SIR ANTHONY HOPE HAWKINS
(ANTHONY HOPE, PSEUD.)
Cupid, I met thee yesterday With an empty quiver, Coming from Clarinda's house By the reedy river.
And I saw Clarinda stand Near the pansies, weeping, With her hands upon her breast All thine arrows keeping.
I. RELUCTANCE II. WHY MEN DON'T MARRY III. A CHANGE OF HEART IV. A REPENTANT SINNER V. 'TWIXT WILL AND WILL NOT VI. WHICH SHALL IT BE? VII. MARRIAGE BY COMPULSION VIII. ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
Neither life nor the lawn-tennis club was so full at Natterley that the news of Harry Sterling's return had not some importance.
He came back, moreover, to assume a position very different from his old one. He had left Harrow now, departing in the sweet aroma of a long score against Eton at Lord's, and was to go up to Oxford in October. Now between a schoolboy and a University man there is a gulf, indicated unmistakably by the cigarette which adorned Harry's mouth as he walked down the street with a newly acquiescent father, and thoroughly realized by his old playmates. The young men greeted him as an equal, the boys grudgingly accepted his superiority, and the girls received him much as though they had never met him before in their lives and were pressingly in need of an introduction. These features of his reappearance amused Mrs. Mortimer; she recollected him as an untidy, shy, pretty boy; but mind, working on matter, had so transformed him that she was doubtful enough about him to ask her husband if that were really Harry Sterling.
Mr. Mortimer, mopping his bald head after one of his energetic failures at lawn tennis, grunted assent, and remarked that a few years more would see a like development in their elder son, a remark which bordered on absurdity; for Johnny was but eight, and ten years are not a few years to a lady of twenty-eight, whatever they may seem to a man of forty-four.
Presently Harry, shaking himself free from an entangling group of the Vicarage girls, joined his father, and the two came across to Mrs. Mortimer.
She was a favorite of old Sterling's, and he was proud to present his handsome son to her. She listened graciously to his jocosities, stealing a glance at Harry when his father called him "a good boy." Harry blushed and assumed an air of indifference, tossing his hair back from his smooth forehead, and swinging his racket carelessly in his hand. The lady addressed some words of patronizing kindness to him, seeking to put him at his ease. She seemed to succeed to some extent, for he let his father and her husband go off together, and sat down by her on the bench, regardless of the fact that the Vicarage girls were waiting for him to make a fourth.
He said nothing, and Mrs. Mortimer looked at him from under her long lashes; in so doing she discovered that he was looking at her.
"Aren't you going to play any more, Mr. Sterling?" she asked.
"Why aren't you playing?" he rejoined.
"My husband says I play too badly."
"Oh, play with me! We shall make a good pair."
"Then you must be very good."
"Well, no one can play a hang here, you know. Besides I'm sure you're all right, really."
"You forget my weight of years."
He opened his blue eyes a little, and laughed. He was, in fact, astonished to find that she was quite a young woman. Remembering old Mortimer and the babies, he had thought of her as full middle-aged. But she was not; nor had she that likeness to a suet pudding, which his newborn critical faculty cruelly detected in his old friends, the Vicarage girls.
There was one of them—Maudie—with whom he had flirted in his holidays; he wondered at that, especially when a relentless memory told him that Mrs. Mortimer must have been at the parties where the thing went on. He felt very much older, so much older that Mrs. Mortimer became at once a contemporary. Why, then, should she begin, as she now did, to talk to him, in quasi maternal fashion, about his prospects? Men don't have prospects, or, anyhow, are spared questionings thereon.
Either from impatience of this topic, or because, after all, tennis was not to be neglected, he left her, and she sat alone for a little while, watching him play. She was glad that she had not played; she could not have rivaled the activity of the Vicarage girls. She got up and joined Mrs. Sterling, who was presiding over the club teapot. The good lady expected compliments on her son, but for some reason Mrs. Mortimer gave her none. Very soon, indeed, she took Johnnie away with her, leaving her husband to follow at his leisure.
In comparing Maudie Sinclair to a suet pudding, Harry had looked at the dark side of the matter.
The suggestion, though indisputable, was only occasionally obtrusive, and as a rule hushed almost to silence by the pleasant good nature which redeemed shapeless features. Mrs. Mortimer had always liked Maudie, who ran in and out of her house continually, and had made of herself a vice-mother to the little children.
The very next day she came, and, in the intervals of playing cricket with Johnnie, took occasion to inform Mrs. Mortimer that in her opinion Harry Sterling was by no means improved by his new status and dignity. She went so far as to use the term "stuck-up." "He didn't use to be like that," she said, shaking her head; "he used to be very jolly." Mrs. Mortimer was relieved to note an entire absence of romance either in the regretted past or the condemned present. Maudie mourned a friend spoiled, not an admirer lost; the tone of her criticisms left no doubt of it, and Mrs. Mortimer, with a laugh, announced her intention of asking the Sterlings to dinner and having Maudie to meet them. "You will be able to make it up then," said she.
"Why, I see him every day at the tennis club," cried Maudie in surprise.
The faintest of blushes tinged Mrs. Mortimer's cheek as she chid herself for forgetting this obvious fact.
The situation now developed rapidly. The absurd thing happened: Harry Sterling began to take a serious view of his attachment to Mrs. Mortimer. The one thing more absurd, that she should take a serious view of it, had not happened yet, and, indeed, would never happen; so she told herself with a nervous little laugh. Harry gave her no opportunity of saying so to him, for you cannot reprove glances or discourage pressings of your hand in fashion so blunt.
And he was very discreet: he never made her look foolish. In public he treated her with just the degree of attention that gained his mother's fond eulogium, and his father's approving smile; while Mr. Mortimer, who went to London at nine o'clock every morning and did not return till seven, was very seldom bothered by finding the young fellow hanging about the house. Certainly he came pretty frequently between the hours named, but it was, as the children could have witnessed, to play with them. And, through his comings and goings, Mrs. Mortimer moved with pleasure, vexation, self-contempt, and eagerness.
One night she and her husband went to dine with the Sterlings. After dinner Mr. Mortimer accepted his host's invitation to stay for a smoke. He saw no difficulty in his wife walking home alone; it was but half a mile, and the night was fine and moonlit. Mrs. Mortimer made no difficulty either, but Mrs. Sterling was sure that Harry would be delighted to see Mrs. Mortimer to her house.
She liked the boy to learn habits of politeness, she said, and his father eagerly proffered his escort, waving aside Mrs. Mortimer's protest that she would not think of troubling Mr. Harry; throughout which conversation Harry said nothing at all, but stood smiling, with his hat in his hand, the picture of an obedient, well-mannered youth. There are generally two ways anywhere, and there were two from the Sterlings' to the Mortimers': the short one through the village, and the long one round by the lane and across the Church meadow. The path diverging to the latter route comes very soon after you leave the Sterlings', and not a word had passed when Mrs. Mortimer and Harry reached it. Still without a word, Harry turned off to follow the path. Mrs. Mortimer glanced at him; Harry smiled.
"It's much longer," she said.
"There's lots of time," rejoined Harry, "and it's such a jolly night." The better to enjoy the night's beauty, he slackened his pace to a very crawl.
"It's rather dark; won't you take my arm?" he said.
"What nonsense! Why, I could see to read!"
"But I'm sure you're tired."
"How absurd you are! Was it a great bore?"
"No," said Harry.
In such affairs monosyllables are danger signals. A long protestation might have meant nothing: in this short, sufficient negative Mrs. Mortimer recognized the boy's sincerity. A little thrill of pride and shame, and perhaps something else, ran through her. The night was hot and she unfastened the clasp of her cloak, breathing a trifle quickly. To relieve the silence, she said, with a laugh:
"You see we poor married women have to depend on charity. Our husbands don't care to walk home with us. Your father was bent on your coming."
Harry laughed a short laugh; the utter darkness of Mr. Sterling's condition struck through his agitation down to his sense of humor. Mrs. Mortimer smiled at him; she could not help it: the secret between them was so pleasant to her, even while she hated herself for its existence.
They had reached the meadow now, halfway through their journey. A little gate led into it and Harry stopped, leaning his arm on the top rail.
"Oh, no! we must go on," she murmured.
"They won't move for an hour yet," he answered, and then he suddenly broke out:
"How—how funny it is! I hardly remembered you, you know."
"Oh, but I remembered you, a pretty little boy;" and she looked up at his face, half a foot above her. Mere stature has much effect and the little boy stage seemed very far away. And he knew that it did, for he put out his hand to take hers. She drew back.
"No," she said.
Harry blushed. She took hold of the gate and he, yielding his place, let her pass through. For a minute or two they walked on in silence.
"Oh, how silly you are!" she cried then, beginning with a laugh and ending with a strange catch in her throat. "Why, you're only just out of knickerbockers!"
"I don't care, I don't care, Hilda——"
"Hush, hush! Oh, indeed, you must be quiet! See, we are nearly home."
He seized her hand, not to be quelled this time, and, bending low over it, kissed it. She did not draw it away, but watched him with a curious, pained smile. He looked up in her face, his own glowing with excitement. He righted himself to his full stature and, from that stooping, kissed her on the lips.
"Oh, you silly boy!" she moaned, and found herself alone in the meadow. He had gone swiftly back by the way they had come, and she went on to her home.
"Well, the boy saw you home?" asked Mr. Mortimer when he arrived half an hour later.
"Yes," she said, raising her head from the cushions of the sofa on which he found her lying.
