Irene passed a restless night. The snatches of unrefreshing sleep which she obtained as the hours dragged towards morning were crowded with tumultuous dreams; she seemed to be at strife with all manner of people, now defending herself vehemently against some formless accusation, now arraigning others with a violence strange to her nature. Worst of all, she was at odds with her father, about she knew not what; she saw his kind face turn cold and hard in reply to a passionate exclamation with which she had assailed him. The wan glimmer of a misty October dawn was very welcome after this pictured darkness. Yet it brought reflections that did not tend to soothe her mind.
Several letters for her lay on the breakfast-table; among them, one from Arnold Jacks, which she opened hurriedly. It proved to be a mere note, saying that at last he had found a house which seemed in every respect suitable, and he wished Irene to go over it with him as soon as possible; he would call for her at three o'clock. "Remember," he added, "you dine with us. We are by ourselves."
She glanced at her father, as if to acquaint him with this news; but the Doctor was deep in a leading-article, and she did not disturb him. Eustace had correspondence of his own which engrossed him. No one seemed disposed for talk this morning.
The letter which most interested her came from Helen Borisoff, who was now at home, in Paris. It was the kind of letter that few people are so fortunate as to receive nowadays, covering three sheets with gaiety and good-nature, with glimpses of interesting social life and many an amusing detail. Mrs. Borisoff was establishing herself for the winter, which promised all sorts of good things yonder on the Seine. She had met most of the friends she cared about, among whom were men and women with far-echoing names. With her husband she was on delightful terms; he had welcomed her charmingly; he wished her to convey his respectful homage to the young English lady with whom his wife had become liée, and the hope that at no distant time he might make her acquaintance. After breakfast, Irene lingered over this letter, which brightened her imagination. Paris shone luringly as she read. Had circumstances been different, she would assuredly have spent a month there with Helen.
Well, she was going to Egypt, after --
One glance she gave at Arnold's short note. "My dear Irene" -- "In haste, but ever yours." These lines did not tempt her to muse. Yet Arnold was ceaselessly in her mind. She wished to see him, and at the same time feared his coming. As for the house, it occupied her thoughts with only a flitting vagueness. Why so much solicitude about the house? In any decent quarter of London, was not one just as good as another? But for the risk of hurting Arnold, she would have begged him to let her off the inspection, and to manage the business as he thought fit.
A number of small matters claimed her attention during the morning, several of them connected with her marriage. Try as she might, she could not bring herself to a serious occupation with these things; they seemed trivial and tiresome. Her thoughts wandered constantly to the house at Campden Hill, which had a tragic fascination. She had promised to see her aunt to-day, but it would be difficult to find time, unless she could manage to get there between her business with Arnold and the hour of dinner. Olga was to telegraph if anything happened. A chill misgiving took hold upon her as often as she saw her aunt's face, so worn and woe-stricken; and it constantly hovered before her mind's eye.
The revelation made to her yesterday had caused a mental shock greater than she had yet realised. That Mrs. Hannaford, a woman whom she had for many years regarded as elderly, should be possessed and overcome by the passion of love, was a thing so strange, so at conflict with her fixed ideas, as to be all but incredible. In her aunt's presence, she scarcely reflected upon it; she saw only a woman bound to her by natural affection, who had fallen into dire misfortune and wretchedness. Little by little the story grew upon her understanding; the words in which it had been disclosed came back to her, and with a new significance, a pathos hitherto unfelt. She remembered that Olga's mother was not much more than forty years old; that this experience began more than five years ago; that her life had been loveless; that she was imaginative and of emotional temper. To dwell upon these facts was not only to see one person in a new light, but to gain a wider perception of life at large. Irene had a sense of enfranchisement from the immature, the conventional.
She would have liked to be alone, to sit quietly and think. She wanted to review once more, and with fuller self-consciousness, the circumstances which were shaping her future. But there was no leisure for such meditation; the details of life pressed upon her, urged her onward, as with an impatient hand. This sense of constraint became an irritation -- due in part to the slight headache, coming and going, which reminded her of her bad night. Among the things she meant to do this morning was the writing of several letters to so-called friends, who had addressed her in the wonted verbiage on the subject of her engagement. Five minutes proved the task impossible. She tore up a futile attempt at civility, and rose from the desk with all her nerves quivering.
"How well I understand," she said to herself, "why men swear!"
At eleven o'clock, unable to endure the house, she dressed for going out, and drove to Mrs. Hannaford's.
Olga was not at home. Before going into her aunt's room, Irene spoke with the nurse, who had no very comforting report to make; Mrs. Hannaford could not sleep, had not closed her eyes for some four-and-twenty hours; Dr. Derwent had looked in this morning, and was to return later with another medical man. The patient longed for her niece's visit; it might do good.
She stayed about an hour, and it was the most painful hour her life had yet known. The first sight of Mrs. Hannaford's face told her how serious this illness was becoming; eyes unnaturally wide, lips which had gone so thin, head constantly moving from side to side as it lay back on the cushion of the sofa, were indications of suffering which made Irene's heart ache. In a faint, unsteady, lamenting voice, the poor woman talked ceaselessly; now of the wrong that was being done her, now of her miseries in married life, now again of her present pain. Once or twice Irene fancied her delirious, for she seemed to speak without consciousness of a hearer. To the inquiry whether it was in her niece's power to be of any service, she answered at first with sorrowful negatives, but said presently that she would like to see Piers Otway; could Irene write to him, and ask him to come?
"He shall come," was the reply.
On going down, Irene met her cousin, just returned. To her she spoke of Mrs. Hannaford's wish.
"I promised he should be sent for. Will you do it, Olga?"
"It is already done," Olga answered. "Did she forget? One of the things I went out for was to telegraph to him."
They gazed at each other with distressful eyes.
"Oh, what does the man deserve who has caused tills?" exclaimed Olga, who herself began to look ill. "It's dreadful! I am afraid to go into the room. If I had someone here to live with me!"
Irene's instinct was to offer to come, but she remembered the difficulties. Her duties at home were obstacles sufficient. She had to content herself with promising to call as often as possible.
Returning to Bryanston Square, she thought with annoyance of the possibility that her father and Piers Otway might come face to face in that house. Never till now had she taxed her father with injustice. It seemed to her an intolerable thing that the blameless man should be made to share in obloquy merited by his brother. And what memory was this which awoke in her? Did not she herself once visit upon him a fault in which he had little if any part? She recalled that evening, long ago, at Queen's Gate, when she was offended by the coarse behaviour of Piers Otway's second brother. True, there was something else that moved her censure on that occasion, but she would scarcely have noticed it save for the foolish incident at the door. Fortune was not his friend. She thought of the circumstances of his birth, which had so cruelly wronged him when Jerome Otway died. Now, more likely than not, her father would resent his coming to Mrs. Hannaford's, would see in it something suspicious, a suggestion of base purpose.
"I can't stand that!" Irene exclaimed to herself. "If he is calumniated, I shall defend him, come of it what may!"
At luncheon, Dr. Derwent was grave and disinclined to converse. On learning where Irene had been, he nodded, making no remark. It was a bad sign that his uneasiness could no longer be combated with a dry joke.
As three o'clock drew near, Irene made no preparation for going out. She sat in the drawing-room, unoccupied, and was found thus when Arnold Jacks entered.
"You got my note?" he began, with a slight accent of surprise.
Irene glanced at him, and perceived that he did not wear his wonted countenance. This she had anticipated, with an uneasiness which now hardened in her mind to something like resentment.
"Yes. I hoped you would excuse me. I have a little headache."
"Oh, I'm sorry!"
He was perfectly suave. He looked at her with a good-natured anxiety. Irene tried to smile.
"You won't mind if I leave all that to you? Your judgment is quite enough. If you really like the house, take it at once. I shall be delighted."
"It's rather a responsibility, you know. Suppose we wait till to-morrow?"
Irene s nerves could not endure an argument. She gave a strange laugh, and exclaimed:
"Are you afraid of responsibilities? In this case, you must really face it. Screw up your courage."
Decidedly, Arnold was not himself. He liked an engagement of banter; it amused him to call out Irene's spirit, and to conquer in the end by masculine force in guise of affectionate tolerance. To-day he seemed dull, matter-of-fact, inclined to vexation; when not speaking, he had a slightly absent air, as if ruminating an unpleasant thought.
"Of course I will do as you wish, Irene. Just let me describe the house ----"
She could have screamed with irritation.
"Arnold, I entreat you! The house is nothing to me. I mean, one will do as well as another, if you are satisfied."
"So be it. I will never touch on the subject again."
His tone was decisive. Irene knew that he would literally keep his word. This was the side of his character which she liked, which had always impressed her; and for the moment her nerves were soothed.
"You will forgive me?" she said gently.
"Forgive you for having a headache? -- Will it prevent you from coming to us this evening?"
"I should be grateful if you let me choose another day."
He did not stay very long. At leave-taking, he raised her hand to his lips, and Irene felt that he did it gracefully. But when she was alone again, his manner, so slightly yet so noticeably changed, became the harassing subject of her thought. That the change resulted from annoyance at the scandal in her family she could not doubt; such a thing would be hard for Arnold to bear. When were they to speak of it? Speak they must, if the affair went on to publicity. And, considering the natural difficulty Arnold would find in approaching such a subject, ought not she to take some steps of her own initiative?
By evening, she saw the position in a very serious light. She asked herself whether it did not behove her to offer to make an end of their engagement.
"Your aunt has brain fever," said Dr. Derwent, in the library after dinner. And Irene shuddered with dread.
Early next morning she accompanied her father to Mrs. Hannaford's. The Doctor went upstairs; Irene waited in the dining-room, where she was soon joined by Olga. The girl's face was news sufficient; her mother grew worse -- had passed a night of delirium. Two nurses were in the house, and the medical man called every few hours. Olga herself looked on the point of collapse; she was haggard with fear; she trembled and wept. In spite of her deep concern and sympathy, Irene's more courageous temper reproved this weakness, wondered at it as unworthy of a grown woman.
"Did Mr. Otway come?" she asked, as soon as It was possible to converse.
"Yes. He was a long time in mother's room, and just before he left her your father came."
"No. Uncle seemed angry when I told him. He said, 'Get rid of him at once!' I suppose he dislikes him because of his brother. It's very unjust."
Irene kept silence.
"He came down -- and we talked. I am so glad to have any friend near me! I told him how uncle felt. Of course he will not come again ----"
"Why not? This is your house, not my father's!"
"But poor mother couldn't see him now -- wouldn't know him. I promised to send him news frequently. I'm going to telegraph this morning."
"Of course," said Irene, with emphasis. "He must understand that you have no such feeling ----"
"Oh, he knows that! He knows I am grateful to him -- very grateful ----"
She broke down again, and sobbed. Irene, without speaking, put her arms around the girl and kissed her cheek.
Dr. Derwent and his daughter met again at luncheon. Afterwards, Irene followed into the library.
"I wish to ask you something, father. When you and Arnold spoke about this hateful thing, did you tell him, unmistakably, that aunt was slandered?"
"I told him that I myself had no doubt of it."
"Did he seem -- do you think that he doubts?"
Irene kept silence, feeling that her impression was too vague to be imparted.
"Try," said her father, "to dismiss the matter from your thoughts. It doesn't concern you. You will never hear an allusion to it from Jacks. Happen what may" -- his voice paused, with suggestive emphasis -- "you have nothing to do with it. It doesn't affect your position or your future in the least."
As she withdrew, Irene was uneasily conscious of altered relations with her father. The change had begun when she wrote to him announcing her engagement; since, they had never conversed with the former freedom, and the shadow now hanging over them seemed to chill their mutual affection. For the first time, she thought with serious disquiet of the gulf between old and new that would open at her marriage, of all she was losing, of the duties she was about to throw off -- duties which appeared so much more real, more sacred, than those she undertook in their place. Her father's .widowerhood had made him dependent upon her in a higher degree than either of them quite understood until they had to reflect upon the consequences of parting; and Irene now perceived that she had dismissed this consideration too lightly. She found difficulty in explaining her action, her state of mind, her whole self. Was it really only a few weeks ago? To her present mood, what she had thought and done seemed a result of youth and inexperience, a condition long outlived.
When she had sat alone for half an hour in the drawing-room, Eustace joined her. He said their father had gone out. They talked of indifferent things till bedtime.
In the morning, the servant who came into Irene's room gave her a note addressed in the Doctor's hand. It contained the news that Mrs. Hannaford had died before daybreak. Dr. Derwent himself did not appear till about ten o'clock, when he arrived together with ills niece. Olga had been violently hysterical; it seemed the wisest thing to bring her to Bryanston Square; the change of surroundings and Irene's sympathy soon restored her to calm.
At midday a messenger brought Irene a letter from Arnold Jacks. Arnold wrote that he had just heard of her aunt's death: that he was deeply grieved, and hastened to condole with her. He did not come in person, thinking she would prefer to let this sad day pass over before they met, but he would call to-morrow morning. In the meantime, he would be grateful for a line assuring him that she was well.
Having read this, Irene threw it aside as if it had been a tradesman's circular. Not thus should he have written -- if write he must instead of coming. In her state of agitation after the hours spent with Olga, this bald note of sympathy seemed almost an insult; to keep silence as to the real cause of Mrs. Hannaford's death was much the same, she felt, as hinting a doubt of the poor lady's innocence. Arnold Jacks was altogether too decorous. Would it not have been natural for a man in his position to utter at least an indignant word? It might have been as allusive as his fine propriety demanded, but surely the word should have been spoken!
After some delay, she replied in a telegram, merely saying that she was quite well.
Olga, as soon as she felt able, had sat down to write a letter. She begged her cousin to have it posted at once.
"It's to Mr. Otway," she said, in an unsteady voice. And, when the letter had been despatched, she added, "It will be a great blow to him. I had a letter last night asking for news -- Oh, I meant to bring it!" she exclaimed, with a momentary return of her distracted manner. "I left it in my room. It will be lost-destroyed!"
Irene quieted her, promising that the letter should be kept safe.
"Perhaps he will call," Olga said presently. "But no, not so soon. He may have written again. I must have the letter if there is one. Someone must go over to the house this evening."
Through a great part of the afternoon, she slept, and whilst she was sleeping there arrived for her a telegram, which, Irene did not doubt, came from Piers Otway. It proved to be so, and Olga betrayed nervous tremors after reading the message.
"I shall have a letter in the morning," she said to her cousin, several times; and after that she did not care to talk, but sat for hours busy with her thoughts, which seemed not altogether sad.
At eleven o'clock next morning, Arnold Jacks was announced. Irene, who sat with Olga in the drawing-room, had directed that her visitor should be shown into the library, and there she received him. Arnold stepped eagerly towards her; not smiling indeed, but with the possibility of a smile manifest in every line of his countenance. There could hardly have been a stronger contrast with his manner of the day before yesterday. For this Irene had looked. Seeing precisely what she expected, her eyes fell; she gave a careless hand; she could not speak.
Arnold talked, talked. He said the proper things, and said them well; to things the reverse of proper, not so much as the faintest reference. This duty discharged, he spoke of the house he had taken; his voice grew animated; at length the latent smile stole out through his eyes and spread to his lips. Irene kept silence. Respecting her natural sadness, the lover made his visit brief, and retired with an air of grave satisfaction.
Olga knew that by her mother's death she became penniless. The income enjoyed by Mrs. Hannaford under the will of her sister in America was only for life by allowing a third of it to her husband, she had made saving impossible, and, as she left no will, her daughter could expect only such trifles as might legally fall to her share when things were settled. To her surviving parent, the girl was of course no more than a stranger. It surprised no one that Lee Hannaford, informed through the lawyers of what had happened, simply kept silence, leaving his wife's burial to the care of Dr. Derwent.
Three days of gloom went by; the funeral was over; Irene and her cousin sat together in their mourning apparel, not simply possessed by natural grief, but overcome with the nervous exhaustion which results from our habits and customs in presence of death. Olga had been miserably crying, but was now mute and still; Irene, pale, with an expression of austere thoughtfulness, spoke of the subject they both had in mind.
"There is no necessity to take any step at all -- until you are quite yourself again -- until you really wish. This is your home; my father would like you to stay."
"I couldn't live here after you are married," replied the other, weakly, despondently.
Irene glanced at her, hung a moment on the edge of speech, then spoke with a self-possession which made her seem many years older than her cousin.
"I had better tell you now, that we may understand each other. I am not going to be married."
To Olga's voiceless astonishment she answered with a pale smile. Grave again, and gentle as she was firm, Irene continued.
"I am going to break my engagement. It has been a mistake. To-night I shall write a letter to Mr. Jacks, saying that I cannot marry him; when it has been sent, I shall tell my father."
Olga had begun to tremble. Her features were disturbed with an emotion which banished every sign of sorrow; which flushed her cheeks and made her eyes seem hostile in their fixed stare.
"How can you do that?" she asked, in a hard voice "How is it possible?"
"It seems to me far more possible then the alternative -- a life of repentence."
"But -- what do you mean, Irene? When everything is settled -- when your house is taken -- when everyone knows! What do you mean? Why shall you do this?"
The words rushed forth impetuously, quivering on a note of resentment. The flushed cheeks were turning pallid; the girl's breast heaved with indignant passion.
"I can't fully explain it to you, Olga." The speaker's tones sounded very soft and reasonable after that outbreak. "I am doing what many a girl would do, I feel sure, if she could find courage -- let us say, if she saw clearly enough. It will cause confusion, ill-feeling, possibly some unhappiness, for a few weeks, for a month or two; then Mr. Jacks will feel grateful to me, and my father will acknowledge I did right; and everybody else who knows anything about it will have found some other subject of conversation."
"You are fond of somebody else?"
It was between an exclamation and an inquiry. Bending forward, Olga awaited the reply as if her life depended upon it.
"I am fond of no one -- in that sense."
Irene's look was so fearless, her countenance so tranquil in its candour, that the agitated girl grew quieter.
"It isn't because you are thinking of someone else that you can't marry Mr. Jacks?"
"I am thinking simply of myself. I am afraid to marry him. No thought of the kind you mean has entered my head."
"But how will it be explained to everybody?"
"By telling the truth -- always the best way out of a difficulty. I shall take all the blame on myself, as I ought."
"And you will live on here, just as usual, seeing people ----?"
"No, I don't think I could do that. Most likely I shall go for a time to Paris."
Olga's relief expressed itself in a sigh.
"In all this," continued Irene, "there's no reason why you shouldn't stay here. Everything, you may be sure, will be settled very quietly. My father is a reasonable man."
After a short reflection, Olga said that she could not yet make up her mind. And therewith ended their dialogue. Each was glad to go apart into privacy, to revolve anxious thoughts, and to seek rest.
That her father was "a reasonable man," Irene had always held a self-evident proposition. She had never, until a few days ago, conceived the possibility of a conflict between his ideas of right and her own. Domestic discord was to her mind a vulgar, no less than an unhappy, state of things. Yet, in the step she was now about to take, could she feel any assurance that Dr. Derwent would afford her the help of his sympathy -- or even that he would refrain from censure? Reason itself was on her side; but an otherwise reasonable man might well find difficulty in acknowledging it, under the circumstances.
The letter to Arnold Jacks was already composed; she knew it by heart, and had but to write it out. In the course of a sleepless night, this was done. In the early glimmer of a day of drizzle and fog, the letter went to post.
There needed courage -- yes, there needed courage -- on a morning such as this, when the skyless atmosphere weighed drearily on heart and mind, when hope had become a far-off thing, banished for long months from a grey, cold world, to go through with the task which Irene had set herself. Could she but have slept, it might have been easier for her; she had to front it with an aching head, with eyes that dazzled, with blood fevered into cowardice.
Dr. Derwent was plainly in no mood for conversation. His voice had been seldom heard during the past week. At the breakfast-table he read his letters, glanced over the paper, exchanged a few sentences with Eustace, said a kind word to Olga; when he rose, one saw that he hoped for a quiet morning in his laboratory.
"Could I see you for half an hour before lunch, father?"
He looked into the speaker's face, surprised at something unusual in her tone, and nodded without smiling.
"When you like."
She stood at the window of the drawing-room, looking over the enclosure in the square, the dreary so-called garden, with its gaunt leafless trees that dripped and oozed. Opposite was the long façade of characterless houses, like to that in which she lived; the steps, the door-columns, the tall narrow windows; above them, murky vapour.
She moved towards the door, hesitated, looked about her with unconsciously appealing eyes. She moved forward again, and on to her purpose.
"Well?" said the Doctor, who stood before a table covered with scientific apparatus. "Is it about Olga?"
"No, dear father. It's about Irene."
He smiled; his face softened to tenderness.
"And what about Mam'zelle Wren? It's hard on Wren, all this worry at such a time."
"If it didn't sound so selfish, I should say it had all happened for my good. I suppose we can't help seeing the world from our own little point of view."
"What follows on this philosophy?"
"Something you won't like to hear, I know; but I beg you to be patient with me. When were you not? I never had such need of your patience and forbearance as now -- Father, I cannot marry Arnold Jacks. And I have told him that I can't."
The Doctor very quietly laid down a microscopic slide. His forehead grew wrinkled; his lips came sharply together; he gazed for a moment at an open volume on a high desk at his side, then said composedly:
"This is your affair, Irene. All I can do is to advise you to be sure of your own mind."
"I am sure of it -- very sure of it!"
Her voice trembled a little; her hand, resting upon the table, much more.
"You say you have told Jacks?"
"I posted a letter to him this morning."
"With the first announcement of your change of mind? -- How do you suppose he will reply?"
"I can't feel sure."
There was silence. The Doctor took up a piece of paper, and began folding and re-folding it, the while he meditated.
"You know, of course," he said at length, "what the world thinks of this sort of behaviour?"
"I know what the world is likely to say about it. Unfortunately, the world seldom thinks at all."
"Granted. And we may also assume that no explanation offered by you or Jacks will affect the natural course of gossip. Still, you would wish to justify yourself in the eyes of your friends."
"What I wish before all, of course, is to save Mr. Jacks from any risk of blame. It must be understood that I, and I alone, am responsible for what happens."
"Stick to your philosophy," said her father. "Recognise the fact that you cannot save him from gossip and scandal -- that people will credit as much or as little as they like of any explanation put forth. Moreover, bear in mind that this action of yours is defined by a vulgar word, which commonly injures the man more than the woman. In the world's view, it is worse to be made ridiculous than to act cruelly."
A look of pain passed over the girl's face.
"Father I am not acting cruelly. It is the best thing I can do, for him as well as for myself. On his side, no deep feeling is involved, and as for his vanity -- I can't consider that."
"You have come to the conclusion that he is not sufficiently devoted to you?"
"I couldn't have put it in those words, but that is half the truth. The other half is, that I was altogether mistaken in my own feelings -- Father, you are accustomed to deal with life and death. Do you think that fear of gossip, and desire to spare Mr. Jacks a brief mortification, should compel me to surrender all that makes life worth living, and to commit a sin for which there is no forgiveness?"
Her voice, thoroughly under control, its natural music subdued rather than emphasised, lent to these words a deeper meaning than they would have conveyed if uttered with vehemence. They woke in her father's mind a memory of long years ago, recalled the sound of another voice which had the same modulations.
"I find no fault with you," he said gravely. "That you can do such a thing as this proves to me how strongly you feel about it. Hut it is a serious decision -- more serious, perhaps, than you realise. Things have gone so far. The mere inconvenience caused will be very great."
"I know it. I have felt tempted to yield to that thought -- to let things slide, as they say. Convenience, I feel sure, is a greater power on the whole than religion or morals or the heart. It doesn't weigh with me, because I have had such a revelation of myself as blinds me to everything else. I dare not go on!"
