LADY F. E. E. BELL
AUTHOR OF THE "STORY OF URSULA," "MISS TOD AND THE PROPHETS," "FAIRY-TALE PLAYS," ETC., ETC.
LONDON EDWARD ARNOLD 37 BEDFORD STREET, STRAND 1901
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"It is a great mistake," said Miss Martin emphatically, "for any sensible woman to show a husband she adores him."
"Even her own, Aunt Anna?" said Lady Gore, with a contented smile which Aunt Anna felt to be ignoble.
"Of course I meant her own," she said stiffly. "I should hardly have thought, Elinor, that after being married so many years you would have made jokes of that sort."
"That is just it," said Lady Gore, still annoyingly pleased with herself. "After adoring my husband for twenty-four years, it seems to me that I am an authority on the subject."
"Well, it is a great mistake," repeated Miss Martin firmly, as she got up, feeling that the repetition notably strengthened her position. "As I said before, no sensible woman should do it."
Lady Gore began to feel a little annoyed. It is fatiguing to hear one's aunt say the same thing twice. The burden of conversation is unequally distributed if one has to think of two answers to each one remark of one's interlocutor.
"And you are bringing up Rachel to do the same thing, you know," the old lady went on, roused to fresh indignation at the thought of her great-niece, and she pulled her little cloth jacket down, and generally shook herself together. Crabbed age and jackets should not live together. Age should be wrapped in the ample and tolerant cloak, hider of frailties. It was not Aunt Anna's fault, however, if her garments were uncompromising and scanty of outline. Predestination reigns nowhere more strongly than in clothes, and it would have been inconceivable that either Miss Martin's body or her mind should have assimilated the harmonious fluid adaptability of the draperies that framed and surrounded Lady Gore as she lay on her couch.
"I don't think it does her much harm," said Lady Gore, a good deal understating her conviction of her daughter's perfections.
"That's as may be," said Miss Martin encouragingly. "Where is she to-day, by the way?" she said, stopping on her way to the door.
"For a wonder she is not at home," Lady Gore said. "She has gone to stay away from me for the first time in her life; she is at Mrs. Feversham's, at Maidenhead, for the night."
"How girls do gad nowadays, to be sure!" said Miss Martin.
"I hardly think that can be said of Rachel," said Lady Gore.
"Whether Rachel does or not, my dear Elinor, girls do gad—there is no doubt about that. I'm sorry I have not seen William. He is too busy, I suppose," with a slightly ironical intonation. "Goodbye!"
"Can you find your way out?" said Lady Gore, ringing a hand-bell.
"Oh dear, yes," said Miss Martin. "Goodbye," and out she went.
Lady Gore leant back with a sigh of relief. A companion like Miss Martin makes a most excellent foil to solitude, and after she had departed, Lady Gore lay for a while in a state of pleasant quiescence. Why, she wondered, even supposing she herself did think too well of her husband, should Miss Martin object? Why do onlookers appear to resent the spectacle of a too united family? There is, no doubt, something exasperating in an excess of indiscriminating kindliness. But it is an amiable fault after all; and, besides, more discrimination may sometimes be required to discover the hidden good lurking in a fellow-creature than to perceive and deride his more obvious absurdities and defects. It would no doubt be a very great misfortune to see our belongings as they appear to the world at large, and the fay who should "gie us that giftie" ought indeed to be banished from every christening. Let us console ourselves: she commonly is.
But poor Miss Martin had no adoring belongings to shed the genial light of affection on her doings, to give her even mistaken admiration, better than none at all. Life had dealt but bleakly with her; she had always been in the shadow: small wonder then if her nature was blighted and her view of life soured. Lady Gore smiled to herself, a little wistfully perhaps, as she tried to put herself in Miss Martin's place—of all mental operations one of the most difficult to achieve successfully. Lady Gore's sheer power of sympathy might enable her to get nearer to it than many people, but still she inevitably reckoned up the balance, after the fashion of our kind, seeing only one side of the scale and not knowing what was in the other, and as she did so, it seemed to her still possible that Miss Martin might have the best of it, or at any rate might not fall so short of the best as at first appeared. For in spite of her age she still had the great inestimable boon of health; she was well, she was independent, she could, when it seemed good to her, get up and go out and join in the life of other people. While as for herself ... and again the feeling of impotent misery, of rebellion against her own destiny, came over Lady Gore like a wave whose strength she was powerless to resist. For since the rheumatic fever which five years ago had left her practically an incurable invalid, the effort to accept her fate still needed to be constantly renewed; an effort that had to be made alone, for the acceptance of such a fate by those who surround the sufferer is generally made, more or less, once for all in a moment of emotion, and then gradually becomes part of the habitual circumstance of daily life. Mercifully she did not realise all at once the thing that had happened to her. In the first days when she was returning to health—she who up to the time of her illness had been so full of life and energy—the mere pleasure in existence, the mere joy of the summer's day in which she could lie near an open window, look out on the world and the people in it, was enough; she was too languid to want to do more. Then her strength slowly returned, and with it the desire to resume her ordinary life. But weeks passed in which she still remained at the same stage, they lengthened into months, and brought her gradually a horrible misgiving. Then, at last, despairingly she faced the truth, and knew that from all she had been in the habit of doing, from all that she had meant to do, she was cut off for ever. She began to realise then, as people do who, unable to carry their treasures with them, look over them despairingly before they cast them away one by one, all that her ambitions had been. She smiled bitterly to herself during the hours in which she lay there looking her fate in the face and trying to encounter it with becoming courage, as she realised how, with more than half of her life, at the best, behind her, she had up to this moment been spending the rest of it still looking onward, still living in the future. She had dreamt of the time when, helped by her, her husband should go forward in his career, when, steered under her guidance, Rachel would go along the smiling path to happiness. And now, instead, she was to be to husband and daughter but the constant object of care and solicitude and pity. Yes, pity—that was the worst of it. "An invalid," she repeated to herself, and felt that at last she knew what that word meant that she had heard all her life, that she had applied unconcernedly to one fellow-creature or another without realising all that it means of tragedy, of startled, growing dread, followed by hopeless and despairing acceptance. Then there came a day when, calling all her courage to her help, she made up her mind bravely to begin life afresh, to sketch her destiny from another point of view, and yet to make a success of the picture. The battle had to be fought out alone. Sir William, after the agony of thinking he was going to lose her, after the rapture of joy at knowing that the parting was not to be yet, had insensibly become accustomed, as one does become accustomed to the trials of another, to the altered conditions of their lives, and it was even unconsciously a sort of agreeable certainty that whatever the weather, whatever the claims of the day, she would every afternoon be found in the same place, never away, never occupied about the house, always ready to listen, to sympathise. She had made up her mind that since now she was debarred from active participation in the lives of her husband and daughter, she would by unceasing, strenuous daily effort keep abreast of their daily interests, and be by her sympathy as much a part of their existence as though she had been, as before, their constant companion.
The smallness of such a family circle may act in two ways: it may either send the members of it in different directions, or it may draw them together in an intense concentration of interests and sympathy. This latter was happily the condition of the Gores. The varying degrees of their strength and weaknesses had been so mercifully adjusted by destiny that each could find in the other some support—whether real or fancied does not matter. For illusions, if they last, form as good a working basis for life as reality, and in the Gore household, whether by imagination or not, the equipoise of life had been most skilfully adjusted. The amount of shining phantasies that had interwoven themselves into the woof of the family destiny had become so much a part of the real fabric that they were indistinguishable from it.
As far as Sir William's career, if we may give it that name, was concerned, the calamity which had fallen upon his wife had in some strange manner explained and justified it. The younger son of a country gentleman of good family, he had, by the death of his elder brother, come into the title, the estate, and the sufficient means bequeathed by his father. Elinor Calthorpe, the daughter of a neighbouring squire, had been ever since her childhood on terms of intimate friendship with the Gore boys; as far back as she could remember, William Gore, big, strong, full of life and spirits, a striking contrast to his delicate elder brother, had been her ideal of everything that was manly and splendid: and when after his brother's death he asked her to marry him, she felt that life had nothing more to offer. In that belief she had never wavered. Sir William, by nature estimable and from circumstances irreproachable, made an excellent husband; that is to say, that during nearly a quarter of a century of marriage he had never wavered either in his allegiance to his wife or in his undivided acceptance of her allegiance, and hers alone. She on her side had never once during all those years realised that the light which shone round her idol came from the lamp she herself kept alive before the shrine, nor even that it was her more acute intelligence, blind in one direction only, which suggested the opinion or course of action that he quite unconsciously afterwards offered to the world as his own. It was she who infused into his life every possibility beyond the obvious. It was her keenness, her ardent interest in those possibilities, that urged him on. When she finally persuaded him to stand for Parliament as member for their county town, it was in a great measure her popularity that won him the seat.
