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"A DAUGHTER OF ST. PETER'S"
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THE END OF HER CHILDHOOD.
The Convent of the Annonciades, situated in a secluded spot on the outskirts of Paris, has long been well reputed as an educational establishment for young ladies of good family. The sisters themselves are women of refinement and cultivation, and the antecedents of every pupil received by them are most carefully inquired into: so carefully, indeed, that admission to the Convent School is looked on almost as a certificate of noble birth and unimpeachable orthodoxy. The Ladies of the Annonciades have indeed lately relaxed their rules, so far as to receive as parlor-boarders some very rich American girls and the children of a Protestant English marquis; but wealth in the first instance, and birth in the second, counterbalance the objections that might be raised to their origin or their faith. These exceptions to the rule are, however, few and far between; and, in spite of the levelling tendencies of our democratic days, Annonciades Convent is still one of the most exclusive and aristocratic establishments of the kind in Europe.
Although we know too well that small-minded jealousy, strife, and bickering must exist in a community of women cut off so entirely from the outer world as in this Convent of the Annonciades, it must be confessed that the very name and air of the place possess a certain romantic charm. The house is old, turreted like a chateau, overgrown with clematis and passion-flower. The grounds, enclosed by high mossy walls, are of great extent, and beautifully laid out. The long chestnut avenue, the sparkling fountains, the trim flower-beds, are the delight of the sisters' hearts. The green beauty of the garden, and the grey stones of the ancient building, form a charming background for the white-veiled women who glide with noiseless footsteps along the cloisters or the avenue: a background more becoming to them even than to the bevy of girls in their everyday grey frocks, or their Sunday garb of white and blue. For the sisters' quaint and graceful dress harmonizes with the antique surroundings of building and ornament as anything younger and more modern fails to do.
These women—shut off from the world, and knowing little of its joys or sorrows—have a strangely tranquil air. With some the tranquility verges on childishness. One feels that they have not conquered the world, they have but escaped it; and, as one pities the soldier who flies the battle, so one mourns for the want of courage which has condemned these women to an inglorious peace. But here and there another kind of face is to be seen. Here and there we come across a countenance bearing the tragic impress of toil and grief and passion; and we feel it possible that in this haven alone perhaps could a nature which had striven and suffered so greatly find in the end a lasting place. But such faces are fortunately few and far between.
From the wide low window of the great salle d'etude a flight of steps with carved stone balustrades led into the garden. The balustrades were half-covered with clustering white roses and purple clematis on the day of which I write; and a breath of perfume, almost overpowering in its sweetness, was wafted every now and then from the beds of mignonette and lilies on either side. The brilliant sunshine of an early September day was not yet touched with the melancholy of autumn: the leaves of the Virginia creeper had not yet changed to scarlet, nor had the chestnuts yellowed as if winter was creeping on apace. Everything was still, warm and bright.
The stillness was partly accounted for by the fact that most of the pupils had gone home for their summer holidays. The salle d'etude was empty and a little desolate: no hum of busy voices came from its open window to the garden; and even the tranquil sisters seemed to miss the sound, and to look wistfully at the bare desks and unused benches of their schoolroom. For they loved their pupils and their work; both came, perhaps, as a welcome break in the monotony of their barren lives; and they were sorry when the day came for their scholars to leave them for a time. Still more did they grieve when the inevitable day of a final departure arrived. They knew—some by hearsay, some by experience, and some by instinct alone—that the going away from school into the world was the beginning of a new life, full, very often, of danger and temptation, in which the good sisters and their teaching were likely to be forgotten, and it was a sorrow to them to be henceforth dissociated from the thoughts and lives of those who had often been under their guardianship and tuition for many years. Such a parting—probably a final one—was now imminent, and not a few of the sisters were troubled by the prospect, although it was against their rule to let any sign of such grief appear.
It was not the hour of recreation, but the ordinary routine of the establishment was for a little while suspended, partly because it was holiday-time, and partly because an unusual event was coming to pass. One of the parlor boarders, who had been with the sisters since her childhood, first as a boarder and then as a guest, was about to leave them. She was to be fetched away by her mother and her mother's father, who was an English milord, of fabulous wealth and distinction, and, although at present a heretic, exceedingly "well-disposed" towards the Catholic church. It was not often that a gentleman set foot within the precincts of the convent; and although he would not be allowed to penetrate farther than the parlor, the very fact of his presence sent a thrill of excitement through the house. An English milord, a heretic, the grandfather of "cette chere Lisa," whom they were to lose so soon! No wonder the most placid of the nuns, the most stolid of the lay-sisters, tingled with excitement to the finger-tips!
The girl whose departure from the convent school was thus regretted was known amongst her English friends as Lesley Brooke. French lips, unaccustomed to a name like Lesley, had changed it into Lisa; but Lesley loved her own name, which was a heritage in her family, and had been handed down to her from her grandmother. She was always glad to hear it from friendly English lips. She was nineteen now, and had stayed with the sisters an unusually long time without exactly knowing why. Family circumstances, she was told, had hitherto prevented her mother from taking her to an English home. But now the current of her life was to be changed. She was to leave Paris: she was, she believed, even to leave France. Her mother had written that she was to go to London, and that she (Lady Alice Brooke) would come for her, in company with Lesley's grandfather, Lord Courtleroy, with whom she had been traveling abroad for some time past.
Lesley was overjoyed by the news. She had lately come to suspect something strange, something abnormal, in her own position. She had remained at school when other girls went to their homes: she never had been able to answer questions respecting her relations and their belongings. Her mother, indeed, she knew; for she sometimes spent a portion of the holidays with Lady Alice at a quiet watering-place in France or Italy. And her mother was all that could be desired. Gentle, refined, beautiful, with a slight shade of melancholy which only made her delicate face more attractive—at least in Lesley's eyes—Lady Alice Brooke gained love and admiration whithersoever she went. But she never spoke of her husband. Lesley had gradually learned that she must not mention his name. In her younger days she had been wont to ask questions about her unknown father. Was he dead?—was he in another country?—why had she never seen him? She soon found that these questions were gently but decidedly checked. Her mother did not decline in so many words to answer them, but she set them aside. Only once, when Lesley was fifteen, and made some timid, wistful reference to the father whom she had never known, did Lady Alice make her a formal answer.
"I will tell you all about your father when you are old enough to hear," she said. "Until then, Lesley, I had rather that you did not talk of him."
Lesley shrank into herself abashed, and never mentioned his name again.
All the same, as she grew older, her fancy played about this unknown father, as the fancy of young girls always plays about a mystery. Had he committed some crime? Had he disgraced himself and his family that his name might not be breathed in Lady Alice's ear? But she could not believe that her good, beautiful mother would ever have loved and married a wicked man!—such was the phrase that she, in her girlish innocence and ignorance, used to herself. As to scandal and tittle-tattle, none of it reached the seclusion of her convent-home, or was allowed to sully her fair mind. And it was impossible for her to connect the idea of folly, guilt, or shame with the pure, sweet face of her mother, or the stately pride and dignity of her mother's father, the Earl of Courtleroy. There was evidently a mystery; but she was sure of one thing, that it was a mystery without disgrace.
And now, as she stood waiting on the stone steps, her face flushed a little, and her eyes filled at the thought that she would now, perhaps, be allowed to hear the story of her parents' lives. For she knew that she was going to leave the convent, and it had been vaguely hinted by Lady Alice in a recent letter that on leaving the convent Lesley must be prepared for a great surprise.
Lesley looked over the silent, sweet-scented garden, and half-sighed, half-smiled, to think that she should leave it so soon, and perhaps for ever. But she was excited rather than sad, and when one of the sisters appeared at the door of the study, or salle d'etude, Lesley turned towards her with a quick, eager gesture, which not all the training to which she had been subjected since her childhood would have availed to suppress.
"Oh, sister, tell me, has she come?"
The sister was a tall, spare woman, with a thin face and great dark eyes, with eyelids slightly reddened, as though by long weeping or sleeplessness. It was an austere face, but its severity softened into actual sweetness as she smiled at her pupil's eagerness.
"Gently, my child: why so impetuous?" she said, taking the girl's hand in her own. "Yes, madame has arrived: she is in the parlor, speaking to the Reverend Mother; and in five minutes you are to go to her."
"Not for five minutes?" said Lesley; and then, controlling herself, she added, penitently. "I know I am impatient, Sister Rose."
"Yes, dear child: you are impatient: it is in your nature, in your blood," said the sister, looking at her with a sort of pity in her eyes—a pity which Lesley resented, without quite knowing why. "And you are going into a world where you will find many things sadly different from your expectations. If you remember the lessons that we have tried to read you here—lessons of patience, endurance, resignation to the will of others, and especially to the will of God—you will be happy in spite of sorrow and tribulation."