"I supposed so, but he didn't come into the smoking-room when he got back. Went straight to bed, I expect. He's a nice-mannered young fellow, isn't he?"
"Oh, very!" said Mrs. Mortimer.
Mr. Mortimer had never been so looked after, cosseted, and comforted for his early start as the next morning, nor the children found their mother so patient and affectionate. She was in an abasement of shame and disgust at herself, and quite unable to treat her transgression lightly. That he was a boy and she—not a girl—seemed to charge her with his as well as her own sins, and, besides this moral aggravation, entailed a lower anxiety as to his discretion and secrecy that drove her half mad with worry. Suppose he should boast of it! Or, if he were not bad enough for that, only suppose he should be carried away into carelessness about it! He had nothing to fear worse than what he would call "a wigging" and perhaps summary dismissal to a tutor's: she had more at risk than she could bear to think of. Probably, by now, he recognized his foolishness, and laughed at himself and her. This thought made her no happier, for men may do all that—and yet, very often, they do not stop.
She had to go to a party at the Vicarage in the afternoon. Harry would be sure to be there, and, with a conflict of feeling finding expression in her acts, she protected herself by taking all the children, while she inconsistently dressed herself in her most youthful and coquettish costume. She found herself almost grudging Johnnie his rapidly increasing inches, even while she relied on him for an assertion of her position as a matron. For the folly of last night was to be over and done with, and her acquaintance with Harry Sterling to return to its only possible sane basis; that she was resolved on, but she wanted Harry honestly—even keenly—to regret her determination.
He was talking to Maudie Sinclair when she arrived; he took off his hat, but did not allow his eyes to meet hers. She gathered her children round her, and sat down among the chaperons. Mrs. Sterling came and talked to her; divining a sympathy, the good mother had much to say of her son, of her hopes and her fears for him; so many dangers beset young men, especially if they were attractive, like Harry; there were debts, idleness, fast men, and—worst of all—there were designing women, ready to impose on and ruin the innocence of youth.
"He's been such a good boy till now," said Mrs. Sterling, "but, of course, his father and I feel anxious. If we could only keep him here, out of harm's way, under our own eyes!"
Mrs. Mortimer murmured consolation.
"How kind of you! And your influence is so good for him. He thinks such a lot of you, Hilda."
Mrs. Mortimer, tried too hard, rose and strolled away. Harry's set seemed to end almost directly, and a moment later he was shaking hands with her, still keeping his eyes away from hers. She made her grasp cold and inanimate, and he divined the displeasure she meant to indicate.
"You must go and play again," she said, "or talk to the girls. You mustn't come and talk to me."
"Why not! How can I help it—now?"
The laughing at her and himself had evidently not come, but, bad as that would have been to bear, his tone threatened something worse.
"Don't," she answered sharply. "I'm very angry. You were very unkind and—and ungentlemanly last night."
He flushed crimson.
"Didn't you like it?" he asked, with the terrible simplicity of his youth.
For all her trouble, she had to bite her lip to hide a smile. What a question to ask—just in so many words!
"It was very, very wicked, and, of course, I didn't like it," she answered. "Oh, Harry! don't you know how wicked it was?"
"Oh, yes! I know that, of course," said he, picking at the straw of his hat, which he was carrying in his hand.
"Well, then!" she said.
"I couldn't help it."
"You must help it. Oh, don't you know—oh, it's absurd! I'm years older than you."
"You looked so—so awfully pretty."
"I can't stand talking to you. They'll all see."
"Oh, it's all right. You're a friend of mother's, you know. I say, when shall I be able to see you again—alone, you know?"
Mrs. Mortimer was within an ace of a burst of tears. He seemed not to know that he made her faint with shame, and mad with exultation, and bewildered with terror all in a moment. His new manhood took no heed, save of itself. Was this being out of harm's way, under the eyes of those poor blind parents?
"If—if you care the least for me—for what I wish, go away, Harry," she whispered.
He looked at her in wonder, but, with a frown on his face, did as he was told. Five minutes later he was playing again; she heard him shout "Thirty—love," as he served, a note of triumphant battle in his voice. She believed that she was altogether out of his thoughts.
Her husband was to dine in town that night, and, for sheer protection, she made Maudie Sinclair come and share her evening meal. The children were put to bed, and they sat down alone together, talking over the party. Maudie was pleased to relax a little of her severity toward Harry Sterling; she admitted that he had been very useful in arranging the sets, and very pleasant to everyone.
"Of course, he's conceited," she said, "but all boys are. He'll get over it."
"You talk as if you were a hundred, Maudie," laughed Mrs. Mortimer. "He's older than you are."
"Oh, but boys are much younger than girls, Mrs. Mortimer. Harry Sterling's quite a boy still."
A knock sounded at the door. A minute later the boy walked in. The sight of Maudie Sinclair produced a momentary start, but he recovered himself and delivered a note from his mother, the excuse for his visit. It was an invitation for a few days ahead; there could certainly have been no hurry for it to arrive that night. While Mrs. Mortimer read it, Harry sat down and looked at her. She was obliged to treat his arrival as unimportant, and invited him to have a glass of wine.
"Why are you in evening dress?" asked Maudie wonderingly.
"For dinner," answered Harry.
"Do you dress when you're alone at home?"
"Generally. Most men do."
Maudie allowed herself to laugh. Mrs. Mortimer saw the joke, too, but its amusement was bitter to her.
"I like it," she said gently. "Most of the men I know do it."
"Your husband doesn't," observed Miss Sinclair.
"Poor George gets down from town so tired."
She gave Harry the reply she had written (it was a refusal—she could not have told why), but he seemed not to understand that he was to go. Before he apprehended, she had to give him a significant glance; she gave it in dread of Maudie's eyes. She knew how sharp schoolgirls' eyes are in such things. Whether Maudie saw it or not, Harry did; he sprang to his feet and said good-night.
Maudie was not long after him. The conversation languished, and there was nothing to keep her. With an honest yawn she took her leave. Mrs. Mortimer accompanied her down the garden to the gate. As she went, she became to her startled horror aware of a third person in the garden. She got rid of Maudie as soon as she could, and turned back to the house. Harry, emerging from behind a tree, stood before her.
"I know what you're going to say," he said doggedly, "but I couldn't help it. I was dying to see you again." She spread out her hands as though to push him away. She was like a frightened girl.
"Oh, you're mad!" she whispered. "You must go. Suppose anyone should come. Suppose my husband——"
"I can't help it. I won't stay long."
"Harry, Harry, don't be cruel! You'll ruin me, Harry. If you love me, go—if you love me."
Even now he hardly fathomed her distress, but she had made him understand that this spot and this time were too dangerous.
"Tell me where I can see you safely," he asked, almost demanded.
"You can see me safely—nowhere."
"Nowhere? You mean that you won't——"
"Harry, come here a minute—there—no closer. I just want to be able to touch your hair. Go away, dear—yes, I said 'dear.' Do please go away. You—you won't be any happier afterward for having—if—if you don't go away."
He stood irresolutely still. Her fingers lightly touched his hair, and then her arm dropped at her side. He saw a tear run down her cheek. Suddenly his own face turned crimson.
"I'm—I'm very sorry," he muttered. "I didn't mean——"
"Good-night. I'm going in."
She held out her hand. Again he bent and kissed it, and, as he did so, he felt the light touch of her lips among his hair.
"I'm such a foolish, foolish woman," she whispered, "but you're a gentleman, Harry," and she drew her hand away and left him.
Two days later she took her children off to the seaside. And the Mortimers never came back to Natterley. She wrote and told Mrs. Sterling that George wanted to be nearer his work in town, and that they had gone to live at Wimbledon.
"How we shall miss her!" exclaimed good Mrs. Sterling. "Poor Harry! what'll he say?"
One day, at Brighton, some six years later, a lady in widow's weeds, accompanied by a long, loose-limbed boy of fourteen, was taking the air by the sea. The place was full of people, and the scene gay.
Mrs. Mortimer sat down on a seat and Johnnie stood idly by her. Presently a young man and a girl came along. While they were still a long way off, Mrs. Mortimer, who was looking in that direction, suddenly leaned forward, started a little, and looked hard at them. Johnnie, noticing nothing, whistled unconcernedly.
The couple drew near. Mrs. Mortimer sat with a faint smile on her face. The girl was chatting merrily to the young man, and he listened to her and laughed every now and then, but his bright eyes were not fixed on her, but were here, there, and everywhere, where metal attractive to such eyes might be found. The discursive mood of the eyes somehow pleased Mrs. Mortimer. Just as the young man came opposite her, he glanced in her direction.
Mrs. Mortimer wore the curious, half-indifferent, half-expectant air of one ready for recognition, but not claiming it as a right.
At the first glance, a puzzled look came into the young man's eyes. He looked again: then there was a blank in his eyes. Mrs. Mortimer made no sign, but sat still, half-expectant. He was past her now, but he flung a last glance over his shoulder. He was evidently very doubtful whether the lady on the seat, in the heavy mourning robes, were someone he knew or not. First he thought she was, and then he thought she wasn't. The face certainly reminded him of—now who the deuce was it? Harry knit his brows and exclaimed:
"I half believe that's somebody I know!"
And he puzzled over it, for nearly five minutes, all in vain. Meanwhile Mrs. Mortimer looked at the sea, till Johnnie told her that it was dinner-time.
WHY MEN DON'T MARRY.