He was in the House without making any special mark for two years, with a comfortable sense, not clearly stated perhaps even to himself, that there was time before him. Men go long in harness in these days; some day for certain that mark would be made. Then his party went out, and in spite of another unsuccessful attempt in his own constituency, and then in one further afield, he was left by the roadside, while the tide of politics swept on. His wife consoled herself by thinking that at the next opportunity he would surely get in. But when the opportunity came, she was so ill that he could not leave her, and the moment passed. Then when they began to realise what her ultimate condition might be, and she was recommended to take some special German waters which might work a cure, he and Rachel went with her. Sir William, when the necessity of going abroad first presented itself to him—a heroic necessity for the ordinary stay-at-home Englishman—had felt the not unpleasant stimulus, the tightening of the threads of life, which the need for a given unexpected course of action presents to the not very much occupied person. Then came those months away from his own country and his own surroundings—months in which he acquired the habit of reading an English newspaper two days old and being quite satisfied with it, when everything else also had two days' less importance than it would at home, and gradually he tasted the delights of the detached onlooker who need do nothing but warn, criticise, prophesy, protest. With absolute sincerity to himself he attributed this attitude which Fate had assigned to him as entirely owing to his having had to leave England on his wife's account. He had quite easily, quite calmly drifted into a conviction that for his wife's sake he had chivalrously renounced his chances of distinction. Lady Gore on her side—it was another bitterness added to the rest—did not for a moment doubt that it was her condition and the sacrifice that her husband had made of his life to her which had ruined his political career. And they both of them gradually succeeded in forgetting that the alternative had not been a certainty. They believed, they knew, they even said openly, that if it had not been for his incessant attendance on her he would have gone into the House, he would have taken office, and eventually have been one of the shapers of his country's destiny. The phraseology of their current talk to one another and to outsiders reflected this belief. "If I had continued in the House," Sir William would say, with a manner and inflection which conveyed that he had left it of his own free will and not attempted to return to it, "I should have——" or, "If I had taken office——" or even sometimes, "If I were leading the Liberal party——" and no one, indeed, was in a position to affirm that these things might not have been. If a man's capacities are hinted at or even stated by himself to his fellow-creatures with a certain amount of discretion, and if he does not court failure by putting them to the proof, it does not occur to most people to contradict him, and the possible truth of the contradiction soon sinks out of sight. So Sir William sat on the brink of the river and watched the others plunging into the waves, diving, rising, breasting the current, and was agreeably supported by the consciousness that if Fate had so ordained it, he himself would have been capable of performing all these feats just as creditably. No need now to stifle a misgiving that in the old days would occasionally obtrude itself into the glowing views of the future, that he was possibly not of a stature to play the great parts for which he might be cast. On the contrary, what now remained was the blessed peace brought by renunciation, the calm renunciation of prospects that in the light of ceasing to try to attain them seemed absolutely certain. No one now could ever say that he had failed. He had been prevented by circumstances from achieving any success of a definite and conspicuous kind, although the position he had attained, the consideration nearly always accorded to the ordinary prosperous middle-aged Englishman of the upper classes who has done nothing to forfeit his claim to it, and more than all, the plenitude of assurance which he received of his deserts from his immediate surroundings, might well have been considered success enough. And on his return to England, after eighteen months of wandering, although he was no longer in Parliament and had no actual voice in deciding the politics of his country, it pleased him to think that if he chose he could still take an active line, that he could belong to the volunteer army of orators who make speeches at other people's elections and who write letters to the newspaper that the world may know their views on a given situation.
At the time of which we speak political parties in England were trying in vain to re-adjust an equable balance. Conservatives and Unionists, almost indistinguishable, were waving the Imperialist banner in the face of the world. The Liberals, once the advanced and subversive party, were now raising their voices in protest, tentatively advocating the claims of what they considered the oppressed races. Derisive epithets were hurled at them by their enemies; the Pro-Boers, the Little Englanders took the place of the Home Rulers of the past. Sir William was by tradition a Liberal. Inspired by that tradition he wrote an article on the "Attitude of England," which appeared in a Liberal Review. Thrilled by the sight of his utterances in print, he determined in his secret soul to expand that article into a book. The secret was of course shared by his wife, who fervently believed in the yet unwritten masterpiece. The fact that in spite of the dearth of prominent men in his party, of men who had in them the stuff of a leader, that party had not turned to Gore in its need, aroused no surprise, no misgiving, in either his mind or that of his wife. It was simply in their eyes another step in that path of voluntary renunciation which he was treading for her sake.
With this possible interpretation of all missed opportunities entirely taken for granted, Sir William's existence flowed peacefully and prosperously on. It was with an agreeable consciousness of his dignity and prestige that he sat once or twice in the week at the board meetings of one or two governing bodies to which he belonged. They figured in his scheme of existence as his hours of work, the sterner, more serious occupation which justified his hours of leisure. The rest of that leisure was spent in happy, congenial uniformity: a morning ride, followed by some time in his comfortable study, during which he might be supposed to be writing his book; an hour or two at his club; a game or two of chess, a pastime in which he excelled; and behind all this a beautiful background, the deep and enduring affection of his wife, whose companionship, and needs, and admiration for himself filled up all the vacant spaces in his life. He would, however, have been genuinely surprised if he had realised that it was by a constant, deliberate intention that she succeeded in entertaining him, in amusing him, as much as she did her friends and acquaintances; if he had thought that she had made up her mind that never, while she had power to prevent it, should he come into his own house and find it dull. And he never did.
To be a popular invalid is in itself a career: it blesses those that call and those that receive. The visitors who used day by day to go and see Lady Gore used to congratulate themselves as they stood on her doorstep on the knowledge that they would find her within, and glad—or so each one individually thought—to see them. She was an attractive person, certainly, as she lay on her sofa. Her hair had turned white prematurely early, it enhanced the effect of the delicate faded colouring and the soft brown eyes. The sweet brightness of her manner was mingled with dignity, with the comprehensive sympathy and pliability of a woman of the world; an innate distinction of mind and person radiated from her looks. Those who watched the general grace and repose of her demeanour and surroundings involuntarily felt that there might be advantages in a condition of life which prevented the mere thought of being hot, untidy, hurried, like some of the ardent ladies who used to rush into her room between a committee meeting and a tea-party and tell her breathlessly of their flustered doings. Rachel had inherited something of her mother's dainty charm. She had the same brown eyes and delicate features, framed by bright brown hair. It was certainly encouraging to those who looked upon the daughter to see in the mother what effect the course of the years was likely to have on such a personality. There was not much dread in the future when confronted with such a picture. But in truth, as far as most of the spectators who frequented the house were concerned, Rachel's personality had been merged in her mother's, and any comparison between the two was perhaps more likely to be in the direction of wondering whether Rachel in the course of years would, as time went on, become so absolutely delightful a human product as Lady Gore. Rachel's own attitude on this score was entirely consonant with that of others. Her mother was the centre of her life, the object of her passionate devotion, her guide, her ideal. It was when Rachel was seventeen that Lady Gore became helpless and dependent, and the girl suddenly found that their positions were in some ways reversed; it was she who had to take care of her mother, to inculcate prudence upon her, to minister incessantly to her daily wants; there was added to the daughter's love the yearning care that a loving woman feels for a helpless charge, and there was hardly room for anything else in her life. Rachel, fortunately for herself and for others, had no startling originality; no burning desire, arrived at womanhood, to strike out a path for herself. She was unmoved by the conviction which possesses most of her young contemporaries that the obvious road cannot be the one to follow. Lady Gore's perceptions, far more acute as regarded her daughter than her husband, and rendered more vivid still by the whole concentration of her maternal being in Rachel, had entirely realised, while she wondered at it, the complete lack in her child of the modern ferment that seethes in the female mind of our days. But she had finally come to see that if Rachel was entirely happy and contented with her life it was a result to rejoice over rather than be discontented with, even though her horizon did not extend much beyond her own home. Besides, it is always well to rejoice over a result we cannot modify. Needless to say that the girl, who blindly accepted her mother's opinion even on indifferent subjects, was, biassed by her own affection, more than ready to endow her father with all the qualities Lady Gore believed him to possess. She had arrived at the age of twenty-two without realising that there could be for her any claims in the world that would be paramount to these, anything that could possibly come before her allegiance to her parents.
