Illustration: Copyright 1906 By Marie Corelli Signature: Marie Corelli FROM A PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN THIS YEAR BY GABELL, LONDON
The Treasure Of Heaven
A Romance Of Riches By Marie Corelli
AUTHOR OF "GOD'S GOOD MAN," "THELMA," "THE SORROWS OF SATAN," "ARDATH," "THE STORY OF A DEAD SELF," "FREE OPINIONS," "TEMPORAL POWER," ETC.
NEW YORK DODD, MEAD & COMPANY 1906
Copyright, 1906, by DODD, MEAD & COMPANY Published, August, 1906
To Bertha 'A faithful friend is better than gold.'
By the special request of the Publishers, a portrait of myself, taken in the spring of this year, 1906, forms the Frontispiece to the present volume. I am somewhat reluctant to see it so placed, because it has nothing whatever to do with the story which is told in the following pages, beyond being a faithful likeness of the author who is responsible for this, and many other previous books which have had the good fortune to meet with a friendly reception from the reading public. Moreover, I am not quite able to convince myself that my pictured personality can have any interest for my readers, as it has always seemed to me that an author's real being is more disclosed in his or her work than in any portrayed presentment of mere physiognomy.
But—owing to the fact that various gross, and I think I may say libellous and fictitious misrepresentations of me have been freely and unwarrantably circulated throughout Great Britain, the Colonies, and America, by certain "lower" sections of the pictorial press, which, with a zeal worthy of a better and kinder cause, have striven by this means to alienate my readers from me,—it appears to my Publishers advisable that an authentic likeness of myself, as I truly am to-day, should now be issued in order to prevent any further misleading of the public by fraudulent inventions. The original photograph from which Messrs. Dodd, Mead & Co. have reproduced the present photogravure, was taken by Mr. G. Gabell of Eccleston Street, London, who, at the time of my submitting myself to his camera, was not aware of my identity. I used, for the nonce, the name of a lady friend, who arranged that the proofs of the portrait should be sent to her at various different addresses,—and it was not till this "Romance of Riches" was on the verge of publication that I disclosed the real position to the courteous artist himself. That I thus elected to be photographed as an unknown rather than a known person was in order that no extra pains should be taken on my behalf, but that I should be treated just as an ordinary stranger would be treated, with no less, but at the same time certainly no more, care.
I may add, in conclusion, for the benefit of those few who may feel any further curiosity on the subject, that no portraits resembling me in any way are published anywhere, and that invented sketches purporting to pass as true likenesses of me, are merely attempts to obtain money from the public on false pretences. One picture of me, taken in my own house by a friend who is an amateur photographer, was reproduced some time ago in the Strand Magazine, The Boudoir, Cassell's Magazine, and The Rapid Review; but beyond that, and the present one in this volume, no photographs of me are on sale in any country, either in shops or on postcards. My objection to this sort of "picture popularity" has already been publicly stated, and I here repeat and emphasise it. And I venture to ask my readers who have so generously encouraged me by their warm and constant appreciation of my literary efforts, to try and understand the spirit in which the objection is made. It is simply that to myself the personal "Self" of me is nothing, and should be, rightly speaking, nothing to any one outside the circle of my home and my intimate friends; while my work and the keen desire to improve in that work, so that by my work alone I may become united in sympathy and love to my readers, whoever and wherever they may be, constitutes for me the Everything of life.
MARIE CORELLI Stratford-on-Avon July, 1906
THE TREASURE OF HEAVEN
London,—and a night in June. London, swart and grim, semi-shrouded in a warm close mist of mingled human breath and acrid vapour steaming up from the clammy crowded streets,—London, with a million twinkling lights gleaming sharp upon its native blackness, and looking, to a dreamer's eye, like some gigantic Fortress, built line upon line and tower upon tower,—with huge ramparts raised about it frowningly as though in self-defence against Heaven. Around and above it the deep sky swept in a ring of sable blue, wherein thousands of stars were visible, encamped after the fashion of a mighty army, with sentinel planets taking their turns of duty in the watching of a rebellious world. A sulphureous wave of heat half asphyxiated the swarms of people who were hurrying to and fro in that restless undetermined way which is such a predominating feature of what is called a London "season," and the general impression of the weather was, to one and all, conveyed in a sense of discomfort and oppression, with a vague struggling expectancy of approaching thunder. Few raised their eyes beyond the thick warm haze which hung low on the sooty chimney-pots, and trailed sleepily along in the arid, dusty parks. Those who by chance looked higher, saw that the skies above the city were divinely calm and clear, and that not a cloud betokened so much as the shadow of a storm.
The deep bell of Westminster chimed midnight, that hour of picturesque ghostly tradition, when simple village maids shudder at the thought of traversing a dark lane or passing a churchyard, and when country folks of old-fashioned habits and principles are respectably in bed and for the most part sleeping. But so far as the fashionable "West End" was concerned, it might have been midday. Everybody assuming to be Anybody, was in town. The rumble of carriages passing to and fro was incessant,—the swift whirr and warning hoot of coming and going motor vehicles, the hoarse cries of the newsboys, and the general insect-like drone and murmur of feverish human activity were as loud as at any busy time of the morning or the afternoon. There had been a Court at Buckingham Palace,—and a "special" performance at the Opera,—and on account of these two functions, entertainments were going on at almost every fashionable house in every fashionable quarter. The public restaurants were crammed with luxury-loving men and women,—men and women to whom the mere suggestion of a quiet dinner in their own homes would have acted as a menace of infinite boredom,—and these gilded and refined eating-houses were now beginning to shoot forth their bundles of well-dressed, well-fed folk into the many and various conveyances waiting to receive them. There was a good deal of needless shouting, and much banter between drivers and policemen. Now and again the melancholy whine of a beggar's plea struck a discordant note through the smooth-toned compliments and farewells of hosts and their departing guests. No hint of pause or repose was offered in the ever-changing scene of uneasy and impetuous excitation of movement, save where, far up in the clear depths of space, the glittering star-battalions of a wronged and forgotten God held their steadfast watch and kept their hourly chronicle. London with its brilliant "season" seemed the only living fact worth recognising; London, with its flaring noisy streets, and its hot summer haze interposed like a grey veil between itself and the higher vision. Enough for most people it was to see the veil,—beyond it the view is always too vast and illimitable for the little vanities of ordinary mortal minds.
Amid all the din and turmoil of fashion and folly seeking its own in the great English capital at the midnight hour, a certain corner of an exclusively fashionable quarter seemed strangely quiet and sequestered, and this was the back of one of the row of palace-like dwellings known as Carlton House Terrace. Occasionally a silent-wheeled hansom, brougham, or flashing motor-car sped swiftly along the Mall, towards which the wide stone balcony of the house projected,—or the heavy footsteps of a policeman walking on his beat crunched the gravel of the path beneath, but the general atmosphere of the place was expressive of solitude and even of gloom. The imposing evidences of great wealth, written in bold headlines on the massive square architecture of the whole block of huge mansions, only intensified the austere sombreness of their appearance, and the fringe of sad-looking trees edging the road below sent a faint waving shadow in the lamplight against the cold walls, as though some shuddering consciousness of happier woodland scenes had suddenly moved them to a vain regret. The haze of heat lay very thickly here, creeping along with slow stealth like a sluggish stream, and a suffocating odour suggestive of some subtle anaesthetic weighed the air with a sense of nausea and depression. It was difficult to realise that this condition of climate was actually summer in its prime—summer with all its glowing abundance of flower and foliage as seen in fresh green lanes and country dells,—rather did it seem a dull nightmare of what summer might be in a prison among criminals undergoing punishment. The house with the wide stone balcony looked particularly prison-like, even more so than some of its neighbours, perhaps because the greater number of its many windows were shuttered close, and showed no sign of life behind their impenetrable blackness. The only strong gleam of light radiating from the inner darkness to the outer, streamed across the balcony itself, which by means of two glass doors opened directly from the room behind it. Here two men sat, or rather half reclined in easy-cushioned lounge chairs, their faces turned towards the Mall, so that the illumination from the apartment in the background created a Rembrandt-like effect in partially concealing the expression of the one from the other's observation. Outwardly, and at a first causal glance, there was nothing very remarkable about either of them. One was old; the other more than middle-aged. Both were in evening-dress,—both smoked idly, and apparently not so much for the pleasure of smoking as for lack of something better to do, and both seemed self-centred and absorbed in thought. They had been conversing for some time, but now silence had fallen between them, and neither seemed disposed to break the heavy spell. The distant roar of constant traffic in the busy thoroughfares of the metropolis sounded in their ears like muffled thunder, while every now and again the soft sudden echo of dance music, played by a string band in evident attendance at some festive function in a house not far away, shivered delicately through the mist like a sigh of pleasure. The melancholy tree-tops trembled,—a single star struggled above the sultry vapours and shone out large and bright as though it were a great signal lamp suddenly lit in heaven. The elder of the two men seated on the balcony raised his eyes and saw it shining. He moved uneasily,—then lifting himself a little in his chair, he spoke as though taking up a dropped thread of conversation, with the intention of deliberately continuing it to the end. His voice was gentle and mellow, with a touch of that singular pathos in its tone which is customary to the Celtic rather than to the Saxon vocal cords.
