is dead. She is helpless, without means of any kind, and her two children dependent upon her. I must go at once to London and - provide for them."
"Provide for them? Has her husband left her nothing?"
"Not a coin. He was a man of business, and did badly; he has been ill for months, and they could not have lived but for money from me. It is good that he is dead. I had no more to give, unless I surrendered my independence. That of course I must do now, but for Mary and her children I can do it more easily. Her husband I disliked; association with him was impossible. He was without education, good of his kind perhaps, but - commercial. We only met once, and it was once too often."
"But how could a sister of yours marry so?"
"Poor girl! I never understood it; but she was very young, and had known him some time. That was in Norwich, of course. She went off with him secretly, and they were married in London. Her mother would have nothing to do with them; at her death, what she would have left to Mary, came to me. It was trivial; I have more than repaid it."
"Can his relations do nothing for her?"
"No. A brother of his, Mary tells me, has come, and will attend the funeral. But he has distinctly told her that he can give no help."
Kingcote had drawn away a little; Isabel took and held his hand.
"Bernard, how can you support them?"
"Oh, for a time it doesn't matter; I shall use my capital. Then I shall - work like others do, I suppose. I have had an easy life so long; it was sure to come to an end some day."
"Why do you keep away from me? What does all this matter? Nothing has come between us, dear."
His brows were heavy, and he could only look at her sadly. Isabel turned her head away, and dashed tears from her eyes.
"But you too have your ill news, you said?"
For answer she rose and fetched Ada's letter. Bernard read it.
"Why ill news?" he asked, when he had brooded for a moment.
Isabel had not resumed her seat. She moved about in much agitation, and at length threw herself on her knees by him.
"It is something that I ought to have told you before," she said. "It seemed, though, such an easy difficulty to overcome; I was so happy, and I would not think of anything in the way. I -" she hid her face against him - "I have lived beyond my income, and have had to borrow money - a large sum of money. I could not have done it, I think, unless it had seemed certain that I should marry some rich man, - though I had to insure my life, and there was my annuity. You know I have had only two thousand a year; it was so little for the way in which I lived. I have always been so thoughtless about money. I could not foresee this great happiness that has come to me. Do not think - Bernard, you won't think that I should have ever married only because the man who asked me was rich, - I mean if I had never known you. You won't think that? I have told you that I could never have brought myself to that. Listen, the day before my accident, before I knew that you loved me, before my own love for you had become certain in my heart, Lord Winterset asked me to be his wife, and I - I refused."
She had looked up pleadingly, but at the end hid her face again. Oh, it is so hard to a woman - nay, that is unjust, to a man also - to speak out the whole truth in self-accusation. Who ever yet did it? What penitent at the confessional? What votary in silent prayer? Maybe it is regard for the dignity of human nature which chains the tongue, that dignity which it costs so much to support, which we so often feel to be a name only, or the shadow of a name.
Kingcote could say nothing.
"Still, listen to me, my dearest! I could not let that stand between us. The debt would have to be paid some day, and when I knew who my husband was to be, there was only one way of meeting it. I should have asked Ada," her voice sank, "to give me the money. She will be rich, very rich; she could easily give me that. She is good-hearted, I know, though we have never been able to love each other. Before her marriage I would have asked her to give it me, and she would not have refused; it would have been her first act when the property became hers."
He laid his hand upon her bowed head, and stroked it tenderly; then he raised her to sit by him again.
" I am so glad you have told me that," he said, smiling very kindly. " Let it be the end of your trouble. Ada will still give you the money when she is of age."
She kept a long silence before her next words, then looked up at him with wide eyes.
"Are we to be parted so long?"
"But our marriage as yet was in any case impossible. It was bad enough to ask you to share poverty with me; you could not support my sister and her children."
"Would not your own income have been sufficient for them? We should have had my money."
"Even if it were enough - barely enough - at present, it could not possibly be so as the boys grow up. It is very hard to think of her living in such a poor and joyless way in those hateful surroundings. I dread to imagine her state now. She will have grown used to a mean, sordid life; her refinement will all be gone; the poisonous air of working London will have infected her. I shall feel shame that she is my sister."
"That will soon be altered," Isabel said comfortingly. "You will take her into new scenes. Your society will help her. Who would not grow gentle and refined in your presence? Oh, my love, my love!"
Passionate distress overcame her; she clung to him and wept silently. Kingcote was pale and woe-stricken; the future loomed hideous before him; he found it hard to feign to himself the gleaming of one far-off star of hope.
She raised her head, and looked into his eyes with a passion-glow of purpose.
"If I can obtain that money at once - borrow it, perhaps, from some one who will take my mere word to be repaid when Ada is of age - yes, yes, I could - will you marry me and let us trust to the future? You are clever - you know so much - you will find some position, sooner or later. Who knows? Your sister may marry again. Will you take my hand, and let us face everything together?"
He was shaken from head to foot with the struggle her words excited. With her arms clinging thus around him, in a moment he would yield - and there was a voice within which whispered hoarsely that to yield would be to tempt a fearful fate. What might he not be led to do next? What impossible sacrifice of self-respect might not become inevitable? He had no jot of faith in his own power to make a future. Imagine this woman some day cooling in her love, and speaking with her pale face unutterable things. She would have a right to reproach him, and a reproach divined would drive him to frenzy. She was weak - he would not shape that into words, but the knowledge was in his heart. After all the features of her life that she had revealed to him, how could he dare the step she tempted him to? His love for her was so sincere that to place her in a position which might touch him with shame on her behalf was in thought a horror. Of whom would she borrow a large sum of money on her bare word? That, to begin with, was impossible; think what it would cost her. Before, all was different. Her income and his put together did not in truth seem to him sad poverty; for her love's sake she would have contented herself. But the new responsibilities - and then this latest revelation --
Not in linked thoughts, but in swiftly successive flashes of feeling, did these things pass through his mind. He suffered terribly in the moments while the struggle lasted. But at length he found that - he knew not how - he had put away her clinging arms.
"Isabel, we cannot do that." The words seemed to come unbidden; he heard them as if another spoke. "I love you too well, my own soul! I feel you must not think of that."
She hung her head, passion-worn, and he heard her ask:
"Do you love me?"
He knelt at her feet and pressed her joined hands against his heart.
"Do I love you? Do you know what it has cost me to refuse to take your life and make it part of mine?"
"You do seem to love me, Bernard." She stroked the hair upon his forehead, and put it back with soft woman's touch. Her voice was low and caressing; moisture made her eyes large. "You will not fail me? You will still love me, till I can make myself free?"
"Do I speak and act as if my love were a thing that will easily pass?"
"That is well and wisely spoken," he returned, smiling up at her. "That is better in my eyes than if you had vowed to love me for ever. We cannot vow love; we can only say that we love with all the strength of our being, and silently feel that it is not a thing of brief life. I shall never ask you to promise to love me, only to say that you do."
"But that is almost as if you feared."
"For you, or for myself?"
"You have no fear that your love for me will fail? Dear, I am not the wife you should have sought."
"You are the wife I was fated to seek; that is enough. You are throned above all women when my soul worships."
They rested in the after-thought of each other's words; he pressed her hands against his lips.
"I have few ambitions, Isabel," he continued. "Of things which men mostly seek, few are of any account to me; I could not stir myself to pursue what awakens others to frantic zeal. One ambition there is that has ruled my life; a high one. I have wished to win a woman's love. To me that has always been the one, the only thing in the end worth living for. I thought my life would pass and I should never know that supreme blessing. Whatever comes after this, I have had your love, bright one!"
"And always will have."
He raised his hand in playful warning.
"Life is full of tragedies. The tragedy, I have always thought, is not where two who love each other die for the sake of their love. That is glorious triumph. But where love itself dies, blown upon by the cold breath of the world, and those who loved live on with hearts made sepulchres - that is tragedy."
"I shall always love you." She repeated it under her breath, convincing herself.
"On Tuesday I go to London," Kingcote said, seating himself by her. " So good-bye to my cottage. We shall not forget that poor little house? I hope sometimes to come and look at it, and see my dead self. Some family of working people will live there next. It will be well if they are not haunted."
"One feels that misery must cling to walls that have seen so much of it."
"But brighter spirits have since then swept and garnished it, have they not?"
Kingcote was always thrilled with pleasure when her thoughts made for themselves a more imaginative kind of speech. It brought her out of the prose-talking world, and nearer to him.
"They have, dear. You must write to me often, it will be long before we see each other again."
"But you do not go to-morrow; you will see me again before you go?"
"If you wish it; but won't it only make the parting harder?"
"Come to me on Tuesday morning, if only for a few minutes. You will go by the 1.30 train? Oh, how shall I ever let you leave me?"
Kingcote rose. He had still words to say, but they would not easily be uttered.
"Isabel, will your life in future be quite the same as it has been? - no, not inwardly, but your outward, daily life?"
"No, it shall not be the same," she replied earnestly. "How can it be the same? Have I not so much that is new and dear to fill my days?"
"If you had married me now," he continued, "it would have been to leave the world with which you are familiar; you were ready to make that sacrifice for me. Can you promise me to draw a little apart - to try yourself - to see if you could really give it up, and live for yourself and for me?"
"I will - indeed I will, Bernard! - you shall know all I do every day; you shall see if I cannot live as you wish. You shall tell me of books to read; I will come into your world."
"That will make my life full of joy, instead of an intolerable burden," he exclaimed, glowing with delight. "I could not bear it otherwise! The distance between us would be too great. And - is it not better to confess it? - I am easily jealous. I feel that to go on my way there in London, whilst you were shining among people of wealth and leisure, all doing you homage, that would drive me mad."
Isabel smiled as she reassured him. These words pleased her, but not in the nobler way. He had said what should never be said to a woman by one who will hold her love pure of meaner mixture.
"I shall come to London in the spring," she said presently. "You know I always do so but this time it will only be to be near you. I can't afford a house; I shall take rooms, and you will often come to see me."
He looked at her, but did not answer.
"But who knows what may happen before then?" she exclaimed, with sudden joyousness. "We can make no plans. Fate has brought us together, and fate will help us - have no fear!"