One of the bitterest pangs of Lady Gore's bitter renunciation was the moment when she realised that she could not be the one to guide Rachel's first steps in a wider world than that of her home, that all her plans and theories about the moment when the girl should grow up, when her mother would accompany her, steer her, help her at every step, must necessarily be brought to nought. And this mother, alas! had been so full of plans; she had so anxiously watched other people and their daughters, so carefully accumulated from her observation the many warnings and the few examples which constitute what is called the teaching of experience. But when the time came the lesson had been learnt in vain. Rachel's eighteenth and nineteenth years were spent in anxious preoccupations about her mother's health, in solicitous care of her father and the household, and the girl had glided gently from childhood into womanhood with nothing but increased responsibility, instead of more numerous pleasures, to mark the passage. But the result was something very attractively unlike the ordinary product of the age. She had had, from the conditions of her life, no very intimate and confidential girl friends by whose point of view to readjust and possibly lower her own, and with whom to compare every fleeting manifestation of thought and feeling. She remained unconsciously surrounded by an atmosphere of reticence and reserve, a certain shy aloofness, mingled with a direct simple dignity, that gave to her bearing an ineffable grace and charm. The mothers of more dashing damsels were wont to say that she was not "effective" in a ballroom. It was true that she had nothing particularly accentuated in demeanour or appearance which would at once arrest attention, an inadequate equipment, perhaps, in the opinion of those who hold that it is better to produce a bad effect than none at all.
Mrs. Feversham, of Bruton Street, was an old friend of Lady Gore's, whose junior she was by a few years. She had no daughters of her own, and had in consequence an immense amount of undisciplined energy at the service of those of other people. She was not a lady whose views were apt to be matured in silence; she was ardently concerned about Rachel's future, and she was constantly imparting new projects to Lady Gore, who received them with smiling equanimity.
It was at an "At Home" given by Mrs. Feversham one evening early in the season, when the rooms were full of hot people talking at the top of their voices, that the hostess, looking round her with a comprehensive glance, saw Rachel standing alone. There was, however, in the girl's demeanour none of that air of aggressive solitude sometimes assumed by the neglected. The eye fell upon Rachel with a sense of rest, looking on one who did not wish to go anywhere or to do anything, who was standing with unconscious grace an entirely contented spectator of what was passing before her. Mrs. Feversham's one idea, however, as she perceived her was instantly to suggest that she should do something else, that at any price some one should take her to have some tea, or make her eat or walk, or do anything, in fact, but stand still. Rachel, however, at the moment she was swooped down upon, was well amused; a smile was unconsciously playing on her lips as she listened to an absurd conversation going on between a young man and a girl just in front of her.
"By George!" said the boy, "it is hot. Let's go and have ices."
"Ices? Right you are," the girl replied, and attempted to follow her gallant cavalier, who had started off, trying to make for himself a path through the serried hot crowd, leaving the lady he was supposed to be convoying to follow him as near as she might.
"Hallo!" he said suddenly. "There's Billy Crowther. Do you mind if I go and slap him on the back?"
"All right, buck up, then, and slap him on the back," replied the fair one. "I'll go on." Thus gracefully encouraged, the youth flung himself in another direction, and almost overturned his hostess, who was coming towards Rachel.
"Sorry," he said, apparently not at all discomposed, and continued his wild career.
"Well! the young men of the present day!..." said Mrs. Feversham, as she joined Rachel; then suddenly remembering that a wholesale condemnation was not the attitude she wished to inculcate in her present hearer, she went on: "Not that they are all alike, of course; some of them are—are different," she supplemented luminously. "Now, my child, have you had anything to eat?"
"I don't think I want anything, thank you," said Rachel.
"Oh, nonsense!" said Mrs. Feversham. "You must." And, looking round for the necessary escort, she saw a new arrival coming up the stairs. "The very man!" she said to herself, but fortunately not aloud, as "Mr. Rendel!" was announced. A young man of apparently a little over thirty, with deep-set, far-apart eyes and clear-cut features, came up and took her outstretched hand with a little air of formal politeness refreshing after the manifestations she had been deploring.
"I am so glad to see you," she said cordially. Rendel greeted her with a smile. "Do you know Miss Gore?" Rendel and Rachel bowed.
"I have met Sir William Gore more than once," he said.
"She is dying for something to eat," said Mrs. Feversham, to Rachel's great astonishment. "Do take her downstairs, Mr. Rendel." The young people obediently went down together.
"I am not really dying for something to eat," Rachel said, as soon as they were out of hearing of their hostess. "In fact, I am not sure that I want anything."
"Oh, don't you?" said Rendel.
"Two hours ago I was still dining, you see."
"Of course," said Rendel, "so was I." They both laughed. They went on nevertheless to the door of the room from whence the clatter of glass and china was heard.
"Now, are you sure you won't be 'tempted,' according to the received expression?" said Rendel, as a hot waiter hurried past them with some dirty plates and glasses on a tray.
"No, I am afraid I am not at all tempted," said Rachel.
"Well, let us look for a cooler place," said Rendel. What a soothing companion this was he had found, who did not want him to fight for an ice or a sandwich! They went up again to a little recess on the landing by an open window. The roar of tongues came down to them from the drawing-room.
"Just listen to those people," said Rendel. A sort of wild, continuous howl filled the air, as though bursting from a company of the condemned immured in an eternal prison, instead of from a gathering of peaceable citizens met together for their diversion. "Isn't it dreadful to realise what our natural note is like?" he added. "It is hideous."
"It isn't pretty, certainly," said Rachel, unable to help smiling at his face of disgust. The roar seemed to grow louder as it went on.
"It is a pity we can't chirp and twitter like birds," said Rendel.
"I don't know that that would be very much better," said Rachel. "Have you ever been in a room with a canary singing? Think of a room with as many canaries in it as this."
"Yes, I daresay—it might have been nearly as bad," Rendel said; "though if we were canaries we should be nicer to look at perhaps," and his eye fell on an unprepossessing elderly couple who were descending the stairs with none of the winsomeness of singing birds. "Have you read Maeterlinck's 'Life of the Bees'?"
"No," Rachel answered simply.
"I agree with him," Rendel said, "that it would be just as difficult to get any idea of what human beings are about by looking down on them from a height, as it is for us to discover what insects are doing when we look down on them."
"Yes, imagine looking at that," said Rachel, pointing towards the drawing-room. "You would see people walking up and down and in and out for no reason, and jostling each other round and round."
"Yes," said Rendel. "How aimless it would look! Not more aimless than it is, after all," he added.
"It amuses me, all the same," said Rachel, rather deprecatingly. "I mean, to come to a party of this kind every now and then; perhaps because I don't do it very often."
"Why, don't you go out every night of your life in the season?" said Rendel; "I thought all young ladies did."
"I don't," she said. "It isn't quite the same for me as it is for other people—at least, I mean that I have only my father to go out with;" and then, seeing in his face the interpretation he put on her words, she added, "my mother is an invalid, and we do not like to leave her too often."
"Ah! but she is alive still," said Rendel, with a tone that sounded as if he understood what the contrary might have meant.
"Oh yes," said Rachel quickly. "Yes, yes, indeed she is alive," in a voice that told the proportion that fact assumed in existence.
"My mother died long years ago," said Rendel, in a lower voice. "Not so long, though, that I did not understand." Rachel looked at him with a soft light of pity flooding her face, and drawing the words out of him, he knew not how. "My father married again," he said, "while I was still a child—while I needed looking after, at least."
"Oh," said Rachel, "you had a stepmother?"
"Yes," he said, "I had a stepmother," and his face involuntarily became harder as he recalled that long stretch of loveless years—the father had never quite understood the shy and sensitive child—during which he had been neglected, suppressed, lonely, with no one to care that he did well at school and college, and that later he was getting on in the world, with no place in the world that was really his home. Then he went on after a moment: "And now my father is dead, too, so I am pretty much alone, you see."
"How terrible it must be!" said Rachel softly. "How extraordinary! I can't quite imagine what it is like."
"Well, it is not very pleasant," said Rendel looking up, and again penetrated by the sweet compassion in Rachel's face. "You can't think how strange it is——" He broke off and got up as Sir William Gore came downstairs towards them. Sir William, with the true instinct of a father, had chosen this moment to wonder whether Rachel was being sufficiently amused, and was bearing down upon her and her companion with an air of cheerful virtue which proclaimed that her conversation with Rendel was at an end. Sir William's political principles did not permit him to think very much of Rendel, since he was private secretary to a man whose policy Sir William cordially detested, Lord Stamfordham, the Foreign Minister, whose acute and wide-reaching sagacity inspired his followers with a blind confidence to himself and his methods. Lord Stamfordham had soon discovered the practical aptitude, the political capacity, the determined, honourable ambition that lay behind Francis Rendel's grave exterior, and had made up his mind, as indeed had others, that the young man had a distinguished future before him.
"Ah, Rendel, how are you?" said Gore. "What is your Chief going to do next, eh?"
"I am afraid I can't tell you, Sir William," said Rendel with a half smile.