We were sitting around the fire at Colonel Holborow's. Dinner was over—had, in fact, been over for some time—the hour of smoke, whisky, and confidence had arrived, and we had been telling one another the various reasons which accounted for our being unmarried, for we were all bachelors except the colonel, and he had, as a variety, told the reasons why he wished he was unmarried (his wife was away). Jack Dexter, however, had not spoken, and it was only in response to a direct appeal that he related the following story. The story may be true or untrue, but I must remark that Jack always had rather a weakness for representing himself on terms of condescending intimacy with the nobility and even greater folk.
Jack sighed deeply. There was a sympathetic silence. Then he began:
"For some reason best known to herself," said Jack, with a patient shrug of his shoulders, "the Duchess of Medmenham (I don't know whether any of you fellows know her) chose to object to me as a suitor for the hand of her daughter, Mary Fitzmoine. The woman was so ignorant that she may really have thought that my birth was not equal to her daughter's; but all the world knows that the Munns were yeomen two hundred years ago, and that her Grace's family hails from a stucco villa in the neighborhood of Cardiff. However, the duchess did object; and when the season (in the course of which I had met Lady Mary many times) ended, instead of allowing her daughter to pay a series of visits at houses where I had arranged to be, she sent her off to Switzerland, under the care of a dragon whom she had engaged to keep me and other dangerous fellows at a proper distance. On hearing of what had happened from George Fitzmoine (an intimate friend of mine), I at once threw up my visits and started in pursuit. I felt confident that Lady Mary was favorably inclined (in fact, I had certain proofs which—but no matter), and that if I won her heart I could break down the old lady's opposition. I should certainly have succeeded in my enterprise, and been at this moment the husband of one of the most beautiful girls in England, but for a very curious and unfortunate circumstance, which placed me in an unfavorable light in Mary's eyes. I was not to blame; it was just a bit of bad luck.
"I ranged over most of Switzerland in search of Lady Mary. Wherever I went I asked about her, and at last I got upon the track. At Interlaken I found her name in the visitors' book, together with that of a Miss Dibbs, whom I took to be the dragon. I questioned the porter and found that the two ladies had, the afternoon before, hired a carriage and driven to a quiet little village some fifteen miles off, where there was a small but good inn. Here they evidently meant to stay, for letters were to be sent after them there for the next week. The place was described to me as pretty and retired; it seemed, therefore, an ideal spot for my purpose. I made up my mind at once. I started the next day after luncheon, took the journey easily, and came in sight of the little inn about seven o'clock in the evening. All went well. The only question was as to the disposition of Miss Dibbs toward me. I prayed that she might turn out to be a romantic dragon; but, in case she should prove obstinate, I made my approaches with all possible caution. When my carriage stopped at the door I jumped out. The head waiter, a big fellow in a white waistcoat, was on the steps. I drew him aside, and took a ten-franc piece from my pocket.
"'Is there a young lady staying here?' I asked. 'Tall, fair, handsome?' and I slid the piece of gold into his palm.
"'Well, yes, sir,' he said, 'there is a young lady, and she is all that you say, sir. Pardon me, Monsieur is English?'
"'Yes,' said I.
"'Ah,' said he, smiling mysteriously. 'And it is Wednesday.'
"'It is certainly Wednesday,' I admitted, though I did not see that the day of the week mattered much.
"He came close to me and whispered:
"'The lady thought you might come, sir. I think she expects you, sir. Oh, you can rely on my discretion, sir.'
"I was rather surprised, but not very much, for I had hinted to George Fitzmoine that I meant to try my luck, and I supposed that he had passed my hint on to his sister. My predominant feeling was one of gratification. Mary loved me! Mary expected me! There was complete mental sympathy between Mary and myself!
"I went up to my room in a state of great contentment. I had been there about half an hour when my friend the waiter came in. Advancing toward me with a mysterious air, he took a blank envelope out of his pocket and held it up before me with a roguish smile.
"'Monsieur will know the handwriting inside,' he said cunningly.
"Now I had never corresponded with Lady Mary, and of course did not know her handwriting, but I saw no use in telling the waiter that. In truth, I thought the fellow quite familiar enough. So I said shortly and with some hauteur:
"'Give me the note;' and I took another piece of gold out of my pocket. We exchanged our possessions, the waiter withdrew with a wink, and I tore open the precious note.
"'Whatever you do,' it ran, 'don't recognize me. I am WATCHED. As soon as I can I will tell you where to meet me. I knew you would come.—M.'
"'The darling!' I exclaimed. 'She's a girl of spirit. I'll take good care not to betray her. Oh, we'll circumvent old Dibbs between us.'
"At eight o'clock I went down to the salle a manger. It was quite empty. Mary and Miss Dibbs no doubt dined in their own sitting room, and there appeared to be no one else in the hotel. However, when I was halfway through my meal, a stylishly dressed young woman came in and sat down at a table at the end of the room farthest from where I was. I should have noticed her more, but I was in a reverie about Mary's admirable charms, and I only just looked at her; she was frowning and drumming angrily with her fingers on the table. The head waiter hurried up to her; his face was covered with smiles, and he gave me a confidential nod en passant. Nothing else occurred except that a villainous looking fellow—something, to judge by his appearance, between a valet and a secretary—thrust his ugly head through the door three or four times. Whenever he did so the waiter smiled blandly at him. He did it the last time just as the lady was walking down the room. Seeing her coming he drew back and held the door open for her with a clumsy, apologetic bow. She smiled scornfully and passed through. The waiter stood grinning in the middle of the room, and when I, in my turn, rose, he whispered to me, 'It's all right, sir.' I went to bed and dreamed of Mary.
"On entering the room next morning the first person I saw was Mary. She was looking adorably fresh and pretty. She sat opposite a stout, severe-looking dame in black. Directly my eyes alighted on her I schooled them into a studiously vacant expression. She, poor girl, was no diplomatist. She started; she glanced anxiously at Miss Dibbs; I saw her lips move; she blushed; she seemed almost to smile. Of course this behavior (I loved Mary the more that she could not conceal her delightful embarrassment!) excited the dragon's curiosity; she turned round and favored me with a searching gaze. I was equal to the occasion. I comprehended them both in a long, cool, deliberate, empty stare. The strain on my self-control was immense, but I supported it. Mary blushed crimson, and her eyes sank to her plate. Poor girl! She had sadly overrated her powers of deception. I was not surprised that Miss Dibbs frowned severely and sniffed audibly.
"At that moment the other girl came in. She walked up, took the table next to mine, and, to my confusion, bestowed upon me a look of evident interest, though of the utmost shortness—one of those looks, you know, that seem to be repented of in an instant, and are generally the most deliberate. I took no notice at all, assuming an air of entire unconsciousness. A few minutes later Mary got up and made for the door, with Miss Dibbs in close attendance. The imprudent child could not forbear to glance at me; but I, seeing the dragon's watchful eye upon me, remained absolutely irresponsive. Nay, to throw Miss Dibbs off the scent, I fixed my eyes on my neighbor with assumed preoccupation. Flushing painfully, Mary hurried out, and I heard Miss Dibbs sniff again. I chuckled over her obvious disapproval of my neighbor and myself. The excellent woman evidently thought us no better than we ought to be! But I felt that I should go mad if I could not speak to Mary soon.
"I went out and sat down in the veranda. It was then about half-past ten. The ugly fellow whom I had noticed the evening before was hanging about, but presently a waiter came and spoke to him, and he got up with a grumble and went into the house. Ten minutes afterward my neighbor of the salle a manger came out. She looked very discontented. She rang a handbell that stood on the table, and a waiter ran up.
"'Where's the head waiter?' she asked sharply.
"'Pardon, ma'mselle, but he is waiting on some ladies upstairs.'
"'What a nuisance!' said she. 'But you'll do. I want to give him an order. Stay; come indoors and I'll write it down.'
"She disappeared, and I sat on, wondering how I was to get a sight of Mary. At last, in weariness, I went indoors to the smoking room. It looked out to the back and was a dreary little room; but I lit my cigar and began on a three days' old copy of the Times. Thus I spent a tedious hour. Then my friend the head waiter appeared, looking more roguish than ever. I dived into my pocket, he produced a note, I seized it.
"'Why have you been so long?' (Charmingly unreasonable! what could I have done?) 'Directly you get this, come to the wood behind the hotel. Take the path to the right and go straight till you find me. I have thrown the SPY [poor old Dibbs!] off the scent.—M.'
"I caught up my hat and rushed into the hall. I cannoned into a young man who had just got out of a carriage and was standing in the veranda. With a hasty apology I dashed on. Beyond doubt she loved me! And she was honest enough not to conceal it. I hate mock modesty. I longed to show her how truly I returned her love, and I rejoiced that there need be no tedious preliminaries.
Mary and I understood one another. A kiss would be the seal of our love—and the most suitable beginning of our conversation.
"In five minutes I was in the wood. Just before I disappeared among its trees I heard someone calling 'Monsieur, monsieur!' It sounded like the voice of the head waiter, but I wouldn't have stopped for fifty head waiters. I took the path Mary had indicated and ran along it at the top of my speed. Suddenly, to my joy, I caught sight of the figure of a girl; she was seated on a mound of grass, and, though her face was from me, I made no doubt it was Mary. She wore the most charming blue cloak (it was a chilly morning) which completely enveloped her. I determined not to shilly-shally. She loved me—I loved her. I ran forward, plumped down on my knees behind her, took her head between my hands dodged round, and kissed her cheek.
"'At last, my darling!' I cried in passionate tones.