"Fate is not often benevolent," said Kingcote, smiling cheerlessly.
"But are not we the exceptions? I feel - I know - that there is happiness for us; I won't listen to a single down-hearted word! You came to Winstoke because my love was waiting for you; you are going now to London because something is prepared which we cannot foresee. Look brighter, dear; it is all well."
"Isabel, I will not see you again before I go."
"Then write me your good-bye, and you shall have one from me on Tuesday morning. Send me your London address in the letter. Shall you live where your sister is?"
"For the present, I believe."
"And you will see your artist friend again. Shall you tell him? Have you told him?"
"I have not, and shall not. It is our secret."
She gave a laugh of joy. Why did the laugh jar on him? He was so easily affected by subtleties of feeling which another man would not conceive.
They took leave of each other.
Kingcote walked about the lanes till some time after dark, then made his way to the rectory. Mr. Vissian himself opened the door - there was no evening service at the church in winter.
"Good! I expected you," he exclaimed. "Better late than never. Have you had tea?"
"No; I should be glad of a cup."
They went into the sitting-room, where Mrs. Vissian and Percy still sat at table. It was a rule with the rector to put all mundane literature aside on Sunday, but to-day he had yielded to temptation. At the place where he had been sitting, a Shakespeare lay open, with a note-book beside it. Mr. Vissian stood with his back to the fire, fidgeting. Presently he could hold no longer; whilst Kingcote was still eating and drinking, he laid a hand on his shoulder, and put before him a page of the note-book.
"My friend," he said gravely, "read that; - carefully now; with no indecent haste. Read - perpend!"
It was the explanatory note on "The Lady of the Strachy."
"That's very interesting," said Kingcote quietly.
"Interesting! By the Turk! It is epoch-making, as the Germans say. I have not a doubt remaining."
Mrs. Vissian listened to the conversation with just a little evident uneasiness. It was troublesome to be more orthodox than the rector, but she could not forget that it was Sunday. Affectionate little women are quite capable of these weaknesses.
When Mr. Vissian's excitement was somewhat allayed, Kingcote began in a matter-of-fact way, and told them of his approaching departure, explaining the circumstances which occasioned it. His hearers were genuinely distressed.
"This is evil following upon good with a vengeance," said the rector. His wife looked sorrowfully at him, and half wondered in her foolish little mind whether this might be a reproval of his Sabbath-breaking - a mild one, suited to a first backsliding.
"I owe you more than I can thank you for," said Kingcote, looking from husband to wife. "I shall think of the rectory as if it had been my home."
"I hope," said Mrs. Vissian, touched, "that you will make it a home as often as you possibly can. We shall always be very, very glad to see you here."
"My dear Kingcote," murmured the rector, in an uncertain voice, "this - this upsets me. It is so wholly unexpected. And we were to have gone through every play with scrutiny of metrical development. Your ear is so much more to be depended upon than mine in such matters. Dear me, dear me! This is excessively disturbing!"
"But, by-the-bye," he added, when he could better trust his vocal organs, "I shall now have some one whom I can rely upon in immediate vicinity of the book-stalls. If you should ever come across anything in my line - you know the kind of thing I want --"
"Mr. Kingcote," said his wife, raising her finger, "I'm sure you won't put discord between me and my husband. You know that I dread the mention of book-stalls."
There was of course to be a later leave taking; in view of his domestic disturbances Kingcote consented to breakfast and dine at the rectory on Tuesday. His sticks of furniture he would sell to a dealer in Winstoke on the morrow, and his packing would only be an affair of a couple of hours, books and all. Percy ardently desired to help in this process, and was permitted to come.
Kingcote woke in the middle of the night, with so distinct a voice in his ears that he sat and gazed nervously about him in the darkness. It was as though Isabel had spoken in his very presence, and after he had gained full consciousness; she said, " It is fate, dear," and uttered the words with pain. Our dreams play these tricks with us. He rose and went to the window; there was a setting moon, and the old oak-trunk before the cottage threw a long, black shadow. The night-wind made its wonted sobbing sound. The sky was very dark in the direction of Knightswell.
He had his letter on Tuesday morning. Feeling the envelope, he anticipated what he should find on opening it. There was Isabel's portrait, a beautiful vignette photograph; it had been taken when she was last in London. Referring to it, she said:
"Look at it, and let it look at you, daily. And, if ever you wish to tell me that all is at an end between us, only send me the portrait back again."
Kingcote reached Waterloo Station as dusk was gathering. He had not occupied himself on the journey, yet it had seemed short; from when he waved his hand at Winstoke to Mr. Vissian and Percy, who saw him depart, to his first glimpse of the grimy south-west end of London - including twenty minutes' pacing of a platform when he had to change - a dull absentmindedness had possessed him, a sense of unreality in his progress, an indifference to the objects about him. At Waterloo he let the other occupants of the carriage all descend before he moved; when at last obliged to stir, it cost him an effort to overcome his inertia. He had not altered his position since seating himself; there was a printed notice opposite him, and he had been reading this mechanically for nearly an hour.
His luggage necessitated the hire of a cab; he found himself crossing the river, then struggling amid dense traffic in the Strand. More than half a year of life at Wood End had put a strange distance between him and the streets of London; he looked at objects with an eye of unfamiliarity, with unconcern, or with shrinking. In vain he tried to remind himself that he had come to do battle amid this roaring crowd; his consciousness refused belief. He had lived so long in a dream; the waking was so sudden, the reality so brutal, that he must needs fall back again and close his eyes for a time, letting his ears alone instruct him. The newsboys yelling the evening papers insisted most strongly on recognition; they embodied this civilisation into which he had been dragged back; with involuntary grotesqueness of fancy he saw in them the representatives of invisible editors, their cries were a translation, as it were, of editorial utterance, only more offensive because addressed to the outward sense and not to be escaped. He wished for deafness. . . .
Where was Knightswell? Where was Isabel Clarendon? His heart sank. . . .
The cab bore him on. He was in Tottenham Court Road, then in Hampstead Road, then entering that desolate region through which stagnates the Regent's Canal, the north end of Camden Town. It was growing dark; the shops were revealing their many-coloured hideousness with shameless gas illumination; the air seemed heavy with impurity. The driver had to stop to make inquiries about his way, and sought a repetition of the address. Ultimately a gloomy street was entered, and after slow, uncertain advancing, they stopped. Kingcote had never visited his sister at this house, but the number on the door was right; he knocked.
He was standing in a short, sloping street of low two-storey dwelling-houses; they had areas, and steps ascending to the door. In the gloom he could see that the houses had the appearance of newness, and were the abodes of what one hears called "decent" working people - one would prefer some negative term. The top of the street was lost behind a sudden curve; at the lower end the flaring front of a public-house showed itself. Children were playing about in considerable numbers, for there was no regular traffic; before the public-house was an organ grinding "Ah, che la morte" in valse time. The air was bitterly cold, and the wind blew for rain.
He had leisure to observe all this, for it was a couple of minutes before any one answered his knock. Just as he was about to repeat it the door opened, and a woman with a lighted candle, which she held back to protect it against the wind, presented herself. She was fat and had a prodigious dewlap; on one side of her many-folded chin was a large hairy wart; she wore a black dress, much strained above the waist, with a dirty white apron - a most unprepossessing portress.
"Is it Mr. Kingcut?" she asked in a thin, panting voice. "Why, an' I was that moment sayin' as it was time Mr. Kingcut come. I'm sure your sister 'll be glad to see you, poor thing! How'll you get your luggidge in? She's just lyin' down a bit; I'll go an' tell her. The funeral's been a bit too much for her; but I've got a nice 'addock down for her, an expectin' your comin'. See, I'll leave the candle on the banister, an' you shall have alight in the front room in no time."
A man who loafed by assisted to move the boxes into the house, and Kingcote dismissed the cab, paying twice the due fare because a word of argument would just now have cost him agony. He left the candle guttering at the foot of the stairs, and entered a room of which the door stood open immediately on his left hand. There was a low fire in the grate; the candle outside helped him to discern a sofa which stood before the window, and on this he sank. A hissing sound came from below stairs, and the house was full of the odour of frying fish.
There was asthmatic panting outside, and, with a lamp in her hand, the fat woman reappeared; she stood pressing one hand against her side, in the other holding the light so as to enable her to examine the new-comer. She talked, struggling with breathlessness.
"Poor thing! She's that done! It was hawful suddin, in a way, though we'd been a-expectin' of it for weeks as you may say. It's been a trial for poor Mrs. Jalland, that it have! She couldn't seem to take comfort, not even when she saw him laid out. He was a good deal wasted away, poor man, but he had a pleasant look like on his face; he allus was a pleasant-lookin' man. An' there's some o' the funeral beer left over, if you'd like --"
Kingcote could have raved. He rose and went to the fire; then, as soon as he dared trust his voice, assured her that he wanted nothing.
"It's only about a arf-a-pint as is left. We've been most careful, knowin' as there wasn't no money to throw away, in a manner speakin,' though of course, as both me an' my 'us band said, we knew as Mr. Kingcut 'ud like everythink done in a 'andsome way, though not bein' able to be present pers'nally."
"Can I see my sister?" he asked, driven to frenzy, and unable altogether to conceal it.
"She's just puttin' herself a bit in order," was the rather startled reply. "She'll be down in a minute, I dessay."
After another scrutiny, the woman deposited the lamp on the table, and, seeing that Kingcote had turned his back upon her, withdrew, looking an evil look.
The room was very small; the couch, a round table, a cupboard with ornamental top, and four chairs, scarcely left space to walk about. On the table was a green cloth, much stained; the hair of the sofa was in places worn through, and bits of the stuffing showed themselves. Over the mantelpiece was a large water-colour portrait of a man in Volunteer uniform, the late Mr. Jalland; elsewhere on the walls hung pictures such as are published at Christmas by the illustrated papers, several fine specimens of the British baby, framed in cheap gilding. But the crowning adornment of the room was the clock over the fireplace. The case was in the form of a very corpulent man, the dial-plate being set in the centre of his stomach.