"Well, the people round him ought to put the brake on," said Gore, "or I don't know where the country will be."
"I am afraid it is a brake I am not strong enough to work," said Rendel; "like Archimedes, I have not a lever powerful enough to move the universe."
"H'm!" said Sir William, with a sort of snort. There are fortunately still some sounds left in our vocabulary which convey primeval emotions without the limitations of words. "Come, Rachel, it is time for us to be going."
* * * * *
Mrs. Feversham's watchful eye had managed to observe what appeared to be the sufficiently satisfactory sequel to the introduction she had made. She was not a woman to let such a seed die for want of planting and watering. She asked Rendel to dinner to meet the Gores, she talked to Lady Gore about him, she it was who somehow arranged that he should go to call at Prince's Gate, and he finally grew into a habit of finding his way there with a frequency that surprised himself. Lady Gore subjugated him entirely by her sweet kindly welcome, and the interest with which she listened to him, until he found himself to his own astonishment telling her, as he sat by her sofa, of his hopes and fears and plans for the future.
Gradually new possibilities seemed to come into his life, or rather the old possibilities were seen in a new light shed by the womanly sympathy which up to now he had never known. He came away from each visit with some fresh spurt of purpose, some new impulse to achievement. Lady Gore, on her side, had been more favourably impressed by Rendel than by any of the young men she had seen, until she realised that here at last was a possible husband who might be worthy of Rachel. But with her customary wisdom she tried not to formulate it even to herself: she did not believe in these things being helped on otherwise than by opportunity for intercourse being given. But where Mrs. Feversham was, opportunity was sure to follow. Lady Gore one morning had an eager letter from her friend saying, "I know that you and Rachel make it a rule of life that she can never go away from home. But you must let her come to me next Thursday for the night. I shall have"—and she underlined this significantly without going into more details—"just the right people to meet her." And for once, as Lady Gore folded up the letter, she too was seized with an ardour of matchmaking. She had a real affection for Rendel, and the devotion of the young man to herself touched and pleased her. His probably brilliant future and comfortable means were not the principal factors in the situation, but there was no doubt that they helped to make everything else easy. So it was that, to Rachel's great surprise, the day after the party at Bruton Street, her mother having told her without showing her the letter of Mrs. Feversham's invitation, advised her to accept it, and, to the mother's still greater surprise, the daughter, in her turn, after a slight protest, agreed to do so, stipulating, however, that she should not be away more than twenty-four hours. The accusation that Rachel "gadded" as much as other girls of her age was obviously an unmerited one.
"Alone?" said Sir William, as he came into the room. "Thank Heaven! Have you had no one?"
"Aunt Anna," Lady Gore replied, in a tone which was comment on the statement.
"Aunt Anna? What did she come again for?" said Sir William.
"I really don't know," Lady Gore said. "I think to-day it was to tell me that Rachel and I ought not to worship you as we do."
"I don't know what she means," said Sir William, standing from force of habit comfortably in front of the fireplace as though there were a fire in the grate. "I should have thought it was Rachel and I who adored you."
"She would like that better," Lady Gore replied. "But, oh dear, what a weary woman she is!"
"She has tired you out," Sir William said. "It really is not a good plan that your door should be open to every bore who chooses to come and call upon you. One ought to be able to keep people of that sort, at any rate, out of one's house."
Lady Gore heaved a sigh.
"Well, it is rather difficult and invidious too," she said, "to try to keep certain people out when one is not sure who is coming—and it is rather dull not to see any one," with a little quiver of the lip which Sir William did not perceive. Then speaking more lightly, "It is a pity we can't have some kind of automatic arrangement at our front doors, like the thing for testing sovereigns at the Mint, by which the heavy, tiresome people would be shot back into the street, and the light, amusing ones shot into the hall."
"I am quite agreeable," said Sir William, "as long as Aunt Anna is shot back into the street."
"Ah, how delightful it would be!" said Lady Gore longingly.
"And Miss Tarlton too, please," said Sir William.
"My dear William," Lady Gore said, "Miss Tarlton is quite harmless."
"Harmless?" repeated Sir William; "I don't know what you call harmless. The very thought of her fills me with impotent rage. A woman who talks of nothing but photography and bicycling, and goes about with her fingers pea-green and her legs in gaiters! It's an outrage on society. I am thankful that Rachel has never gone in for any nonsense of that sort—nor ever shall, while I can prevent it."
"My good friend," said Lady Gore, "you may not find that so easy."
"I will prevent it as long as she is under my roof," replied Sir William. "I suppose if she marries a husband with any fads of that sort, she will have to share them."
"But"—Lady Gore checked herself on the verge of saying, "I don't think he has," as she suddenly realised what image was called up by the mention of Rachel's possible husband—"but she might marry some one who hasn't," she ended lamely.
"Oh dear me, yes," said Sir William, "there is time enough for that; she is very young after all."
"She is twenty-two," said Lady Gore. "Perhaps that is young in these days when women don't seem to marry until they are nearly thirty. But I don't think it is a good plan to wait so long."
"I don't think it's a bad one," said Sir William; "they know their own minds at any rate."
"They have known half a dozen of their own minds," said Lady Gore. "I think it is much better for a girl to marry before she knows that there is an alternative to the mind she has got, such as it is."
Sir William smiled, but did not think it worth while to argue the point. It was not his province, but her mother's, to guide Rachel's career, and he was content to remain in comfortable ignorance of the complications of the female heart of a younger generation. However, he was not allowed to remain in that detached attitude, for Lady Gore, with the subject uppermost in her mind preoccupying her to the exclusion of everything else, could not help adding, "You often see Mr. Rendel at parties, when you and Rachel go out, I mean?"
"Rendel? Yes," said Gore indifferently. "Why?"
Lady Gore did not explain. "I like him," she said.
"Oh yes, so do I," said Gore, without enthusiasm. "I don't agree with him, of course. I asked him one day what his Chief was about, and told him he ought to put the brake on."
"Did he seem pleased at that?" said Lady Gore, smiling.
"He will have to hear it, I'm afraid," said Gore, "whether it pleases him or not."
"I must say," said Lady Gore, "I can't help admiring Lord Stamfordham. I do like a man who is strong, and this man is head and shoulders above other people."
"Head and shoulders above little people perhaps," said Sir William.
"Mr. Rendel says that when once one is caught up in Lord Stamfordham's train, it is impossible not to follow him."
"Rendel!" said Sir William. "Oh, of course, if you're going to listen to what Stamfordham's hangers-on say...."
"Oh, William, please!" said Lady Gore. "Don't say that sort of thing about Mr. Rendel."
"Why?" said Sir William, amazed. "Why am I to speak of Rendel with bated breath?"
"Because ... suppose—suppose he were to be your son-in-law some day?"
"Oh," said Sir William, staring at her, "is that what you are thinking of?"
"Mind—mind you don't say it," cried Lady Gore.
"I shan't say it, certainly," cried Sir William, still bewildered; "but has he said it? That's more to the point."
"He hasn't yet," she admitted.
"Well, he never struck me in that light, I must say," said Sir William. "I always thought it was you he adored."
"Cela n'empeche pas," said Lady Gore, laughing.
"I daresay he would do very well," said Sir William, who, as he further considered the question, was by no means insensible to the advantages of the suggestion put before him; "it is only his politics that are against him."
"I am afraid," said Lady Gore, "that Rachel would always think her father knew best."
"Afraid!" said Sir William, "what more would you have?"
"My dear William," said his wife, smiling at him, "she might think her husband knew best, that is what some people do."
"Quite right," said Sir William, looking at her fondly, but believing with entire conviction in the truth of what he was lightly saying.
At this moment the door opened and a footman came in.
"Young Mr. Anderson is downstairs, Sir William."
"Young Mr. Anderson?" said Sir William, looking at him with some surprise.
"Yes, Sir William—Mr. Fred," the man replied, evidently somewhat doubtful as to whether he was right in using the honorific.
"Fred Anderson back again!" said Sir William to his wife. "All right, James, I'll come directly." "I wonder if his rushing back to England so soon," he said, as the door closed upon the servant, "means that that boy has come to grief."
"Let us hope that it means the reverse," said his wife, "and that he has come back to ask you to be chairman of his company—as you promised, do you remember, when he went away?"
"So I did, yes, to be sure," said Sir William, laughing at the recollection. "Upon my word, that lad won't fail for want of assurance. We shall see what he has got to say." And he went out.
