"The circumstances are these. On the day after I said good-bye to him, my father went for his usual morning walk, and was absent for two hours. He returned looking very pale and disturbed, and with some difficulty was persuaded (you know how he disliked speaking of himself) to tell what had happened. It seems that, somewhere on the lonely road, he came across two men, honest-looking country folk, engaged in a violent quarrel; their language made it clear that one accused the other of some sort of slander, a very trivial affair. Just as my father came up to them, they began fighting. He interfered, tried to separate them -- as he would have done, I am sure, had they been armed with pistols, for the sight of fighting was intolerable to him, it put him beside himself with a sort of passionate disgust. They were great strong fellows, and one of them, whether intentionally or not, dealt him a fierce blow on the chest, knocking him down. That put an end to the fight. My father had to sit by the roadside for a time before he could go home.
"The next day he did not look well, but spent his time as usual, and on the morning after, he seemed to be all right again. The next day again he went for his walk, and did not return. When his absence became alarming, messengers were sent to look for him, and by one of these be was found lying on the moorside, dead. The postmortem showed that the blow he had received affected the heart, which was already diseased (he did not know that). Of course the man who struck him cannot be discovered, and I don't know that it matters. My father would no doubt have been glad to foresee such a death as this. It was sudden (for that he always hoped), and it came of a protest against the thing he most hated, brutal violence."
So Piers Otway wrote in a letter to John Jacks. He did not add that his father had died intestate, but of that he was aware before any inquiries had been set on foot; in one of their last talks, Jerome had expressly told his son that he would shortly make a will, not having hitherto been able to decide how his possessions should be distributed. This intestacy meant (if Daniel Otway had spoken truth) that Piers would have no fruit whatever of his father's promises; that his recent hopes and schemes would straightway fall to the ground.
And so it was. A telegram from Piers brought down into Yorkshire the solicitor who had for many years been Jerome Otway's friend and adviser; he answered the young man's inquiries with full and decisive information. Mrs. Otway already knew the fact; whence her habitual coldness to Piers, and the silent acerbity with which she behaved to him at this juncture.
"Mrs. Otway," said Piers to her, on the day of the inquest, "I shall stay for my father's funeral, and to avoid gossip I still ask your hospitality. I do it with reluctance, but you will very soon see the last of me."
"You are of course welcome to stay in the house," replied the lady. "There is no need to say that we shall in future be strangers, and I only hope that the example of this shockingly sudden death in the midst of ----"
His blood boiling, Piers left the room before the sentence was finished.
Had he obeyed his conscience, he would have followed the coffin in the clothes he was wearing, for many a time he had heard his father speak with dislike of the black trappings which made a burial hideous; but enforced regard for public opinion, that which makes cowards of good men and hampers the world's progress, sent him to the outfitter's, where he was duly disguised. With the secret tears he shed, there mingled a bitterness at being unable to show respect to his father's memory in such small matters. That Jerome Otway should be buried as a son of the Church, to which he had never belonged, was a ground of indignation, but neither in this could any effective protest be made. Mute in his sorrow, Piers marvelled with a young man's freshness of feeling at the forms and insincerities which rule the world. He had a miserable sense of his helplessness amid forces which he despised.
On the day of the inquest arrived Daniel Otway, Piers having telegraphed to the club where he had seen his brother three years ago. Before leaving London, Daniel had provided himself with solemn black, of the latest cut; Hawes people remarked him with curiosity, saying what a gentleman he looked, but whispering at the same time rumours and doubts; for the little town had long gossiped about Jerome, a man not much to its mind. A day later came Alexander. With him there had been no means of communicating, and a newspaper paragraph informed him of his father's death. Appearing in rough tweeds, with a felt hat, he inspired more curiosity than respect. Both brothers greeted Piers cordially; both were curt and formal with the widow, but, for appearances' sake, accepted a cramped lodging in the cottage. Piers kept very much to himself until the funeral was over; he was then invited by Daniel to join a conference in what had been his father's room. Here the man of law (Jerome's name for him) expounded the posture of things; with all professional, and some personal, tact and delicacy. Will there was certainly none; Daniel, in the course of things, would apply for letters of administration. The estate, it might be said, consisted of certain shares in a prosperous newspaper, an investment which could be easily realised, and of a small capital in consols; to the best of the speaker's judgment, the shares were worth about six thousand pounds, the consols amounted to nearly fifteen hundred. This capital sum, the widow and the sons would divide in legal proportion. Followed technicalities, with conversation. Mrs. Otway kept dignified silence; Piers, in the background, sat with eyes sunk.
"I think," remarked the solicitor gravely and firmly, "that, assembled as we are in privacy, I am only doing my duty in making known that the deceased had in view (as I know from hints in his correspondence) to assist his youngest son substantially, as soon as that son appeared likely to benefit by such pecuniary aid. I think I am justified in saying that that time had arrived, that death interposed at an unfortunate moment as regards such plans. I wished only to put the point before you, as one within my own knowledge. Is there any question you would like to ask me at present, Mrs. Otway?"
The widow shook her head (and her funeral trappings). Thereupon sounded Piers Otway's voice.
"I should like to say that as I have no legal claim whatever upon my father's estate, I do not wish to put forward a claim of any other kind. Let that be understood at once."
There was silence. They heard the waters of the beck rushing over its stony channel. For how many thousand years had the beck so murmured? For how many thousand would it murmur still?
"As the eldest son," then observed Daniel, with his Oxford accent, and a sub-note of feeling, "I desire to say that my brother" -- he generously emphasised the word -- "has expressed himself very well, in the spirit of a gentleman. Perhaps I had better say no more at this moment. We shall have other opportunities of -- of considering this point."
"Decidedly," remarked Alexander, who sat with legs crossed. "We'll talk it over."
And he nodded with a good-natured smile in Piers' direction.
Later in the day -- a family council having been held at which Piers was not present -- Daniel led the young man apart.
"You insist on leaving Hawes to-night? Well, perhaps it is best. But, my dear boy, I can't let you go without saying how deeply I sympathise with your position. You bear it like a man, Piers; indeed you do. I think I have mentioned to you before how strong I am on the side of morals."
"If you please," Piers interrupted, with brow dark.
"No, no, no!" exclaimed the other. "I was far from casting any reflection. De mortuis, you know; much more so when one speaks of a father. I think, by the bye, Alec ought to write something about him for publication; don't you? I was going to say, Piers, that, if I remember rightly, I am in your debt for a small sum, which you very generously lent me. Ah, that book! It grows and grows; I can't get it into final form. The fact is Continental art critics -- But I was going to say that I must really insist on being allowed to pay my debt -- indeed I must -- soon as this business is settled."
He paused, watching Piers' face. His own had not waxed more spiritual of late years, nor had his demeanour become more likely to inspire confidence; but he was handsome, in a way, and very fluent, very suave.
"Be it so," replied Piers frankly; "I shall be glad of the money, I confess."
"To be sure! You shall have it with the least possible delay. And, Piers, it has struck us, my dear fellow, that you might like to choose a volume or two of the good old man's library as a memento. We beg you will do so. We beg you will do it at once, before you leave."
"Thank you. I should like the Dante he used to carry in his pocket."
"A most natural wish, Piers. Take it by all means. Nothing else, you think?"
"Yes. You once told me that you had seen a portrait of my mother. Do you think it still exists?"
"I will inquire about it," answered Daniel gravely. "It was a framed photograph, and at one time -- many years ago -- used to stand on his writing-table. I will inquire, my dear boy."
Next, Alexander sought a private colloquy with his disinherited brother.
"Look here, Piers," he began bluffly, "it's a cursed shame! I'm hanged if it isn't! If we weren't so solemn, my boy, I should quote Bumble about the law. Of course it's the grossest absurdity, and as far as I'm concerned ----. By Jove, Piers!" he cried, with sudden change of subject, "if you knew the hard times Biddy and I have been going through! Eh, but she's a brick, is Biddy; she sent you her love, old boy, and that's worth something, I can tell you. But I was going to say that you mustn't suppose I've forgotten about the debt. You shall be repaid as soon as ever we realise this property; you shall, Piers! And, what's more, you shall be repaid with interest; yes, three per cent. It would be cursed meanness if I didn't."
"The fifty pounds I shall be glad of," said Piers. "I want no interest. I'm not a money-lender."
"We won't quarrel about that," rejoined Alexander, with a merry look. "But come now, why don't you let a fellow hear from you now and then? What are you doing? Going back among the Muscovites?"
"Straight back to Odessa, yes."
"I may look you up there some day, if Biddy can spare me for a few weeks. A glimpse of the bear -- it might be useful to me. Terrible savages I suppose?"
Piers laughed impatiently, and gave no other answer.
"Well, the one thing I really wanted to say, Piers -- you must let me say it -- I, for one, shall take a strong stand about your moral rights in this business here, Of course your claim is every bit as good as ours; only a dunder-headed jackass would see it in any other way. Daniel quite agrees with me. The difficulty will be that woman. A terrible woman! She regards you as sealed for perdition by the mere fact of your birth. But you will hear from us, old boy, be sure of that. Give me your Muscovite address."
Piers carelessly gave it. He was paying hardly any attention to his brother's talk, and would have felt it waste of energy to reassert what he had said in the formal conclave. Weariness had come upon him after these days of grief and indignant tumult; he wanted to be alone.
The portrait for which he had asked was very quickly found. It lay in a drawer, locked away among other mementoes of the past. With a shock of disappointment, Piers saw that the old photograph had faded almost to invisibility. He just discerned the outlines of a pleasant face, the dim suggestion of womanly charm -- all he would ever see of the mother who bore him.
"It seems to me," said Daniel, after sympathising with his chagrin, "that there must be a lot of papers, literary work, letters, and that kind of thing, which will have more interest for you than for anyone else. When we get things looked through, shall I send you whatever I think you would care for?"
With gratitude Piers accepted what he could not have brought himself to ask for.
On the southward journey he kept taking from his pocket two letters which had reached him at Hawes. One was from John Jacks, full of the kindliest condolence; a manly letter which it did him good to read. The other came from Mrs. Hannaford, womanly, sincere; it contained a passage to which Piers returned again and again. "My niece is really grieved to hear of your sudden loss; happening at a moment when all seemed to be going well with you. She begs me to assure you of her very true sympathy, and sends every good wish." Little enough, this, but the recipient tried to make much of it. He had faintly hoped that Irene might send him a line in her own hand. That was denied, and perhaps he was foolish even to have dreamt of it.
He could not address his verses to her, now. He must hurry away from England, and try to forget her.
Of course she would bear, one way or another, about the circumstances of his birth. It would come out that he had no share in the property left by his father, and the reason be made known. He hoped that she might also learn that death had prevented his father's plan for benefiting him. He hoped it; for in that ease she might feel compassion. Yet in the same moment he felt that this was a delusive solace. Pity for a man because he had lost money does not incline to warmer emotion. The hope was sheer feebleness of spirit. He spurned it; he desired no one's compassion.
How would Irene regard the fact of his illegitimacy? Not, assuredly, from Mrs. Otway's point of view; she was a century ahead of that. Possibly she was capable of dismissing it as indifferent. But he could not be certain of her freedom from social prejudice. He remembered the singular shock with which he himself had first learnt what he was a state of mind quite irrational, but only to be dismissed with an effort of the trained intelligence. Irene would undergo the same experience, and it might affect her thought of him for ever.
Not for one instant did he visit these troubles upon the dead man. His loyalty to his father was absolute; no thought, or half-thought, looked towards accusation.
He arrived at his hotel in London late at night, drank a glass of spirits and went to bed. The sleep he hoped for came immediately, but lasted only a couple of hours. Suddenly he was wide awake, and a horror of great darkness enveloped him. What he now suffered he had known before, but with less intensity. He stared forward into the coming years, and saw nothing that his soul desired. A life of solitude, of bitter frustration. Were it Irene, were it another, the woman for whom he longed would never become his. He had not the power of inspiring love. The mere flesh would constrain him to marriage, a sordid union, a desecration of his ideal, his worship; and in the latter days he would look back upon a futile life. What is life without love? And to him love meant communion with the noblest. Nature had kindled in him this fiery ambition only for his woe.
All the passion of the great hungry world seemed concentrated in his sole being. Images of maddening beauty glowed upon him out of the darkness, glowed and gleamed by he knew not what creative mandate; faces, forms, such as may visit the delirium of a supreme artist. Of him they knew not; they were worlds away, though his own brain bodied them forth. He smothered cries of agony; he flung himself upon his face, and lay as one dead.
For the men capable of passionate love (and they are few) to miss love is to miss everything. Life has but the mockery of consolation for that one gift denied. The heart may be dulled by time; it is not comforted. Illusion if it be, it is that which crowns all other illusions whereof life is made. The man must prove it, or he is born in vain.
At sunrise, Piers dressed himself, and made ready for his journey. He was worn with fever, had no more strength to hope or to desire. His body was a mechanism which must move and move.
In the saloon of a homeward-bound steamer, twenty-four hours from port, and that port Southampton, a lady sat writing letters. Her age was about thirty; her face was rather piquant than pretty; she had the air of a person far too intelligent and spirited to be involved in any life of mere routine, on whatever plane. Two letters she had written in French, one in German, and that upon which she was now engaged was in English, her native tongue; it began "Dearest Mother."
"All's well. A pleasant and a quick voyage. The one incident of it which you will care to hear about is that I have made friends -- a real friendship, I think -- with a delightful girl, of respectability which will satisfy even you. Judge for yourself; she is the daughter of Dr. Derwent, a distinguished scientific man, who has been having a glimpse of Colonial life. When we were a day or two out I found that Miss Derwent was the object of special interest; she and her father had been the guests of no less a personage than Trafford Romaine, and it was reported that the great man had offered her marriage! Who started the rumour I don't know, but it is quite true that Romaine did propose to her -- and was refused! I am assured of it by a friend of theirs on board, Mr. Arnold Jacks, an intimate friend of Romaine; but he declared that he did not start the story, and was surprised to find it known. Miss Derwent herself? No, my dear cynical mamma! She isn't that sort. She likes me as much as I like her, I think, but in all our talk not a word from her about the great topic of curiosity. It is just possible, I fear, that she means to marry Mr. Arnold Jacks, who, by the bye, is a son of a Member of Parliament, and rather an interesting man, but, I am quite sure, not the man for her. If she will come down into Hampshire with me may I bring her? It would so rejoice your dear soul to be assured that I have made such a friend, after what you are pleased to call my riff-raff foreign intimacies."
A few words more of affectionate banter, and she signed herself "Helen M. Borisoff."
As she was addressing the envelope, the sound of a book thrown on to the table just in front of her caused her to look up, and she saw Irene Derwent.
"What's the matter? Why are you damaging the ship's literature?" she asked gaily.
"No, I can't stand that!" exclaimed Irene. "It's too imbecile. It really is what our slangy friend calls 'rot,' and very dry rot. Have you read the thing?"
Mrs. Borisoff looked at the title, and answered with a headshake.
"Imagine! An awful apparatus of mystery; blood-curdling hints about the hero, whose prospects in life are supposed to be utterly blighted. And all because -- what do you think? Because his father and mother forgot the marriage ceremony."
The other was amused, and at the same time surprised. It was the first time that Miss Derwent, in their talk, had allowed herself a remark suggestive of what is called "emancipation." She would talk with freedom of almost any subject save that specifically forbidden to English girls. Helen Borisoff, whose finger showed a wedding ring, had respected this reticence, but it delighted her to see a new side of her friend's attractive personality.
"I suppose in certain circles" -- she began.
"Oh yes! Shopkeepers and clerks and so on. But the book is supposed to deal with civilised people. It really made me angry!"
Mrs. Borisoff regarded her with amused curiosity. Their eyes met. Irene nodded.
"Yes," she continued, as if answering a question, "I know someone in just that position. And all at once it struck me -- I had hardly thought of it before -- what an idiot I should be if I let it affect my feelings or behaviour!"
"I think no one would have suspected you of such narrowness."
"Indeed I hope not! -- Have you done your letters? Do come up and watch Mrs. Smithson playing at quoits -- a sight to rout the brood of cares!"
In the smoking-room on deck sat Dr. Derwent and Arnold Jacks, conversing gravely, with subdued voices. The Doctor had a smile on his meditative features; his eyes were cast down he looked a trifle embarrassed.
"Forgive me," Arnold was saying, with some earnestness, "if this course seems to you rather irregular."
"Not at all! Not at all! But I can only assure you of my honest inability to answer the question. Try, my dear fellow! Solvitur quærendo!"
Jacks' behaviour did, in fact, appear to the Doctor a little odd. That the young man should hint at his desire to ask Miss Derwent to marry him, or perhaps ask the parental approval of such a step, was natural enough; the event had been looming since the beginning of the voyage home. But to go beyond this, to ask the girl's father whether he thought success likely, whether he could hold out hopes, was scarcely permissible. It seemed a curious failure of tact in such a man as Arnold Jacks.
The fact was that Arnold for the first time in his life, had turned coward. Having drifted into a situation which he had always regarded as undesirable, and had felt strong enough to avoid, he lost his head, and clutched rather wildly at the first support within reach. That Irene Derwent should become his wife was not a vital matter; he could contemplate quite coolly the possibility of marrying some one else, or, if it came to that, of not marrying anyone at all. What shook his nerves was the question whether Irene would be sure to accept him.
Six months ago, he had no doubt of it. He viewed Miss Derwent with an eye accustomed to scrutinise, to calculate (in things Imperial and other), and it amused him to reflect that she might be numbered among, say, half a dozen eligible women who would think it an honour to marry him. This was his way of viewing marriage; it was on the woman's side a point of ambition, a gratification of vanity; on the man a dignified condescension. Arnold conceived himself a brilliant match for any girl below the titled aristocracy; he had grown so accustomed to magnify his place, to regard himself as one of the pillars of the Empire, that he attributed the same estimate to all who knew him. Of personal vanity he had little; purely personal characteristics did not enter, he imagined, into a man's prospects of matrimony. Certain women openly flattered him, and these he despised. His sense of fitness demanded a woman intelligent enough to appreciate what he had to offer, and sufficiently well-bred to conceal her emotions when he approached her. These conditions Miss Derwent fulfilled. Personally she would do him credit (a wife, of course, must he presentable, though in the husband appearance did not matter), and her obvious social qualities would be useful. Yet he had had no serious thought of proposing to her. For one thing, she was not rich enough.
The change began when he observed the impression made by her upon Trafford Romaine. This was startling. Romaine, the administrator of world-wide repute, the man who had but to choose among Great Britain's brilliant daughters (or so his worshippers believed), no sooner looked upon Irene Derwent than he betrayed his subjugation. No woman had ever received such honour from him, such homage public and private. Arnold Jacks was pricked with uneasiness; Irene had at once a new value in his eyes, and he feared he had foolishly neglected his opportunities. If she married Romaine, it would be mortifying. She refused the great man's offer, and Arnold was at first astonished, then gratified. For such refusal there could be only one ground: Miss Derwent's "heart" was already disposed of. Women have "hearts"; they really do grow fond of the men they admire; a singular provision of nature.
He would propose during the voyage.
But the voyage was nearly over; he might have put his formal little question fifty times; it was still to be asked -- and he felt afraid. Afraid more than ever, now that he had committed himself with Dr. Derwent. The Doctor had received his confession so calmly, whereas Arnold hoped for some degree of effusiveness. Was he -- hideous doubt -- preparing himself for an even worse disillusion?
Undoubtedly the people on board had remarked his attentions; for all he knew, jokes were being passed, nay, bets being made. It was a serious thing to proclaim oneself the wooer of a young lady who had refused Trafford Romaine; who was known to have done so, and talked about with envy, admiration, curiosity. You either carried her off, or you made yourself fatally. ridiculous. Half a dozen of the passengers would spread this gossip far and wide through England. There was that problematic Mrs. Borisoff, a frisky grass widow, who seemed to know crowds of distinguished people, and who was watching him day by day with her confounded smile! Who could say what passed between her and Irene, intimates as they had become? Did they make fun of him? Did they dare to?
Arnold Jacks differed widely from the common type of fatuous young man. He was himself a merciless critic of fatuity; he had a faculty of shrewd observation, plenty of caustic common sense. Yet the position into which he had drifted threatened him with ridiculous extremes of self-consciousness. Even in his personal carriage, he was not quite safe against ridicule; and he felt it. This must come to an end.
He sought his moment, and found it at the hour of dusk. The sun had gone down gloriously upon a calm sea; the sky was overspread with clouds still flushed, and the pleasant coolness of the air foretold to-morrow's breeze on the English Channel. With pretence of watching a steamer that had passed, Arnold drew Miss Derwent to a part of the deck where they would be alone.
"You will feel," he said abruptly, "that you know England better now that you have seen something of the England beyond seas."
"I had imagined it pretty well," replied Irene.
"Yes, one does."
Under common circumstances, Arnold would have scornfully denied the possibility of such imagination. He felt most unpleasantly tame.
"You wouldn't care to make your home out yonder?"
This was better. It sounded like emphatic rejection of Trafford Romaine, and probably was meant to sound so.
"I myself," he pursued absently, "shall always live in England. If I know myself, I can be of most service at the centre of things. Parliament, when the moment arrives ----"
"The moment when you can be most mischievous?" said Irene, with a glance at him.
"That's how you put it. Yes, most mischievous. The sphere for mischief is growing magnificent."
He talked, without strict command of his tongue, just to gain time; spoke of expanding Britain, and so on, a dribble of commonplaces. Irene moved as if to rejoin her company.
"Don't go just yet -- I want you -- now and always."
Sheer nervousness gave his voice a tremor as if of deep emotion. These simple words, which had burst from him desperately, were the best he could have uttered -- Irene stood with her eyes on the darkening horizon.
"We know each other pretty well," he continued, "and the better we know each other, the more we find to talk about. It's a very good sign -- don't you think? I can't see how I'm to get along without you, after this journey. I don't like to think of it, and I won't think of it I Say there's no need to."
Her silence, her still attitude, had restored his courage. He spoke at length like himself, with quiet assurance, with sincerity; and again it was the best thing he could have done.