"I have given you my full confidence," he said, "and I have put before you the exact sum total of the matter as I see it. You think me irrational,—absurd. Good. Then I am content to be irrational and absurd. In any case you can scarcely deny that what I have stated is a simple fact,—a truth which cannot be denied?"
"It is a truth, certainly," replied his companion, pulling himself upright in his chair with a certain vexed vehemence of action and flinging away his half-smoked cigar, "but it is one of those unpleasant truths which need not be looked at too closely or too often remembered. We must all get old—unfortunately,—and we must all die, which in my opinion is more unfortunate still. But we need not anticipate such a disagreeable business before its time."
"Yet you are always drawing up Last Wills and Testaments," observed the other, with a touch of humour in his tone.
"Oh well! That, of course, has to be done. The youngest persons should make their wills if they have anything to leave, or else run the risk of having all their household goods and other belongings fought for with tooth and claw by their 'dearest' relations. Dearest relations are, according to my experience, very much like wild cats: give them the faintest hope of a legacy, and they scratch and squawl as though it were raw meat for which they have been starving. In all my long career as a solicitor I never knew one 'dearest relation' who honestly regretted the dead."
"There you meet me on the very ground of our previous discussions," said the elder man. "It is not the consciousness of old age that troubles me, or the inevitable approach of that end which is common to all,—it is merely the outlook into the void,—the teasing wonder as to who may step into my place when I am gone, and what will be done with the results of my life's labour."
He rose as he spoke, and moved towards the balcony's edge, resting one hand upon its smooth stone. The change of attitude allowed the light from the interior room to play more fully on his features, and showed him to be well advanced in age, with a worn, yet strong face and deep-set eyes, over which the shelving brows stooped benevolently as though to guard the sinking vital fire in the wells of vision below. The mouth was concealed by an ashen-grey moustache, while on the forehead and at the sides of the temples the hair was perfectly white, though still abundant. A certain military precision of manner was attached to the whole bearing of the man,—his thin figure was well-built and upright, showing no tendency to feebleness,—his shoulders were set square, and his head was poised in a manner that might have been called uncompromising, if not obstinate. Even the hand that rested on the balcony, attenuated and deeply wrinkled as it was, suggested strength in its shape and character, and a passing thought of this flitted across the mind of his companion who, after a pause, said slowly:—
"I really see no reason why you should brood on such things. What's the use? Your health is excellent for your time of life. Your end is not imminent. You are voluntarily undergoing a system of self-torture which is quite unnecessary. We've known each other for years, yet I hardly recognise you in your present humour. I thought you were perfectly happy. Surely you ought to be,—you, David Helmsley,—'King' David, as you are sometimes called—one of the richest men in the world!"
Helmsley smiled, but with a suspicion of sadness.
"Neither kings nor rich men hold special grants of happiness," he answered, quietly: "Your own experience of humanity must have taught you that. Personally speaking, I have never been happy since my boyhood. This surprises you? I daresay it does. But, my dear Vesey, old friend as you are, it sometimes happens that our closest intimates know us least! And even the famous firm of Vesey and Symonds, or Symonds and Vesey,—for your partner is one with you and you are one with your partner,—may, in spite of all their legal wisdom, fail to pierce the thick disguises worn by the souls of their clients. The Man in the Iron Mask is a familiar figure in the office of his confidential solicitor. I repeat, I have never been happy since my boyhood——"
"Your happiness then was a mere matter of youth and animal spirits," interposed Vesey.
"I thought you would say that!"—and again a faint smile illumined Helmsley's features. "It is just what every one would say. Yet the young are often much more miserable than the old; and while I grant that youth may have had something to do with my past joy in life, it was not all. No, it certainly was not all. It was simply that I had then what I have never had since."
He broke off abruptly. Then stepping back to his chair he resumed his former reclining position, leaning his head against the cushions and fixing his eyes on the solitary bright star that shone above the mist and the trembling trees.
"May I talk out to you?" he inquired suddenly, with a touch of whimsicality. "Or are you resolved to preach copybook moralities at me, such as 'Be good and you will be happy?'"
Vesey, more ceremoniously known as Sir Francis Vesey, one of the most renowned of London's great leading solicitors, looked at him and laughed.
"Talk out, my dear fellow, by all means!" he replied. "Especially if it will do you any good. But don't ask me to sympathise very deeply with the imaginary sorrows of so enormously wealthy a man as you are!"
"I don't expect any sympathy," said Helmsley. "Sympathy is the one thing I have never sought, because I know it is not to be obtained, even from one's nearest and dearest. Sympathy! Why, no man in the world ever really gets it, even from his wife. And no man possessing a spark of manliness ever wants it, except—sometimes——"
He hesitated, looking steadily at the star above him,—then went on.
"Except sometimes,—when the power of resistance is weakened—when the consciousness is strongly borne in upon us of the unanswerable wisdom of Solomon, who wrote—'I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun, because I should leave it to the man that should be after me. And who knows whether he shall be a wise man or a fool?'"
Sir Francis Vesey, dimly regretting the half-smoked cigar he had thrown away in a moment of impatience, took out a fresh one from his pocket-case and lit it.
"Solomon has expressed every disagreeable situation in life with remarkable accuracy," he murmured placidly, as he began to puff rings of pale smoke into the surrounding yellow haze, "but he was a bit of a misanthrope."
"When I was a boy," pursued Helmsley, not heeding his legal friend's comment, "I was happy chiefly because I believed. I never doubted any stated truth that seemed beautiful enough to be true. I had perfect confidence in the goodness of God and the ultimate happiness designed by Him for every living creature. Away out in Virginia where I was born, before the Southern States were subjected to Yankeedom, it was a glorious thing merely to be alive. The clear, pure air, fresh with the strong odour of pine and cedar,—the big plantations of cotton and corn,—the colours of the autumn woods when the maple trees turned scarlet, and the tall sumachs blazed like great fires on the sides of the mountains,—the exhilarating climate—the sweetness of the south-west wind,—all these influences of nature appealed to my soul and kindled a strange restlessness in it which has never been appeased. Never!—though I have lived my life almost to its end, and have done all those things which most men do who seek to get the utmost satisfaction they can out of existence. But I am not satisfied; I have never been satisfied."
"And you never will be," declared Sir Francis firmly. "There are some people to whom Heaven itself would prove disappointing."
"Well, if Heaven is the kind of place depicted by the clergy, the poorest beggar might resent its offered attractions," said Helmsley, with a slight, contemptuous shrug of his shoulders. "After a life of continuous pain and struggle, the pleasures of singing for ever and ever to one's own harp accompaniment are scarcely sufficient compensation."