The Andersons had been small farmers on the Gore estate for some generations. Fred Anderson, the second son of the present farmer, a youth of energy and enterprise, had determined to seek his fortune further afield. Mainly by the kind offices of the Gores, he had been started in life as a mining engineer, and had, eighteen months before his present reappearance, been sent with some others to examine and report on a large mine lately discovered on British territory near the Equator. The result of their investigations proved that it was actually and most unexpectedly a gold mine, promising untold treasure, but at the same time, from its geographical situation, almost valueless, since it was so far from any lines of communication as to make the working of it practically impossible. The young, however, are sanguine; undaunted by difficulties, Fred Anderson, in spite of the discouragement and dropping off of his companions, remained full of faith in the future of the mine, and of something turning up which would make it possible to work it; in fact, he had actually gone so far as to obtain for himself a grant of the mining rights from the British Government. It was for this purpose that, giving a brief outline of the situation, he had written to Sir William some time before to ask him for the sum necessary to obtain the concession. Sir William had advanced it to him. It was when, two years before, the boy of nineteen was leaving home for the first time that he had half jestingly asked Sir William whether, if he and his companions found a gold mine and started a company to work it, he would be their chairman, and Sir William, to whom it had seemed about as likely that Fred Anderson would become Prime Minister as succeed in such an undertaking, had given him his hand on the bargain.
"Well, my boy," said Sir William, and the very sound of his voice seemed to Fred Anderson to put him back two years—the two years that appeared to him to contain his life. "How is it you have hurried back to England so quickly?"
"I will tell you all about it, Sir William," said the boy. "I thought it best to come over and get everything into shape myself."
"You seem to be embarking on very adventurous schemes," said Sir William, feeling as he looked at the boy's bright, open face, full of alert intelligence, that it was not impossible that the schemes might be carried through.
"I think you will say so, sir, when you have heard what I have to tell you," said Anderson, resolutely keeping down his excitement in a way that boded well for his powers of self-control.
"I shall be much interested," said Sir William. "Now, what about those mining rights? Do I understand that you are the proprietor of a mine on the Equator, a thousand miles from anywhere?"
"Yes, and no," said Anderson. "At least, yes to the first question; no to the second."
"What," said Sir William, still speaking lightly, "has the mine come nearer since we first heard of it?"
"Yes, practically it has," said Anderson, looking Gore in the face. Then, unrolling the paper which he held in his hand and rolling it the other way that it might remain open, he laid it carefully out on the table before Sir William. "I have brought you the map with all the indications on it, that you may see for yourself." Sir William adjusted an eyeglass and bent over the map, roused to more curiosity than he showed.
"This," said the young man, pointing to a large tract in pink, "is British territory; that is Uganda; here is the Congo Free State. There, you see, are the Germans where the map is marked in orange. There is the Equator, and there is the mine. Look, marked in blue."
"That is a pretty God-forsaken place, I must say," remarked Sir William.
"One moment," said Fred. "That thin, dotted ink line running north and south from the top of Africa to the bottom is the Cape to Cairo Railway, of which the route has now been determined on, and this," with a ringing accent of triumph, bringing his hand down on to the map, "is the place where the railway will pass within a few miles of us."
"What?" said Sir William, starting.
"Yes, there it is, quite close," Anderson answered. "When once it is there, all our difficulties of transport are over."
Sir William recovered himself.
"Cape to Cairo!" he said. "You had better wait till you see the line made, my boy."
"That won't be so very long, Sir William, I assure you," said the young man. "This cross in ink marks where the line has got to from the northern end, and this one," pointing to another, "from the south, and they have already got telegraph poles a good bit further."
"Before the two ends have joined hands," said Sir William, "another Government may be in which won't be so keen on that mad enterprise. As if we hadn't railways enough on our hands already."
"Not many railways like this one," said the young man. "Did you see an article in the Arbiter about it this morning? It is going to be the most tremendous thing that ever was done."
"Oh, of course, yes," said Sir William with an accent of scorn in his tone. "Just the kind of thing that the Arbiter would have a good flare-up about. I have no doubt that the scheme is magnificent on paper. However, time will show," he added, with a kinder note in his voice. He liked the boy and his faith in achieving the impossible.
"It will indeed," said Anderson. "Only, you see, we can't afford to wait till time shows—we must take it by the forelock now, I'm afraid."
"Then what do you propose to do next?" said Sir William.
"We are going to form a company," said the boy, his colour rising. "We are going to have everything ready, and the moment the railway is finished we are ready to work the mine, and our fortune is made."
"You are going to form a company?" said Sir William, incredulously.
"Yes," Anderson replied. "In a week we shall have the whole thing in shape, and I hope that when the mine and its possibilities are made public, we shan't have any difficulty in getting the shares taken up."
"Well, I am sure I hope you won't," said Sir William. "I'll take some shares in it if you can show me a reasonable prospect of its coming to anything. But I should like to hear something more about it first."
"You shall, of course," said Anderson, as he took up his map again. "But it was not about taking shares I came to ask you, Sir William."
"What was it, then?" said Sir William.
"You said," the boy replied, with an embarrassed little laugh, looking him straight in the face, "that you would be the chairman of the first company I floated."
"By Jove, so I did!" said Sir William. "Upon my word, it was rather a rash promise to make."
"I don't think it was, I assure you," the boy said earnestly; "this thing really is going to turn up trumps."
"Well, let's hope it is, for all concerned," said Sir William. "And what are you going to call it?"
"Oh, we are going to call it," said Fred, "simply 'The Equator, Limited.'"
"The Equator! Upon my word! Why not the Universe?" said Sir William.
"That will come next," said the boy, with a happy laugh of sheer jubilation. "Then, Sir William, will you—you will be our chairman?"
"Oh yes," said Sir William. "A promise is a promise. But mind, I shall be a very inefficient one. I don't suppose you could find any one who knew less about that sort of thing than I do."
"Oh, that will be all right, Sir William," the boy said quickly. "There will be lots of people concerned who know all about it. Now that the mine is going to be accessible, the right people will be more than ready to take it up. I just wanted to have you there as the nominal head to it, because you have always been so good to me, and you have brought me luck since the beginning."
"Nonsense!" said Sir William. "You'll have only yourself to thank, my boy, when you get on."
"Oh, I know better than that," said Anderson. Something very like tears came into his eyes as he took the hand Sir William held out to him, and then left the room as happy a youth of twenty-one as could be found in London that day.
There was another young creature, at that moment driving across London to Prince's Gate, to whom the world looked very beautiful that day. Rachel was still in a sort of rapturous bewilderment. The wonderful new experience that had come to her, that she was contemplating for the first time, seemed, as she saw it in the company of familiar surroundings, more marvellous yet. At Maidenhead everything had been unwonted. The new experience of going away alone, the enchanting repose of the hot sunny days on the river, the look of the boughs as they dipped lazily into the water, and the light dancing and dazzling on the ripples of the stream—all had been part of the setting of the new aspect of things, part of that great secret that she was beginning to learn. Yet all the time she had had a feeling that when the setting was altered, when she left this mysterious region of romance, life would become ordinary again, the strange golden light with which it was flooded would turn into the ordinary light of day, and she would find herself where she had been before. But it was not so. Here she was back again in the town she knew so well, driving towards her home—but the new, strange possession had not left her, the secret was hers still. It had all come so quickly that she had not realised what she felt. Was she "in love," the thing that she had taken for granted would happen to her some day, but that she had not yet longed for? Rachel, it must be confessed, had not been entirely given up to romance; she had not been waiting, watching for the fairy prince who should ride within her ken and transform existence for her. Her life had been too full of love of another kind. But now she had a sudden feeling of experience having been completed, something had come to her that she had wished for, longed for—how much, she had not known until it came. What would they say at home? What would her mother say? And gradually she realised, as she always ended by realising, that whatever the picture of life she was contemplating her mother was in the foreground of it. There was no doubt about that; her mother came first, her mother must come first. But nothing was quite clear in her mind at this moment. The past forty-eight hours, the sudden change of scene and of companionship, a possible alternative path suddenly presenting itself in an existence which had been peacefully following the same road, all this had been disturbing, bewildering even—and when the hansom drew up in Prince's Gate, Rachel felt an intense satisfaction at being back again in the haven, at the thought of the welcome she was going to find. And as on a summer's day to people sitting in a shaded room, the world beyond shut out, the opening of a door into the sunshine may reveal a sudden vista of light, of flowers shining in the sun, so to the two people who were awaiting Rachel's arrival she brought a sudden vision of youth, brightness, colour, hope, as she came swiftly in, smiling and confident, with the face and expression of one who had never come into the presence of either of these two companions without seeing her gladness reflected in the light of welcome that shone in their eyes.
"Well, gadabout!" said her father as she turned to him after embracing her mother fondly.
"I am very sorry," said Rachel, "I won't do it again."
"And how did you enjoy yourself, my darling?" said Lady Gore.