"By Jupiter, it was the other girl, though!
"I sprang back in horror. The girl looked at me for a moment. Then she blushed; then she frowned; then—why, then she began to laugh consumedly. I was amazed.
"'"At last," you call it,' she gasped. 'I call it "at first"'; and she laughed merrily and melodiously. She certainly had a nice laugh, that girl.
"Now, concerning what follows, I have, since then, entertained some doubts whether I behaved in all respects discreetly. You will allow that the position was a difficult one, but it is, I admit, very possible that my wisest course would have been to make an apology and turn tail as quickly as I could. Well, I didn't. I thought that I owed the lady a full explanation. Besides, I wanted a full explanation myself. Finally (oh, yes, I see you fellows grinning and winking), Mary was not there, and this young lady rather interested me. I decided that I would have five minutes' talk with her; then I would run back and find Mary.
"'I must beg a thousand pardons,' I began, 'but I took you for somebody else."
"'Oh, of course,' said she, with a shrug, 'it's always that.'
"'You appear incredulous,' said I, rather offended.
"'Well, and if I am?' said she.
"My feelings were hurt. I produced Mary's second note.
"'If I can trust to your discretion, I'll prove what I say,' I remarked in a nettled tone.
"'I shall be very curious to hear the proof, sir, and I will be most discreet,' she said. She was pouting, but her eyes danced. Really, she looked very pretty—although, of course, I would not for a moment compare her with Lady Mary.
"'A lady,' said I, 'was so kind as to tell me to seek her here this morning.'
"'Oh, as if I believed that!'
"I was piqued.
"'There's the proof,' I cried, flinging the note into her lap.
"She took it up, glanced at it, and gave a little shriek.
"'Where did you get this?'
"'Why, from the head waiter.'
"'Oh, the fool!' she cried. 'It's mine.'
"'Yours? nonsense! He gave me that and another last night.'
"'Oh, the stupidity! They were for—they were not for you. They were for—someone who is to arrive.'
"I pointed at the signature and gasped, 'M.! Do you sign M.?'
"'Yes; my name's—my name begins with M. Oh, if I'd only seen that waiter this morning! Oh, the idiot!'
"Then I believe I swore.
"'Madame,' said I, 'I'm ruined! No harm is done to you—I'm a man of honor—but I'm ruined. On the strength of your wretched notes, madame, I've cut the girl I love best in the world—cut her dead—dead—dead!'
"'What? That young lady in the—— Oh, you thought they were from her? Oh, I see? How—how—oh, how very amusing!' And the heartless little wretch went off into another peal of laughter.
"'You pretended not to know her! Oh, dear! oh, dear!' and her laughter echoed among the trees again. 'I saw her looking at you, and you ate on like a pig! Oh, dear! oh, dear!'
"'Stop laughing!' said I savagely.
"'Oh, I'm very sorry, but I can't. What a scrape you've go into! Oh, me!' And she wiped her eyes (they were as blue as her cloak) with a delicate bit of a handkerchief.
"'You shan't laugh,' said I. 'Who were your notes for?'
"'Somebody I expected. He hasn't come. The waiter took you for him, I suppose. I never thought of his being so stupid. Oh, what a brute she must have thought you!' And she began to laugh again.
"I had had enough of it. I hate being laughed at.
"'If you go on laughing,' said I, 'I'll kiss you again.'
"The threat was a failure; she did not appear at all alarmed.
"'Not you!' she said, laughing worse than ever.
"I should like you fellows to understand that my heart never wavered in its allegiance to Lady Mary—my conscience is quite clear as to that—but I had pledged my word. I caught that tiresome girl round the waist and I kissed her once—I'm sure of once, anyhow. She gasped and struggled, laughing still. Then, with a sudden change of voice, she cried, 'Stop', stop!'
"I let her go. I looked round. We had a gallery of spectators. On one side stood the ugly-headed valet; on the other, in attitudes of horror, Mary and Miss Dibbs!
"'You've ruined us both now,' said the girl in blue.
"I rose to my feet and was about to explain, when the ugly fellow rushed at me, brandishing a cane. I had quite enough to arrange without being bothered by him. I caught the cane in my left hand, and with my right I knocked him down.
"Then I walked up to Lady Mary. I took no heed of Miss Dibbs' presence; it was too critical a moment to think of trifles.
"'Lady Mary,' said I, 'appearances are so much against me that you cannot possibly attach the slightest weight to them.'
"'Sir,' said she, 'I have no longer the honor of your acquaintance. I have only to thank you for having had the consideration not to recognize me when we met so unexpectedly in the dining room. Pray continue to show me the same favor.'
"With which pleasant little speech she turned on her heel. It was clear that she suspected me most unjustly. I turned to the girl in blue, but she was beforehand with me.
"'Ah, I wish I'd never see you,' she cried, 'you great, stupid creature! He [she pointed to the prostrate figure of the ugly servant] will tell Frederic everything.'
"'Come,' said I, 'I was only an accident; it would have been just as bad if——'
"As I spoke I heard a step behind me. Turning round, I found myself face to face with the young man with whom I had come in collision as I rushed through the hall. He gazed at the servant—at me—at the girl in blue.
"'Margaret!' he exclaimed, 'what is the——'
"'Hush, hush!' she whispered, pointing again to the servant.
"I stepped up to him, lifting my hat:
"'Sir,' said I, "kindly inform me if you are the gentleman who was to come from England.'
"'Certainly I come from England,' he said.
"'And you ought to have arrived on Wednesday?'
"'Yes," he answered.
"'Then,' said I, 'all I have to say to you, sir, is—that I wish to the devil you'd keep your appointments.' And I left them.
"That's why I'm not married, boys. Where's my glass?"
"It is a very curious story," observed the colonel. "And who were they all—the girl in blue—and the young man—and the ugly servant—and Frederic?"
"Colonel," said Jack, with an air of deepest mystery, "you would be astounded to hear."
We all pricked up our ears.
"But," he continued, "I am not at liberty to say."
We sank back in our chairs.
"Do you know?" asked the colonel, and Jack nodded solemnly.
"Out with it!" we cried.
"Impossible!" said Jack. "But I may tell you that the matter engaged the attention of more than one of the Foreign Offices of Europe."
"Good Heavens!" cried we in chorus, and Jack drank off his whisky and water, rose to his feet, and put on his hat.
"Poor dear Mary!" said he, as he opened the door. "She never got over it."
The colonel shouted after him:
"Then what did she marry Jenkyns of the Blues for?"
"Pique!" said Jack, and he shut the door.
A CHANGE OF HEART.
It was common knowledge that Smugg was engaged to be married.
Familiarity had robbed the fact of some of its surprisingness, but there remained a substratum of wonder, not removed even by the sight of his betrothed's photograph and the information that she was a distant relative who had been brought up with him from infancy. The features and the explanation between them rescued Smugg from the incongruity of a romance, but we united in the opinion that the lady was ill-advised in preferring Smugg to solitude. Still, for all that he was a ridiculous creature, she did, and hence it happened that Smugg, desiring to form a furnishing fund, organized a reading party, which Gayford, Tritton, Bird, and I at once joined.
Every morning at nine Smugg, his breakfast finished, cleared his corner of the table, opened his books, and assumed an expectant air; so Mary the maid told us; we were never there ourselves; we breakfasted at 9.30 or 10 o'clock, and only about 11 did we clear our corners, light our pipes, open our books, and discuss the prospects of the day.
As we discussed them, Smugg construed in a gentle bleat; what he construed or why he construed it (seeing that nobody heeded him) was a mystery; the whole performance was simply a tribute to Smugg's conscience, and, as such, was received with good-natured, scornful toleration.
Suddenly a change came.
One morning there was no Smugg! Yet he had breakfasted—Mary and an eggshell testified to that effect. He reappeared at 11.30, confused and very warm (he had exceptional powers in the way of being warm). We said nothing, and he began to bleat Horace. In a minute of silence I happened to hear what it was: it referred to a lady of the name of Pyrrha; the learned may identify the passage for themselves. The next day the same thing happened except that it was close on twelve before Smugg appeared. Gayford and Tritton took no notice of the aberration; Bird congratulated Smugg on the increased docility of his conscience. I watched him closely as he wiped his brow—he was very warm, indeed. A third time the scene was enacted; my curiosity was aroused; I made Mary call me very early, and from the window I espied Smugg leaving the house at 9.15, and going with rapid, furtive steps along the little path that led to old Dill's tiny farm. I slipped downstairs, bolted a cup of tea, seized a piece of toast, and followed Smugg. He was out of sight, but presently I met Joe Shanks, the butcher's son, who brought us our chops. Joe was a stout young man, about twenty-one, red-faced, burly, and greasy. We used to have many jokes with Joe; even Smugg had before now broken a mild shaft of classical wit on him; in fact, we made a butt of Joe, and his good-humored, muttony smile told us that he thought it a compliment.
"Seen Mr. Smugg as you came along, Joe?" I asked.
"Yes, sir. Gone toward Dill's farm, sir."
"Ah, Dill's farm!"
The chop-laden Joe passed on. I mended my pace, and soon found myself on the outskirts of Dill's premises. I had been there before; we had all been there before. Dill had a daughter. I saw her now in a sunbonnet and laced boots. I may say at once that Betsy Dill was very pretty, in a fine, robust style, and all four of us were decidedly enamored of her charms. Usually we courted her in a body, and scrupulous fairness was observed in the matter of seeking private interviews.