Vesey laughed cheerfully.
"It's all symbolical," he murmured, puffing away at his cigar, "and really very well meant! Positively now, the clergy are capital fellows! They do their best,—they keep it up. Give them credit for that at least, Helmsley,—they do keep it up!"
Helmsley was silent for a minute or two.
"We are rather wandering from the point," he said at last. "What I know of the clergy generally has not taught me to rely upon them for any advice in a difficulty, or any help out of trouble. Once—in a moment of weakness and irresolution—I asked a celebrated preacher what suggestion he could make to a rich man, who, having no heirs, sought a means of disposing of his wealth to the best advantage for others after his death. His reply——"
"Was the usual thing, of course," interposed Sir Francis blandly. "He said, 'Let the rich man leave it all to me, and God will bless him abundantly!'"
"Well, yes, it came to that,"—and Helmsley gave a short impatient sigh. "He evidently guessed that the rich man implied was myself, for ever since I asked him the question, he has kept me regularly supplied with books and pamphlets relating to his Church and various missions. I daresay he's a very good fellow. But I've no fancy to assist him. He works on sectarian lines, and I am of no sect. Though I confess I should like to believe in God—- if I could."
Sir Francis, fanning a tiny wreath of cigar smoke away with one hand, looked at him curiously, but offered no remark.
"You said I might talk out to you," continued Helmsley—"and it is perhaps necessary that I should do so, since you have lately so persistently urged upon me the importance of making my will. You are perfectly right, of course, and I alone am to blame for the apparently stupid hesitation I show in following your advice. But, as I have already told you, I have no one in the world who has the least claim upon me,—no one to whom I can bequeath, to my own satisfaction, the wealth I have earned. I married,—as you know,—and my marriage was unhappy. It ended,—and you are aware of all the facts—in the proved infidelity of my wife, followed by our separation (effected quietly, thanks to you, without the vulgar publicity of the divorce court), and then—in her premature death. Notwithstanding all this, I did my best for my two sons,—you are a witness to this truth,—and you remember that during their lifetime I did make my will,—in their favour. They turned out badly; each one ran his own career of folly, vice, and riotous dissipation, and both are dead. Thus it happens that here I am,—alone at the age of seventy, without any soul to care for me, or any creature to whom I can trust my business, or leave my fortune. It is not my fault that it is so; it is sheer destiny. How, I ask you, can I make any 'Last Will and Testament' under such conditions?"
"If you make no will at all, your property goes to the Crown," said Vesey bluntly.
"Naturally. I know that. But one might have a worse heir than the Crown! The Crown may be trusted to take proper care of money, and this is more than can often be said of one's sons and daughters. I tell you it is all as Solomon said—'vanity and vexation of spirit.' The amassing of great wealth is not worth the time and trouble involved in the task. One could do so much better——"
Here he paused.
"How?" asked Vesey, with a half-smile. "What else is there to be done in this world except to get rich in order to live comfortably?"
"I know people who are not rich at all, and who never will be rich, yet who live more comfortably than I have ever done," replied Helmsley—"that is, if to 'live comfortably' implies to live peacefully, happily, and contentedly, taking each day as it comes with gladness as a real 'living' time. And by this, I mean 'living,' not with the rush and scramble, fret and jar inseparable from money-making, but living just for the joy of life. Especially when it is possible to believe that a God exists, who designed life, and even death, for the ultimate good of every creature. This is what I believed—once—'out in ole Virginny, a long time ago!'"
He hummed the last words softly under his breath,—then swept one hand across his eyes with a movement of impatience.
"Old men's brains grow addled," he continued. "They become clouded with a fog through which only the memories of the past and the days of their youth shine clear. Sometimes I talk of Virginia as if I were home-sick and wanted to go back to it,—yet I never do. I wouldn't go back to it for the world,—not now. I'm not an American, so I can say, without any loss of the patriotic sense, that I loathe America. It is a country to be used for the making of wealth, but it is not a country to be loved. It might have been the most lovable Father-and-Mother-Land on the globe if nobler men had lived long enough in it to rescue its people from the degrading Dollar-craze. But now, well!—those who make fortunes there leave it as soon as they can, shaking its dust off their feet and striving to forget that they ever experienced its incalculable greed, vice, cunning, and general rascality. There are plenty of decent folk in America, of course, just as there are decent folk everywhere, but they are in the minority. Even in the Southern States the 'old stock' of men is decaying and dying-out, and the taint of commercial vulgarity is creeping over the former simplicity of the Virginian homestead. No,—I would not go back to the scene of my boyhood, for though I had something there once which I have since lost, I am not such a fool as to think I should ever find it again."
Here he looked round at his listener with a smile so sudden and sweet as to render his sunken features almost youthful.
"I believe I am boring you, Vesey!" he said.
"Not the least in the world,—you never bore me," replied Sir Francis, with alacrity. "You are always interesting, even in your most illogical humour."
"You consider me illogical?"
"In a way, yes. For instance, you abuse America. Why? Your misguided wife was American, certainly, but setting that unfortunate fact aside, you made your money in the States. Commercial vulgarity helped you along. Therefore be just to commercial vulgarity."
"I hope I am just to it,—I think I am," answered Helmsley slowly; "but I never was one with it. I never expected to wring a dollar out of ten cents, and never tried. I can at least say that I have made my money honestly, and have trampled no man down on the road to fortune. But then—I am not a citizen of the 'Great Republic.'"
"You were born in America," said Vesey.
"By accident," replied Helmsley, with a laugh, "and kindly fate favoured me by allowing me to see my first daylight in the South rather than in the North. But I was never naturalised as an American. My father and mother were both English,—they both came from the same little sea-coast village in Cornwall. They married very young,—theirs was a romantic love-match, and they left England in the hope of bettering their fortunes. They settled in Virginia and grew to love it. My father became accountant to a large business firm out there, and did fairly well, though he never was a rich man in the present-day meaning of the term. He had only two children,—myself and my sister, who died at sixteen. I was barely twenty when I lost both father and mother and started alone to face the world."
"You have faced it very successfully," said Vesey; "and if you would only look at things in the right and reasonable way, you have really very little to complain of. Your marriage was certainly an unlucky one——"
"Do not speak of it!" interrupted Helmsley, hastily. "It is past and done with. Wife and children are swept out of my life as though they had never been! It is a curious thing, perhaps, but with me a betrayed affection does not remain in my memory as affection at all, but only as a spurious image of the real virtue, not worth considering or regretting. Standing as I do now, on the threshold of the grave, I look back,—and in looking back I see none of those who wronged and deceived me,—they have disappeared altogether, and their very faces and forms are blotted out of my remembrance. So much so, indeed, that I could, if I had the chance, begin a new life again and never give a thought to the old!"
His eyes flashed a sudden fire under their shelving brows, and his right hand clenched itself involuntarily.
"I suppose," he continued, "that a kind of harking back to the memories of one's youth is common to all aged persons. With me it has become almost morbid, for daily and hourly I see myself as a boy, dreaming away the time in the wild garden of our home in Virginia,—watching the fireflies light up the darkness of the summer evenings, and listening to my sister singing in her soft little voice her favourite melody—'Angels ever bright and fair.' As I said to you when we began this talk, I had something then which I have never had since. Do you know what it was?"
Sir Francis, here finishing his cigar, threw away its glowing end, and shook his head in the negative.
"You will think me as sentimental as I am garrulous," went on Helmsley, "when I tell you that it was merely—love!"
Vesey raised himself in his chair and sat upright, opening his eyes in astonishment.
"Love!" he echoed. "God bless my soul! I should have thought that you, of all men in the world, could have won that easily!"
Helmsley turned towards him with a questioning look.
"Why should I 'of all men in the world' have won it?" he asked. "Because I am rich? Rich men are seldom, if ever, loved for themselves—only for what they can give to their professing lovers."