Kingcote looked about him in despair. His nerves were so unstrung that he feared lest he should break into tears. Every sensitive chord of his frame was smitten into agony by the mingled sensations of this arrival; rage which put him beside himself still predominated, and the smell from the kitchen, the objects about him, the sound of the woman's voice which would not leave his ears, stirred him to a passion of loathing. His very senses rebelled, he felt sick, faint.
He was rescued by his sister's entrance. When he had last seen her, before leaving London, she was a rather world-worn woman of six-and-twenty, looking perhaps a few years older; now he gazed into her face and saw the haggard features of suffering middle age. Her appearance struck him with profound compassion, almost with fear. She was short in stature, and her small face had never been superficially attractive; its outlines made a strong resemblance to her brother, and lacked feminine softness; the tremulous small lips and feeble chin indicated at once a sweet and passive disposition. As she entered, she was endeavouring to command herself, to refrain from tears; she stood there in her plain black dress, holding her hands together at her breast, like one in pain and dread.
"Mary! My poor girl!"
He spoke with deep tenderness, and went towards her; then she put her arms round his neck and wept.
He reproached himself. Things might not, should not, have been so bad as this. In some way he might have helped her, if only by remaining near. Whilst he had dreamed at Wood End, this poor stricken soul had gone through the very valley of the shadow of death. He had not paid much heed to her letters; he had failed in sympathetic imagination; she had written so simply, so unemphatically. He reproached himself bitterly.
"How good of you, Bernard, to come to me!" she said, regarding him through her tears. "I do want some one to be near me; I feel so helpless. Death is so dreadful."
She said it without stress of feeling, but the words were all the more powerful. Kingcote felt that they gave him a new understanding of pathos.
She would not speak more of the dead man, knowing how her brother had regarded him. At his bidding she sat on the sofa, and by degrees overcame her weakness; he comforted her.
"What shall I do, Bernard?" she asked, appealing to him with tearful eyes. "What is to become of the children? What is before us?"
"At first, rest," was his kind answer. "Don't let a thought of the future trouble you; that is my affair. You shall never want whilst I live, Mary."
"Oh, it is hard to be a burden to you! I have burdened you for a long time. You have already done more for me than any brother could be asked to do. How can I let you?"
"We won't talk of these things yet; time enough. All I want now is to be some comfort to you."
"Oh, you are! It is so good to hold your hand. I feel you won't desert me; I am so powerless myself."
They talked a little longer, then she was reminded that he had come a journey and needed food.
"Who is that woman?" he asked, lowering his voice.
"Mrs. Bolt? She has, you know, the other half of the house. There are corresponding rooms on each side, and she lets us this half. She has been very good indeed to me through it all. I don't know what I should have done these last days without her. She has made meals and seen to the children. I was ashamed to give her so much trouble."
Kingcote did not reply to this. He merely said:
"Then it won't be necessary for her to come here?"
"Oh no." She understood his desire to be alone. "I will get the tea myself; I can do it quite well. It's all ready."
She moved about and laid the table, letting her eyes rest upon her brother very often, trustfully and rather timidly. She had always regarded him with something of awe. He belonged to a higher social sphere than that which she had accepted. She attributed to him vast knowledge and ability. It was her fear lest she might do or say anything in his eyes censurable.
"Are the children upstairs?" Kingcote inquired.
"Yes; they have had their tea."
"You will bring them down afterwards?"
"If you would like it, Bernard." She had dreaded lest he should find their presence displeasing.
He reassured her, and then they sat down to the meal. The rain had begun and was blowing against the windows. Kingcote ate little; his sister only drank a cup of tea.
"This is not the kind of food you need," he said. "I must ask you to do as I wish for a time, and have care for yourself. Have you any servant?"
She shook her head.
"But you can't possibly do house-work at present." There was something a little dictatorial in Kingcote's way of speaking; a mere habit, but one which Mary knew of old, and which half accounted for her timorous regard of him.
"Mrs. Bolt has been so kind," she said, "when I really wasn't able to do things."
"Yes; but we cannot trouble her. What, by-the-bye, are the terms on which you hold these rooms?"
"From quarter to quarter. We pay twenty-five pounds a year, and have to give a quarter's notice."
"Then it is impossible to remove till the end of June? I'm very sorry for that."
"Mrs. Bolt might take things into account, and let us --"
"No, certainly not," said her brother abruptly. "But I think I shall pay her the quarter and go as soon as I can find another place."
(Mrs. Bolt, be it observed, had her ear to the keyhole, and lost not a word of the conversation.)
"Don't you think you could find some girl to come and act as servant for a time?"
"Yes; I could. There's a girl I used to have sometimes; I think she could come."
"Then let her be summoned as soon as possible; and, by-the-bye, has Mrs. Bolt been at any expense, do you think?"
"I'm afraid she has for a few things."
"Very well. If you happen to see her, will you ask her to let me have an account of all such expense's as soon as she can?"
After the meal, Mary went upstairs and fetched the children. They were boys of eight and seven respectively, thin and ill-fed little beings, poorly dressed. Both of them cried as their mother brought them forward; this uncle was in their eyes a most formidable person. Kingcote could not be affectionate with children, but he spoke to them with as much kindness as was at his command. Whilst he was talking with the elder, the other climbed to Mary's lap and whispered something. Kingcote caught the words "bread and butter."
"What's that, Willy?" he asked. "You'd like some bread and butter?"
His mother tried to hush it over, but with no effect.
"Mary," said her brother, "if I go out, will you open the door to me yourself? I will give two raps."
He went, and succeeded in finding a shop not very far off where he could purchase a large plain cake. Returning, he cut it on a plate and let the lads eat. Shortly after they were led away to bed.
He would not let Mary remain with him very long, she was wearied out.
"I've put a fire in your room," she said; "the house is a little damp, and I thought it was better."
"In that case I will sit up there. You shall show me the way."
She took him up to a room that could scarcely be called furnished - though she had stripped her own of everything she could possibly spare - where he found his boxes placed.
"Who brought those up?" he asked.
"Mr. Bolt and his son."
He moved uneasily.
"I do hope you'll be able to sleep here!" his sister said anxiously. " I wish I could have made more comfort for you."
"Oh, it will do perfectly well. Now go and sleep, Mary."
She embraced him, and her tears came again.
"I can't thank you, Bernard," she whispered, sobbing. "I can't find any words. You're very, very good to me." . . .
He sat by the fire. A group of noisy lads had assembled in the street, and were urging two of their number to fight. They did not succeed, and their foul language passed into the distance. An organ played in front of the public-house, and there were laughing shrieks of girls. A man came along hoarsely crying baked potatoes.
He saw his bed-room in the cottage; he remembered the holy silence of night brooding over the woods and meadows. At this moment Isabel was sitting alone and thinking of him, sitting amid the graceful luxury of her refined home. Was that a dream of joy, or this a hideous vision?
The water-colour portrait over the mantelpiece was that of a blond young man with hair parted in the middle and a thin moustache, made the most of by curling at the ends, the expression on the face a sufficiently fatuous smile. This work of art had been the result of an acquaintance struck up between young Jalland and an impecunious teacher of drawing in the bar parlour of a Norwich hotel; the likeness was faithful, for it had simply been copied from a photograph, to save the trouble of sittings, as the artist said. In those days Jalland was just beginning his career as a commercial traveller that he should belong to a Volunteer corps was in the order of things. Also perfectly regular was his acquaintance with the Kingcote family; his father exercised a number of vocations, was auctioneer, commission agent, broker, etc., and he frequently did business for Dr. Kingcote, who had a fondness for dabbling in pecuniary speculations and but for this foible would have died a richer man. When Jalland obtained a position in a London warehouse, he at once asked Mary Kingcote to accompany him as his wife; she was then a girl of seventeen. Her parents held the match impossible; they forbade it. The result was that one day the girl disappeared, and remained undiscoverable till at length she wrote to announce the fact of her marriage.
She seemed the most unlikely girl to do such a thing. She was of a very quiet disposition, shy with strangers, submissive to a somewhat autocratic mother, feeble in health. Curiously, she only followed a family precedent in risking an elopement; her mother - though Mary did not know it - had married in the same way. Doubtless that was why Mrs. Kingcote remained unforgiving. Her father was not a man of strong character, though he possessed considerable ability in various directions; his temperament was impulsive, imaginative, affectionate; he was wholly ruled by his wife. The children of the house, Bernard and Mary, seemed to an observer to lack something of ordinary youthful happiness; they appeared to stand apart from their parents; to be thrown very much upon their own resources. Dr. Kingcote saw little of them, save on Sundays, when he was for the most part absorbed in reading; Mrs. Kingcote, though behaving to them with all motherly care, did not win their love, neither appeared to miss it. She was a woman to whom the external facts of life sufficed; details of housekeeping occupied her all but exclusively; one would have conjectured that she made her runaway marriage solely out of a passion for having a house of her own, where she might rule and regulate. From the day when she heard that Mary had married the commercial traveller her daughter's name never passed her lips.
As a medical student in London, Bernard Kingcote held communication with his sister. At her entreaty he made Jalland's acquaintance; he had known him by sight in Norwich, but was away at his studies when the families had grown to terms of intimacy. Bernard went to his sister's lodgings one Sunday, and passed the afternoon there, but he paid no second visit. In Kingcote there existed his father's intellect and emotional qualities, together with a certain stiffness of moral attitude derived from his mother. His prejudices were intense, their character being determined by the refinement and idealism of his nature. An enemy would have called him offensively aristocratic; only malicious ignorance could have accused him of snobbishness. He went to meet Jalland with instinctive repugnance; the man's pursuit was in his eyes contemptible, and he resented bitterly the influence such a person had been able to obtain over Mary. On Jalland's side there was no particular good-will; he was prepared to stand on his rights and repel any hint of lofty patronage. Kingcote had no disposition whatever to behave patronisingly, but he found it beyond his power to make the least show of cordiality. He and the representative of the great civilising agent had not a point in common. They saw each other at the worst, and, very wisely, never saw each other again.