Smugg had never spoken to her—so we should all have sworn. But now my wondering eyes saw, opposite Pyrrha (we began from this day to call her Pyrrha) the figure of Smugg. Pyrrha was leaning against a barn, one foot crossed over the other, her arms akimbo, a string of her bonnet in her mouth, and her blue eyes laughing from under long lashes. Smugg stood limply opposite her, his trousers bagging over his half-bent knees, his hat in one hand, and in the other a handkerchief, with which, from time to time, he mopped his forehead. I could not hear (of course I did not wish to) what they were saying; indeed, I have my doubts if they said anything; but presently Smugg moved a hesitating step nearer, when Pyrrha, with a merry laugh, darted by him and ran away, turning a mocking face over her shoulder. Smugg stood still for a minute, then put on his hat, looked at his watch, and walked slowly away.
I did not keep Smugg's secret; I felt under no obligation to keep it. He deserved no mercy, and I exposed him at breakfast that very morning. But I could not help being a little sorry for him when he came in. He bent his head under the shower of reproach, chaff, and gibing; he did not try to excuse himself; he simply opened his book at the old place, and we all shouted the old ode, substituting "Betsa" for "Pyrrha" wherever we could. Still, in spite of our jocularity, we all felt an under-current of real anger.
We considered that Smugg was treating Pyrrha very badly—Smugg, an engaged man, aged thirty, presumably past the heat and carelessness of youth. We glowed with a sense of her wrongs, and that afternoon we each went for a solitary walk—at least, we started for a solitary walk—but half an hour later we all met at the gate leading to Dill's meadows, and, in an explosion of laughter, acknowledged our secret design of meeting Pyrrha, and opening her eyes to Smugg's iniquity.
The great surprise was still to come. At eleven the next morning, when we had just sat down to work, and Smugg had slid into the room with the stealthy, ashamed air he wore after his morning excursions, Mary appeared, and told us that Joe Shanks, the butcher's son, had come with the chops, and wanted to speak to us. We hailed the diversion, and had Joe shown in. Gayford pushed the beer jug and a glass toward him, saying:
"Help yourself, Joe."
Joe drank a draught, wiped his mouth on his blue sleeve, and remarked:
"No offense, gentlemen."
"None," said Gayford, who seemed to have assumed the chairmanship of the meeting.
Joe, seeming slightly embarrassed, cleared his throat, and looked round again.
"No offense, gentlemen," he repeated; "but she's bin walking with me two years come Michaelmas."
A pause followed. Then the chairman expressed the views of the meeting.
"The deuce she has!" said he.
"Off AND on," added Joe candidly.
I looked at Smugg. He had shrunk down low in his seat, and rested his head on his hand. His face was half hidden; but he was very warm, and the drops trickled from his forehead down his nose.
"It seems to be a good deal off," said the chairman judicially.
"No offense," said Joe; "but I don't take it kind of you, gentlemen. I've served you faithful."
"The chops are excellent," conceded the chairman.
"And I don't take it kind."
"Develop your complaint," said the chairman. "I mean, what's the row, Joe?"
"Since you gentlemen came she's been saucy," said Joe.
"I do not see," observed the chairman, "that anything can be done. If Pyrrha prefers us, Joe [he treated the case collectively, which was certainly wise], what then?"
"Beg pardon, sir?"
"Oh, I mean if the lady prefers us, Joe?"
Joe brought his fat fist down on the table with a thump.
"It aint as if you meant it," said he doggedly; "you just unsettles of 'er. I s'pose I can't help ye talking, and laughing, and walking along of 'er, but you aint no call to kiss 'er."
Another pause ensued. The chairman held a consultation with Tritton, who sat on his right hand.
"The meeting," said Gayford, "will proceed to declare, one by one, whether it has ever—and if so, how often—kissed the lady. I will begin. Never! Mr. Tritton?"
"Never!" said Tritton.
"Never!" said Bird.
"Never!" said I.
"I seed 'im this very morning!" cried Joe, like an accusing angel.
Smugg took his hand away from his face, after giving his wet brow one last dab. He looked at Gayford and at Joe, but said nothing.
"Mr. Smugg?" repeated the chairman.
"Mr. Smugg," interposed Tritton suavely, "probably feels himself in a difficulty. The secret is not, perhaps, entirely his own."
We all nodded.
"We enter a plea of not guilty for Mr. Smugg," observed the chairman gravely.
"I seed 'im do it," said Joe.
No one spoke. Joe finished his beer, pulled his forelock, and turned on his heel. Suddenly Smugg burst into speech. He could hardly form his words, and they jostled one another in the breathless confusion of his utterance.
"I—I—you've no right. I say nothing. If I choose, I shall—no one has a right to stop me. If I love her—if she doesn't mind—I say nothing—nothing at all. I won't hear a word. I shall do as I like."
Joe had paused to hear him, and now stood looking at him in wonder. Then he stepped quickly up to the table, and, leaning across, asked in a harsh voice:
"You mean honest, do you, by her? You'd make her your wife, would you?"
Smugg, looking straight in front of him, answered:
Joe drew back, touched his forelock again, and said:
"Then it's fair fighting, sir, begging your pardon; and no offense. But the girl was mine first, sir."
Then Gayford interposed.
"Mr. Smugg," said he, "you tell Joe, here, that you'd marry this lady. May I ask how you can—when——"
But for once Smugg was able to silence one of his pupils. He arose from his seat, and brought his hand heavily down on Gayford's shoulder.
"Hold your tongue!" he cried. "I must answer to God, but I needn't answer to you."
Joe looked at him with round eyes, and, with a last salute, slowly went out. None of us spoke, and presently Smugg opened his Thucydides.
For my part, I took very considerable interest in Pyrrha's side of the question. I amused myself by constructing a fancy-born love of Pyrrha's for her social superior, and if he had been one of ourselves, I should have seen no absurdity. But Smugg refused altogether to fit into my frame. There was no glamour about Smugg; and, to tell the truth, I should have thought that any girl, be her station what it might, faced with the alternative of Smugg and Joe, would have chosen Joe. In my opinion, Pyrrha was merely amusing herself with Smugg, and I was rather comforted by this reversal of the ordinary roles. Still, I could not rest in conjecture, and my curiosity led me up to Dill's little farm on the afternoon of the day of Joe's sudden appearance. The others let me go alone. Directly after dinner Smugg went to his bedroom, and the other three had gone off to play lawn tennis at the vicar's. I lit my pipe, and strolled along till I reached the gate that led to Dill's meadow. Here I waited till Pyrrha should appear.
As I sat and smoked, a voice struck suddenly on my ear—the voice of Mrs. Dill, raised to shrillness by anger.
"Be off with you," she said, "and mind your ways, or worse 'll happen to you. 'Ere's your switch."
After a moment Pyrrha turned the corner, and came toward me. She was wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron, and carried in her hand a light hazel switch, which she used to guide errant cows. She was almost at the gate before she saw me. She started, and blushed very red.
"Lor! is it you, Mr. Robertson?" she said.
I nodded, but did not move.
"Let me pass, sir, please. I've no time to stop."
"What, not to talk to me, Pyrrha—Betsy, I mean?"
"Mother don't like me talking to gentlemen."
"You've been crying," said I.
"No, I haven't," said Pyrrha, quite violently.
"Mother been scolding you?"
"I wish you'd let me by, sir."
"It's all your fault," burst out Pyrrha. "I didn't want you; no, nor him, either. What do you come and get me into trouble for?"
"I haven't done anything, Betsy. Come now!"
"You aint as bad as some," she conceded, a dim smile breaking through the clouds.
"You mean Smugg," I observed.
"Who told you?" she cried.
"Joe," said I.
"Seems he's got a lot to say to everybody," she commented resentfully.
"Ah! he told your mother, did he? Well, you know you shouldn't, Betsy."
"I won't never speak to him again—I meant I won't ever [the grammarian is abroad], Mr. Robertson."
"What! Not to Joe?"
"Joe! No; that Smugg."
"But Joe told of you."
"Well, and it was his right."
If she thought so, I had no more to say. Notions differ among different sets. But I pressed the point a little.
"Joe got you your scolding."
Now, I can't say whether I did or did not emphasize the last word unduly, but Pyrrha blushed again, and remarked:
"You want to know too much, sir, by a deal."
So I left that aspect to the subject, and continued:
"I suppose it was for letting Mr. Smugg kiss you?"
"I couldn't help it."
I had great doubts of that—she could have tackled Smugg with one hand; but I said pleasantly:
"No more could he, I'm sure."
Pyrrha cast an alarmed glance at the house.
"Oh, I'll be careful," I laughed. "Yes, and I'll let you go. But just tell me, Betsy, what do you think of Mr. Smugg?"
"I don't think that of him!" said she, snapping her pretty red fingers. "Joe 'ud make ten of him. I wish Joe'd talk to him a bit."
The end came soon after this, and, in spite of our attitude (I speak of us four, not of Smugg) of whole-heartedness, I think it was rather a shock to us all, when Joe announced one morning, on his arrival with the chops, that he was to be made a happy man at the church next day. Smugg was not in the room, and the rest of us congratulated Joe, and made up a purse for him to give Pyrrha, with our best respects, and he bowed himself out, mightily pleased, and asseverating that we were real gentlemen. Then we sat and looked at the table.
"It robs us of a resource," pronounced Gayford, once again making himself the mouthpiece of the party. We all nodded, and filled fresh pipes.