"I am not quite sure, Mr. Jacks, that I think about it in the same way."
Her voice was subdued to a very pleasant note, but it did not tremble.
"I can allow for that uncertainty -- though I have nothing of it myself. We shall both be in London for a month or so. Let me see you as often as I can, and, before you leave town, let me ask whether the doubt has been overcome."
"I hold myself free," said Irene impulsively.
"I do you no wrong if it seems to me impossible."
His eyes were fixed on her face, dimly beautiful in the fading shimmer from sea and sky. Irene met his glance for an instant, and moved away, he following.
Arnold Jacks had never known a mood so jubilant. He was saved from the terror of humiliation. He had comported himself as behoved him, and the result was sure and certain hope. He felt almost grateful, almost tender, towards the woman of his choice.
But Irene as she lay in her berth, strangely wakeful to the wash of the sea as the breeze freshened, was frightened at the thought of what she had done. Had she not, in the common way of maidenhood, as good as accepted Arnold Jacks' proposal? She did not mean it so; she spoke simply and directly in saying that she was not clear about her own mind; on any other subject she would in fact, or in phrase, have reserved her independence. But an offer of marriage was a thing apart, full of subtle implications, needing to be dealt with according to special rules of conscience and of tact. Some five or six she had received, and in each case had replied decisively, her mind admitting no doubt. As when to her astonishment, she heard the frank and large confession of Trafford Romaine; the answer was an inevitable -- No! To Arnold Jacks she could not reply thus promptly. Relying on the easy terms of their intercourse, she told him the truth; and now she saw that no form of answer could be less discreet.
For about a year she had thought of Arnold as one who might offer her marriage; any girl in her position would have foreseen that possibility. After every opportunity which he allowed to pass, she felt relieved, for she had no reply in readiness. The thought of accepting him was not at all disagreeable; it had even its allurements; but between the speculation and the thing itself was a great gap for the leaping of mind and heart. Her relations with him were very pleasant, and she would have been glad if nothing had ever happened to disturb them.
When her father suggested this long journey in Arnold's company, she hesitated. In deciding to go, she said to herself that if nothing resulted, well and good; if something did, well and good also. She would get to know Arnold better, and on that increase of acquaintance must depend the outcome, as far as she was concerned. She was helped in making up her mind by a little thing that happened. There came to her one day a letter from Odessa; on opening it, she found only a copy of verses, with the signature "P.O." A love poem; not addressed to her, but about her; a pretty poem, she thought, delicately felt and gracefully worded. It surprised her, but only for a moment; thinking, she accepted it as something natural, and was touched by the tribute. She put it carefully away -- knowing it by heart.
Impertinence! Surely not. Long ago she had reproached herself with her half-coquetry to Piers Otway, an error of exuberant spirits when she was still very young. There was no obscuring the fact; deliberately she had set herself to draw him away from his studies; she had made it a point of pride to show herself irresistible. Where others failed in their attack upon his austere seclusion, she would succeed, and easily. She had succeeded only too well, and it never quite ceased to trouble her conscience. Now, learning that even after four years her victim still remained loyal, she thought of him with much gentleness, and would have scorned herself had she felt scorn of his devotion.
No other of her wooers had ever written her a poem; no other was capable of it. It gave Piers a distinction in her mind which more than earned her pardon.
But -- poor fellow! -- he must surely know that she could never respond to his romantic feeling. It was pure romance, and charming -- if only it did not mean sorrow to him and idle hopes. Such a love as this, distant, respectful, she would have liked to keep for years, for a lifetime. If only she could be sure that romance was as dreamily delightful to her poet as to her!
The worst of it was that Piers Otway had suffered a sad wrong, an injustice which, when she heard of it, made her nobly angry. A month after the death of the old philosopher at Hawes, Mrs. Hannaford startled her with a strange story. The form it took was this: That Piers, having for a whispered reason no share in his father's possessions, had perforce given up his hopes of commercial enterprise, and returned to his old subordinate position at Odessa. The two legitimate sons would gladly have divided with him their lawful due, but Piers refused this generosity, would not hear of it for a moment, stood on his pride, and departed. Thus Mrs. Hannaford, who fully believed what she said; and as she had her information direct from the eldest son, Daniel Otway, there could be no doubt as to its correctness. Piers had behaved well; he could not take alms from his half-brothers. But what a monstrous thing that accident and the law of the land left him thus destitute! Feeling strongly about it, Irene begged her aunt, when next she wrote to Odessa, to give Piers, from her, a message of friendly encouragement; not, of course, a message that necessarily implied knowledge of his story, but one that would help him with the assurance of his being always kindly remembered by friends in London.
Six months after came the little poem, which Irene, without purposing it, learnt by heart.
A chapter of pure romance; one which, Irene felt, could not possibly have any relation to her normal life. And perhaps because she felt. that so strongly, perhaps because her conscience warned her against the danger of still seeming to encourage a lover she could not dream of marrying, perhaps because these airy nothings threw into stronger relief the circumstances which environed her, she forthwith made up her mind to go on the long journey with her father and Arnold Jacks. Mrs. Hannaford did not fail to acquaint Piers Otway with the occurrence.
And those two months of companionship told in Arnold's favour. Jacks was excellent in travel; he had large experience, and showed to advantage on the highways of the globe. No more entertaining companion during the long days of steamship life; no safer guide in unfamiliar lands. His personality made a striking contrast with the robustious semi-civilisation of the colonists with whom Irene became acquainted; she appreciated all the more his many refinements. Moreover, the respectful reception he met with could not but impress her; it gave reality to what Miss Derwent sometimes laughed at, his claim to be a force in the great world. Then, that eternal word "Empire" gained somewhat of a new meaning. She joked about it, disliking as much as ever its baser significance but she came to understand better the immense power it represented. On that subject, her father was emphatic.
"If," remarked Dr. Derwent once, "if our politics ever fall into the hands of a stock-jobbing democracy, we shall be the hugest force for evil the poor old world has ever known."
"You think," said Irene, "that one can already see some danger of it?"
"Well, I think so sometimes. But we have good men still, good men."
"Do you mind telling me," Miss Derwent asked, "whether our fellow-traveller seems to you one of them?"
"H'm! On the whole, yes. His faults are balanced, I think, by his aristocratic temper. He is too proud consciously to make dirty bargains. High-handed, of course; but that's the race -- the race. Things being as they are, I would as soon see him in power as another."
Irene pondered this. It pleased her.
On the morning after Arnold's proposal, she knew that he and her father had talked. Dr. Derwent, a shy man, rather avoided her look; but he behaved to her with particular kindliness; as they stood looking towards the coast of England, he drew her hand through his arm, and stroked it once or twice -- a thing he had not done on the whole journey.
"The brave old island!" he was murmuring. "I should be really disturbed if I thought death would find me away from it. Foolish fancy, but it's strong in me."
Irene was taciturn, and unlike herself. The approach to port enabled her to avoid gossips, but one person, Helen Borisoff, guessed what had happened; Irene's grave countenance and Arnold Jacks' meditative smile partly instructed her. On the railway journey to London, Jacks had the discretion to keep apart in a smoking-carriage. Dr. Derwent and his daughter exchanged but few words until they found themselves in Bryanston Square.
During their absence abroad, Mrs. Hannaford had been keeping house for them. With brief intervals spent now and then in pursuit of health, she had made Bryanston Square her home since the change in her circumstances two years ago. Lee Hannaford held no communication with her, content to draw the modest income she put at his disposal, and Olga, her mother knew not why, was still unmarried, though declaring herself still engaged to the man Kite. She lived here and there in lodgings, at times seeming to maintain herself, at others accepting help; her existence had an air of mystery far from reassuring.
On meeting her aunt, Irene found her looking ill and troubled. Mrs. Hannaford declared that she was much as usual, and evaded inquiries. She passed from joy at her relatives' return to a mood of silent depression; her eyes made one think that she must have often shed tears of late. In the past twelvemonth she had noticeably aged; her beauty was vanishing; a nervous tremor often affected her thin hands, and in her speech there was at times a stammering uncertainty, such as comes of mental distress. Dr. Derwent, seeing her after two months' absence, was gravely observant of these things.
"I wish you could find out what's troubling your aunt," he said to Irene, next day. "Something is, and something very serious, though she won't admit it. I'm really uneasy about her."
Irene tried to win the sufferer's confidence, but without success. Mrs. Hannaford became irritable, and withdrew as much as possible from sight.
The girl had her own trouble, and it was one she must needs keep to herself. She shrank from the next meeting with Arnold Jacks, which could not long be postponed. It took place three days after her return, when Arnold and Mrs. Jacks dined in Bryanston Square. John Jacks was to have come, but excused himself on the plea of indisposition. As might have been expected of him, Arnold was absolute discretion; he looked and spoke, perhaps, a trifle more gaily than usual, but to Irene showed no change of demeanour, and conversed with her no more than was necessary. Irene felt grateful, and once more tried to convince herself that she had done nothing irreparable. In fact, as in assertion, she was free. The future depended entirely on her own will and pleasure. That her mind was ceaselessly preoccupied with Arnold could only be deemed natural, for she had to come to a decision within three or four weeks' time. But -- if necessary the respite should be prolonged.
Eustace Derwent dined with them, and Irene noticed -- what had occurred to her before now -- that the young man seemed to have particular pleasure in the society of Mrs. Jacks; he conversed with her more naturally, more variously, than with any other lady of his friends; and Mrs. Jacks, through the unimpeachable correctness of her exterior, almost allowed it to be suspected that she found a special satisfaction in listening to him. Eustace was a frequent guest at the Jacks'; yet there could hardly be much in common between him and the lady's elderly husband, nor was he on terms of much intimacy with Arnold. Of course two such excellent persons, such models of decorum, such examples of the English ideal, masculine and feminine, would naturally see in each other the most desirable of acquaintances; it was an instance of social and personal fitness, which the propriety of our national manners renders as harmless as it is delightful. They talked of art, of literature, discovering an entire unanimity in their preferences, which made for the safely conventional. They chatted of common acquaintances, agreeing that the people they liked were undoubtedly the very nicest people in their circle, and avoiding in the suavest manner any severity regarding those they could not approve. When Eustace apologised for touching on a professional subject (he had just been called to the Bar), Mrs. Jacks declared that nothing could interest her more. If he ventured a jest, she smiled with surpassing sweetness, and was all but moved to laugh. They, at all events, spent a most agreeable evening.
Not so Mrs. Hannaford, who, just before dinner, had received a letter, which at once she destroyed. The missive ran thus:
"DEAR MRS. HANNAFORD -- I am distressed to hear that you suffer so in health. Consult your brother; you will find that the only thing to do you good will be a complete change of climate and of habits. You know how often I have urged this; if you had listened to me, you would by now have been both healthy and happy -- yes, happy. Is it too late? Don't you value your life? And don't you care at all for the happiness of mine? Meet me to-morrow, I beg, at the Museum, about eleven o'clock, and let us talk it all over once more. Do be sensible; don't wreck your life out of respect for social superstitions. The thing once over, who thinks the worse of you? Not a living creature for whom you need care. You have suffered for years; put an end to it; the remedy is in your hands. Ever yours,
A few days after her return, Irene left home in the morning to make an unceremonious call. She was driven to Great Portland Street and alighted before a shop, which bore the number of the house she sought. Having found the private entrance -- a door that stood wide open -- and after ringing once or twice without drawing anyone's attention, she began to ascend the uncarpeted stairs. At that moment there came down a young woman humming an air; a cheery-faced, solidly-built damsel, dressed with attention to broad effect in colours which were then -- or recently had been -- known as "æsthetic." With some diffidence, for the encounter was not of a kind common in her experience, Irene asked this person for a direction to the rooms occupied by Miss Hannaford.
"Oh, she's my chum," was the genial reply. "Top floor, front. You'll find her there."
With thanks the visitor passed on, but had not climbed half a dozen steps when the clear-sounding voice caused her to stop.
"Beg your pardon and all that kind of thing, but would you mind telling her that Tomkins is huffy? I forgot to mention it before I came out. Thanks, awfully."
Puzzled, if not disconcerted, Miss Derwent reached the top floor and knocked. A voice she recognised bade her enter. She found herself in a bare-floored room, furnished with a table, a chair or two, and a divan, on the walls a strange exhibition of designs in glaring colours which seemed to be studies for street posters. At the table, bending over a drawing-board, sat Olga Hannaford, her careless costume and the disorder of her hair suggesting that she had only just got up. She recognised her visitor with some embarrassment.
"Irene -- I am so glad -- I really am ashamed -- we keep such hours here -- please don't mind!"
"Not I, indeed! What is there to mind? I spoke to someone downstairs who gave me a message for you. I was to say that Tomkins was huffy. Do you understand?"
Olga bit her lip in vexation, and to restrain a laugh.
"No, that's too bad! But just like her. That was the girl I live with -- Miss Bonnicastle. She's very nice really -- not a bit of harm in her; but she will play these silly practical jokes."
"Ah, it was a joke?" said Irene, not altogether pleased with Miss Bonnicastle's facetiousness. But the next moment, good humour coming to her help, she broke into merriment.
"That's what she does," said Olga, pointing to the walls. "She's awfully clever really, and she'll make a great success with that sort of thing before long, I'm sure. Look at that advertisement of Honey's Castor Oil. Isn't the child's face splendid?"
"Very clever indeed," assented Irene, and laughed again, her cousin joining in her mirth. Five minutes ago she had felt anything but hilarious; the impulse to gaiety came she knew not how, and she indulged it with a sense of relief.
"Are you doing the same sort of thing, Olga?"
"Wish I could. I've a little work for a new fashion paper; have to fill in the heads and arms, and so on. It isn't high art, you know, but they pay me."
"Why in the world do you do it? Why do you live in a place like this?"
"Oh, I like the life; on the whole. It's freedom; no society nonsense -- I beg your pardon, Irene ----"
"Please don't. I hope I'm not much in the way of society nonsense. Sit down; I want to talk. When did you see your mother?"
"Not for a long time," answered Olga, her countenance falling. "I sent her the new address when I came here, but she hasn't been yet."
"Why don't you go to her?"
"No! I've broken with that world. I can't make calls in Bryanston Square -- or anywhere else. That's all over."
"It isn't nonsense!" exclaimed Olga, flushing angrily. "Why do you come to interfere with me? What right have you, Irene? I'm old enough to live as I please. I don't come to criticise your life!"
Irene was startled into silence for a moment. She met her cousin's look, and so gravely, so kindly, that Olga turned away in shame.
"You and I used to be friends, and to have confidence in each other," resumed Irene. "Why can't that come over again? Couldn't you tell me what it all means, dear?"
The other shook her head, keeping her eyes averted.
"My first reason for coming," Irene pursued, "was to talk to you about your mother. Do you know that she is very far from well? My father speaks very seriously of her state of health. Something is weighing on her mind, as anyone can see, and we think it can only be you -- your strange life, and your neglect of her."
Olga shook her head.
"You're mistaken, I know you are."
"You know? Then can you tell us how to be of use to her? To speak plainly, my father fears the worst, if something isn't done."
With elbow on knee, and chin in hand, Olga sat brooding. She had a dishevelled, wild appearance; her cheeks were hollow, her eyes and lips expressed a reckless mood.
"It is not on my account," she let fall, abstractedly.
"Can you help her, Olga?"
"No one can help her," was the reply in the same dreamy tone.
Then followed a long silence. Irene gazed at one of the flaring grotesques on the wall, but did not see it.
"May I ask you a question about your own affairs?" she said at length, very gently. "It isn't for curiosity. I have a deeper interest."
"Of course you may ask Irene. I'm behaving badly to you, but I don't mean it. I'm miserable -- that's what it comes to."
"I can see that, dear. Am I right in thinking that your engagement has been broken off?"
"I'll tell you; you shall know the whole truth. It isn't broken; yet I'm sure it'll never come to anything. I don't think I want it to. He behaves so strangely. You know we were to have been married after the twelvemonth, with mother's consent. When the time drew near, I saw he didn't wish it. He said that after all he was afraid it would be a miserable marriage for me. The trouble is, he has no character, no will. He cares for me a great deal; and that's just why he won't marry me. He'll never do anything -- in art, I mean. We should have to live on mother's money, and he doesn't like that. If we had been married straight away, as I wanted, two years ago, it would have been all right. It's too late now."
"And this, you feel, is ruining your life?"
"I'm troubled about it, but more on his account than mine. I'll tell you, Irene, I want to break off, for good and all, and I'm afraid. It's a hard thing to do."
"Now I understand you. Do you think" -- Irene added in another tone -- "that it's well to be what they call in love with the man one marries?"
"Think? Of course I do!"
"Many people doubt it. We are told that French marriages are often happier than English, because they are arranged with a practical view, by experienced people."
"It depends," replied Olga, with a half-disdainful smile, "what one calls happiness. I, for one, don't want a respectable, plodding, money-saving married life. I'm not fit for it. Of course some people are."
"Then, you could never bring yourself to marry a man you merely liked -- in a friendly way?"
"I think it horrible, hideous!" was the excited reply. "And yet" -- her voice dropped -- "it may not be so for some women. I judge only by myself."
"I suspect, Olga, that some people are never in love -- never could be in that state."
"I daresay, poor things!"
Irene, though much in earnest, was moved to laugh.
"After all, you know," she said, "they have less worry."
"Of course they have, and live more useful lives, if it comes to that."
"A useful life isn't to be despised, you know."
Olga looked at her cousin; so fixedly that Irene had to turn away, and in a moment spoke as though changing the subject.
"Have you heard that Mr. Otway is coming to England again?"
"What!" cried Olga with sudden astonishment. "You are thinking of him -- of Piers Otway?"
Irene became the colour of the rose; her eyes flashed with annoyance.
"How extraordinary you are, Olga! As if one couldn't mention anyone without that sort of meaning! I spoke of Mr. Otway by pure accident. He had nothing whatever to do with what I was saying before."
Olga sank into dulness again, murmuring, "I beg your pardon." When a minute had elapsed in silence, she added, without looking up, "He was dreadfully in love with you. poor fellow. I suppose he has got over it."
An uncertain movement, a wandering look, and Miss Derwent rose. She stood before one of the rough-washed posters, seeming to admire it; Olga eyed her askance, with curiosity.
"I know only one thing," Irene exclaimed abruptly, without turning. "It's better not to think too much about all that."
"How can one think too much of it?" said the other.
"Very easily, I'm afraid," rejoined the other, her eyes still on the picture.
"It's the only thing in life worth thinking about!"
"You astonish me. We'll agree to differ -- Olga dear, come and see us in the old way. Come and dine this evening; we shall be alone."
But the unkempt girl was not to be persuaded, and Irene presently took her leave. The conversation had perturbed her; she went away in a very unwonted frame of mind, beset with troublesome fancies and misgivings. Olga's state seemed to her thoroughly unwholesome, to be regarded as a warning; it was evidently contagious; it affected the imagination with morbid allurement. Morbid, surely; Irene would not see it in any other light. She felt the need of protecting herself against thoughts which had never until now given her a moment's uneasiness. Happily she was going to lunch with her friend Mrs. Borisoff, anything but a sentimental person. She began to discern a possibility of taking Helen Borisoff into her confidence. With someone she must talk freely; Olga would only harm her; in Helen she might find the tonic of sound sense which her mood demanded.
Olga Hannaford, meanwhile, finished her toilet, and, having had no breakfast, went out a little after midday to the restaurant in Oxford Street where she often lunched. Her walking-dress showed something of the influence of Miss Bonnicastle; it was more picturesque, more likely to draw the eye, than her costume of former days. She walked, too, with an air of liberty which marked her spiritual progress. Women glanced at her and looked away with a toss of the head -- or its more polite equivalent. Men observed her with a smile of interest; "A fine girl," was their comment, or something to that effect.
Strolling westward after her meal, intending to make a circuit by way of Edgware Road, she was near the Marble Arch when a man who had caught sight of her from the top of an omnibus alighted and hastened in her direction. At the sound of his voice, Olga paused, smiling, and gave him her hand with friendliness. He was an Italian, his name Florio; they had met several times at a house which she visited with Miss Bonnicastle. Mr. Florio had a noticeable visage, very dark of tone, eyes which at one time seemed to glow with noble emotion, and at another betrayed excessive shrewdness; heavy eyebrows and long black lashes; a nose of classical Perfection; large mouth with thick and very red lips. He was dressed in approved English fashion, as a man of leisure, wore a massive watchguard across his buff summer waistcoat, and carried a silver-headed cane.
"You are taking a little walk," he said, with a very slight foreign accent. "If you will let me walk with you a little way I shall be honoured. The Park? A delightful day for the Park! Let us walk over the grass, as we may do in this free country. I have something to tell you, Miss Hannaiord."
"That's nice of you, Mr. Florio. So few people tell one anything one doesn't know; but yours is sure to be real news."
"It is -- I assure you it is. But, first of all, I was thinking on the 'bus -- I often ride on the 'bus, it gives one ideas -- I was thinking what a pity they do not use the back of the 'bus driver to display advertisements. It is a loss of space. Those men are so beautifully broad, and one looks at their backs, and there is nothing, nothing to see but an ugly coat. I shall mention my little scheme to a friend of mine, a very practical man."
Olga laughed merrily.
"Oh, you are too clever, Mr. Florio!"
"Oh, I have my little ideas. Do you know, I've just come back from Italy."
"I envy you -- I mean, I envy you for having been there."
"Ah, that is your mistake, dear Miss Hannaford! That is the mistake of the romantic English young lady. Italy? Yes, there is a blue sky -- not always. Yes, there are ruins that interest, if one is educated. And, there is misery, misery! Italy is a poor country, poor, poor, poor, poor." He intoned the words as if speaking his own language. "And poverty is the worst thing in the world. You make an illusion for yourself, Miss Hannaford. For a holiday when one's rich, yes, Italy is not bad -- though there is fever, and there are thieves -- oh, thieves! Of course The man who is poor will steal -- ecco! It amuses me, when the English talk of Italy."
"But you are proud of -- of your memories?"