"Don't think I claim any authority over you," said the Doctor. "At your age, my only right as your father is in my affection, my desire for your welfare, Can you tell me more plainly how this change has come about?"
Irene reflected. She had seated herself, and felt more confidence now that, by bending her head, she could escape her father's gaze.
"I can tell you one of the things that brought me to a resolve," she said. "I found that Mr. Jacks was disturbed by the fear of a public scandal which would touch our name; so much disturbed that, on meeting me after aunt's death, he could hardly conceal his gladness that she was out of the way."
"Are you sure you read him aright?"
"It was natural -- in Arnold Jacks."
"It was. I had not understood that before."
"His relief may have been as much on your account as his own."
"I can't feel that," replied Irene. "If it were true, he could have made me feel it. There would have been something -- if only a word -- in the letter he wrote me about the death. I didn't expect him to talk to me about the hateful things that were going on; I did hope that he would give me some assurance of his indifference to their effect on people's minds. Yet no; that is not quite true. Even then, I had got past hoping it. Already I understood him too well."
"Strange! All this new light came after your engagement?"
Irene bent her head again, for her cheeks were warm. In a flash of intellect, she wondered that a man so deep in the science of life should be so at a loss before elementary facts of emotional experience. She could only answer by saying nothing.
Dr. Derwent murmured his next words.
"I, too, have a share in the blame of all this."
"I knew the man better than you did or could. I shirked a difficult duty. But one reason why I did so, was that I felt in doubt as to your mind. The fact that you were my daughter did not alter the fact that you were a woman, and I could not have any assurance that I understood you. If there had been a question of his life, his intellectual powers, his views -- I would have said freely just what I thought. But there was no need; no objection rose on that score; you saw the man, from that point of view, much as I did -- only with a little more sympathy. In other respects, I trusted to what we call women's instinct, women's perceptiveness. To me, he did not seem your natural mate; but then I saw with man's eyes; I was afraid of meddling obtusely."
"Don't reproach yourself, father. The knowledge I have gained could only have come to me in one way."
"Of course he will turn to me, in appeal against you."
"If so, it will be one more proof how rightly I am acting."
The Doctor smiled, all but laughed.
"Considering how very decent a fellow he is, your mood seems severe, Irene. Well, you have made up your mind. It's an affair of no small gravity, and we must get through it as best we can. I have no doubt whatever it's worse for you than for anyone else concerned."
"It is so bad for me, father, that, when I have gone through it, I shall be at the end of my strength. I shall run away from the after consequences."
"What do you mean?"
"I shall accept Mrs. Horisoff's invitation and go to Paris. It is deserting you, but ----"
Dr. Derwent wore a doubtful look; he pondered, and began to pace the floor.
"We must think about that."
Though her own mind was quite made up, Irene did not see fit to say more at this juncture. She rose. Her father continued moving hither and thither, his hands behind his back, seemingly oblivious of her presence. To him, the trouble seemed only just beginning, and he was not at all sure what the end would be.
"Jacks will come this evening, I suppose?" he threw out, as Irene approached the door.
"Perhaps this afternoon."
He looked at her with sympathy, with apprehension. Irene endeavouring to smile in reply, passed from his view.
Olga had gone out, merely saying that she wished to see a friend, and that she might not be back to luncheon. She did not return. Father and daughter were alone together at the meal. Contrary to Irene's expectation, the Doctor had become almost cheerful; he made one or two quiet jokes in the old way, of course on any subject but that which filled their minds, and his behaviour was marked with an unusual gentleness. Irene was so moved by grateful feeling, that now and then she could not trust her voice.
"Let me remind you," he said, observing her lack of appetite, "that an ill-nourished brain can't be depended upon for sanity of argument."
"It aches a little," she replied quietly.
"I was afraid so. What if you rest to-day, and let me postpone for you that interview ----?"
The suggestion was dreadful; she put it quickly aside. She hoped with all her strength that Arnold Jacks would have received the letter already, and that he would come to see her this afternoon. To pass another night with her suspense would be a strain scarce endurable.
Fog still hung about the streets, shifting, changing its density, but never allowing a glimpse of sky. Alone in the drawing-room Irene longed for the end of so-called day, that she might shut out that spirit-crushing blotch of bare trees and ugly houses. She thought of a sudden, how much harder we make life than it need be, by dwelling amid scenes that disgust, in air that lowers vitality. There fell on her a mood of marvelling at the aims and the satisfactions of mankind. This hideous oblong, known as Bryanston Square -- how did it come to seem a desirable place of abode? Nay, how was it for a moment tolerable to reasoning men and women? This whole London now gasping in foul vapours that half obscured, half emphasised its inexpressible monstrosity, its inconceivable abominations -- by what blighting of eye and soul did a nation come to accept it as their world-shown pride, their supreme City? She was lost in a truth-perceiving dream. Habit and association dropped away; things declared themselves in their actuality; her mind whirled under the sense of human folly, helplessness, endurance.
A cry escaped her; she started at the sound of her name as if terrified. Arnold Jacks had entered the room, and drawn near to her, whilst she was deep in reverie.
"I am sorry to have alarmed you," he added, smiling tolerantly.
With embarrassment which was almost shame -- for she despised womanish nervousness -- Irene turned towards the fireplace, where chairs invited them.
"Let us sit down and talk," she said, in a softened voice. "I am so grateful to you for coming at once."
His manner was that to which she had grown accustomed, or differed so little from it that, in ordinary circumstances, she would have remarked no peculiarity. He might have seemed, perhaps, a trifle less matter-of-fact than usual, slightly more disposed to ironic playfulness. At ease in the soft chair, his legs extended, with feet crossed, he observed Irene from under humorously bent brows; watched her steadily, until he saw that she could bear it no longer. Then he spoke.
"I thought we should get through without it."
"This little reaction. It comes into the ordinary prognosis, I believe; but we seemed safe. Yet I can't say I'm sorry. It's better no doubt, to get this over before marriage."
Irene flushed, and for a moment strung herself to the attitude of offended pride. But it passed. She smiled to his smile, and, playing with the tassel of her chair, responded in a serious undertone.
"I hoped my letter could not possibly be misunderstood."
"I understand it perfectly. I am here to talk it over from your own standpoint."
Again he frowned jocosely. His elbows on the chair-arms, he tapped together the points of his fingers, exhibiting nails which were all that they should have been. Out of regard for the Derwents' mourning, he wore a tie of black satin, and his clothes were of dark-grey, a rough material which combined the effects of finish and of carelessness -- note of the well-dressed Englishman.
"We cannot talk it over," rejoined Irene. "I have nothing to say -- except that I take blame and shame to myself, and that I entreat your forgiveness."
Under his steady eye, his good-humoured, watchful mastery, she was growing restive.
"I was in doubt whether to come to-day," said Jacks, in a reflective tone. "I thought at first of sending a note, and postponing our meeting. I understood so perfectly the state of mind in which you wrote -- the natural result of most painful events. The fact is, I am guilty of bad taste in seeming to treat it lightly; you have suffered very much, and won't be yourself for some days. But, after all, it isn't as if one had to do with the ordinary girl. To speak frankly I thought it was the kindest thing to come -- so I came."
Nothing Arnold had ever said to her had so appealed to Irene's respect as this last sentence. It had the ring of entire sincerity; it was quite simply spoken; it soothed her nerves.
"Thank you," she answered with a grateful look. "You did right. I could not have borne it -- if you had just written and put it off. Indeed, I could not have borne it."
Arnold changed his attitude; he bent forward, his arms across his knees, so as to be nearer to her.
"Do you think I should have had an easy time?"
"I reproach myself more than I can tell you. But you must understand -- you must believe that I mean what I am saying!" Her voice began to modulate. "It is not only the troubles we have gone through. I have seen it coming -- the moment when I should write that letter. Through cowardice, I have put it off. It was very unjust to you; you have every right to condemn my behaviour; I am unpardonable. And yet I hope -- I do so hope -- that some day you will pardon me."
In the man's eyes she had never been so attractive, so desirable, so essentially a woman. The mourning garb became her, for it was moulded upon her figure, and gave effect to the admirably pure tone of her complexion. Her beauty, in losing its perfect healthfulness, gained a new power over the imagination; the heavy eyes suggested one knew not what ideal of painters and poets; the lips were more sensuous since they had lost their mocking smile. All passion of which Arnold Jacks was capable sounded in the voice with which he now spoke.
"I shall never pardon you, because I shall never feel you have injured me. Say to me what you want to say. I will listen. What can I do better than listen to your voice? I won't argue; I won't contradict. Relieve your mind, and let us see what it all comes to in the end."
Irene had a creeping sense of fear. This tone was so unlike what she had expected. Physical weakness threatened a defeat which would have nothing to do with her will. If she yielded now, there would be no recovering her self-respect, no renewal of her struggle for liberty. She wished to rise, to face him upon her feet, yet had not the courage. His manner dictated hers. They were not playing parts on a stage, but civilised persons discussing their difficulties in a soft-carpeted drawing-room. The only thing in her favour was that the afternoon drew on, and the light thickened. Veiled in dusk, she hoped to speak more resolutely.
"Must I repeat my letter?"
"Yes, if you feel sure that it still expresses your mind."
"It does. I made a grave mistake. In accepting your offer of marriage, I was of course honest, but I didn't know what it meant; I didn't understand myself. Of course it's very hard on you that your serious purpose should have for its only result to teach me that I was mistaken. If I didn't know that you have little patience with such words, I should say that it shows something wrong in our social habits. Yet that's foolish; you are right, that is quite silly. It isn't our habits that are to blame but our natures -- the very nature of things. I had to engage myself to you before I could know that I ought to have done nothing of the kind."
She paused, suddenly breathless, and a cough seized her.
"You've taken cold," said Jacks, with graceful solicitude.
"No, no! It's nothing."
Dusk crept about the room. The fire was getting rather low.
"Shall I ring for lamps?" asked Arnold, half rising.
Irene wished to say no, but the proprieties were too strong. She allowed him to ring the bell, and, without asking leave, he threw coals upon the fire. For five minutes their dialogue suffered interruption; when it began again, the curtains were drawn, and warm rays succeeded to turbid twilight.
"I had better explain to you," said Arnold, in a tone of delicacy overcome, "this state of mind in which you find yourself. It is perfectly natural; one has heard of it; one sees the causes of it. You are about to take the most important step in your whole life, and, being what you are, a very intelligent and very conscientious girl, you have thought and thought about its gravity until it frightens you. That's the simple explanation of your trouble. In a week -- perhaps in a day or two -- it will have passed. Just wait. Don't think of it. Put your marringe -- put me -- quite out of your mind. I won't remind you of my existence for -- let us say before next Sunday. Now, is it agreed?"
"I should be dishonest if I pretended to agree."
"But -- don't you think you owe it to me to give what I suggest a fair trial?"
The words were trenchant, the tone was studiously soft. Irene strung herself for contest, hoping it would come quickly and undisguised.
"I owe you much. I have done you a great injustice. But waiting will do no good. I know my mind at last. I see what is possible and what impossible."
"Do you imagine, Irene, that I can part with you on these terms? Do you really think I could shake hands, and say good-bye, at this stage of our relations?"
"What can I do?" Her voice, kept low, shook with emotion. "I confess an error -- am I to pay for it with my life?"
"I ask you only to be just to yourself as well as to me. Let three days go by, and see me again."
She seemed to reflect upon it. In truth she was debating whether to persevere in honesty, or to spare her nerves with dissimulation. A promise to wait three days would set her free forthwith; the temptation was great. But something in her had more constraining power.
"If I pretended to agree, I should be ashamed of myself. I should have passed from error into baseness. You would have a right to despise me; as it is, you have only a right to be angry."
As though the word acted upon his mood, Arnold sprang forward from the chair, fell upon one knee close beside her, and grasped her hands. Irene instinctively threw herself back, looking frightened; but she did not attempt to rise. His face was hot-coloured, his eyes shone unpleasantly; but before he spoke, his lips parted in a laugh.
"Are you one of the women," he said, "who have to be conquered? I didn't think so. You seemed so reasonable."
"Do you dream of conquering a woman who cannot love you?"
"I refuse to believe it. I recall your own words."
He made a movement to pass one arm about her waist.
"No! After what I have said ----!"
Her hands being free, she sprang up and broke away from him. Arnold rose more slowly, his look lowered with indignation. Eyes bent on the ground, hands behind him, he stood mute.
"Must I leave you?" said Irene, when she could steady her voice.
"That is my dismissal?"
"If you cannot listen to me, and believe me -- yes."
"All things considered, you are a little severe."
"You put yourself in the wrong. However unjust I have been to you, I can't atone by permitting what you call conquest. No, I assure you, I am not one of those women."
His eyes were now fixed upon her; his lips announced a new determination, set as they were in the lines of resentful dignity.
"Let me put the state of things before you," he said in his softest tones, just touched with irony. "The fact of our engagement has been published. Our marriage is looked for by a host of friends and acquaintances, and even by the mere readers of the newspapers. All but at the last moment, on a caprice, an impulse you do not pretend to justify to one's intelligence, you declare it is all at an end. Pray, how do you propose to satisfy natural curiosity about such a strange event?"
"I take all the blame. I make it known that I have behaved -- unreasonably; if you will disgracefully."
"That word," replied Jacks, faintly smiling, "has a meaning in this connection which you would hardly care to reflect upon. Take it that you have said this to your friends: what do I say to mine?"
Irene could not answer.
"I have a pleasant choice," he pursued. "I can keep silence -- which would mean scandal, affecting both of us, according to people's disposition. Or I can say with simple pathos, 'Miss Derwent begged me to release her.' Neither alternative is agreeable to me. It may be unchivalrous. Possibly another man would beg to be allowed to sacrifice his reputation, to ensure your quiet release. To be frank with you, I value my reputation, I value my chances in life. I have no mind to make myself appear worse than I am."
Irene had sunk into her chair again. As he talked, Jacks moved to a sofa near her, and dropped on to the end of it.
"Surely there is a way," began the girl's voice, profoundly troubled. "We could let it be known, first of all, that the marriage was postponed. Then -- there would be less talk afterwards."
He leaned towards her, upon his elbow.
"It interests me -- your quiet assumption that my feelings count for nothing."
Irene reddened. She was conscious of having ignored that aspect of the matter, and dreaded to have to speak of it. For the revelation made to her of late taught her that, whatever Arnold Jacks' idea of love might be, it was not hers. Yet perhaps in his way, he loved her -- the way which had found expression a few minutes ago.
"I can only repeat that I am ashamed."
"If you would grant me some explanation," Jacks resumed, with his most positive air, that of the born man of business. "Don't be afraid of hurting my sensibilities. Have I committed myself in any way?"
"It is a change in myself -- I was too hasty -- I reflected afterwards instead of before ----"
"Forgive me if I make the most of that admission. Your hastiness was certainly not my fault. I did not unduly press you; there was no importunity. Such being the case, don't you think I may suggest that you ought to bear the consequences? I can't -- I really can't think them so dreadful."
Irene kept silence, her face bent and averted.
"Many a girl has gone through what you feel now, but I doubt whether ever one before acted like this. They kept their word; it was a point of honour."
"I know; it is true." She forced herself to look at him. "And the result was lives of misery -- dishonour -- tragedies."
"Oh, come now ----"
"You dare not contradict me!" Her eyes flashed; she let her feeling have its way. "As a man of the world, you know the meaning of such marriages, and what they may, what they do often, come to. A girl hears of such facts -- realises them too late. You smile. No, I don't want to talk for effect; it isn't my way. All I mean is that I, like so many girls who have never been in love, accepted an offer of marriage on the wrong grounds, and came to feel my mistake -- who knows how? -- not long after. What you are asking me to do, is to pay for the innocent error with my life. The price is too great. You speak of your feelings; they are not so strong as to justify such a demand -- And there's another thought that surely must have entered your mind. Knowing that I feel it impossible to marry you, how can you still, with any shadow of self-respect, urge me to do so? Is your answer, again, fear of what people will say? That seems to me more than cowardice. How strange that an honourable man doesn't see it so!"
Jacks abandoned his easy posture, sat straight, and fixed upon her a look of masculine disdain.
"I simply don't believe in the impossibility of your becoming my wife."
"Then talk is useless. I can only tell you the truth, and reclaim my liberty."
"It's a question of time. You wouldn't -- well, say you couldn't marry me to-morrow. A month hence you would be willing. Because you suffer from a passing illusion, I am to unsettle all my arragements, and face an intolerable humiliation. The thing is impossible."
With vast relief Irene heard him return upon this note, and strike it so violently. She felt no more compunction. The man was finally declared to her, and she could hold her own against him. Her headache had grown fierce; her mouth was dry; shudders of hot and cold ran through her. The struggle must end soon.
"I am forgetting hospitality," she said, with sudden return to her ordinary voice. "You would like tea."
Arnold waved his hand contemptuously.
"No? -- Then let us understand each other in the fewest possible words."
"Good." He smiled, a smile which seemed to tighten every muscle of his face. "I decline to release you from your promise."
She could meet his gaze, and did so as she answered with cold collectedness:
"I am very sorry. I think it unworthy of you."
"I shall make no change whatever in my arrangements. Our marriage will take place on the day appointed."
"That can hardly be, Mr. Jacks, if the bride is not there."
"Miss Derwent, the bride will be there!"
He was not jesting. All the man's pride rose to assert dominion. The prime characteristic of his nation, that personal arrogance which is the root of English freedom, which accounts for everything best, and everything worst, in the growth of English power, possessed him to the exclusion of all less essential qualities. He was the subduer amazed by improbable defiance. He had never seen himself in such a situation it was as though a British admiral on his ironclad found himself mocked by some elusive little gunboat, newly invented by the condemned foreigner. His intellect refused to acknowledge the possibility of discomfiture; his soul raged mightily against the hint of bafflement. Humour would not come to his aid; the lighter elements of race were ousted; he was solid insolence, wooden-headed self-will.
Irene had risen.
"I am not feeling quite myself. I have said all there is to be said, and I must beg you to excuse me."
"You should have begun by saying that. It is what I insisted upon."
"Shall we shake hands, Mr. Jacks?"
"To be sure!"
"It is good-bye. You understand me? If, after this, you imagine an engagement between us, you have only yourself to blame."
"I take the responsibility." He released her hand, and made a stiff bow. "In three days, I shall call."
You will not see me."
"Perhaps not. Then, three days later. Nothing whatever is changed between us. A little discussion of this sort is all to the good. Plainly, you have thought me a much weaker man than I am: when that error of judgment is removed, our relations will be better than ever."
The temptation to say one word more overcame Irene's finer sense of the becoming. Jacks had already taken his hat, and was again bowing, when she spoke.
"You are so sure that your will is stronger than mine?"
"Perfectly sure," he replied, with superb tranquillity.
No one had ever seen, no one again would ever see, that face of high disdainful beauty, pain-stricken on the fair brow, which Irene for a moment turned upon him. As he withdrew, the smile that lurked behind her scorn glimmered forth for an instant, and passed in the falling of a tear.
She went to her room, and lay down. The sleep she had not dared to hope for fell upon her whilst she was trying to set her thoughts in order. She slept until eight o'clock; her headache was gone.
Neither with her father, nor with Olga, did she speak of what had passed.
Before going to bed, she packed carefully a large dress-basket and a travelling-bag, which a servant brought down for her from the box-room. Again she slept, but only for an hour or two, and at seven in the morning she rose.
The breakfast hour was nine o'clock. Dr. Derwent, as usual, came down a few minutes before, and turned over the letters lying for him on the table. Among them he found an envelope addressed in a hand which looked very much like Irene's; it had not come by post. As he was reading the note it contained, Eustace and Olga Hannaford entered together, talking. He bade them good-morning, and all sat down to table.
"Irene's late," said Eustace presently, glancing at the clock.
The Doctor looked at him with an odd smile.
"She left Victoria ten minutes ago," he said, "by the Calais-boat express."
Eustace and Olga stared, exclaimed.
"She suddenly made up her mind to accept an invitation from Mrs. Borisoff."
"But -- what an extraordinary thing!" pealed Eustace, who was always greatly disturbed by anything out of routine. "She didn't speak of it yesterday!"
Olga gazed at the Doctor. Her wan face had a dawn of brightness.
"How long is she likely to stay, uncle?"
"I haven't the least idea."
"Well, she can't stay long," Eustace exclaimed. "Ah! I have it! Don't you see, Olga? It means Parisian dresses and hats!"
Dr. Derwent exploded in laughter.
"Acute young man! Now the ordinary male might have lost himself for a day in wild conjectures. This points to the woolsack, Olga!"
She laughed for the first time in many days, and her appetite for breakfast was at once improved.
In his heart, Dr. Derwent did not grieve over the singular events of yesterday and this morning. He had no fault to find with Arnold Jacks, and could cheerfully accept him as a son-in-law; but it was easy to imagine a husband more suitable for such a girl as Irene. Moreover, he had suspected, since the engagement, that she had not thoroughly known her own mind. But he was far from anticipating such original and decisive action on the girl's part. The thing being done, he could secretly admire it, and the flight to Paris relieved his mind from a prospect of domestic confusion. Just for a moment he questioned himself as to Irene's security, but only to recognise how firm was his confidence in her.
Socially, the position was awkward. He had a letter from Jacks, a sensible and calmly worded letter, saying that Irene was overwrought by recent agitations, that she had spoken of putting an end to their engagement, but that doubtless a few days would see all right again. Arnold must now be apprised of what had happened, and, as all consideration was due to him, the Doctor despatched a telegram asking him to call as soon as he could. This brought Jacks to Bryanston Square at midday, and there was a conversation in the library. Arnold spoke his mind; with civility, but in unmistakable terms; he accused the Doctor of remissness. "Paternal authority," it seemed to him, should have sufficed to prevent what threatened nothing less than a scandal. Irene's father could not share this view; the girl was turned three-and-twenty; there could be no question of dictating to her, and as for expostulation, it had been honestly tried.
"You are aware, I hope," said Jacks stiffly, "that Mrs. Borisoff has not quite an unclouded reputation?"
"I know no harm against her."
"She is as good as parted from her husband, and leads a very dubious wandering life."
"Oh, it's all right. People countenance her who wouldn't do so if there were anything really amiss."
"Well, Dr. Derwent," said the young man in a conclusive tone, "evidently all is at an end. It remains for us to agree upon the manner of making it known. Should the announcement come from your side or from mine?"
The Doctor reflected.
"You no longer propose to wait the effect of a little time?"
"Emphatically, no. This step of Miss Derwent's puts that out of the question."
"I see -- Perhaps you feel that, in justice to yourself, it should be made known that she has done something of which you disapprove?"
Arnold missed the quiet irony of this question.
"Not at all. Our engagement ended yesterday; with to-day's events I have nothing to do."
"That is the generous view," said Dr. Derwent, smiling pleasantly. "Do you know, I fancy we had better each of us tell the story in his own way. It will come to that in the end, won't it? You had a disagreement; you thought better of your proposed union; what more simple? I see no room for scandal."
"Be it so. Have the kindness to acquaint Miss Derwent with what has passed between us."
After dinner that evening, Dr. Derwent related the matter to his son. Eustace was astounded, and presently indignant. It seemed to him inconceivable that Arnold Jacks should have suffered this affront. He would not look at things from his sister's point of view; absurd to attempt a defence of her; really, really, she had put them all into a most painful position! An engagement was an engagement, save in the event of grave culpability on either side. Eustace spoke as a lawyer; his professional instincts were outraged. He should certainly call upon the Jacks' and utterly dissociate himself from his sister in this lamentable affair.
"Why, what a shock it will be to Mrs. Jacks!"
"She'll get over it, I fancy," remarked the Doctor drily.