Presently Smugg sidled in. We had seen little of him the last week; save when he was construing he had taken refuge in his own room. When he came in now, Gayford wagged his head significantly at me; apparently, it was my task to bell the cat. I rose, and went to the mantelpiece. Smugg had sat down at the table, and my back was to him. I took a match from the box, struck it, and applied it to my pipe, and, punctuating my words with interspersed puffings, I said carelessly:
"By the way, Smugg, Pyrrha's going to be married to Joe Shanks to-morrow."
I don't know how he looked. I kept my face from him, but, after a long minute's pause, he answered:
"Thank you, Robertson. It's Aeschylus this morning, isn't it?"
We had a noisy evening that night. I suppose we felt below par, and wanted cheering up. Anyhow, we made an expedition to the grocer's, and amazed him with a demand for his best champagne and his choicest sherry. We carried the goods home in a bag, and sat down to a revel. Smugg had some bread and cheese in his own room; he said that he had letters to write. We dined largely, and drank still more largely; then we sang, and at last—it was near on twelve, a terrible hour for that neighborhood—we made our way, amid much boisterousness and horseplay, to bed; where I, at least, was asleep in five minutes.
As the church clock struck two, I awoke. I heard a sound of movement in Smugg's room next door. I lay and listened. Presently his door opened, and he creaked gently downstairs. I sprang out of bed and looked out of the window. Smugg, fully dressed, was gliding along the path toward Dill's farm. Some impulse—curiosity only, very likely—made me jump into my trousers, seize a flannel jacket, draw on a pair of boots, and hastily follow him. When I got outside he was visible in the moonlight, mounting the path ahead of me. He held on his way toward the farm, I following. When he reached the yard he stopped for a moment, and seemed to peer up at the windows, which were all dark and unresponsive. I stood as quiet as I could, twenty yards from him, and moved cautiously on again when he turned to the right and passed through the gate into the meadows.
I saw no signs of Pyrrha. Smugg held on his way across the meadows, down toward the stream; and suddenly the thought leaped to my brain that the poor fool meant to drown himself. But I could hardly believe it. Surely he must merely be taking a desperate lover's ramble, a last sad visit to the scenes of his silly, irrational infatuation. If I went up to him, I should look a fool, too; so I hung behind, ready to turn upon him if need appeared.
He walked down to the very edge of the stream; it ran deep and fast just here, under a high bank and a row of old willows. Smugg sat down on the bank, wet though the grass was, and clasped his hands over his knees. I crouched down a little way behind him, ready and alert. I am a good swimmer, and I did not doubt my power to pull him out, even if I were not in time to prevent him jumping in. I saw him rise, look over the brink, and sit down again. I almost thought I saw him shiver. And presently, through the stillness of the summer night, came the strangest, saddest sound; catching my ear as it drifted across the meadow. Smugg was sobbing, and his sobs—never loud—rose and fell with the subdued stress of intolerable pain.
Suddenly he leaped up, cried aloud, and flung his hands above his head. I thought he was gone this time; but he stopped, poised, as it seemed, over the water, and I heard him cry, "I can't, I can't!" and he sank down all in a heap on the bank, and fell again to sobbing. I hope never to see a man—if you can call Smugg a man—like that again.
He sat where he was, and I where I was, till the moon paled and a distant hint of day discovered us. Then he rose, brushed himself with his hands, and slunk quickly from the bank. Had he looked anywhere but on the ground, he must have seen me; as it was, I only narrowly avoided him, and fell again into my place behind him. All the way back to our garden I followed him. As he passed through the gate, I quickened my pace, overtook him, and laid my hand on his arm. The man's face gave me what I remember my old nurse used to call "quite a turn."
"You're an average idiot, aren't you?" said I. "Oh, yes; I've been squatting in the wet by that infernal river, too. You ought to get three months, by rights."
He looked at me in a dazed sort of way.
"I daren't," he said. "I wanted to, but I daren't."
There is really nothing more. We went to the wedding, leaving Smugg in bed; and in the evening we, leaving Smugg still in bed (I told Mary to keep an eye on him), and carrying a dozen of the grocer's best port, went up to dance at Dill's farm. Joe was polished till I could almost see myself in his cheek, and Pyrrha looked more charming than ever. She and Joe were to leave us early, to go to Joe's own house in the village, but I managed to get one dance with her. Indeed, I believe she wanted a word with me.
"Well, all's well that ends well, isn't it?" I began. "No more scoldings! Not from Mrs. Dill, anyhow."
"You can't let that alone, sir," said Pyrrha.
I chuckled gently.
"Oh, I'll never refer to it again," said I. "This is a fine wedding of yours, Betsy."
"It's good of you and the other gentlemen to come, sir."
"We had to see the last of you," and I sighed very ostentatiously.
Pyrrha laughed. She did not believe in it, and she knew that I knew she did not, but the little compliment pleased her, all the same.
"Smugg," I pursued, "is ill in bed. But perhaps he wouldn't have come, anyhow."
"If you please, sir——" Pyrrha began; but she stopped.
"Yes, Betsy? What is it?"
"Would you take a message for me, sir?"
"If it's a proper one, Betsy, for a married lady to send."
She laughed a little, and said:
"Oh, it's no harm, sir. I'm afraid he aint—he's rather down, sir."
"Why, that Smugg, sir."
"Oh, that Smugg! Why, yes; a little down, Betsy, I fear."
"You might tell him as I bear no malice, sir—as I'm not angry—with him, I mean."
"Certainly," said I. "It will probably do him good."
"He got me into trouble; but there, I can make allowances; and it's all right now, sir."
"In fact you forgive him?"
"I think you might tell him so, sir," said Betsy.
"But," said I, "are you aware that he was another's all the time?"
"Oh, yes! engaged to be married."
"Well, I never! Him! What, all the while he——"
"Well, that beats everything. Oh, if I'd known that!"
"I'll give him your message."
"No, sir, not now, I thank you. The villain!"
"You are right," said I. "I think your mother ought to have—scolded him, too."
"Now you promised, sir——" but Joe came up, and I escaped.
A REPENTANT SINNER.
It was, I believe, mainly as a compliment to me that Miss Audrey Liston was asked to Poltons. Miss Liston and I were very good friends, and my cousin Dora Polton thought, as she informed me, that it would be nice for me to have someone I could talk to about "books and so on." I did not complain. Miss Liston was a pleasant young woman of six-and-twenty; I liked her very much except on paper, and I was aware that she made it a point of duty to read something at least of what I wrote. She was in the habit of describing herself as an "authoress in a small way." If it were pointed out that six three-volume novels in three years (the term of her literary activity, at the time of which I write) could hardly be called "a small way," she would smile modestly and say that it was not really much; and if she were told that the English language embraced no such word as "authoress," she would smile again and say that it ought to; a position toward the bugbear of correctness with which, I confess, I sympathize in some degree. She was very diligent; she worked from ten to one every day while she was at Poltons; how much she wrote is between her and her conscience.
There was another impeachment which Miss Liston was hardly at the trouble to deny. "Take my characters from life?" she would exclaim. "Surely every artist" (Miss Liston often referred to herself as an artist) "must?" And she would proceed to maintain—what is perhaps true sometimes—that people rather liked being put into books, just as they like being photographed, for all that they grumble and pretend to be afflicted when either process is levied against them. In discussing this matter with Miss Liston I felt myself on delicate ground, for it was notorious that I figured in her first book in the guise of a misogynistic genius; the fact that she lengthened (and thickened) my hair, converted it from an indeterminate brown to a dusky black, gave me a drooping mustache, and invested my very ordinary workaday eyes with a strange magnetic attraction, availed nothing; I was at once recognized; and, I may remark in passing, an uncommonly disagreeable fellow she made me. Thus I had passed through the fire. I felt tolerably sure that I presented no other aspect of interest, real or supposed, and I was quite content that Miss Liston should serve all the rest of her acquaintance as she had served me. I reckoned they would last her, at the present rate of production, about five years.
Fate was kind to Miss Liston, and provided her with most suitable patterns for her next piece of work at Poltons itself. There were a young man and a young woman staying in the house—Sir Gilbert Chillington and Miss Pamela Myles. The moment Miss Liston was apprized of a possible romance, she began the study of the protagonists. She was looking out, she told me, for some new types (if it were any consolation—and there is a sort of dignity about it—to be called a type, Miss Liston's victims were always welcome to so much), and she had found them in Chillington and Pamela. The former appeared to my dull eye to offer no salient novelty; he was tall, broad, handsome, and he possessed a manner of enviable placidity. Pamela, I allowed, was exactly the heroine Miss Liston loved—haughty, capricious, difficile, but sound and true at heart (I was mentally skimming Volume I). Miss Liston agreed with me in my conception of Pamela, but declared that I did not do justice to the artistic possibilities latent in Chillington; he had a curious attraction which it would tax her skill (so she gravely informed me) to the utmost to reproduce. She proposed that I also should make a study of him, and attributed my hurried refusal to a shrinking from the difficulties of the task.
"Of course," she observed, looking at our young friends, who were talking nonsense at the other side of the lawn, "they must have a misunderstanding."
"Why, of course," said I, lighting my pipe. "What should you say to another man?"
"Or another woman?" said Miss Liston.
"It comes to the same thing," said I. (About a volume and a half I meant.)
"But it's more interesting. Do you think she'd better be a married woman?" And Miss Liston looked at me inquiringly.
"The age prefers them married," I remarked.