"Memories!" Mr. Florio laughed a whole melody. "One is not proud of former riches when one has become a beggar. It is you, the English, who can be proud of the past, because you can be proud of the present. You have grown free, free, free! Rich, rich, rich, ah!"
"I am sorry to say that I have not grown rich."
He bent his gaze upon her, and it glowed with tender amorousness.
"You remind me -- I have something to tell you. In Italy, not everybody is quite poor. For example, my grandfather, at Bologna. I have made a visit to my grandfather. He likes me; he admires me because I have intelligence. He will not live very long, that poor grandfather."
Olga glanced at him, and met the queer calculating melancholy of his fine eyes.
"Miss Hannaford, if some day I am rich, I shall of course live in England. In what other country can one live? I shall have a house in the West End; I shall have a carriage; I shall nationalise -- you say naturalise? -- myself, and be an Englishman, not a beggarly Italian. And that will not be long. The poor old grandfather is weak, weak; he decays, he loses his mind; but he has made his testament, oh yes!"
The girl's look wandered about the grassy space, she was uneasy.
"Shall we turn and walk back, Mr. Florio?"
"If you wish, but slowly, slowly. I am so happy to have met you. Your company is a delight to me, Miss Hannaford. Can we not meet more often?"
"I am always glad to see you," she answered nervously.
"Good! -- A thought occurs to me." He pointed to the iron fence they were approaching. "Is not that a waste? Why does not the public authority -- what do you call it? -- make money of these railings? Imagine! One attaches advertisements to the rail, metal plates, of course artistically designed, not to spoil the Park. They might swing in the wind as it blows, and perhaps little bells might ring, to attract attention. A good idea, is it not?"
"A splendid idea," Olga answered, with a laugh.
"Ah! England is a great country! But, Miss Hannaford, there is one thing in which the Italian is not inferior to the Englishman. May I say what that is?"
"There are many things, I am sure ----"
"But there is one thing -- that is Love!"
Olga walked on, head bent, and Florio enveloped her in his gaze.
"To-day I say no more, Miss Hannaford. I had something to tell you, and I have told it. When I have something more to tell we shall meet -- oh, I am sure we shall meet."
"You are staying in England for some time?" said Olga, as if in ordinary conversation.
"For a little time; I come, I go. I have, you know, my affairs, my business. How is your friend, the admirable artist, the charming Miss Bonnicastle?"
"Oh, very well, always well."
"Yes, the English ladies they have wonderful health -- I admire them; but there is one I admire most of all."
A few remarks more, of like tenor, and they drew near again to the Marble Arch. With bows and compliments and significant looks, Mr. Florio walked briskly away in search of an omnibus.
Olga, her eyes cast down as she turned homeward, was not aware that someone who had held her in sight for a long time grew gradually near, until he stepped to her side. It was Mr. Kite. He looked at her with a melancholy smile on his long, lank face, and, when at length the girl saw him, took off his shabby hat respectfully. Olga nodded and walked on without speaking. Kite accompanying her.
Olga was the first to break silence.
"You ought to take your boots to be mended," she said gently. "If it rains, you'll get wet feet, and you know what that means."
"You're very kind to think of it; I will."
"You can pay for them, I hope?"
"Pay? Oh, yes, yes! a trifle such as that -- Have you had a long walk?"
"I met a friend. I may as well tell you; it was the Italian, Mr. Florio."
"I saw you together," said Kite absently, but not resentfully. "I half thought of coming up to be introduced to him. But I'm rather shabby, I feared you mightn't like it."
"It wouldn't have mattered a bit, so far as I'm concerned," replied Olga good-naturedly. "But he isn't the kind of man you'd care for. If he had been, I should have got you to meet him before now."
"You like him?"
"Yes, I rather like him. But it's nothing more than that; don't imagine it. Oh, I had a call from my cousin Irene this morning. We don't quite get on together; she's getting very worldly. Her idea is that one ought to marry cold-bloodedly, just for social advantage, and that kind of thing. No doubt she's going to do it, and then we shall never see each other again, never! -- She tells me that Piers Otway is coming to England again."
"Oh, now I should like to know him, I really should!" exclaimed Kite, with a mild vivacity.
"So you shall, if he stays in London. Perhaps you would suit each other."
"I'm sure, because you like him so much."
"Do I?" asked Olga doubtfully. "Yes, perhaps so. If he hasn't changed for the worse. But it'll be rather irritating if he talks about nothing but Irene still. Oh, that's impossible! Five years; yes, that's impossible."
"One should think the better of him, in a way," ventured Kite.
"Oh, in a way. But when a thing of that sort is hopeless. I'm afraid Irene looks down upon him, just because -- you know. But he's better than most of the men she'll meet in her drawing-rooms, that's Certain. Shall I ask him to come to my place?"
"Do. And I hope he'll stay in England, and that you'll see a good deal of him."
"Because that's the right kind of acquaintance for you, he'll do you good."
Olga laughed a little, and said, with compassionate kindness:
"You are queer!"
"I meant nothing unpleasant, Olga," was the apologetic rejoinder.
"Of course you didn't. Have you had dinner yet?"
"Dinner? Oh yes -- of course, long ago!"
"I know what that means."
"'Sh! 'Sh! May I came home and talk a little?"
Dinner, it might be feared, was no immutable feature of Mr. Kite's day. He had a starved aspect; his long limbs were appallingly meagre; as he strode along, his clothing, thin and disreputable, flapped about him. But his countenance showed nothing whatever of sourness, or of grim endurance. Nor did he appear to be in a feeble state of health; for all his emaciation, his step was firm and he held himself tolerably upright. One thing was obvious, that at Olga's side he forgot his ills. Each time he glanced at her, a strange beautiful smile passed like a light over his hard features, a smile of infinite melancholy, yet of infinite tenderness. The voice in which he addressed her was invariably softened to express something more than homage.
They had the habit of walking side by side, and could keep silence without any feeling of restraint. Kite now and then uttered some word or ejaculation, to which Olga paid no heed; it was only his way, the trick of a man who lived much alone, and who conversed with visions.
On ascending to the room in Great Portland Street, they found Miss Bonnicastle hard at work on a design of considerable size, which hung against the wall. This young lady, for all her sportiveness, was never tempted to jest at the expense of Mr. Kite; removing a charcoal holder from her mouth, she nodded pleasantly, and stood aside to allow the melancholy man a view of her work.
"Astonishing vigour!" said Kite, in his soft, sincere voice. "How I envy you!"
Miss Bonnicastle laughed with self-deprecation. She, no less than Olga Hannaford, credited Kite with wonderful artistic powers; in their view, only his constitutional defect of energy, his incorrigible dreaminess, stood between him and great achievement. The evidence in support of their faith was slight enough; a few sketches, a hint in crayon, or a wash in water-colour, were all he had to show; but Kite belonged to that strange order of men who, seemingly without effort or advantage of any kind, awaken the interest and gain the confidence of certain women. Even Mrs. Hannaford, though a mother's reasons set her against him, had felt this seductive quality in Olga's lover, and liked though she could not approve of him. Powers of fascination in a man very often go together with lax principle, if not with active rascality; Kite was an instance to the contrary. He had a quixotic sensitiveness, a morbid instinct of honour. If it is true that virile force, preferably with a touch of the brutal, has a high place in the natural woman's heart, none the less does an ideal of male purity, of the masculine subdued to gentle virtues, make strong appeal to the imagination in her sex. To the everyday man, Kite seemed a mere pale grotesque, a creature of flabby foolishness. But Olga Hannaford was not the only girl who had dreamed of devoting her life to him. If she could believe his assurance (and she all but did believe it), for her alone had he felt anything worthy to be called love, to her alone had he spoken words of tenderness. The high-tide of her passion had long since ebbed; yet she knew that Kite still had power over her, power irresistible, if he chose to exercise it, and the strange fact that he would not, that, still loving her, he did not seem to be jealous for her love in return, often moved her to bitterness.
She knew his story. He was the natural son of a spendthrift aristocrat, who, after educating him decently had died and left a will which seemed to assure Kite a substantial independence. Unfortunately, the will dealt, for the most part, with property no longer in existence. Kite's income was to be paid by one of the deceased's relatives, who, instead of benefiting largely, found that he came in for a mere pittance; and the proportion of that pittance due to the illegitimate son was exactly forty-five pounds, four shillings, and fourpence per annum. It was paid; it kept Kite alive; also, no doubt, it kept him from doing what he might have done, in art or anything else. On quarterly pay-day the dreamer always spent two or three pounds on gifts to those of his friends who were least able to make practical return. To Olga, of course, he had offered lordly presents, until the day when she firmly refused to take anything more from him. When his purse was empty he earned something by journeyman work in the studio of a portrait painter, a keen man of business, who gave shillings to this assistant instead of the sovereigns that another would have asked for the same labour.
As usual when he came here, Kite settled himself in a chair, stretched out his legs, let his arms depend, and so watched the two girls at work. There was not much conversation; Kite never began it. Miss Bonnicastle hummed, or whistled, or sang, generally the refrains of the music-hall; if work gave her trouble she swore vigorously -- in German, a language with which she was well acquainted and at the sound of her maledictions, though he did not understand them, Kite always threw his head back with a silent laugh. Olga naturally had most of his attention; he often fixed his eyes upon her for five minutes at a time, and Olga, being used to this, was not at all disturbed by it.
When five o'clock came, Miss Bonnicastle flung up her arms and yawned.
"Let's have some blooming tea!" she exclaimed. "All right, I'll get it. I've just about ten times the muscle and go of you two put together; it's only right I should do the slavey."
Kite rose, and reached his hat. Whereupon, with soft pressure of her not very delicate hands, Miss Bonnicastle forced him back into his chair.
"Sit still. Do as I tell you. What's the good of you if you can't help us to drink tea?"
And Kite yielded, as always, wishing he could sit there for ever.
Three weeks later, on an afternoon of rain, the trio were again together in the same way. Someone knocked, and a charwoman at work on the premises handed in a letter for Miss Hannaford.
"I know who this is from," said Olga, looking up at Kite.
"And I can guess," he returned, leaning forward with a look of interest.
She read the note -- only a few lines, and handed it to her friend, remarking:
"He'd better come to-morrow."
"Who's that?" asked Miss Bonnicastle.
The poster artist glanced from one face to the other, with a smile. There had been much talk lately of Otway, who was about to begin business in London; his partner, André Moncharmont, remaining at Odessa. Olga had heard from her mother that Piers wished to see her, and had allowed Mrs. Hannaford to give him her address; he now wrote asking if he might call.
"I'll go and send him a wire," she said. "There isn't time to write. To-morrow's Sunday."
When Olga had run out, Kite, as if examining a poster on the wall, turned his back to Miss Bonnicastle. She, after a glance or two in his direction, addressed him by name, and the man looked round.
"You don't mind if I speak plainly?"
"Of course I don't," he replied, his features distorted, rather than graced, by a smile.
The girl approached him, arms akimbo, but, by virtue of a frank look, suggesting more than usual of womanhood.
"You've got to be either one thing or the other. She doesn't care that" -- a snap of the fingers -- "for this man Otway, and she knows he doesn't care for her. But she's playing him against you, and you must expect more of it. You ought to make up your mind. It isn't fair to her."
"Thank you," murmured Kite, reddening a little. "It's kind of you."
"Well, I hope it is. But she'd be furious if she guessed I'd said such a thing. I only do it because it's for her good as much as yours. Things oughtn't to drag on, you know; it isn't fair to a girl like that."
Kite thrust his hands into his pockets, and drew himself up to a full five feet eleven.
"I'll go away," he said. "I'll go and live in Paris for a bit."
"That's for you to decide. Of course if you feel like that -- it's none of my business, I don't pretend to understand you; I'm not quite sure I understand her. You're a queer couple. All I know is, it's gone on long enough, and it isn't fair to a girl like Olga. She isn't the sort that can doze through a comfortable engagement of ten or twelve years, and surely you know that."
"I'll go away," said Kite again, nodding resolutely.
He turned again to the poster, and Miss Bonnicastle resumed her work. Thus Olga found them when she came back.
"I've asked him to come at three," she said. "You'll be out then, Bonnie. When you come m we'll put the kettle on, and all have tea." She chanted it, to the old nursery tune. "Of course you'll come as well" -- she addressed Kite -- "say about four. It'll be jolly!"
So, on the following afternoon, Olga sat alone, in readiness for her visitor. She had paid a little more attention than usual to her appearance, but was perfectly self-possessed; a meeting with Piers Otway had never yet quickened her pulse, and would not do so to-day. If anything, she suffered a little from low spirits, conscious of having played a rather disingenuous part before Kite, and not exactly knowing to what purpose she had done so. It still rained; it had been gloomy for several days. Looking at the heavy sky above the gloomy street, Olga had a sense of wasted life. She asked herself whether it would not have been better, on the decline of her love-fever, to go back into the so-called respectable world, share her mother's prosperity, make the most of her personal attractions, and marry as other girls did -- if anyone invited her. She was doing no good; all the experience to be had in a life of mild Bohemianism was already tasted, and found rather insipid. An artist she would never become; probably she would never even support herself. To imagine herself really dependent on her own efforts, was to sink into misery and fear. The time had come for a new step, a new beginning, yet all possibilities looked so vague.
A knock at the door. She opened, and saw Piers Otway.
If they had been longing to meet, instead of scarcely ever giving a thought to each other, they could not have clasped hands with more warmth. They gazed eagerly into each other's eyes, and seemed too much overcome for ordinary words of greeting. Then Olga saw that Otway looked nothing like so well as when on his visit to England some couple of years ago. He, in turn, was surprised at the change in Olga's features; the bloom of girlhood had vanished; she was handsome, striking, but might almost have passed for a married woman of thirty.
"A queer place, isn't it?" she said, laughing, as Piers cast a glance round the room.
"Is this your work?" he asked, pointing to the posters.
"No, no! Mine isn't for exhibition. It hides itself -- with the modesty of supreme excellence!"
Again they looked at each other; Olga pointed to a chair, herself became seated, and explained the conditions of her life here. Bending forward, his hands folded between his knees, Otway listened with a face on which trouble began to reassert itself after the emotion of their meeting.
"So you have really begun business at last?" said Olga.
"Yes. Rather hopefully, too."
"You don't look hopeful, somehow."
"Oh, that's nothing. Moncharmont has scraped together a fair capital, and as for me, well, a friend has come to my help, I mustn't say who it is. Yes, things look promising enough, for a start. Already I've seen an office in the City, which I think I shall take. I shall decide to-morrow, and then -- avos!"
"What does that mean?"
"A common word in Russian. It means 'Fire away.'"
"I must remember it," said Olga, laughing. "It'll make a change from English and French slang -- Avos!"
There was a silence longer than they wished. Olga broke it by asking abruptly:
"Have you seen my mother?"
" I'm afraid she's not well."
"Then why do you keep away from her?" said Piers, with good-humoured directness. "Is it really necessary for you to live here? She would be much happier if you went back."
"I'm not sure of that."
"But I am, from what she says in her letters, and I should have thought that you, too, would prefer it to this life."
He glanced round the room. Olga looked vexed, and spoke with a note of irony.
"My tastes are unaccountable, I'm afraid. You, no doubt, find it difficult to understand them. So does my cousin Irene. You have heard that she is going to be married?"
Piers, surprised at her change of tone, regarded her fixedly, until she reddened and her eyes fell.
"Is the engagement announced, then?"
"I should think so; but I'm not much in the way of hearing fashionable gossip."
Still Piers regarded her; still her cheeks kept their colour, and her eyes refused to meet his.
"I see I have offended you," he said quietly. "I'm very sorry. Of course I went too far in speaking like that of the life you have chosen. I had no righ ----"
"Nonsense! If you mustn't tell me what you think, who may?"
Again the change was so sudden, this time from coldness to smiling familiarity, that Piers felt embarrassed.
"The fact is," Olga pursued, with a careless air, "I don't think I shall go on with this much longer. If you said what you have in your mind, that I should never be any good as an artist, you would be quite right. I haven't had the proper training; it'll all come to nothing. And -- talking of engagements -- I daresay you know that mine is broken off?"
"No, I didn't know that."
"It is. Mr. Kite and I are only friends now. He'll look in presently, I think. I should like you to meet him, if you don't mind."
"Of course I shall be very glad."
"All this, you know," said Olga, with a laugh, "would be monstrously irregular in decent society, but decent society is often foolish, don't you think?"
"To be sure it is," Piers answered genially, "and I never meant to find fault with your preference for a freer way of living. It is only -- you say I may speak freely -- that I didn't like to think of your going through needless hardships."
"You don't think, then, it has done me good?"
"I am not at all sure of that."
Olga lay back in her chair, as if idly amused.
"You see," she said, "how we have both changed. We are both much more positive, in different directions. To be sure, it makes conversation more interesting. But the change is greatest in me. You always aimed at success in a respectable career."
Otway looked puzzled, a little disconcerted.
"Really, is that how I always struck you? To me it's new light on my own character."
"How did you think of yourself, then?" she asked, looking at him from beneath drooping lids.
"I hardly know; I have thought less on that subject than on most."
Again there came a silence, long enough to be embarrassing. Then Olga took up a sketch that was lying on the table, and held it to her visitor.
"Don't you think that good? It's one of Miss Bonnicastle's. Let us talk about her; she'll be here directly. We don't seem to get on, talking about ourselves."
The sketch showed an elephant sitting upright, imbibing with gusto from a bottle of some much-advertised tonic. Piers broke into a laugh. Other sketches were exhibited, and thus they passed the time until Miss Bonnicastle and Kite arrived together.
Strangers with whom Piers Otway had business at this time saw in him a young man of considerable energy, though rather nervous and impulsive, capable in all that concerned his special interests, not over-sanguine, inclined to brevity of speech, and scrupulously courteous in a cold way. He seldom smiled; his clean-cut, intelligent features expressed tension of the whole man, ceaseless strain and effort without that joy of combat which compensates physical expenditure. He looked in fair, not robust, health; a shadowed pallor of complexion was natural to him, and made noticeable the very fine texture of his skin, which quickly betrayed in delicate flushes any strong feeling. He shook hands with a short, firm grip which argued more muscle than one might have supposed in him. His walk was rapid; his bearing upright; his glance direct, with something of apprehensive pride. The observant surmised a force more or less at odds with the facts of life. Shrewd men of commerce at once perceived his qualities, but reserved their judgment as to his chances he was not, in any case, altogether of their world, however well he might have studied its principles and inured himself to its practice.
He took rooms in Guildford Street. Indifferent to locality, asking nothing more than decency in his immediate surroundings, he fell by accident on the better kind of lodging-house, and was at once what is called comfortable; his landlady behaved to him with a peculiar respectfulness, often noticeable in the uneducated who had relations with Otway, and explained perhaps by his quiet air of authority. To those who served him, no man was more considerate, but he never became familiar with them; without a trace of pretentiousness in his demeanour, he was viewed by such persons as one sensibly above them, with some solid right to rule.
In the selection of his place of business, he of course exercised more care, but here, too, luck favoured him. A Russian merchant moving into more spacious quarters ceded to him a small office in Fenchurch Street, with furniture which he purchased at a very reasonable price. To begin with, he hired only a lad; it would be seen in a month or so whether he had need of more assistance. If business grew, he was ready to take upon himself a double share, for the greater his occupation the less his time for brooding. Labour was what he asked, steady, dogged toil; and his only regret was that he could not work with his hands in the open air, at some day-long employment followed by hunger and weariness and dreamless sleep.
The partner whose name he did not wish to mention was John Jacks. Very soon after learning the result to the young man of Jerome Otway's death (the knowledge came in an indirect way half a year later), Mr. Jacks wrote to Piers a letter implying what he knew, and made offer of a certain capital towards the proposed business. Piers did not at once accept the offer, for difficulties had arisen on the side of his friend Moncharmont, who, on Otway's announcement of inability to carry out the scheme they had formed together, turned in another direction. A year passed; John Jacks again wrote; and, Moncharmont's other projects having come to nothing, the friends decided at length to revert to their original plan, with the difference that a third partner supplied capital equal to that which Moncharmont himself put into the venture. The arrangement was strictly business-like; John Jacks, for all his kindliness, had no belief in anything else where money was concerned, and Piers Otway would not have listened to any other sort of suggestion. Piers put into the affair only his brains, his vigour, and his experience; he was to reap no reward but that fairly resulting from the exercise of these qualities.
Only a day or two before leaving Odessa he received a letter from Mrs. Hannaford, in which she hinted that Irene Derwent was likely to marry. On reaching London, he found at the hotel her answer to his reply; she now named Miss Derwent's wooer, and spoke as if the marriage were practically a settled thing. This turned to an ordeal for Piers what would otherwise have been a pleasure, his call upon John Jacks. He had to dine at Queen's Gate; be had to converse with Arnold Jacks; and for the first time in his life he knew the meaning of personal jealousy.
The sight of Irene's successful lover made active in him what had for years been only a latent passion. All at once it seemed impossible that he should have lost what hitherto he had scarcely ever felt it possible to win. An unconsciously reared edifice of hope collapsed about him, laid waste his life, left him standing in desolate revolt against fate. Arnold Jacks was the embodiment of a cruel destiny; Piers regarded him, not so much with hate, as with a certain bitter indignation. He had no desire to disparage the man, to caricature his assailable points; rather, in undiminished worship of Irene, he exaggerated the qualities which had won her, the power to which her gallant pride had yielded. These qualities, that power, were so unlike anything in himself, that they gave boundless scope to a jealous imagination. He knew so little of the man, of his pursuits, his society, his prospects or ambitions. But he could not imagine that Irene's love would be given to any man of ordinary type; there must be a nobility in John Jacks' son, and indeed, knowing the father, one could readily believe it. Piers suffered a cruel sense of weakness, of littleness, by comparison.
And Arnold behaved so well to him, with such frank graceful courtesy; to withhold the becoming return was to feel oneself a shrinking creature, basely envious.