The young girl trembled: it seemed as if the sister spoke with a purpose, as if she knew of some difficulty, some danger that lay before her. She had been trained to ask no questions, and therefore she kept silence. But her lips trembled, and her beautiful brown eyes filled with tears.
"Come, my dear child," said Sister Rose, taking her by the hand, after a short pause, "I will take you to your mother. She will be ready for you now. May God protect you and guide you in your way through the world!"
And Lesley lowered her head as if she had received a blessing. Sister Rose was a woman whom Lesley honored and revered, and her words, therefore, sank deep, and often recurred to the young girl's mind in days to come.
They went in silence to the door of the parlor. Here Sister Rose relinquished her pupil's hand, tapped three times on one of the panels, and signed to Lesley to open the door. With a trembling hand Lesley obeyed the sign; and in another moment she was in her mother's arms.
Lady Alice Brooke was a very attractive looking woman. She was tall, slight, and graceful, and although she must have been close upon forty, she certainly had not the appearance of a woman over four or five and thirty. Her complexion was untouched by time: her cheeks were smooth and fair, her blue eyes clear. Her pretty brown hair had perhaps lost a little of the golden tinge of its youth, but it was still soft and abundant. But the reason why people often turned to look at her did not lie in any measure of grace and beauty that she possessed, so much as in an indefinable air of distinction and refinement which seemed to pervade her whole being, and marked her off from the rest of the world as one made of finer clay than others.
Many people resented this demeanor—which was quite unconscious on Lady Alice's part—and thought that it signified pride, haughtiness, coldness of heart; but in all this they were greatly, if not altogether, mistaken. Lady Alice was not of a cold nature, and she was never willingly haughty; but in some respects, she was what the world calls proud. She was proud of her ancient lineage; of the repute of her family, of the stainlessness of its name. And she had brought up Lesley, as far as she could, in the same old tradition.
Lesley was like her mother, and unlike, too. She had her mother's tall, graceful figure; but there was much more vivacity in her face than there had ever been in Lady Alice's; much more warmth and life and color. There was more determination in the lines of her mouth and chin: her brow was broader and fuller, and her eyes were dark brown instead of blue. But the likeness was there, with a diversity of expression and of coloring.
"I thought you were never coming," said Lesley at length, as she clung fondly to her mother. "I could hardly sleep last night for thinking how delightful it would be to go away with you!"
Lady Alice gave a little start, and looked at the girl as if there had been some hidden meaning in her words.
"Go away with me?" she repeated.
"Yes, mother darling, and be with you always: to look after you and not let grandpapa tire you with long walks and long games of backgammon. I shall be his companion as well as yours, and I shall take care of you both. I have planned ever so many things that I mean to do—especially when we go to Scotland."
"Lesley," said Lady Alice, faintly, "I am tired: let me sit down." And then, as the girl made her seat herself in the one arm-chair that the room contained, and hung over her with affectionate solicitude, she went on, with paling lips: "You never said these things in your letter, child! I did not know that you were so anxious to come away—with me."
"Oh, mamma, dear, you surely knew it all the time?" said Lesley, thinking the comment a reproach. "You surely knew how I longed to be with you? But I would not say much in my letters for fear of making you think I was unhappy; and I have always been very happy here with the dear sisters and the girls. But I thought you understood me, mamma—understood by instinct, as it were," said Lesley, kneeling by her mother's side, and throwing an occasional shy glance into her mother's face.
"I understand perfectly, dear, and I see your unselfish motive. It makes me all the more sorry to disappoint you as I am about to do."
"Oh, mamma! Am I not to leave school, then?"
"Yes, dear, you will leave school."
"You will come with me, certainly—until to-morrow, darling. But you leave me to-morrow, too."
The color began to fade from Lesley's cheeks, as it had already faded from Lady Alice's. The girl felt a great swelling in her throat, and a film seemed to dim the clearness of her sight. But Sister Rose's words came back to her mind with an inspiring thrill which restored her strength. "Patience, endurance, resignation!" Was this the occasion on which she was to show whether these virtues were hers or not? She would not fail in the hour of trial: she would be patient and endure!
"If you will explain, mamma dear," she said, entreatingly, "I will try to do—as you would like."
"My darling! My Lesley! What a help it is to me to see you so brave!" said her mother, putting her arms round the girl's shoulders, and resting her face on the bright young head. "If I could keep you with me! but it will be only for a time, my child, and then—then you will come back to me?"
"Come back to you, mamma? As if anything would keep me away! But what is it? where am I to go? what am I to do? Why haven't you told me before?"
She was trembling with excitement. Patience was not one of Lesley's virtues. She felt, with sudden heat of passion, that she could bear any pain rather than this suspense, which her mother's gentle reluctance to give pain inflicted upon her.
"I did not tell you before," said Lady Alice, slowly, "because I was under a promise not to do so. I have been obliged to keep you in the dark about your future for many a long year, Lesley, and the concealment has always weighed upon my mind. You must forgive me, dearest, for this: I did not see the consequence of my promise when I made it first."
"What promise was it, mamma?"
"To let you leave me for a time, my dear: to let you go from me—to let you choose your own life—oh, it seems hard and cruel to me now."
"Tell me," pleaded Lesley, whose heart was by this time beating with painful rapidity, "tell me all—quickly, mamma, and I promise——"
"Promise nothing until you have heard what I have to say," said her mother, drawing back. "I want you to hear the story before you see your grandfather again: that is the reason why I begged the Mother to let me speak to you here, before you left the convent. I have been forced into my present line of action, Lesley: I never took it wilfully. You shall judge for yourself if it were likely that I——But I will not excuse myself beforehand. I can tell you all that is necessary for you to know in very few words; and the rest lies in your hands."
Lady Alice's pale lips quivered as she spoke, but her eyes were dry and filled with a light which was singularly cold and stern. Lesley, kneeling still, looked up into her face, and, fascinated by what she saw there, remained motionless and mute.
"I have not let you speak to me of your father," Lady Alice began, "because I did not know how to answer your questions truthfully. But now I must speak of him. You have thought of him sometimes?"
"And you have thought him dead?"
"I thought so—yes."
"But he is not dead," said Lady Alice, bitterly. "To my exceeding misfortune—and yours also—your father, Lesley, is alive."
LADY ALICE'S STORY.
The girl shrank back a little, but she did not remove her eyes from her mother's face. A great dread, however, had entered into them. A hot color leaped into her cheeks. Scarcely did she yet know what she dreaded; it was something intangible, too awful to be uttered—the terror of disgrace.
But Lady Alice saw the look and interpreted it aright.
"No, my darling," she said, "it is not that. It is nothing to be ashamed of—exactly. I do not accuse your father of any crime—unless it be a crime to have married a woman that he did not love, and to whom he was not suited, and to have been cruel—yes, cruel—to her and to her child."
And then she burst into tears.
"Mamma, dear mamma!" said Lesley, clasping her and sobbing out of sympathy, "it was a crime—worse than a crime—to be cruel to you."
Lady Alice sobbed helplessly for a few minutes. Then she commanded herself by a great and visible effort and dried her eyes.
"It is weak to give way before you, child," she said, sadly. "But I cannot tell you how much I have dreaded this moment—the moment when I must tell you of the great error of my life."
"Don't tell me, mamma. I would rather hear nothing that you did not want me to know."
"But I must tell you, Lesley. It is in my bargain with my husband that I should tell you. If I say nothing he will tell you his side—and perhaps that would be worse."
Lesley kissed her mother's delicate hand. "Then—if you must tell me—I should be glad to hear it all now," she said, in a shaking voice. "Nothing seems so bad as to know half a story—or only to guess a part——"
"Ah, you have wondered why I told you nothing of your father?"
"I could not help wondering, mamma."
"Poor child! Well, whatever it costs me I will tell you all my story now. Listen carefully, darling: I do not want to have to tell it twice."
She pressed her handkerchief to her lips as if to prevent them from trembling, and then turning her eyes to another part of the room so that they need not rest upon her daughter's face Lady Alice began her story.
"My tale is a tale of folly, not of crime," she said. "You must remember, Lesley, that I was a motherless girl, brought up in a lonely Scotch house in a very haphazard way. My dear father loved me tenderly, but he was away from home for the greater part of the year; and he understood little of a girl's nature or a girl's requirements. When I was sixteen he allowed me to dismiss my governess, and to live as I liked. I was romantic and dreamy; I spent a great deal of time in the library, and he thought that there at least I was safe. He would have been more careful of me, as he said afterwards, if I had wanted to roam over the moors and fields, to fish or shoot as many modern women do. I can only say that I think I should have been far safer on the hillside or the moor than I was in the lonely recesses of that library, pouring over musty volumes of chivalry and romance.