His ordinarily soft tone had an accent of bitterness in it, and Sir Francis Vesey was silent.
"Had I remained poor,—poor as I was when I first started to make my fortune," he went on, "I might possibly have been loved by some woman, or some friend, for myself alone. For as a young fellow I was not bad-looking, nor had I, so I flatter myself, an unlikable disposition. But luck always turned the wheel in my favour, and at thirty-five I was a millionaire. Then I 'fell' in love,—and married on the faith of that emotion, which is always a mistake. 'Falling in love' is not loving. I was in the full flush of my strength and manhood, and was sufficiently proud of myself to believe that my wife really cared for me. There I was deceived. She cared for my millions. So it chances that the only real love I have ever known was the unselfish 'home' affection,—the love of my mother and father and sister 'out in ole Virginny,' 'a love so sweet it could not last,' as Shelley sings. Though I believe it can and does last,—for my soul (or whatever that strange part of me may be which thinks beyond the body) is always running back to that love with a full sense of certainty that it is still existent."
His voice sank and seemed to fail him for a moment. He looked up at the large, bright star shining steadily above him.
"You are silent, Vesey," he said, after a pause, speaking with an effort at lightness; "and wisely too, for I know you have nothing to say—that is, nothing that could affect the position. And you may well ask, if you choose, to what does all this reminiscent old man's prattle tend? Simply to this—that you have been urging me for the last six months to make my will in order to replace the one which was previously made in favour of my sons, and which is now destroyed, owing to their deaths before my own,—and I tell you plainly and frankly that I don't know how to make it, as there is no one in the world whom I care to name as my heir."
Sir Francis sat gravely ruminating for a moment;—then he said:—
"Why not do as I suggested to you once before—adopt a child? Find some promising boy, born of decent, healthy, self-respecting parents,—educate him according to your own ideas, and bring him up to understand his future responsibilities. How would that suit you?"
"Not at all," replied Helmsley drily. "I have heard of parents willing to sell their children, but I should scarcely call them decent or self-respecting. I know of one case where a couple of peasants sold their son for five pounds in order to get rid of the trouble of rearing him. He turned out a famous man,—but though he was, in due course, told his history, he never acknowledged the unnatural vendors of his flesh and blood as his parents, and quite right too. No,—I have had too much experience of life to try such a doubtful business as that of adopting a child. The very fact of adoption by so miserably rich a man as myself would buy a child's duty and obedience rather than win it. I will have no heir at all, unless I can discover one whose love for me is sincerely unselfish and far above all considerations of wealth or worldly advantage."
"It is rather late in the day, perhaps," said Vesey after a pause, speaking hesitatingly, "but—but—you might marry?"
Helmsley laughed loudly and harshly.
"Marry! I! At seventy! My dear Vesey, you are a very old friend, and privileged to say what others dare not, or you would offend me. If I had ever thought of marrying again I should have done so two or three years after my wife's death, when I was in the fifties, and not waited till now, when my end, if not actually near, is certainly well in sight. Though I daresay there are plenty of women who would marry me—even me—at my age,—knowing the extent of my income. But do you think I would take one of them, knowing in my heart that it would be a mere question of sale and barter? Not I!—I could never consent to sink so low in my own estimation of myself. I can honestly say I have never wronged any woman. I shall not begin now."
"I don't see why you should take that view of it," murmured Sir Francis placidly. "Life is not lived nowadays as it was when you first entered upon your career. For one thing, men last longer and don't give up so soon. Few consider themselves old at seventy. Why should they? There's a learned professor at the Pasteur Institute who declares we ought all to live to a hundred and forty. If he's right, you are still quite a young man."
Helmsley rose from his chair with a slightly impatient gesture.
"We won't discuss any so-called 'new theories,'" he said. "They are only echoes of old fallacies. The professor's statement is merely a modern repetition of the ancient belief in the elixir of life. Shall we go in?"
Vesey got up from his lounging position more slowly and stiffly than Helmsley had done. Some ten years younger as he was, he was evidently less active.
"Well," he said, as he squared his shoulders and drew himself erect, "we are no nearer a settlement of what I consider a most urgent and important affair than when we began our conversation."
Helmsley shrugged his shoulders.
"When I come back to town, we will go into the question again," he said.
"You are off at the end of the week?"
"I—I think so."
The answer was given with a slight touch of hesitation.
"Your last 'function' of the season is the dance you are giving to-morrow night, I suppose," continued Sir Francis, studying with a vague curiosity the spare, slight figure of his companion, who had turned from him and, with one foot on the sill of the open French window, was just about to enter the room beyond.
"Yes. It is Lucy's birthday."
"Ah! Miss Lucy Sorrel! How old is she?"
And, as he spoke, Helmsley stepped into the apartment from which the window opened out upon the balcony, and waited a moment for Vesey to follow.
"She has always been a great favourite of yours," said Vesey, as he entered. "Now, why——"
"Why don't I leave her my fortune, you would ask?" interrupted Helmsley, with a touch of sarcasm. "Well, first, because she is a woman, and she might possibly marry a fool or a wastrel. Secondly, because though I have known her ever since she was a child of ten, I have no liking for her parents or for any of her family connections. When I first took a fancy to her she was playing about on the shore at a little seaside place on the Sussex coast,—I thought her a pretty little creature, and have made rather a pet of her ever since. But beyond giving her trinkets and bon-bons, and offering her such gaieties and amusements as are suitable to her age and sex, I have no other intentions concerning her."
Sir Francis took a comprehensive glance round the magnificent drawing-room in which he now stood,—a drawing-room more like a royal reception-room of the First Empire than a modern apartment in the modern house of a merely modern millionaire. Then he chuckled softly to himself, and a broad smile spread itself among the furrows of his somewhat severely featured countenance.
"Mrs. Sorrel would be sorry if she knew that," he said. "I think—I really think, Helmsley, that Mrs. Sorrel believes you are still in the matrimonial market!"
Helmsley's deeply sunken eyes flashed out a sudden searchlight of keen and quick inquiry, then his brows grew dark with a shadow of scorn.
"Poor Lucy!" he murmured. "She is very unfortunate in her mother, and equally so in her father. Matt Sorrel never did anything in his life but bet on the Turf and gamble at Monte Carlo, and it's too late for him to try his hand at any other sort of business. His daughter is a nice girl and a pretty one,—but now that she has grown from a child into a woman I shall not be able to do much more for her. She will have to do something for herself in finding a good husband."
Sir Francis listened with his head very much on one side. An owl-like inscrutability of legal wisdom seemed to have suddenly enveloped him in a cloud. Pulling himself out of this misty reverie he said abruptly:—
"Well—good-night! or rather good-morning! It's past one o'clock. Shall I see you again before you leave town?"
"Probably. If not, you will hear from me."
"You won't reconsider the advisability of——"
"No, I won't!" And Helmsley smiled. "I'm quite obstinate on that point. If I die suddenly, my property goes to the Crown,—if not, why then you will in due course receive your instructions."
Vesey studied him with thoughtful attention.
"You're a queer fellow, David!" he said, at last. "But I can't help liking you. I only wish you were not quite so—so romantic!"
"Romantic!" Helmsley looked amused. "Romance and I said good-bye to each other years ago. I admit that I used to be romantic—but I'm not now."
"You are!" And Sir Francis frowned a legal frown which soon brightened into a smile. "A man of your age doesn't want to be loved for himself alone unless he's very romantic indeed! And that's what you do want!—and that's what I'm afraid you won't get, in your position—not as this world goes! Good-night!"
They walked out of the drawing-room to the head of the grand staircase, and there shook hands and parted, a manservant being in waiting to show Sir Francis to the door. But late as the hour was, Helmsley did not immediately retire to rest. Long after all his household were in bed and sleeping, he sat in the hushed solitude of his library, writing many letters. The library was on a line with the drawing-room, and its one window, facing the Mall, was thrown open to admit such air as could ooze through the stifling heat of the sultry night. Pausing once in the busy work of his hand and pen, Helmsley looked up and saw the bright star he had watched from the upper balcony, peering in upon him steadily like an eye. A weary smile, sadder than scorn, wavered across his features.