It was at Mrs. Hannaford's suggestion that he asked to be allowed to call on Olga. A few days later, having again exchanged letters with Irene's aunt, he sat writing in the office after business hours, his door and that of the anteroom both open. Footsteps on the staircase had become infrequent since the main exodus of clerks; he listened whenever there was a sound, and looked towards the entrance. There, at length, appeared a lady, Mrs. Hannaford herself. Piers went forward, and greeted her without words, motioning her with his hand into the inner office; the outer door he latched.
"So I have tracked you to your lair!" exclaimed the visitor, with a nervous laugh, as she sank in fatigue upon the chair he placed for her. "I looked for your name on the wall downstairs, forgetting that you are Moncharmont & Co."
"It is very, very kind of you to have taken all this trouble!"
He saw in her face the signs of ill-health for which he was prepared, and noticed with pain her tremulousness and shortness of breath after the stair-climbing. The friendship which had existed between them since his boyhood was true and deep as ever; Piers Otway could, as few men can, be the loyal friend of a woman. A reverent tenderness coloured his feeling towards Mrs. Hannaford; it was something like what he would have felt for his mother had she now been living. He did not give much thought to her character or circumstances; she had always been kind to him, and he in turn had always liked her: that was enough. Anything in her service that might fall within his power to do, he would do right gladly.
"So you saw poor Olga?"
"Yes, and the friend she lives with -- and Mr. Kite."
"Ah! Mr. Kite!" The speaker's face brightened. "I have news about him; it came this morning. He has gone to Paris, and means to stay there."
"Indeed! I heard no syllable of that the other day."
"But it is true. And Olga's letter to me, in which she mentions it; gives hope that that is the end of their engagement. Naturally, the poor child won't say it in so many words, but it is to be read between the lines. What's more, she is willing to come for her holiday with me! It has made me very happy! -- I told you I was going to Malvern; my brother thinks that is most likely to do me good. Irene will go down with me, and stay a day or two, and then I hope to have Olga. It is delightful! I hadn't dared to hope. Perhaps we shall really come together again, after this dreary time!"
Piers was listening, but with a look which had become uneasily preoccupied.
"I am as glad, almost, as you can be," he said. "Malvern, I never was there."
"So healthy, my brother says! And Shakespeare's country, you know; we shall go to Stratford, which I have never seen. I have a feeling that I really shall get better. Everything is more hopeful."
Piers recalled Olga's mysterious hints about her mother. Glancing at the worn face, with its vivid eyes, he could easily conceive that this ill-health had its cause in some grave mental trouble.
"Have you met your brother?" she asked.
"My brother? Oh no!" was the careless reply. Then on a sudden thought, Piers added, "You don't keep up your acquaintance with him, do you?"
"Oh -- I have seen him -- now and then ----"
There was a singular hesitancy in her answer to the abrupt question. Piers, preoccupied as he was, could not but remark Mrs. Hannaford's constraint, almost confusion. At once it struck him that Daniel had been borrowing money of her, and the thought aroused strong indignation. His own hundred and fifty pounds he had never recovered, for all Daniel's fine speeches, and notwithstanding the fact that he had taken suggestive care to let the borrower know his address in. Russia. Rapidly he turned in his mind the question whether he ought not to let Mrs. Hannaford know of Daniel's untrustworthiness; but before he could decide, she launched into another subject.
"So this is to be your place of business? Here you will sit day after day. If good wishes could help, how you would flourish I Is it orthodox to pray for a friend's success in business?"
"Why not? Provided you add -- so long as he is guilty of no rascality."
"That, you will never be."
"Why, to tell you the truth, I shouldn't know how to go about it. Not everyone who wishes becomes a rascal in business. It's difficult enough for me to pursue commerce on the plain, honest track; knavery demands an expertness altogether beyond me. Wherefore, let us give thanks for my honest stupidity!"
They chatted a while of these things. Then Piers, grasping his courage, uttered what was burning within him.
"When is Miss Derwent to be married?"
Mrs. Hannaford's eyes escaped his hard look. She murmured that no date had yet been settled.
"Tell me -- I beg you will tell me -- is her engagement absolutely certain?"
"I feel sure it is."
"No! I want more than that. Do you know that it is?"
"I can only say that her father believes it to be a certain thing. No announcement has yet been made."
"H'm! Then it isn't settled at all."
Piers sat stiffly upon his chair. He held an ivory paperknife, which he kept bending across his knee, and of a sudden the thing snapped in two. But he paid no attention, merely flinging the handle away. Mrs. Hannaford looked him in the face; he was deeply flushed; his lips and his throat trembled like those of a child on the point of tears.
"Don't! Oh, don't take it so to heart! It seems impossible -- after all this time ----"
"Impossible or not, it is!" he replied impetuously. "Mrs. Hannaford, you will do something for me. You will let me come down to Malvern, whilst she is with you, and see her -- speak with her alone."
She drew back, astonished.
"Oh! how can you think of it, Mr. Otway?"
"Why should I not?" he spoke in a low and soft voice, but with vehemence. "Does she know all about me?"
"Everything. It was not I who told her. There has been talk ----"
"Of course there has" -- he smiled -- "and I am glad of it. I wished her to know. Otherwise, I should have told her. Yes, I should have told her! It shocks you, Mrs. Hannaford? But try to understand what this means to me. It is the one thing I greatly desire in all the world, shall I be hindered by a petty consideration of etiquette? A wild desire -- you think. Well, the man sentenced to execution clings to life, clings to it with a terrible fierce desire; is it less real because utterly hopeless? Perhaps I am behaving frantically; I can't help myself. As that engagement is still doubtful -- you admit it to be doubtful -- I shall speak before it is too late. Why not have done so before? Simply, I hadn't the courage. I suppose I was too young. It didn't mean so much to me as it does now. Something tells me to act like a man, before it is too late. I feel I can do it. I never could have, till now."
"But listen to me -- do listen! Think how extraordinary it will seem to her. She has no suspicion of ----"
"She has! She knows! I sent her: a year ago, a poem -- some verses of my writing, which told her."
Mrs. Hannaford kept silence with a face of distress.
"Is there any harm," he pursued, "in asking you whether she has ever spoken of me lately -- since that time?"
"She has," admitted the other reluctantly, "but not in a way to make one think ----"
"No, no! I expected nothing of the kind. She has mentioned me; that is enough. I am not utterly expelled from her thoughts, as a creature outlawed by all decent people ----"
"Of course not. She is too reasonable and kind."
"That she is!" exclaimed Piers, with a passionate delight on his visage and in his voice. "And she would rather I spoke to her -- I feel she would! She, with her fine intelligence and noble heart, she would think it dreadful that a man did not dare to approach her, just because of something not his fault, something that made him no bit the less a man, and capable of honour. I know that thought would shake her with pity and indignation. So far I can read in her. What! You think I know her too little? And the thought of her never out of my mind for these five years! I have got to know her better and better, as time went on. Every word she spoke at Ewell stayed in my memory, and by perpetual repetition has grown into my life. Every sentence has given me its full meaning. I didn't need to be near her to study her. She was in my mind; I heard her and saw her whenever I wished; as I have grown older and more experienced in life, I have been better able to understand her. I used to think this was enough. I had -- you know -- that exalted sort of mood; Dante's Beatrice, and all that! It was enough for the time, seeing that I lived with it, and through it. But now -- no! And there is no single reason why I should be ashamed to stand before her, and tell her that -- What I feel."
He checked himself, and gloomed for an instant, then continued in another tone:
"Yet that isn't true. There are reasons -- I believe no man living could say that when speaking of such a woman as Irene Derwent. I cannot face her without shame -- the shame of every man who stands before a pure-hearted girl. We have to bear that, and to hide it as best we can."
The listener bent upon him a wondering gaze, and seemed unable to avert it, till his look answered her.
"You will give me this opportunity, Mrs. Hannaford?" he added pleadingly.
"I have no right whatever to refuse it. Besides, how could I, if I wished?
"When shall I come? I must remember that I am not free to wander about. If it could be a Sunday ----"
"I have forgotten something I ought to have told you already," said Mrs. Hannaford. "Whilst she was on her travels, Irene had an offer from someone else."
"Can that surprise one? Should I wonder if I were told she had fifty?"
"Yes, but this was not of the ordinary kind. You know that Mr. Jacks is well acquainted with Trafford Romaine. And it was Trafford Romaine himself."
The news did not fail of its impression. Piers smiled vaguely, and on the smile came a look of troubled pride.
"Well, it is not astonishing, but it gives me a better opinion of the man. I shall always feel a sort of sympathy when I come across his name. Why did you think I ought to know?"
"For a reason I feel to be rather foolish, now I come to speak of it," replied Mrs. Hannaford. "But -- I had a feeling that Irene is by nature rather ambitious; and if, after such an experience as that, she so soon accepts a man who has done nothing particular, whose position is not brilliant ----"
"I understand. She must, you mean, be very strongly drawn to him. But then I needed no such proof of her feeling -- if it is certain that she is going to marry him. Could I imagine her marrying a man for any reason but one? Surely you could not?"
"No -- no ----"
The denial had a certain lack of emphasis. Otway's eyes flashed.
"You doubt? You speak in that way of Irene Derwent?"
Gazing into Mrs. Hannaford's face, he saw rising tears. She gave a little laugh, which did not disguise her emotion as she answered him.
"Oh, what an idealist it makes a man! -- don't talk of your unworthiness. If some women are good, it is because they try hard to be what the best men think them. No, no, I have no doubts of Irene. And that is why it really grieves me to see you still hoping. She would never have gone so far ----"
"But there's the very question!" cried Piers excitedly. "Who knows how far she has gone? It may be the merest conjecture on your part, and her father's. People are so ready to misunderstand a girl who respects herself enough to be free and frank in her association with men. Let me shame myself by making a confession. Five years ago, when I all but went mad about her, I was contemptible enough to think she had treated me cruelly." He gave a scornful laugh. "You know what I mean. At Ewell, when I lived only for my books, and she drew me away from them. Conceited idiot! And she so bravely honest, so simple and direct, so human! Was it her fault if I lost my head?"
"She certainly changed the whole course of your life," said Mrs. Hannaford thoughtfully.
"True, she did. And to my vast advantage! What should I have become? A clerkship at Whitehall -- heaven defend us! At best a learned pedant, in my case. She sent me out into the world, where there is always hope. She gave me health and sanity. Above all, she set before me an ideal which has never allowed me to fall hopelessly -- never will let me become a contented brute! If she never addresses another word to me, I shall owe her an infinite debt as long as I live. And I want her to hear that from my own lips, if only once."
Mrs. Hannaford held out her hand impulsively.
"Do what you feel you must. You make me feel very strangely. I never knew what ----"
Her voice faltered. She rose.
When she had left him, Piers sat for some time communing with his thoughts. Then he went home to the simple meal he called dinner, and afterwards, as the evening was clear, walked for a couple of hours away from the louder streets. His resolve gave him a night of quiet rest.
Again Irene was going down into Cheshire, to visit the two old ladies, her relatives. It was arranged that she should accompany Mrs. Hannaford to Malvern, and spend a couple of days there. The travellers arrived on a Friday evening. Before leaving town Mrs. Hannaford had written to Piers Otway to give him the address of the house at Malvern in which rooms had been taken for them.
On Saturday morning there was sunshine over the hills. Irene walked, and talked, but it was evident with thoughts elsewhere. When they sat down to rest and to enjoy the landscape before them, the rich heart of England, with its names that echo in history and in song, Irene plucked at the grass beside her, and presently began to strip a stem, after the manner of children playing at a tell-fortune game. She stripped it to the end; her hands fell and she heaved a little sigh. From that moment she grew merry and talked without pre-occupation.
After lunch she wrote a short letter, and herself took it to the post. Mrs. Hannaford was lying on the sofa, with eyes closed, but not in sleep; her forehead and lips betraying the restless thoughts which beset her now as always. On returning, Irene took a chair, as if to read; but she gave only an absent glance at the paper in her hands, and smiled to herself in musing.
"I'm sure those thoughts are worth far more than a penny," fell from the lady on the couch, who had observed her for a moment.
"I may as well tell you them," was the gently toned reply, as Irene bent forward. "I have just done something decisive."
Mrs. Hannaford raised herself, a sudden anxiety in her features; she waited.
"You guess, aunt? Yes, that's it, I have written to Mr. Jacks."
"To -- to ----?"
"To answer an ultimatum. In the right way, I hope; any way, it's done."
"You have accepted him?"
Mrs. Hannaford tried to smile, but could not smooth away the uneasiness which had come into her look. She spoke a few of the natural words, and in doing so looked at the clock.
"There is something I have forgotten," she said, starting to her feet hurriedly. "You reminded me of it -- speaking of a letter; I must send a telegram at once -- indeed I must. No, no, I will go myself, dear. I had rather!"
She hastened away. leaving Irene in wonder.
When they were together again, Mrs. Hannaford seemed anxious to atone for her brevity on the all-important subject. She spoke with pleasure of her niece's decision thought it wise; abounded in happy prophecy; through the rest of the day she had a face which spoke relief, all but contentment. The morning of Sunday saw her nervous. She made an excuse of the slightly clouded sky for lingering within doors; she went often to the window and looked this way and that along the road, as if judging the weather, until Irene, when the church bells had ceased, grew impatient for the open air.
"Yes, we will go," said her aunt. "I think we safely may."
Each went to her room to make ready. At Mrs. Hannaford's door, just as she was about to come forth, there sounded a knock; the servant announced that a gentleman had called to see her -- Mr. Otway. Quivering, death-pale, she ran to the sitting-room. Irene had not yet reappeared. Piers Otway stood there alone.
"You didn't get my telegram?" broke from her lips, in a hurried whisper. "Oh! I feared it would be too late, and all is too late."
"You mean ----"
"The engagement is announced."
She had time to say no more. At that moment Irene entered the room, dressed for walking. At first she did not seem to recognise the visitor, then her face lighted up; she smiled, subdued the slight embarrassment which had succeeded to her perplexity, and stepped quickly forward.
"Mr. Otway! You are staying here?"
"A few hours only. I came down yesterday on business -- which is finished."
His voice was so steady, his bearing so self-possessed, that Irene found herself relieved from the immediate restraint of the situation. She could not quite understand his presence here; there was a mystery, in which she saw that her aunt was involved; the explanation might be forthcoming after their visitor's departure. For the moment, enough to remark that the sun was dispersing the clouds, and that all were ready to enjoy a walk. Mrs. Hannaford, glancing anxiously at Irene before she spoke, hoped that Mr. Otway would return with them to lunch; Irene added her voice to the invitation; and Piers at once accepted.
Talk suggested by the locality occupied them until they were away from the houses; by that time Irene had thoroughly reassured herself, and was as tranquil in mind as in manner. Whatever the meaning of Piers Otway's presence, no difficulty could come about in the few hours he was to spend with them. Involuntarily she found herself listening to the rhythm of certain verses which she had received some months ago, and which she still knew by heart; but nothing in the author's voice or look indicated a desire to remind her of that romantic passage in their acquaintance. If they were still to meet from time to time -- and why not? -- common sense must succeed to vain thoughts in the poet's mind. He was quite capable of the transition, she felt sure. His way of talking, the short and generally pointed sentences in which he spoke on whatever subject, betokened a habit of lucid reflection. Had it been permissible, she would have dwelt with curiosity on the problem of Piers Otway's life and thoughts; but that she resolutely ignored, strong in the irrevocable choice which she had made only yesterday. He was interesting, but not to her. She knew him on the surface, and cared to know no more.
Business was a safe topic; at the first noticeable pause, Irene led to it.
Piers laughed with pleasure as he began to describe André Moncharmont. A man of the happiest vivacity, of the sweetest humour, irresistibly amusing, yet never ridiculous -- entirely competent in business, yet with a soul as little mercantile as man's could be. Born a French Swiss, be had lived a good deal in Italy, and had all the charm of Italian manners; but in whatever country, he made himself at home, and by virtue of his sunny temper saw only the best in each nationality. His recreation was music, and he occasionally composed.
"There is a song of Musset's -- you know it, perhaps -- beginning 'Quand on perd, par triste occurrence' -- which he has set, to my mind, perfectly. I want him to publish it. If he does I must let you see it."
Irene did not know the verses and made no remark.
"There are English men of business," pursued Otway, "who would smile with pity at Moncharmont. He is by no means their conception of the merchant. Yet the world would be a vastly better place if its business were often in the hands of such men. He will never make a large fortune, no; but he will never fall into poverty. He sees commerce from the human point of view, not as the brutal pitiless struggle which justifies every form of ferocity and of low cunning. I never knew him utter an ignoble thought about trade and money-making. An English acquaintance asked me once, 'Is he a gentleman?' I was obliged to laugh -- delicious contrast between what he meant by a gentleman and all I see in Moncharmont."
"I picture him," said Irene, smiling, "and I picture the person who made that inquiry."
Piers flashed a look of gratitude. He had, as yet, hardly glanced at her; he durst not; his ordeal was to be gone through as became a man. Her voice, at moments, touched him to a sense of faintness; he saw her without turning his head; the wave of her dress beside him was like a perfume, was like music; part of him yielded, languished, part made splendid resistance.
"He is a lesson in civilisation. If trade is not to put an end to human progress, it must be pursued in Moncharmont's spirit. It's only returning to a better time; our man of business is a creation of our century, and as bad a thing as it has produced. Commerce must be humanised once more. We invented machinery, and it has enslaved us -- a rule of iron, the servile belief that money-making is an end in itself, to be attained by hard selfishness."
He checked himself, laughed, and said something about the beauty of the lane along which they were walking.
"Don't you think," fell from Irene's lips, "that Mr. John Jacks is a very human type of the man of business?"
"Indeed he is!" replied Piers, with spirit. "An admirable type."
"I have been told that he owed most of his success to his brothers, who are a different sort of men."
"His wealth, perhaps."
"Yes, there's a difference," said Irene, glancing at him. "You may be successful without becoming wealthy; though not of course in the common opinion. But what would have been the history of England these last fifty years, but for our men of iron selfishness? Isn't it a fact that only in this way could we have built up an Empire which ensures the civilisation of the world?"
Piers could not answer with his true thought, for he knew all that was implied in her suggestion of that view. He bent his head and spoke very quietly.
"Some of our best men think so."
An answer which gratified Irene more keenly than he imagined; she showed it in her face.
When they returned to luncheon, and the ladies went upstairs, Mrs. Hannaford stepped into her niece's room.
"What you told me yesterday," she asked, in a nervous undertone, "may it be repeated?"
"Certainly -- to anyone."
"Then please not to come down until I have had a few minutes' talk with Mr. Otway. All this shall be explained, dear, when we are alone again."
On entering the sitting-room Irene found it harder to preserve a natural demeanour than at her meeting with the visitor a couple of hours ago. Only when she had heard him speak and in just the same voice as during their walk was she able to turn frankly towards him. His look had not changed. Impossible to divine the thoughts hidden by his smile; he bore himself with perfect control.
At table all was cheerfulness. Speaking of things Russian, Irene recalled her winter in Finland, which she had so greatly enjoyed.
"I remember," said Otway, "you had just returned when I met you for the first time."
It was said with a peculiar intonation, which fell agreeably on the listener's ear; a note familiar, in the permitted degree, yet touchingly respectful; a world of emotion subdued to graceful friendliness. Irene passed over the reminiscence with a light word or two, and went on to gossip merely of trifles.
"Do you like caviare, Mr. Otway?"
"Except perhaps that supplied by the literary censor," was his laughing reply.
"Now I am intriguée. Please explain."
"We call caviare the bits blacked out in our newspapers and periodicals."
"Unpalatable enough!" laughed Irene. "How angry that would make me!"
"I got used to it," said Piers, "and thought it rather good fun sometimes. After all, a wise autocrat might well prohibit newspapers altogether, don't you think? They have done good, I suppose, but they are just as likely to do harm. When the next great war comes, newspapers will be the chief cause of it. And for mere profit, that's the worst. There are newspaper proprietors in every country, who would slaughter half mankind for the pennies of the half who were left, without caring a fraction of a penny whether they had preached war for a truth or a lie."
"But doesn't a newspaper simply echo the opinions and feelings of its public?"
"I'm afraid it manufactures opinion, and stirs up feeling. Consider how very few people know or care anything about most subjects of international quarrel. A mere handful at the noisy centre of things who make the quarrel. The business of newspapers, in general, is to give a show of importance to what has no real importance at all -- to prevent the world from living quietly -- to arouse bitterness when the natural man would be quite different."
"Oh, surely you paint them too black! We must live, we can't let the world stagnate. Newspapers only express the natural life of peoples, acting and interacting."
"I suppose I quarrel with them," said Piers, once more subduing himself, "because they have such gigantic power and don't make anything like the best use of it."
"That is to say, they are the work of men -- I don't mean," Irene added laughingly, "of men instead of women. Though I'm not sure that women wouldn't manage journalism better, if it were left to them."
"A splendid idea! All men to go about their affairs and women to report and comment. Why, it would solve every problem of society! There's the hope of the future, beyond a doubt! Why did I never think of it!"
The next moment Piers was talking about nightingales, how he had heard them sing in Little Russia, where their song is sweeter than in any other part of Europe. And so the meal passed pleasantly, as did the hour or two after it, until it was time for Otway to take leave.
"You travel straight back to London?" asked Irene.
"Straight back," he answered, his eyes cast down.
"To-morrow," said Mrs. Hannaford, "we think of going to Stratford."
Piers had an impulse which made his hands tremble and his head throb; in spite of himself he had all but asked whether, if he stayed at Malvern overnight, he might accompany them on that expedition. Reason prevailed, but only just in time, and the conquest left him under a gloomy sense of self-pity, which was the worst thing he had suffered all day. Not even Mrs. Hannaford's whispered words on his arrival had been so hard to bear.
He sat in silence, wishing to rise, unable to do so. When at length he stood up, Irene let her eyes fall upon him, and continued to observe him, as if but half consciously whilst he shook hands with Mrs. Hannaford. He turned to her, and his lips moved, but what he had tried to say went unexpressed. Nor did Irene speak; she could have uttered only a civil commonplace, and the tragic pallor of his countenance in that moment kept her mute. He touched her hand and was gone.