The evening that followed was one of suffering for Mary, the beginning of a martyrdom. She knew already that her hasty step had been a mistake; to-day the slow-gathering consciousness became a fixed centre of pain. She had looked from her brother to her husband and back again; she understood that the difference between the two men was the measure of the gulf set between herself and the world to which she rightly belonged. Her husband's amiability became vulgar self-complacence; his features, his demeanour, his interests, all bore the ineffaceable stamp of vulgarity. She watched him as he moved impatiently about the room; she anticipated the words he would shortly speak. He had never yet behaved to her with deliberate unkindness, though honeymoon warmth had long since given place to working-day ease of manner; matrimonial familiarity, a snare to the most delicate of men, takes shapes one does not care to dwell upon in the uncultured. But now, when at length the words came, they were rough, rancorous, brutal. Mr. Jalland attempted irony, excogitated sarcasms; finding these insufficient to his needs, he relieved himself in the tongue of bar-parlours. Mary put in no plea of mitigation; she bowed her head and let the torrent fall upon her, humiliated to the core. The man understood very well what he had done, and knew the change in her from that day forth. But he was having his revenge.
Our modern knights of the road are subject to one grievous temptation. Living at places of public entertainment at other people's expense, they acquire tastes and habits which are somewhat rudely interfered with when a sojourn in their homes necessitates a diet and accommodation materially differing from that of hotels. Mary had already had the recognition of this difficulty forced upon her; in future it was to constitute a more serious trouble. Mr. Jalland let no opportunity pass of finding fault with his wife's housekeeping. The meals she prepared for him he regarded with lofty scorn, and only on being pressed condescended to satisfy his hunger. He would mention what he had recently partaken of at such and such a table-d'hôte, adding, "No doubt you often used to have that at home, before you married me," his irony pointed with a grin. His journeys, fortunately, became more extended, and Mary had sometimes weeks of loneliness; but his return was each time a harder trial. She soon perceived that he was acquiring the habit of drinking more than was good for him; it improved neither his temper nor his manners. Presently he lost a place which he had long held, lost it in some unexplained way, and was for half a year without employment. It was then that Mary first had to appeal to her brother for aid. She did so without consulting her husband, but he of course knew whence came the money upon which he lived; he came ultimately to grumble that the supplies were so restricted. From that time onwards it was alternation of degrees of misery. Jalland's proclivity to drink grew more pronounced, and his health suffered noticeably. He never sank to sheer ruffiandom; never got beyond the point of nagging at his wife; often Mary would rather he had beaten her. She bore everything with tearful patience, but - it was a note of character - never once sought to soften him, never once appealed to memories. Her nature was not passionate it cost her nothing to refrain from recrimination, and the mistaken impulse of her inexperienced years never bore fruit in hatred of the man to whom she had sacrificed her life. She was a devoted mother; her children helped her to endure. Her husband she regarded in a spirit which the institution of marriage makes common enough; he was an item in her existence, and had to be taken account of; even as had the necessity of daily meals. A human being became to her a piece of furniture, only differing from chairs and tables in that it exacted more attention and was apt to evince ingratitude. So it went on to the end, and, when the end came, it brought, after the perturbations of nature, a sighing of relief. . . .
Kingcote rose on the morning after his arrival with a determination to quit this present abode at whatever cost. He had scarcely slept; the atmosphere brought him bodily unrest. He knew that it was the height of imprudence to waste money in such a juncture, but life was impossible for him under this roof; and he could not suffer his sister to dwell in the proximity of the woman he had seen the evening before. His first impulse of compassion spent, the spirit of almost fierce intolerance again took possession of him. Formerly, he had felt much in the same way towards the uneducated people with whom he had had to come in contact, but never with such violence of personal antipathy as Mrs. Bolt and all her belongings excited. He understood well enough the narrowness of this spirit; he knew that his culture should have endowed him with tolerant forbearance; but it was a matter of temperament. He dreaded to leave his room and descend, lest he should meet one of the Bolt family; he felt the impossibility of behaving with decent courtesy. Aristocracy of race cannot compare in pervasive intensity with aristocracy which comes only of the influence of intellect and temperament. Kingcote would have chosen death rather than an existence elbow to elbow with people such as these he found in the house.
There was the sound of the postman coming along the street; this changed the current of his thoughts. The knock came at the door below, and he could no longer hold back. Mrs. Bolt was just taking letters from the box.
"Good mornin', Mr. Kingcut; 'ope you've slep' well," she said, pressing her hand to her side and panting as usual. "It take me just 'ere," she explained; "comin' up them stairs from the kitchen is too much for me. I'm allus hawful bad in the cold weather. Here's a letter for you. And, Mr. Kingcut, I wanted to say that if there was anythink as me or my 'usband or my son could do --"
"I thank you," Kingcote broke in. "I believe Mrs. Jalland will make all necessary arrangements. I really don't think we shall need to trouble you."
He was turning away, but checked himself to add:
"I hear, Mrs. Bolt, that my sister is in your debt for certain things you have supplied to her lately. Will you kindly let me have an account as soon as you are able?"
"Oh, we ain't a-goin' to talk of that, Mr. Kingcut! A cup o' tea, and a basin of broth. Of course I've kep' a little account, but there's no hurry about that."
"If you please, I should like to settle the account immediately, as soon as you can conveniently let me have it."
He went into the sitting-room, and closed the door. The two children were sitting before the fire, and the cloth was laid for breakfast; he nodded pleasantly to the youngsters, but did not speak. The letter he held was from Isabel; there were three sheets. He had just finished reading it when Mary came in with breakfast on a tray. He greeted her joyously.
"I suppose you young men go to school this morning?" he asked his nephews. "Come and eat a good breakfast, and prepare for your labours."
To the astonishment of the children, he helped them to some of the fried bacon; they gazed at their mother before venturing to eat. Little by little this uncle gained upon them; they looked at him as if they liked him.
When they had left the house, he held a long talk with his sister, and told her of his intention to seek immediately another dwelling.
"We'll go farther out, where you can get fresh air; I have an idea where I shall look for rooms. I'm afraid we must restrict ourselves in the matter of space, but that will be better borne where the sky is visible. You leave me free to choose?"
The same day he began his search, and was absent for several hours without hopeful result. No one would set forth gaily upon such an excursion, and to Kingcote the task was revolting; Mrs. Bolt was so often met with, and so seldom any one capable of inspiring human confidence. When he got back wearied, midway in the afternoon, Mary was out. On the sitting-room table he found a rather dirty envelope addressed to himself; but not closed; in it was a sheet of note-paper, folded awry, whereon was written the account of moneys due, which he had asked for. It was a remarkable document, alike in conception and execution; badly written, worse spelt, frequently difficult to decipher at all. However, the sum total at the end stood in plain enough figures: one pound, sixteen shillings, and eightpence three farthings. There was nothing alarming in this demand; the point which exacted attention was the way in which the total was constructed. Beginning with a lump sum, Mrs. Bolt debited her tenant in five days' "attendance," at three shillings a day; the remainder of the charge consisted of innumerable items of petty expenditure, each assigned to its day. It would be: "One cup tee, 3d.; one basern brorth, 5d.; fetchin docter, 3d.; bread and buter for childern, 3d.," and so on. Kingcote at first regarded this bill with disgust, then he was able to see the humorous side of the situation, and broke into loud laughter. Mrs. Bolt, who had her ear at the door, heard the laughter, and, attributing it to the smallness of her demand, promised to "give it" her husband for having deemed further extortion unadvisable.
Mary came in shortly, bringing several parcels; the exertion of walking a very brief distance was too much for her strength, she sank on a chair in exhaustion. Kingcote held the bill behind his back.
"You told me, I think," he said, with a natural smile, "that Mrs. Bolt had shown you great kindness the last few days, in doing little services for you, and so on?"
"She has, really; I was ashamed to ask for so much."
"To ask? Ah, then you agreed with her to give you regular service?"
"Oh, no," she professed in surprise. "It was all her kindness; she pressed it on me. She's really kind-hearted when you're in need."
"Remarkably so," said her brother, laughing again. "Pray glance your eye over that."
(Mrs. Bolt had crept to the door when she heard Mary enter; not a word escaped her.)
Mary looked down each of the pages, her amazement increasing; at the end she raised her eyes in indignation. Women always take small extortion more seriously than men, and their sense of humour is generally defective.
"Bernard! How can she do such a thing? Oh, I should be ashamed!"
"No doubt you would, my dear sister; you and Mrs. Bolt are of somewhat different clay."
She began to contest items.
"No, no, we won't talk about it," Kingcote said, taking the dirty paper from her hands.
"You will pay it?"
"Oh, certainly; and I beg you will not speak of it again. Only, let it be a piece of experience, and remember that people of that class are a species of dirty object, much to be avoided. Whilst we are here, we will keep the doors of our rooms shut and the windows open. Morally speaking, that is; literally, the weather is too bad."
So he ended with a laugh, and went on to speak of his ill success during the day. They talked till the children came in from school. Kingcote was studying his sister, consciously inquiring into her character, which he had never understood, had scarcely had a chance of getting to understand. Though little things in her speech and way of thought now and then jarred on him, showing the influence of sordid circumstances, he was surprised at the extent to which she had preserved the tone and manner of a lady. Mary seemed to inherit her mother's power of resistance to all that had no connection with the few and plain principles of her nature. Her mother's individuality had exerted itself to active purpose; Mary had perhaps shown even more firmness in a passive way. She had, in truth, a considerable share of obstinacy, operative, her life being what it was, only for good. In the protection of her children from every kind of ill she exercised incessant care, never failing, for instance, to take them herself to school and fetch them home again. She held, moreover, with the utmost tenacity to the forms of religious faith and practice which she had known from childhood; they did not appear to aid her much morally, but still were of mechanical use in preserving the continuity of her life. It was only on the surface that she was weak; she was susceptible to every kind of suffering, but had a corresponding power of enduring. Few women could have lived as she had done, from seventeen to seven-and-twenty, and have preserved so much cleanliness of soul.
She could not pardon Mrs. Bolt, whose offence, in her eyes, consisted far more in the extortion practised on her brother than in a display of unabashed sordidness. To that good woman's surprise, Mary refrained from intercourse with her throughout the fortnight that she remained in the house.