"Oh, very much," Rachel said. "It was delightful." The mother looked at her and tried to read into her face all that the words might mean. Rachel was in happy unconsciousness of how entirely the ground was prepared to receive her confidence.
"Was there a large party?" said Sir William.
"No," said Rachel, "a very small one." She was leaning back comfortably in the armchair, and deliberately taking off her gloves. "In fact, there were only two people beside myself, Sir Charles Miniver, and—Mr. Rendel." There was a pause.
"Miniver!" said Sir William, "Still staying about! He appeared to me an old man when I was twenty-five." Rachel opened her eyes.
"Did he?" she said. "That explains it. He is quite terribly old now, much, much older than other old people one sees," she said, with the conviction of her age, to which sixty and eighty appear pretty much the same. "You didn't mind," she went on to her mother hastily, somewhat transparently trying to avoid a discussion of the rest of the house party, "my staying till the afternoon train? Mrs. Feversham suggested boating this morning, and the day was so lovely, it was too tempting to refuse."
"I didn't mind at all," said Lady Gore. "It must have been lovely in the boat. Did you all go?"
"N—no, not all," replied Rachel. "Mrs. Feversham would have come, but she had some things to do at home, and Sir Charles Miniver was——"
"Too old?" Lady Gore suggested.
"I suppose so," said Rachel, "though he called it busy."
"As you say," remarked Sir William, "that does not leave many people to go in the boat." Rachel looked at her father quickly, but with a pliability surprising in the male mind he managed to look unconscious. "Well, Elinor," he continued, "I think as you have a companion now, I shall go off for a bit. I shall be back presently. Let me implore you not to let me find too many bores at tea."
"If Miss Tarlton comes," said Lady Gore, "I will have her automatically ejected." Sir William went out, smiling at her. The mother and daughter, both unconsciously to themselves, watched the door close, then Rachel got up, went to the glass over the chimneypiece and began deliberately taking off her veil.
"I do look a sight," she said. "It is astonishing how dirty one's face gets in London, even in a drive across the Park."
"Rachel!" her mother said. Rachel turned round and looked at her. Then she went quickly across the room and knelt down by her mother's couch.
"Mother!" she said, "Mother dear! it is such a comfort that if I don't tell you things you don't mind. And why should you? It doesn't matter. It is just as if I had told you—you always know, you always understand."
"Yes," said Lady Gore, "I think I understand. And you know," she added after a moment, "that I never want you to tell me more than you wish to tell. Only, very often"—and she tried to choose her words with anxious care, that not one of them might mean more, less, or other than she intended, "it sometimes helps younger people, if they talk to people who are older. You see, the mere fact of having been in the world longer, brings one something like more wisdom, one can judge of the proportion of things somehow, nothing seems quite so surprising, so extraordinary—or so impossible," she added with a faint smile, with the intuition of the point that Rachel had arrived at. And Rachel was ready to take perfectly for granted that she should have been so followed. Her absolute reliance on the wise and tender confidante by her side, the habit of placing her first and referring everything to her was stronger unconsciously to herself, than even the natural desire of her age to hug the secret she was carrying, to keep it jealously from any eyes but her own.
"Of course, of course, I know that," she said without looking up, "and my first thought always is that I will tell you. In fact," she went on with a little laugh, "I never know what I think myself until I have told you, and heard what it sounds like when I am saying it to you, and seen what you look like when you listen—only——" she stopped again.
"Darling," said Lady Gore, "never feel that you must tell me a word more than you wish to say."
"Well," said Rachel hesitating, "the only thing is that to-day I must—perhaps—you would know something about it presently in any case...." And she stopped again.
"Presently? why?" said Lady Gore. Rachel made no answer.
"Is Mr. Rendel coming here to-day?" said Lady Gore, trying to speak in her ordinary voice.
"Yes," said Rachel, "he is coming to see you."
"I shall be very glad to see him," said Lady Gore. "I always am."
"I know, yes," said Rachel. Then with a sudden effort, "It is no use, mother, I must tell you; you must know first." Then she paused again. "This morning we went out in the boat——" she stopped.
"Yes," said Lady Gore, "and Sir Charles Miniver was unfortunately too old to go with you—or fortunately, perhaps?"
"I am not sure which," said Rachel. "I am not sure," she repeated slowly.
"Rachel, did Francis Rendel...."
"Yes," said Rachel, "he asked me to marry him."
Lady Gore laid her hand on her daughter's. "What did you say to him?"
Rachel looked up quickly. "Surely you know. I told him it would be impossible."
"Impossible?" her mother repeated.
"Of course, impossible," Rachel said. "We needn't discuss it, mother dear," she went on with an effort. "You know I could not go away from you; you could not do without me. You could not, could you?" she went on imploringly. "I should be dreadfully saddened if you could."
"I should have to do without you," Lady Gore said. "I could not let you give up your happiness to mine."
"It would not be giving up my happiness to stay with you, you know that quite well," Rachel said. "On the contrary, I simply could not be happy if I felt that you needed me and that I had left you."
"Rachel, do you care for him?"
"Do I, I wonder?" Rachel said, half thinking aloud and letting herself go as one does who, having overcome the first difficulty of speech, welcomes the rapturous belief of pouring out her heart to the right listener. "I believe," she said, "that I care for him as much as I could for any one, in that way, but"—and she shook her head—"I know all the time that you come first, and that you always, always will."
"Oh, but that is not right," said Lady Gore. "That is not natural."
"Not natural," Rachel said, "that I should care for my mother most?"
"No," Lady Gore said, "not in the long run. Of course," she went on with a smile, "to say a thing is not 'natural' is simply begging the question, and sounds as if one were dismissing a very complicated problem with a commonplace formula, but it has truth in it all the same. It is difficult enough to fashion existence in the right way, even with the help of others, but to do it single-handed is a task few people are qualified to achieve. I am quite sure that a woman has more chance of happiness if she marries than if she remains alone. It is right that people should renew their stock of affection, should see that their hold on the world, on life, is renewed, should feel that fresh claims, for that is a part, and a great part, of happiness, are ready at hand when the old ones disappear. All this is what means happiness, and you know that the one thing I want in the world is that you should be happy. I was thinking to-day," she went on, with a slight tremor in her voice, "that if I were quite sure that your life were happily settled, that you were beginning one of your own not wholly dependent on those behind you, I should not mind very much if mine were to come to an end."
"To an end?" said Rachel, startled. "Don't say that—don't talk about that."
"I do not talk about it often," Lady Gore said; "but this is a moment when it must be said, because, remember, when you talk of sacrificing your life to me——"
"Sacrificing!" interjected Rachel.
"Well, of devoting it to me," Lady Gore went on; "and putting aside those things that might make a beautiful life of your own, you must remember one thing, that I may not be there always. In fact," she corrected herself with a smile, "to say may not is taking a rose-coloured view, that I shall not be there always. And who knows? The moment of our separation may not be so far off."
Rachel looked up hurriedly, much perturbed.
"Why are you saying this now?" she said. "You have seemed so much better lately. You are very well, aren't you, mother? You are looking very well."
Lady Gore had a moment of wondering whether she should tell her daughter what she knew, what she expected herself, but she looked at Rachel's anxious, quivering face and refrained.
"It is something that ought to be said at this moment," she answered. "You have come to a parting of the ways. This is the moment to show you the signposts, to help you to choose the best road."
"Listen, mother," said Rachel earnestly. "In this case I am sure I know by myself which is the best road to choose. I am perfectly clear that as long as I have you I shall stay with you. That I mean to do," she continued with unwonted decision. "And besides, if—if you were no longer there, how could I leave my father?"
"Ah," said Lady Gore, "I wanted to say that to you. Now, as we are speaking of it, let us talk it out, let us look at it in the face. Consider the possibility, Rachel, the probability that I may be taken from you; my dream would be that you should make your own life with some one that you care about, and yet not part it entirely from your father's, that while he is there he should not be left. If I thought that, do you know, it would be a very great help to me," she said, forcing herself to speak steadily, but unable to hide entirely the wistful anxiety in her tone.
"I will never, never leave him," Rachel said. "I promise you that I never will."
"Then I can look forward," her mother said, "as peacefully, I don't say as joyfully, as I look back. Twenty-four years, nearly twenty-five," she went on, half to herself and looking dreamily upwards, "we have been married. You don't know what those years mean, but some day I hope you will. I pray that you may know how the lives and souls of two people who care for one another absolutely grow together during such a time."
"It is beautiful," Rachel said softly, "to know that there is such happiness in the world," and her own new happiness leapt to meet the assurance of the years.
"It is beautiful indeed," Lady Gore said. "It means a constant abiding sense of a strange other self sharing one's own interests—of a close companionship, an unquestioning approval which makes one almost independent of opinions outside."