This conversation happened on the second day of Miss Liston's visit, and she lost no time in beginning to study her subjects. Pamela, she said, she found pretty plain sailing, but Chillington continued to puzzle her. Again, she could not make up her mind whether to have a happy or a tragic ending. In the interests of a tenderhearted public, I pleaded for marriage bells.
"Yes, I think so," said Miss Liston, but she sighed, and I think she had an idea or two for a heart-broken separation, followed by mutual, lifelong, hopeless devotion.
The complexity of young Sir Gilbert did not, in Miss Liston's opinion, appear less on further acquaintance; and indeed, I must admit that she was not altogether wrong in considering him worthy of attention. As I came to know him better, I discerned in him a smothered self-appreciation, which came to light in response to the least tribute of interest or admiration, but was yet far remote from the aggressiveness of a commonplace vanity. In a moment of indiscretion I had chaffed him—he was very good-natured—on the risks he ran at Miss Liston's hands; he was not disgusted, but neither did he plume himself or spread his feathers. He received the suggestion without surprise, and without any attempt at disclaiming fitness for the purpose; but he received it as a matter which entailed a responsibility on him. I detected the conviction that, if the portrait was to be painted, it was due to the world that it should be well painted; the subject must give the artist full opportunities.
"What does she know about me?" he asked, in meditative tones.
"She's very quick; she'll soon pick up as much as she wants," I assured him.
"She'll probably go all wrong," he said somberly; and of course I could not tell him that it was of no consequence if she did. He would not have believed me, and would have done precisely what he proceeded to do, and that was to afford Miss Liston every chance of appraising his character and plumbing the depths of his soul. I may say at once that I did not regret this course of action; for the effect of it was to allow me a chance of talking to Pamela Myles, and Pamela was exactly the sort of girl to beguile the long, pleasant morning hours of a holiday in the country. No one had told Pamela that she was going to be put in a book, and I don't think it would have made any difference had she been told. Pamela's attitude toward books was one of healthy scorn, confidently based on admitted ignorance. So we never spoke of them, and my cousin Dora condoled with me more than once on the way in which Miss Liston, false to the implied terms of her invitation, deserted me in favor of Sir Gilbert, and left me to the mercies of a frivolous girl. Pamela appeared to be as little aggrieved as I was. I imagined that she supposed that Chillington would ask her to marry him some day, before very long, and I was sure she would accept him; but it was quite plain that, if Miss Liston persisted in making Pamela her heroine, she would have to supply from her own resources a large supplement of passion. Pamela was far too deficient in the commodity to be made anything of without such re-enforcement, even by an art more adept at making much out of nothing than Miss Liston's straightforward method could claim to be.
A week passed, and then, one Friday morning, a new light burst on me. Miss Liston came into the garden at eleven o'clock and sat down by me on the lawn. Chillington and Pamela had gone riding with the squire, Dora was visiting the poor. We were alone. The appearance of Miss Liston at this hour (usually sacred to the use of the pen), no less than her puzzled look, told me that an obstruction had occurred in the novel. Presently she let me know what it was.
"I'm thinking of altering the scheme of my story, Mr. Wynne," said she. "Have you ever noticed how sometimes a man thinks he's in love when he isn't really?"
"Such a case sometimes occurs," I acknowledged.
"Yes, and he doesn't find out his mistake——"
"Till they're married?"
"Sometimes, yes," she said, rather as though she were making an unwilling admission. "But sometimes he sees it before—when he meets somebody else."
"Very true," said I, with a grave nod.
"The false can't stand against the real," pursued Miss Liston; and then she fell into meditative silence. I stole a glance at her face; she was smiling. Was it in the pleasure of literary creation—an artistic ecstasy? I should have liked to answer yes, but I doubted it very much. Without pretending to Miss Liston's powers, I have the little subtlety that is needful to show me that more than one kind of smile may be seen on the human face, and that there is one very different from others; and, finally, that that one is not evoked, as a rule, merely by the evolution of the troublesome encumbrance in pretty writing vulgarly called a "plot."
"If," pursued Miss Liston, "someone comes who can appreciate him and draw out what is best in him——"
"That's all very well," said I, "but what of the first girl?"
"Oh, she's—she can be made shallow, you know; and I can put in a man for her. People needn't be much interested in her."
"Yes, you could manage it that way," said I, thinking how Pamela—I took the liberty of using her name for the shallow girl—would like such treatment.
"She will really be valuable mainly as a foil," observed Miss Liston; and she added generously, "I shall make her nice, you know, but shallow—not worthy of him."
"And what are you going to make the other girl like?" I asked.
Miss Liston started slightly; also she colored very slightly, and she answered, looking away from me across the lawn:
"I haven't quite made up my mind yet, Mr. Wynne."
With the suspicion which this conversation aroused fresh in my mind, it was curious to hear Pamela laugh, as she said to me on the afternoon of the same day:
"Aren't Sir Gilbert and Audrey Liston funny? I tell you what, Mr. Wynne, I believe they're writing a novel together."
"Perhaps Chillington's giving her the materials for one," I suggested.
"I shouldn't think," observed Pamela in her dispassionate way, "that anything very interesting had ever happened to him."
"I thought you liked him," I remarked humbly.
"So I do. What's that got to do with it?" asked Pamela.
It was beyond question that Chillington enjoyed Miss Liston's society; the interest she showed in him was incense to his nostrils. I used to overhear fragments of his ideas about himself which he was revealing in answer to her tactful inquiries. But neither was it doubtful that he had by no means lost his relish for Pamela's lighter talk; in fact, he seemed to turn to her with some relief—perhaps it is refreshing to escape from self-analysis, even when the process is conducted in the pleasantest possible manner—and the hours which Miss Liston gave to work were devoted by Chillington to maintaining his cordial relations with the lady whose comfortable and not over-tragical disposal was taxing Miss Liston's skill. For she had definitely decided all her plot—she told me so a few days later.
It was all planned out; nay, the scene in which the truth as to his own feelings bursts on Sir Gilbert (I forget at the moment what name the novel gave him) was, I understood, actually written; the shallow girl was to experience nothing worse than a wound to her vanity, and was to turn, with as much alacrity as decency allowed, to the substitute whom Miss Liston had now provided. All this was poured into my sympathetic ear, and I say sympathetic in all sincerity; for, although I may occasionally treat Miss Liston's literary efforts with less than proper respect, she herself was my friend, and the conviction under which she was now living would, I knew, unless it were justified, bring her into much of that unhappiness in which one generally found her heroine plunged about the end of Volume II. The heroine generally got out all right, and the knowledge that she would enabled the reader to preserve cheerfulness. But would poor little Miss Liston get out? I was none too sure of it.
Suddenly a change came in the state of affairs. Pamela produced it. It must have struck her that the increasing intimacy of Miss Liston and Chillington might become something other than "funny."
To put it briefly and metaphorically, she whistled her dog back to her heels. I am not skilled in understanding or describing the artifices of ladies; but even I saw the transformation in Pamela. She put forth her strength and put on her prettiest gowns; she refused to take her place in the sea-saw of society which Chillington had recently established for his pleasure. If he spent an hour with Miss Liston, Pamela would have nothing of him for a day; she met his attentions with scorn unless they were undivided. Chillington seemed at first puzzled; I believe that he never regarded his talks with Miss Liston in other than a business point of view, but directly he understood that Pamela claimed him, and that she was prepared, in case he did not obey her call, to establish a grievance against him, he lost no time in manifesting his obedience. A whole day passed in which, to my certain knowledge, he was not alone a moment with Miss Liston, and did not, save at the family meals, exchange a word with her. As he walked off with Pamela, Miss Liston's eyes followed him in wistful longing; she stole away upstairs and did not come down till five o'clock. Then, finding me strolling about with a cigarette, she joined me.
"Well, how goes the book?" I asked.
"I haven't done much to it just lately," she answered, in a low voice. "I—it's—I don't quite know what to do with it."
"I thought you'd settled?"
"So I had, but—oh, don't let's talk about it, Mr. Wynne!"
But a moment later she went on talking about it.
"I don't know why I should make it end happily," she said. "I'm sure life isn't always happy, is it?"
"Certainly not," I answered. "You mean your man might stick to the shallow girl after all?"
"Yes," I just heard her whisper.
"And be miserable afterward?" I pursued.
"I don't know," said Miss Liston. "Perhaps he wouldn't."
"Then you must make him shallow himself."
"I can't do that," she said quickly. "Oh, how difficult it is!"
She may have meant merely the art of writing—when I cordially agree with—but I think she meant also the way of the world—which does not make me withdraw my assent. I left her walking up and down in front of the drawing-room windows, a rather forlorn little figure, thrown into distinctness by the cold rays of the setting sun.
All was not over yet. That evening Chillington broke away. Led by vanity, or interest, or friendliness, I know not which—tired may be of paying court (the attitude in which Pamela kept him), and thinking it would be pleasant to play the other part for a while—after dinner he went straight to Miss Liston, talked to her while we had coffee on the terrace, and then walked about with her. Pamela sat by me; she was very silent; she did not appear to be angry, but her handsome mouth wore a resolute expression. Chillington and Miss Liston wandered on into the shrubbery, and did not come into sight again for nearly half an hour.
"I think it's cold," said Pamela, in her cool, quiet tones. "And it's also, Mr. Wynne, rather slow. I shall go to bed."
I thought it a little impertinent of Pamela to attribute the "slowness" (which had undoubtedly existed) to me, so I took my revenge by saying with an assumption of innocence purposely and obviously unreal:
"Oh, but won't you wait and bid Miss Liston and Chillington goodnight?"