The young barrister withdrew to his room, where he read hard until very late. Eustace was no trifler; he had brains, and saw his way to make use of them to the one end which addressed his imagination, that of social self-advancement. His studies to-night were troubled with a resentful fear lest Irene's "unwomanly" behaviour (a generation ago it would have been "unladylike") should bring the family name into some discredit. Little ejaculations escaped him, such as "Really!" and "Upon my word!" Eustace had never been known to use stronger language.
When his son had retired, Dr. Derwent stepped up to the drawing-room, where Olga Hannaford was sitting. After kindly regretting that she should be alone, he repeated to his niece what he had just told Eustace. Doubtless she would here very soon from Irene.
"I have already heard something about this," said Olga. "I'm sure she has done right, but no one will ever know what it cost her."
"That's the very point we have all been losing sight of," observed her uncle, gratified. "It would have been a good deal easier, no doubt, to go on to the marriage."
"Easier!" echoed the girl. "She has done the most wonderful thing! I admire her, and envy her strength of character."
The Doctor's eyes had fallen upon that crayon portrait which held the place of honour on the drawing-room walls. Playing with superstition, as does every man capable of high emotional life, he was wont to see in the pictured countenance of his dead wife changes of expression, correspondent with the mood in which he regarded it. At one time the beloved features smiled upon him; at another they were sad, or anxious. To-night, the eyes, the lips were so strongly expressive of gladness that he felt startled as he gazed. A joy from the years gone by suddenly thrilled him. He sat silent, too deeply moved by memories for speech about the present. And when at length he resumed talk with Olga, his voice was very gentle, his words all kindliness. The girl had never known him so sympathetic with her.
On the morrow -- it was Saturday -- Olga received a letter from Piers Otway, who said that he had something of great importance to speak about, and must see her; could they not meet at the Campden Hill House, it being inadvisable for him to call at Dr. Derwent's? Either this afternoon or to-morrow would do, if Olga would appoint a time.
She telegraphed, appointing this afternoon at three.
Half an hour before that, she entered the house, which was now occupied only by a caretaker. Dr. Derwent was trying to let it furnished for the rest of the short lease. Olga had a fire quickly made in the drawing-room, and ordered tea. She laid aside her outdoor things, viewed herself more than once in a mirror, and moved about restlessly. When there sounded a visitor's knock at the front door, she flushed and was overcome with nervousness; she stepped forward to meet her friend, but could not speak. Otway had taken her hand in both his own; he looked at her with grave kindliness. It was their first meeting since Mrs. Hannaford's death.
"I hesitated about asking you to see me here," he said. "But I thought -- I hoped ----"
His embarrassment increased, whilst Olga was gaining self-command.
"You were quite right," she said. "I think I had rather see you here than anywhere else. It isn't painful to me -- oh! anything but painful!"
They sat down. Piers was holding a large envelope, bulgy with its contents, whatever they were, and sealed; his eyes rested upon it.
"I have to speak of something which at first will sound unwelcome to you; but it is only the preface to what will make you very glad. It is about my brother. I have seen him two or three times this last week on a particular business, in which at length I have succeeded. Here," he touched the envelope, "are all the letters he possessed in your mother's writing."
Olga looked at him in distressful wonder and suspense.
"Not one of them," he pursued, "contains a line that you should not read. They prove absolutely, beyond shadow of doubt, that the charge brought against your mother was false. The dates cover nearly five years -- from a simple note of invitation to Ewell -- you remember -- down to a letter written about three weeks ago. Of course I was obliged to read them through; I knew to begin with what I should find. Now I give them to you. Let Dr. Derwent see them. If any doubt remains in his mind, they will make an end of it."
He put the packet into Olga's hands. She, overcome for the moment by her feelings, looked from it to him, at a loss for words. She was struck with a change in Otway. That he should speak in a grave tone, with an air of sadness, was only natural; but the change went beyond this; he had not his wonted decision in utterance; he paused between sentences, his eyes wandering dreamily; one would have taken him for an older man than he was wont to appear, and of less energy. Thus might he have looked and spoken after some great effort, which left him wearied, almost languid, incapable of strong emotion.
"Why didn't he show these letters before?" she asked, turning over the sealed envelope.
"He had no wish to do so," answered Piers, in an undertone.
"You mean that he would have let anything happen -- which he could have prevented?"
"I'm afraid he would."
"But he offered them now?"
"No -- or rather yes, he offered them," Piers smiled bitterly. "Not however, out of wish to do justice."
Olga could not understand. She gazed at him wistfully.
"I bought them," said Piers. "It made the last proof of his baseness."
"You gave money for them? And just that you might give them to me?"
"Wouldn't you have done the same, to clear the memory of someone you loved?"
Olga laid the packet aside; then, with a quick movement, stepped towards him, caught his hand, pressed it to her lips. Piers was taken by surprise, and could not prevent the action; but at once Olga's own hand was prisoned in his; they stood face to face, she blushing painfully, he pale as death, with lips that quivered in their vain effort to speak.
"I shall be grateful to you as long as I live," the girl faltered, turning half away, trying gently to release herself.
Piers kissed her hand, again and again, still speechless. When he allowed her to draw it away, he stood gazing at her like a man bewildered; there was moisture on his forehead; he seemed to struggle for breath.
"Let us sit down again and talk," said Olga, glancing at him.
But he moved towards her, the strangest look in his eyes, the fixed expressionless gaze of a somnambulist.
"No, no!" she exclaimed, as if suddenly stricken with fear, throwing out her arms to repel him. "You didn't mean that! It is my fault. You never meant that."
"Yes! Give me your hand again!" he said in a thick voice, the blood rushing into his cheeks.
"Not now. You misunderstood me. I oughtn't to have done that. It was because I could find no word to thank you."
She panted the sentences, holding her chair as if to support herself, and with the other hand still motioning him away.
"I misunderstood ----?"
"I am ashamed -- it was thoughtless -- sit down and let us talk as we were doing. Just as friends, it is so much better. We meant nothing else."
It was as if the words fell from her involuntarily; they were babbled, rather than spoken; she half laughed, half cried. And Otway, a mere automaton, dropped upon his chair, gazing at her, trembling.
"I will let my uncle see the letters at once," Olga went on, in confused hurry. "I am sure he will be very grateful to you. But for you, we should never have had this proof. I, of course, did not need it; as if I doubted my mother! But he -- I can't be sure what he still thinks. How kind you have always been to us!"
Piers stood up again, but did not move toward her. She watched him apprehensively. He walked half down the room and back again, then exclaimed, with a wild gesture:
"I never knew what a curse one's name could be! I used to be proud of it, because it was my father's; now I would gladly take any other."
"Just because of that man?" Olga protested. "What does it matter?"
"You know well what it matters," he replied, with an unnatural laugh.
"To me -- nothing whatever."
"You try to think not. But the name will be secretly hateful to you as long as you live."
"Oh! How can you say that! The name is yours, not his. Think how long we knew you before we heard of him! I am telling the simple truth. It is you I think of, when ----"
He was drawing nearer to her, and again that strange, fixed look came into his eyes.
"I wanted to ask you something," said Olga quickly. "Do sit down -- will you? Let us talk as we used to -- you remember?"
He obeyed her, but kept his eyes on her face.
"What do you wish to ask, Olga?"
The name slipped from his tongue; he had not meant to use it, and did not seem conscious of having done so.
"Have you seen old Mr. Jacks lately?"
"I saw him last night."
"Last night?" Her breath caught. "Had he anything -- anything interesting to say?"
"He is ill. I only sat with him for half an hour. I don't know what it is. It doesn't keep him in bed; but he lies on a sofa, and looks dreadfully ill, as if he suffered much pain."
"He told you nothing?"
Their eyes met.
"Nothing that greatly interested me," replied Piers heavily, with the most palpable feint of carelessness. "He mentioned what of course you know, that Arnold Jacks is not going to be married after all."
Olga's head drooped, as she said in a voice barely audible:
"Ah, you knew it."
"What of that?"
"I see -- you knew it ----"
"What of that, Olga?" he repeated impatiently. "I knew it as a bare fact -- no explanation. What does it mean? You know, I suppose?"
In spite of himself, look and tones betrayed his eagerness for her reply.
"They disagreed about something," said Olga. "I don't know what. I shouldn't wonder if they make it up again."
At this moment the woman in care of the house entered with the tea-tray. To give herself a countenance, Olga spoke of something indifferent, and when they were alone again, their talk avoided the personal matters which had so embarrassed both of them. Olga said presently that she was going to see her friend Miss Bonnicastle to-morrow.
"If I could see only the least chance of supporting myself, I would go to live with her again. She's the most sensible girl I know, and she did me good."
"How, did you good?"
"She helped me against myself," replied Olga abruptly. "No one else ever did that."
Then she turned again to the safer subjects.
"When shall I see you again?" Otway inquired, rising after a long silence, during which both had seemed lost in their thoughts.
"Who knows? -- But I will write and tell you what my uncle says about the letters, if he says anything. Again, thank you!"
She gave her hand frankly. Piers held it, and looked into her face as once before.
The girl uttered a cry of distress, drew her hand away, and exclaimed in a half-hysterical voice:
"No! What right have you?"
"Every right! Do you know what your mother said to me -- her last words to me ----?"
"You mustn't tell me!" Her tones were softer. "Not to-day. If we meet again ----"
"Of course we shall meet again!"
"I don't know. Yes, yes; we shall. But you must go now; it is time I went home."
He touched her hand again, and left the room without looking back. Before the door had closed behind him, Olga ran forward with a stifled cry. The door was shut. She stood before it with tears in her eyes, her fingers clenched together on her breast, and sobbed miserably.
For nearly half an hour she sat by the fire, head on hands, deeply brooding. In the house there was not a sound. All at once it seemed to her that a voice called, uttering her name; she started, her blood chilled with fear. The voice was her mother's; she seemed still to hear it, so plainly had it been audible, coming from she knew not where.
She ran to her hat and jacket, which lay in a corner of the room, put them on with feverish haste, and fled out into the street.
"I will be frank with you, Piers," said Daniel Otway, as he sat by the fireside in his shabby lodgings, his feet on the fender, a cigarette between his fingers. He looked yellow and dried up; shivered now and then, and had a troublesome cough. "If I could afford to be generous, I would be; I should enjoy it. It's one of the worst evils of poverty, that a man can seldom obey the promptings of his better self. I can't give you these letters; can't afford to do so. You have glanced through them; you see they really are what I said. The question is, what are they worth to you?"
Piers looked at the threadbare carpet, reflected, spoke.
"I'll give you fifty pounds."
A smile crept from the corners of Daniel's shrivelled lips to his bloodshot eye.
"Why are you so anxious to have them," he said, "I don't know and don't ask. But if they are worth fifty to you, they are worth more. You shall have them for two hundred."
And at this figure the bundle of letters eventually changed hands. It was a serious drain on Piers Otway's resources, but he could not bargain long, the talk sickened him. And when the letters were in his possession, he felt a joy which had no equivalent in terms of cash.
He said to himself that he had bought them for Olga. In a measure, of course, for all who would be relieved by knowing that Mrs. Hannaford had told the truth; but first and foremost for Olga. On Olga he kept his thoughts. He was persuading himself that in her he saw his heart's desire.
For Piers Otway was one of those men who cannot live without a woman's image to worship. Irene Derwent being now veiled from him, he turned to another beautiful face, in whose eyes the familiar light of friendship seemed to be changing, softening. Ambition had misled him; not his to triumph on the heights of glorious passion; for him a humbler happiness a calmer love. Yet he would not have been Piers Otway had this mood contented him. On the second day of his dreaming about Olga, she began to shine before his imagination in no pale light. He mused upon her features till they became the ideal beauty; he clad her, body and soul, in all the riches of love's treasure-house; she was at length his crowned lady, his perfect vision of delight.
With such thoughts had he sat by Mrs. Hannaford, at the meeting which was to be their last. He was about to utter them, when she spoke Olga's name. "In you she will always have a friend? If the worst happens ----?" And when he asked, "May I hope that she would some day let me be more than that?" the glow of joy on that stricken face, the cry of rapture, the hand held to him, stirred him so deeply that his old love-longing seemed a boyish fantasy. "Oh, you have made me happy! You have blotted out all my follies and sufferings!" Then the poor tortured mind lost itself.
This was the second death which had upon Piers Otway the ageing effect known to all men capable of thoughts about mortality. The loss of his father marked for him the end of irresponsible years; he entered upon manhood with that grief blended of reverence and affection. By the grave of Mrs. Hannaford (he stood there only after the burial) he was touched again by the advancing shadow of life's dial, and it marked the end of youth. For youth is a term relative to heart and mind. At six-and-twenty many a man has of manhood only the physique; many another is already falling through experience to a withered age. Piers had the sense of transition; the middle years were opening before him. The tears he shed for his friend were due in part to the poignant perception of utter severance with boyhood. But a few weeks ago, talking with Mrs. Hannaford, he could revive the spirit of those old days at Geneva, feel his identity with the Piers Otway of that time. It would never be within his power again. He might remember, but memory showed another than himself.
A note from John Jacks summoned him to Queen's Gate. Not till afterwards did he understand that Mr. Jacks' real motive in sending for him was to get light upon the rupture between Arnold and Miss Derwent. Piers' astonishment at what he heard caused his friend to quit the subject.
In the night that followed, Piers for the first time in his life felt the possibility of base action. The experience has come to all men, and, whatever the result, always leaves its mark. Looking at the fact of Irene's broken engagement, he could explain it only in one way; the cause must be Mrs. Hannaford -- the doubt as to her behaviour, the threatened scandal. Idle to attempt surmises as to the share of either side in what had come about; the difference had been sufficiently grave to part them. And this parting was to him a joy which shook his whole being. He could have raised a song of exultation.
And in his hands lay complete evidence of the dead woman's guiltlessness. To produce it was possibly to reconcile Arnold Jacks and Irene. Viewed by his excited mind, the possible became certain; he evolved a whole act of drama between those two, turning on prejudices, doubts, scruples natural in their position; he saw the effect of their enlightenment. Was it a tempting thought, that he could give Irene back again into her bridegroom's arms.
It brought sweat to his forehead; it shook him with the fierce torture of a jealous imagination. He fortified base suggestion by the natural revolt of his flesh. Once had he passed through the fire; to suffer that ordeal again was beyond human endurance. Irene was free. He paced the room, repeating wildly that Irene was free. And the mere fact of her freedom proved that she did not love the man -- so it seemed to him, in his subordination of every motive to that passionate impulse. To him it brought no hope -- what of that! Irene did not belong to another man.
The fire needed stirring. As he broke the black surface of coal, a flame shot up, red, lambent, a serpent's tongue. It had a voice; it tempted. He took the packet of letters from the table.
He had not yet read them through; had only tested them here and there under his brother's eye. Yes, they were the letters of a woman, who, suffering (as he knew) the strongest temptation to which her nature could be exposed, subdued herself in obedience to what she held the law of duty. He read page after page. Again and again she all but said, "I love you"; again and again she told her tempter that his suit was useless, that she would rather die than yield. Daniel Otway had used every argument to persuade her to defy the world and follow him -- easy to understand his motives. One saw that, if she had been alone, she would have done so; but there was her daughter, there was her brother; to them she sacrificed what seemed to her the one chance of happiness left in a wasted life.
Piers interrupted his reading to hear once more the voice that counselled baseness. Whom would it injure, if he destroyed these papers? Certainly not Irene, his first thought, who, he held it proved, was well rescued from a mistaken marriage. Not Dr. Derwent, or Olga, who, he persuaded himself, had already no doubt whatever of Mrs. Hannaford's innocence. Not the poor dead woman herself ----
What was this passage on which his eye had fallen? "I have long had a hope that your brother Piers might marry Olga. It would make me very happy; I cannot imagine for her a better husband. It came first into my mind years ago, at Geneva, and I have never lost the wish. Ah! how grateful you would make me, if, forgetting ourselves, you would join me in somehow trying to bring about this happiness for those two! Piers is coming to live in London. Do see as much of him as you can. I think very, very highly of him, and he is almost as dear to me as a son of my own. Speak to him of Olga. Sometimes a suggestion -- and you know that I desire only his good."
The voice spoke to him from the grave; it had a sweeter tone than that other. He read on; he came to the last sheet -- so sad, so hopeless, that it brought tears to his eyes.
"Cannot you defend me? Cannot you prove the falsehood of that story? Cannot you save me from this bitter disgrace? Oh, who will show the truth and do me justice?"
Could he burn that letter? Could he close his ears against that cry of one driven to death by wrong?
He drew a deep sigh, and looked about him as if waking from a bad dream. Why, he had come near to whole brotherhood with a man as coldly cruel and infamous as any that walked the earth! Destroying these letters, he would have been worse than Daniel.
Straightway he wrote to Olga, requesting the appointment with her. Upon Olga once more he fixed his mind. He resolved that he would not part from her without asking her to be his wife. If he had but done so before hearing that news from John Jacks! Then it seemed to him that Olga was his happiness.
From the house at Campden Hill he came away in a strangely excited mood; glad, sorry; cold, desirous; torn this way and that by conflict of passions and reasons. The only clear thought in his mind was that he had done a great act of justice. How often does it fall to a man to enjoy this privilege? Not once in a lifetime to the multitude such opportunity is the signal favour of fate. Had he let it pass, Piers felt he must have sunk so in his own esteem, that no light of noble hope would ever again have shone before him. He must have gone plodding the very mire of existence -- Daniel's brother, never again anything but Daniel's brother.
Would Dr. Derwent give him a thought of thanks? Would Irene hear how these letters were recovered?
Sunday passed, he knew not well how. He wrote a letter to Olga, but destroyed it. On Monday he was very busy, chiefly at the warehouses of the Commercial Docks; a man of affairs; to look upon, not strikingly different from many another with whom he rubbed shoulders in Fenchurch Street and elsewhere. On Tuesday he had to go to Liverpool, to see an acquaintance of Moncharmont who might perchance be useful to them. The journey, the change, were not unpleasant. He passed the early evening with the man in question, who asked him at what hotel he meant to sleep. Piers named the house he had carelessly chosen, adding that he had not been there yet; his bag was still at the station.
"Don't go there," said his companion. "It's small and uncomfortable and dear. You'll do much better at ----"
Without giving a thought to the matter, Otway accepted this advice. He went to the station, withdrew his bag, and bade a cabman drive him to the hotel his acquaintance had named. But no sooner had the cab started than he felt an unaccountable misgiving, an uneasiness as to this change of purpose. Strange as he was to Liverpool, there seemed no reason why he should hesitate so about his hotel; yet the mental disturbance became so strong that, when all but arrived, he stopped the cab and bade his driver take him to the other house, that which he had originally chosen. A downright piece of superstition, he said to himself, with a nervous laugh. He could not remember to have ever behaved so capriciously.
The hotel pleased him. After inspecting his bedroom, he came down again to smoke and glance over the newspapers; it was about half-past nine. Half a dozen men were in the smoking-room; by ten o'clock there remained, exclusive of Piers, only three, of whom two were discussing politics by the fireside, whilst the third sat apart from them in a deep chair, reading a book. The political talk began to interest Otway; he listened, behind his newspaper. The louder of the disputants was a man of about fifty, dressed like a prosperous merchant; his cheeks were flabby, his chin triple or quadruple, his short neck, always very red, grew crimson as he excited himself. He was talking about the development of markets for British wares, and kept repeating the phrase "trade outlets," as if it had a flavour which he enjoyed. England, he declared, was falling behind in the competition for the world's trade.
"It won't do. Mark my word, if we don't show more spirit, we shall be finding ourselves in Queer Street. Look at China, now! I call it a monstrous thing, perfectly monstrous, the way we're neglecting China."
"My dear sir," said the other, a thin, bilious man, with an undecided manner, "we can't force our goods on a country ----"
"What! Why, that's exactly what we can do, and ought to do! What we always have done, and always must do, if we're going to hold our own," vociferated he of the crimson neck. "I was speaking of China, if you hadn't interrupted me. What are the Russians doing? Why, making a railway straight to China! And we look on, as if it didn't matter, when the matter is national life or death. Let me give you some figures. I know what I'm talking about. Are you aware that our trade with China amounts to only half a crown a head of the Chinese population? Half a crown! While with little Japan, our trade comes to something like eighteen shillings a head. Let me tell you that the equivalent of that in China would represent about three hundred and sixty millions per annum!"
He rolled out the figures with gusto culminating in rage. His eyes glared; he snorted defiance, turning from his companion to the two strangers whom he saw seated before him.
"I say that it's our duty to force our trade upon China. It's for China's good -- can you deny that? A huge country packed with wretched barbarians! Our trade civilises them -- can you deny it? It's our duty, as the leading Power of the world! Hundreds of millions of poor miserable barbarians. And" -- he shouted -- "what else are the Russians, if you come to that? Can they civilise China? A filthy, ignorant nation, frozen into stupidity, and downtrodden by an Autocrat!"
"Well," murmured the diffident objector, "I'm no friend of tyranny; I can't say much for Russia ----"
"I should think you couldn't. Who can? A country plunged in the darkness of the Middle Ages! The country of the knout! Pah! Who can say anything for Russia?"
Vociferating thus, the champion of civilisation fixed his glare upon Otway, who, having laid down the paper, answered this look of challenge with a smile.
"As you seem to appeal to me," sounded in Piers' voice, which was steady and good-humoured, "I'm bound to say that Russia isn't altogether without good points. You spoke of it, by the bye, as the country of the knout; but the knout, as a matter of fact, was abolished long ago."
"Well, well -- yes; yes -- one knows all about that," stammered the loud man. "But the country is still ruled in the spirit of the knout. It doesn't affect my argument. Take it broadly, on an ethnological basis." He expanded his chest, sticking his thumbs into the armholes of his waistcoat. "The Russians are a Slavonic people, I presume?"
"Largely Slav, yes."
"And pray, sir, what have the Slavs done for the world? What do we owe them? What Slavonic name can anyone mention in the history of progress?"
"Two occur to me," replied Piers, in the same quiet tone, well worthy of a place in the history of intellectual progress. There was a Pole named Kopernik, known to you, no doubt, as Copernicus, who came before Galileo; and there was a Czech named Huss -- John Huss -- who came before Luther."
The bilious man was smiling. The fourth person present in the room, who sat with his book at some distance, had turned his eyes upon Otway with a look of peculiar interest.
"You've made a special study, I suppose, of this sort of thing," said the fat-faced politician, with a grin which tried to be civil, conveying in truth, the radical English contempt for mere intellectual attainment. "You're a supporter of Russia, I suppose?"
"I have no such pretension. Russia interests me, that's all."
"Come now, would you say that in any single point Russia, modern Russia, as we understand the term, had shown the way in practical advance?"
All were attentive -- the silent man with the book seeming particularly so.
"I should say in one rather important point," Piers replied. "Russia was the first country to abolish capital punishment for ordinary crime."
The assailant showed himself perplexed, incredulous. But this state of mind, lasting only for a moment, gave way to genial bluster.
"Oh, come now! That's a matter of opinion. To let murderers go unhung ----"
"As you please. I could mention another interesting fact. Long before England dreamt of the simplest justice for women, it was not an uncommon thing for a Russian peasant who had appropriated money earned by his wife, to be punished with a flogging by the village commune."
"A flogging! Why, there you are!" cried the other, with hoarse laughter -- "What did I say? If it isn't the knout, it's something equivalent. As if we hadn't proved long ago the demoralising effect of corporal chastisement! We should be ashamed, sir, to flog men nowadays in the army or navy. It degrades: we have outgrown it -- No, no, sir, it won't do! I see you have made a special study and you've mentioned very interesting facts; but you must see that they are wide of the mark -- painfully wide of the mark -- I must be thinking of turning in; have to be up at six, worse luck, to catch a train. Good-night, Mr. Simmonds! Good-night to you, sir -- good-night!"