"That's Venus," he murmured half aloud. "The Eden star of all very young people,—the star of Love!"
On the following evening the cold and frowning aspect of the mansion in Carlton House Terrace underwent a sudden transformation. Lights gleamed from every window; the strip of garden which extended from the rear of the building to the Mall, was covered in by red and white awning, and the balcony where the millionaire master of the dwelling had, some few hours previously, sat talking with his distinguished legal friend, Sir Francis Vesey, was turned into a kind of lady's bower, softly carpeted, adorned with palms and hothouse roses, and supplied with cushioned chairs for the voluptuous ease of such persons of opposite sexes as might find their way to this suggestive "flirtation" corner. The music of a renowned orchestra of Hungarian performers flowed out of the open doors of the sumptuous ballroom which was one of the many attractions of the house, and ran in rhythmic vibrations up the stairs, echoing through all the corridors like the sweet calling voices of fabled nymphs and sirens, till, floating still higher, it breathed itself out to the night,—a night curiously heavy and sombre, with a blackness of sky too dense for any glimmer of stars to shine through. The hum of talk, the constant ripple of laughter, the rustle of women's silken garments, the clatter of plates and glasses in the dining-room, where a costly ball-supper awaited its devouring destiny,—the silvery tripping and slipping of light dancing feet on a polished floor—all these sounds, intermingling with the gliding seductive measure of the various waltzes played in quick succession by the band, created a vague impression of confusion and restlessness in the brain, and David Helmsley himself, the host and entertainer of the assembled guests, watched the brilliant scene from the ballroom door with a weary sense of melancholy which he knew was unfounded and absurd, yet which he could not resist,—a touch of intense and utter loneliness, as though he were a stranger in his own home.
"I feel," he mused, "like some very poor old fellow asked in by chance for a few minutes, just to see the fun!"
He smiled,—yet was unable to banish his depression. The bare fact of the worthlessness of wealth was all at once borne in upon him with overpowering weight. This magnificent house which his hard earnings had purchased,—this ballroom with its painted panels and sculptured friezes, crowded just now with kaleidoscope pictures of men and women whirling round and round in a maze of music and movement,—the thousand precious and costly things he had gathered about him in his journey through life,—must all pass out of his possession in a few brief years, and there was not a soul who loved him or whom he loved, to inherit them or value them for his sake. A few brief years! And then—darkness. The lights gone out,—the music silenced—the dancing done! And the love that he had dreamed of when he was a boy—love, strong and great and divine enough to outlive death—where was it? A sudden sigh escaped him——
"Dear Mr. Helmsley, you look so very tired!" said a woman's purring voice at his ear. "Do go and rest in your own room for a few minutes before supper! You have been so kind!—Lucy is quite touched and overwhelmed by all your goodness to her,—no lover could do more for a girl, I'm sure! But really you must spare yourself! What should we do without you!"
"What indeed!" he replied, somewhat drily, as he looked down at the speaker, a cumbrous matron attired in an over-frilled and over-flounced costume of pale grey, which delicate Quakerish colour rather painfully intensified the mottled purplish-red of her face. "But I am not at all tired, Mrs. Sorrel, I assure you! Don't trouble yourself about me—I'm very well."
"Are you?" And Mrs. Sorrel looked volumes of tenderest insincerity. "Ah! But you know we old people must be careful! Young folks can do anything and everything—but we, at our age, need to be over-particular!"
"You shouldn't call yourself old, Mrs. Sorrel," said Helmsley, seeing that she expected this from him, "you're quite a young woman."
Mrs. Sorrel gave a little deprecatory laugh.
"Oh dear no!" she said, in a tone which meant "Oh dear yes!" "I wasn't married at sixteen, you know!"
"No? You surprise me!"
Mrs. Sorrel peered at him from under her fat eyelids with a slightly dubious air. She was never quite sure in her own mind as to the way in which "old Gold-Dust," as she privately called him, regarded her. An aged man, burdened with an excess of wealth, was privileged to have what are called "humours," and certainly he sometimes had them. It was necessary—or so Mrs. Sorrel thought—to deal with him delicately and cautiously—neither with too much levity, nor with an overweighted seriousness. One's plan of conduct with a multi-millionaire required to be thought out with sedulous care, and entered upon with circumspection. And Mrs Sorrel did not attempt even as much as a youthful giggle at Helmsley's half-sarcastically implied compliment with its sarcastic implication as to the ease with which she supported her years and superabundance of flesh tissue. She merely heaved a short sigh.
"I was just one year younger than Lucy is to-day," she said, "and I really thought myself quite an old bride! I was a mother at twenty-one."
Helmsley found nothing to say in response to this interesting statement, particularly as he had often heard it before.
"Who is Lucy dancing with?" he asked irrelevantly, by way of diversion.
"Oh, my dear Mr. Helmsley, who is she not dancing with!" and Mrs. Sorrel visibly swelled with maternal pride. "Every young man in the room has rushed at her—positively rushed!—and her programme was full five minutes after she arrived! Isn't she looking lovely to-night?—a perfect sylph! Do tell me you think she is a sylph!"
David's old eyes twinkled.
"I have never seen a sylph, Mrs. Sorrel, so I cannot make the comparison," he said; "but Lucy is a very beautiful girl, and I think she is looking her best this evening. Her dress becomes her. She ought to find a good husband easily."
"She ought,—indeed she ought! But it is very difficult—very, very difficult! All the men marry for money nowadays, not for love—ah!—how different it was when you and I were young, Mr. Helmsley! Love was everything then,—and there was so much romance and poetical sentiment!"
"Romance is a snare, and poetical sentiment a delusion," said Helmsley, with sudden harshness. "I proved that in my marriage. I should think you had equally proved it in yours!"
Mrs. Sorrel recoiled a little timorously. "Old Gold-Dust" often said unpleasant things—truthful, but eminently tactless,—and she felt that he was likely to say some of those unpleasant things now. Therefore she gave a fluttering gesture of relief and satisfaction as the waltz-music just then ceased, and her daughter's figure, tall, slight, and marvellously graceful, detached itself from the swaying crowd in the ballroom and came towards her.
"Dearest child!" she exclaimed effusively, "are you not quite tired out?"
The "dearest child" shrugged her white shoulders and laughed.
"Nothing tires me, mother—you know that!" she answered—then with a sudden change from her air of careless indifference to one of coaxing softness, she turned to Helmsley.
"You must be tired!" she said. "Why have you been standing so long at the ballroom door?"
"I have been watching you, Lucy," he replied gently. "It has been a pleasure for me to see you dance. I am too old to dance with you myself, otherwise I should grudge all the young men the privilege."
"I will dance with you, if you like," she said, smiling. "There is one more set of Lancers before supper. Will you be my partner?"
He shook his head.
"Not even to please you, my child!" and taking her hand he patted it kindly. "There is no fool like an old, fool, I know, but I am not quite so foolish as that."
"I see nothing at all foolish in it," pouted Lucy. "You are my host, and it's my coming-of-age party."
"So it is! And the festival must not be spoilt by any incongruities. It will be quite sufficient honour for me to take you in to supper."
She looked down at the flowers she wore in her bodice, and played with their perfumed petals.
"I like you better than any man here," she said suddenly.
A swift shadow crossed his face. Glancing over his shoulder he saw that Mrs. Sorrel had moved away. Then the cloud passed from his brow, and the thought that for a moment had darkened his mind, yielded to a kinder impulse.