"My only change was a few weeks in London with friends, during the season. Here, young as I was, I was thrown into a whirl of gaiety; but the society that I met was of the best sort, and I welcomed it as a pleasant relaxation. I saw the pleasant side of everything. You see I was very young. I went to the most charming parties; I was well introduced: I think I may say that I was admired. My first season was almost the happiest—certainly the most joyous—period of my life. But it was still a time of unreality, Lesley: the glitter and glamour of that glimpse of London society was as unreal as my dreams of love and beauty and nobleness in the old library at home. I lacked a mother's guiding hand, my child, and a mother's tender voice to tell me what was false and what was true."
Involuntarily Lesley drew closer than ever to her mother.
The ring of pain in Lady Alice's voice saddened and even affrighted her. It suggested a passionate yearning, an anxiety of love, which almost overwhelmed her. It is always alarming to a young and simple nature to be brought suddenly into contact with a very strong emotion, either of anguish, love, or joy.
"I suffered for my loss," Lady Alice went on, after a short pause. "But at first without knowing that I suffered. There comes a time in every woman's life, Lesley, when she is in need of help and counsel, when, in fact, she is in danger. As soon as a woman loves, she stands on the brink of a precipice."
"I thought," murmured Lesley, "that love was the most beautiful thing in the world?"
"Is that what the nuns have taught you?" asked her mother, with a keen glance at the girl's flushing cheek. "Well, in one sense it is true. Love is a beautiful thing to look at—an angel to outward show—with the heart, too often, of a fiend; and it is he who leads us to that precipice of which I spoke—the precipice of disillusion and despair."
To Lesley these words were as blasphemy, for they contradicted the whole spirit of the teaching which she had received. But she did not dare to contradict her mother's opinions. She looked down, and reflected dumbly that her mother knew more about the subject than she could possibly do. The good Sisters had talked to her about heavenly love; she had made no fine distinctions in her mind as to the kind of love they meant—possibly there were two kinds. And while she was considering this knotty point, her mother began to speak again.
"I was between eighteen and nineteen," said Lady Alice, "scarcely as old as you are now, when a new interest came into my life. My father gave permission to a young literary man to examine our archives, which contained much of historical value. He never thought of cautioning me to leave the library to Mr. Brooke's sole occupation. I was accustomed to spend much of my time there: and the stranger—Mr. Brooke—must have heard this fact from the servants, for he begged that he might not disturb me, and that I would frequent the library as usual. After a little hesitation, I began to do so. My father was in London, and my only chaperon was an old lady who was too infirm to be of much use. Before long, I began to help Mr. Brooke in his researches and inquiries. He was writing a book on the great Scottish families of that part of the country, and the subject interested me. Need I tell you what followed, Lesley? Need I explain to you the heedless selfish folly of that time? I forgot my duty to my father, my duty to myself. I fancied I loved this man, and I promised to marry him."
There was a light of interest in Lesley's eyes. She did not altogether understand her mother's tone. It sounded as though Lady Alice condemned lovers and all their ways, and such condemnation puzzled the girl, in spite of her convent breeding. During the last few months she had been allowed a much wider range of literature than was usual in the Sisters' domain; her mother had requested that she should be supplied with certain volumes of history, fiction, and poetry, that had considerably enlarged Lesley's views of life; and yet Lady Alice's words seemed to contradict all that the girl had previously heard or read of love. The mother read the unspoken question in Lesley's eyes, and answered it in a somewhat modified tone.
"My dear, I do not mean that I think it wrong to love. So long as the world lasts I suppose people will love—and be miserable. It is right enough, if it is opposed by no other law. But in my case, I was wrong from beginning to end. I knew that my father would never give his permission to my marriage with Mr. Brooke; and, in my youthful folly, I thought that my best plan was to take my own way. I married Mr. Brooke in private, and then I went away with him to London. And it was not long, Lesley, before I rued my disobedience and my deceit. It was a great mistake."
"But mamma, why were you so sure that grandpapa would not give his consent?"
Lady Alice opened her gentle eyes with a look of profound astonishment.
"Darling, don't you see? Mr. Brooke was—nobody."
"But if you loved him——"
"No, Lesley, your grandfather would never have heard of such a marriage. He had his own plans for me. My dear, I am not saying a word against your father in saying this. I am only telling you the fact—that he was what is often called a self-made, self-educated man, who could not possibly be styled my equal in the eyes of society. His father had been a small tradesman in Devonshire. The son being clever and—and—handsome, made his way a little in the world. He became a journalist: he wrote for magazines and newspapers and reviews: he was what is called a literary hack. He had no certain prospects, no certain income, when he married me. I think," said Lady Alice, with a sort of cold scorn, which was intensified by the very softness of her tones, "that he could not have done a more unjustifiable thing than persuade a girl in my position to marry him."
Lesley felt a slight diminution of sympathy with her mother. Perhaps Lady Alice was conscious of some change in her face, for she added hastily.
"Don't misjudge me, Lesley. If there had been between us the strong and tender love of which women too often dream, poverty might perhaps have been forgotten. It sounds terribly worldly to draw attention to the fact that poverty is apt to kill a love which was not very strong at the beginning. But the fact was that neither Caspar Brooke nor I knew our own minds. He was three-and-twenty and I was eighteen. We married in haste, and we certainly repented very much at leisure."
"Was he not—kind?" asked Lesley, timidly.
"Kind?" said her mother, with a sigh. "Oh, yes, perhaps he was kind—at first. Until he was tired of me, or I was tired of him. I don't know on which side the disillusion was felt first. Think where I came from—from the dear old Castle, the moors, the lochs, the free fresh air of Scotland, to a dreary lodging of two little rooms in a dingy street, where I had to cut and contrive and economize to make ends meet. I was an ignorant girl, and I could not do it. I got into debt, and my husband was angry with me. Why should I tell you the petty, sordid details of my life? I soon found out that I was miserable and that he was miserable too."
Lesley listened breathlessly with hidden face. The story was full of humiliation for her. It seemed like a desecration of all that she had hitherto held dear.
"My father and my friends would not forgive me," Lady Alice went on. "In our direst straits of poverty, I am glad to say that I never appealed to them. We struggled on together—your father and I—until you were four years old. Then a change came—a change which made it impossible for me to bear the misery of my life. Your father——"
She came to a sudden stop, and sat with eyes fixed on the opposite wall, a curious expression of mingled desolation and contempt upon her cold, clear-cut face. For some reason or other Lesley felt afraid to hear what her mother had to say.
"Mamma, don't tell me! Don't look like that," she cried. "I can't bear to hear it! Why need you tell me any more?"
"Because," said her mother, slowly, "because your father exacts this sacrifice from me: that I should tell you—you, my daughter—the reason why I left him. I promised that I would do so, and I will keep my promise. The thing that hurts me most, Lesley, is to think that I may be injuring you—staining your innocence—darkening your youth—by telling you what I have to tell. At your age, I would rather that you knew nothing of life but its brighter side—nothing of love but what was fair and sweet. But it is the punishment of my first false step that I should bring sorrow upon my child. Lesley, in years to come remember that I have warned you to be honest and true, unless you would make those miserable whom you love best. If I had never deceived my father, my husband would never perhaps have deceived me; and I should not have to tell my child that the last person in the world whom she must trust is her father."
There was a little silence, and then she continued in a strained and unnatural tone.
"There was a woman—another woman—whom he loved. That is all."
Lesley shivered and hid her face. To her mind, young and innocent as it was, the fact which her mother stated seemed like an indelible stain. She hardly dared as yet think what it meant. And, after a long pause, Lady Alice went on quietly—
"I do not want to exaggerate. I do not believe that he meant to leave me—even to be untrue to me. I could not speak to you of him if I thought him so black-hearted, so treacherous. I mean simply this—take the fact as I state it, and inquire no further; I found that my husband cared for some one else more than he cared for me. My resolution was taken at once: I packed up my things, left his house, and threw myself at my father's feet. He was good to me and forgave me, and since then ... I have never entered my husband's house again."
"He must have been wicked—wicked!" said Lesley, in a strangled voice.
"No, he was not wicked. Let me do him so much justice. He was upright on the whole, I believe. He never meant to give me cause for complaint. But I had reason to believe that another woman suited him better than I did ... and it was only fair to leave him."
"But did he—could he—marry her? I mean——"
"My poor Lesley, you are very ignorant," said Lady Alice, smiling a wan smile, and touching the girl's cheek lightly with her hand. "How could he marry another woman when I was alive? Your father and I separated on account of what is called incompatibility of temper. The question of the person whom he apparently preferred to me never arose between us."
"Then, is it not possible, mamma, that you may have been mistaken?" said Lesley, impetuously.