He bustled away, humming to himself; and, after musing a little, the bilious man also left the room. Piers thought himself alone, but a sound caused him to turn his head; the person whom he had forgotten, the silent reader, had risen and was moving his way. A tall, slender, graceful man, well dressed, aged about thirty. He approached Otway, came in front of him, looked at him with a smile, and spoke.
"Sir, will you permit me to thank you for what you have said in defence of Russia -- my country?"
The English was excellent; almost without foreign accent. Piers stood up, and held out his hand, which was cordially grasped. He looked into a face readily recognizable as that of a Little Russian; a rather attractive face, with fine, dreamy eyes and a mouth expressive of quick sensibility; above the good forehead, waving chestnut hair.
"You have travelled in Russia?" pursued the stranger.
"I lived at Odessa for some years, and I have seen something of other parts."
"You speak the language?"
Piers offered proof of this attainment, by replying in a few Russian sentences. His new acquaintance was delighted, again shook hands, and began to talk in his native tongue. They exchanged personal information. The Russian said that his name was Korolevitch; that he had an estate in the Government of Poltava, where he busied himself with farming, but that for two or three months of each year he travelled. Last winter he had spent in the United States; he was now visiting the great English seaports, merely for the interest of the thing. Otway felt how much less impressive was the account he had to give of himself, but his new friend talked with such perfect simplicity, so entirely as a good-humoured man of the world, that any feeling of subordination was impossible.
"Poltava I know pretty well," he said gaily. "I've been more than once at the July fair, buying wool. At Kharkoff too, on the same business."
They conversed for a couple of hours, at first amusing themselves with the rhetoric and arguments of the red-necked man. Korolevitch was a devoted student of poetry, and discovered not without surprise the Englishman's familiarity with that branch of Russian literature. He heard with great interest the few words Otway let fall about his father, who had known so many Russian exiles. In short, they got along together admirably, and, on parting for the night, promised each other to meet again in London some ten days hence.
When he had entered his bedroom, and turned the key in the lock, Piers stood musing over this event. Of a sudden there came into his mind the inexplicable impulse which brought him to this hotel, rather than to that recommended by the Liverpool acquaintance. An odd incident, indeed. It helped a superstitious tendency of Otway's mind, the disposition he had, spite of obstacle and misfortune, to believe that destiny was his friend.
At home again, Piers wrote to Olga, the greater part of the letter being occupied with an account of what had happened at Liverpool. It was not a love-letter, yet differed in tone from those he had hitherto written her; he spoke with impatience of the circumstances which made it difficult for them to meet, and begged that it might not be long before he saw her again. Olga's reply came quickly; it was frankly intimate, with no suggestion of veiled feeling. Her mother's letters, she said, were in Dr. Derwent's hands. "I told him who had given them to me, and how you obtained them. I doubt whether he will have anything to say to me about them, but that doesn't matter; he knows the truth." As for their meeting, any Sunday afternoon he would find her at Miss Bonnicastle's, in Great Portland Street. "I wish I were living there again," she added. "My uncle is very kind, but I can't feel at home here, and I hope I shall not stay very long."
So, on the next Sunday, Piers wended his way to Great Portland Street. Arriving about three o'clock, he found the artist of the posters sitting alone by her fire, legs crossed and cigarette in mouth.
"Ah, Mr. Otway!" she exclaimed, turning her head to see who entered in reply to her cry of "Don't be afraid!" Without rising, she held a hand to him. "I didn't think I should ever see you here again. How are you getting on? Beastly afternoon -- come and warm your toes."
The walls were hung with clever brutalities of the usual kind. Piers glanced from them to Miss Bonnicastle, speculating curiously about her. He had no active dislike for this young woman, and felt a certain respect for her talent, but he thought, as before, how impossible it would be ever to regard her as anything but an abnormality. She was not ill-looking, but seemed to have no single characteristic of her sex which appealed to him.
"What do you think of that?" she asked abruptly, handing him an illustrated paper which had lain open on her lap.
The page she indicated was covered with some half-dozen small drawings, exhibiting scenes from a popular café in Paris, done with a good deal of vigour, and some skill in the seizing of facial types.
"Your work?" he asked.
"Mine?" she cried scoffingly. "I could no more do that than swim the channel. Look at the name, can't you?"
He found it in a corner.
"Kite? Our friend?"
"That's the man. He's been looking up since he went to Paris. Some things of his in a French paper had a lot of praise; nude figures -- queer symbolical stuff, they say, but uncommonly well done. I haven't seen them; in London they'd be called indecent, the man said who was telling me about them. Of course that's rot. He'll be here in a few days, Olga says."
"She hears from him?"
"It was a surprise letter; he addressed it to this shop, and I sent it on -- that's only pot-boiling, of course." She snatched back the paper. "But it's good in its way -- don't you think?"
"We must see the other things they talk about -- the nudes."
There was a knock at the door. "Come along!" cried Miss Bonnicastle, craning back her head to see who would enter. And on the door opening, she uttered an exclamation of surprise.
"Well, this is a day of the unexpected! Didn't know you were in England."
Piers saw a slim, dark, handsome man, who, in his elegant attire, rather reminded one of a fashion plate; he came briskly forward, smiling as if in extreme delight, and bent over the artist's hand, raising it to his lips.
"Now, you'd never do that," said Miss Bonnicastle, addressing Otway, with an air of mock gratification. "This is Mr. Florio, the best-behaved man I know. Signor, you've heard us speak of Mr. Otway. Behold him!"
"Ah! Mr. Otway, Mr. Otway!" cried the Italian joyously. "Permit me the pleasure to shake hands with you! One more English friend! I collect English friends, as others collect pictures, bric-à-brac, what you will. Indeed, it is my pride to add to the collection -- my privilege, my honour."
After exchange of urbanities, he turned to the exhibition on the walls, and exhausted his English in florid eulogy, not a word of which but sounded perfectly sincere. From this he passed to a glorification of the art of advertisement. It was the triumph of our century, the supreme outcome of civilisation! Otway, amusedly observant, asked with a smile what progress the art was making in Italy.
"Progress!" cried Florio, with indescribable gesture. "Italy and progress! -- Yet," he proceeded, with a change of voice, "where would Italy be, but for advertisements? Italy lives by advertisements. She is the best advertised country in the world! Suppose the writers and painters ceased to advertise Italy; suppose it were no more talked about; suppose foreigners ceased to come! What would happen to Italy, I ask you?"
His face conveyed so wonderfully the suggestion of ravenous hunger, that Miss Bonnicastle screamed with laughter. Piers did not laugh, and turned away for a moment.
Soon after, there entered Olga Hannaford. Seeing the two men, she reddened and looked confused, but Miss Bonnicastle's noisy greeting relieved her. Her hand was offered first to Otway, who pressed it without speaking; their eyes met, and to Piers it seemed that she made an appeal for his forbearance, his generosity. The behaviour of the Italian was singular. Mute and motionless, he gazed at Olga with a wonder which verged on consternation; when she turned towards him, he made a profound bow, as though he met her for the first time.
"Don't you remember me, Mr. Florio?" she asked, in an uncertain voice.
"Oh -- indeed -- perfectly," was the stammered reply.
He took her fingers with the most delicate respectfulness, again bowing deeply; then drew back a little, his eyes travelling rapidly to the faces of the others, as if seeking an explanation. Miss Bonnicastle broke the silence, saying they must have some tea, and calling upon Olga to help her in preparing it. For a minute or two the men were left alone. Florio, approaching Piers on tiptoe, whispered anxiously:
"Miss Hannaford is in mourning?"
"Her mother is dead."
With a gesture of desolation, the Italian moved apart, and stood staring absently at a picture on the wall. For the next quarter of an hour, he took scarcely any part in the conversation; his utterances were grave and subdued; repeatedly he glanced at Olga, and, if able to do so unobserved, let his eyes rest upon her with agitated interest. But for the hostess, there would have been no talk at all, and even she fell far short of her wonted vivacity When things were at their most depressing, someone knocked.
"Who's that, I wonder?" said Miss Bonnicastle. "All right!" she called out. "Come along."
A head appeared; a long, pale, nervous countenance, with eyes that blinked as if in too strong a light. Miss Bonnicastle started up, clamouring an excited welcome. Olga flushed and smiled. It was Kite who advanced into the room; on seeing Olga he stood still, became painfully embarrassed, and could make no answer to the friendly greetings with which Miss Bonnicastle received him. Forced into a chair at length, and sitting sideways, with his long legs intertwisted, and his arms fidgeting about, he made known that he had arrived only this morning from Paris, and meant to stay in London for a month or two -- perhaps longer -- it depended on circumstances. His health seemed improved, but he talked in the old way, vaguely, languidly. Yes, he had had a little success; but it amounted to nothing; his work -- rubbish! rubbish! Thereupon the café sketches in the illustrated papers were shown to Florio, who poured forth exuberant praise. A twinkle of pleasure came into the artist's eyes.
"But the other things we heard about?" said Miss Bonnicastle. "The what-d'ye-call 'ems, the figures ----"
Kite shrugged his shoulders, and looked uneasy.
"Oh, pot-boilers! Poor stuff. Happened to catch people's eyes. Who told you about them?"
"Some man -- I forget. And what are you doing now?"
"Oh, nothing. A little black-and-white for that thing," he pointed contemptuously to the paper. "Keeps me from idleness."
"Where are you going to live?"
"I don't know. I shall find a garret somewhere. Do you know of one about here?"
Olga's eyes chanced to meet a glance from Otway. She moved, hesitated, and rose from her chair. Kite and the Italian gazed at her, then cast a look at each other, then both looked at Otway, who had at once risen.
"Do you walk home?" said Piers, stepping towards her.
"I'd better have a cab."
It was said in a quietly decisive tone, and Piers made no reply. Both took leave with few words. Olga descended the stairs rapidly, and, without attention to her companion, turned at a hurried pace down the dark street. They had walked nearly a hundred yards when she turned her head and spoke.
"Can't you suggest some way for me to earn my living? I mean it. I must find something."
"Have you spoken to your uncle about it?" asked Piers mechanically.
"No; it's difficult. If I could go to him with something definite."
"Have you spoken to your cousin?"
Olga delayed an instant, and answered with an embarrassed abruptness.
"She's gone to Paris."
Before Piers could recover from his surprise, she had waved to an empty hansom driving past.
"Think about it," she added, "and write to me. I must do something. This life of loneliness and idleness is unbearable."
And Piers thought; to little purpose, for his mind was once more turned to Irene, and it cost him a painful effort to dwell upon Olga's circumstances. He postponed writing to her, until shame compelled him, and the letter he at length despatched seemed so empty, so futile, that he could not bear to think of her reading it. With astonishment he received an answer so gratefully worded that it moved his heart. She would reflect on the suggestions he had made; moreover, as he advised, she would take counsel frankly with the Doctor; and, whatever was decided, he should hear at once. She counted on him as a friend, a true friend; in truth, she had no other. He must continue to write to her, but not often, not more than once a fortnight or so. And let him be assured that she never for a moment forgot her lifelong debt to him.
This last sentence referred, no doubt, to her mother's letters. Dr. Derwent, it seemed, would make no acknowledgment of the service rendered him by a brother of the man whom he must regard as a pitiful scoundrel. How abhorred by him must be the name of Otway!
And could it be less hateful to his daughter, to Irene?
The days passed. A pleasant surprise broke the monotony of work and worry when, one afternoon, the office-boy handed in a card bearing the name Korolevitch. The Russian was spending a week in London, and Otway saw him several times; on one occasion they sat talking together till three in the morning. To Piers this intercourse brought vast mental relief, and gave him an intellectual impulse of which he had serious need in his life of solitude, ever tending to despondency. Korolevitch, on leaving England, volunteered to call upon Moncharmont at Odessa. He had wool to sell, and why not sell it to his friends? But he, as well as Piers, looked for profit of another kind from this happy acquaintance.
It was not long. before Otway made another call upon Miss Bonnicastle, and at this time, as he had hoped, he found her alone, working. He led their talk to the subject of Kite.
"You ought to go and see him in his garret," said Miss Bonnicastle. "He'd like you to."
"Tell me, if you know," threw out the other, looking into her broad, good-natured face. "Is he still interested in Miss Hannaford?"
"Why, of course! He's one of the stupids who keep up that kind of thing for a lifetime. But 'he that will not when he may'! Poor silly fellow! How I should enjoy boxing his ears!"
They laughed, but Miss Bonnicastle seemed very much in earnest.
"He's tormenting his silly self," she went on, "because he has been unfaithful to her. There was a girl in Paris. Oh, he tells me everything! We're good friends. The girl over there did him enormous good, that's all I know. It was she that set him to work, and supplied him with his model at the same time! What better could have happened. And now the absurd creature has qualms of conscience!"
"Well," said Piers, smiling uneasily, "it's intelligible."
"Bosh! Don't be silly! A man has his work to do, and he must get what help he can. I shall pack him off back to Paris."
"I'll go and see him, I think. About the Italian, Florio. Has he also an interest?"
"In Olga? Yes, I fancy he has, but I don't know much about him. He comes and goes, on business. There's a chance, I think, of his dropping in for money before long. He isn't a bad sort -- what do you think?"
That same afternoon Piers went in search of Kite's garret. It was a garret literally, furnished with a table and a bed, and little else, but a large fire burned cheerfully, and on the table, beside a drawing-board, stood a bottle of wine. When he had welcomed his visitor, Kite pointed to the bottle.
"I got used to it in Paris," he said, "and it helps me to work. I shan't offer you any, or you might be made ill; the cheapest claret on the market, but it reminds me of -- of things."
There rose in Otway's mind a suspicion that, to-day at all events, Kite had found his cheap claret rather too seductive. His face had an unwonted warmth of colour, and his speech an unusual fluency. Presently he opened a portfolio and showed some of the work he had done in Paris: drawings in pen-and-ink, and the published reproductions of others; these latter, he declared, were much spoilt in the process work. The motive was always a nude female figure, of great beauty; the same face, with much variety of expression; for background all manner of fantastic scenes, or rather glimpses and suggestions of a poet's dreamland.
"You see what I mean?" said Kite. "It's simply Woman, as a beautiful thing, as a -- a -- oh, I can't get it into words. An ideal, you know -- something to live for. Put her in a room -- it becomes a different thing. Do you feel my meaning? English people wouldn't have these, you know. They don't understand. They call it sensuality."
"Sensuality!" cried Piers, after dreaming for a moment. "Great heavens! then why are human bodies made beautiful?"
The artist gave a strange laugh of gratification.
"There you hit it! Why -- why? The work of the Devil, they say."
"The worst of it is," said Piers, "that they're right as regards most men. Beauty, as an inspiration, exists only for the few. Beauty of any and every kind -- it's all the same. There's no safety for the world as we know it, except in utilitarian morals."
Later, when he looked back upon these winter months, Piers could distinguish nothing clearly. It was a time of confused and obscure motives, of oscillation, of dreary conflict, of dull suffering. His correspondence with Olga, his meetings with her, had no issue. He made a thousand resolves; a thousand times he lost them. But for the day's work, which kept him in an even tenor for a certain number of hours, he must have drifted far and perilously.
It was a life of solitude. The people with whom he talked were mere ghosts, intangible, not of his world. Sometimes, amid a crowd of human beings, he was stricken voiceless and motionless: he stared about him, and was bewildered, asking himself what it all meant.
His health was not good; he suffered much from headaches; he fell into languors, lassitude of body and soul. As a result, imagination seemed to be dead in him. The torments of desire were forgotten. When he beard that Irene Derwent had returned to London, the news affected him only with a sort of weary curiosity. Was it true that she would not marry Arnold Jacks? It seemed so. He puzzled over the story, wondered about it; but only his mind was concerned, never his emotions.
Once he was summoned to Queen's Gate. John Jacks lay on a sofa, in his bedroom; he talked as usual, but in a weaker voice, and had the face of a man doomed. Piers saw no one else in the house, and on going away felt that he had been under that roof for the last time.
His mind was oppressed with the thought of death. As happens, probably, to every imaginative man at one time or another, he had a conviction that his own days were drawing to a premature close. Speculation about the future seemed idle; he had come to the end of hopes and fears. Night after night his broken sleep suffered the same dream; he saw Mrs. Hannaford, who stretched her hands to him, and with a face of silent woe seemed to implore his help. Help against Death; and his powerlessness wrung his heart with anguish. Waking, he thought of all the women -- beautiful, tender, objects of infinite passion and worship -- who even at that moment lay smitten by the great destroyer; the gentle, the loving, racked, disfigured, flung into the horror of the grave. And his being rose in revolt; he strove in silent agony against the dark ruling of the world.
One day there was of tranquil self-possession, of blessed calm. A Sunday in January, when, he knew not how, he found himself amid the Sussex lanes, where he had rambled in the time of harvest. The weather, calm and dry and mild, but without sunshine, soothed his spirit. He walked for hours, and towards nightfall stood upon a wooded hill, gazing westward. An overcast, yet not a gloomy sky; still, soft-dappled; with rifts and shimmerings of pearly blue scattered among multitudinous billows, which here were a dusky yellow, there a deep neutral tint. In the low west, beneath the long dark edge, a soft splendour, figured with airy cloudlets, waited for the invisible descending sun. Moment after moment the rifts grew longer, the tones grew warmer; above began to spread a rosy flush; in front, the glory brightened, touching the cloud-line above it with a tender crimson.
If all days could be like this! One could live so well, he thought, in mere enjoyment of the beauty of earth and sky, all else forgotten. Under this soft-dusking heaven, death was welcome rest, and passion only a tender sadness.
He said to himself that he had grown old in hopeless love -- only to doubt in the end whether he had loved at all.
The lad he employed in his office was run over by a cab one slippery day, and all but killed. Piers visited him in the hospital, thus seeing for the first time the interior of one of those houses of pain, which he always disliked even to pass. The experience did not help to brighten his mood; he lacked that fortunate temper of the average man, which embraces as a positive good the less of two evils. The long, grey, low-echoing ward, with its atmosphere of antiseptics; the rows of little white camp-beds, an ominous screen hiding this and that; the bloodless faces, the smothered groan, made a memory that went about with him for many a day.
It strengthened his growing hatred of London, a huge battlefield calling itself the home of civilisation and of peace; battlefield on which the wounds were of soul no less than of body. In these gaunt streets along which he passed at night, how many a sad heart suffered, by the dim glimmer that showed at upper windows, a hopeless solitude amid the innumerable throng! Human cattle, the herd that feed and breed, with them it was well; but the few born to a desire for ever unattainable, the gentle spirits who from their prisoning circumstance looked up and afar how the heart ached to think of them! Some girl, of delicate instinct, of purpose sweet and pure, wasting her unloved life in toil and want and indignity; some man, whose youth and courage strove against a mean environment, whose eyes grew haggard in the vain search for a companion promised in his dreams; they lived, these two, parted perchance only by the wall of neighbour houses, yet all huge London was between them, and their hands would never touch. Beside this hunger for love, what was the stomach-famine of a multitude that knew no other?
The spring drew nigh, and Otway dreaded its coming. It was the time of his burning torment, of imagination traitor to the worthier mind; it was the time of reverie that rapt him above everything ignoble, only to embitter by contrast the destiny he could not break. He rose now with the early sun; walked fast and far before the beginning of his day's work, with an aim he knew to be foolish, yet could not abandon. From Guildford Street, along the byways, he crossed Tottenham Court Road, just rattling with its first traffic, crossed Portland Place, still in its soundest sleep, and so onward till he touched Bryanston Square. The trees were misty with half-unfolded leafage birds twittered cheerily among the branches; but Piers heeded not these things. He stood before the high narrow-fronted house, which once he had entered as a guest, where never again would he be suffered to pass the door. Irene was here, he supposed, but could not be sure, for on the rare occasions when he saw Olga Hannaford they did not speak of her cousin. Of the course her life had taken, he knew nothing whatever. Here, in the chill bright morning, he felt more a stranger to Irene than on the day, six years ago, when with foolish timidity he ventured his useless call. She was merely indifferent to him then; now she shrank from the sound of his name.
On such a morning, a few weeks later, he pursued his walk in the direction of Kensington, and passed along Queen's Gate. It was between seven and eight o'clock. Nearing John Jacks house, he saw a carriage at the door; it could of course be only the doctor's, and he became sad in thinking of his kind old friend, for whom the last days of life were made so hard. Just as he was passing, the door opened, and a man, evidently a doctor, came quickly forth. With movement as if he were here for this purpose, Otway ran up the steps; the servant saw him, and waited with the door still open.
"Will you tell me how Mr. Jacks is?" he asked.
"I am sorry to say, sir," was the subdued answer, "that Mr. Jacks died at three this morning."
Piers turned away. His eyes dazzled in the sunshine.
The evening papers had the news, with a short memoir -- half of which was concerned not with John Jacks, but with his son Arnold.
It seemed to him just possible that he might receive an invitation to attend the funeral; but nothing of the kind came to him. The slight, he took it for granted, was not social, but personal. His name, of course, was offensive to Arnold Jacks, and probably to Mrs. John Jacks; only the genial old man had disregarded the scandal shadowing the Otway name.
On the morrow, it was made known that the deceased Member of Parliament would be buried in Yorkshire, in the village churchyard which was on his own estate. And Otway felt glad of this; the sombre and crowded hideousness of a London cemetery was no place of rest for John Jacks.
A fortnight later, at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, Piers mounted with a quick stride the stairs leading to Miss Bonnicastle's abode. The door of her workroom stood ajar; his knock brought no response; after hesitating a little, he pushed the door open and went in.
Accustomed to the grotesques and vulgarities which generally met his eye upon these walls, he was startled to behold a life-size figure of great beauty, suggesting a study for a serious work of art rather than a design for a street poster. It was a woman, in classic drapery, standing upon the seashore, her head thrown back, her magnificent hair flowing unrestrained, and one of her bare arms raised in a gesture of exultation. As he gazed at the drawing with delight, Miss Bonnicastle appeared from the inner room, dressed for walking.
"What do you think of that?" she exclaimed.
"Better than anything you ever did!"
"True enough! That's Kite. Don't you recognise his type?"
"One thinks of Ariadne," said Piers, "but the face won't do for her."
"Yes, it's Ariadne -- but I doubt if I shall have the brutality to finish out my idea. She is to have lying on the sand by her a case of Higginson's Hair-wash, stranded from a wreck, and a bottle of it in her hand. See the notion? Her despair consoled by discovery of Higginson!"
They laughed, but Piers broke off in half-serious anger.
"That's damnable! You won't do it. For one thing, the mob wouldn't understand. And in heaven's name do spare the old stories! I'm amazed that Kite should consent to it."
"Poor old fellow!" said Miss Bonnicastle, with an indulgent smile, "he'll do anything a woman asks of him. But I shan't have the heart to spoil it with Higginson; I know I shan't."
"After all," Piers replied, "I don't know why you shouldn't. What's the use of our scruples? That's the doom of everything beautiful."
"We'll talk about it another time. I can't stop now. I have an appointment. Stay here if you like, and worship Ariadne. I shouldn't wonder if Olga looks round this morning, and it'll disappoint her if there's nobody here."
Piers was embarrassed. He had asked Olga to meet him, and wondered whether Miss Bonnicastle knew of it. But she spared him the necessity of any remark by speeding away at once, bidding him slam the door on the latch when he departed.
In less than ten minutes, there sounded a knock without, and Piers threw the door open. It was Olga, breathing rapidly after her ascent of the stairs, and a startled look in her eyes as she found herself face to face with Otway. He explained his being here alone.
"It is kind of you to have come!"
"Oh, I have enjoyed the walk. A delicious morning! And how happy one feels when the church bells suddenly stop!"