For it took so long to discover a new abode and have it prepared for tenants. After several days of search, Kingcote at length found rooms of which he determined to make a trial. They were in Highgate, not far from the pleasant road which leads across the valley to Hampstead; four rooms and an underground kitchen, the rest of the house being occupied by an engraver and his family, not intolerable beings. Of his own bedroom Kingcote would also make a study; that left a common sitting-room. He bought such additional furniture as was needed (the Jallands had long ago been obliged to sell much that they once possessed), and made the appearance of a modest home. The removal was happily accomplished, and our friend thanked Heaven in once more breathing unpolluted air.
He wished to exercise all delicacy in regard to his sister's feelings, and so, after arranging the heavy furniture of her sitting-room, he said to her: "I will leave you to put up what ornaments you like." It was more than generous, bearing in mind certain objects which had graced the former parlour. Mary did not fail to understand him. The dial-bellied man was never seen again, nor mentioned (it had been Jalland's purchase), and the specimens of British infancy were hung in the boys' bedroom.
"We can't afford good pictures," Kingcote said, looking round the bare walls, "so we will have none. Perhaps I may now and then pick up a print that will do."
For some days he took it for granted that the water-colour portrait had been hung by Mary in her own bedroom; but, when he at length found an opportunity of peeping in, behold it was not there! she had only preserved an illuminated cross. He turned away with a deep feeling of gladness in his heart. The past was done with.
Thomas Meres and his two daughters occupied a house in Chelsea, a small house in a little square, between which and the river is a portion of Cheyne Walk. Three minutes' walk brings you to the Albert Bridge, which leads over to Battersea Park. In that part of Cheyne Walk which is close at hand stands the house where for many years Rossetti painted and wrote; not many doors away is that in which George Eliot died; and that which was Carlyle's home for half a century is scarcely more distant, in the shadow of old Chelsea Church. It is pleasant to breathe the air of this corner of London.
Literally the air is pleasant; the flowing breadth of stream and the green extent of the Opposite Park, the spacious Embankment with its patches of tree-planted garden, make a perceptible freshness. On a sunny morning the river dances and gleams with wind-stirred wavelets, and the free expanse of sky gives the spirit soaring-room. Standing on the Suspension Bridge, one lets the eye rest on a scene far from unlovely; the old houses of Cheyne Walk are abundantly picturesque, so is Battersea Bridge, the last remaining (perhaps already gone) of the wooden bridges over the Thames. The great Queen Anne dwellings on the Embankment have their charm, and just beyond them one sees the gardens of Chelsea Hospital, adjoining those which were once called Ranelagh. Heavy-laden barges go up or down stream, as the tide may be, sometimes hoisting a ruddy sail; men toil at the long barge oars. Steamers fret their way from pier to pier, rather suggestive of pleasure than business. Very little traffic is within sight or hearing; when the church clock strikes it is not drowned by the uproar of streets, but comes clearly on the wind with old-world melody. There is peace to be found here in morning hours, with pleasant haunting thought of great names and days gone by.
Ada Warren, when at Knightswell, always thought with pleasure of Chelsea, often was drawn towards it with a great yearning. There are, for all of us, places which appeal to our sympathy with an air of home, even though they have for us no personal associations; many perforce dwell away from home all their lives. Ada had the ambition to live in Chelsea. She promised herself that, when the day of her freedom came, she would take one of the houses in Cheyne Walk. The desire was akin to another ambition, of which there will shortly be mention. At present she had to be content with a couple of rooms in Mr. Meres' house. These rooms were always held at her disposal. Mrs. Clarendon had from the first insisted upon a clear understanding that the rooms should be paid for, and that Ada should live at her own expense. Thomas Meres had written to her: "My poverty, but not my will consents." The house being so small, Rhoda and Hilda had to occupy one bedroom when Ada came.
Living here, the girl was at all times another being than at Knightswell. She allowed her animal spirits, which were not inexpansive, to have free play. In the company of Rhoda and Hilda she was a girl with girls; Isabel would have been astonished to see and hear her when the atmosphere of Chelsea had had time to exert its full influence. She could never quite give credence to Mr. Meres' reports. Her present visit, however, began under less favourable auspices than usual. She came in a very still and reticent mood, and she found illness in the house. Rhoda Meres was just recovering from an alarming attack of fever. Ada feared she would be burdensome, wished to go back to Knightswell for a little, but Mr. Meres would not allow it.
"I wish you to stay for a particular reason," he said gravely. "Pray do me this favour, Ada." It was his habit, from of old, to call her by her Christian name and to treat her as a daughter.
We must look for a moment at Thomas Meres. A man of good stature, but bent in the shoulders, and only not slovenly in appearance because of the perfect personal cleanliness which accompanied utter disregard of the quality and sitting of his clothes. He had the fine features which generally go with delicate instincts and intellectual tendencies. His face was all of one colour, yellowish, and much lined. Beneath his eyes the skin hung loose, giving him a sad look; his full beard was grizzled, but his hair still unaffected by time and very thick at the back of his head. To pass to details of his attire, he invariably wore coloured shirts, blue by preference, with a blue necktie miserably knotted; this tie being the despair of his daughter Hilda, who often insisted on arranging it skilfully with her own delicate little fingers. In the house he wore an old gray jacket, on which he wiped his pen. At leisure, he always had his hands in the side pockets, so that they had come to bulge exorbitantly. On going out, he changed this for a black frock coat. His trousers, unhappily, he did not change when business led him forth. These garments disgraced him in the eyes of Christendom. Possibly they had been of due length when new, whenever that was; but, by dint of constant sitting, the knees had grown abnormally, with the result that the bottoms of the trousers just touched the tops of their wearer's boots. To a literary man of small means there is probably no graver question than this of his trouser knees. I have known unhappy geniuses whose ardour in composition was grievously impaired by the consciousness that, when writing their best, their legs would tuck up under them, with results most disastrous to their nether garments. Thomas Meres cared not for these things, and alas! it is so difficult for young girls to approach their father on the subject of his trousers. Hilda once procured a tailor's advertisement sheet, and, folding it so that the particulars concerning trousers were uppermost, placed it conspicuously on his study table. Mr. Meres saw it, and, with an impatient, "What's this? What's this?" crumpled it into his waste-paper basket. Poor fellow! the days had gone by when he might have considered the effect he produced on observers; it would never matter now.
Thomas Meres was a literary man, and of the romance of authorship knew as little - as do most authors. He got a living by his pen, and that was all; for any pleasure which his daily task brought him he might as well have lived by tailoring. Once he had hoped to shine by means of his talents. In those days authorship meant glory. Now it meant unremitting toil, often of the dullest and dreariest kind, scarcely ever on subjects for which he cared. He had published books, and had the satisfaction of seeing them mildly praised by the reviewers, then forgotten; now he wrote books no longer, but - eheu! - himself criticised those of others, or penned the interminable "article." At times he felt that he must stop, that his hand would work no longer; but its exercise had in truth become almost automatic, and it was well for himself and his children that it had. When he received the editorship of Roper's Miscellany, he was at first delighted, not only on account of the most acceptable salary, but also because he felt that it was an accession of dignity. Formerly he had dreamed with trembling of the possibility that he might one day be an editor. But this, too, took on its true proportions when he had grown used to the chair. The toil of reading manuscript was all but as bad as that of producing it. One pleasure which had been wont to come from his literary work had in the course of time failed him. It had been his habit to send the best things of his writing to Mrs. Clarendon; and at first she had seemed glad to have and to read them. But he had discovered that her interest was failing, that she did not always even glance at what he sent. Then he sent no more. Yet, by keeping up that interest, Isabel could have put joy into a life which sadly needed it, could have smoothed a road which was very rough to travel.
The difficulties of a man in Mr. Meres' position, with two girls to bring up, were naturally considerable. Mrs. Clarendon had constantly advised him to marry again; at which he always shook his head and maintained silence. The woman who may with safety be taken in marriage by a poor man given to intellectual pursuits is so extremely difficult of discovery that Thomas Meres might well shrink from beginning the search, if only on the plea of lack of leisure; and there were other reasons withholding him. When the children were young, he had the assistance of the wife of a friend, whose house he shared; only when Rhoda was sixteen, her sister being two years younger, did he take the house in Chelsea, having found a decent woman to act as housekeeper. In a year or two Rhoda had felt able to spare him this latter expense. Rhoda's talents were not exactly of a domestic order, but she was a very good-hearted and intelligent girl, and was beginning then to understand something of the hardships of her father's life. This present illness of hers had brought serious disturbance into the home; a professional nurse had been summoned, and Hilda - now a girl of sixteen - had to intermit her school to look after the house; the one servant they kept was of course an irresponsible creature.
On the evening of her arrival, Mr. Meres asked Ada to come and sit with him in his study - a very small room, book-thronged, with one or two busts of poets, and, over the fireplace, a fine photograph of the Sistine Madonna. The choice of the picture had a pathetic significance; no supersensual mystery did it embody in Meres' eyes, but it stood there as an ideal of womanhood and of maternity, the ever-present suggestion of an earthly paradise whereof the gates were closed against him - wifely love, that which he had never known, the conception of which had for long years been besmirched in his mind with foul associations; for the loss of this his children's affection could not compensate him. Nay, the children had till quite late years been to him a fear and a perpetual cause of anxious observation. Would they not grow up with their mother's character? Was there not impurity in their blood? By a kind fate it was the father that predominated in them. Yet even now his dread would often be excited, and especially had that been the case in Rhoda's illness. It was to speak of his elder girl that he took Ada apart this evening.
When he spoke on any subject which puzzled or embarrassed him, it was Mr. Meres' habit to stroke the length of his nose with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, perhaps because this relieved him of the necessity of looking at the person to whom he addressed himself. He began by doing so now.
"You find Rhoda sadly pulled down?" he said.
"Yes, she must have suffered very much."
Ada always spoke in a very direct way, with few words. Strangers attributed this partly to shyness, partly to a character lacking amenity. It was due to neither in fact, but was one of the results of her ambiguous position which made her at once reticent and heedless of conventional mannerisms.
"She has, I fear. The truth is, she hasn't been herself ever since she came back from Knightswell last summer. She has always been either depressed or unnaturally excited. It makes me very uneasy."