"Some people," said Rachel, pressing her mother's hand, "have the outside affection and approval too."
"Yes, the world has been very kind to me," Lady Gore said, "and all that is delightful. But it is the big thing that matters. Do you remember that there was some famous Greek who said when his chosen friend and companion died, 'The theatre of my actions has fallen'?" Rachel's face lighted up in quick response. "When I am gone," her mother went on, "don't let your father feel that the theatre of his actions has fallen—take my place, surround him with love and sympathy."
"I will, indeed I will," said Rachel.
"What a man needs," said Lady Gore, "is some one to believe in him."
"My father will never be in want of that," said Rachel, with heartfelt conviction. "Mother," she added, "I never will forget what I am saying now, and you may believe it and you may be happy about it. I won't leave my father; he shall come first, I promise, whatever happens."
"First?" said Lady Gore gently. "No, Rachel, not that; it is right that your husband should come first."
"The people," said Rachel smiling, "whose husbands come first have not had a father and mother like mine."
There was a knock at the house door. Rachel sprang hurriedly to her feet, the colour flying into her cheeks. Lady Gore looked at her. She had never before seen in Rachel's face what she saw there now.
"I must take off my things," the girl said, catching up her gloves and veil.
"Don't be very long," said her mother.
"I'll—I'll—see," Rachel said, and she suddenly bent over her mother and kissed her, then went quickly out by one door as the other was thrown open to admit a visitor.
Francis Rendel came into the room with his usual air of ceremony, amounting almost to stiffness. Then, as he realised that his hostess was alone, his face lighted up and he came eagerly towards her.
"This is a piece of good fortune, to find you alone," he said. "I was afraid I should find you surrounded."
"It is early yet," Lady Gore said, with a smile.
"I know, yes," Rendel said. "I must apologise for coming at this time, but I wanted very much to see you——" He paused.
"I am delighted to see you at any time," Lady Gore said.
"It is so good of you," he answered, in the tone of one who is thinking of the next thing he is going to say. There was a silence.
"I hope you enjoyed yourself at Maidenhead?" said Lady Gore.
"Very, very much," Rendel answered with an air of penetrated conviction. There was another pause. Then he suddenly said, "Lady Gore——" and stopped.
She waited a moment, then said gently, "Yes, I know. Rachel has been telling me."
"She has! Oh, I am so glad," Rendel said. Then he added, finding apparently an extreme difficulty in speaking at all, "And—and—do you mind?"
"That is a modest way of putting it," said Lady Gore, smiling. "No, I don't mind. I am glad."
"Are you really?" said Rendel, looking as if his life depended on the answer. "Do you mean that you really think you—you—could be on my side? Then it will come all right."
"I will be on your side, certainly," said Lady Gore; "but I don't know that that is the essential thing. I am not, after all, the person whose consent matters most."
"Do you know, I believe you are," Rendel said. "I verily believe that at this moment you come before any one else in the world." There was no need to say in whose estimation, or to mention Rachel's name.
"Well, perhaps at this moment, as you say," said Lady Gore, "it is possible, but there is no reason why it should go on always."
"She is absolutely devoted to you," Rendel said.
"Rachel has a fund," her mother said, "of loyal devotion, of unswerving affection, which makes her a very precious possession."
"I have seen it," said Rendel. "Her devotion to you and her father is one of the most beautiful things in the world, even though...."
"Even...?" said Lady Gore, with a smile.
"Did she tell you what she said to me this morning?"
"I gathered, yes," Lady Gore replied, "both what you had said and her answer."
"I didn't take it as an answer," said Rendel. "I thought that I would come straight to you and ask you to help me, and that you would understand, as you always do, in the way that nobody else does."
"Take care," said Lady Gore smiling, "that you don't blindly accept Rachel's view of her surroundings."
"Oh, it is not only Rachel who has taught me that," said Rendel, his heart very full. "It is you yourself, and your sympathy. I wonder," he went on quickly, "if you know what it has meant to me? You see, it is not as if I had ever known anything of the sort before. To have had it all one's life, as your daughter has, must be something very wonderful. I don't wonder she does not want to give it up."
Lady Gore tried to speak more lightly than she felt. "She need not give it up," she said, with a somewhat quivering smile. "And you need not thank me any more," she went on. "I should like you to know what a great interest and a great pleasure it has been to me that you should have cared to come and see me as you have done, and to take me into your life." Rendel was going to speak, but she went on. "I have never had a son of my own. It was a great disappointment to me at first; I was very anxious to have one. I used to think how he and I would have planned out his life together, and that he might perhaps do some of the things in the world that are worth doing. You see how foolish I was," she ended, with a tremulous little smile.
Rendel, in spite of his gravity, experience and intuitive understanding, had a sudden and almost bewildering sense of a change of mental focus as he heard the wise, gentle adviser confiding in her turn, and confessing to foolish and unfulfilled illusions. He felt a passionate desire to be of use to her.
"I should have been quite content if he had been like you," she said, and she held out her hand, which he instinctively raised to his lips.
"You make me very happy," he said. "You make me hope."
"But," she said, trying to speak in her ordinary voice, "—perhaps I ought to have begun by saying this—I wonder if Rachel is the right sort of wife for a rising politician?"
"She is the right sort of wife for me," said Rendel. "That is all that matters."
"I'm afraid," Lady Gore said, "she isn't ambitious."
"Afraid!" said Rendel.
"She has no ardent political convictions."
"I have enough for both," said Rendel.
"And—and—such as she has are naturally her father's, and therefore opposed to yours."
"Then we won't talk about politics," Rendel said, "and that will be a welcome relief."
"I'm afraid also," the mother went on, smiling, "that she is not abreast of the age—that she doesn't write, doesn't belong to a club, doesn't even bicycle, and can't take photographs."
"Oh, what a perfect woman!" ejaculated Rendel.
"In fact I must admit that she has no bread-winning talent, and that in case of need she could not earn her own livelihood."
"If she had anything to do with me," said Rendel, "I should be ashamed if she tried."
"She is not as clever as you are."
"But even supposing that to be true," said Rendel, "isn't that a state of things that makes for happiness?"
"Well," replied Lady Gore, "I believe that as far as women are concerned you are behind the age too."
"I am quite certain of it," Rendel said, "and it is therefore to be rejoiced over that the only woman I have ever thought of wanting should not insist on being in front of it."
"The only woman? Is that so?" Lady Gore asked.
"It is indeed," he said, with conviction.
"And you are—how old?"
"It sounds as if this were the real thing, I must say," she said, with a smile.
"There is not much doubt of that," said he quietly. "There never was any one more certain than I am of what I want."
"That is a step towards getting it," Lady Gore said.
"I believe it is," he said fervently. "You have told me all the things your daughter has not—that I am thankful she hasn't—but I know, besides, the things she has that go to make her the only woman I want to pass my life with—she is everything a woman ought to be—she really is."
"My dear young friend," said Lady Gore, with a shallow pretence of laughing at his enthusiasm, "you really are rather far gone!"
"Yes," said Rendel, "there is no doubt about that. I have not, by the way, attempted to tell you about things that are supposed to matter more than those we have been talking about, but that don't matter really nearly so much—I mean my income and prospects, and all that sort of thing. But perhaps I had better tell Sir William all that."
"You can tell him about your income," said Lady Gore, "if you like."
"I have enough to live upon," the young man said. "I don't think that on that score Sir William can raise any objection."
"Let us hope he won't on any other," she replied. "We must tell him what he is to think."
"And my chances of getting on, though it sounds absurd to say so, are rather good," he went on. "Lord Stamfordham will, I know, help me whenever he can; and I mean to go into the House, and then—oh, then it will be all right, really."
At this moment the door opened and Sir William came in.
"You are the very person we wanted," his wife said.
"You want to apologise to me for the conduct of your party, I suppose," said Gore to Rendel, half in jest, half in earnest, as he shook hands.
"I'm very sorry, Sir William," said Rendel, "if we've displeased you. Pray don't hold me responsible."
"Oh yes," said Lady Gore lightly, to give Rendel time, "one always holds one's political adversary responsible for anything that happens to displease one in the conduct of the universe."
"I hope," said Rendel, trying to hide his real anxiety, "that Sir William will try to forgive me for the action of my party, and everything else. Pray feel kindly towards me to-day."
Sir William looked at him inquiringly, affecting perhaps a more unsuspecting innocence than he was feeling. Rendel went on, speaking quickly and feeling suddenly unaccountably nervous.
"I have come here to tell you—to ask you——" He stopped, then went on abruptly, "This morning, at Maidenhead, I asked your daughter to marry me."
"What, already?" said Sir William involuntarily. "That was very prompt. And what did she say?"