"I have often known that feeling," said Piers merrily. "Isn't it wonderful, how London manages to make things detestable which are pleasant in other places! The bells in the country! -- But sit down. You look tired ----"
She seated herself, and her eyes turned to the beautiful figure on the wall. Piers watched her countenance.
"You have seen it already?" he said.
"A few days ago."
"You know who did it?"
"Mr. Kite, I am told," she answered absently. "And," she added, after a pause, "I think he disgraced himself by lending his art to such a purpose."
Piers said nothing, and looked away to hide his smile of pleasure.
"I asked you to come," were his next words, "to show you a letter I have had from John Jacks' solicitors."
Glancing at him with surprise, Olga took the letter he held out, and read it. In this communication, Piers Otway was informed that the will of the late Mr. Jacks bequeathed to him the capital which the testator had invested in the firm of Moncharmont & Co., and the share in the business which it represented.
"This is important to you," said the girl, after reflecting for a moment, her eyes down.
"Yes, it is important," Piers answered, in a voice not quite under control. "It means that, if I choose, I can live without working at the business. Just live; no more, at present, though it may mean more in the future. Things have gone well with us, for a beginning; much better than I, at all events, expected. What I should like to do, now, would be to find a man to take my place in London. I know someone who, just possibly, might be willing -- a man at Liverpool."
"Isn't it a risk?" said Olga, regarding him with shamefaced anxiety.
"I don't think so. If I could do so well, almost an real man of business would be sure to do better. Moncharmont, you know, is the indispensable member of the firm."
"And -- what would you do? Go abroad, I suppose?"
"For a time, at all events. Possibly to Russia -- I have a purpose -- too vague to speak of yet -- I should frighten myself if I spoke of it. But it all depends upon ----" He broke off, unable to command his voice. A moment's silence, during which he stared at the woman on the wall, and he could speak again. "I can't go alone. I can't do -- can't think of -- anything seriously, whilst I am maddened by solitude!"
Olga sat with her head bent. He drew nearer to her.
"It depends upon you. I want you for my companion -- for my wife ----"
She looked him in the face -- a strange, agitated, half-defiant look.
"I don't think that is true! You don't want me ----"
"You! Yes, you, Olga! And only you!"
"I don't believe it. You mean -- any woman." Her voice all but choked. "If that one" -- she pointed to the wall -- "could step towards you, you would as soon have her. You would rather, because she is more beautiful."
"Not in my eyes!" He seized her hand, and said, half laughing, shaken with the moment's fever, "Come and stand beside her, and let me see how the real living woman makes pale the ideal!"
Flushing, trembling at his touch, she rose. Her lips parted; she had all but spoken; when there came a loud knock at the door of the room. Their hands fell, and they gazed at each other in perturbation.
"Silence!" whispered Otway. "No reply!"
He stepped softly to the door; silently he turned the key in the lock. No sooner had he done so, than someone without tried the handle; the door was shaken a little, and there sounded another knock, loud, peremptory. Piers moved to Olga's side, smiled at her reassuringly, tried to take her hand; but, with a frightened glance towards the door, she shrank away.
Two minutes of dead silence; then Otway spoke just above his breath.
"Gone! Didn't you hear the footstep on the stairs?"
Had she just escaped some serious peril, Olga could not have worn a more agitated look. Her hand resisted Otway's approach; she would not seat herself, but moved nervously hither and thither, her eyes constantly turning to the door. It was in vain that Piers laughed at the incident, asking what it could possibly matter to them that some person had wished to see Miss Bonnicastle, and had gone away thinking no one was within; Olga made a show of assenting, she smiled and pretended to recover herself, but was still tremulous and unable to converse.
He took her hands, held them firmly, compelled her to meet his look.
"Let us have an end of this, Olga! Your life is unhappy -- let me help you to forget. And help me! I want your love. Come to me -- we can help each other -- put an end to this accursed loneliness, this longing and raging that eats one's heart away!"
She suffered him to hold her close -- her head bent back, the eyes half veiled by their lids.
"Give me one day -- to think ----"
"Not one hour, not one minute! Now!"
"Because you are stronger than I am, that doesn't make me really yours." She spoke in stress of spirit, her eyes wide and fearful. "If I said 'yes,' I might break my promise. I warn you! I can't trust myself -- I warn you not to trust me!"
"I will take the risk!"
"I have warned you. Yes, yes! I will try! -- Let me go now, and stay here till I have gone. I must go now!" She shook with hysterical passion. "Else I take back my promise! -- I will see you in two days; not here; I will think of some place."
She drew towards the exit, and when her one hand was on the key, Piers, with sudden self-subdual, spoke.
"You have promised!"
"Yes, I will write very soon."
With a look of gratitude, a smile all but of tenderness, she passed from his sight.
On the pavement, she looked this way and that. Fifty yards away, on the other side of the street, a well-dressed man stood supporting himself on his umbrella, as if he had been long waiting; though to her shortness of sight the figure was featureless, Olga trembled as she perceived it, and started at a rapid walk towards the cabstand at the top of the street. Instantly, the man made after her, almost running. He caught her up before she could approach the vehicles.
"So you were there! Something told me you were there!"
"What do you mean, Mr. Florio?"
The man was raging with jealous anger; trying to smile, he showed his teeth in a mere grin, and sputtered his words.
"The door was shut with the key! Why was that?"
"You mustn't speak to me in this way," said Olga, with troubled remonstrance rather than indignation. "When I visit my friend, we don't always care to be disturbed -----"
"Ha! Your friend -- Miss Bonnicastle -- was not there! I have seen her in Oxford Street! She said no one was there this morning, but I doubted -- I came!"
Whilst speaking, he kept a look turned in the direction of the house from which Olga had come. And of a sudden his eyes lit with fierce emotion.
"See! Something told me! That is your friend!"
Piers Otway had come out. Olga could not have recognised him at this distance, but she knew the Italian's eyes would not be deceived. Instantly she took to flight, along a cross-street leading eastward. Florio kept at her side, and neither spoke until breathlessness stopped her as she entered Fitzroy Square.
"You are safe," said her pursuer, or companion. "He is gone the other way. Ah! you are pale! You are suffering! Why did you run -- run -- run? There was no need."
His voice had turned soothing, caressing; his eyes melted in compassion as they bent upon her.
"I have given you no right to hunt me like this," said Olga, panting, timid, her look raised for a moment to his.
"I take the right," he laughed musically. "It is the right of the man who loves you."
She cast a frightened glance about the square, which was almost deserted, and began to walk slowly on.
"Why was the door shut with the key?" asked Florio, his head near to hers. "I thought I would break it open And I wish I had done so," he added, suddenly fierce again.
"I have given you no right," stammered Olga, who seemed to suffer under a sort of fascination, which dulled her mind.
"I take it! -- Has he a right? Tell me that! You are not good to me; you are not honest to me; you deceive -- deceive! Why was the door shut with the key? I am astonished! I did not think this was done in England -- a lady -- a young lady!"
"Oh, what do you mean?" Olga exclaimed, with a face of misery. "There was no harm. It wasn't I who wished it to be locked!"
Florio gazed at her long and searchingly, till the blood burned in her face.
"Enough!" he said with decision, waving his arm. "I have learnt something. One always learns something new in England. The English are wonderful -- yes, they are wonderful. Basta! and addio!"
He raised his hat, turned, moved away. As if drawn irresistibly, Olga followed. Head down, arms hanging in the limpness of shame, she followed, but without drawing nearer. At the corner of the square, Florio, as if accidentally, turned his head; in an instant, he stood before her.
"Then you do not wish good-bye?"
"You are very cruel! How can I let you think such things? You know it's false!"
"But there must be explanation!"
"I can easily explain. But not here -- one can't talk in the street ----"
"Naturally! -- Listen! It is twelve o'clock. You go home; you eat: you repose. At three o'clock, I pay you a visit. Why not? You said it yourself the other day, but I could not decide. Now I have decided. I pay you a visit; you receive me privately -- can you not? We talk, and all is settled!"
Olga thought for a moment, and assented. A few minutes afterwards, she was roiling in a cab towards Bryanston Square.
On Monday evening, Piers received a note from Olga. It ran thus:
"I warned you not to trust me. It is all over now; I have, in your own words, 'put an end to it.' We could have given no happiness to each other. Miss Bonnicastle will explain. Good-bye!"
He went at once to Great Portland Street. Miss Bonnicastle knew nothing, but looked anxious when she had seen the note and heard its explanation.
"We must wait till the morning," she said. "Don't worry. It's just what one might have expected."
Don't worry! Piers had no wink of sleep that night. At post-time in the morning he was at Miss Bonnicastle's, but no news arrived. He went to business; the day passed without news; he returned to Great Portland Street, and there waited for the last postal delivery. It brought the expected letter; Olga announced her marriage that morning to Mr. Florio.
"It's better than I feared," said Miss Bonnicastle. "Now go home to bed, and sleep like a philosopher."
Good advice, but not of much profit to one racked and distraught with amorous frenzy, with disappointment sharp as death. Through the warm spring night, Piers raved and agonised. The business hour found him lying upon his bed, sunk in dreamless sleep.
Again it was springtime -- the spring of 1894. Two years had gone by since that April night when Piers Otway suffered things unspeakable in flesh and spirit, thinking that for him the heavens had no more radiance, life no morrow. The memory was faint; he found it hard to imagine that the loss of a woman he did not love could so have afflicted him. Olga Hannaford -- Mrs. Florio -- was matter for a smile; he hoped that he might some day meet her again, and take her hand with the old friendliness, and wish her well.
He had spent the winter in St. Petersburg, and was making arrangements for a visit to England, when one morning there came to him a letter which made his eyes sparkle and his heart beat high with joy. In the afternoon, having given more than wonted care to his dress, he set forth from the lodging he occupied at the lower end of the Nevski Prospect, and walked to the Hôtel de France, near the Winter Palace, where he inquired for Mrs. Borisoff. After a little delay, he was conducted to a private sitting-room, where again he waited. On a table lay two periodicals, at which he glanced, recognising with a smile recent numbers of the Nineteenth Century and the Vyestnik Evropy.
There entered a lady with a bright English face, a lady in the years between youth and middle age, frank, gracious, her look of interest speaking a compliment which Otway found more than agreeable.
"I have kept you waiting," she said, in a tone that dispensed with formalities, "because I was on the point of going out when they brought your card ----"
"Oh, I am sorry ----"
"But I am not. Instead of twaddle and boredom round somebody or other's samovar, I am going to have honest talk under the chaperonage of an English teapott -- my own teapot, which I carry everywhere. But don't be afraid; I shall not give you English tea. What a shame that I have been here for two months without our meeting! I have talked about you -- wanted to know you. Look!"
She pointed to the periodicals which Piers had already noticed.
"No," she went on, checking him as he was about to sit down, "that is your chair. If you sat on the other, you would be polite and grave and -- like everybody else; I know the influence of chairs. That is the chair my husband selects when he wishes to make me understand some point of etiquette. Miss Derwent warned you, no doubt, of my shortcomings in etiquette?"
"All she said to me," replied Piers, laughing, "was that you are very much her friend."
"Well, that is true, I hope. Tell me, please; is the article in the Vyestnik your own Russian?"
"Not entirely. I have a friend named Korolevitch, who went through it for me."
"Korolevitch? I seem to know that name. Is he, by chance, connected with some religious movement, some heresy?"
"I was going to say I am sorry he is; yet I can't be sorry for what honours the man. He has joined the Dukhobortsi; has sold his large estate, and is devoting all the money to their cause. I'm afraid he'll go to some new-world colony, and I shall see little of him henceforth. A great loss to me."
Mrs. Borisoff kept her eyes upon him as he spoke, seeming to reflect rather than to listen.
"I ought to tell you," she said, "that I don't know Russian. Irene -- Miss Derwent almost shamed me into working at it; but I am so lazy -- ah, so lazy! you are aware, of course, that Miss Derwent has learnt it?"
"Has learnt Russian?" exclaimed Piers. "I didn't know -- I had no idea ----"
"Wonderful girl! I suppose she thinks it a trifle."
"It's so long," said Otway, "since I had any news of Miss Derwent. I can hardly consider myself one of her friends -- at least, I shouldn't have ventured to do so until this morning, when I was surprised and delighted to have a letter from her about that Nineteenth Century article, sent through the publishers. She spoke of you, and asked me to call -- saying she had written an introduction of me by the same post."
Mrs. Borisoff smiled oddly.
"Oh yes; it came. She didn't speak of the Vyestnik?"
"Yet she has read it -- I happen to know. I'm sorry I can't. Tell me about it, will you?"
The Russian article was called "New Womanhood in England." It began with a good-tempered notice of certain novels then popular, and passed on to speculations regarding the new ideals of life set before English women. Piers spoke of it as a mere bit of apprentice work, meant rather to amuse than as a serious essay.
"At all events, it's a success," said his listener. "One hears of it in every drawing-room. Wonderful thing -- you don't sneer at women. I'm told you are almost on our side -- if not quite. I've heard a passage read into French -- the woman of the twentieth century. I rather liked it."
"Not altogether?" said Otway, with humorous diffidence.
"Oh! A woman never quite likes an ideal of womanhood which doesn't quite fit her notion of herself. But let us speak of the other thing, in the Nineteenth Century -- 'The Pilgrimage to Kief.' For life, colour, sympathy, I think it altogether wonderful. I have heard Russians say that they couldn't have believed a foreigner had written it."
"That's the best praise of all."
"You mean to go on with this kind of thing? You might become a sort of interpreter of the two nations to each other. An original idea. The everyday thing is to exasperate Briton against Russ, and Russ against Briton, with every sort of cheap joke and stale falsehood. All the same Mr. Otway, I'm bound to confess to you that I don't like Russia."
"No more do I," returned Piers, in an undertone. "But that only means, I don't like the worst features of the Middle ages. The Russian-speaking cosmopolitan whom you and I know isn't Russia; he belongs to the Western Europe of to-day, his country represents Western Europe of some centuries ago. Not strictly that, of course; we must allow for race; but it's how one has to think of Russia."
Again Mrs. Borisoff scrutinised him as he spoke, averting her eyes at length with an absent smile.
"Here comes my tutelary teapot," she said, as a pretty maid-servant entered with a tray. "A phrase I got from Irene, by the bye -- from Miss Derwent, who laughs at my carrying the thing about in my luggage. She has clever little phrases of that sort, as you know."
"Yes," fell from Piers, dreamily. "But it's so long since I heard her talk."
When he had received his cup of tea, and sipped from it, he asked with a serious look:
"Will you tell me about her?"
"Of course I will. But you must first tell me about yourself. You were in business in London, I believe?"
"For about a year. Then I found myself with enough to live upon, and came back to Russia. I had lived at Odessa ----"
"You may presuppose a knowledge of what came before," interrupted Mrs. Borisoff, with a friendly nod.
"I lived for several months with Korolevitch, on his estate near Poltava. We used to talk -- heavens! how we talked! Sometimes eight hours at a stretch. I learnt a great deal. Then I wandered up and down Russia, still learning."
"The time hadn't come for writing. Korolevitch gave me no end of useful introductions. I've had great luck on my travels."
"Pray, when did you make your studies of English women?"
Piers tried to laugh; declared he did not know.
"I shouldn't wonder if you generalise from one or two?" said his hostess, letting her eyelids droop as she observed him lazily. "Do you know Russian women as well?"
By begging for another cup of tea, and adding a remark on some other subject, Piers evaded this question.
"And what are you going to do?" asked Mrs. Borisoff "Stay here, and write more articles?"
"I'm going to England in a few days for the summer."
"That's what I think I shall do. But I don't know what part to go to. Advise me, can you? Seaside -- no; I don't like the seaside. Do you notice how people -- our kind of people, I mean -- are losing their taste for it in England? It's partly, I suppose, because of the excursion train. One doesn't grudge the crowd its excursion train, but it's so much nicer to imagine their blessedness than to see it. Or are you for the other point of view?"
Otway gave an expressive look.
"That's right. Oh, the sham philanthropic talk that goes on in England! How it relieves one to say flatly that one does not love the multitude! -- No seaside, then. Lakes -- no; Wales -- no; Highlands -- no. Isn't there some part of England one would like if one discovered it?"
"Do you want solitude?" asked Piers, becoming more interested.
"Solitude? H'm!" She handed a box of cigarettes, and herself took one. "Yes, solitude. I shall try to get Miss Derwent to come for a time. New Forest -- no, Please, please, do suggest! I'm nervous; your silence teases me."
"Do you know the Yorkshire dales?" asked Otway, watching her as she watched a nice little ring of white smoke from the end of her cigarette.
"No! That's an idea. It's your own country, isn't it?"
"But -- how do you know that?"
"I wasn't born there, but lived there as a child, and later a little. You might do worse than the dales, if you like that kind of country. Wensleydale, for instance. There's an old Castle, and a very interesting one, part of it habitable, where you can get quarters."
"A Castle? Superb!"
"Where Queen Mary was imprisoned for a time, till she made an escape ----"
"Magnificent! Can I have the whole Castle to myself?"
"The furnished part of it, unless someone else has got it already for this summer. There's a family, the caretakers, always in possession -- if things are still as they used to be."
"Write for me at once, will you? Write immediately! There is paper on the desk."
Piers obeyed. Whilst he sat penning the letter, Mrs. Borisoff lighted a second cigarette, her face touched with a roguish smile. She studied Otway's profile for a moment; became grave; fell into a mood of abstraction, which shadowed her features with weariness and melancholy. Turning suddenly to put a question, Piers saw the change in her look, and was so surprised that he forgot what he was going to say.
"Finished?" she asked, moving nervously in her chair.
When the letter was written, Mrs. Borisoff resumed talk in the same tone as before.
"You have heard of Dr. Derwent's discoveries about diphtheria? -- That's the kind of thing one envies, don't you think? After all, what can we poor creatures do in this world, but try to ease each other's pain? The man who succeeds in that is the man I honour."
"I too," said Piers. "But he is lost sight of, nowadays, in comparison with the man who invents a new gun or a new bullet."
"Yes -- the beasts!" exclaimed Mrs. Borisoff, with a laugh. "What a world! I'm always glad I have no children. But you wanted to speak, not about Dr. Derwent, but Dr. Derwent's daughter."
Piers bent forward, resting his chin on his hand.
"Tell me about her -- will you?"
"There's not much to tell. You knew about the broken-off marriage?"
"I knew it was broken off."
"Why, that's all anyone knows, except the two persons concerned. It isn't our business. The world talks far too much about such things -- don't you think? when we are civilised, there'll be no such things as public weddings, and talk about anyone's domestic concerns will be the grossest impertinence. That's an obiter dictum. I was going to say that Irene lives with her father down in Kent. They left Bryanston Square half a year after the affair. They wander about the Continent together, now and then. I like that chumming of father and daughter; it speaks well for both."
"When did you see her last?"
"About Christmas. We went to a concert together. That's one of the things Irene is going in for -- music. When I first knew her, she didn't seem to care much about it, though she played fairly well."
"I never heard her play," fell from Piers in an undertone.
"No; she only did to please her father now and then. It's a mental and moral advance, her new love of music. I notice that she talks much less about science, much more about the things one really likes -- I speak for myself. Well, it's just possible I have had a little influence there. I confess my inability to chat about either physic or physics. It's weak, of course, but I have no place in your new world of women."
"You mistake, I think," said Piers. "That ideal has nothing to do with any particular study. It supposes intelligence, that's all."
"So much the better. You must write about it in English; then we'll debate. By the bye, if I go to your Castle, you must come down to show me the country."
"I should like to."
"Oh, that's part of the plan. If we don't get the Castle, you must find some other place for me. I leave it in your hands -- with an apology for my impudence."
After a pause, during which each of them mused smiling, they began to talk of their departure for England. Otway would go direct in a few days' time; Mrs. Borisoff had to travel a long way round, first of all accompanying her husband to the Crimea, on a visit to relatives. She mentioned her London hotel, and an approximate date when she might be heard of there.
"Get the Castle if you possibly can," were her words as they parted. "I have set my heart on the Castle."
"So have I," said Piers, avoiding her look."
And Mrs. Borisoff laughed.
Once in the two years' interval he had paid a short visit to England. He came on disagreeable business -- to see his brother Daniel, who had fallen into the hands of the police on an infamous charge, and only by the exertions of clever counsel (feed by Piers) received the benefit of a doubt and escaped punishment. Daniel had already written him several begging letters, and, when detected in what looked like crime, declared that poverty and ill-health were his excuse. He was a broken man. Surmising his hidden life, Piers wondered at the pass a man can be brought to, in our society, by his primitive instincts; instincts which may lead, when they are impetuous, either to grimiest degradation or loftiest attainment. To save him, if possible, from the worst extremities, Piers granted him a certain small income, to be paid weekly, and therewith bade him final adieu.
The firm of Moncharmont & Co. grew in moderate prosperity. Its London representative was a far better man, from the commercial point of view, than Piers Otway, and on visiting the new offices -- which he did very soon after reaching London, in the spring of 1894 -- Piers marvelled how the enterprise had escaped shipwreck during those twelve months which were so black in his memory with storm and stress. The worst twelve month of his life! -- with the possible exception of that which he spent part at Ewell, part at Odessa.
Since, he had sailed in no smooth water; had seen no haven. But at least he sailed onward, which gave him courage. Was courage to be now illumined with hope? He tried to keep that thought away from him; he durst not foster it. Among the papers he brought with him to England was a letter, which, having laid it aside, he never dared to open again. He knew it by heart -- unfortunately for his peace.
He returned to another London than that he had known, a London which smiled welcome. It was his duty, no less than his pleasure, to call upon certain people for whom he had letters of introduction from friends in Russia, and their doors opened wide to him. Upon formalities followed kindness; the season was beginning, and at his modest lodgings arrived cards, notes, bidding to ceremonies greater and less; one or two of these summonses bore names which might have stirred envy in the sons of fashion.
Solus feci! He allowed himself a little pride. His doing, it was true, had as yet been nothing much to the eye of the world; but he had made friends under circumstances not very favourable, friends among the intelligent and the powerful. That gift, it seemed, was his, if no other -- the ability to make himself liked, respected. He, by law the son of nobody, had begun to approve himself true son of the father he loved and honoured.
His habits were vigorous. Rising very early, he walked across the Park, and had a swim in the Serpentine. The hours of the solid day he spent, for the most part, in study at the British Museum. Then, if he had no engagement, he generally got by train well out of town, and walked in sweet air until nightfall; or, if weather were bad, he granted himself the luxury of horse-hire, and rode -- rode, teeth set against wind and rain. This earned him sleep -- his daily prayer to the gods.
At the date appointed, he went in search of Mrs. Borisoff, who welcomed him cordially. Her first inquiry was whether he had got the Castle.
"I have got it," Piers replied, and entered into particulars. They talked about it like children anticipating a holiday. Mrs. Borisoff then questioned him about his doings since he had been in England. On his mentioning a certain great lady, a Russian, with whom he was to dine next week, his friend replied with a laugh, which she refused to explain.
"When can you spend an evening here? I don't mean a dinner. I'll give you something to eat, but it doesn't count; you come to talk, as I know you can, though you didn't let me suspect it at Petersburg. I shall have one or two others, old chums, not respectable people. Name your own day."
When the evening came, Piers entered Mrs. Borisoff's drawing-room with trepidation. He glanced at the guest who had already arrived -- a lady unknown to him. When again the door opened, he looked, trembling. His fearful hope ended only in a headache, but he talked, as was expected of him, and the hostess smiled approval.
"These friends of yours," he said aside to her, before leaving, "are nice people to know. But ----"
And he broke off, meeting her eyes.
"I don't understand," said his hostess, with a perplexed look.