Ada made no comment.
"Do you find her - communicative?" he proceeded to ask.
"The opposite. She would scarcely speak to me."
"You don't say so? Now I wonder whether I may ask you to be of - of assistance to me; whether you will not accuse me of indelicacy if I tell you freely what it is that troubles me? You know that I always think of you as vastly older and maturer than my own girls - pass the words, you understand them - and that I have several times been led to speak to you of things I should not yet touch upon with them. Well, the fact is this. From the child's talk while she was delirious, I am obliged to conclude that she - in fact, that she has been so unfortunate as to fall in love with some one who has behaved rather badly to her. Who this can be, I have not a notion; she kept repeating the name Vincent, and I am acquainted with no one so called. I could only gather the vaguest impressions, but she was perpetually deploring her poverty, and speaking of marriages made for money, and so on. Now, you will see that this is very alarming; I cannot conceive what it means, or how such things can have come about. Can you - this is my blunt question - can you, out of your knowledge of Rhoda, help me to an understanding of it?"
Ada's eyes had fallen, and her face had taken its hardest expression. Her hands were on her lap, the one clutching over the back of the other. When she answered it was in a distant tone.
"I can offer no explanation. I know nothing of Rhoda's affairs."
"Now - I have offended you," said Mr. Meres, with vexation. "Surely, Ada, you see that it was very natural in me to speak to you of this. Rhoda herself will, I am convinced, refuse to give me her confidence, even if I can bring myself to ask it. The difficulty is most serious; how can I tell --? Never mind, we'll speak no more of it. Tell me what you have been reading."
"You are far too hasty, and unjust to me," said Ada, looking up quietly. "I am not at all offended. It is only that I have nothing to say which can help you. On such a subject Rhoda is as little likely to speak with me as with you. She is a reserved girl."
"Yes, she is, though strangely frank at times; that is my view of her character. Well, I can only ask you to put the matter out of your head. Really, you troubled me; I felt so sure of you, and to see you all at once put on the unintelligent coldness of an ordinary young lady --"
"Am I not an ordinary young lady?" asked Ada, smiling.
"If you were, I should not feel the kind of interest in you that I do, and I should not advise you to read this novel of Tourguéneff, which I hereby do with great fervour. If you don t rejoice in it, your taste is not what it ought to be."
The talk went into other channels, for Thomas Meres could at all times overcome his private troubles when there was question of literature.
Having her own sitting-room, Ada was not obliged to mix with the family more than she saw good. Whilst Rhoda was recovering, Ada kept to herself, seeing her friends seldom save at meals; but when the order of the house was restored, Hilda, having once more her hours of leisure, was bold in demands for companionship. It seemed, indeed, as though in future the younger of the two sisters would be Ada's intimate. Rhoda, who had formerly occupied that position, was much changed; she seldom talked with Ada privately, nor much at all with any one, shutting herself in her bedroom whenever her absence was not likely to be noticed. She always seemed weary, and had lost the pleasant spontaneity of manner which was generally her principal charm. There was no sulking in her diminished sociableness; she simply drooped. When she went to her room, it was to lie on the bed and cry, sometimes for an hour together. A weak and perhaps rather morbid nature, she apparently had not the vital energy to surmount this first disappointment. Her life was not favourable to a recovery of healthy tone, for she had no friends with whom to seek distractions. That was the inevitable result of the family's circumstances; no position is harder than that of educated girls brought up in London in a poor household. A bachelor is not necessarily shut out of society on account of his poverty; but a family must give and take on equal terms, or be content to hold aloof. Mr. Meres saw very few people excepting half-a-dozen professional acquaintances; he had always shunned miscellaneous companies. When Mrs. Clarendon was in London, he had frequent invitations from her, and these now and then led to others; but then that was not his world, and he was not able to devote himself to a system of social toadyism in the way that would have suggested itself to a mother with daughters for sale. If ever Rhoda and Hilda were to find husbands it must probably be by the irregular course upon which the former had already made her first essay. To be sure it was a course attended with not a few dangers, but Society intends this presumably; it is its method for keeping up the price of virtue.
Owing to her illness, Rhoda did not hear of the postponement of Ada's marriage till some weeks had gone by. Mr. Meres had it announced to him in the letter from Mrs. Clarendon which just preceded Ada's arrival, but he kept the news to himself, not caring to speak with Rhoda of these topics, and taking it for granted that it would come to be spoken of between the three girls sooner or later. Hilda was the first to elicit the fact. This young lady deserves rather more special description than we have yet had time to devote to her. She was delightful. Sixteen years old, already as tall as her sister, delicate in form, delicate in her manners and movements, in watching her you forgot that she was not exactly pretty. Her face, in fact, would not allow you to consider its features individually; together they made one bright, pure, girlish laugh. She crossed your path like a sunbeam; you stopped to gaze after the slim, winsome figure with its airy gait, to wonder at the grace with which she combined the springing lightness of a child and the decorous motions of womanhood. To see her on her way home from school, wishing, yet afraid, to run; books held up against her side, the quick twinkle of her feet and the fairy waft of her skirts - all so fresh, so dainty, so unconscious of things in the world less clean than herself. She met your gaze with delicious frankness; the gray eyes were alive with fun and friendliness and intelligence, they knew no reason why they should not look straight into yours as long as they chose, which, however, was not the same as rendering to you a mutual privilege. If gazed at too persistently she would move her shoulders with a pretty impatience, and ask you some surprising question likely to prove a test of intellectual readiness. Yet it was hard not to take a very long look; the face was puzzling, fascinating, suggestive; there was cleverness in every line of it. Already she had advanced in her studies beyond the point at which Rhoda ceased. How much she knew! She could render you an ode of Horace, could solve a quadratic equation, could explain to you the air-pump and the laws of chemical combination, could read a page of Ælfric's "Homilies" as if it were modern English. And all the while the very essence of her charm lay in the fact that she knew nothing at all. She lived in a fantastic world, in which every occurrence was stateable in young lady's language, every person was at heart well-meaning, even if sometimes mistaken, where every joy was refined, and every grief matter for an elegy. Her innocence was primordial. When she came into the room, there entered with her a breath of higher atmosphere; her touch on your hands cooled and delighted like a mountain stream in summer; her laughter was a tradition from the golden age. She was devoted to music, and would have a fine voice; at present she sang everything. When she came back from school in the evening, she would run up to Ada's room, tap at the door, and look in like a frolicsome fairy.
"Well?" Ada would ask, good-naturedly.
"Come down and sing 'Patience,'" was the whispered entreaty. "Just half-an-hour."
The æsthetic opera was fresh then, and Hilda could not have enough of it; and she laughed, she laughed!
Thomas Meres often sat thinking gloomily of this his favourite child. It was well that she was so clever, for she would have to teach, or so he supposed. What else was there for a girl to do? He could not send her into a post-office, or make her a dispenser of drugs. Poor Hilda!
But I was saying that it was she who first ventured to speak to Ada of the latter's marriage. It was on a walk they took together, over the bridge and along the Park edge of the river, one windy evening at the end of February. It was dusking, and they had the Embankment to themselves, so ran a race from Chelsea Bridge to Battersea Park Pier, to reach it before a steamer coming from the City; having won the race, they stood to see the boat move on towards the pier at Chelsea. The lights along the opposite bank were just being lit, and made a pretty effect.
"Ada," said the younger girl, as they walked on.
"When are you going to be married?"
A gust of wind excused silence for a moment; they both had to bend forward against it.
"Perhaps never," was the reply at length. Ada would not have spoken thus at another time and place just now she was enjoying the sense of full life, quickened in her veins by the run in keen air.
"Never? But I thought it was going to be very soon? - Am I rude?"
"Not at all; there's no secret conspiracy. It was to have been soon, but that's altered."
"Really? And how long will you stay with us?"
"As long as you'll have me. All the year perhaps."
"You don't mean that! Oh, that's splendiferous!" The school-girl came out now and then. "Really, now that is jolly! Do you know, I find it just a little dull with Rhoda. She doesn't seem to care to talk, or to sing, or to do anything. I suppose it's because she hasn't been feeling well for a long time. I do wish she'd get better; it makes everything rather miserable, doesn't it?"
"We shall have to take her to the sea-side at Easter," Ada said.
"Yes, so father was saying the other day. When you are married, where shall you live, Ada?"
"One of those houses," Ada replied, pointing to Cheyne Walk.
"That's a splendid idea! And you'll have musical parties, won't you?"
"Certainly I will and you shall sing."
"No, that's too good! Then we shall get more society; you'll ask us sometimes to dinner in state, won't you?"
"If you will honour me with your company."
"Now you shouldn't be ironical; you know very well the honour will all be on the other side. I mean in the case of us girls; father, of course could go anywhere."
It was an article of faith with Hilda that her father was a conspicuous man of letters, welcome at any table.
The same night Rhoda heard what had been imparted to her sister. She appeared to receive the news with indifference.
It was about this time that Ada received a letter, written on club note-paper, and in a scrawl difficult to decipher, from one of the trustees under Mr. Clarendon's will, the gentleman whose address she had sought from Mrs. Clarendon.
"DEAR Miss WARREN,
"In reply to your letter of the 26th inst., asking me for information regarding Mrs. Warren, and saying that you had Mrs. C.'s permission to apply to me, I am sorry to say that I cannot tell you anything of Mrs. W.'s present whereabouts, and that I do not even know whether she is living. As you expressly state your desire for particulars, whatever may be their nature, I suppose I ought not to hesitate to inform you of such facts as have come under my notice, though I should myself have preferred to suggest that you should let Mrs. C.'s information suffice; I can't think that you will derive any satisfaction from pursuing these inquiries. However, I may say thus much: that up to about two years ago, Mrs. Warren was in the habit of making application to me for pecuniary assistance, her circumstances being very straitened, and such assistance I several times rendered. She had abandoned her profession, which was that of the stage, owing to ill-health. But for two years at least I have heard nothing of her. As you express yourself so very emphatically, I engage that I will send you any information about Mrs. W. which may come to my knowledge. I do not know any person that it would be of use to apply to, but you shall hear from me if I have anything to tell.