Lady Alice shook her head. "Quite impossible, Lesley. I accuse your father of nothing. I only mean that another woman—one of his friends—would have suited him better than I, and that he knew it. I have no cause for complaint against him. And I would not have told you this, had I not felt it a duty to put in the strongest possible light my reasons for leaving him, so that a day may never come when you turn round upon me and blame me—as others have done—for fickleness, for ill-temper, for impatience with my husband; because now you know—as no one else knows—the whole truth."
"But I should never blame you, mamma."
"I do not know. I know this—that your father is a man who can persuade and argue and represent his conduct in any light that suits his purpose. He is a very eloquent—a very plausible man. He will try to win you over to his side."
"But I shall never see him."
"Yes, Lesley, you will. You are going to him to-morrow."
"I will not—I will not"—said the girl, springing from her knees, and involuntarily clenching her right hand. "I will not speak to him—if he treated my darling mother so shamefully he must be bad, and I will not acknowledge any relationship to him."
A look of apprehension showed itself in Lady Alice's eyes.
"Darling," she said, "you must not let your generous love for me run away with your judgment. I am bound, and you must be bound with me. Listen, when your father found that I had left him he was exceedingly angry. He came to your grandfather's house, he clamored to see me, he attempted to justify himself—oh, I cannot tell you the misery that I went through. At last I consented to see him. He behaved like a madman. He swore that he would have me back—tyrant that he was!"
"Mamma—perhaps he cared?"
"Cared! He cared for his reputation," said Lady Alice growing rather white about the lips. "For nothing else! Not for me, Lesley! When his violence had expended itself we came to terms. He agreed to let me live where I liked on condition that when you were eight years old you were sent to school, and saw me only during the holidays——"
"He said that he dreaded my influence on your mind," said Lady Alice. "That you should be brought up at a good school was the first thing. Secondly, that when you were nineteen you should spend a year with him, and then a year with me; and that when you were twenty-one you should choose for yourself with which of the two you preferred to cast in your lot."
"Oh, mamma, I cannot go to him now."
"You must go, Lesley. I am bound, and you are bound by my promise. Only for a year, my darling. Then you can come back to me for ever. I stipulated that I should see you first, and say to you what I chose."
"But cannot I wait a little while?"
"Twenty-four hours, Lesley; that is all. You go to your father to-morrow."
MOTHER AND DAUGHTER.
The conversation between Lesley and her mother occupied a considerable time, and the sun was sinking westward when at last the two ladies left the Convent. Lesley's adieux had been made before Lady Alice's arrival, and the only persons whom she saw, therefore, after the long interview with her mother, were the Mother Superior, and the Sister who had summoned her to the parlor.
While Lady Alice and the Reverend Mother exchanged a few last words, Lesley drew close to Sister Rose's side, and laid her hand on the serge-covered arm.
"You were right," she said. "Sister, I see already that I shall need patience and endurance where I am going."
"Gentleness and love, also," said the Sister. Then, as if in answer to an indefinable change in Lesley's lips and eyes, she added gently, "We are told that peacemakers are blessed."
"I could not make peace——" Lesley began, hastily, and then she stopped short, confused, not knowing how much Sister Rose had heard of her mother's story. But if Sister Rose were ignorant of it, her next words were singularly appropriate. For she said, in a low tone—
"Peace is better than war: forgiveness better than hatred. Dear child, it may be in your hands to reconcile those who have been long divided. Do your best."
Lesley had no time to reply.
It was a long drive from the Convent of the Annonciades to the hotel where Lord Courtleroy and Lady Alice were staying. The mother and daughter spoke little; each seemed wrapped in her own reflections. There were a hundred questions which Lesley was longing to ask; but she did not like to disturb her mother's silence. Dusk had fallen before their destination was reached; and Lesley's thoughts were diverted a little from their sad bewilderment by what was to her the novel sight of Paris by gaslight, and the ever-flowing, opposing currents of human beings that filled the streets. Hitherto, when she had left the Sisters for her holidays, her mother had wisely kept her within certain bounds: she had not gone out of doors after dark, she had not seen anything but the quieter sides of life. But now all seemed to be changed. Her mother mentioned the name of the best hotel in Paris as their destination: she said a few words about shopping, dresses, and jewellery, which made Lesley's heart beat faster, in spite of a conviction that it was very mean and base to feel any joy in such trivial matters. Especially under present circumstances. But she was young and full of life; and there certainly was some excitement in the prospect before her.
"I shall not need much where I am going, shall I?" she hazarded timidly.
"Perhaps not, but you must not be in any difficulty. There is not time to do a great deal, but you can be fitted and have some dresses sent after you, and I can choose your hats. And a fur-lined cloak for travelling—you will want that. We must do what we can in the time. It is not likely that your father sees much society."
"It will be very lonely," said Lesley, with a little gasp.
"My poor child! I am afraid it will. I can tell some friends of mine to call on you; but I don't know whether they will be admitted."
"Where is—the house?" Lesley asked. She did not like to say "my father's house."
"In Upper Woburn Place, Bloomsbury. I believe it is near Euston Square, or some such neighborhood."
"Then it is not where you lived, mamma?"
"No, dear. We lived further West, in a street near Portman Square. I believe that Mr. Brooke finds Bloomsbury a convenient district for the kind of work that he has to do."
She spoke very formally of her husband; but Lesley began to notice an under-current of resentment, of something like contempt, in her voice when she spoke of him. Lady Alice tried in vain to simulate an indifference which she did not feel, and the very effort roughened her voice and sharpened her accent in a way of which she was unconscious. The effect on a young girl, who had not seen much of human emotion, was to induce a passing doubt of her mother's judgment, and a transient wonder as to whether her father had always been so much in the wrong. The sensation was but momentary, for Lesley was devotedly attached to her mother, and could not believe her to be mistaken. And, while she was repenting of her hasty injustice, the carriage stopped between the white globes of electric light that fronted a great hotel, and Lesley was obliged to give her attention to the things around her rather than to her own thoughts and feelings.
A waiter conducted the mother and daughter up one flight of stairs and consigned them to the care of a chambermaid. The chambermaid led them to the door of a suite of rooms, where they were met by Dayman, Lady Alice's own woman, whose stolid face relaxed into a smile of pleasure at the sight of Lesley.
"Take Miss Brooke to her own room and see that she is made nice for dinner," said her mistress. "His Lordship has ordered dinner in our own rooms, I suppose?"
"Yes, my lady. Covers for four—Captain Duchesne is here."
"Oh," said Lady Alice, with an accent of faint surprise, "oh—well—Lesley, dear, we must not be late."
To Lesley it seemed hardly worth while to unpack her boxes and dress herself for that one evening in the soft embroidered white muslin which had hitherto served for her best Sunday frock. But Mrs. Dayman insisted on a careful toilette, and was well satisfied with the result.
"There, Miss Lesley," she said, "you have just your mamma's look—a sort of finished look, as if you were perfect outside and in!"
Lesley laughed. "That compliment might be taken in two ways, Dayman," she said, as she turned to meet her mother at the door. And in a few minutes she was standing in the gay little French salon, where the earl was conversing with a much younger man in a glare of waxlights.
Lord Courtleroy was a stately-looking man, with perfectly snow-white hair and beard, an upright carriage, and bright, piercing, blue eyes. A striking man in appearance, and of exceedingly well-marked characteristics. The family pride for which he had long been noted seemed to show itself in his bearing and in every feature as he greeted his granddaughter, and yet it was softened by a touch of personal affection with which family pride had nothing whatever to do. For Lord Courtleroy's feelings towards Lesley were mixed. He saw in her the child of a man whose very name he detested, who stood as a type to him of all that was hateful in the bourgeois class. But he also saw in her his own granddaughter, "poor Alice's girl," whom fate had used so unkindly in giving her Caspar Brooke for a father. The earl had next to no personal knowledge of Caspar Brooke. They had not met since the one sad and stormy interview which they had held together when Lady Alice had left her husband's house. And Lord Courtleroy was wont to declare that he did not wish to know anything more of Mr. Brooke. That he was a Radical journalist, and that he had treated a daughter of the Courtleroys with shameful unkindness and neglect, was quite enough for the earl. And his manner to Lesley varied a little according as his sense of her affinity with his own family or his remembrance of her kinship with Mr. Brooke was uppermost.
Lesley was too simply filial in disposition to resent or even to remark on his changes of mood. She admired her grandfather immensely, and was pleased to hear him comment on her growth and development since she saw him last. And then the visitor was introduced to her; and to Lesley's interest and surprise she saw that he was young.