"Then I daren't try to make you."
A few days after, at the great house of the great Russian lady, he ascended the stairs without a tremor, glanced round the room with indifference. No one would be there whom he could not face calmly. Brilliant women awed him a little at first, but it was not till afterwards, in the broken night following such occasions as this, that they had power over his imagination; then he saw them, drawn upon darkness, their beauty without that halo of worldly grandeur which would not allow him to forget the gulf between them. The hostess herself shone by quality of intellect rather than by charm of feature; she greeted him with subtlest flattery, a word or two of simple friendliness in her own language, and was presenting him to her husband, when, from the doorway, sounded a name which made Otway's heart leap, and left him tongue-tied.
"Mrs. Borisoff and Miss Derwent."
He turned, but with eyes downcast: for a moment he durst not raise them. He moved, insensibly, a few steps backward, shadowed himself behind two men who were conversing together. And at length he looked.
With thrill of marvelling and rapture, with chill of self-abasement. When, years ago, he saw Irene in the dress of ceremony, she seemed to him peerlessly radiant; but it was the beauty and the dignity of one still girlish. What he now beheld was the exquisite fulfilment of that bright promise. He had not erred in worship; she who had ever been to him the light of life, the beacon of his passionate soul, shone before him supreme among women. What head so noble in its unconscious royalty! What form so faultless in its mould and bearing! He heard her speak -- the graceful nothings of introduction and recognition; it was Irene's voice toned to a fuller music. Then her face dazzled, grew distant; he turned away to command himself.
Mrs. Borisoff spoke beside him.
"Have you no good-evening for me?"
"So this is what you meant?"
"You have a way of speaking in riddles."
"And you -- a way of acting divinely. Tell me," his voice sank, and his words were hurried. "May I go up to her as any acquaintance would ? May I presume that she knows me?"
"You mean Miss Derwent? But -- why not? I don't understand you."
"No -- I forget -- it seems to you absurd. Of course -- she wrote and introduced me to you ----"
"You are amusing -- which is more than can be said of everyone."
She bent her head and turned to speak with someone else. Piers, with what courage he knew not, stepped across the carpet to where Miss Derwent was sitting. She saw his approach, and held her hand to him as if they had met only the other day. That her complexion was a little warmer than its wont, Piers had no power of perceiving; he saw only her eyes, soft-shining as they rose to his, in their depths an infinite gentleness.
"How glad lam that you got my letter just before leaving Petersburg!"
"How kind of you to introduce me to Mrs. Borisoff!"
"I thought you would soon be friends."
It was all they could say. At this moment, the host murmured his request that Otway would take down Mrs. Borisoff; the hostess led up someone to be introduced to Miss Derwent. Then the procession began.
Piers was both disappointed and relieved. To have felt the touch upon his arm of Irene's hand would have been a delight unutterable, yet to desire it was presumption. He was not worthy of that companionship; it would have been unjust to Irene to oblige her to sit by him through the dinner, with the inevitable thoughts rising in her mind. Better to see her from a distance -- though it was hard when she smiled at the distinguished and clever-looking man who talked, talked. It cost him, at first, no small effort to pay becoming attention to Mrs. Borisoff; the lady on his other hand, a brilliant beauty, moved him to a feeling almost hostile -- he knew not why. But as the dinner progressed, as the kindly vintage circled in his blood, he felt the stirrings of a deep joy. By his own effort he had won reception into Irene's world. It was something; it was much -- remembering all that had gone before.
He spoke softly to his partner.
"I am going to drink a silent health -- that of my friend Korolevitch. To him I owe everything."
"I don't believe that, but I will drink it too -- I was speaking of him to Miss Derwent. She wants to know all about the Dukhobortsi. Instruct her, afterwards, if you get a chance. Do you think her altered?"
"No -- yes!"
"By the bye, how long is it really since you first knew her?"
"Eight years -- just eight years."
"You speak as if it were eighty."
"Why, so it seems, when I look back. I was a boy, and had the strangest notions of the world."
"You shall tell me all about that some day," said Mrs. Borisoff, glancing at him. "At the Castle, perhaps ----"
"Oh yes! At the Castle!"
When the company divided, and Piers had watched Irene pass out of sight, he sat down with a tired indifference. But his host drew him Into conversation on Russian subjects, and, as had happened before now in gatherings of this kind, Otway presently found himself amid attentive listeners, whilst he talked of things that interested him. At such moments he had an irreflective courage, which prompted him to utter what he thought without regard to anything but the common civilities of life. His opinions might excite surprise; but they did not give offence; for they seemed impersonal, the natural outcome of honest and capable observation, with never a touch of national prejudice or individual conceit. It was well, perhaps, for the young man's natural modesty, that he did not hear certain remarks afterwards exchanged between the more intelligent of his hearers.
When they passed to the drawing-room, the piano was sounding there. It stopped; the player rose, and moved away, but not before Piers had seen that it was Irene. He felt robbed of a delight. Oh, to hear Irene play!
Better was in store for him. With a boldness natural to the hour, he drew nearer, nearer, watching his opportunity. The chair by Irene's side became vacant; he stepped forward, and was met with a frank countenance, which invited him to take the coveted place. Miss Derwent spoke at once of her interest in the Russian sectaries with whom -- she had heard -- Otway was well acquainted, the people called Dukhobortsi, who held the carrying of arms a sin, and suffered persecution because of their conscientious refusal to perform military service. Piers spoke with enthusiasm of these people.
"They uphold the ideal above all necessary to our time. We ought to be rapidly outgrowing warfare; isn't that the obvious next step in civilisation? It seems a commonplace that everyone should look to that end, and strive for it. Yet we're going back -- there's a military reaction -- fighting is glorified by everyone who has a loud voice, and in no country more than in England. I wish you could hear a Russian friend of mine speak about it, a rich man who has just given up everything to join the Dukhobortsi. I never knew before what religious passion meant. And it seems to me that this is the world's only hope -- peace made a religion. The forms don't matter; only let the supreme end be peace. It is what people have talked so much about -- the religion of the future."
His tones moved the listener, as appeared in her look and attitude.
"Surely all the best in every country lean to it," she said.
"Of course! That's our hope -- but at the same time the pitiful thing; for the best hold back, keep silence, as if their quiet contempt could prevail against this activity of the reckless and the foolish."
"One can't make a religion," said Irene sadly. "It is just this religious spirit which has decayed throughout our world. Christianity turns to ritualism. And science -- we were told you know, that science would be religion enough."
"There's the pity -- the failure of science as a civilising force. I know," added Piers quickly, "that there are men whose spirit, whose work, doesn't share in that failure; they are the men -- the very few -- who are above self-interest. But science on the whole, has come to mean money-making and weapon-making. It leads the international struggle; it is judged by its value to the capitalist and the soldier."
"Isn't this perhaps a stage of evolution that the world must live through -- to its extreme results?"
"Very likely. The signs are bad enough."
"You haven't yourself that enthusiastic hope?"
"I try to hope," said Piers, in a low, unsteady voice, his eyes falling timidly before her glance. "But what you said is so true -- one can't create the spirit of religion. If one hasn't it ----" He broke off, and added with a smile, "I think I have a certain amount of enthusiasm. But when one has seen a good deal of the world, it's so very easy to feel discouraged. Think how much sheer barbarism there is around us, from the brutal savage of the gutter to the cunning savage of the Stock Exchange!"
Irene had a gleam in her eyes; she nodded appreciation.
"If," he went on vigorously, "if one could make the multitude really understand -- understand to the point of action -- how enormously its interest is peace!"
"More hope that way, I'm afraid," said Irene, "than through idealisms."
"Yes, yes. If it comes at all, it'll be by the way of self-interest. And really it looks as if the military tyrants might overreach themselves here and there. Italy, for instance. Think of Italy, crushed and cursed by a blood-tax that the people themselves see to be futile. One enters into the spirit of the men who freed Italy from foreigners -- it was glorious; but how much more glorious to excite a rebellion there against her own rulers! Shouldn't you enjoy doing that?"
At times, there is no subtler compliment to a woman than to address her as if she were a man. It must be done involuntarily, as was the case with this utterance of Otway's. Irene rewarded him with a look such as he had never had from her, the look of rejoicing comradeship.
"Indeed I should! Italy is becoming a misery to those who love her. Is no plot going on? Couldn't one start a conspiracy against that infamous misgovernment?"
"There's an arch-plotter at work. His name is Hunger. Let us be glad that Italy can't enrich herself by manufactures. Who knows? The revolution against militarism may begin there, as that against feudalism did in France. Talk of enthusiasm! How should we feel if we read in the paper some morning that the Italian people had formed into an army of peace -- refusing to pay another centesimo for warfare?
"The next boat for Calais! The next train for Rome!" Their eyes met, interchanging gleams of laughter.
"Oh, but the crowd, the crowd!" sighed Piers. "What is bad enough to say of it? who shall draw its picture with long enough ears?"
"It has another aspect, you know."
"It has. At its best, a smiling simpleton; at its worst, a murderous maniac."
"You are not exactly a socialist," remarked Irene, with that smile which, linking past and present, blended in Otway's heart old love and new -- her smile of friendly irony.
"Socialism? I seldom think of it; which means, that I have no faith in it. -- When we came in, you were playing."
"I miss the connection," said Irene, with a puzzled air.
"Forgive me. I am fond of music, and it has been in my mind all the time -- the hope that you would play again."
"Oh, that was merely the slow music, as one might say, of the drawing-room mysteries -- an obligato in the after-dinner harmony. I play only to amuse myself -- or when it is a painful duty."
Piers was warned by his tactful conscience that he had held Miss Derwent quite long enough in talk. A movement in their neighbourhood gave miserable opportunity; he resigned his seat to another expectant, and did his best to converse with someone else.
Her voice went with him as he walked homewards across the Park, under a fleecy sky silvered with moonlight; the voice which now and again brought back so vividly their first meeting at Ewell. He lived through it all again, the tremors, the wild hopes, the black despair of eight years ago. How she encountered him on the stairs, talked of his long hours of study, and prophesied -- with that indescribable blending of gravity and jest, still her characteristic -- that he would come to grief over his examination. Irene! Irene! Did she dream what was in his mind and heart? The long, long love, his very life through all labours and cares and casualties -- did she suspect it, imagine it? If she had received his foolish verses (he grew hot to think of them), there must have been at least a moment when she knew that he worshipped her, and does such knowledge ever fade from a woman's memory?
Irene! Irene! Was she brought nearer to him by her own experience of heart-trouble? That she had suffered, he could not doubt; impossible for her to have given her consent to marriage unless she believed herself in love with the man who wooed her. It could have been no trifling episode in her life, whatever the story; Irene was not of the women who yield their hands in jest, in pique, in lighthearted ignorance. The change visible in her was more, he fancied, than could be due to the mere lapse of time; during her silences, she had the look of one familiar with mental conflict, perhaps of one whose pride had suffered an injury. The one or two glances which he ventured whilst she was talking with the man who succeeded to his place beside her, perceived a graver countenance, a reserve such as she had not used with him; and of this insubstantial solace he made a sort of hope which winged the sleepless hours till daybreak.
He had permission to call upon Mrs. Borisoff at times alien to polite routine. Thus, when nearly a week had passed, he sought her company at midday, and found her idling over a book, her seat by a window which viewed the Thames and the broad Embankment with its plane trees, and London beyond the water, picturesque in squalid hugeness through summer haze and the sagging smoke of chimneys numberless. She gave a languid hand, pointed to a chair, gazed at him with embarrassing fixity.
"I don't know about the Castle," were her first words. "Perhaps I shall give it up."
"You are not serious?"
Piers spoke and looked in dismay; and still she kept her heavy eyes on him.
"What does it matter to you?" she asked carelessly.
"I counted on -- on showing you the dales ----"
Mrs. Borisoff nodded twice or thrice, and laughed, then pointed to the prospect through the window.
"This is more interesting. Imagine historians living a thousand years hence -- what would they give to see what we see now!"
"Oh, one often has that thought. It's about the best way of making ordinary life endurable."
They watched the steamers and barges, silent for a minute or two.
"So you had rather I didn't give up the castle?"
"I should be horribly disappointed."
"Yes -- no doubt you would. Why did you come to see me to-day? No, no, no! The real reason.
"I wanted to talk about Miss Derwent," Piers answered, bracing himself to frankness.
Mrs. Borisoff's lips contracted, in something which was not quite a smile, but which became a smile before she spoke.
"If you hadn't told the truth, Mr. Otway, I would have sent you about your business. Well, talk of her; I am ready."
"But certainly not if it wearies you ----"
"I'll begin with a question. Does Miss Derwent go much into society?"
"No; not very much. And it's only the last few months that she has been seen at all in London -- I mean, since the affair that people talked about."
"Did they talk -- disagreeably?"
"Gossip -- chatter -- half malicious without malicious intention -- don't you know the way of the sweet creatures? I would tell you more if I could. The simple truth is that Irene has never spoken to me about it -- never once. When it happened, she came suddenly to Paris, to a hotel, and from there wrote me a letter, just saying that her marriage was off; no word of explanation. Of course I fetched her at once to my house, and from that moment to this I have heard not one reference from her to the matter. You would like to know something about the hero? He has been away a good deal -- building up the Empire, as they say; which means, of course, looking after his own and other people's dividends."
"Thank you. Now let us talk about the Castle."
But Mrs. Borisoff was not in a good humour to-day, and Piers very soon took his leave. Her hand felt rather hot; he noticed this particularly, as she let it lie in his longer than usual -- part of her absent-mindedness.
Piers had often resented, as a weakness, his susceptibility to the influence of others' moods; he did so to-day, when having gone to Mrs. Borisoff in an unusually cheerful frame of mind, he came away languid and despondent. But his scheme of life permitted no such idle brooding as used to waste his days; self-discipline sent him to his work, as usual, through the afternoon, and in the evening he walked ten miles
The weather was brilliant. As he stood, far away in rural stillness, watching a noble sunset, he repeated to himself words which had of late become his motto, "Enjoy now! This moment will never come again." But the intellectual resolve was one thing, the moral aptitude another. He did not enjoy; how many hours in all his life had brought him real enjoyment? Idle to repeat and repeat that life was the passing minute, which must be seized, made the most of; he could not live in the present; life was to him for ever a thing postponed. "I will live -- I will enjoy -- some day!" As likely as not that day would never dawn.
Was it true, as admonishing reason sometimes whispered, that happiness cometh not by observation, that the only true content is in the moments which we pass without self-consciousness? Is all attainment followed by disillusion? A man aware of his health is on the verge of malady. Were he to possess his desire, to exclaim, "I am happy," would the Fates chastise his presumption?
That way lay asceticism, which his soul abhorred. On, rather, following the great illusion, if this it were! "The crown of life" -- philosophise as he might, that word had still its meaning, still its inspiration. Let the present pass untasted; he preferred his dream of a day to come.
Next morning, very unexpectedly, he received a note from Mrs. Borisoff inviting him to dine with her a few days hence. About her company she said nothing, and Piers went, uncertain whether it was a dinner tête-à-tête or with other guests. When he entered the room, the first face he beheld was Irene's.
It was a very small party, and the hostess wore her gayest countenance. A delightful evening, from the social point of view; for Piers Otway a time of self-forgetfulness in the pleasures of sight and hearing. He could have little private talk with Irene; she did not talk much with anyone; but he saw her, he heard her voice, he lived in the glory of her presence. Moreover, she consented to play. Of her skill as a pianist, Otway could not judge; what he heard was Music, music absolute, the very music of the spheres. When it ceased, Mrs. Borisoff chanced to look at him; he was startlingly pale, his eyes wide as if in vision more than mortal.
"I leave town to-morrow," said his hostess, as he took leave. "Some friends are going with me. You shall hear how we get on at the Castle."
Perhaps her look was meant to supplement this bare news. It seemed to offer reassurance. Did she understand his look of entreaty in reply?
Music breathed about him in the lonely hours. It exalted his passion, lulled the pains of desire, held the flesh subservient to spirit. What is love, says the physiologist, but ravening sex? If so, in Piers Otway's breast the primal instinct had undergone strange transformation. How wrought? -- he asked himself. To what destiny did it correspond, this winged love soaring into the infinite? This rapture of devotion, this utter humbling of self, this ardour of the poet soul singing a fellow-creature to the heaven of heavens -- by what alchemy comes it forth from blood and tissue? Nature has no need of such lyric life her purpose is well achieved by humbler instrumentality. Romantic lovers are not the ancestry of noblest lines.
And if -- as might well be -- his love were defeated, fruitless, what end in the vast maze of things would his anguish serve?
After his day's work, he had spent an hour among the pictures at Burlington House. He was lingering before an exquisite landscape, unwilling to change this atmosphere of calm for the roaring street, when a voice timidly addressed him:
How altered! The face was much, much older, and in some indeterminable way had lost its finer suggestions. At her best, Olga Hannaford had a distinction of feature, a singularity of emotional expression, which made her beautiful in Olga Florio the lines of visage were far less subtle, and classed her under an inferior type. Transition from maidenhood to what is called the matronly had been too rapid; it was emphasised by her costume, which cried aloud in its excess of modish splendour.
"How glad I am to see you again!" she sighed tremorously, pressing his hand with fervour, gazing at him with furtive directness. "Are you living in England now?"
Piers gave an account of himself. He was a little embarrassed but quite unagitated. A sense of pity averted his eyes after the first wondering look.
"Will you -- may I venture -- can you spare the time to come and have tea with me? My carriage is waiting -- I am quite alone -- I only looked in for a few minutes, to rest my mind after a lunch with, oh, such tiresome people!"
His impulse was to refuse, at all costs to refuse. The voice, the glance, the phrases jarred upon him, shocked him. Already he had begun "I am afraid" -- when a hurried, vehement whisper broke upon his excuse.
"Don't be unkind to me! I beg you to come! I entreat you!"
"I will come with pleasure," he said in a loud voice of ordinary civility.
At once she turned, and he followed. Without speaking, they descended the great staircase; a brougham drove up; they rolled away westward. Never had Piers felt such thorough moral discomfort; the heavily perfumed air of the carriage depressed and all but nauseated him; the inevitable touch of Olga's garments made him shrink. She had begun to talk, and talked incessantly throughout the homeward drive; not much of herself, or of him, but about the pleasures and excitements of the idle-busy world. It was meant, he supposed, to convey to him an idea of her prosperous and fashionable life. Her husband, she let fall, was for the moment in Italy; affairs of importance sometimes required his presence there; but they both preferred England. The intellectual atmosphere of London -- where else could one live on so high a level?
The carriage stopped in a street beyond Edgware Road, at a house of more modest appearance than Otway had looked for. Just as they alighted, a nursemaid with a perambulator was approaching the door; Piers caught sight of a very pale little face shadowed by the hood, but his companion, without heeding, ran up the steps, and knocked violently. They entered.
Still the oppressive atmosphere of perfumes. Left for a few minutes in a little drawing-room, or boudoir, Piers stood marvelling at the ingenuity which had packed so much furniture and bric-tàte-brac, so many pictures, so much drapery, into so small a space. He longed to throw open the window; he could not sit still in this odour-laden hothouse, where the very flowers were burdensome by excess. When Olga reappeared, she was gorgeous in flowing tea-gown; her tawny hair hung low in artful profusion; her neck and arms were bare, her feet brilliantly slippered.
"Ah! How good, how good, it is to sit down and talk to you once more! -- Do you like my room?"
"You have made yourself very comfortable," replied Otway, striking a note as much as possible in contrast to that of his hostess. "Some of these drawings are your own work, no doubt?"
"Yes, some of them," she answered languidly. "Do you remember that pastel? Ah, surely you do -- from the old days at Ewell!"
"Of course! -- That is a portrait of your husband?" he added, indicating a head on a little easel.
"Yes -- idealised!"
She laughed and put the subject away. Then tea was brought in, and after pouring it, Olga grew silent. Resolute to talk, Piers had the utmost difficulty in finding topics, but he kept up an everyday sort of chat, postponing as long as possible the conversation foreboded by his companion's face. When he was weary, Olga's opportunity came.
"There is something I must say to you ----"
Her arms hung lax, her head drooped forward, she looked at him from under her brows.
"I have suffered so much -- oh, I have suffered! I have longed for this moment. Will you say -- that you forgive me?"
"My dear Mrs. Florio" -- Piers began with good-natured expostulation, a sort of forced bluffness; but she would not hear him.
"Not that name! Not from you. There's no harm; you won't -- you can't misunderstand me, such old friends as we are. I want you to call me by my own name, and to make me feel that we are friends still -- that you can really forgive me."
"There is nothing in the world to forgive," he insisted, in the same tone. "Of course we are friends! How could we be anything else?"
"I behaved infamously to you! I can't think how I had the heart to do it!"
Piers was tortured with nervousness. Had her voice and manner declared insincerity, posing, anything of that kind, he would have found the situation much more endurable; but Olga had tears in her eyes, and not the tears of an actress; her tones had recovered something of their old quality, and reminded him painfully of the time when Mrs. Hannaford was dying. She held a hand to him, her pale face besought his compassion.
"Come now, let us talk in the old way, as you wish," he said, just pressing her fingers. "Of course I felt it -- but then I was myself altogether to blame. I importuned you for what you couldn't give. Remembering that, wasn't your action the most sensible, and really the kindest?"
"I don't know," Olga murmured, in a voice just audible.
"Of course it was! There now, we've done with all that. Tell me more about your life this last year or two. You are such a brilliant person. I felt rather overcome ----"
"Nonsense!" But Olga brightened a little. "What of your own brilliancy? I read somewhere that you are a famous man in Russia ----"
Piers laughed, spontaneously this time, and, finding it a way of escape, gossiped about his own achievements with mirthful exaggeration.
"Do you see the Derwents?" Mrs. Florio asked of a sudden, with a sidelong look.
So vexed was Otway at the embarrassment he could not wholly hide, and which delayed his answer, that he spoke the truth with excessive bluntness.
"I have met Miss Derwent in society."
"I don't often see them," said Olga, in a tone of weariness. "I suppose we belong to different worlds."
At the earliest possible moment, Piers rose with decision. He felt that he had not pleased Mrs. Florio, that perhaps he had offended her, and in leaving her he tried to atone for involuntary unkindness.
"But we shall see each other again, of course!" she exclaimed, retaining his hand. "You will come again soon?"
"Certainly I will."
"And your address -- let me have your address ----"
He breathed deeply in the open air. Glancing back at the house when he had crossed the street, he saw a white hand waved to him at a window; it hurried his step.
On the following day, Mrs. Florio visited her friend Miss Bonnicastle, who had some time since exchanged the old quarters in Great Portland Street for a house in Pimlico, where there was a larger studio (workshop, as she preferred to call it), hung about with her own and other people's designs. The artist of the poster was full as ever of vitality and of good-nature, but her humour had not quite the old spice; a stickler for decorum would have said that she was decidedly improved, that she had grown more womanly; and something of this change appeared also in her work, which tended now to the graceful rather than the grotesque. She received her fashionable visitant with off-hand friendliness, not altogether with cordiality.
"Oh, I've something to show you. Do you know that name?"
Olga took a business-card, and read upon it: "Alexander Otway, Dramatic & Musical Agent."
"It's his brother," she said, in a voice of quiet surprise.
"I thought so. The man called yesterday -- wants a fetching thing to boom an Irish girl at the halls. There's her photo."
It represented a piquant person in short skirts; a face neither very pretty nor very young, but likely to be deemed attractive by the public in question. They amused themselves over it for a moment.
"He used to be a journalist," said Olga. "Does he seem to be doing well?"
"Couldn't say. A great talker, and a furious Jingo."