"She said it was impossible," Rendel answered, encouraged more by Gore's manner and his general reception of the news than by his actual words.
"Impossible, did she say?" said Sir William. "And what did you say to that?"
"That I should come here this afternoon," Rendel replied.
Sir William smiled.
"That was prompter still," he said. "It looks as if you knew your own mind at any rate."
"I do indeed, if ever a man did," said Rendel confidently. "And I really do believe that it was because she was a good daughter she said it was impossible."
"Well, if it was, that's the kind that often makes an uncommonly good wife," Sir William said.
"I don't doubt it," Rendel said, with conviction. "And I feel that if only you and Lady Gore——"
He stopped, as the door opened gently, and Rachel appeared, in a fresh white summer gown. She stood looking from one to the other, arrested on the threshold by that strange consciousness of being under discussion which is transmitted to one as through a material medium. Then what seemed to her the full horror of being so discussed swept over her. Was it possible that already the beautiful dream that had surrounded her, that wonderful secret that she had hardly yet whispered to herself, was having the light of day let in upon it, was being handled, discussed, as though it were possible that others might share in it too?
Rendel read in her face what she was going through. He went forward quickly to meet her.
"I am afraid," he said, putting his thoughts into words more literally than he meant, "that I have come too soon. I hope you will forgive me?"
"It is rather soon," Rachel answered, not quite knowing what she was saying.
"But you don't say whether you forgive him or not, Rachel," said Sir William, whose idea of carrying off the situation was to indulge in the time-honoured banter suitable to those about to become engaged.
"Don't ask her to say too much at once," Lady Gore said quickly, realising far better than Rachel's father did what was passing in the girl's mind.
"I'm afraid I can't say very much yet," Rachel said hesitatingly.
"I don't want you to say very much," said Rendel, "or indeed anything if you don't want to," he ended somewhat lamely and entreatingly.
"Miss Tarlton!" announced the servant, throwing the door open.
The four people in the room looked at each other in consternation. Events had succeeded each other so quickly that no one had thought of providing against the contingency of inopportune visitors by saying Lady Gore was not at home. It was too late to do anything now. Miss Tarlton happily had no misgivings about her reception. It never crossed her mind that she could be unwelcome, especially to-day that she had brought with her some photographs taken from the Gores' own balcony some weeks before, on the occasion of some troops having passed along Prince's Gate. She had half suggested on that occasion that she should come, in order that she might have a post of vantage from which to take some of the worst photographs in London, and the Gores had not had the heart to refuse her. If she had had any doubt, however—which she had not—about her hosts' feelings in the matter, she would have felt that she had now made up for everything by bringing them the result of her labours, and that nothing could be more opportune or more agreeable than her entrance on this particular occasion.
Miss Tarlton was a single woman of independent means living alone, a destiny which makes it almost inevitable that there should be a luxuriant growth of individual peculiarities which have never needed to accommodate themselves to the pressure of circumstances or of companionship. She was perfectly content with her life, and none the less so although those to whom she recounted the various phases of it were not so content at second hand with hearing the recital of it. She was one of those fortunate persons who have a hobby which takes the place of parents, husband, children, relations—a hobby, moreover, which appears to afford a delight quite independent of the varying degrees of success with which it is pursued. Unhappily the joy of those who thus pursue a much-loved occupation is bound to overflow in words; and if they have no daily auditor within their own four walls, they are driven by circumstances to choose their confidants haphazard when they go out. Miss Tarlton's confidences, however, were all of an optimistic character: she inflicted on her hearers no grievances against destiny. She recorded her vote, so to speak, in favour of content, and thereby established a claim to be heard.
To see her starting on one of her photographing expeditions was to be convinced that she considered the scheme of the universe satisfactory, as she went off with her felt hat jammed on to her head, with an air, not of radiant pleasure perhaps, but of faith in her occupation of unflinching purpose. With her camera slung on to her bicycle and her fat little feet working the pedals, she had the air of being the forerunner of a corps of small cyclist photographers. Life appealed to Miss Tarlton according to its adaptability to photography. For this reason she was not preoccupied with the complications of sentiment or of the softer emotions which not even the Roentgen rays have yet been able to reproduce with a camera.
"How do you do, Lady Gore?" she said as she came in. "I am later than I meant to be. I was so afraid I should not get here to-day, but I knew how anxious you would be to see the photographs."
"How kind of you!" Lady Gore said vaguely, for the moment entirely forgetting what the photographs were.
Miss Tarlton, after greeting the other members of the party, and making acquaintance with Rendel, all on her part with the demeanour of one who quickly despatches preliminaries before proceeding to really important business, drew off her gloves, displaying strangely variegated fingers, and proceeded to take from the case she was carrying photographs in various stages of their existence.
"I have brought you the negatives of one or two," she said, holding one after another up to the light, "as I didn't wait to print them all. Ah, here is one. This is how you must hold it, look."
Lady Gore tried to look at it as though it were really the photograph, and not the equilibrium of a most difficult situation, that she was trying to poise. Sir William was about to propose to Rendel to come down with him to his study, but Miss Tarlton obligingly included everybody at once in the concentration upon her photographs which she felt the situation demanded.
"Look, Sir William," she said. "I am sure you will be interested in this one. That is Lord X. He is a little blurred, perhaps; still, when one knows who it is, it is a very interesting memento, really. Look, Miss Gore, this is the one I did when we were standing together. Do you remember?"
"Oh! yes, of course," Rachel said. She did, as a matter of fact, very well remember the occasion, the length of time that had been necessary to adjust the legs of the camera, which appeared to have a miraculous power of interweaving themselves into the legs of the spectators; the piercing cry from Miss Tarlton at the feather of another lady's hat coming across the field of vision just as the troops came within focus; and a general sense of agitation which had prevented any one in the photographer's immediate surroundings from contemplating with a detached mind the military spectacle passing at their feet.
"These plates are really too small," said Miss Tarlton; "I have been wishing ever since that I had brought my larger machine that day." Her hearers did not find it in their hearts to echo this wish. "Of course, though, a small machine is most delightfully convenient. It is so portable, one need never be without it. I am told there is quite a tiny one to be had now. Have you seen it, Sir William?"
"No, I haven't," said Sir William, in an entirely final and decided manner. Miss Tarlton turned to Rendel as though to ask him, but saw that he was standing apart with Rachel, apparently deep in conversation. She felt that it was rather hard on Rachel to be called away when she might have been enjoying the photographs.
"Do you know whether Mr. Rendel photographs?" she said to Lady Gore, in a more subdued tone.
"I really don't know; I think not," Lady Gore said, amused in spite of herself at her husband's rising exasperation, although she was conscious of sharing it.
"Rendel," said Sir William, obliged to let his feelings find vent in speech at the expense of his discretion, "Miss Tarlton is asking whether you photograph?"
"I'm afraid I don't," said Rendel.
"Ah, I thought not," said Sir William, giving a sort of grunt of satisfaction.
"It is only..." said Miss Tarlton, who had relapsed into her photographs again, and was therefore constrained to speak in the sort of absent, maundering tone of people who try to frame consecutive sentences while they are looking over photographs or reading letters—"ah—this is the one I wanted you to see, Lady Gore——"
"Oh! yes, I see," said Lady Gore, mendaciously as to the spirit, if not to the letter, for she certainly did not see in the negative held up by Miss Tarlton, which appeared to the untutored mind a square piece of grey dirty glass with confused black smudges on it, all that Miss Tarlton wished her to behold there. Then she became aware of a welcome interruption.
"How do you do, Mr. Wentworth?" she said, putting down the photograph with inward relief, as a tall young man with a fair moustache and merry blue eyes came into the room.
"Photographs?" he said, after exchanging greetings with his host and hostess, nodding to Rendel and bowing to Rachel.
"Yes," said Lady Gore. "Now you shall give your opinion."
"I shall be delighted," he said. "I have got heaps of opinions."
"Do you photograph?" said Miss Tarlton, with a spark of renewed hope.
"I am sorry to say I don't," answered Wentworth. "I believe it is a charming pursuit."
"It is an inexhaustible pleasure," said Miss Tarlton, with conviction.
"I congratulate you," said Wentworth, "on possessing it."
"Yes," said Miss Tarlton solemnly, "I lead an extremely happy life. I take out my camera every day on my bicycle, and I photograph. When I get home I develop the photographs. I spend hours in my dark room."
"It is indeed a happy temperament," said Wentworth, "that can find pleasure in spending hours in a dark room."
"Have you ever tried it?" said Miss Tarlton.
"Certainly," said Wentworth. "In London in the winter, when it is foggy, you know."
"Oh," said Miss Tarlton, again with unflinching gravity. "I don't think you quite understand what I mean. I mean in a photographic dark room, developing, you know."