Young men were an unknown quantity to Lesley. She could not remember that she had ever spoken to a man so young and so good-looking before! Captain Henry Duchesne was tall, well-made, well-dressed: he was very dark in complexion, and had a rather heavy jaw; but his dark eyes were pleasant and honest, and he had a very attractive smile. The length of his moustache was almost the first thing that struck Lesley: it seemed to her so abnormally lengthy, with such very stiffly waxed ends, that she could scarcely avert her eyes from them. She was not able to tell, save from instinct, whether a man were well or ill-dressed, but she felt sure that Captain Duchesne's air of smartness was due to the perfection of every detail of his attire. She liked his manner: it was easy, well-bred, and unassuming; and she felt glad that he was present. For after the communication made to her by her mother, the evening might have proved an occasion of embarrassment. It was a relief to talk to some one for a little while who did not know her present circumstances and position.
Lady Alice watched the two young people with a little dawning trouble in her sad eyes. She had known and liked Harry Duchesne since his childhood, and she had not been free from certain hopes and visions of his future, which affected Lesley also, but she thought that her father's invitation had been premature. Especially when she heard Captain Duchesne say to the girl in the course of the evening—
"Are you going to London to-morrow?"
"Yes, I believe so," said Lesley, looking down.
"And you will be in town during the winter, I hope?"
Lady Alice thought it well to interpose.
"My daughter will not be staying with me. She goes to a relation's house for a few months, and will lead a very quiet life indeed. When she comes back to Courtleroy it will be time enough for her to commence a round of gaieties." This with a smile; but, as Henry Duchesne knew well enough, with Lady Alice a smile sometimes covered a very serious purpose. His quick perceptions showed him that he was not wanted to call on Miss Brooke during her stay in London, and he adroitly changed the subject.
"Unfashionable relations, I suppose," he said to himself, reflecting on the matter at a later hour of the evening. "Upon my word I shouldn't have thought that Lady Alice was so worldly-minded! She certainly didn't want me to know where Miss Brooke was going. To some relation of that disreputable father of hers, I should fancy. Poor girt!"
For, like many other persons in London society, Captain Duchesne knew only the name and nothing of the character of the man whom Lady Alice had married and left. It was vaguely supposed that he was not a very respectable character, and that no woman of spirit would have submitted to live with him any longer. Lady Alice's reputation stood so high that it could not be supposed that any one except her husband was in fault. Brooke is not an uncommon name. In certain circles the name of Caspar Brooke was known well enough; but was not often identified with the man who had run away with an earl's daughter. He had other claims to repute, but in a world to which Lady Alice had not the right of entry.
When Harry Duchesne had departed Lady Alice went with Lesley to her bedroom. Mother and daughter sat down together, clasping each other's hands, and looking wistfully from time to time into each other's faces, but saying very little. The wish to ask questions faded out of Lesley's mind. She could not ask more than her mother chose to tell her.
But Lady Alice thought that she had already said too much, and she restrained her tongue. It was after a long and pregnant silence that she murmured—
"Lesley, my child, I want you to promise me something."
"Oh, yes, mamma!"
"I feel like one who is sending a lamb forth into the midst of wolves. Not that Mr. Brooke is a wolf—exactly," said Lady Alice, with a forced laugh, "but I mean that you are young and—and—unsophisticated, and that there may be a mixture of people at his house."
Lesley was silent; she did not quite know what "a mixture of people" would be like.
"I am so afraid for you, darling," said her mother, pleadingly. "Afraid lest you should be drawn into relationships and connections that you might afterwards regret: Do you understand me? Will you promise me to make no vows of any sort while you are away from me? Only for one year, my child—promise me for the year."
"I don't think I quite understand you, mamma."
"Must I put it so plainly? I mean this, Lesley. Don't engage yourself to be married while you are in your father's house."
"Oh, that is easily promised!" said Lesley, with a smile of frank amusement and relief.
"It may not be so easy to carry out as you think. Give me your word, darling. You promise not to form any engagement of marriage for a year? You promise me that?"
"Oh, yes, mamma, I promise," said the girl, so lightly that Lady Alice almost felt that she had done an unwarrantable thing in exacting a promise only half understood. But she swallowed her rising qualms, and went oh, as if exculpating herself—
"It is a safeguard. I do not ask you to marry only a man that I approve—I simply ask you to wait until I can help you with my advice. It will be no loss to you in any way. You are too young to think of these things yet; but it is on the young that unscrupulous persons love to prey—and therefore I give you a warning."
"I am quite sure that I shall not need it," said Lesley, confidently; "and if I did, I could write and ask your advice——"
"No, no! Oh, how could I forget to tell you? You are not to write to me while you are in your father's house."
"Oh, mamma, that is cruel."
"It is his doing, not mine. Intercede with him, if you like. That was one of the conditions—that for this one year you should have no intercourse with me. And for the next year you will have no intercourse with him. And after that, you may choose for yourself."
But this deprivation of correspondence affected Lesley more powerfully than even the prospect of separation—to which she was used already. She threw herself into her mother's arms and wept bitterly for a few moments. Then it occurred to her that she was acting neither thoughtfully nor courageously, and that her grief would only grieve her mother, and could remedy nothing. So she sat up and dried her eyes, and tried to respond cheerfully when Lady Alice spoke a few soothing words. But in the whole course of her short life poor Lesley had never been so miserable as she was that night.
The bustle of preparation which had to be gone through next day prevented her, however, from thinking too much about her troubles. She and Lady Alice, with the faithful Dayman, were to leave Paris late in the afternoon; and the morning was spent in hurried excursions to shops, interviews with milliners and dressmakers, eager discussions on color, shape, and fitness. Lesley was glad to see that she was not to be sent to London with anything over-fine in the way of clothes. The gowns chosen were extremely simple, but in good taste; and the modiste promised that they should be sent after the young lady in the course of a very few days. There was some argument as to whether Lesley would require a ball dress, or dinner dresses. Lady Alice thought not. But, although nothing that could actually be called a ball-dress was ordered, there were one or two frocks of lovely shimmering hue and delightfully soft texture which would serve for any such festivity.
"Though in my day," said Lady Alice, smiling, "we did not go to balls in Bloomsbury. But, of course, I don't know what society Mr. Brooke sees now."
Lesley was conscious of the sarcasm.
The earl remained in Paris, while Lady Alice went with her daughter from Havre to Southampton, and thence to London. Dayman travelled with them; and a supplementary escort appeared in the person of Captain Duchesne, who "happened to be travelling that way." Lady Alice was not displeased to see him, although she had a guilty sense of stealing a march upon her husband in providing Lesley with a standard of youthful good-breeding and good-looks. It might tend to preserve her from forming any silly attachment in her father's circle, Lady Alice thought. As a matter of fact, she was singularly ignorant of what that circle might comprise. She had left him before his more prosperous days began to dawn, and she continued therefore to picture him to herself as the struggling journalist in murky lodgings—"the melancholy literary man" who smoked strong tobacco far into the night, and talked of things in which she had no interest at all. If matters were changed with Caspar Brooke since then, Lady Alice did not know it.
She had ascertained that Mr. Brooke's sister was living in his house, and that she was capable of acting in some sort as Lesley's chaperon. Then, a connection of the earl's was rector of a neighboring church close to Upper Woburn Place—and he had promised to take Miss Brooke under his especial pastoral care;—although, as he mildly insinuated, he was not in the habit of visiting at Number Fifty. And with these recommendations and assurances, Lady Alice was forced to be content.
She parted from her daughter at Waterloo Station. It did not seem possible to her to drive up to her husband's house in a cab, and drive away again. She committed her, therefore, to the care of Dayman, and put the girl and her maid into a four-wheeler, with Lesley's luggage on the top. Then she established herself in the ladies' waiting-room, until such time as Dayman should return.
With beating heart and flushing cheek Lesley drove through the rapidly-darkening streets to her father's house. She was terribly nervous at the prospect of meeting him. And, even after the history that she had learnt from her mother, she felt that she had not the slightest notion as to what manner of man Caspar Brooke might turn out to be.
THE MANNER OF MAN.
On the day preceding Lesley Brooke's arrival in London, a tall, broad-shouldered man was walking along Southampton Row. He was a big man—a man whom people turned to look at—a distinctly noticeable man. He was considerably taller and broader than the average of his fellows: he was wide-chested and muscular, though without any inclination to stoutness; and he had a handsome, sunburned face, with a short brown beard and deep-set, dark-brown eyes. His hair was not cut quite to the conventional shortness, perhaps: there was a lock that would fall in an unruly manner across the broad brow with an obstinacy no hairdresser could subvert. But, in all other respects, he was very much as other men: he dressed well, if rather carelessly, and presented to the world a somewhat imposing personality. He did not wear gloves, and he had no flower at his button-hole; but the respectability of his silk hat and well-made coat was unimpeachable, and he had all the air of easy command which is so characteristic of the well-bred Englishman. The slight roughness about him was as inseparable from his build and his character as it is to the best-groomed and best-bred staghound or mastiff of the highest race.