When the house door had closed behind him, the eyes of the two women met. Standing as before, they conversed with low voices, with troubled brows. Mrs. Hannaford rapidly explained her part in what had happened.
"You will forgive me, Irene? I see now that I ought to have told you about it yesterday."
"Better as it was, perhaps, so far as I am concerned. But he -- I'm sorry ----"
"He behaved well, don't you think?"
"Yes," replied Irene thoughtfully, slowly, "he behaved well."
They moved apart, and Irene laid her hand on a book, but did not sit down.
"How old is he?" she asked of a sudden.
"One would take him for more. But of course his ways of thinking show how young he is." She fluttered the pages of her book, and smiled. "It will be interesting to see him in another five years."
That was all. Neither mentioned Otway's name again during the two more days they spent together.
But Irene's mind was busy with the contrast between him and Arnold Jacks. She pursued this track of thought whithersoever it led her, believing it a wholesome exercise in her present mood. Her choice was made, and irrevocable; reason bade her justify it by every means that offered. And she persuaded herself that nothing better could have happened, at such a juncture, than this suggestion of an alternative so widely different.
An interesting boy -- six-and-twenty is still a boyish age -- with all sorts of vague idealisms; nothing ripe; nothing that convinced; a dreary cosmopolite, little likely to achieve results in any direction. On the other hand, a mature and vigorous man, English to the core, stable in his tested views of life, already an active participant in the affairs of the nation and certain to move victoriously onward; a sure patriot, a sturdy politician. It was humiliating to Piers Otway. Indeed, unfair!
On Monday, when she returned from her visit to Stratford, a telegram awaited her. "Thank you, letter tomorrow, Arnold." That pleased her; the British laconicism; the sensible simplicity of the thing! And when the letter arrived (two pages and a half) it seemed a suitable reply to hers of Saturday, in which she had used only everyday words and phrases. No gushing in Arnold Jacks! He was "happy," he was "grateful"; what more need an honest man say to the woman who has accepted him? She was his "Dearest Irene"; and what more could she ask to be?
A curious thing happened that evening. Mrs. Hannaford and her niece, both tired after the day's excursion, and having already talked over its abundant interests, sat reading, or pretending to read. Suddenly, Irene threw her book aside, with a movement of impatience, and stood up.
"Don't you find it very close?" she said, almost irritably. "I shall go upstairs. Good-night!"
Her aunt gazed at her in surprise.
"You are tired, my dear."
"I suppose I am -- Aunt, there is something I should like to say, if you will let me. You are very kind and good, but that makes you, sometimes, a little indiscreet. Promise me, please, never to make me the subject of conversation with anyone to whom you cannot speak of me quite openly, before all the world."
Mrs. Hannaford was overcome with astonishment, with distress. She tried to reply, but before she could shape a word Irene had swept from the room.
When they met again at breakfast, the girl stepped up to her aunt and kissed her on both cheeks -- an unusual greeting. She was her bright self again; talked merrily; read aloud a letter from her father, which proved that at the time of writing he had not seen Arnold Jacks.
"I must write to the Doctor to-morrow," she said, with an air of reflection.
At ten o'clock they drove to the station. While Miss Derwent took her ticket Mrs. Hannaford walked on the platform. On issuing from the booking-office, Irene saw her aunt in conversation with a man, who, in the same moment, turned abruptly and walked away. Neither she nor her aunt spoke of this incident, but Irene noticed that the other was a little flushed.
She took her seat; Mrs. Hannaford stood awaiting the departure of the train. Before it moved, the man Irene had noticed came back along the platform, and passed them without a sign. Irene saw his face, and seemed to recognise it, but could not remember who he was.
Half an hour later, the face came back to her, and with it a name.
"Daniel Otway!" she exclaimed to herself.
It was five years and more since her one meeting with him at Ewell, but the man, on that occasion, had impressed her strongly in a very disagreeable way. She had since heard of him, in relation to Piers Otway's affairs, and knew that her aunt had received a call from him in Bryanston Square. What could be the meaning of this incident on the platform? Irene wondered, and had an unpleasant feeling about it.
On the journey homeward, and for two or three days after, Piers held argument with his passions, trying to persuade himself that he had in truth lost nothing, inasmuch as his love had never been founded upon a reasonable hope. Irene Derwent was neither more nor less to him now than she had been ever since he first came to know her: a far ideal, the woman he would fain call wife, but only m a dream could think of winning. What audacity had speeded him on that wild expedition? It was well that he had been saved from declaring his folly to Irene herself, who would have shared the pain her answer inflicted. Nay, when the moment came, reason surely would have checked his absurd impulse. In seeing her once more, he saw how wide was the distance between them. No more of that! He had lost nothing but a moment's illusion.
The ideal remained; the worship, the gratitude. How much she had been to him! Rarely a day -- very rarely a day -- that the thought of Irene did not warm his heart and exalt his ambition. He had yielded to the fleshly impulse, and the measure of his lapse was the sincerity of that nobler desire; he had not the excuse of the ordinary man, nor ever tried to allay his conscience with facile views of life. What times innumerable had he murmured her name, until it was become to him the only woman's name that sounded in truth womanly -- all others cold to his imagination. What long evenings had he passed, yonder by the Black Sea, content merely to dream of Irene Derwent; how many a summer night had he wandered in the acacia-planted streets of Odessa, about and about the great square, with its trees, where stands the cathedral; how many a time had his heart throbbed all but to bursting when he listened to the music on the Boulevard, and felt so terribly alone -- alone! Irene was England. He knew nothing of the patriotism which is but shouted politics; from his earliest years of intelligence he had learnt, listening to his father, a contempt for that loud narrowness; but the tongue which was Irene's, the landscape where shone Irene's figure -- these were dear to him for Irene's sake. He believed in his heart of hearts that only the Northern Island could boast the perfect woman -- because he had found her there.
Should he talk of loss -- he who had gained so unspeakably by an ideal love through the hot years of his youth, who to the end of his life would be made better by it? That were the basest ingratitude. Irene owed him nothing, yet had enriched him beyond calculation. He did not love her less; she was the same power in his life. This sinking of the heart, this menace of gloom and rebellion, was treachery to his better self. He fought manfully against it.
Circumstances were unfavourable to such a struggle. Work, absorption in the day's duty, well and good; but when work and duty led one into the City of London! At first, he had found excitement in the starting of his business; so much had to be done, so many points to be debated and decided, so many people to be seen and conversed with, contended with; it was all an exhilarating effort of mind and body. He felt the joy of combat; sped to the City like any other man, intent on holding his own amid the furious welter, seeing a delight in the computation of his chances; at once a fighter and a gambler, like those with whom he rubbed shoulders in the roaring ways. He overtaxed his energy, and in any case there must have come reaction. It came with violence soon after that day at Malvern.
The weather was hot; one should have been far away from these huge rampart-streets, these stifling burrows of commerce. But here toil and stress went on as usual, and Piers Otway saw it all in a lurid light. These towering edifices with inscriptions numberless, announcing every imaginable form of trade with every corner of the world; here a vast building, consecrate in all its commercial magnificence, great windows and haughty doorways, the gleam of gilding and of brass, the lustre of polished woods, to a single company or firm; here a huge structure which housed on its many floors a crowd of enterprises, names by the score signalled at the foot of the gaping staircase; arrogant suggestions of triumph side by side with desperate beginnings; titles of world-wide significance meeting the eye at every turn, vulgar names with more weight than those of princes, words in small lettering which ruled the fate of millions of men; -- no nightmare was ever so crushing to one in Otway's mood. The brute force of money; the negation of the individual -- these, the evils of our time, found there supreme expression in the City of London. Here was opulence at home and superb; here must poverty lurk and shrink, feeling itself alive only on sufferance; the din of highway and byway was a voice of blustering conquest, bidding the weaker to stand aside or be crushed. Here no man was a human being, but each merely a portion of an inconceivably complicated mechanism. The shiny-hatted figure who rushed or sauntered, gloomed by himself at corners or made one of a talking group, might elsewhere be found a reasonable and kindly person, with traits, peculiarities; here one could see in him nothing but a money-maker of this or that class, ground to a certain pattern. The smooth working of the huge machine made it only the more sinister; one had but to remember what cold tyranny, what elaborate fraud, were served by its manifold ingenuities, only to think of the cries of anguish stifled by its monotonous roar.
Piers had undertaken a task and would not shirk it; but in spite of all reasonings and idealisms he found life a hard thing during those weeks of August. He lost his sleep, turned from food, and for a moment feared collapse such as he had suffered soon after his first going to Odessa.
By the good offices of John Jacks he had already been elected to a convenient club, and occasionally he passed an evening there; but his habit was to go home to Guildford Street, and sit hour after hour in languid brooding. He feared the streets at night-time; in his loneliness and misery, a gleam upon some wanton face would perchance have lured him, as had happened ere now. Not so much at the bidding of his youthful blood, as out of mere longing for companionship, the common cause of disorder in men condemned to solitude in great cities. A woman's voice, the touch of a soft hand -- this is what men so often hunger for, when they are censured for lawless appetite. But Piers Otway knew himself, and chose to sit alone in the dreary lodging-house. Then he thought of Irene, trying to forget what had happened. Now and then successfully; in a waking dream he saw and heard her, and knew again the exalting passion that had been the best of his life, and was saved from ignoble impulse.
When he was at the lowest, there came a letter from Olga Hannaford, the first he had ever received in her writing. Olga had joined her mother at Malvern, and Mrs. Hannaford was so unwell that it seemed likely they would remain there for a few weeks. "When we can move, the best thing will be to take a house in or near London. Mother has decided not to return to Bryanston Square, and I, for my part, shall give up the life you made fun of. You were quite right; of course it was foolish to go on in that way." She asked him to write to her mother, whom a line from him would cheer. Piers did so; also replying to his correspondent, and trying to make a humorous picture of the life he led between the City and Guilford Street. It was a sorry jest, but it helped him against his troubles. When, in a week's time, Olga again wrote, he was glad. The letter seemed to him interesting; it revived their common memories of life at Geneva, whither Olga said she would like to return. "What to do -- how to pass the years before me -- is the question with me now, as I suppose it is with so many girls of my age. I must find a mission. Can you suggest one? Only don't let it have anything humanitarian about it. That would make me a humbug, which I have never been yet. It must be something entirely for my own pleasure and profit. Do think about it in an idle moment."
With recovery from his physical ill-being came a new mental restlessness; the return, rather, of a mood which had always assailed him when he lost for a time his ideal hope. He demanded of life the joy natural to his years; revolted against the barrenness of his lot. A terror fell upon him lest he should be fated never to know the supreme delight of which he was capable, and for which alone he lived. Even now was he not passing his prime, losing the keener faculties of youth? He trembled at the risks of every day; what was his assurance against the common ill-hap which might afflict him with disease, blight his life with accident, so that no woman's eye could ever be tempted to rest upon him? He cursed the restrictions which held him on a straight path of routine, of narrow custom, when a world of possibilities spread about him on either hand, the mirage of his imprisoned spirit. Adventurous projects succeeded each other in his thoughts. He turned to the lands where life was freer, where perchance his happiness awaited him, had he but the courage to set forth. What brought him to London, this squalid blot on the map of the round world? Why did he consume the irrecoverable hours amid its hostile tumult, its menacing gloom?
On the first Sunday in September he aroused himself to travel by an early train, which bore him far into the country. He had taken a ticket at hazard for a place with a pleasant-sounding name, and before village bells had begun to ring he was wandering in deep lanes amid the weald of Sussex. All about him lay the perfect loveliness of that rural landscape which is the old England, the true England, the England dear to the best of her children. Meadow and copse, the yellow rank of new-reaped sheaves, brown roofs of farm and cottage amid shadowing elms, the grassy borders of the road, hedges with their flowered creepers and promise of wild fruit -- these things brought him comfort. Mile after mile he wandered, losing himself in simplest enjoyment, forgetting to ask why he was alone. When he felt hungry, an inn supplied him with a meal. Again he rambled on, and in a leafy corner found a spot where he could idle for an hour or two, until it was time to think of the railway station.
He had tired himself; his mind slipped from the beautiful things around him, and fell into the old reverie. He murmured the haunting name -- Irene. As well as for her who bore it, he loved the name for its meaning. Peace! As a child he had been taught that no word was more beautiful, more solemn; at this moment, he could hear it in his father's voice, sounding as a note of music, with a tremor of deep feeling. Peace! Every year that passed gave him a fuller understanding of his father's devotion to that word in all its significance; he himself knew something of the same fervour, and was glad to foster it in his heart. Peace! What better could a man pursue? From of old the desire of wisdom, the prayer of the aspiring soul.
And what else was this Love for which he anguished? Irene herself, the beloved, sought with passion and with worship, what more could she give him, when all was given, than content, repose, peace?
He had been too ambitious. It was the fault of his character, and, thus far on his life's journey, in recognising the error might he not correct it? Unbalanced ambition explained his ineffectiveness. At six-and-twenty he had done nothing, and saw no hope of activity correspondent with his pride. In Russia he had at least felt that he was treading an uncrowded path: he had made his own a language familiar to very few western Europeans, and constantly added to his knowledge of a people moving to some unknown greatness; the position was not ignoble. But here in London he was lost amid the uproar of striving tradesmen. The one thing which would still have justified him, hope of wealth, had all but vanished. He must get rid of his absurd self-estimate, see himself in the light of common day.
Peace! He could only hope for it in marriage; but what was marriage without ideal love? Impossible that he should ever love another woman as he had loved, as he still loved, Irene. The ordinary man seeks a wife just as he takes any other practical step necessary to his welfare; he marries because he must, not because he has met with the true companion of his life; he mates to be quiet, to be comfortable, to get on with his work, whatever it be. Love in the high sense between man and woman is of all things the most rare. Few are capable of it; to fewer still is it granted. "The crown of life!" said Jerome Otway. A truth, even from the strictly scientific point of view; for is not a great mutual passion the culminating height of that blind reproductive impulse from which life begins? Supreme desire; perfection of union. The purpose of Nature translated into human consciousness, become the glory of the highest soul, uttered in the lyric rapture of noblest speech.
That, he must renounce. But not thereby was he condemned to a foolish or base alliance. Women innumerable might be met, charming, sensible, good, no unfit objects of his wooing; in all modesty he might hope for what the world calls happiness. But, put it at the best, he would be doing as other men do, taking a wife for his solace, for the defeat of his assailing blood. It was the bitterness of his mere humanity that he could not hope to live alone and faithful. Five years ago he might have said to himself, "Irene or no one!" and have said it with the honesty of youth, of inexperience. No such enthusiasm was possible to him now. For the thing which is common in fable is all but unknown in life: a man, capable of loving ardently, who for the sake of one woman, beyond his hope, sacrifices love altogether. Piers Otway, who read much verse, had not neglected his Browning. He knew the transcendent mood of Browning's ideal lover -- the beatific dream of love eternal, world after world, hoping for ever, and finding such hope preferable to every less noble satisfaction. For him, a mood only, passing with a smile and a sigh. To that he was not equal; these heights heroic were not for his treading. Too insistent were the flesh and blood that composed his earthly being.
He must renounce the best of himself, step consciously to a lower level. Only let it not prove sheer degradation.
In all his struggling against the misery of loss, one thought never tempted him. Never for a fleeting instant did he doubt that his highest love was at the same time highest reason. Men woefully deceive themselves, yearning for women whose image in their minds is a mere illusion, women who scarce for a day could bring them happiness, and whose companionship through life would become a curse. Be it so; Piers knew it, dwelt upon it as a perilous fact; it had no application to his love for Irene Derwent. Indeed, Piers was rich in that least common form of intelligence -- the intelligence of the heart. Emotional perspicacity, the power of recognising through all forms of desire one's true affinity in the other sex, is bestowed upon one mortal in a vast multitude. Not lack of opportunity alone accounts for the failure of men and women to mate becomingly; only the elect have eyes to see, even where the field of choice is freely opened to them. But Piers Otway saw and knew, once and for ever. He had the genius of love: where he could not observe, divination came to his help. His knowledge of Irene Derwent surpassed that of the persons most intimate with her, and he could as soon have doubted his own existence as the certainty that Irene was what he thought her, neither more nor less. But he had erred in dreaming it possible that he might win her love. That he was not all unworthy of it, his pride continued to assure him; what he had failed to perceive was the impossibility, circumstances being as they were, of urging a direct suit, of making himself known to Irene. His birth, his position, the accidents of his career -- all forbade it. This had been forced upon his consciousness from the very first, in hours of despondency or of torment; but he was too young and too ardent for the fact to have its full weight with him. Hope resisted; passion refused acquiescence. Nothing short of what had happened could reveal to him the vanity of his imaginings. He looked back on the years of patient confidence with wonder and compassion. Had he really hoped? Yes, for he had lived so long alone.
Paragraphs, morning, evening, and weekly, had long since published Miss Derwent's engagement. Those making simple announcement of the fact were trial enough to him when his eye fell upon them; intolerable were those which commented, as in the case of a society journal which he had idly glanced over at his club. This taught him that Irene had more social importance than he guessed; her marriage would be something of an event. Heaven grant that he might read no journalistic description of the ceremony! Few things more disgusted him than the thought of a fashionable wedding; he could see nothing in it but profanation and indecency. That mattered little, to be sure, in the case of ordinary people, who were born, and lived, and died, in fashionable routine, anxious only to exhibit themselves at any given moment in the way held to be good form; but it was hard to think that custom's tyranny should lay its foul hand on Irene Derwent. Perhaps her future husband meant no such thing, and would arrange it all with quiet becomingness. Certainly her father would not favour the tawdry and the vulgar.
No date was announced. Paragraphs said merely that it would be "before the end of the year."
After all, his day amid the fields was spoilt. He had allowed his mind to stray in the forbidden direction, and the seeming quiet to which he had attained was overthrown once more. Heavily he moved towards the wayside station, and drearily he waited for the train that was to take him back to his meaningless toil and strife.
In the compartment he entered, an empty one, some passenger had left a weekly periodical; Piers seized upon it gladly, and read to distract his thoughts. One article interested him; it was on the subject of national characteristics: cleverly written, what is called "smart" journalism, with grip and epigram, with hint of universal knowledge and the true air of British superiority. Having scanned the writer's comment on the Slavonic peoples, Piers laughed aloud; so evidently it was a report at second or third hand, utterly valueless to one who had any real acquaintance with the Slavs. This moment of spontaneous mirth did him good, helped to restore his self-respect. And as he pondered old ambitions stirred again in him. Could he not make some use of the knowledge he had gained so laboriously -- some use other than that whereby he earned his living? Not so long ago, he had harboured great designs, vague but not irrational. And to-day, even in bidding himself be humble, his intellect was little tuned to humility. He had never, at his point of darkest depression, really believed that life had no shining promise for him. The least boastful of men, he was at heart one of the most aspiring. His moods varied wonderfully. When he alighted at the London terminus, he looked and felt like a man refreshed by some new hope.
Half by accident, he kept the paper he had been reading. It lay on his table in Guildford Street for weeks, for months. Years after, he came upon it one day in turning out the contents of a trunk, and remembered his ramble in the Sussex woodland, and smiled at the chances of life.
On Monday morning he had a characteristic letter from Moncharmont, part English, part French, part Russian. Nothing, or only a passing word, about business; communications of that sort were all addressed to the office, and were as concise, as practical, as any trader could have desired. In his friendly letter, Moncharmont chatted of a certain Polish girl with whom he had newly made acquaintance, whose beauty, according to the good André, was a thing to dream of, not to tell. It meant nothing, as Piers knew. The cosmopolitan Swiss fell in love some dozen times a year, with maidens or women of every nationality and every social station. Be the issue what it might, he was never unhappy. He had a gallery of photographs, and delighted to pore over it, indulging reminiscences or fostering hopes. Once in a twelvemonth or so, he made up his mind to marry, but never went further than the intention. It was doubtful whether he would ever commit himself irrevocably. "It seems such a pity," he often said, with his pensively humorous smile, "to limit the scope of one's emotions -- borner la carrière à ses émotions!" Then he sighed, and was in the best of spirits.
Not even to Moncharmont -- with whom he talked more freely than with any other man -- had Piers ever spoken of Irene. André of course suspected some romantic attachment, and was in constant amaze at Piers' fidelity.
"Ah, you English! you English!" he would exclaim. "You are the stoics of the modern world. I admire; yes, I admire; but, my friend, I do not wish to imitate."
The letter cheered Otway's breakfast; he read it instead of the newspaper, and with vastly more benefit.
Another letter had come to his private address, a note from Mrs. Hannaford. She was regaining strength, and hoped soon to come South again. Her brother had already taken a nice little house for her at Campden Hill, where Olga would have a sort of studio, and, she trusted, would make herself happy. Both looked forward to seeing Piers; they sent him their very kindest remembrances.
The passionate temperament is necessarily sanguine. To desire with all one's being is the same thing as to hope. In Piers Otway's case, the temper which defies discouragement existed together with the intellect which ever tends to discourage, with the mind which probes appearances, makes war upon illusions. Hence his oft varying moods, as the one or the other part of him became ascendent. Hence his fervours of idealism, and the habit of destructive criticism which seemed inconsistent with them. Hence his ardent ambitions, and his appearance of plodding mediocrity in practical life.
Intensely self-conscious, he suffered much from a habit of comparing, contrasting himself with other men, with men who achieved things, who made their way, who played a part in the world. He could not read a newspaper without reflecting, sometimes bitterly, on the careers and position of men whose names were prominent in its columns. So often, he well knew, their success came only of accident -- as one uses the word: of favouring circumstance, which had no relation to the man's powers and merits. Piers had no overweening self-esteem; he judged his abilities more accurately, and more severely, than any observer would have done; yet it was plain to him that he would be more than capable, so far as endowment went, of filling the high place occupied by this or the other far-shining personage. He frankly envied their success -- always for one and the same reason.