"You flatter me, my dear," he said quietly. "But I am such an old friend of yours that I can take your compliment in the right spirit without having my head turned by it. Indeed, I can hardly believe that it is eleven years ago since I saw you playing about on the seashore as a child. You seem to have grown up like a magic rose, all at once from a tiny bud into a full blossom. Do you remember how I first made your acquaintance?"
"As if I should ever forget!" and she raised her lovely, large dark eyes to his. "I had been paddling about in the sea, and I had lost my shoes and stockings. You found them for me, and you put them on!"
"True!" and he smiled. "You had very wet little feet, all rosy with the salt of the sea—and your long hair was blown about in thick curls round the brightest, sweetest little face in the world. I thought you were the prettiest little girl I had ever seen in my life, and I think just the same of you now."
A pale blush flitted over her cheeks, and she dropped him a demure curtsy.
"Thank you!" she said. "And if you won't dance the Lancers, which are just beginning, will you sit them out with me?"
"Gladly!" and he offered her his arm. "Shall we go up to the drawing-room? It is cooler there than here."
She assented, and they slowly mounted the staircase together. Some of the evening's guests lounging about in the hall and loitering near the ballroom door, watched them go, and exchanged significant glances. One tall woman with black eyes and a viperish mouth, who commanded a certain exclusive "set" by virtue of being the wife of a dissolute Earl whose house was used as a common gambling resort, found out Mrs. Sorrel sitting among a group of female gossips in a corner, and laid a patronising hand upon her shoulder.
"Do tell me!" she softly breathed. "Is it a case?"
Mrs. Sorrel began to flutter immediately.
"Dearest Lady Larford! What do you mean!"
"Surely you know!" And the wide mouth of her ladyship grew still wider, and the black eyes more steely. "Will Lucy get him, do you think?"
Mrs. Sorrel fidgeted uneasily in her chair. Other people were listening.
"Really," she mumbled nervously—"really, dear Lady Larford!—you put things so very plainly!—I—I cannot say!—you see—he is more like her father——"
Lady Larford showed all her white teeth in an expansive grin.
"Oh, that's very safe!" she said. "The 'father' business works very well when sufficient cash is put in with it. I know several examples of perfect matrimonial bliss between old men and young girls—absolutely perfect! One is bound to be happy with heaps of money!"
And keeping her teeth still well exposed, Lady Larford glided away, her skirts exhaling an odour of civet-cat as she moved. Mrs. Sorrel gazed after her helplessly, in a state of worry and confusion, for she instinctively felt that her ladyship's pleasure would now be to tell everybody whom she knew, that Lucy Sorrel, "the new girl who was presented at Court last night," was having a "try" for the Helmsley millions; and that if the "try" was not successful, no one living would launch more merciless and bitter jests at the failure and defeat of the Sorrels than this same titled "leader" of a section of the aristocratic gambling set. For there has never been anything born under the sun crueller than a twentieth-century woman of fashion to her own sex—except perhaps a starving hyaena tearing asunder its living prey.
Meanwhile, David Helmsley and his young companion had reached the drawing-room, which they found quite unoccupied. The window-balcony, festooned with rose-silk draperies and flowers, and sparkling with tiny electric lamps, offered itself as an inviting retreat for a quiet chat, and within it they seated themselves, Helmsley rather wearily, and Lucy Sorrel with the queenly air and dainty rustle of soft garments habitual to the movements of a well-dressed woman.
"I have not thanked you half enough," she began, "for all the delightful things you have done for my birthday——"
"Pray spare me!" he interrupted, with a deprecatory gesture—"I would rather you said nothing."
"Oh, but I must say something!" she went on. "You are so generous and good in yourself that of course you cannot bear to be thanked—I know that—but if you will persist in giving so much pleasure to a girl who, but for you, would have no pleasure at all in her life, you must expect that girl to express her feelings somehow. Now, mustn't you?"
She leaned forward, smiling at him with an arch expression of sweetness and confidence. He looked at her attentively, but said nothing.
"When I got your lovely present the first thing this morning," she continued, "I could hardly believe my eyes. Such an exquisite necklace!—such perfect pearls! Dear Mr. Helmsley, you quite spoil me! I'm not worth all the kind thought and trouble you take on my behalf."
Tears started to her eyes, and her lips quivered. Helmsley saw her emotion with only a very slight touch of concern. Her tears were merely sensitive, he thought, welling up from a young and grateful heart, and as the prime cause of that young heart's gratitude he delicately forbore to notice them. This chivalrous consideration on his part caused some little disappointment to the shedder of the tears, but he could not be expected to know that.
"I'm glad you are pleased with my little gift," he said simply, "though I'm afraid it is quite a conventional and ordinary one. Pearls and girls always go together, in fact as in rhyme. After all, they are the most suitable jewels for the young—for they are emblems of everything that youth should be—white and pure and innocent."
Her breath came and went quickly.
"Do you think youth is always like that?" she asked.
"Not always,—but surely most often," he answered. "At any rate, I wish to believe in the simplicity and goodness of all young things."
She was silent. Helmsley studied her thoughtfully,—even critically. And presently he came to the conclusion that as a child she had been much prettier than she now was as a woman. Yet her present phase of loveliness was of the loveliest type. No fault could be found with the perfect oval of her face, her delicate white-rose skin, her small seductive mouth, curved in the approved line of the "Cupid's bow," her deep, soft, bright eyes, fringed with long-lashes a shade darker than the curling waves of her abundant brown hair. But her features in childhood had expressed something more than the beauty which had developed with the passing of years. A sweet affection, a tender earnestness, and an almost heavenly candour had made the attractiveness of her earlier age quite irresistible, but now—or so Helmsley fancied—that fine and subtle charm had gone. He was half ashamed of himself for allowing this thought to enter his mind, and quickly dismissing it, he said—
"How did your presentation go off last night? Was it a full Court?"
"I believe so," she replied listlessly, unfurling a painted fan and waving it idly to and fro—"I cannot say that I found it very interesting. The whole thing bored me dreadfully."
"Bored you! Is it possible to be bored at twenty-one?"
"I think every one, young or old, is bored more or less nowadays," she said. "Boredom is a kind of microbe in the air. Most society functions are deadly dull. And where's the fun of being presented at Court? If a woman wears a pretty gown, all the other women try to tread on it and tear it off her back if they can. And the Royal people only speak to their own special 'set,' and not always the best-looking or best-mannered set either."
Helmsley looked amused.
"Well, it's what is called an entree into the world,"—he replied. "For my own part, I have never been 'presented,' and never intend to be. I see too much of Royalty privately, in the dens of finance."
"Yes—all the kings and princes wanting to borrow money," she said quickly and flippantly. "And you must despise the lot. You are a real 'King,' bigger than any crowned head, because you can do just as you like, and you are not the servant of Governments or peoples. I am sure you must be the happiest man in the world!"
She plucked off a rose from a flowering rose-tree near her, and began to wrench out its petals with a quick, nervous movement. Helmsley watched her with a vague sense of annoyance.
"I am no more happy," he said suddenly, "than that rose you are picking to pieces, though it has never done you any harm."
She started, and flushed,—then laughed.
"Oh, the poor little rose!" she exclaimed—"I'm sorry! I've had so many roses to-day, that I don't think about them. I suppose it's wrong."
"It's not wrong," he answered quietly; "it's merely the fault of those who give you more roses than you know how to appreciate."
She looked at him inquiringly, but could not fathom his expression.
"Still," he went on, "I would not have your life deprived of so much as one rose. And there is a very special rose that does not grow in earthly gardens, which I should like you to find and wear on your heart, Lucy,—I hope I shall see you in the happy possession of it before I die,—I mean the rose of love."
She lifted her head, and her eyes shone coldly.
"Dear Mr. Helmsley," she said, "I don't believe in love!"
A flash of amazement, almost of anger, illumined his worn features.
"You don't believe in love!" he echoed. "O child, what do you believe in, then?"
The passion of his tone moved her to a surprised smile.