"This woman is to sing a song of his composition, all about the Empire. Not the hall; the British. Glorifies the Flag, that blessed rag -- a rhyme I suggested to him, and asked him to pay me for. It's a taking tune, and we shall have it everywhere, no doubt. He sang a verse -- I wish you could have heard him. A queer fish!"
Olga walked about, seeming to inspect the pictures, but in reality much occupied with her thoughts.
"Well," she said presently, "I only looked in, dear, to say how-do-you-do."
Miss Bonnicastle was drawing; she turned, as if to shake hands, but looked her friend in the face with a peculiar expression, far more earnest than was commonly seen in her.
"You called on Kite yesterday morning."
Olga, with slight confusion, admitted that she had been to see the artist. For some weeks Kite had suffered from an ailment which confined him to the house; he could not walk, and indeed could do nothing but lie and read, or talk of what he would do, when he recovered his health. Cheap claret having lost its inspiring force, the poor fellow had turned to more potent beverages, and would ere now have sunk into inscrutable deeps but for Miss Bonnicastle, who interested herself in his welfare. Olga, after losing sight of him for nearly two years, by chance discovered his whereabouts and his circumstances, and twice in the past week had paid him a visit.
"I wanted to tell you," pursued Miss Bonnicastle, in a steady, matter-of-fact voice, "that he's going to have a room in this house, and be looked after."
There was a touch of malice in Olga's surprise. She held herself rather stiffly.
"It's just as well to be straightforward," continued the other. "I should like to say that it'll be very much better if you don't come to see him at all."
Olga was now very dignified indeed.
"Oh, pray say no more I quite understand -- quite!"
"I shouldn't have said it at all," rejoined Miss Bonnicastle, "if I could have trusted your -- discretion. The fact is, I found I couldn't."
"Really!" exclaimed Olga, red with anger. "You might spare me insults!"
"Come, come! We're not going to fly at each other, Olga. I intended no insult; but, whilst we're about it, do take advice from one who means it well. Sentiment is all right, but sentimentality is all wrong. Do get rid of it, there's a good girl. You're meant for something better."
Olga made a great sweep of the floor with her skirts, and vanished in a whirl of perfume.
She drove straight to the address which she had seen on Alexander Otway's card. It was in a decently sordid street south of the river; in a window on the ground floor hung an announcement of Alexander's name and business. As Olga stood at the door, there came out, showily dressed for walking, a person in whom she at once recognised the original of the portrait at Miss Bonnicastle's. It was no other than Mrs. Otway, the "Biddy" whose simple singing had so pleased her brother-in-law years ago.
"Is it the agent you want to see?" she asked, in her tongue of County Wexford. "The door to the right."
Alexander jumped up, all smiles at the sight of so grand a lady. He had grown very obese, and very red about the neck; his linen might have been considerably cleaner, and his coat better brushed. But he seemed in excellent spirits, and glowed when his visitor began by saying that she wished to speak in confidence of a delicate matter.
"Mr. Otway, you have an elder brother, his name Daniel."
The listener's countenance fell.
"Madam, I'm sorry to say I have."
"He has written to me, more than once, a begging letter. My name doesn't matter; I'll only say now that he used to know me slightly long ago. I wish to ask you whether he is really in want."
Alexander hesitated, with much screwing of the features.
"Well, he may be, now and then," was his reply at length. "I have helped him, but, to tell the truth, it's not much good. So far as I know, he has no regular supplies -- but it's his own fault."
"Exactly." Olga evidently approached a point still more delicate. "I presume he has worn out the patience of both brothers?"
"Ah!" The agent shook his head, "I'm sorry to say that the other's patience -- I see you know something of our family circumstances -- never allowed itself to be tried. He's very well off, I believe, but he'll do nothing for poor Dan, and never would. I'm bound to admit Dan has his faults, but still ----"
His brows expressed sorrow rather than anger on the subject of his hard-fisted relative.
"Do you happen to know anything," pursued Olga, lowering her voice, "of a transaction about certain -- certain letters, which were given up by Daniel Otway?"
"Why -- yes. I've heard something about that affair."
"Those letters, I always understood, were purchased from him at a considerable price."
"That's true," replied Alexander, smiling familiarly as he leaned across the table. "But the considerable price was never paid -- not one penny of it."
Olga's face changed. She had a wondering lost, pained look.
"Mr. Otway, are you sure of that?"
"Well, pretty sure. Dan has talked of it more than once, and I don't think he could talk as he does if there wasn't a real grievance. I'm very much afraid he was cheated. Perhaps I oughtn't to use that word; I daresay Dan had no right to ask money for the letters at all. But there was a bargain, and I'm afraid it wasn't honourably kept on the other side."
Olga reflected for a moment, and rose, saying that she was obliged, that this ended her business. Alexander's curiosity sought to prolong the conversation, but in vain. He then threw out a word concerning his professional interests; would the lady permit him to bespeak her countenance for a new singer, an Irish girl of great talent, who would be coming out very shortly?
"She has a magnificent song, madam! The very spirit of Patriotism -- stirring, stirring! Let me offer you one of her photos. Miss Ennis Corthy -- you'll soon see the announcements."
Olga drove away in a troubled dream.
"The 13th will suit admirably," wrote Helen Borisoff.
"That morning my guests leave, and we shall be quiet -- except for the popping of guns round about. Which reminds me that my big, healthy Englishman of a cousin (him you met in town) will be down here to slaughter little birds in aristocratic company, and may most likely look in to tell us of his bags. I will meet you at the station."
So Irene, alone, journeyed from King's Cross into the North Riding. At evening, the sun golden amid long lazy clouds that had spent their showers, she saw wide Wensleydale, its closing hills higher to north and south as the train drew onward, green slopes of meadow and woodland rising to the beat and the heather. At a village station appeared the welcoming face of her friend Helen. A countryman with his homely gig drove them up the hillside, the sweet air singing about them from moorland heights, the long dale spreading in grander prospect as they ascended, then hidden as they dropped into a wooded glen, where the horse splashed through a broad beck and the wheels jolted over boulders of limestone. Out again into the sunset, and at a turn of the climbing road stood up before them the grey old Castle, in its shadow the church and the hamlet, and all around the glory of rolling hills.
Of the four great towers, one lay a shattered ruin, one only remained habitable. Above the rooms occupied by Mrs. Borisoff and her guests was that which had imprisoned the Queen of Scots; a chamber of bare stone, with high embrasure narrowing to the slit of window which admitted daylight, and, if one climbed the sill, gave a glimpse of far mountains. Down below, deep under the roots of the tower, was the Castle's dungeon, black and deadly. Early on the morrow Helen led her friend to see these things. Then they climbed to the battlements, where the sun shone hot, and Helen pointed out the features of the vast landscape, naming heights, and little dales which pour their tributaries into the Ure, and villages lying amid the rich pasture.
"And yonder is Hawes," said Irene, pointing to the head of the dale.
"Yes; too far to see."
They did not exchange a look. Irene spoke at once of something else.
There came to lunch Mrs. Borisoff's cousin, a grouse-guest at a house some miles away. He arrived on horseback, and his approach was watched with interest by two pairs of eyes from the Castle windows. Mr. March looked well in the saddle, for he was a strong, comely man of about thirty, who lived mostly under the open sky. Irene had met him only once, and that in a drawing-room; she saw him now to greater advantage, heard him talk freely of things he understood and enjoyed, and on the whole did not dislike him. With Helen he was a favourite; she affected to make fun of him, but had confessed to Irene that she respected him more than any other of her county-family kinsfolk. As he talked of his two days' shooting, he seemed to become aware that Miss Derwent had no profound interest in this subject, and there fell from him an unexpected apology.
"Of course it isn't a very noble kind of sport," he said, with a laugh. "One is invited -- one takes it in the course of things. I prefer the big game, where there's a chance of having to shoot for your life."
"I suppose one must shoot something," remarked Irene, as if musing a commonplace.
Marck took it with good nature, like a man who cannot remember whether that point of view ever occurred to him, but who is quite willing to think about it. Indeed, he seemed more than willing to give attention to anything Miss Derwent choose to say: something of this inclination had appeared even at their first meeting, and to-day it was more marked. He showed reluctance when the hour obliged him to remount his horse. Mrs. Borisoff's hope that she might see him again before he left this part of the country received a prompt and cheerful reply.
Later, that afternoon, the two friends climbed the great hillside above the Castle, and rambled far over the moorland, to a windy height where they looked into deep wild Swaledale. Their talk was only of the scenes around them, until, on their way back, they approached a line of three-walled shelters, built of rough stone, about the height of a man. In reply to Irene's question, Helen explained the use of these structures; she did so in an off-hand way, with the proper terms, and would have passed on, but Irene stood gazing.
"What! They lie in ambush here, whilst the men drive the birds towards them, to be shot?"
"It's sport," rejoined the other indifferently.
"I see. And here are the old cartridges." A heap of them lay close by amid the ling. "I don't wonder that Mr. March seemed a little ashamed of himself."
"But surely you knew all about this sort of thing!" said Mrs. Borisoff, with a little laugh of impatience.
"No, I didn't."
She had picked up one of the cartridge-cases, and, after examining it, her eyes wandered about the vast-rolling moor. The wind sang low; the clouds sailed across the mighty dome of heaven; not a human dwelling was visible, and not a sound broke upon nature's infinite calm.
"It amazes me," Irene continued, subduing her voice.
"Incredible that men can come up here just to bang guns and see beautiful birds fall dead! One would think that what they saw here would stop their hands -- that this silence would fill their minds and hearts, and make it impossible!"
Her voice had never trembled with such emotion in Helen's hearing. It was not Irene's habit to speak in this way. She had the native reticence of English women, preferring to keep silence when she felt strongly, or to disguise her feeling with irony and jest. But the hour and the place overcame her; a noble passion shone in her clear eyes, and thrilled in her utterance.
"Yet you know they are nothing of the kind," objected Helen. "At least, not all of them."
"Mr. March? -- You called him, yourself, a fine barbarian, quoting from Matthew Arnold. I never before understood how true that description was."
"I assure you, it doesn't apply to him, whatever I may have said in joke. This shooting is the tradition of a certain class. It's one of the ways in which great, strong men get their necessary exercise. Some of them feel, at moments, just as you do, I've no doubt; but there they are, a lot of them together, and a man can't make himself ridiculous, you know."
"You're not like yourself in this, Helen," said Irene. "You're not speaking as you think. Another time, you'll confess it's abominable savagery, with not one good word to be said for it. And more contemptible than I ever suspected! I'm so glad I've seen this. It helps to clear my thoughts about -- about things in general."
She flung away the little yellow cylinder-flung it far from her with disgust, and, as if to forget it, plucked as she walked on a spray of heath, which glowed with its purple bells among the redder ling. Helen's countenance was shadowed. She spoke no more for several minutes.
When two days had passed, March again came riding up to the Castle, and lunched with the ladies. Irene was secretly vexed. At breakfast she had suggested a whole day's excursion, which her friend persuaded her to postpone; the reason must have been Helen's private knowledge that Mr. March was coming. In consequence, the lunch fell short of perfect cheerfulness. For reasons of her own, Irene was just a little formal in her behaviour to the guest; she did not talk so well as usual, and bore herself as a girl must who wishes, without unpleasantness, to check a man's significant approaches.
In the hot afternoon, chairs were taken out into the shadow of the Castle walls, and there the three sat conversing. Someone drew near, a man, whom the careless glance of Helen's cousin took for a casual tourist about to view the ruins. Helen herself, and in the same moment, Irene, recognised Piers Otway. It seemed as though Mrs. Borisoff would not rise to welcome him; her smile was dubious, half surprised. She cast a glance at Irene, whose face was set in the austerest self-control, and thereupon not only stood up, but stepped forward with cordial greeting.
"So you have really come! Delighted to see you! Are you walking -- as you said?"
"Too hot!" Piers replied, with a laugh. "I spent yesterday at York, and came on in a cowardly way by train."
He was shaking hands with Irene, who dropped a word or two of mere courtesy. In introducing him to March, Mrs. Borisoff said, "An old friend of ours," which caused her stalwart cousin to survey the dark, slimly-built man very attentively.
"We'll get you a chair, Mr. Otway ----"
"No, no! Let me sit or lie here on the grass. It's all I feel fit for after the climb."
He threw himself down, nearer to Helen than to her friend, and the talk became livelier than before his arrival. Irene emerged from the taciturnity into which she had more and more withdrawn, and March, not an unobservant man, evidently noted this, and reflected upon it. He had at first regarded the new-comer with a civil aloofness, as one not of his world; presently, he seemed to ask himself to what world the singular being might belong -- a man who knew how to behave himself, and whose talk implied more than common savoir-vivre, yet who differed in such noticeable points from an Englishman of the leisured class.
Helen was in a mischievous mood. She broached the subject of grouse, addressing to Otway an ambiguous remark which led March to ask, with veiled surprise, whether he was a sportsman.
"Mr. Otway's taste is for bigger game," she exclaimed. before Piers could reply. "He lives in hope of potting Russians on the Indian frontier."
"Well, I can sympathise with him in that," said the large-limbed man, puzzled but smiling. "He'll probably have a chance before very long."
No sooner had he spoken that a scarlet confusion glowed upon his face. In speculating about Otway, he had for the moment forgotten his cousin's name.
"I beg your pardon, Helen! -- What an idiot I am Of course you were joking, and I ----"
"Don't, don't, don't apologise, Edward! Tell truth and shame -- your Russian relatives! I like you all the better for it."
"Thank you," he answered. "And after all, there's no harm in a little fighting. It's better to fight and have done with it than keeping on plotting between compliments. Nations arc just like schoolboys, you know; there has to be a round now and then; it settles things, and is good for the blood."
Otway was biting a blade of grass; he smiled and said nothing. Mrs. Borisoff glanced from him to Irene, who also was smiling, but looked half vexed.
"How can it be good, for health or anything else?" Miss Derwent asked suddenly, turning to the speaker.
"Oh, we couldn't do without fighting. It's in human nature."
"In uncivilised human nature, yes."
"But really, you know," urged March, with good-natured deference, "it wouldn't do to civilise away pluck -- courage -- heroism -- whatever one likes to call it."
"Of course it wouldn't. But what has pluck or heroism to do with bloodshed? How can anyone imagine that courage is only shown in fighting? I don't happen to have been in a battle, but one knows very well how easy it must be for any coward or brute, excited to madness, to become what's called a hero. Heroism is noble courage in ordinary life. Are you serious in thinking that life offers no opportunities for it?"
"Well -- it's not quite the same thing ----"
"Happily, not! It's a vastly better thing. Every day some braver deed is done by plain men and women -- yes, women, if you please -- than was ever known on the battle-field. One only hears of them now and then. On the railway -- on the sea -- in the hospital -- in burning houses -- in accidents of road and street -- are there no opportunities for courage? In the commonest everyday home life, doesn't any man or woman have endless chances of being brave or a coward? And this is civilised courage, not the fury of a bull at a red rag."
Piers Otway had ceased to nibble his blade of grass; his eyes were fixed on Irene. When she had made a sudden end of speaking, when she smiled her apology for the fervour forbidden in polite converse, he still gazed at her, self-oblivious. Helen Borisoff watched him, askance.
"Let us go in and have some tea," she said, rising abruptly.
Soon after, March said good-bye, a definite good-bye; he was going to another part of England. With all the grace of his caste he withdrew from a circle, in which, temptations notwithstanding, he had not felt quite at ease. Riding down the dale through a sunny shower, he was refreshed and himself again.
"Where do you put up to-night?" asked Helen of Otway, turning to him, when the other man had gone, with a brusque familiarity.
"At the inn down in Redmire."
"And what do you do to-morrow?"
"Go to see the falls at Aysgarth, for one thing. There's been rain up on the hills; the river will be grand."
"Perhaps we shall be there."
When Piers had left them, Helen said to her friend
"I wanted to ask him to stay and dine -- but I didn't know whether you would like it."
"I? I am not the hostess."
"No, but you have humours, Irene. One has to be careful."
Irene knitted her brows, and stood for a moment with face half averted.
"If I cause this sort of embarrassment," she said frankly, I think I oughtn't to stay."
"It's easily put right, my dear girl. Answer me a simple question. If I lead Mr. Otway to suppose that his company for a few days is not disagreeable to us, shall I worry you, or not?"
"Not in the least," was the equally direct answer.
"That's better. We've always got along so well, you know, that it's annoying to feel there's something not quits understood between us. Then I shall send a note down to the inn where he's staying, to appoint a meeting at Aysgarth to-morrow. And I shall ask him to come here for the rest of the day, if he chooses."
At nightfall, the rain-clouds spread from the hills of Westmorland, and there were some hours of downpour. This did not look hopeful for the morrow, but, on the other hand, it promised a finer sight at the falls, if by chance the weather grew tolerable. The sun rose amid dropping vapours, and at breakfast-time had not yet conquered the day, but a steady brightening soon put an end to doubt. The friends prepared to set forth.
As they were entering the carriage there arrived the postman, with letters for both, which they read driving down to the dale. One of Irene's correspondents was her brother, and the contents of Eustace's letter so astonished her that she sat for a time absorbed in thought.
"No bad news, I hope?" said Helen, who had glanced quickly over the few lines from her husband, now at Ostend.
"No, but startling. You may as well read the letter."
It was written in Eustace Derwent's best style; really a very good letter, both as to composition and in the matter of feeling. After duly preparing his sister for what might come as a shock, he made known to her that he was about to marry Mrs. John Jacks, the widow of the late member of Parliament. "I can quite imagine," he proceeded, "that this may trouble your mind by exciting unpleasant memories, and perhaps may make you apprehensive of disagreeable things in the future. Pray have no such uneasiness. Only this morning I had a long talk with Arnold Jacks, who was very friendly, and indeed could not have behaved better. He spoke of you, and quite in the proper way; I was to remember him very kindly to you, if I thought the remembrance would not be unwelcome. As for my dear Marian, you will find her everything that a sister should be." Followed sundry details and promise of more information when they met again in town.
"Describe her to me," said Helen, who had a slight acquaintance with Irene's brother.
"One word does it -- irreproachable. A couple of years older than Eustace, I think; John Jacks was more than twice her age, so it's only fair. The dear boy will probably give up his profession, and become an ornament of society, a model of all the proprieties. Wonderful I shan't realise it for a few days."
As they drove on to the bridge at Aysgarth, Piers Otway stood there awaiting them. They exchanged few words; the picture before their eyes, and the wild music that filled the air, imposed silence. Headlong between its high banks plunged the swollen torrent, the roaring spate; brown from its washing of the peaty moorland, and churned into flying flakes of foam. Over the worn ledges, at other times a succession of little waterfalls, rolled in resistless fury a mighty cataract; at great rocks in mid-channel it leapt with surges like those of an angry sea. The spectacle was fascinating in its grandeur, appalling in its violence; with the broad leafage of the glen arched over it in warm, still sunshine, wondrously beautiful.
They wandered some way by the river banks; then drove to other spots of which Otway spoke, lunched at a village inn, and by four o'clock returned altogether to the Castle. After tea, Piers found himself alone with Irene. Mrs. Borisoff had left the room whilst he was speaking, and so silently that for a moment he was not aware of her withdrawal. Alone with Irene, for the first time since he had known her; even at Ewell, long ago, they had never been together without companionship. There fell a silence. Piers could not lift his eyes to the face which had all day been before him, the face which seemed more than ever beautiful amid nature's beauties. He wished to thank her for the letter she had written him to St. Petersburg, but was fearful of seeming to make too much of this mark of kindness. Irene herself resumed the conversation.
"You will continue to write for the reviews, I hope?"
"I shall try to," he answered softly.
"Your Russian must be very idiomatic. I found it hard in places."
Overcome with delight, he looked at her and bent towards her.
"Mrs. Borisoff told me you had learnt. I know what that means -- learning Russian in England, out of books. I began to do it at Ewell -- do you remember?"
"Yes, I remember very well. Have you written anything besides these two articles?"
"Written -- yes, but not published. I have written all sorts of things." His voice shook. "Even -- verse."
He repented the word as soon as it was uttered. Again his eyes could not move towards hers.
"I know you have," said Irene, in the voice of one who smiles.
"I have never been sure that you knew it -- that you received those verses."
"To tell you the truth, I didn't know how to acknowledge them. I never received the dedication of a poem, before or since, and in my awkwardness I put off my thanks till it was too late to send them. But I remember the lines; I think they were beautiful. Shall you ever include them in a volume?"
"I wrote no more, I am no poet. Yet if you had given a word of praise" -- he laughed, as one does when emotion is too strong -- "I should have written on and on, with a glorious belief in myself."
"Perhaps it was as well, then, that I said nothing. Poetry must come of itself, without praise -- don't you think?"
"Yes, I lived it -- or tried to live it -- instead of putting it into metre."
"That's exactly what I once heard my father say about himself. And he called it consuming his own smoke."
Piers could not but join in her quiet laugh, yet he had never felt a moment less opportune for laughter. As if to prove that she purposely changed the note of their dialogue, Irene reached a volume from the table, and said in the most matter-of-fact voice:
"Here's a passage of Tolstoi that I can't make out. Be my professor, please. First of all, let me hear you read it aloud for the accent."
The lesson continued till Helen entered the room again. Irene so willed it.
She sat by her open window, which looked over the dale to the long high ridge of moors, softly drawn against a moonlit sky. Far below sounded the rushing Ure, and at moments there came upon the fitful breeze a deeper music, that of the falls at Aysgarth, miles away. It was an hour since she had bidden good-night to Helen, and two hours or more since all else in the Castle and in the cottages had been still and dark. She loved this profound quiet, this solitude guarded by the eternal powers of nature. She loved the memories and imaginings borne upon the stillness of these grey old towers.
The fortress of warrior-lords, the prison of a queen, the Royalist refuge -- fallen now into such placid dreaminess of age. Into the dark chamber above, desolate, legend-haunted, perchance in some moment of the night there fell through the narrow window-niche a pale moonbeam, touching the floor, the walls of stone; such light in gloom as may have touched the face of Mary herself, wakeful with her recollections and her fears. Musing it in her fancy, Irene thought of love and death.
Had it come to her at length, that love which was so strange and distant when, in ignorance, she believed it her companion? Verses in her mind, verses that would never be forgotten, however lightly she held them, sang and rang to a new melody. They were not poetry -- said he who wrote them. Yet they were truth, sweetly and nobly uttered. The false, the trivial, does not so cling to memory year after year.
They had helped her to know him, these rhyming lines, or so she fancied. They shaped in her mind, slowly, insensibly, an image of the man, throughout the lapse of time when she neither saw him nor heard of him. Whether a true image how should she assure herself? She only knew that no feature of it seemed alien when compared with the impression of those two last days. Yet the picture was an ideal; the very man she could honour, love; he and no other. Did she perilously deceive herself in thinking that this ideal and the man who spoke with her, were one?
It had grown without her knowledge, apart from her will, this conception of Piers Otway. The first half-consciousness of such a thought came to her when she heard from Olga of those letters, obtained by him for a price, and given to the kinsfolk of the dead woman. An interested generosity? She had repelled the suggestion as unworthy, ignoble. Whether the giver was ever thanked, she did not know. Dr. Derwent kept cold silence on the subject, after once mentioning it to her in formal words. Thanks, undoubtedly, were due to him. To-night it pained her keenly to think that perhaps her father had said nothing.
She began to study Russian, and in secret; her impulse dark, or so obscurely hinted that it caused her no more than a moment's reverie. Looking back, she saw but one explanation of the energy, the zeal which had carried her through these labours. It shone clear on the day when a letter from Helen Borisoff told her that an article in a Russian review, just published, bore the name of Piers Otway. Thence onward, she was frank with herself. She recognised the meaning of the intellectual process which had tended to harmonise her life with that she imagined for her ideal man. There came a prompting of emotion, and she wrote the letter which Piers received.