Nothing so goaded his imagination as a report of the marriage of some leader in the world's game. He dwelt on these paragraphs, filled up the details, grew faint with realisation of the man's triumphant happiness. At another moment, his reason ridiculed this self-torment. He knew that in all probability such a marriage implied no sense of triumph, involved no high emotions, promised nothing but the commonest domestic satisfaction. Portraits of brides in an illustrated paper sometimes wrought him to intolerable agitation -- the mood of his early manhood, as when he stood before the print shop in the Haymarket; now that he had lost Irene, the whole world of beautiful women called again to his senses and his soul. With the cooler moment came a reminder that these lovely faces were for the most part mere masks, tricking out a very ordinary woman, more likely than not unintelligent, unhelpful, as the ordinary human being of either sex is wont to be. What seemed to him the crown of a man's career, was, in most cases, a mere incident, deriving its chief importance from social and pecuniary considerations. Even where a sweet countenance told truth about the life behind it, how seldom did the bridegroom appreciate what he had won! For the most part, men who have great good fortune, in marriage, or in anything else, are incapable of tasting their success. It is the imaginative being in the crowd below who marvels and is thrilled.
How was it with Arnold Jacks? Did he understand what had befallen him? If so, on what gleaming heights did he now live and move! What rapture of gratitude must possess the man! What humility! What arrogance!
Piers had not met him since the engagement was made known; he hoped not to meet him for a long time. Happily, in this holiday season, there was no fear of an invitation to Queen's Gate.
Yet the unexpected happened. Early in September, he received a note from John Jacks, asking him to dine. The writer said that he had been at the seaside, and was tired of it, and meant to spend a week or two quietly in London; he was quite alone, so Otway need not dress.
Reassured by the last sentence of the letter, Piers gladly went; for he liked to talk with John Jacks, and had a troubled pleasure in the thought that he might hear something about the approaching marriage. On his arrival, he was shown into the study, where his host lay on a sofa. The greeting was cordial, the voice cheery as ever, but as Mr. Jacks rose he had more of the appearance of old age than Piers had yet seen in him; he seemed to stand with some difficulty, his face betokening a body ill at ease.
"How pleasant London is in September!" he exclaimed, with a laugh. "I've been driving about, as one does in a town abroad, just to see the streets. Strange that one knows Paris and Rome a good deal better than London. Yet it's really very interesting -- don't you think?"
The twinkling eye, the humorous accent, which had won Piers' affection, soon allayed his disquietude at being in this house. He spoke of his own recent excursion, confessing that he better appreciated London from a distance.
"Ay, ay! I know all about that," replied Mr. Jacks, his Yorkshire note sounding, as it did occasionally. "But you're young, you're young; what does it matter where you live? To be your age again, I'd live at St. Helens, or Widnes. You have hope, man, always hope. And you may live to see what the world is like half a century from now. It's strange to look at you, and think that!"
John Jacks' presence in London, and alone, at this time 9f the year had naturally another explanation than that he felt tired of the seaside. In truth, he had come up to see a medical specialist. Carefully he kept from his wife the knowledge of a disease which was taking hold upon him, which -- as he had just learnt -- threatened rapidly fatal results. From his son, also, he had concealed the serious state of his health, lest it should interfere with Arnold's happy mood in prospect of marriage. He was no coward, but a life hitherto untroubled by sickness had led him to hope that he might pass easily from the world, and a doom of extinction by torture perturbed his philosophy.
He liked to forget himself in contemplation of Piers Otway's youth and soundness. He had pleasure, too, in Piers' talk, which reminded him of Jerome Otway, some half-century ago.
Mrs. Jacks was staying with her own family, and from that house would pass to others, equally decorous, where John had promised to join her. Of course she was uneasy about him; that entered into her rôle of model spouse: but the excellent lady never suspected the true cause of that habit of sadness which had grown upon her husband during the last few years, a melancholy which anticipated his decline in health. John Jacks had made the mistake natural to such a man; wedding at nearly sixty a girl of much less than half his age, he found, of course, that his wife had nothing to give him but duty and respect, and before long he bitterly reproached himself with the sacrifice of which he was guilty.
These lines met his eye one day in a new volume which bore the name of George Meredith, and they touched him nearly; the poem they closed gave utterance to the manful resignation of one who has passed the age of love, yet is tempted by love's sweetness, and John Jacks took to heart the reproach it seemed to level at himself. Putting aside the point of years, he had not chosen with any discretion; he married a handsome face, a graceful figure, just as any raw boy might have done. His wife, he suspected, was not the woman to suffer greatly in her false position; she had very temperate blood, and a thoroughly English devotion to the proprieties; none the less he had done her wrong, for she belonged to a gentle family in mediocre circumstances, and his prospective "M.P.," his solid wealth, were sore temptations to put before such a girl. He had known -- yes, he assuredly knew -- that it was nothing but a socially sanctioned purchase. Beauty should have become to him but the "vein of rose," to be regarded with gentle admiration and with reverence, from afar. He yielded to an unworthy temptation, and, being a man of unusual sensitiveness, very soon paid the penalty in self-contempt.
He could not love his wife; he could scarce honour her -- for she too must consciously have sinned against the highest law. Her irreproachable behaviour only saddened him. Now that he found himself under sentence of death, his solace was the thought that his widow would still be young enough to redeem her error -- if she were capable of redeeming it.
Alone with his guest in the large dining-room, and compelled to make only pretence of eating and drinking, he talked of many things with the old spontaneity, the accustomed liberal kindliness, and dropped at length upon the subject Piers was waiting for.
"You know, I daresay, that Arnold is going to marry?"
"I have heard of it," Piers answered, with the best smile he could command.
"You can imagine it pleases me. I don't see how he could have been luckier. Dr. Derwent is one of the finest men I know, and his daughter is worthy of him."
"She is, I am sure," said Piers, in a balanced voice, which sounded mere civility.
And when silence had lasted rather too long, the host having fallen into reverie, he added:
"Will it take place soon?"
"Ah -- the wedding? About Christmas, I think. Arnold is looking for a house. By the bye, you know young Derwent -- Eustace?"
Piers answered that he had only the slightest acquaintance with the young man.
"Not brilliant, I think," said Mr. Jacks musingly. "But amiable, straight. I don't know that he'll do much at the Bar."
Again he lost himself for a little, his knitted brows seeming to indicate an anxious thought.
"Now you shall tell me anything you care to, about business," said the host, when they had seated themselves in the library. "And after that I have something to show you -- something you'll like to see, I think."
Otway's curiosity was at a loss when presently he saw his host take from a drawer a little packet of papers.
"I had forgotten all about these," said Mr. Jacks. "They are manuscripts of your father; writings of various kinds which he sent me in the early fifties. Turning out my old papers, I came across them the other day, and thought I would give them to you."
He rustled the faded sheets, glancing over them with a sad smile.
"There's an amusing thing -- called 'Historical Fragment.' I remember, oh I remember very well, how it pleased me when I first read it."
He read it aloud now, with many a chuckle, many a pause of sly emphasis.
"'The Story of the last war between the Asiatic kingdoms of Duroba and Kalaya, though it has reached us in a narrative far too concise, is one of the most interesting chapters in the history of ancient civilisation.
"'They were bordering states, peopled by races closely akin, whose languages, it appears, were mutually intelligible; each had developed its own polity, and had advanced to a high degree of refinement in public and private life. Wars between them had been frequent, but at the time with which we are concerned the spirit of hostility was all but forgotten in a happy peace of long duration. Each country was ruled by an aged monarch, beloved of the people, but, under the burden of years, grown of late somewhat less vigilant than was consistent with popular welfare. Thus it came to pass that power fell into the hands of unscrupulous statesmen, who, aided by singular circumstances, succeeded in reviving for a moment the old sanguinary jealousies.
"'We are told that a General in the army of Duroba, having a turn for experimental chemistry, had discovered a substance of terrible explosive power, which, by the exercise of further ingenuity, he had adapted for use in warfare. About the same time, a public official in Kalaya, whose duty it was to convey news to the community by means of a primitive system. of manuscript placarding, hit upon a mechanical method whereby news-sheets could be multiplied very rapidly and be sold to readers all over the kingdom. Now the Duroban General felt eager to test his discovery in a campaign, and, happening to have a quarrel with a politician in the neighbouring state, did his utmost to excite hostile feeling against Kalaya. On the other hand, the Kalayan official, his cupidity excited by the profits already arising from his invention, desired nothing better than some stirring event which would lead to still greater demand for the news-sheets he distributed, and so he also was led to the idea of stirring up international strife. To be brief, these intrigues succeeded only too well; war was actually declared, the armies were mustered, and marched to the encounter.
"'They met at a point of the common frontier where only a little brook flowed between the two kingdoms. It was nightfall; each host encamped, to await the great engagement which on the morrow would decide between them.
"'It must be understood that the Durobans and the Kalayans differed markedly in national characteristics. The former people was distinguished by joyous vitality and a keen sense of humour; the latter, by a somewhat meditative disposition inclining to timidity; and doubtless these qualities had become more pronounced during the long peace which would naturally favour them. Now, when night had fallen on the camps, the common soldiers on each side began to discuss, over their evening meal, the position in which they found themselves. The men of Duroba, having drunk well, as their habit was, fell into an odd state of mind. "What!" they exclaimed to one another. "After all these years of tranquillity, are we really going to fight with the Kalayans, and to slaughter them and be ourselves slaughtered! Pray, what is it all about? Who can tell us?" Not a man could answer, save with the vaguest generalities. And so, the debate continuing, the wonder growing from moment to moment, at length, and all of a sudden, the Duroban camp echoed with huge peals of laughter. "Why, if we soldiers have no cause of quarrel, what are we doing here? Shall we be mangled and killed to please our General with the turn for chemistry? That were a joke, indeed!" And, as soon as mirth permitted, the army rose as one man, threw together their belongings, and with jovial songs trooped off to sleep comfortably in a town a couple of miles away.
"'The Kalayans, meanwhile, had been occupied with the very same question. They were anything but martial of mood, and the soldiery, ill at ease in their camp, grumbled and protested. "After all, why are we here?" cried one to the other. "Who wants to injure the Durobans? And what man among us desires to be blown to pieces by their new instruments of war? Pray, why should we fight? If the great officials are angry, as the news-sheets tell us, e'en let them do the fighting themselves." At this moment there sounded from the enemy's camp a stupendous roar; it was much like laughter; no doubt the Durobans were jubilant in anticipation of their victory. Fear seized the Kalayans; they rose like one man, and incontinently fled far into the sheltering night!
"'Thus ended the war -- the last between these happy nations, who, not very long after, united to form a noble state under one ruler. It is interesting to note that the original instigators of hostility did not go without their deserts. The Duroban General, having been duly tried for a crime against his country, was imprisoned in a spacious building, the rooms of which were hung with great pictures representing every horror of battle with the ghastliest fidelity; here he was supplied with materials for chemical experiment, to occupy his leisure, and very shortly, by accident, blew himself to pieces. The Kalayan publicist was also convicted of treason against the state; they banished him to a desert island, where for many hours daily he had to multiply copies of his news-sheet -- that issue which contained the declaration of war -- and at evening to burn them all. He presently became imbecile, and so passed away.'"
Piers laughed with delight.
"Whether it ever got into print," said Mr. Jacks, "I don't know. Your father was often careless about his best things. I'm afraid he was never quite convinced that ideals of that kind influence the world. Yet they do, you know, though it's a slow business. It's thought that leads."
"The multitude following in its own fashion," said Piers drily. "Rousseau teaches liberty and fraternity; France learns the lesson and plunges into '93."
"With Nap to put things straight again. For all that a step was taken. We are better for Jean Jacques -- a little better."
"And for Napoleon, too, I suppose. Napoleon -- a wild beast with a genius for arithmetic."
John Jacks let his eyes rest upon the speaker, interested and amused.
"That's how you see him? Not a bad definition. I suppose the truth is, we know nothing about human history. The old view was good for working by -- Jehovah holding his balance, smiting on one side, and rewarding on the other. It's our national view to this day. The English are an Old Testament people; they never cared about the New. Do you know that there's a sect who hold that the English are the Lost Tribes -- the People of the Promise? I see a great deal to be said for that idea. No other nation has such profound sympathy with the history and the creeds of Israel. Did you ever think of it? That Old Testament religion suits us perfectly -- our arrogance and our pugnaciousness; this accounts for its hold on the mind of the people; it couldn't be stronger if the bloodthirsty old Tribes were truly our ancestors. The English seized upon their spiritual inheritance as soon as a translation of the Bible put it before them. In Catholic days we fought because we enjoyed it, and made no pretences; since the Reformation we have fought for Jehovah."
"I suppose," said Piers, "the English are the least Christian of all so-called Christian peoples."
"Undoubtedly. They simply don't know the meaning of the prime Christian virtue -- humility. But that's neither here nor there, in talking of progress. You remember Goldsmith --
Our pride has been a good thing, on the whole. Whether it will still be, now that it's so largely the pride of riches, let him say who is alive fifty years hence."
He paused and added gravely:
"I'm afraid the national character is degenerating. We were always too fond of liquor, and Heaven knows our responsibility for drunkenness all over the world; but worse than that is our gambling. You may drink and be a fine fellow; but every gambler is a sneak, and possibly a criminal. We're beginning, now, to gamble for slices of the world. We're getting base, too, in our grovelling before the millionaire -- who as often as not has got his money vilely. This sort of thing won't do for 'the lords of human kind.' Our pride, if we don't look out, will turn to bluffing and bullying. I'm afraid we govern selfishly where we've conquered. We hear dark things of India, and worse of Africa. And hear the roaring of the Jingoes! Johnson defined Patriotism you know, as the last refuge of a scoundrel; it looks as if it might presently be the last refuge of a fool."
"Meanwhile," said Piers, "the real interests of England, real progress in national life, seem to be as good as lost sight of."
"Yes, more and more. They think that material prosperity is progress. So it is -- up to a certain point, and who ever stops there? Look at Germany."
"Once the peaceful home of pure intellect, the land of Goethe."
"Once, yes. And my fear is that our brute, blustering Bismarck may be coming. But," he suddenly brightened, "croakers be hanged! The civilisers are at work too, and they have their way in the end. Think of a man like your father, who seemed to pass and be forgotten. Was it really so? I'll warrant that at this hour Jerome Otway's spirit is working in many of our best minds. There's no calculating the power of the man who speaks from his very heart. His words don't perish, though he himself may lose courage."
Listening, Piers felt a glow pass into all the currents of his life.
"If only," he exclaimed, in a voice that trembled, "I had as much strength as desire to carry on his work!"
"Why, who knows?" replied John Jacks, looking with encouragement wherein mingled something of affection.
"You have the power of sincerity, I see that. Speak always as you believe, and who knows what opportunity you may find for making yourself heard!"
John Jacks reflected deeply for a few moments.
"I'm going away in a day or two," he said at length, in a measured voice, "and my movements are uncertain -- uncertain. But we shall meet again before the end of the year."
When he had left the house, Piers recalled the tone of this remark, and dwelt upon it with disquietude.
The night being fair, Piers set out to walk a part of the way home. It was only by thoroughly tiring himself with bodily exercise that he could get sound and long oblivion. Hours of sleeplessness were his dread. However soon he awoke after daybreak, he rose at once and drove his mind to some sort of occupation. To escape from himself was all he lived for in these days. An ascetic of old times, subduing his flesh in cell or cave, battled no harder than this idealist of London City tortured by his solitude.
On the pavement of Piccadilly he saw some yards before him, a man seemingly of the common lounging sort, tall-hatted and frock-coated, who was engaged in the cautious pursuit of a female figure, just in advance. A light and springy and half-stalking step; head jutting a little forward; the cane mechanically swung -- a typical woman-hunter, in some doubt as to his quarry. On an impulse of instinct or calculation, the man all at once took a few rapid strides, bringing himself within sideview of the woman's face. Evidently he spoke a word; he received an obviously curt reply; he fell back, paced slowly, turned and Piers became aware of a countenance he knew -- that of his brother Daniel.
It was a disagreeable moment. Daniel's lean, sallow visage had no aptitude for the expression of shame, but his eyes grew very round, and his teeth showed in a hard grin.
"Why, Piers, my boy Again we meet in a London street -- which is rhyme, and sounds like Browning, doesn't it? Comment ça va-t-il?"
Piers shook hands very coldly, without pretence of a smile.
"I am walking on," he said. "Yours is the other way, I think."
"What! You wish to cut me? Pray, your exquisite reason?"
"Well, then, I think you have behaved meanly and dishonourably to me. I don't wish to discuss the matter, only to make myself understood."
His ability to use this language, and to command himself as he did so, was a surprise to Piers. Nothing he disliked more than personal altercation; he shrank from it at almost any cost. But the sight of Daniel, the sound of his artificial voice, moved him deeply with indignation, and for the first time in his life he spoke out. Having done so, he had a pleasurable sensation; he felt his assured manhood.
Daniel was astonished, disconcerted, but showed no disposition to close the interview; turning, he walked along by his brother.
"I suppose I know what you refer to. But let me explain. I think my explanation will interest you."
"No, I'm afraid it will not," replied Piers quietly.
"In any case, lend me your ears. You are offended by my failure to pay that debt. Well, my nature is frankness, and I will plead guilty to a certain procrastination. I meant to send you the money; I fully meant to do so. But in the first place, it took much longer than I expected to realise the good old man's estate, and when at length the money came into my hands, I delayed and delayed -- just as one does, you know; let us admit these human weaknesses. And I procrastinated till I was really ashamed -- you follow the psychology of the thing? Then I said to myself: Now it is pretty certain Piers is not in actual want of this sum, or he would have pressed for it. On the other hand, a day may come when he will really be glad to remember that I am his banker for a hundred and fifty pounds. Yes -- I said -- I will wait till that moment comes; I will save the money for him, as becomes his elder brother. Piers is a good fellow, and will understand. Voilà!"
Piers kept silence.
"Tell me, my dear boy," pursued the other. "Alexander of course paid that little sum he owed you?"
"He too has preferred to remain my banker."
"Now I call that very shameful!" burst out Daniel. "No, that's too bad!"
"How did you know he owed me money?" inquired Piers.
"How? Why, he told me himself, down at Hawes, after you went. We were talking of you, of your admirable qualities, and in his bluff, genial way he threw out how generously you had behaved to him, at a moment when he was hard up. He wanted to repay you immediately, and asked me to lend him the money for that purpose; unfortunately, I hadn't it to lend. And to think that, after all, he never paid you! A mere fifty pounds! Why, the thing is unpardonable! In my case the sum was substantial enough to justify me in retaining it for your future benefit. But to owe fifty pounds, and shirk payment -- no, I call that really disgraceful. If ever I meet Alexander ----!"
Piers was coldly amused. When Daniel sought to draw him into general conversation, with inquiries as to his mode of life, and where he dwelt, the younger brother again spoke with decision. They were not likely, he said, to see more of each other, and he felt as little disposed to give familiar information as to ask it; whereupon Daniel drew himself up with an air of dignified offence, and saying, "I wish you better manners," turned on his heel.
Piers walked on at a rapid pace. Noticing again a well-dressed prowler of the pavement, whose approaches this time were welcomed, a feeling of nausea came upon him. He hailed a passing cab, and drove home.
A week later, he heard from Mrs. Hannaford that she and Olga were established in their own home; she begged him to come and see them soon, mentioning an evening when they would be glad if he could dine with them. And Piers willingly accepted.
The house was at Campden Hill; a house of the kind known to agents as "desirable," larger than the two ladies needed for their comfort, and, as one saw on entering the hall, famished with tasteful care. The work had been supervised by Dr. Derwent, who thought that his sister and his niece might thus be tempted to live the orderly life so desirable in their unfortunate circumstances. When Piers entered, Mrs. Hannaford sat alone in the drawing room; she still had the look of an invalid, but wore a gown which showed to advantage the lines of her figure. Otway had been told not to dress, and it caused him some surprise to see his hostess adorned as if for an occasion of ceremony. Her hair was done in a new way, which changed the wonted character of her face, so that she looked younger. A bunch of pale flowers rested against her bosom, and breathed delicate perfume about her.
"It was discussed," she said, in a low, intimate voice, "whether we should settle in London or abroad. But we didn't like to go away. Our only real friends are in England, and we must hope to make more. Olga is so good, now that she sees that I really need her. She has been so kind and sweet during my illness."
Whilst they were talking, Miss Hannaford silently made her entrance. Piers turned his head, and felt a shock of surprise. Not till now had he seen Olga at her best; he had never imagined her so handsome; it was a wonderful illustration of the effect of apparel. She, too, had reformed the fashion of her hair, and its tawny abundance was much more effective than in the old careless style. She looked taller; she stepped with a more graceful assurance, and in offering her hand, betrayed consciousness of Otway's admiration in a little flush that well became her.
She had subdued her voice, chastened her expressions. The touch of masculinity on which she had prided herself in her later "Bohemian" days, was quite gone. Wondering as they conversed, Piers had a difficulty in meeting her look; his eyes dropped to the little silk shoe which peeped from beneath her skirt. His senses were gratified; he forgot for the moment his sorrow and unrest.
The talk at dinner was rather formal. Piers, with his indifferent appetite, could do but scanty justice to the dainties offered him, and the sense of luxury added a strangeness to his new relations with Mrs. Hannaford and her daughter. Olga spoke of a Russian novel she had been reading in a French translation, and was anxious to know whether it represented life as Otway knew it in Russia. She evinced a wider interest in several directions, emphasised -- perhaps a little too much -- her inclination for earnest thought: was altogether a more serious person than hitherto.
Afterwards, when they grouped themselves in the drawing-room, this constraint fell away. Mrs. Hannaford dropped a remark which awakened memories of their life together at Geneva, and Piers turned to her with a bright look.
"You used to play in those days," he said, "and I've never heard you touch a piano since."
There was one in the room. Olga glanced at it, and then smilingly at her mother.
"My playing was so very primitive," said Mrs. Hannaford, with a laugh.
"I liked it."
"Because you were a boy then."
"Let me try to be a boy again. Play something you used to. One of those bits from 'Tell,' which take me back to the lakes and the mountains whenever I hear them."
Mrs. Hannaford rose, laughing as if ashamed; Olga lit the candies on the piano.
"I shall have to play from memory -- and a nice mess I shall make of it."