"Well, I believe in being happy while you can," she replied tranquilly. "And love isn't happiness. All my girl and men friends who are what they call 'in love' seem to be thoroughly miserable. Many of them get perfectly ill with jealousy, and they never seem to know whether what they call their 'love' will last from one day to another. I shouldn't care to live at such a high tension of nerves. My own mother and father married 'for love,' so I am always told,—and I'm sure a more quarrelsome couple never existed. I believe in friendship more than love."
As she spoke, Helmsley looked at her steadily, his face darkening with a shadow of weary scorn.
"I see!" he murmured coldly. "You do not care to over-fatigue the heart's action by unnecessary emotion. Quite right! If we were all as wise as you are at your age, we might live much longer than we do. You are very sensible, Lucy!—more sensible than I should have thought possible for so young a woman."
She gave him a swift, uneasy glance. She was not quite sure of his mood.
"Friendship," he continued, speaking in a slow, meditative tone, "is a good thing,—it may be, as you suggest, safer and sweeter than love. But even friendship, to be worthy of its name, must be quite unselfish,—and unselfishness, in both love and friendship, is rare."
"Very, very rare!" she sighed.
"You will be thinking of marriage some day, if you are not thinking of it now," he went on. "Would a husband's friendship—friendship and no more—satisfy you?"
She gazed at him candidly.
"I am sure it would!" she said; "I'm not the least bit sentimental."
He regarded her with a grave and musing steadfastness. A very close observer might have seen a line of grim satire near the corners of his mouth, and a gleam of irritable impatience in his sunken eyes; but these signs of inward feeling were not apparent to the girl, who, more than usually satisfied with herself and over-conscious of her own beauty, considered that she was saying just the very thing that he would expect and like her to say.
"You do not crave for love, then?" he queried. "You do not wish to know anything of the 'divine rapture falling out of heaven,'—the rapture that has inspired all the artists and poets in the world, and that has probably had the largest share in making the world's history?"
She gave a little shrug of amused disdain.
"Raptures never last!" and she laughed. "And artists and poets are dreadful people! I've seen a few of them, and don't want to see them any more. They are always very untidy, and they have the most absurd ideas of their own abilities. You can't have them in society, you know!—you simply can't! If I had a house of my own I would never have a poet inside it."
The grim lines round Helmsley's mouth hardened, and made him look almost cruelly saturnine. Yet he murmured under his breath:—
"'All thoughts, all passions, all delights, Whatever stirs this mortal frame; Are but the ministers of Love, And feed his sacred flame!'"
"What's that?" she asked quickly.
"Poetry!" he answered, "by a man named Coleridge. He is dead now. He used to take opium, and he did not understand business matters. He was never rich in anything but thoughts."
She smiled brilliantly.
"How silly!" she said.
"Yes, he was very silly," agreed Helmsley, watching her narrowly from under his half-closed eyelids. "But most thinkers are silly, even when they don't take opium. They believe in Love."
She coloured. She caught the sarcastic inflection in his tone. But she was silent.
"Most men who have lived and worked and suffered," he went on, "come to know before they die that without a great and true love in their lives, their work is wasted, and their sufferings are in vain. But there are exceptions, of course. Some get on very well without love at all, and perhaps these are the most fortunate."
"I am sure they are!" she said decisively.
He picked up two or three of the rose-petals her restless fingers had scattered, and laying them in his palm looked at the curved, pink, shell-like shapes abstractedly.
"Well, they are saved a good deal of trouble," he answered quietly. "They spare themselves many a healing heart-ache and many purifying tears. But when they grow old, and when they find that, after all, the happiest folks in the world are still those who love, or who have loved and have been loved, even though the loved ones are perhaps no longer here, they may—I do not say they will—possibly regret that they never experienced that marvellous sense of absorption into another's life of which Mrs. Browning writes in her letters to her husband. Do you know what she says?"
"I'm afraid I don't!" and she smothered a slight yawn as she spoke. He fixed his eyes intently upon her.
"She tells her lover her feeling in these words: 'There is nothing in you that does not draw all out of me.' That is the true emotion of love,—the one soul must draw all out of the other, and the best of all in each."
"But the Brownings were a very funny couple," and the fair Lucy arched her graceful throat and settled more becomingly in its place a straying curl of her glossy brown hair. "I know an old gentleman who used to see them together when they lived in Florence, and he says they were so queer-looking that people used to laugh at them. It's all very well to love and to be in love, but if you look odd and people laugh at you, what's the good of it?"
Helmsley rose from his seat abruptly.
"True!" he exclaimed. "You're right, Lucy! Little girl, you're quite right! What's the good of it! Upon my word, you're a most practical woman!—you'll make a capital wife for a business man!" Then as the gay music of the band below-stairs suddenly ceased, to give place to the noise of chattering voices and murmurs of laughter, he glanced at his watch.
"Supper-time!" he said. "Let me take you down. And after supper, will you give me ten minutes' chat with you alone in the library!"
She looked up eagerly, with a flush of pink in her cheeks.
"Of course I will! With pleasure!"
"Thank you!" And he drew her white-gloved hand through his arm. "I am leaving town next week, and I have something important to say to you before I go. You will allow me to say it privately?"
She smiled assent, and leaned on his arm with a light, confiding pressure, to which he no more responded than if his muscles had been rigid iron. Her heart beat quickly with a sense of gratified vanity and exultant expectancy,—but his throbbed slowly and heavily, chilled by the double frost of age and solitude.
To see people eating is understood to be a very interesting and "brilliant" spectacle, and however insignificant you may be in the social world, you get a reflex of its "brilliancy" when you allow people in their turn to see you eating likewise. A well-cooked, well-served supper is a "function," in which every man and woman who can move a jaw takes part, and though in plain parlance there is nothing uglier than the act of putting food into one's mouth, we have persuaded ourselves that it is a pretty and pleasant performance enough for us to ask our friends to see us do it. Byron's idea that human beings should eat privately and apart, was not altogether without aesthetic justification, though according to medical authority such a procedure would be very injurious to health. The slow mastication of a meal in the presence of cheerful company is said to promote healthy digestion—moreover, custom and habit make even the most incongruous things acceptable, therefore the display of tables, crowded with food-stuffs and surrounded by eating, drinking, chattering and perspiring men and women, does not affect us to any sense of the ridiculous or the unseemly. On the contrary, when some of us see such tables, we exclaim "How lovely!" or "How delightful!" according to our own pet vocabulary, or to our knowledge of the humour of our host or hostess,—or perhaps, if we are young cynics, tired of life before we have confronted one of its problems, we murmur, "Not so bad!" or "Fairly decent!" when we are introduced to the costly and appetising delicacies heaped up round masses of flowers and silver for our consideration and entertainment. At the supper given by David Helmsley for Lucy Sorrel's twenty-first birthday, there was, however, no note of dissatisfaction—the blase breath of the callow critic emitted no withering blight, and even latter-day satirists in their teens, frosted like tender pease-blossom before their prime, condescended to approve the lavish generosity, combined with the perfect taste, which made the festive scene a glowing picture of luxury and elegance. But Helmsley himself, as he led his beautiful partner, "the" guest of the evening, to the head of the principal table, and took his place beside her, was conscious of no personal pleasure, but only of a dreary feeling which seemed lonelier than loneliness and more sorrowful than sorrow. The wearied scorn that he had lately begun to entertain for himself, his wealth, his business, his influence, and all his surroundings, was embittered by a disappointment none the less keen because he had dimly foreseen it. The child he had petted, the girl he had indulged after the fashion of a father who seeks to make the world pleasant to a young life just entering it, she, even she, was, or seemed to be, practically as selfish as any experienced member of the particular set of schemers and intriguers who compose what is sometimes called "society" in the present day. He had no wish to judge her harshly, but he was too old and knew too much of life to be easily deceived in his estimation of character. A very slight hint was sufficient for him. He had seen a great deal of Lucy Sorrel as a child—she had always been known as his "little favourite"—but since she had attended a fashionable school at Brighton, his visits to her home had been less frequent, and he had had very few opportunities of becoming acquainted with the gradual development of her mental and moral self. During her holidays he had given her as many little social pleasures and gaieties as he had considered might be acceptable to her taste and age, but on these occasions other persons had always been present, and Lucy herself had worn what are called "company" manners, which in her case were singularly charming and attractive, so much so, indeed, that it would have seemed like heresy to question their sincerity. But now—whether it was the slight hint dropped by Sir Francis Vesey on the previous night as to Mrs. Sorrel's match-making proclivities, or whether it was a scarcely perceptible suggestion of something more flippant and assertive than usual in the air and bearing of Lucy herself that had awakened his suspicions,—he was certainly disposed to doubt, for the first time in all his knowledge of her, the candid nature of the girl for whom he had hitherto entertained, half-unconsciously, an almost parental affection. He sat by her side at supper, seldom speaking, but always closely observant. He saw everything; he watched the bright, exulting flash of her eyes as she glanced at her various friends, both near her and at a distance, and he fancied he detected in their responsive looks a subtle inquiry and meaning which he would not allow himself to investigate. And while the bubbling talk and laughter eddied round him, he made up his mind to combat the lurking distrust that teased his brain, and either to disperse it altogether or else confirm it beyond all mere shadowy misgiving. Some such thought as this had occurred to him, albeit vaguely, when he had, on a sudden unpremeditated impulse, asked Lucy to give him a few minutes' private conversation with her after supper, but now, what had previously been a mere idea formulated itself into a fixed resolve.