Pamela looked at me for a moment. I made bold to smile.
Pamela's face broke slowly into an answering smile.
"I don't know what you mean, Mr. Wynne," said she.
"No?" said I.
"No," said Pamela, and she turned away. But before she went she looked over her shoulder, and still smiling, said, "Wish Miss Liston good-night for me, Mr. Wynne. Anything I have to say to Sir Gilbert will wait very well till to-morrow."
She had hardly gone in when the wanderers came out of the shrubbery and rejoined me. Chillington wore his usual passive look, but Miss Liston's face was happy and radiant. Chillington passed on into the drawing room. Miss Liston lingered a moment by me.
"Why, you look," said I, "as if you'd invented the finest scene ever written."
She did not answer me directly, but stood looking up at the stars. Then she said, in a dreamy tone:
"I think I shall stick to my old idea in the book."
As she spoke, Chillington came out. Even in the dim light I saw a frown on his face.
"I say, Wynne," said he, "where's Miss Myles?"
"She's gone to bed," I answered. "She told me to wish you good night for her, Miss Liston. No message for you, Chillington."
Miss Liston's eyes were on him. He took no notice of her; he stood frowning for an instant, then, with some muttered ejaculation, he strode back into the house. We heard his heavy tread across the drawing room; we heard the door slammed behind him, and I found myself looking on Miss Liston's altered face.
"What does he want her for, I wonder!" she said, in an agitation that made my presence, my thoughts, my suspicions, nothing to her. "He said nothing to me about wanting to speak to her to-night." And she walked slowly into the house, her eyes on the ground, and all the light gone from her face, and the joy dead in it. Whereupon I, left alone, began to rail at the gods that a dear, silly little soul like Miss Liston should bother her poor, silly little head about a hulking fool; in which reflections I did, of course, immense injustice not only to an eminent author, but also to a perfectly honorable, though somewhat dense and decidedly conceited, gentleman.
The next morning Sir Gilbert Chillington ate dirt—there is no other way of expressing it—in great quantities and with infinite humility.
My admirable friend Miss Pamela was severe. I saw him walk six yards behind her for the length of the terrace: not a look nor a turn of her head gave him leave to join her. Miss Liston had gone upstairs, and I watched the scene from the window of the smoking room. At last, at the end of the long walk, just where the laurel-bushes mark the beginning of the shrubberies—on the threshold of the scene of his crime—Pamela turned round suddenly and faced the repentant sinner. The most interesting things in life are those which, perhaps by the inevitable nature of the case, one does not hear; and I did not hear the scene which followed. For a while they stood talking—rather, he talked and she listened. Then she turned again and walked slowly into the shrubbery. Chillington followed. It was the end of a chapter, and I laid down the book.
How and from whom Miss Liston heard the news which Chillington himself told me, without a glimmer of shame or a touch of embarrassment, some two hours later, I do not know; but hear it she did before luncheon; for she came down, ready armed with the neatest little speeches for both the happy lovers.
I did not expect Pamela to show an ounce more feeling than the strictest canons of propriety demanded, and she fulfilled my expectations to the letter; but I had hoped, I confess, that Chillington would have displayed some little consciousness. He did not; and it is my belief that, throughout the events which I have recorded, he retained, and that he still retains, the conviction that Miss Liston's interest in him was purely literary and artistic, and that she devoted herself to his society simply because he offered an interesting problem and an inspiring theme.
An ingenious charity may find in that attitude evidence of modesty; to my thinking, it argues a more subtle and magnificent conceit than if he had fathomed the truth, as many humbler men in his place would have done.
On the day after the engagement was accomplished Miss Liston left us to return to London. She came out in her hat and jacket and sat down by me; the carriage was to be round in ten minutes. She put on her gloves slowly and buttoned them carefully. This done, she said:
"By the way, Mr. Wynne, I've adopted your suggestion. The man doesn't find out."
"Then you've made him a fool?" I asked bluntly.
"No," she answered. "I—I think it might happen though he wasn't a fool."
She sat with her hands in her lap for a moment or two, then she went on, in a lower voice:
"I'm going to make him find out afterward."
I felt her glance on me, but I looked straight in front of me.
"What, after he's married the shallow girl?"
"Yes," said Miss Liston.
"Rather too late, isn't it? At least, if you mean there is to be a happy ending."
Miss Liston enlaced her fingers.
"I haven't decided about the ending yet," said she.
"If you're intent to be tragical—which is the fashion—you'll do as you stand," said I.
"Yes," she answered slowly, "if I'm tragical, I shall do as I stand."
There was another pause, and rather a long one; the wheels of the carriage were audible on the gravel of the front drive. Miss Liston stood up. I rose and held out my hand.
"Of course," said Miss Liston, still intent on her novel, "I could——" She stopped again, and looked apprehensively at me. My face, I believe, expressed nothing more than polite attention and friendly interest.
"Of course," she began again, "the shallow girl—his wife—might—might die, Mr. Wynne."
"In novels," said I with a smile, "while there's death, there's hope."
"Yes, in novels," she answered, giving me her hand.
The poor little woman was very unhappy. Unwisely, I dare say, I pressed her hand. It was enough, the tears leaped to her eyes; she gave my great fist a hurried squeeze—I have seldom been more touched by any thanks, how ever warm or eloquent—and hurried away.
'TWIXT WILL AND WILL NOT.
I must confess at once that at first, at least, I very much admired the curate. I am not referring to my admiration of his fine figure—six feet high and straight as an arrow—nor of his handsome, open, ingenuous countenance, or his candid blue eye, or his thick curly hair. No; what won my heart from an early period of my visit to my cousins, the Poltons, of Poltons Park, was the fervent, undisguised, unashamed, confident, and altogether matter-of-course manner in which he made love to Miss Beatrice Queenborough, only daughter and heiress of the wealthy shipowner, Sir Wagstaff Queenborough, Bart., and Eleanor, his wife. It was purely the manner of the curate's advances that took my fancy; in the mere fact of them there was nothing remarkable. For all the men in the house (and a good many outside) made covert, stealthy, and indirect steps in the same direction; for Trix (as her friends called her) was, if not wise, at least pretty and witty, displaying to the material eye a charming figure, and to the mental a delicate heartlessness—both attributes which challenge a self-respecting man's best efforts. But then came the fatal obstacle. From heiresses in reason a gentleman need neither shrink nor let himself be driven; but when it comes to something like twenty thousand a year—the reported amount of Trix's dot—he distrusts his own motives almost as much as the lady's relatives distrust them for him. We all felt this—Stanton, Rippleby, and I; and, although I will not swear that we spoke no tender words and gave no meaning glances, yet we reduced such concessions to natural weakness to a minimum, not only when Lady Queenborough was by, but at all times. To say truth, we had no desire to see our scalps affixed to Miss Trix's pretty belt, nor to have our hearts broken (like that of the young man in the poem) before she went to Homburg in the autumn.
With the curate it was otherwise. He—Jack Ives, by the way, was his name—appeared to rush, not only upon his fate, but in the face of all possibility and of Lady Queenborough. My cousin and hostess, Dora Polton, was very much distressed about him. She said that he was such a nice young fellow, and that it was a great pity to see him preparing such unhappiness for himself. Nay, I happen to know that she spoke very seriously to Trix, pointing out the wickedness of trifling with him; whereupon Trix, who maintained a bowing acquaintance with her conscience, avoided him for a whole afternoon and endangered all Algy Stanton's prudent resolutions by taking him out in the Canadian canoe. This demonstration in no way perturbed the curate. He observed that, as there was nothing better to do, we might as well play billiards, and proceeded to defeat me in three games of a hundred up (no, it is quite immaterial whether we played for anything or not), after which he told Dora that the vicar was taking the evening service—it happened to be the day when there was one at the parish church—a piece of information only relevant in so far as it suggested that Mr. Ives could accept an invitation to dinner if one were proffered him. Dora, very weakly, rose to the bait. Jack Ives, airily remarking that there was no use in ceremony among friends, seized the place next to Trix at dinner (her mother was just opposite) and walked on the terrace after dinner with her in the moonlight. When the ladies retired he came into the smoking room, drank a whisky and soda, said that Miss Queenborough was really a very charming companion, and apologized for leaving us early, on the ground that his sermon was still unwritten. My good cousin, the squire, suggested rather grimly that a discourse on the vanity of human wishes might be appropriate.
"I shall preach," said Mr. Ives thoughtfully, "on the opportunities of wealth."
This resolution he carried out on the next day but one, that being a Sunday. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Miss Trix, and I watched her with some interest as Mr. Ives developed his theme. I will not try to reproduce the sermon, which would have seemed by no means a bad one had any of our party been able to ignore the personal application which we read into it; for its main burden was no other than this—that wealth should be used by those who were fortunate enough to possess it (here Trix looked down and fidgeted with her Prayer-book) as a means of promoting greater union between themselves and the less richly endowed, and not—as, alas! had too often been the case—as though it were a new barrier set up between them and their fellow-creatures (here Miss Trix blushed slightly, and had recourse to her smelling-bottle). "You," said the curate, waxing rhetorical as he addressed an imaginary, but bloated, capitalist, "have no more right to your money than I have. It is intrusted to you to be shared with me." At this point I heard Lady Queenborough sniff and Algy Stanton snigger. I stole a glance at Trix and detected a slight waver in the admirable lines of her mouth.