But memory served her for the passages of melody which Piers wished to hear. He listened with deep pleasure, living again in the years when everything he desired seemed a certainty of the future, depending only on the flight of time, on his becoming "a man." He remembered his vivid joy in the pleasures of the moment, the natural happiness now, and for years, unknown to him. So long ago, it seemed; yet Mrs. Hannaford, sitting at the piano, looked younger to him than in those days. And Olga, whom as a girl of fourteen he had not much liked, thinking her both conceited and dull, now was a very different person to him, a woman who seemed to have only just revealed herself, asserting a power of attraction he had never suspected in her. He found himself trying to catch glimpses of her face at different angles, as she sat listening abstractedly to the music.
When it was time to go, he took leave with reluctance. The talk had grown very pleasantly familiar. Mrs. Hannaford said she hoped they would often see him, and the hope had an echo in his own thoughts. This house might offer him the refuge he sought when loneliness weighed too heavily. It was true, he could not accept the idea with a whole heart; some vague warning troubled his imagination; but on the way home he thought persistently of the pleasure he had experienced, and promised himself that it should be soon repeated.
A melody was singing in his mind; becoming conscious of it, he remembered that it was the air to which his friend Moncharmont had set the little song of Alfred de Musset. At Odessa he had been wont to sing it -- in a voice which Moncharmont declared to have the quality of a very fair tenor, and only to need training.
It haunted him after he had gone to rest, and for once he did not mind wakefulness.
A week passed. On Friday, Piers said to himself that to-morrow he would go in the afternoon to Campden Hill, on the chance of finding his friends at home. On Saturday morning the post brought him a letter which he saw to be from Mrs. Hannaford, and he opened it with pleasant anticipation; but instead of the friendly lines he expected he found a note of agitated appeal. The writer entreated him to come and see her exactly at three o'clock; she was in very grave trouble, had the most urgent need of him. Three o'clock; neither sooner or later; if he could possibly find time. If he could not come, would he telegraph an appointment for her at his office?
With perfect punctuality, he arrived at the house, and in the drawing-room found Mrs. Hannaford awaiting him. She came forward with both her hands held out; in her eyes a look almost of terror. Her voice, at first, was in choking whispers, and the words so confusedly hurried as to be barely intelligible.
"I have sent Olga away -- I daren't let her know -- she will be away for several hours, so we can talk -- oh, you will help me -- you will do your best ----"
Perplexed and alarmed, Piers held her hand as he tried to calm her. She seemed incapable of telling him what had happened, but kept her eyes fixed upon him in a wild entreaty, and uttered broken phrases which conveyed nothing to him; he gathered at length that she was in fear of some person.
"Sit down and let me hear all about it," he urged.
"Yes, yes -- but I'm so ashamed to speak to you about such things. I don't know whether you'll believe me. Oh, the shame -- the dreadful shame! It's only because there seems just this hope. How shall I bring myself to tell you?"
"Dear Mrs. Hannaford, we have been friends so long. Trust me to understand you. Of course, of course I shall believe what you say!"
"A dreadful, a shameful thing has happened. How shall I tell you?" Her haggard face flushed scarlet. "My husband has given me notice that he is going to sue for a divorce. He brings a charge against me -- a false, cruel charge! It came yesterday. I went to the solicitor whose name was given, and learnt all I could. I have had to hide it from Olga, and oh! what it cost me! At once I thought of you; then it seemed impossible to speak to you; then I felt I must, I must. If only you can believe me! It is -- your brother."
Piers was overcome with amazement. He sat looking into the eyes which stared at him with their agony of shame.
"You mean Daniel?" he faltered.
"Yes -- Daniel Otway. It is false -- it is false! I am not guilty of this! It seems to me like a hateful plot -- if one could believe anyone so wicked. I saw him last night. Oh, I must tell you all, else you'll never believe me -- I saw him last night. How can anyone behave so to a helpless woman? I never did him anything but kindness. He has me in his power, and he is merciless."
A passion of disgust and hatred took hold on Piers as he remembered the meeting in Piccadilly.
"You mean to say you have put yourself into that fellow's power?" he exclaimed.
"Not willingly! Oh, not willingly! I meant only kindness to him. Yes, I have been weak, I know, and so foolish! It has gone on so long. -- You remember when I first saw him, at Ewell? I liked him, just as a friend. Of course I behaved foolishly. It was my miserable life -- you know what my life was. But nothing happened -- I mean, I never thought of him for a moment as anything but an ordinary friend -- until I had my legacy."
The look on the listener's face checked her.
"I begin to understand," said Piers, with bitterness.
"No, no! Don't say that -- don't speak like that!"
"It's not you I am thinking of, Mrs. Hannaford. As soon as money comes in --. But tell me plainly. I have perfect confidence in what you say, indeed I have."
"It does me good to hear you say that! I can tell you all, now that I have begun. It is true, he did ask me to go away with him, again and again. But he had no right to do that -- I was foolish in showing that I liked him. Again and again I forbade him ever to see me; I tried so hard to break off! It was no use. He always wrote, wherever I was, sending his letters to Dr. Derwent to be forwarded. He made me meet him at all sorts of places -- using threats at last. Oh, what I have gone through!"
"No doubt," said Piers gently, "you have lent him money?"
She reddened again; her head sank.
"Yes -- I have lent him money, when he was in need. Just before the death of your father."
"Once -- or twice ----"
"To be sure. Lately, too, I daresay?"
"Then you quite understand his character?"
"I do now," Mrs. Hannaford replied wretchedly. "But I must tell you more. If it were only a suspicion of my husband's I should hardly care at all. But someone must have betrayed me to him, and have told deliberate falsehoods. I am accused -- it was when I was at the seaside once -- and he came to the same hotel -- Oh, the shame, the shame!"
She covered her face with her hands, and turned away.
"Why," cried Piers, in wrath, "that fellow is quite capable of having betrayed you himself. I mean, of lying about you for his own purposes."
"You think he could be so wicked?"
"I don't doubt it for a moment. He has done his best to persuade you to ruin yourself for him, and he thinks, no doubt, that if you are divorced, nothing will stand between him and you -- in other words, your money."
"He said, when I saw him yesterday, that now it had come to this, I had better take that step at once. And when I spoke of my innocence, he asked who would believe it? He seemed sorry; really he did. Perhaps he is not so bad as one fears?"
"Where did you see him yesterday?" asked Otway.
"At his lodgings. I was obliged to go and see him as soon as possible. I have never been there before. He behaved very kindly. He said of course he should declare my innocence ----"
"And in the same breath assured you no one would believe it? And advised you to go off with him at once?"
"I know how bad it seems," said Mrs. Hannaford. "And yet, it is all my own fault -- my own long folly. Oh, you must wonder why I have brought you here to tell you this! It's because there is no one else I could speak to, as a friend, and I felt I should go mad if I couldn't ask someone's advice. Of course I could go to a lawyer -- but I mean someone who would sympathise with me. I am not very strong; you know I have been ill: this blow seems almost more than I can bear; I thought I would ask you if you could suggest anything -- if you would see him, and try to arrange something." She looked at Piers distractedly. "Perhaps money would help. My husband has been having money from me; perhaps if we offered him more? Ought I to see him, myself? But there is ill-feeling between us; and I fear he would be glad to injure me, glad!"
"I will see Daniel," said Piers, trying to see hope where reason told him there was none. "With him, at all events, money can do much."
"You will? You think you may be able to help me? I am in such terror when I think of my brother hearing of this. And Irene! Think, if it becomes public -- everyone talking about the disgrace -- what will Irene do? Just at the time of her marriage!" She held out her hands, pleadingly. "You would be glad to save Irene from such a shame?"
Piers had not yet seen the scandal from this point of view. It came upon him with a shock, and he stood speechless.
"My husband hates them," pursued Mrs. Hannaford, "and you don't know what his hatred means. Just for that alone, he will do his worst against me -- hoping to throw disgrace on the Derwents."
"I doubt very much," said Piers, who had been thinking hard, "whether, in any event, this would affect the Derwents in people's opinion."
"You don't think so? But do you know Arnold Jacks? I feel sure he is the kind of man who would resent bitterly such a thing as this. He is very proud -- proud in just that kind of way -- do you understand? Oh, I know it would make trouble between him and Irene."
"In that case," Piers began vehemently, and at once checked himself.
"What were you going to say?"
"Nothing that could help us."
When he raised his eyes again, Mrs. Hannaford was gazing at him with pitiful entreaty.
"For her sake," she said, in a low, shaken voice, "you will try to do something?"
"If only I can!"
"Yes! I know you! You are good and generous -- It ought surely to be possible to stop this before it gets talked about? If I were guilty, it would be different. But I have done no wrong; I have only been weak and foolish. I thought of going straight to my brother, but there is the dreadful thought that he might not believe me. It is so hard for a woman accused in this way to seem innocent; men always see the dark side. He has no very good opinion of me, as it is, I know he hasn't. I turned so naturally to you; I felt you would do your utmost for me in my misery. -- If only my husband can be brought to see that I am not guilty, that he wouldn't win the suit, then perhaps he would cease from it. I will give all the money I can -- all I have!"
Piers stood reflecting.
"Tell me all the details you have learnt," he said. "What evidence do they rely on?"
Her head bowed, her voice broken, she told of place and time and the assertions of so-called witnesses.
"Why has this plot against you been a year in ripening?" asked Otway.
"Perhaps we are wrong in thinking it a plot. My husband may only just have discovered what he thinks my guilt in some chance way. If so, there is hope."
They sat mute for a minute or two.
"If only I can hide this from Olga," said Mrs. Hannaford. "Think how dreadful it is for me, with her! We were going to ask you to spend another evening with us -- but how is it possible? If I send you the invitation, will you make an answer excusing yourself -- saying you are too busy? To prevent Olga from wondering. How hard, how cruel it is! Just when we had made ourselves a home here, and might have been happy!"
Piers stood up, and tried to speak words of encouragement. The charge being utterly false, at worst a capable solicitor might succeed in refuting it. He was about to take his leave, when he remembered that he did not know Daniel's address: Mrs. Hannaford gave it.
"I am sorry you went there," he said.
And as he left the room, he saw the woman's eyes follow him with that look of woe which signals a tottering mind.
Without investigating her motives, Irene Derwent deferred as long as possible her meeting with the man to whom she had betrothed herself. Nor did Arnold Jacks evince any serious impatience in this matter. They corresponded in affectionate terms, exchanging letters once a week or so. Arnold, as it chanced, was unusually busy, his particular section of the British Empire supplying sundry problems just now not to be hurriedly dealt with by those in authority; there was much drawing-up of reports, and translating of facts into official language, in Arnold's secretarial department. Of these things he spoke to his bride-elect as freely as discretion allowed; and Irene found his letters interesting.
The ladies in Cheshire were forewarned of the new Irene who was about to visit them; political differences did not at all affect their kindliness; indeed, they saw with satisfaction the girl's keen mood of loyalty to the man of her choice. She brought with her the air of Greater Britain; she poke much, and well, of the destinies of the Empire.
"I see it all more clearly since this bit of Colonial experience," she said. "Our work in the world is marked out for us; we have no choice, unless we turn cowards. Of course we shall be hated by other countries, more and more. We shall be accused of rapacity, and arrogance, and everything else that's disagreeable in a large way; we can't help that. If we enrich ourselves, that is a legitimate reward for the task we perform. England means liberty and enlightenment; let England spread to the ends of the earth! We mustn't be afraid of greatness! We can't stop -- still less draw back. Our politics have become our religion. Our rulers have a greater responsibility than was ever known in the world's history -- and they will be equal to it!"
The listeners felt that a little clapping of the hands would have been appropriate; they exchanged a glance, as if consulting each other as to the permissibility of such applause. But Irene's eloquent eyes and glowing colour excited more admiration than criticism; in their hearts they wished joy to the young life which would go on its way through an ever changing world long after they and their old-fashioned ideas had passed into silence.
In a laughing moment, Irene told them of the proposal she had received from Trafford Romaine. This betokened her high spirits, and perchance indicated a wish to make it understood that her acceptance of Arnold Jacks was no unconsidered impulse. The ladies were interested, but felt this confidence something of an indiscretion, and did not comment upon it. They hoped she would not be tempted to impart her secret to persons less capable of respecting it.
During these days there came a definite invitation from Mrs. Borisoff, who was staying in Hampshire, at the house of her widowed mother, and Irene gladly accepted it. She wished to see more of Helen Borisoff, whose friendship, she felt, might have significance for her at this juncture of life. The place and its inhabitants, she found on arriving, answered very faithfully to Helen's description; an old manor-house, beautifully situated, hard by a sleepy village; its mistress a rather prim woman of sixty, conventional in every thought and act, but too good-natured to he aggressive, and living with her two unmarried daughters, whose sole care was the spiritual and material well-being of the village poor.
"Where I come from, I really don't know," said Helen to her friend. "My father was the staidest of country gentlemen. I'm a sport, plainly. You will see my mother watch me every now and then with apprehension. I fancy it surprises her that I really do behave myself -- that I don't even say anything shocking. With you, the dear old lady is simply delighted; I know she prays that I may not harm you. You are the first respectable acquaintance I have made since my marriage."
In the lovely old garden, in the still meadows, and on the sheep-cropped hillsides, they had many a long talk. Now that Irene was as good as married, Mrs. Borisoff used less reserve in speaking of her private circumstances; she explained the terms on which she stood with her husband.
"Marriage, my dear girl, is of many kinds; absurd to speak of it as one and indivisible. There's the marriage of interest, the marriage of reason, the marriage of love; and each of these classes can be almost infinitely subdivided. For the majority of folk, I'm quite sure it would be better not to choose their own husbands and wives, but to leave it to sensible friends who wish them well. In England, at all events, they think they marry for love, but that's mere nonsense. Did you ever know a love match? I never even heard of one, in my little world. Well," she added, with her roguish smile, "putting yourself out of the question."
Irene's countenance betrayed a passing inquietude. She had an air of reflection; averted her eyes; did not speak.
"The average male or female is never in love," pursued Helen. "They are incapable of it. And in this matter I -- moi qui vous parle -- am average. At least, I think I am; all evidence goes to prove it, so far. I married my husband because I thought him the most interesting man I had ever met. That was eight years ago, when I was two-and-twenty. Curiously, I didn't try to persuade myself that I was in love; I take credit for this, my dear! No, it was a marriage of reason. I had money, which Mr. Borisoff had not. He really liked me, and does still. But we are reasonable as ever. If we felt obliged to live always together, we should be very uncomfortable. As it is, I travel for six months when the humour takes me, and it works à merveille. Into my husband's life, I don't inquire; I have no right to do so, and I am not by nature a busybody. As for my own affairs, Mr. Borisoff is not uneasy; he has great faith in me -- which, speaking frankly, I quite deserve. I am, my dear Irene, a most respectable woman -- there comes in my parentage."
"Then," said Irene, looking at her own beautiful fingernails, "your experience, after all, is disillusion."
"Moderate disillusion," replied the other, with her humorously judicial air. "I am not grievously disappointed. I still find my husband an interesting -- a most interesting -- man. Both of us being so thoroughly reasonable, our marriage may be called a success."
"Clearly, then, you don't think love a sine quâ non?"
"Clearly not. Love has nothing whatever to do with marriage, in the statistical -- the ordinary -- sense of the term. When I say love, I mean love -- not domestic affection. Marriage is a practical concern of mankind at large; Love is a personal experience of the very few. Think of our common phrases, such as 'choice of a wife'; think of the perfectly sound advice given by sage elders to the young who are thinking of marriage, implying deliberation, care. What have these things to do with love? You can no more choose to be a lover, than to be a poet. Nascitur non fit -- oh yes, I know my Latin. Generally, he man or woman born for love is born for nothing else."
"A deplorable state of things!" exclaimed Irene, laughing.
"Yes -- or no. Who knows? Such people ought to die young. But I don't say that it is invariably the case. To be capable of loving, and at the same time to have other faculties, and the will to use them -- ah! There's your complete human being."
"I think ----" Irene began, and stopped, her voice failing.
"You think, belle Irène?"
"Oh, I was going to say that all this seems to me sensible and right. It doesn't disturb me."
"Why should it?"
"I think I will tell you, Helen, that my motive in marrying is the same as yours was."
"I surmised it."
"But, you know, there the similarity will end. It is quite certain" -- she laughed -- "that I shall have no six-months' vacations. At present, I don't think I shall desire them."
"No. To speak frankly, I auger well of your marriage."
These words affected Irene with a sense of relief. She had imagined that Mrs. Borisoff thought otherwise. A bright smile sunned her countenance; Helen, observing it, smiled too, but more thoughtfully.
"You must bring your husband to see me in Paris some time next year. By the bye, you don't think he will disapprove of me?"
"Do you imagine Mr. Jacks ----"
"What were you going to say?"
Irene had stopped as if for want of the right word She was reflecting.
"It never struck me," she said, "that he would wish to regulate my choice of friends. Yet I suppose it would be within his right?"
"Conventionally speaking, undoubtedly."
"Don't think I am in uncertainty about this particular instance," said Irene. "No, he has already told me that he liked you. But of the general question, I had never thought."
"My dear, who does, or can, think before marriage of all that it involves? After all, the pleasures of life consist so largely in the unexpected."
Irene paced a few yards in silence, and when she spoke again it was of quite another subject.
Whether this sojourn with her experienced and philosophical friend made her better able to face the meeting with Arnold Jacks was not quite certain. At moments she fancied so; she saw her position as wholly reasonable, void of anxiety; she was about to marry the man she liked and respected -- safest of all forms of marriage. But there came troublesome moods of misgiving. It did not flatter her self-esteem to think of herself as excluded from the number of those who are capable of love; even in Helen Borisoff's view, the elect, the fortunate. Of love, she had thought more in this last week or two than in all her years gone by. Assuredly, she knew it not, this glory of the poets. Yet she could inspire it in others; at all events, in one, whose rhythmic utterance of the passion ever and again came back to her mind.
A temptation had assailed her (but she resisted it) to repeat those verses of Piers Otway to her friend. And in thinking of them, she half reproached herself for the total silence she had preserved towards their author. Perhaps he was uncertain whether the verses had ever reached her. It seemed unkind. There would have been no harm in letting him know that she had read the lines, and -- as poetry -- liked them.
Was her temper prosaic? It would at any time have surprised her to be told so. Owing to her father's influence, she had given much time to scientific studies, but she knew herself by no means defective in appreciation of art and literature. By whatever accident, the friends of her earlier years had been notable rather for good sense and good feeling than for aesthetic fervour; the one exception, her cousin Olga, had rather turned her from thoughts about the beautiful, for Olga seemed emotional in excess, and was not without taint of affectation. In Helen Borisoff she knew for the first time a woman who cared supremely for music, poetry, pictures, and who combined with this a vigorous practical intelligence. Helen could burn with enthusiasm, yet never exposed herself to suspicion of weak-mindedness. Posturing was her scorn, but no one spoke more ardently of the things she admired. Her acquaintance with recent literature was wider than that of anyone Irene had known; she talked of it in the most interesting way, giving her friend new lights, inspiring her with a new energy of thought. And Irene was sorry to go away. She vaguely felt that this companionship was of moment in the history of her mind; she wished for a larger opportunity of benefiting by it.
Dr. Derwent and his son were now at Cromer; there Irene was to join them; and thither, presently, would come Arnold Jacks.
On the day of her departure there arose a storm of wind and rain, which grew more violent as she approached the Norfolk coast; and nothing could have pleased her better. Her troubled mood harmonised with the darkened, roaring sea; moreover, this atmospheric disturbance made something to talk about on arriving. She suffered no embarrassment at the meeting with her father and Eustace, who of course awaited her at the station. To their eyes, Irene was m excellent spirits, though rather wearied after the tiresome journey. She said very little about her stay in Hampshire.
The last person in the world with whom Irene would have chosen to converse about her approaching marriage was her excellent brother Eustace; but the young man was not content with offering his good wishes; to her surprise, he took the opportunity of their being alone together on the beach, to speak with most unwonted warmth about Arnold Jacks.
"I really was glad when I heard of it! To tell you the truth, I had hoped for it. If there is a man living whom I respect, it is Arnold. There's no end to his good qualities. A downright good and sensible fellow!"
"Of course I'm very glad you think so, Eustace," replied his sister, stooping to pick up a shell.
"Indeed I do. I've often thought that one's sister's choice in marriage must be a very anxious thing; it would have worried me awfully if I had felt any doubts about the man."
Irene was inclined to laugh.
"It's very good of you." she said.
"But I mean it. Girls haven't quite a fair chance, you know. They can't see much of men."
"If it comes to that," said Irene merrily, "men seem to me in much the same position."
"Oh, it's so different. Girls -- women -- are good. There's nothing unpleasant to be known about them."
"Upon my word, Eustace! On n'cest pas plus galant! But I really feel it my duty to warn you against that amiable optimism. If you were so kind as to be uneasy on my account, I shall be still more so on yours. Your position, my dear boy, is a little perilous."
Eustace laughed, not without some amiable confusion. To give himself a countenance, he smote at pebbles with the head of his walking-stick.
"Oh, I shan't marry for ages!"
"That shows rather more prudence than faith in your doctrine."
"Never mind. Our subject is Arnold Jacks. He's a splendid fellow. The best and most sensible fellow I know."
It was not the eulogy most agreeable to Irene in her present state of mind. She hastened to dismiss the topic, but thought with no little surprise and amusement of Eustace's self-revelation. Brothers and sisters seldom know each other; and these two, by virtue of widely differing characteristics, were scarce more than mutually well-disposed strangers.
Less emphatic in commendation, Dr. Derwent appeared not less satisfied with his future son-in-law. Irene's scrutiny, sharpened by intense desire to read her father's mind, could detect no qualification of his contentment. As his habit was, the Doctor, having found an opportunity, broached the subject with humorous abruptness.
"It's no business of mine; I don't wish to be impertinent; but if I may be allowed to express approval ----"
Irene raised her eyes for a moment, bestowing upon him a look of affection and gratitude.
"He's a thorough Englishman, and. that means a good deal in the laudatory sense. The best sort of husband for an English girl, I've no manner of doubt."