Believe me, yours very truly,
This letter irritated Ada; she was sorely tempted to write back in yet plainer terms than she had used before, and to protest that she was not a child, but a woman who had all manner of difficult problems before her and who sought definite information which she held was due to her. But she remembered that this gentleman would of course only think of her as a girl not yet twenty, and would no doubt persist in what he deemed his duty, of keeping from her disagreeable subjects. And, after all, perhaps his letter contained all she really wished to know.
She had kept closely to her own room for more than a week, when one day at lunch she requested Mr. Meres to let her speak with him for a moment before he left the house. She came to the study holding a roll which looked like manuscript.
"Do you think," she asked, "that you could find time to look over something that I have been writing? It isn't long."
"By all means; I will make time."
"No, don't look at it now," Ada exclaimed nervously, as he put his eyes near to the first page. "Afterwards, when you are at leisure."
She stopped at the door.
"When shall I come and see you?"
"Say to-morrow morning, the first thing after breakfast," replied Mr. Meres, smiling benevolently.
This interview accordingly followed. Ada was requested to seat herself; and her friend, half turning from his desk, stroked his nose for some moments in silence.
"Now, Miss Ada Warren," he began, with alight tone, which rang kindly enough, yet was a little hard for the listener to bear, "I am not going to discourse vanity, and to prophesy smooth things, because I don't want you to come to me at some future date and inform me that I was an old humbug. I am at present, you understand, the impartial critic, and I shall use purely professional language. What I have to say about this little story of yours is that it shows very considerable promise, and not a little power of expression, but that, for a work of art, it is too - you understand the word - too subjective. It reads too much like a personal experience, which the writer is not far enough away from to describe with regard to artistic proportion. I suspected what was going on upstairs, and, on the whole, I was pleased when you put this into my hands. But, one question. This is not the only story you have written?"
Ada admitted that it was only one of several.
"So I supposed. Now let me have them all, let me look through them. Time, pooh! I am going to help you if I can. I believe you are quite capable of helping yourself if left alone, and for that very reason, a hint or two out of my experience may prove useful. In a manner, you have always been my pupil, and I am proud of you; I will say so much. There are several things in this sketch which I think uncommonly well put; and - a great thing - the style is not feminine. But - it isn't a piece of artistic workmanship. You haven't got outside of the subject, and looked at it all round. It is an extempore, in short, and that you mustn't allow yourself. Will you do something for me?"
"What is it?"
"Will you write a story in which every detail, every person, shall be purely a product of your imagination - nothing suggested by events within your own experience? That is, of course, directly suggested; you must work upon your knowledge of the world. Write me such a story in about a dozen of these pages - will you? Perhaps you have one already written?"
Ada reflected, and, with an abashed smile, thought not.
"Well, let me have all the others, and set to work upon the new one. Mind, I don't regard this impulse of yours at all in a trivial light. I say get to work; and I mean it. Write with as determined endeavour as if your bread and cheese depended upon it. Unfortunately, it doesn't."
"Well, let that pass. I have no right to speak in that way of the priceless blessing of independence - the gift of Heaven --"
"If it be the gift of Heaven," remarked Ada, with meaning.
"Oh, it always is; though not always used to celestial ends."
"You meant, though, that you doubted my power of perseverance, when there was temptation to idleness."
"Something of that, perhaps. But it's clear you haven't been idle of late. Did you write any of those stories at Knightswell?"
"Did you show it to Mrs. Clarendon?"
She shook her head.
Mr. Meres drummed upon his desk; there was an expression of pain on his forehead. But he dismissed it with a sigh.
"By-the-bye, this is a first manuscript?"
"Never dare to show me one again! You are to copy the new story twice, - you understand?"
"Copying is terrible work."
"So is every effort that leads to anything. You are beginning an apprenticeship; don't think you can carve masterpieces straight from the block, or dash on frescoes without cartoon. Now shake hands with me and go. And Ada, if you can find it in your heart to do me a great kindness --"
"Would I not?"
"Well, I can't ask it now. Some evening when we have talked the fire low, and our tongues are loosened. To work! To work!"
In the first week of February, Mrs. Clarendon spent a couple of days with the Bruce Pages at Hanford. Among a vast accumulation of county and general news which Mrs. Bruce Page emptied forth for Isabel's benefit, there was mention of an accident that had befallen Sir Miles Lacour. Whenever, as had lately been the case, there was skating weather, Sir Miles assembled large parties of friends to enjoy this pastime on a fine piece of water that graced his grounds. One evening, when there was torchlight merriment on the ice, Sir Miles had somehow managed to catch a fall; it would have been nothing, but that unfortunately there came immediately behind him a sleigh in which a lady was being whirled along by a couple of skaters. The metal came in contact with the prostrate baronet's head, and he had remained for an hour in unconsciousness. However, he appeared to be doing well, and probably there would be no further result.
"Do you know," said Mrs. Bruce Page, "I ran up to town the other day, and took an opportunity of seeing the boy Vincent."
"Did you?" said Isabel indifferently.
"Shall I tell you something that I found out? But perhaps you have already got at the explanation of that affair?"
"No, I know nothing about it. It really does not concern me."
"Of course not," the other lady remarked to herself. She continued aloud. "It was all Ada's doing; so much is clear. She somehow came to hear of - well, of things we won't particularise. Vincent is open enough with me, and made no secret of it. I told him plainly that I was delighted; his behaviour had been simply disgraceful. Of course I can never have him here again, at all events not for a long time; whatever you do, don't mention his name in Emily's hearing," her daughter, that was. "And he wasn't aware that Ada was in town; of course I left him in his ignorance. It is to be hoped the poor girl won't be so foolish as to give in. Naturally, one understands her - her temptations only too well. And, my dear, you know I always say just what I think - you won't take it ill - I can't help blaming you; it was so clearly your duty to refuse consent. You were actuated by the very highest and purest motives, that I am well aware. But you are too unworldly; to suffer ourselves to be led by our own higher instincts so often results in injustice to other people. I really don't think principles were meant to be acted upon; they are ornaments of the mind. My set of Sèvres is exquisite, but I shouldn't think of drinking tea out of them."
On returning to Knightswell, Isabel was informed that Mr. Robert Asquith had made a call that morning; hearing that she would be back before night he had written on his card that he should wait at the inn in Winstoke, as he wished to see her.
She took the card to the drawing-room, and stood bending it between her fingers, not yet having removed her bonnet. She was thinking very hard; her face had that expression which a woman never wears save when alone; the look of absolute occupation with thoughts in which her whole being is concerned. It ended in her passing to the boudoir, hastily writing a note, and ringing the bell.
"Let this be taken at once," she said to the servant who appeared. "And tell Hopwood to bring tea upstairs."
Robert Asquith was pleased to receive a summons to dine, with the information added that his cousin was alone.
At dinner the conversation busied itself with everything save the subject which was uppermost in the minds of both. Isabel was all the more delightful for having to exert herself a little to sustain her gaiety, and Asquith was in unfeigned good spirits. He gave an account of his progress in Anglicisation, related many drily humorous stories.
When the meal was over he said:
"You don't demand of me that I shall sit in solitary dignity over the claret for-half-an-hour? Is it de rigueur in my quality of English gentleman?"
"Perhaps you would like to smoke?"
"In that case come to the drawing-room."
He held the door open, and she swept gently past; Robert smiled, so pleasantly did her grace of movement affect him. There are women who enter a room like the first notes of a sonata, and leave it like the sweet close of a nocturne; Isabel was of them.
"How long does Miss Warren intend to stay in London?" he inquired, as they seated themselves.
"Her friends there are congenial?"
"Entirely so. Mr. Meres is a clever man he has more influence over her than any one else."
"You give that as an illustration of his cleverness?"
"No; as the result of it. Ada wants intellectual society; she has no pleasure in talking of anything but books and art. And he has always been a sort of guide to her."
"Then you have the prospect of being alone for some time?"
"I shall go up as usual in May. Have you read this account of Indian jugglers in the Cornhill?"
"No, I have not."
"You really should; it is astonishing. Take it away with you; I have done with it."
"Thanks. I will. You wish to be in London in May? Two clear months before then. Could you be ready in, say, three days to go southwards?"
Isabel was quite prepared for this, but not for the way in which it was put. A man whose character finds its natural expression in little turns of this kind has terrible advantages over a woman not entirely sure of her own purpose. She looked for a moment almost offended; it was the natural instinctive method of defence.
"To go southwards?" she repeated, rolling up the magazine she held.
"The yacht is at Marseilles," Robert pursued, watching her with eyes half-closed. "The Calders have made every preparation, and some friends of theirs, Mr. and Mrs. Ackerton - very nice people - are to be of the party."
She answered nothing. As he waited, coffee was brought in.
"I don't think I know anything of the Ackertons," Isabel said, naturally, as the servant held the tray.
"They are Somersetshire people, I believe. The lady was a Miss Harkle."
"Not a daughter of Canon Harkle?"
"Can't say, I'm sure."
The servant retired, and they sipped coffee in silence. Isabel presently put hers aside; Asquith then finished his cup at a draught, and walked to a table with it.
"I don't think you have any excuse left, have you?" he said, leaning over the back of a chair.
"That is a decidedly Oriental way of putting an invitation, Robert."
He was surprised at the amount of seriousness there was in her tone; she would not raise her face, and her cheeks were coloured.
"Let me be more English, then. Will you give us - give me - the great pleasure of your company, Isabel?"
"But I tell you so clearly that under no circumstances should I leave England just now. It is a little - unkind of you."
"Unkind? It is not exactly a spirit of unkindness that actuates me. It would do you no end of good, and you will find the people delightful."
Probably Isabel had by this time made up her mind, but disingenuousness was a mistake on Robert's part. He only slipped into it because he began to fear that he had really offended her, and the feeling disturbed his self-possession for the moment.
"Thank you," Isabel said. "I appreciate your kindness at its full, but you must not ask me again. I shall remain at Knightswell till I go to London."
He made a slight motion of assent with his hand.