Southampton Row, as is well known, leads into Russell Square. In fact the straight line of the Row merges imperceptibly into one side of the Square, whence it continues under the name of Woburn Place, the East side of Tavistock Square, Upper Woburn Place, and Euston Square, losing itself at last in the Northern wilderness of the crowded Euston Road. It was at a house which he passed in his straight course from Holburn towards St. Pancras that this very tall and strong-looking gentleman stopped, at about five o'clock on a September afternoon.
He stood on the steps for a moment, and looked up and down the house doubtfully, as if seeking for signs of life from within. A great many people were still out of town, and he was uncertain whether the occupants of this house were at home or not. The place had evidently been in the hands of painters and cleaners since he saw it last: the stone-work was scrupulously white, the wood-work was painted a delicate green. The visitor lifted his well-defined eyebrows at the lightness of the color, as he turned to the door and rang the bell. It was easy to see that he was an observant man, upon whose eyes very few things were lost.
"Mrs. Romaine in?" he asked the trim maid who appeared in answer to his ring. He noticed that she was a new maid.
"Yes, sir. What name shall I say, please, sir?"
The girl looked intelligent, as if she had heard the name before. And Mr. Brooke, following her upstairs to the drawing-room, reflected on the quickness with which servants make themselves acquainted with their masters' and mistresses' affairs, and the disadvantages of a civilization in which you were at the mercy of your servants' tongues.
These reflections had no bearing on his own circumstances: they proceeded entirely from Mr. Brooke's habit of taking general views, and making large applications of small things.
The day was cloudy, and, although it was only five o'clock, the streets were growing dark. The weather was chilly, moreover, and the wind blew from the East. It was a pleasant change to enter Mrs. Romaine's drawing-room, which was full of soft light from a glowing little fire, full of the scent of roses and the lovely tints of Indian embroideries, Italian tapestries, dead gold-leaf backgrounds, and china that was beautiful as well as rare. Lady Alice Brooke, in her narrow isolation from the world, would not have believed that so charming a room could be found east of Great Portland Street. In which opinion she was very much mistaken; for her belief that in "society" and society's haunts alone could one find taste, culture, and beauty, led her to ignore the vast number of intellectual and artistic folk who still sojourn in the dim squares of Bloomsbury and Regent's Park. Sooth to say Lady Alice knew absolutely nothing of the worlds of intellect and art, save by means of an occasional article in the magazines, or a stroll through the large picture galleries of London during the season. She was a good woman in her way, and—also in her way—a clever one; but she had been brought up in another atmosphere from that which her husband loved, elevated in a totally different school, and she was not of a nature to adapt herself to what she did not thoroughly understand.
Mrs. Romaine knew well enough that she was quite as well able to hold her own in the fashionable world if once she obtained an entrance to it as any Lady Alice or Lady Anybody of her acquaintance. But then the difficulty of entering if was very great. She had not sufficient fortune to vie with women who every year spent hundreds on their dress and on their dinner. She was handsome, but she was middle-aged. She had few friends of sufficient distinction to push her forward. And she was a wise woman. She thought it better to live where she enjoyed a good deal of popularity and consideration; where she could entertain in a modest way, where her husband had been well known, and she could glow with the reflected light that came to her from his shining abilities. These reasons were patent to the world: she really made no secret of them. But there was another reason, not quite so patent to the world, for her living quietly in Russell Square, and this reason she kept strictly to herself.
Mrs. Romaine had been a widow for three years. Her husband had been a very learned man—Professor of numerous Oriental languages at University College for some years, afterwards a Judge in Calcutta; and as he had always lived in the West Central district during his Professorate, Mrs. Romaine declared that she loved it and could live nowhere else. The house in Russell Square was only partly hers. Her brother rented some of the rooms (shared the house with her, as Mrs. Romaine vaguely phrased it), and lightened the expense. But the two drawing-rooms, opening out of one another, were entirely at Mrs. Romaine's disposal, and she was generally to be found there between four and five o'clock in an afternoon—a fact of which it is to be presumed that Mr. Brooke was aware.
"So you have come back to town?" she said, rising to meet him, and extending both hands with a pretty air of appropriative friendship.
"Yes; but I hardly expected to find you here so early."
Mrs. Romaine shrugged her shoulders a little.
"I found the country very dull," she said. "And you?"
"Oh, I went to Norway. I was well enough off. I rather enjoyed myself. Perhaps I required a little bracing up for the task that lies before me." He laughed as he spoke.
Mrs. Romaine paused for a moment in her task of pouring out the tea.
"You are resolved, then, to assume that responsibility?" she said, in a low voice.
"My dear Rosalind! it's in the bond," answered Caspar Brooke, very coolly.
He took the cup from her hand, stirred its contents, and proceeded to drink them in a leisurely manner, glancing at his hostess meanwhile, with a quiet smile.
Mrs. Romaine's dark eyes dropped before that glance. There was an inscrutable look upon her face, but it was a look that would have told another woman that Mrs. Romaine was disappointed by the news which she had just heard. Caspar Brooke, being a man, saw nothing.
"I am sorry," Mrs. Romaine said presently, with an assumption of great candor. "I am afraid you will have an uncomfortable time."
"Oh, no," he answered, with indifference. "I shall not be uncomfortable, because it will not affect me in the least. When I spoke of bracing myself for the task, I was in jest." Mrs. Romaine did not believe this statement. "I shall go my own way whether the girl is in the house or not."
"Why, then, did you insist on this arrangement?"
"It is only right to give the girl a chance," said Mr. Brooke. "If she has any grit in her the next twelve months will bring it out. Besides, it is simple justice. She ought to see and judge for herself. If she decides—as her mother did—that I am an ogre, she can go back to her aristocratic friends in the North. I shall not try to keep her." There was the suspicion of a grim sneer on his face as he spoke.
"Do you know what she is like?"
"Yes: I saw her one day in Paris. She did not know, of course, that I was watching her. She is like her mother."
The tone was unpromising. But perhaps it would have been as well if Rosalind Romaine had not murmured so pityingly—
"My poor friend! What you have suffered—and oh, what you will suffer!"
Brooke looked at her in silence, and his eyes softened. Mrs. Romaine seemed to him at that moment the incarnation of all that was sweet and womanly. She was slender, pale, graceful: she had velvety dark eyes and picturesque curling hair, cut short like a Florentine boy's. Her dress was harmonious in color and design; her attitude was charming, her voice most musical. It crossed Mr. Brooke's mind, as it had crossed his mind before, that he might have been very happy if Providence had sent him a wife like Rosalind Romaine.
"I shall not suffer," he said, after a little silence, "because I will not suffer. My daughter will live for a year in my house, but she will not trouble my peace, I can assure you. She will go her own way, and I shall go mine."
"I am afraid that she will not be so passive as you think," said Mrs. Romaine, with some hesitation. "She has been brought up in a very different school from any that you would recommend. A girl fresh from a French convent is not an easy person to deal with. Whatever may be the advantages of these convents, there are certain virtues which are not inculcated in them."
"Truth and honesty, Caspar, my friend. Your daughter's accomplishments will not include candor, I fear."
Mr. Brooke was silent for a moment, his face expressing more concern than he knew. Mrs. Romaine watched him furtively.
"It may be so," he said at last in a rather heavy tone, "but it can't be helped. I had no hand in choosing a school for her, Rosalind"—his voice took a pleading tone "you will do your best for her? You will be her friend in spite of defects in her training?"
"I will do anything that I can. But you will forgive me for saying, Caspar, that it is hard for me to forget that she is the daughter of the woman who—practically—wrecked your life."
Brooke's face grew hard again. He uttered a short laugh, which had not a very agreeable sound.
"Wrecked my life!" he repeated, disdainfully. "Excuse me, Rosalind. No woman ever had the power of wrecking my life. Indeed, I have been far more fortunate and prosperous since Lady Alice chose to leave me than before."
Mrs. Romaine said nothing. She was an adept in the art of insinuating by a look, a turn of the head, a gesture, what she wished to convey. At this moment she indicated very clearly, though without speaking a word, that she sympathized deeply with her friend, Caspar Brooke, and was exceedingly indignant at the way in which he had been treated.
Perhaps Mr. Brooke found the atmosphere enervating, for with a half smile and shake of the head, he rose up to go. Mrs. Romaine rose also.
"She comes to-morrow evening," he said, before he took his leave.
"To-morrow evening? You will be out!"
"No, it is Wednesday: I can manage an evening at home. Perhaps you will kindly look in on Thursday afternoon?"
And this Mrs. Romaine undertook to do.