Dr. Derwent was not effusive; he had said as much as he cared to say on the more intimate aspect of the matter. But he spoke long and carefully regarding things practical. Irene had his entire confidence; nothing in the state of his affairs needed to be kept from her knowledge. He spoke of the duty he owed to his two children respectively, and in sufficient detail of Arnold Jacks' circumstances. On the death of John Jacks (which the Doctor suspected was not remote) Arnold would be something more than a well-to-do man; his wife, if she aimed that way, might look for a social position such as the world envied.
"And on the whole," he added, "as society must have leaders, I prefer that they should he people with brains as well as money. The ambition is quite legitimate. Do your part in civilising the drawing-room, as Arnold conceives he is doing his on a larger scale. A good and intelligent woman is no superfluity in the world of wealth nowadays."
Irene tried to believe that this ambition appealed to her. Nay, at times it certainly did so, for she liked the brilliant and the commanding. On the other hand, it seemed imperfect as an ideal of life. In its undercurrents her thought was always more or less turbid.
A letter from Arnold announced his coming. A day after, he arrived.
Many times as she had enacted in fancy the scene of their meeting, Irene found in the reality something quite unlike her anticipation. Arnold, it was true, behaved much as she expected; he was perfect in well-bred homage; he said the right things in the right tone; his face declared a sincere emotion, yet he restrained himself within due limits of respect. The result in Irene's mind was disappointment and fear.
He gave her too little; he seemed to ask too much.
The first interview -- in a private sitting-room at the hotel where they were all staying -- lasted about half an hour; it wrought a change in Irene for which she had not at all prepared herself, though the doubts and misgivings which had of late beset her pointed darkly to such a revulsion of feeling. She had not understood; she could not understand, until enlightened by the very experience. Alone once more, she sat down all tremulous; pallid as if she had suffered a shock of fright. An indescribable sense of immodesty troubled her nerves: she seemed to have lost all self-respect: the thought of going forth again, of facing her father and brother, was scarcely to be borne. This acute distress presently gave way to a dull pain, a sinking at the heart. She felt miserably alone. She longed for a friend of her own sex, not necessarily to speak of what she was going through, but for the moral support of a safe companionship. Never had she known such a feeling of isolation, and of over-great responsibility.
A few tears relieved her. Irene was not prone to weeping; only a great crisis of her fate would have brought her to this extremity.
It was over in a quarter of an hour -- or seemed so. She had recovered command of her nerves, had subdued the excess of emotion. As for what had happened, that was driven into the background of her mind, to await examination at leisure. She was a new being, but for the present could bear herself in the old way. Before leaving her room, she stood before the looking-glass, and smiled. Oh yes, it would do!
Arnold Jacks was in the state of mind which exhibited him at his very best. An air of discreet triumph sat well on this elegant Englishman; it prompted him to continuous discourse, which did not lack its touch of brilliancy; his features had an uncommon animation, and his slender, well-knit figure -- of course clad with perfect seaside propriety -- appeared to gain an inch, so gallantly he held himself. He walked the cliffs like one on guard over his country. Without for a moment becoming ridiculous, Arnold, with his first-rate English breeding, could carry off a great deal of radiant self-consciousness.
Side by side, he and Irene looked very well; there was suitability of stature, harmony of years. Arnold's clean-cut visage, manly yet refined, did no discredit to the choice of a girl even so striking in countenance as Irene. They drew the eyes of passers-by. Conscious of this, Irene now and then flinched imperceptibly; but her smile held good, and its happiness flattered the happy man.
Eustace Derwent departed in a day or two, having an invitation to join friends in Scotland. He had vastly enjoyed the privilege of listening to Arnold's talk. Indeed to his sister's amusement, he plainly sought to model himself on Mr. Jacks, in demeanour, in phraseology, and in sentiments; not without success.
On one of those evenings at the seaside, Dr. Derwent, glancing over the newspapers, came upon a letter signed "Lee Hannaford." It had reference to some current dispute about the merits of a new bullet. Hannaford, writing with authority, criticised the invention; he gave particulars (the result of an experiment on an old horse) as to its mode of penetrating flesh and shattering bone; there was a gusto in his style, that of the true artist in bloodshed. pointing out the signature to Arnold Jacks, Dr. Derwent asked in a subdued tone, as when one speaks of something shameful:
"Have you seen or heard of him lately?"
"About ten days ago," replied Arnold. "He was at the Hyde Wilson's, and he had the impertinence to congratulate me. He did it, too, before other people, so that I couldn't very well answer as I wished. You are aware, by the bye, that he is doing very well -- belongs to a firm of manufacturers of explosives?"
"Indeed? -- I wish he would explode his own head off."
The Doctor spoke with most unwonted fierceness. Arnold Jacks, without verbally seconding the wish, showed by an uneasy smile that he would not have mourned the decease of this relative of the Derwents. Mrs. Hannaford's position involved no serious scandal, but Arnold had a strong dislike for any sort of social irregularity; here was the one detail of his future wife's family circumstances which he desired to forget. What made it more annoying than it need have been was his surmise that Lee Hannaford nursed rancour against the Derwents, and would not lose an opportunity of venting it. In the public congratulation of which Arnold spoke, there had been a distinct touch of malice. It was not impossible that the man hinted calumnies with regard to his wife, and, under the circumstances, slander of that kind was the most difficult thing to deal with.
But in Irene's society these unwelcome thoughts were soon dismissed. With the demeanour of his betrothed, Arnold was abundantly satisfied; he saw in it the perfect medium between demonstrativeness and insensibility. Without ever having reflected on the subject, he felt that this was how a girl of entire refinement should behave in a situation demanding supreme delicacy. Irene never seemed in "a coming-on disposition," to use the phrase of a young person who had not the advantage of English social training; it was evidently her wish to behave, as far as possible, with the simplicity of mere friendship. In these days, Mr. Jacks, for the first time, ceased to question himself as to the prudence of the step he had taken. Hitherto he had been often reminded that, socially speaking, he might have made a better marriage; he had felt that Irene conquered somewhat against his will, and that he wooed her without quite meaning to do so. On the cliffs and the sands at Cromer, these indecisions vanished. The girl had never looked to such advantage; he had never been so often apprised of the general admiration she excited. Beyond doubt, she would do him credit -- in Arnold's view the first qualification in a wife. She was really very intelligent, could hold her own in any company, and with experience might become a positively brilliant woman.
For caresses, for endearments, the time was not yet; that kind of thing, among self-respecting people of a certain class, came only with the honeymoon. Yet Arnold never for a moment doubted that the girl was very fond of him. Of course it was for his sake that she had refused Trafford Romaine -- a most illuminating incident. That she was proud of him, went without saying. He noted with satisfaction how thoroughly she had embraced his political views, what a charming Imperialist she had become. In short, everything promised admirably. At moments, Arnold felt the burning of a lover's impatience.
They parted. The Derwents returned to London; Arnold set off to pay a hasty visit or two in the North. The wedding was to take place a couple of months hence, and the pair would spend their Christmas in Egypt.
A few days after her arrival in Bryanston Square, Irene went to see the Hannafords. She found her aunt in a deplorable state, unable to converse, looking as if on the verge of a serious illness. Olga behaved strangely, like one in harassing trouble of which she might not speak. It was a painful visit, and on her return home Irene talked of it to her father.
"Something wretched is going on of which we don't know," she declared. "Anyone could see it. Olga is keeping some miserable secret, and her mother looks as if she were being driven mad."
"That ruffian, I suppose," said the Doctor. "What can he be doing?"
The next day he saw his sister. He came home with a gloomy countenance, and called Irene into his study.
"You were right. Something very bad indeed is going on, so bad that I hardly like to speak to you about it. But secrecy is impossible; we must use our common sense -- Hannaford is bringing a suit for divorce."
Irene was so astonished that she merely gazed at her father, waiting his explanation. Under her eyes Dr. Derwent suffered an increase of embarrassment, which tended to relieve itself in anger.
"It will kill her," he exclaimed, with a nervous gesture. "And then, if justice were done, that scoundrel would be hanged!"
"You mean her husband?"
"Yes. Though I'm not sure that there isn't another who deserves the name. She wants to see you, Irene, and I think you must go at once. She says she has things to tell you that will make her mind easier. I'm going to send a nurse to be with her: she mustn't be left alone. It's lucky I went to-day. I won't answer for what may happen in four-and-twenty hours. Olga isn't much use, you know, though she's doing what she can."
It was about one o'clock. Saying she would be able to lunch at her aunt's house, Irene forthwith made ready, and drove to Campden Hill. She was led into the drawing-room, and sat there, alone, for five minutes; then Olga entered. The girls advanced to each other with a natural gesture of distress.
"She's asleep, I'm glad to say," Olga whispered, as if still in a sickroom. "I persuaded her to lie down. I don't think she has closed her eyes the last two or three nights. Can you wait? Oh, do, if you can! She does so want to see you."
"But why, dear? Of course I will wait; but why does she ask for me?"
Olga related all that had come to pass, in her knowledge. Only by ceaseless importunity had she constrained her mother to reveal the cause of an anguish which could no longer be disguised. The avowal had been made yesterday, not long before Dr. Derwent's coming to the house.
"I wanted to tell you, but she had forbidden me to speak to anyone. What's the use of trying to keep such a thing secret? If uncle had not come, I should have telegraphed for him. Of course he made her tell him, and it has put her at rest for a little; she fell asleep as soon as she lay down. Her dread is that we shan't believe her. She wants, I think, only to declare to you that she has done no wrong."
"As if I could doubt her word!"
Irene tried to shape a question, but could not speak. Her cousin also was mute for a moment. Their eyes met, and fell.
"You remember Mr. Otway's brother?" said Olga, in an unsteady voice, and then ceased.
"He? Daniel Otway?"
Irene had turned pale; she spoke under her breath. At once there recurred to her the unexplained incident at Malvern Station.
"I knew mother was foolish in keeping up an acquaintance with him," Olga answered, with some vehemence. "I detested the man, what I saw of him. And I suspect -- of course mother won't say -- he has been having money from her."
An exclamation of revolted feeling escaped Irene. She could not speak her thoughts; they were painful almost beyond endurance. She could not even meet her cousin's look.
"It's a hideous thing to talk about," Olga pursued, her head bent and her hands crushing each other, "no wonder it seems to be almost driving her mad. What do you think she did, as soon as she received the notice? She sent for Piers Otway, and told him, and asked him to help her. He came in the afternoon, when I was out. Think how dreadful it must have been for her!"
"How could he help her?" asked Irene, in a strangely subdued tone, still without raising her eyes.
"By seeing his brother, she thought, and getting him, perhaps, to persuade my father -- how I hate the name! -- that there were no grounds for such an action."
"What" -- Irene forced each syllable from her lips -- "what are the grounds alleged?"
Olga began a reply, but the first word choked her. Her self-command gave way, she sobbed, and turned to hide her face.
"You, too, are being tried beyond your strength," said Irene, whose womanhood fortified itself in these moments of wretched doubt and shame. "Come, we must have some lunch whilst aunt is asleep."
"I want to get it all over -- to tell you as much as I know," said the other. "Mother says there is not even an appearance of wrong-doing against her -- that she can only be accused by deliberate falsehood. She hasn't told me more than that -- and how can I ask? Of course he is capable of everything -- of any wickedness!"
"You mean Daniel Otway?"
"No -- her husband -- I will never again call him by the other name."
"Do you know whether Piers Otway has seen his brother?"
"He hadn't up to yesterday, when he sent mother a note, saying that the man was away, and couldn't be heard of."
With an angry effort Olga recovered her self-possession. Apart from the natural shame which afflicted her, she seemed to experience more of indignation and impatience than any other feeling. Growing calmer, she spoke almost with bitterness of her mother's folly.
"I told her once, quite plainly, that Daniel Otway wasn't the kind of man she ought to be friendly with. She was offended: it was one of the reasons why we couldn't go on living together. I believe, if the truth were known, it was worry about him that caused her breakdown in health. She's a weak, soft-natured woman, and he -- I know very well what he is. He and the other one -- both Piers Otway's brothers -- have always been worthless creatures. She knew it well enough, and yet ----! I suppose their mother ----"
She broke off in a tone of disgust. Irene, looking at her with more attentiveness, waited for what she would next say.
"Of course you remember," Olga added, after a pause, "that they are only half-brothers to Piers Otway?"
"Of course I do."
"His mother must have been a very different woman. You have heard ----?"
They exchanged looks. Irene nodded, and averted her eyes, murmuring, "Aunt explained to me, after his father's death."
"One would have supposed," said Olga, "that they would turn into the honourable men, and he the scamp. Nature doesn't seem to care much about setting us a moral lesson."
And she laughed -- a short, bitter laugh. Irene, her brows knit in painful thought, kept silence.
They were going to the dining-room, when a servant made known to them that Mrs. Hannaford was asking for her daughter.
"Do have something to eat," said Olga, "and I'll tell her you are here. You shall have lunch first; I insist upon it, and I'll join you in a moment."
In a quarter of an hour, Irene went up to her aunt's room. Mrs. Hannaford was sitting in an easy chair, placed so that a pale ray of sunshine fell upon her. She rose, feebly, only to fall back again; her hands were held out in pitiful appeal, and tears moistened her cheeks. Beholding this sad picture, Irene forgot the doubt that offended her; she was all soft compassion. The suffering woman clung about her neck, hid her face against her bosom, sobbed and moaned.
They spoke together till dusk. The confession which Mrs. Hannaford made to her niece went further than that elicited from her either by Olga or Dr. Derwent. In broken sentences, in words of shamefaced incoherence, but easily understood, she revealed a passion which had been her torturing secret, and a temptation against which she had struggled year after year. The man was unworthy; she had long known it; she suffered only the more. She had been imprudent, once or twice all but reckless, never what is called guilty. Convinced of the truth of what she heard, Irene drew a long sigh, and became almost cheerful in her ardour of solace and encouragement. No one had ever seen the Irene who came forth under this stress of circumstance; no one had ever heard the voice with which she uttered her strong heart. The world? Who cared for the world? Let it clack and grin! They would defend the truth, and quietly wait the issue. No more weakness Brain and conscience must now play their part.
"But if it should go against me? If I am made free of that man ----?"
"Then be free of him!" exclaimed the girl, her eyes flashing through tears. "Be glad!"
"No -- no! I am afraid of myself ----"
"We will help you. When you are well again, your mind will be stronger to resist. Not that -- never that! You know it is impossible."
"I know. And there is one thing that would really make it so. I haven't told you -- another thing I had to say -- why I wanted so to see you."
Irene looked kindly into the agitated face.
"It's about Piers Otway. He came to see us here. I had formed a hope ----"
"Yes. Oh, if that could be!"
She caught the girl's hand in her hot palms, and seemed to entreat her for a propitious word. Irene was very still, thinking; and at length she smiled.
"Who can say? Olga is good and clever ----"
"It might have been; I know it might. But after this?"
"More likely than not," said Irene, with a half-absent look, "this would help to bring it about."
"Dear, only your marriage could have changed him -- nothing else. Oh, I am sure, nothing else! He has the warmest and truest heart!"
Irene sat with bowed head, her lips compressed; she smiled again, but more faintly. In the silence there sounded a soft tap at the door.
"I will see who it is," said Irene.
Olga stood without, holding a letter. She whispered that the handwriting of the address (to Mrs. Hannaford) was Piers Otway's, and that possibly this meant important news. Irene took the letter, and re-entered the room. It was necessary to light the gas before Mrs. Hannaford could read the sheet that trembled in her hand.
"What I feared! He can do nothing."
She held the letter to Irene, who perused it. Piers began by saying that as result of a note he had posted yesterday, Daniel had this morning called upon him at his office. They had had a long talk.
"He declared himself quite overcome by what had happened, and said he had been away from town endeavouring to get at an understanding of the so-called evidence against him. Possibly his inquiries might effect something; as yet they were useless. He was very vague, and did not reassure me; I could not make him answer simple questions. There is no honesty in the man. Unfortunately I have warrant for saying this, on other accounts. Believe me when I tell you that the life he leads makes him unworthy of your lightest thought. He is utterly, hopelessly ignoble. It is a hateful memory that I, who feel for you a deep respect and affection, was the cause of your coming to know him.
"But for the fear of embarrassing you, I should have brought this news, instead of writing it. If you are still keeping your trouble a secret, I beseech you to ease your mind by seeing Dr. Derwent, and telling him everything. It is plain that your defence must at once be put into legal hands. Your brother is a man of the world, and much more than that; he will not, cannot, refuse to believe you, and his practical aid will comfort you in every way. Do not try to hide the thing even from your daughter; she is of an age to share your suffering, and to alleviate it by her affection. Believe me, silence is mistaken delicacy. You are innocent; you are horribly wronged; have the courage of a just cause. See Dr. Derwent at once; I implore you to do so, for your own sake, and for that of all your true friends."
At the end, Irene drew a deep breath.
"He, certainly, is one of them," she said.
"Of my true friends? Indeed, he is."
Again they were interrupted. Olga announced the arrival of the nurse sent by Dr. Derwent to tend the invalid. Thereupon Irene took leave of her aunt, promising to come again on the morrow, and went downstairs, where she exchanged a few words with her cousin. They spoke of Piers Otway's letter.
"Pleasant for us, isn't it?" said Olga, with a dreary smile. "Picture us entertaining friends who call!"
Irene embraced her gently, bade her be hopeful, and said good-bye.
At home again, she remembered that she had an engagement to dine out this evening, but the thought was insufferable. Eustace, who was to have accompanied her, must go alone. Having given the necessary orders, she went to her room, meaning to sit there until dinner. But she grew restless and impatient; when the first bell rang, she made a hurried change of dress, and descended to the drawing-room. An evening newspaper failed to hold her attention; with nervous movements, she walked hither and thither. It was a great relief to her when the door opened and her father came in.
Contrary to his custom, the Doctor had not dressed. He bore a wearied countenance, but at the sight of Irene tried to smooth away the lines of disgust.
"It was all I could do to get here by dinner-time. Excuse me, Mam'zelle Wren; they're the clothes of an honest working-man."
The pet syllable (a joke upon her name as translated by Thibaut Rossignol) had not been frequent on her father's lips for the last year or two; be used it only in moments of gaiety or of sadness. Irene did not wish to speak about her aunt just now, and was glad that the announcement of dinner came almost at once. They sat through an unusually silent meal, the few words they exchanged having reference to public affairs. As soon as it was over, Irene asked if she might join her father in the library.
"Yes, come and be smoked," was his answer.
This mood did not surprise her. It was the Doctor's principle to combat anxiety with jests. He filled and lit one of his largest pipes, and smoked for some minutes before speaking. Irene, still nervous, let her eyes wander about the book-covered walls; a flush was on her cheeks, and with one of her hands she grasped the other wrist, as if to restrain herself from involuntary movement.
"The nurse came," she said at length, unable to keep silence longer.
"That's right. An excellent woman; I can trust her."
"Aunt seemed better when I came away."
Volleys of tobacco were the only sign of the stress Dr. Derwent suffered. He loathed what seemed to him the sordid tragedy of his sister's life, and he resented as a monstrous thing his daughter's involvement in such an affair. This was the natural man; the scientific observer took another side, urging that life was life and could not be escaped, refine ourselves as we may; also that a sensible girl of mature years would benefit rather than otherwise by being made helpful to a woman caught in the world's snare.
"Whilst I was there," pursued Irene, "there came a letter from Mr. Otway. No, no; not from him; from Mr. Piers Otway."
She gave a general idea of its contents, and praised its tone. "I daresay," threw out her father, almost irritably, "but I shall strongly advise her to have done with all of that name."
"It's true they are of the same family," said Irene, "but that seems a mere accident, when one knows the difference between our friend Mr. Otway and his brothers."
"Maybe; I shall never like the name. Pray don't speak of 'our friend.' In any case, as you see, there must be an end of that."
"I should like you to see his letter, father. Ask aunt to show it you."
The Doctor smoked fiercely, his brows dark. Rarely in her lifetime had Irene seen her father wrathful -- save for his outbursts against the evils of the world and the time. To her he had never spoken an angry word. The lowering of his features in this moment caused her a painful flutter at the heart; she became mute, and for a minute or two neither spoke.
"By the bye," said Dr. Derwent suddenly, "it is a most happy thing that your aunt's money was so strictly tied up. No one can be advantaged by her death -- except that American hospital. Her scoundrelly acquaintances are aware of that fact no doubt."
"It's a little hard, isn't it, that Olga would have nothing?"
"In one way, yes. But I'm not sure she isn't safer so." Again there fell silence.
Again Irene's eyes wandered, and her hands moved nervously.
"There is one thing we must speak of," she said at length "If the case goes on, Arnold will of course hear of it."
Dr. Derwent looked keenly at her before replying.
"He knows already."
"He knows? How?"
"By common talk in some house he frequents. Agreeable! I saw him this afternoon; he took me aside and spoke of this. It is his belief that Hannaford himself has set the news going."
Irene seemed about to rise. She sat straight, every nerve tense, her face glowing with indignation.
"What an infamy!"
"Just so. It's the kind of thing we're getting mixed up with."
"How did Arnold speak to you? In what tone?"
"As any decent man would -- I can't describe it otherwise. He said that of course it didn't concern him, except in so far as it was likely to annoy our family. He wanted to know whether you had heard, and -- naturally enough -- was vexed that you couldn't be kept out of it. He's a man of the world, and knows that, nowadays, a scandal such as this matters very little. Our name will come into it, I fear, but it's all forgotten in a week or two."
They sat still and brooded for a long time. Irene seemed on the point of speaking once or twice, but checked herself. When at length her father's face relaxed into a smile, she rose, said she was weary, and stepped forward to say good-night.
"We'll have no more of this subject, unless compelled," said the Doctor. "It's worse that vivisection."
And he settled to a book -- or seemed to do so.
This e-text and its HTML documents are so devised that they can afford a proof of my own drawing up. All rights reserved. No part of this e-text may be reproduced on the Internet without the permission of Mitsuharu Matsuoka.