"Now to think," Isabel said, with sudden recovery of good-humour - that sort of "well done, resolution!" which we utter to ourselves with cheering effect - "that you should have troubled to come all this way on what you might have known was an errand of disappointment!"
"Oh, I wanted, in any case, to see you before starting. I should have been very disappointed if I had missed you."
He began at once to give a lively sketch of the expedition he had planned, and Isabel listened with much attention, though she interposed no remarks.
"You will bring me an account of it all when you come back," she said on his ceasing to speak.
"It's not very clear to me whether I shall come back," Robert returned. "I have a friend in Smyrna whom I shall go to see, and I shouldn't wonder if I am tempted to stay out there."
"What, after all your perseverance in mastering English accomplishments?"
"To tell you the truth, I don't quite know what I shall do with myself if I stay here. Most probably I shall decide to go into harness again, one way or another. And that reminds me of the 'Coach and Horses.' I will wend my way to that respectable hostelry."
"You'll come and breakfast in the morning?"
" No; I must leave by the 8.15. I want to be early in London."
"You are rather an unreasonable man, my cousin Robert," said Isabel, as she stood at leave-taking. "Because I am forced, with every expression of regret, to decline an invitation to a yachting expedition, you are more than half angry with me. I thought you and I were beyond these follies."
"Did you? But, you see, I am not a hardened giver of invitations. The occasion has a certain uniqueness for me."
"Take courage. If one whom you invite declines, there is always a better one very ready to fill the place."
Robert went his way, and before many days Isabel had a written "good-bye" from London:
"To-morrow we start. It would have been a different thing if you had been with us here to-night. There are mysteries about you, cousin Isabel, and I rather think I was more at my ease before I began to puzzle over such things. If I settle in Smyrna, I will send you muscatels. Here or there, I believe I am always yours,
He never wrote a letter much longer than this.
The day after his visit, Isabel took up her pen to talk with Kingcote.
"What do you think I have just done? Refused an invitation to go with friends yachting in the Mediterranean - an invitation it would have been lovely to accept. And why did I refuse? Wholly and solely on your account, sir. Will you not thank me? No, there was no merit in it, after all. How could I have been happy on the coasts of Italy and Greece, whilst you, my dearest, were so far from happy in London? You must get over that depression, which is the result of sudden change, and of the gloomy things you find yourself amongst. Do not be so uneasy about the future. Try to write to me more cheerfully, for have not I also a few hard things to bear? Indeed, I want your help as much as you need mine. Yet in one thing I have the advantage - I look to the future with perfect trust. I laugh at your doubts and fears. Do you doubt of me? Do you fear lest I shall forget? I dare you to think such a thought! If I could but give you some of my good spirits. To me the new year makes a new world. I long for the bright skies and spring fields that I may enjoy them; they will have a meaning they never had before. It will soon be May, and then shall we not see each other?"
February passed, March all but passed. There were guests at Knightswell, and one fair spring morning, about eleven o'clock, Isabel was on the point of setting forth to drive with three ladies. The carriage was expected to come up to the door, and Isabel was just descending the stairs with one of her friends, when she saw the servant speaking with some one who had appeared at the entrance. A glance, and she perceived that it was Kingcote. She was startled, and had to make an effort before she could walk forward. She motioned to Kingcote to enter, and greeted him in the way of ordinary friendliness.
"We were on the very point of going out," she said, her voice shaken in spite of all determination. "Will you come into the library?"
She turned and excused herself to her companion, promising to be back almost immediately.
"What has brought you?" was her hurried question, when the library door was closed behind them. "Has anything happened?"
"Nothing," Kingcote answered, turning his eyes from her. "But I see you have no time to give me. I mustn't keep you now. I thought perhaps I might find you alone."
"And you have come --?"
"To see you - to see you - what else?" burst passionately from his lips. "I was dying with desire to see you. Last night it grew more than I could bear. I left the house before daylight, and I find myself here. I had no purpose of coming; I have done it all in a dream. My life had grown to a passion to see you!"
He caught her hand and kissed it again and again, kissed the sleeve of her garments, pressed her palm against his eyes.
"You have made me mad, Isabel," he whispered. "It is terrible not to be able to see you when that agony comes upon me. I neither rest nor employ myself; I can only pace my room, like an animal in his cage, with my heart on fire. Oh, I suffer - life is intolerable!"
"Bernard, let me go to that chair - to see you gave me a shock. For heaven's sake do speak less wildly, dear! Why should you suffer so? Have I not written to you often? Do you doubt me? What is it that distresses you?"
He stood, and still held her hand.
"Don't speak, but look at me very gently, softly, with all the assurance of tenderness that your eyes will utter. You have such power over me, that your gaze will soothe and make me a reasonable being again. No, not your lips! Only that still, smiling look, that I may worship you."
Her bosom trembled.
"Do you know yourself?" Kingcote went on, under his breath. "Have you any consciousness of that fearful power which is in you? No more, I suppose, than the flower has of its sweetness. You have so drawn my life into the current of your own, that I have lost all existence apart from you. I have dreamed of loving, but that was all idle; I had no imagination for this spell you have cast upon me."
"I am glad you came! I too was longing to touch your hand."
She pressed it to her lips.
"Oh, if I could only stay with you, now!"
"Yes, I know I must not keep you. You have friends waiting. They have a better right."
"A better right? That you know they have not, Bernard. But - I cannot --"
"They represent the world that is between you and me," he said, moving away. "You cannot leave them - no, it is impossible. Think how strange it sounds. It would be as easy for you to do anything that is most disgraceful in the world's eyes, as to leave those friends to them selves for my sake. I am not speaking harshly; I mean that it is in truth so, and it shows us how amazingly we are creatures of conventional habit."
It was doubtful whether Isabel understood his meaning, her point of view was so different. A thought which strikes one into speechless astonishment will leave another quite unmoved. It is a question of degree of culture - also of degree of emotion.
"Dear, if you had forewarned me of your coming. Don't speak unkindly to me!"
"Rather I would never speak again. Go, and all blessings go with you! You have helped me to my calmer self. But, Isabel --"
"Are there often these friends about you?" he asked sadly.
"No, not often. I have told you how often I am by myself. And now, I must! Stay; do not leave the room when I do. Sit at the desk there and write me a letter. The drawer below is open; close the envelope, and put it in there; I will look for it. And you have not even breakfasted?"
"Oh, I will go to the 'Coach and Horses.' But no; I'm afraid of meeting Mr. Vissian somewhere. I will leave the park by the opposite road, and find some inn. Now I am well again. Good-bye, sweet!"
"Only a month, and I shall be in London!"
She hurried away. The ladies were waiting for her. The servant stood by the door with wraps.
"Isn't it too bad to keep you all like this? I give you leave to scold me all the way. Why didn't you get in? Lily, you know what you were saying about unpunctual people; take me for your text next time."
They passed out before her, and she said to the servant:
"Mr. Kingcote is writing in the library. Take him at once some biscuits and wine."
They drove off; and Isabel was gay as the sunshine. . . .
With her the month passed quickly enough. Through her solicitor she always obtained suitable rooms for the season, this time they were found in the neighbourhood of Portman Square. For some reason or other she did not to the end apprise Kingcote of the exact day on which she would be in town; after reaching her abode she let two days pass before summoning him to her. But this did not mean coldness, only - shopping. A host of things had as usual to be bought; the rooms had to be adorned in various ways; infinite - oh, infinite calls had to be made, or cards to be left. And one of the first houses she went to was that humble one in Chelsea. In her friendships Isabel was golden.
She went in the evening, that all might be at home. Before she could get from the door to the parlour Hilda's arms were about her, and Rhoda was waiting with a flush of pleasure on her usually pale cheeks.
"I don't think I shall as much as shake hands with thatyoung lady," Isabel said, designating the elder girl. "Her behaviour to me has been too shameful. Not one scrap of a letter for two months at least! Ah, how good it is to be with you again! Hilda, you are taller than I am; that is most disrespectful. And it seems yesterday that I used to lift you up on my lap. - Well?"
So kindly said it was, that one word; a greeting that warmed the heart. It was for Thomas Meres himself, who came into the room. He never made use of speech in meeting Mrs. Clarendon; simply shook hands with her and let his eyes rest a moment upon her face.
"And where is Ada?"
Ada was summoned, and shortly presented herself. She showed no pleasure, but came forward holding out her hand naturally; she and Isabel did not kiss each other, it had never been their habit.
"You, I should say, want a good deal more exercise, Ada. Mr. Meres, you are the worst possible person to take care of a young lady who is too fond of shutting herself up over books."
"Oh, we have been rowing in Battersea Park," cried Hilda. "Ada rows splendidly. We are going up the river before long, if we can persuade father to come with us. Mrs. Clarendon, do order him to come. Father will do anything that you tell him."
Her father's yellow face changed colour for an instant; he laughed.
"If Mrs. Clarendon will guarantee that the boats won't capsize," he said; "that is the only question."
"Are you great at the oar, Rhoda?" Isabel asked, going over to a seat by the girl, and taking her hand affectionately. It was an impulse of pity; Rhoda looked so sad, though she smiled.
"My function is steering," was the reply.
"What a wise girl! And how did you all enjoy yourselves at Eastbourne? You can't think how tempted I was to join you. If only it hadn't been such a long way."
"I hope you feel no permanent ill results of your accident?" Mr. Meres asked.
"None, I really think. But, oh dear I'm growing old."
Hilda broke into her cheery laugh; Rhoda and her father smiled; even Ada moved her lips incredulously.
"How dare you all make fun of me? Hilda, stop laughing at once."
"Old, indeed, Mrs. Clarendon! That I don't think you'll ever be."
It was Isabel's delight to hear these words; she flushed with pleasure.
"I want you girls to come and lunch with me to-morrow - no, the day after; to-morrow I am engaged. But I forgot; can you come, Hilda?"
"Yes, on Saturday."
"That's just right, then. And can you dine with me on Sunday, Mr. Meres? I shall have some one you would like to know, I think. Mr. Kingcote, Ada; he is in London now. You must give Mr. Meres an account of him."
She did not stay much longer, and went, as always, leaving kind thoughts behind her. Should we not value those who have this power of touching hearts to the nobler life of emotion as they pass?