Caspar Brooke continued his walk along the Eastern side of Russell Square and Woburn Place. His quick observant eyes took note of every incident in his way, of every man, woman, and child within their range of vision. He stopped once to rate a cabman, not too mildly, for beating an over-worked horse—took down his number, and threatened to prosecute him for cruelty to animals. A ragged boy who asked him for money was brought to a standstill by some keenly-worded questions respecting his home, his name, his father's occupation, and the school which he attended. Of these Mr. Brooke also made a note, much to the boy's dismay; but consolation followed in the shape of a shilling, although the donor muttered a malediction on his own folly as he turned away. His last actions, before reaching his own house in Upper Woburn Place, were—first to ring the area-bell for a dog that was waiting at another man's gate (an office which the charitable are often called upon to perform in the streets of London for dogs and cats alike), and then to pick up a bony black kitten and take it on his arm to his own door, where he delivered it to a servant, with injunctions to feed and comfort the starveling. From which facts it may be seen that Mr. Caspar Brooke, in spite of all his faults, was a lover of dumb animals, and of children, and must therefore have possessed a certain amount of kindliness of disposition.
Mr. Brooke dined at six o'clock, then smoked a cigar and had a cup of black coffee brought to him in the untidy little sanctum where he generally did his work. With the coffee came the black kitten, which sidled up to him on the table, purring, and rubbing her head against his arm as if she knew him for a friend. He stroked it occasionally as he read his evening papers, and stroked it in the caressing way which cats love, from its forehead to the tip of its stumpy tail. It was while he was thus engaged that a tap at the door was heard, and the tap was followed by the entrance of a young man, who looked as if he were quite at home.
"Can I come in?" he said, in a perfunctory sort of way; and then, without waiting for any reply, went on—"I've no engagement to-night, so I thought I would look in here first, and see whether you had started."
"All right. Where have you been?"
"Special meeting—Church and State Union," said the young man with a smile. "I went partly in a medical capacity, partly because I was curious to know how they managed to unite the two professions."
"Couldn't your sister tell you?"
"Oh, I don't allow Ethel to attend such mixed gatherings," said the visitor, seating himself on the edge of the library table, and beginning to play with the cat.
"You are unusually particular," said Mr. Brooke, with an amused look. But Maurice Kenyon, as the visitor was named, continued to attract the kitten's notice, without the answering protest which Caspar Brooke had expected.
Maurice Kenyon was nearly thirty, and had stepped by good fortune into the shoes of a medical uncle who had left him a large and increasing general practice in the West Central district. The young man's popularity was not entirely owing to his skill, although he had an exceedingly good repute among his brethren in medicine. Neither was it attributable to good looks. He owed it rather to a sympathetic manner, to the cheerful candor of his dark grey eyes, to the mixture of firmness and delicate kindness by which his treatment of his patients was characterized. He was especially successful in his dealings with children; and he had therefore a good deal of adoration from grateful mothers to put up with. But of his skill and intellectual power there could be no doubt; and these qualities, coupled with his winning manner, bade fair to raise him to a very high place in his profession.
There was one little check, and one only, to the flow of Mr. Kenyon's prosperity. Careful mothers occasionally objected that he was not married, and that his sister was an actress. Why did he let his sister go on the stage? And why, if she was an actress, did he allow her to live in his house? It did not seem quite respectable in the eyes of some worthy people that these things should be. But Mr. Kenyon only laughed when reports of these sayings, reached him, and went on his way unmoved, as his sister Ethel went on hers. And in London, the question of a doctor's relations, his sisters, his cousins, his aunts, and what they do for a living, is not so important as it is in the country. Maurice Kenyon's care of his sister, and her devotion to him, were well known by all their friends; and as he sometimes said, it mattered very little to him what all the rest of the world might think.
"Talking of your sister, Kenyon," said Mr. Brooke, somewhat abruptly, "I suppose you know that my daughter comes to me to-morrow?"
The connection of ideas was not, perhaps, very obvious, but Maurice Kenyon nodded as if he understood.
"I suppose she will want a companion. Would Ethel be so kind as to call on her?"
"Certainly. She will do all she can for Miss Brooke, I am sure."
"I have been speaking to Mrs. Romaine, too."
"Have you?" Kenyon raised eyebrows a very little, but Mr. Brooke did not seem to notice the change of expression.
"—And she promises to do what she can; but a woman like Mrs. Romaine is not likely to find many subjects in common with a girl fresh from a convent."
"I suppose not"—in the driest of tones.
"Mrs. Romaine," said Brooke, in a more decided tone, "is a cultivated woman who has made a mark in literature——"
"In literature?" queried the doctor.
"She has written a novel or two. She writes for various papers—well and smartly, I believe. She is a thorough woman of the world. Naturally, a girl brought up as Lesley has been will——"
"—Will find her detestable," said Kenyon, briskly, "as I and Ethel do. You'll excuse this expression of opinion; you've heard it before."
For a moment Caspar Brooke's face was overcast; then he broke into uneasy laughter, and rose from his chair, shaking himself a little as a big dog sometimes does when it comes out of the water.
"You are incorrigible," he said. "A veritable heretic on the matter of my friend, Mrs. Romaine. By the by, I must remind you, Kenyon, that Mrs. Romaine is a very old friend of mine."
His manner changed slightly as he spoke. There was a little touch of quiet hauteur in his look and tone, as if he wished to repel unsolicited criticism. Maurice understood the man too well to be offended, and merely changed the subject.
But when, after half an hour's chat, the young doctor left the house, his mind reverted to the topic which Mr. Brooke had broached.
"Mrs. Romaine, indeed! Why, the man's mad—to introduce her as a friend to his daughter! Does not all the world know that Mrs. Romaine caused the separation between him and his wife? And will the poor girl know? or has she been kept in the dark completely as to the state of affairs? Upon my word I'm sorry for her. It strikes me that she will have a hard row to hoe, if Mrs. Romaine is at her father's ear."
Mr. Brooke had not long quitted Mrs. Romaine's drawing-room when it was entered by another man, whose personal resemblance to Mrs. Romaine herself was so striking that there could be little doubt as to their close relationship to one another. It was one of those curious likenesses that exist and thrive upon difference. Rosalind was not tall, and she was undeniably plump; while her younger brother, Oliver Trent, was above middle height, and of a spare habit. The creamy white of Mrs. Romaine's complexion had turned to deadly pallor in Oliver's thin, hairless face: and her most striking features were accentuated, and even exaggerated in his. Her arched and mobile eyebrows, her dark eyes, her broad nostrils, curved mouth, and finely-shaped chin, were all to be found, with a subtle unlikeness, in Oliver's face, and the jetty hair, short as it was on the man's head, grew low down on the brow and the nape of the neck exactly as hers did—although this resemblance was obscured by the fact that Rosalind wore a fringe, and carefully curled all the short hairs at the back of her head.
The greatest difference of all lay in the expression of the two faces. Mrs. Romaine had certainly no frankness in her countenance, but she had plenty of smiling pleasantness and play of emotion. Oliver's face was like a sullen mask: it was motionless, stolid even, and unamiable. There were people who raved about his beauty, and nicknamed him Antinous and Adonis. But these were not physiognomists....
Mrs. Romaine had two brothers, both some years younger than herself. Oliver, the youngest and her favorite, was about thirty, and called himself a barrister. As he had no briefs, however, it was currently reported that he lived by means of light literature, play, and judicious sponging upon his sister. The elder brother, Francis, was a ne'er-do-weel, and seldom appeared upon the scene. When he did appear, it was always a sign of trouble and want of cash.
"So you have had Brooke here again?" Oliver inquired.
"How did you know, Noll?"
She turned her dark eyes upon him rather anxiously. Oliver's views and opinions were of consequence to her.
"I saw him come in. I was coming up, but I turned round again and went away. Had a smoke in the Square till I saw him come out. Didn't want to spoil your little game, whatever it was."
He spoke with a kind of soft drawl, not unpleasing to the ear at first, but irritating if too long continued. It seemed to irritate his sister now. She tapped impatiently on the floor with her toe as she replied—
"How vulgar you are sometimes, Oliver! But all society is vulgar now-a-days, and I suppose one ought not to complain. I have no 'little game,' as you express it, and there was not the slightest need for you to have stayed away."
Oliver was sitting on a sofa, with his elbows on his knees and the tips of his long white fingers meeting each other. When Mrs. Romaine ended her petulant little speech he turned his dark eyes upon her and smiled. He said nothing, however, and his silence offended his sister even more than his speech.
"It is easy to see that you do not believe me," she said, "and I think it is very rude of you to be so sceptical. If you have any remarks to make on the subject pray make them at once."
"My dear Rosy, I have no remarks to make at all," said Oliver, easily. "Take your own way and I shall take mine. You are good enough to give me plenty of rope, and I should be uncivil indeed if I commented on the length of yours."