All things were made new to her; above all, her own self. She was acting in a way which was no result of balanced purpose, yet, as she perfectly understood, involved her in the gravest responsibilities. She had no longer the excuse which palliated her conduct eight years ago; that heedlessness was innocent indeed compared with the blame she would now incur, if she excited a vain hope merely to prove her feelings, to read another chapter of life. Solemnly in this charmed stillness of midnight, she searched her heart. It did not fail under question.
A morning sleep held her so much later than usual that, before she had left her chamber, letters were brought to the door by the child who waited upon her. On one envelope she saw the Doctor's handwriting; on the other that of her cousin, Mrs. Florio. Surprised to hear from Olga, with whom she had had very little communication for a year or two, she opened that letter first.
"Dear Irene," it began, "something has lately come to my knowledge which I think I am only doing a duty in acquainting you with. It is very unpleasant, but not the first unpleasant piece of news that you and I have shared together. You remember all about Piers Otway and those letters of my poor mother's, which he said he bought for us from his horrid brother? Well, I find that he did not buy them -- at all events that he never paid for them. Daniel Otway is now broken-down in health, and depends on help from the other brother, Alexander, who has gone in for some sort of music-hall business! Not only did Piers cheat him out of the money promised for the letters (I fear there's no other word for it), but he has utterly refused to give the man a farthing -- though in good circumstances, I hear. This is all very disagreeable, and I don't like to talk about it, but as I hear Piers Otway has been seeing you, it's better you should know." She added "very kind regards," and signed herself "yours affectionately." Then came a postscript. "Mrs. A. Otway is actually on the music-hall stage herself, in short skirts!"
The paper shook in Irene's hand. She turned sick with fear and misery.
Mechanically the other letter was torn open. Dr. Derwent wrote about Eustace's engagement. It did not exactly surprise him; he had observed significant things. Nor did it exactly displease him, for since talking with Eustace and with Marian Jacks (the widow), he suspected that the match was remarkable for its fitness. Mrs. Jacks had a large fortune -- well, one could resign oneself to that. "After all, Mam'zelle Wren, there's nothing to be uneasy about. Arnold Jacks is sure to marry very soon (a dowager duchess, I should say), and on that score there'll be no awkwardness. When the Wren makes a nest for herself, I shall convert this house into a big laboratory, and be at home only to bacteria."
But the Doctor, too, had a postscriptum. "Olga has been writing to me, sheer scandal, something about the letters you wot of having been obtained in a dishonest way. I won't say I believe it, or that I disbelieve it. I mention the thing only to suggest that perhaps I was right in not making any acknowledgment of that obligation. I felt that silence was the wise as well as the dignified thing -- though someone disagreed with me."
When Irene entered the sitting-room, her friend had long since breakfasted.
"What's the matter?" Helen asked, seeing so pale and troubled a countenance.
"Nothing much; I overtired myself yesterday. I must keep quiet for a little."
Mrs. Borisoff herself was in no talkative frame of mind. She, too, an observer might have imagined, had some care or worry. The two very soon parted; Irene going back to her room, Helen out into the sunshine.
A malicious letter this of Olga's; the kind of letter which Irene had not thought her capable of penning. Could there be any substantial reason for such hostile feeling? Oh, how one's mind opened itself to dark suspicion, when once an evil whisper had been admitted!
She would not believe that story of duplicity, of baseness. Her very soul rejected it, declared it impossible, the basest calumny. Yet how it hurt! How it humiliated! Chiefly, perhaps, because of the evil art with which Olga had reminded her of Piers Otway's disreputable kinsmen. Could the two elder brothers be so worthless, and the younger an honest, brave man, a man without reproach -- her ideal?
Irene clutched at the recollection which till now she had preferred to banish from her mind. Piers was not born of the same mother, might he not inherit his father's finer qualities, and, together with them, something noble from the woman whom his father loved? Could she but know that history The woman was a law-breaker; repeatability gave her hard names; but Irene used her own judgment in such matters, and asked only for knowledge of facts. She had as good as forgotten the irregularity of Piers Otway's birth. Whom, indeed, did it or could it concern? Her father, least of all men, would dwell upon it as a subject of reproach. But her father was very capable of pointing to Daniel and Alexander, with a shake of the head. He had a prejudice against Piers -- this letter reminded her of it only too well. It might be feared that he was rather glad than otherwise of the "sheer scandal" Olga had conveyed to him.
Confident in his love of her, which would tell ill on the side of his reasonableness, his justice, she had not, during these crucial days, thought much about her father. She saw his face now, if she spoke to him of Piers. Dr. Derwent, like all men of brains, had a good deal of the aristocratic temper; he scorned the vulgarity of the vulgar; he turned in angry impatience from such sorry creatures as those two men; and often lashed with his contempt the ignoble amusements of the crowd. Olga doubtless had told him of the singer in short skirts ----
She shed a few tears. The very meanness of the injury done her at this crisis of emotion heightened its cruelty.
Piers might come to the Castle this morning. Now and then she glanced from her window, if perchance she should see him approaching; but all she saw was a group of holiday-makers, the happily infrequent tourists who cared to turn from the beaten track up the dale to visit the Castle. She did not know whether Helen was at home, or had rambled away. If Piers came, and his call was announced to her, could she go forth and see him?
Not to do so, would be unjust, both to herself and to him. The relations between them demanded, of all things, honesty and courage. No little courage, it was true; for she must speak to him plainly of things from which she shrank even in communing with herself.
Yet she had done as hard a thing as this. Harder, perhaps, that interview with Arnold Jacks which set her free. Honesty and courage -- clearness of sight and strength of purpose where all but every girl would have drifted dumbly the common way -- had saved her life from the worst disaster: saved, too, the man whom her weakness would have wronged. Had she not learnt the lesson which life sets before all, but which only a few can grasp and profit by?
Towards midday she left her room, and went in search of Helen; not finding her within doors, she stepped out on to the sward, and strolled in the neighbourhood of the Castle. A child whom she knew approached her.
"Have you seen Mrs. Borisoff?" she asked.
"She's down at the beck, with the gentleman," answered the little girl, pointing with a smile to the deep, leaf-hidden glen half a mile away.
Irene lingered for a few minutes and went in again.
At luncheon-time Helen had not returned. The meal was delayed for her, more than a quarter of an hour. When at length she entered, Irene saw she had been hastening; but Helen's features seemed to betray some other cause of discomposure than mere unpunctuality. Having glanced at her once or twice, Irene kept an averted face. Neither spoke as they sat down to table; only when they had begun the meal did Helen ask whether her friend felt better. The reply was a brief affirmative. For the rest of the time they talked a little, absently, about trivialities; then they parted; without any arrangement for the afternoon.
Irene's mind was in that state of perilous commotion which invests with dire significance any event not at once intelligible. Alone in her chamber, she sat brooding with tragic countenance. How could Helen's behaviour be explained? If she had met Piers Otway and spent part of the morning with him, why did she keep silence about it? Why was she so late in coming home, and what had heightened her colour, given that peculiar shiftiness to her eyes?
She rose, went to Helen's door, and knocked.
"May I come in?"
"Of course -- I have a letter to write by post-time."
"I won't keep you long," said Irene, standing before her friend's chair, and regarding her with grave earnestness. "Did Mr. Otway call this morning?"
"He was coming; I met him outside, and told him you weren't very well. And" -- she hesitated, but went on with a harder voice and a careless smile -- "we had a walk up the glen. It's very lovely, the higher part. You must go. Ask him to take you."
"I don't understand you," said Irene coldly. "Why should I ask Mr. Otway to take me?"
"I beg your pardon. You are become so critical of words and phrases. To take us, I'll say."
"That wouldn't be a very agreeable walk, Helen, whilst you are in this strange mood. What does it all mean? I never foresaw the possibility of misunderstandings such as this between us. Is it I who am to blame, or you? Have I offended you?"
"No, dear," was the dreamy response.
"Then why do you seem to wish to quarrel with me?"
Helen had the look of one who strugglingly overcomes a paroxysm of anger. She stood up.
"Would you leave me alone for a little, Irene? I'm not quite able to talk. I think we've both of us been doing too much -- overtaxing ourselves. It has got on my nerves."
"Yes I will go," was the answer, spoken very quietly. "And to-morrow morning I will return to London."
She moved away.
"I have something to tell you before you go." Helen spoke with a set face, forcing herself to meet her friend's eyes. "Mr. Otway wants an opportunity of talking with you, alone. He hoped for it this morning. As he couldn't see you, he talked about you to me -- you being the only subject he could talk about. I promised to be out of the way if he came this afternoon."
"Thank you -- but why didn't you tell me this before?"
"Because, as I said, things have got rather on my nerves." She took a step forward. "Will you overlook it -- forget about it? Of course I should have told you before he came."
"It's strange that there should he anything to overlook or forget between us," said Irene, with wide pathetic eyes.
"There isn't really! It's not you and I that have got muddled -- only things, circumstances. If you had been a little more chummy with me. There's a time for silence, but also a time for talking."
"Dear, there are things one can't talk about, because one doesn't know what to say, even to oneself."
"I know! I know it!" replied Helen, with emphasis.
And she came still nearer, with hand held out.
"All nerves, Irene l Neuralgia of -- of the common sense, my dear!"
They parted with a laugh and a quick clasp of hands.
For half an hour Irene sat idle. She was waiting, and could do nothing but wait. Then the uncertainty as to how long this suspense might hold her grew insufferable; she was afraid too, of seeing Helen again, and having to talk, when talk would be misery. A thought grew out of her unrest -- a thought clear-shining amid the tumult of turbid emotions. She would go forth to meet him. He should see that she came with that purpose -- that she put away all trivialities of prescription and of pride. If he were worthy, only the more would he esteem her. If she deluded herself -- it lay in the course of Fate.
His way up from Redmire was by the road along which she had driven on the evening of her arrival, the road that dipped into a wooded glen, where a stream tumbled amid rocks and boulders, over smooth-worn slabs and shining pebbles, from the moor down to the river of the dale. He might not come this way. She hoped -- she trusted Destiny.
She stood by the crossing of the beck. The flood of yesterday had fallen; the water was again shallow at this spot, but nearly all the stepping-stones had been swept away. For help at such times, a crazy little wooden bridge spanned the current a few yards above. Irene brushed through the long grass and the bracken, mounted on to the bridge, and, leaning over the old bough which formed a rail, let the voice of the beck soothe her impatience.
Here one might linger for hours, in perfect solitude; very rarely in the day was this happy stillness broken by a footfall, a voice, or the rumbling of a peasant's cart. A bird twittered, a breeze whispered in the branches; ever and ever the water kept its hushing note.
But now someone was coming. Not with audible footstep; not down the road at which Irene frequently glanced; the intruder approached from the lower part of the glen, along the beckside, now walking in soft herbage, now striding from stone to stone, sometimes lifting the bough of a hazel or a rowan that hung athwart his path. He drew near to the crossing. He saw the figure on the bridge, and for a moment stood at gaze.
Irene was aware of someone regarding her. She moved. He stood below, the ripple-edge of the water touching his foot. Upon his upturned face, dark eyes wide in joy and admiration, firm lips wistfully subduing their smile, the golden sunlight shimmered through overhanging foliage. She spoke.
"Everything around is beautiful, but this most of all."
"There is nothing more beautiful," he answered, "in all the dales."
The words had come to her easily and naturally, after so much trouble as to what the first words should be. His look was enough. She scorned her distrust, scorned the malicious gossip that had excited it. Her mind passed into consonance with the still, warm hour, with the loveliness of all about her.
"I haven't been that way yet." She pointed up the glen. "Will you come?"
"Gladly! I was here with Mrs. Borisoff this morning, and wished so much you had been with us."
Irene stepped down from the bridge down to the beckside. The briefest shadow of annoyance had caused her to turn her face away; there followed contentment that he spoke of the morning, at once and so frankly. She was able to talk without restraint, uttering her delight at each new picture as they went along. They walked very slowly, ever turning to admire, stopping to call each other's attention with glowing words. At a certain point, they were obliged to cross the water, their progress on this side barred by natural obstacles. It was a crossing of some little difficulty for Irene, the stones being rugged, and rather far apart; Piers guided her, and at the worst spot held out his hand.
"Jump! I won't let you fall."
She sprang with a happy girlish laugh to his side, and withdrew her hand very gently.
"Here is a good place to rest," she said, seating herself on a boulder. And Piers sat down at a little distance.
The bed of the torrent was full of great stones, very white, rounded and smoothed by the immemorial flow, by their tumbling and grinding in time of spate; they formed innumerable little cataracts, with here and there a broad plunge of foam-streaked water, perilously swift and deep. By the bank the current spread into a large, still pool, of colour a rich brown where the sunshine touched it, and darkly green where it lay beneath spreading branches; everywhere limpid, showing the pebbles or the sand in its cool depths. Infinite were the varyings of light and shade, from a dazzling gleam on the middle water, to the dense obscurity of leafy nooks. On either hand was a wood, thick with undergrowth; great pines, spruces, and larches, red-berried rowans, crowding on the steep sides of the ravine; trees of noble stature, shadowing fern and flower, towering against the sunny blue. Just below the spot where Piers and Irene rested, a great lichened hazel stretched itself all across the beck; in the upward direction a narrowing vista, filled with every tint of leafage, rose to the brown of the moor and the azure of the sky. All about grew tall, fruiting grasses, and many a bright flower; clusters of pink willow-weed, patches of yellow ragwort, the perfumed meadowsweet, and, amid bracken and bramble, the purple shining of a great campanula.
On the open moor, the sun blazed with parching heat; here was freshness as of spring, the waft of cool airs, the scent of verdure moistened at the root.
"Once upon a time," said Otway, when both had been listening to their thoughts, "I fancied myself as unlucky a man as walked the earth. I've got over that."
Irene did not look at him; she waited for the something else which his voice promised.
"Think of my good fortune in meeting you this afternoon. If I had gone to the Castle another way, I should have missed you; yet I all but did go by the fields. And there was nothing I desired so much as to see you somewhere -- by yourself."
The slight failing of his voice at the end helped Irene to speak collectedly.
"Chance was in my favour, too. I came down to the beck, hoping I might meet you."
She saw his hand move, the fingers clutch together. Before he could say anything, she continued:
"I want to tell you of an ill-natured story that has reached my ears. Not to discuss it; I know it is untrue. Your two brothers -- do you know that they speak spitefully of you?"
"I didn't know it. I don't think I have given them cause."
"I am very sure you haven't. But I want you to know about it, and I shall tell you the facts. After the death of my aunt, Mrs. Hannaford, you got from the hands of Daniel Otway a packet of her letters; he bargained with you, and you paid his price, wishing those letters to be seen by my father and my cousin Olga, whose minds they would set at rest. Now, Daniel Otway is telling people that you never paid the sum you promised him, and that, being in poverty, he vainly applies to you for help."
She saw his hand grasp a twig that hung near him, and drag it rudely down; she did not look at his face.
"I should have thought," Piers answered with grave composure, "that nothing Daniel Otway said could concern me. I see it isn't so. It must have troubled you, for you to speak of it."
"It has; I thought about it. I rejected it as a falsehood."
"There's a double falsehood. I paid him the price he asked, on the day he asked it, and I have since" -- he checked himself -- "I have not refused him help in his poverty."
Irene's heart glowed within her. Even thus, and not otherwise, would she have desired him to refute the slander. It was a test she had promised herself; she could have laughed for joy. Her voice betrayed this glad emotion.
"Let him say what he will; it doesn't matter now. But how comes it that he is poor?"
"That I should like to know." Piers threw a pebble into the still, brown water near him. "Five years ago, he came into a substantial sum of money. I suppose -- it went very quickly. Daniel is not exactly a prudent man."
"I imagine not," remarked Irene, allowing herself a glimpse of his countenance, which she found to be less calm than his tone. "Let us have done with him. Five years ago," she added, with soft accents, "some of that money ought to have been yours, and you received nothing."
"Nothing was legally due to me," he answered, in a voice lower than hers.
"That I know. I mention it -- you will forgive me? -- because I have sometimes feared that you might explain to yourself wrongly my failure to reply when you sent me those verses, long ago. I have thought, lately, that you might suppose I knew certain facts at that time. I didn't; I only learnt them afterwards. At no time would it have made any difference."
Piers could not speak.
"Look!" said Irene, in a whisper, pointing.
A great dragon-fly, a flash of blue, had dropped on to the surface of the pool, and lay floating. As they watched it rose, to drop again upon a small stone amid a shallow current; half in, half out of, the sunny water, it basked.
"Oh, how lovely everything is!" exclaimed Irene, in a voice that quivered low. "How perfect a day!"
"It was weather like this when I first saw you," said Piers. "Earlier, but just as bright. My memory of you has always lived in sunshine. I saw you first from my window; you were standing in the garden at Ewell; I heard your voice. Do you remember telling the story of Thibaut Rossignol?"
"Oh yes, yes!"
"Is he still with your father?"
"Thibaut? Why, Thibaut is an institution. I can't imagine our house without him. Do you know that he always calls me Mademoiselle Irene?"
"Your name is beautiful in any language. I wonder how many times I have repeated it to myself? And thought, too, so often of its meaning; longed, for that -- and how vainly!"
"Say the name -- now," she faltered.
"Irene! -- Irene!"
"Why, you make music of it! I never knew how musical it sounded. Hush! look at that thing of light and air!"
The dragon-fly had flashed past them. This way and that it darted above the shining water, then dropped once more, to float, to sail idly with its gossamer wings.
Piers stole nearer. He sat on a stone by her side.
"Yes. I like the name when you say it."
"May I touch your hand?"
Still gazing at the dragon-fly, as if careless of what she did, she held her hand to him. Piers folded it in both his own.
"May I hold it as long as I live?"
"Is that a new thought of yours?" she asked, in a voice that shook as it tried to suggest laughter in her mind.
"The newest! The most daring and the most glorious I ever had."
"Why, then I have been mistaken," she said softly, for an instant meeting his eyes. "I fancied I owed you something for a wrong I did, without meaning it, more than eight years gone by."
"That thought had come to you?" Piers exclaimed, with eyes gleaming.
"Indeed it had. I shall be more than half sorry if I have to lose it."
"How foolish I was! What wild, monstrous folly! How could you have dreamt for a moment that such a one as I was could dare to love you? -- Irene, you did me no wrong. You gave me the ideal of my life -- something I should never lose from my heart and mind -- something to live towards! Not a hope; hope would have been madness. I have loved you without hope; loved you because I had found the only one I could love -- the one I must love -- on and on to the end."
She laid her free hand upon his that clasped the other, and bowed him to her reasoning mood.
"Let me speak of other things -- that have to be made plain between you and me. First of all, a piece of news. I have just heard that my brother is going to marry Mrs. John Jacks."
Piers was mute with astonishment. It was so long since he had seen Mrs. Jacks, and he pictured her as a woman much older than Eustace Derwent. His clearest recollection of her was that remark she made at the luncheon-table about the Irish, that they were so "sentimental"; it had blurred her beauty and her youth in his remembrance.
"Yes, Eustace is going to marry her; and I shouldn't wonder if the marriage turns out well. It leads to the disagreeable thing I have to talk about. You know that. I engaged myself to Arnold Jacks. I did so freely, thinking I did right. When the time of the marriage drew near, I had learnt that I had done wrong. Not that I wished to be the wife of anyone else. I loved nobody; I did not love the man I was pretending to. As soon as I knew that -- what was I to do? To marry him was a crime -- no less a crime for its being committed every day. I took my courage m both hands. I told him I did not love him, I would not marry him. And -- I ran away."
The memory made her bosom heave, her cheeks flush.
"Magnificent!" commented the listener, with a happy smile.
"An! but I didn't do it very well. I treated him badly -- yes, inconsiderately, selfishly. The thing had to be done -- but there were ways of doing it. Unfortunately I had got to resent my captivity, and I spoke to him as if he were to blame. From the point of view of delicacy, perhaps he was; he should have released me at once, and that he wouldn't. But I was too little regardful of what it meant to him -- above all to his pride. I have so often reproached myself. I do it now for the last time. There!" She picked up a pebble to fling away. "It is gone I We speak of the thing no more."
A change was coming upon the glen. The sun had passed; it shone now only on the tree-tops. But the sky above was blue and warm as ever.
"Another thing," she pursued, more gravely. "My father ----"
Piers waited a moment, then said with eyes downcast:
"He does not think well of me?"
"That is my grief, and my trouble. However, not a serious trouble. Of you, personally, he has no dislike; it was quite the opposite when he met you; when you dined at our house -- you remember? He said things of you I am not going to repeat, sir. It was only after the disaster which involved your name. Then he grew prejudiced."
"Who can wonder?"
"It will pass over. My father is no stage-tyrant. If he is not open to reason, what man living is? And no man has a tenderer heart. He was all kindness and forbearance and understanding when I did a thing which might well have made him angry. Some day you shall see the letter he wrote me, when I had run away to Paris. In it, he spoke, as never to me before, of his own marriage -- of his love for my mother. Every word remains in my memory, but I can't trust my voice to repeat them, and perhaps I ought not -- even to you."
"May I go to him, and speak for myself?"
"Yes -- but not till I have seen him."
"Can't I spare you that?" said Piers, in a voice which, for the first time, sounded his triumphant manhood. "Do you think I fear a meeting with your father, or doubt of its result? If I had gone merely on my own account, to try to remove his prejudice and win his regard, it would have been a different thing; indeed, I could never have done that; I felt too keenly his reasons for disliking me. But now! In what man's presence should I shrink, and feel myself unworthy? You have put such words into my heart as will gain my cause for me the moment they are spoken. I have no false shame -- no misgivings. I shall speak the truth of myself and you, and your father will hear me."
Irene listened with the love-light in her hazel eyes; the face she turned upon him brought back a ray of sunshine to the slowly shadowing glen.
"I will think till to-morrow," she said. "Come to the Castle to-morrow morning, and I shall have settled many things. But now we must go; Helen will wonder what has become of me; I didn't tell her I was going out."
He bent over her hand; she did not withdraw it from him as they walked through the bracken, and beneath the green boughs, and picked their way over the white stones of the rushing beck.
At the road, they parted.
An hour after sunset, Piers was climbing the hillside towards the Castle, now a looming shape against a sky still duskily purpled from the west. He climbed slowly, doubting at each step whether to go nearer, or to wave his hand and turn. Still, he approached. In the cottages a few lights were seen; but no one moved; there was no voice. His own footstep on the sward fell soundless.
He stood before the tower which was inhabited, and looked at the dim-lighted windows. To the entrance led a long flight of steps, and as he gazed through the gloom, he seemed to discern a figure standing there, before the doorway. He was not mistaken; the figure moved, descended. Motionless, he saw it turn towards him. Then he knew the step, the form; he sprang forward.
"You have come to say good-night? See how our thoughts chime; I guessed you would."
Her voice had a soft, caressing tremor; her hand sought his.
"Irene! You have given me a new life, a new soul!"
Her lips were near as she answered him.
"Rest from your sorrows, my dearest. I love you! I love you!"
He was alone again in the darkness, on the hillside. He heard the voice of the far-off river, and to his rapturous mood it sounded as a moaning, brought a sudden sadness. All at once, he thought amid his triumph of those unhappy ones whom the glory of love would never bless; those, men and women, born to a vain longing such as he had known, doomed to the dread solitude from which he by miracle had been saved. His heart swelled, and his eyes were hot with tears.
But as he went down to the dale, the calm of the silent hour crept over him. He whispered the beloved name, and it gave him peace; such peace as follows upon the hallowing of a profound passion, justified of reason, and proof under the hand of time.
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.