Mrs. Romaine had been moving restlessly to and fro: she now stood still, on the hearthrug, her hands clasped before her, her face turned attentively towards her brother. Evidently she was struck by his words.
"If you would speak out," she said at last, her smooth voice vibrating as if he had touched some chord of passion which was usually hushed to silence, "I should know better what you mean. You deal too much in hints and insinuations. You have said things of this sort before. I must know what you mean."
"Come, Rosy," said Oliver, rising from his low seat and confronting her, "don't be so tragic—so intense. Plump little women like you shouldn't go in for tragedy. Smile, Rosy; it is your metier to smile. You have won a good many games by smiling. You must smile on now—to the bitter end."
He smiled himself as he looked at her—an unpleasant smile, with thin lips drawn back from white sharp looking teeth, which gave him the air of a snarling dog. Mrs. Romaine's face belied his words. It was tragic enough, intense enough, for a woman who had known mortal agony; the suggestion of placidity usually given by her smiling lips and rounded unwrinkled cheeks had disappeared; she might have stood for an impersonation of sorrow and despair. Oliver's mocking voice recalled her to herself.
"A very good pose, Rosalind. The Tragic Muse indeed. Are you going to rival Ethel Kenyon? I am afraid it is rather late for you to go on the stage, that's all. Let me see: you have touched forty, have you not? I would acknowledge only thirty-nine if I were you. There is more than a year's difference between thirty-nine and forty."
The strained muscles of her face relaxed: she made a little impatient gesture with her hands, then turned to the fireplace, and with one arm upon the mantelpiece, looked down into the fire.
"You drive me nearly mad sometimes, Oliver," she said, in a low, passionate voice, "by your habit of saying only half a thing at a time. I know well enough that you are remonstrating with me now: that you disapprove of something—and will not tell me what. By and by, if I am in trouble or perplexity, you will turn round upon me and say that you warned me—told me that you disapproved—or something of that sort. You always do it, and it is not fair. Innuendoes are not warnings."
"My dear Rosalind," said her brother, coolly, "I hope I know my place. I'm ten years younger than you are, and have been at various times much indebted to your generosity. It does not become me to take exception at anything that girls may like to do."
He had the exasperating habit of treating kindness to himself with an air of condescension, as if he conferred a favor by accepting benefits. His smile of superiority hurt Mrs. Romaine.
"When you adopt that tone, Oliver, I hate you!" she cried.
"You are very impulsive, Rosy—in spite of your years," said Oliver, with his usual quietness. "I assure you I do not wish to interfere; and you must set it down to brotherly affection if I sometimes feel inclined to wonder what you mean to do."
"To do?" she queried, looking round at him.
"Yes, to do. I don't understand you, that is all. Of course, it is not necessary that I should understand."
Mrs. Romaine did not often change color, but she flushed scarlet now, and was glad for a moment that the room was almost dark. Yet, as her brother stood close to her, and the fire was sending up fitful flashes of ruddy light, she felt certain, on reflection, that he had seen that blush. This certainly imparted some humility to her voice as she spoke again.
"You know, Oliver, that I always like you to approve of what I am doing. I like you to understand. Of course, whatever I do, it is partly for your sake."
"Is it?" said Oliver, with a laugh. "I shouldn't have thought it. As far as I can judge, you have been very careful to please yourself all through."
There was a little silence. Then she said, in a low tone,
"How have I pleased myself, I should like to know?"
"Do you want a plain statement of facts? Well, my dear, you know them as well as I do, though perhaps you do not know the light in which they present themselves to me. We three, you and Francis and I, were left to earn our own living at a somewhat early age. Francis became a banker's clerk, and you took to literature and governessing and general popularity. By a very clever stroke you managed to induce Professor Romaine to marry you. He was fifty and you were twenty-four. You did very well for yourself—twisted him round your little finger, and got him to leave you all his money; but really I do not see how this could be said to be for my sake."
"Then you are very ungrateful, Oliver. You were a boy of fourteen when I married, and what would you have done but for Mr. Romaine and myself?"
"You forget, my dear," said Oliver, smoothly, "that I was never exactly dependent on you for a livelihood. I took scholarships at school and college, and there was a certain sum of money invested in the Funds for my other expenses. It was perhaps not a large sum, but it was enough. I have to thank you for some very pleasant weeks at your house during the holidays; but there was really no necessity for you to marry Peter Romaine in order to provide for my holidays."
She winced under his tone of banter, but did not speak. She seemed resolved to let him say what he liked. Rosalind Romaine might not be perfect in all relations of life, but she was certainly a good sister.
"When a few years had elapsed," her brother went on, in a light narrative tone, "I'll grant that Romaine was of considerable service to us. He got Francis out of several scrapes, and he shoved me into a Government office, where the duties are not particularly onerous. Oh, yes, I owe some thanks to Romaine."
"And none to me for marrying him?"
Oliver laughed. "My dear Rosy," he said, "I have mentioned before that I consider you married him to please yourself."
She shrugged her shoulders, but said nothing more.
"Romaine became useful to me, of course," said Oliver, reflectively; "and then came the first extraordinary hitch. We met the Brookes—how many years ago—nearly twelve, I suppose; and you formed a gushing friendship with Lady Alice Brooke and her husband, especially with her husband."
"Why do you rake up these old stories?"
"Because I want to understand your position. You amazed me then, and you seem more than ever disposed to amaze me now. You were attracted by Caspar Brooke—heaven knows why! and you made no secret of the fact. You liked the man, and he liked you. I don't know how far the friendship went——"
"There was nothing in it but the most ordinary, innocent acquaintanceship!"
"Lady Alice did not think so. Lady Alice made a devil of a row about it, as far as I understand. Everyone who knows the story blames you, Rosalind, for the quarrel and separation between husband and wife."
"It was not my fault."
"Oh, was it not? Well, perhaps not. At any rate, the husband and wife separated quietly, twelve years ago. I don't know whether you hoped that Brooke would give his wife any justification for her suspicions——"
"Oliver, you are brutal! You insult me! I have never given you reason to think so ill of me."
"I think of you," said Oliver, slowly, "only as I think of all women. I don't suppose you are better or worse than the rest. As it happened the whole thing seemed to die down after that separation. Romaine whisked you off to Calcutta with him. Then he fell ill, and you had to nurse him: you and your friend Brooke did not often meet. Then your husband died, after a long illness, and you came here again three years ago—for what object?"
"I had no object but that of living in a part of London which was familiar to me—and of being amongst friends. You have no right at all to call me to account in this way."
"So I said a few minutes ago. But you remarked that you wished me to understand and approve of your proceedings. I am only trying to get at your motives—if you have any."
Mrs. Romaine was tempted to say that she had no motives. But she did not think that Oliver would believe her.
"Here you are," he went on, in his soft, slow voice, "in friendly—I might say familiar—relations with this man again. His wife is still living, and as bitter against him as ever, but not likely to give him any pretext for a divorce. You cannot marry him. Why do you provoke people to say ill-natured things about you by continuing so aimless a friendship?"
"I don't think that any one would take the trouble of saying ill-natured things about me, Oliver," said Mrs. Romaine, forcing a smile. "We are too conventional, too advanced, now-a-days, for that kind of thing. Friendship between a man and woman is by no means the abnormal and unheard-of thing that it used to be."
"You are not so free as you think you are. You are still good-looking—still young. You cannot afford to defy the world. And I cannot afford to defy it either. I don't mind a reasonable amount of laxity, but I do not want my sister to be the heroine of a scandal."
"I think you might trust me to take care of myself."
"I would not say a word if Brooke were a widower. Although I don't like him, I acknowledge that he is the sort of big blundering brute that suits some women. But there's no chance with him, so why should you make a fool of yourself?"
Mrs. Romaine turned round with a fierce little gesture of contradiction, but restrained herself, and did not speak for a minute or two.
"What do you want me to do?" she said at last, in rather a breathless kind of way.
"Well, my dear Rosy, since you ask me, I should say that it would be far wiser to drop Brooke's acquaintance."
"That is impossible."
"And why impossible?"
"His daughter is coming to him for a year: he has been here to-night to ask me to call on her—to chaperone her sometimes."
"Is the man a fool?" said Oliver.
"I think," Mrs. Romaine answered, somewhat unsteadily, "that Mr. Brooke never knew—exactly—that his wife was jealous of me."
"Oh, that's too much to say. He must have known."
"I am pretty sure that he did not. From things that he has said to me, I feel certain that he attributed only a passing irritation to her on my account. You do not believe me, Oliver; but I think that he is perfectly ignorant of the real cause of her leaving him."
"And you know it?"
"I know it, and Lady Alice knows it: no one else."
"What was it, then? You mean more than simple jealousy, I see."
"Yes, but—I am not obliged to tell you what it was."