"For what, after all, does it matter to me?" he mused. "Why should I hesitate to destroy a dream? Why should I care if another rainbow bubble of life breaks and disappears? I am too old to have ideals—so most people would tell me. And yet—with the grave open and ready to receive me,—I still believe that love and truth and purity surely exist in women's hearts—if one could only know just where to find the women!"
"Dear King David!" murmured a cooing voice at his ear. "Won't you drink my health?"
He started as from a reverie. Lucy Sorrel was bending towards him, her face glowing with gratified vanity and self-elation.
"Of course!" he answered, and rising to his feet, he lifted his glass full of as yet untasted champagne, at which action on his part the murmur of voices suddenly ceased sand all eyes were turned upon him. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, in his soft, tired voice,—"I beg to propose the health of Miss Lucy Sorrel! She has lived twenty-one years on this interesting old planet of ours, and has found it, so far, not altogether without charm. I have had seventy years of it, and strange as it may seem to you all, I am able to keep a few of the illusions and delusions I had when I was even younger than our charming guest of the evening. I still believe in good women! I think I have one sitting at my right hand to-night. I take for granted that her nature is as fair as her face; and I hope that every recurring anniversary of this day may bring her just as much happiness as she deserves. I ask you to drink to her health, wealth, and prosperity; and—may she soon find a good husband!"
Applause and laughter followed this conventional little speech, and the toast was honoured in the usual way, Lucy bowing and smiling her thanks to all present. And then there ensued one of those strange impressions—one might almost call them telepathic instead of atmospheric effects—which, subtly penetrating the air, exerted an inexplicable influence on the mind;—the expectancy of some word never to be uttered,—the waiting for some incident never to take place. People murmured and smiled, and looked and laughed, but there was an evident embarrassment among them,—an under-sense of something like disappointment. The fortunately commonplace and methodical habits of waiters, whose one idea is to keep their patrons busy eating and drinking, gradually overcame this insidious restraint, and the supper went on gaily till at one o'clock the Hungarian band again began to play, and all the young people, eager for their "extras" in the way of dances, quickly rose from the various tables and began to crowd out towards the ballroom. In the general dispersal, Lucy having left him for a partner to whom she had promised the first "extra," Helmsley stopped to speak to one or two men well known to him in the business world. He was still conversing with these when Mrs. Sorrel, not perceiving him in the corner where he stood apart with his friend, trotted past him with an agitated step and flushed countenance, and catching her daughter by the skirt of her dress as that young lady moved on with the pushing throng in front of her, held her back for a second.
"What have you done?" she demanded querulously, in not too soft a tone. "Were you careful? Did you manage him properly? What did he say to you?"
Lucy's beautiful face hardened, and her lips met in a thin, decidedly bad-tempered line.
"He said nothing to the purpose," she replied coldly. "There was no time. But"—and she lowered her voice—"he wants to speak to me alone presently. I'm going to him in the library after this dance."
She passed on, and Mrs. Sorrel, heaving a deep sigh, drew out a black pocket-fan and fanned herself vigorously. Wreathing her face with social smiles, she made her way slowly out of the supper-room, happily unaware that Helmsley had been near enough to hear every word that had passed. And hearing, he had understood; but he went on talking to his friends in the quiet, rather slow way which was habitual to him, and when he left them there was nothing about him to indicate that he was in a suppressed state of nervous excitement which made him for the moment quite forget that he was an old man. Impetuous youth itself never felt a keener blaze of vitality in the veins than he did at that moment, but it was the withering heat of indignation that warmed him—not the tender glow of love. The clarion sweetness of the dance-music, now pealing loudly on the air, irritated his nerves,—the lights, the flowers, the brilliancy of the whole scene jarred upon his soul,—what was it all but sham, he thought!—a show in the mere name of friendship!—an ephemeral rose of pleasure with a worm at its core! Impatiently he shook himself free of those who sought to detain him and went at once to his library,—a sombre, darkly-furnished apartment, large enough to seem gloomy by contrast with the gaiety and cheerfulness which were dominant throughout the rest of the house that evening. Only two or three shaded lamps were lit, and these cast a ghostly flicker on the row of books that lined the walls. A few names in raised letters of gold relief upon the backs of some of the volumes, asserted themselves, or so he fancied, with unaccustomed prominence. "Montaigne," "Seneca," "Rochefoucauld," "Goethe," "Byron," and "The Sonnets of William Shakespeare," stood forth from the surrounding darkness as though demanding special notice.
"Voices of the dead!" he murmured half aloud. "I should have learned wisdom from you all long ago! What have the great geniuses of the world lived for? For what purpose did they use their brains and pens? Simply to teach mankind the folly of too much faith! Yet we continue to delude ourselves—and the worst of it is that we do it wilfully and knowingly. We are perfectly aware that when we trust, we shall be deceived—yet we trust on! Even I—old and frail and about to die—cannot rid myself of a belief in God, and in the ultimate happiness of each man's destiny. And yet, so far as my own experience serves me, I have nothing to go upon—absolutely nothing!"
He gave an unconscious gesture—half of scorn, half of despair—and paced the room slowly up and down. A life of toil—a life rounding into worldly success, but blank of all love and heart's comfort—was this to be the only conclusion to his career? Of what use, then, was it to have lived at all?
"People talk foolishly of a 'declining birth-rate,'" he went on; "yet if, according to the modern scientist, all civilisations are only so much output of wasted human energy, doomed to pass into utter oblivion, and human beings only live but to die and there an end, of what avail is it to be born at all? Surely it is but wanton cruelty to take upon ourselves the responsibility of continuing a race whose only consummation is rottenness in unremembered graves!"
At that moment the door opened and Lucy Sorrel entered softly, with a pretty air of hesitating timidity which became her style of beauty excellently well. As he looked up and saw her standing half shyly on the threshold, a white, light, radiant figure expressing exquisitely fresh youth, grace and—innocence?—yes! surely that wondrous charm which hung about her like a delicate atmosphere redolent with the perfume of spring, could only be the mystic exhalation of a pure mind adding spiritual lustre to the material attraction of a perfect body,—his heart misgave him. Already he was full of remorse lest so much as a passing thought in his brain might have done her unmerited wrong. He advanced to meet her, and his voice was full of kindness as he said:—
"Is your dance quite over, Lucy? Are you sure I am not selfishly depriving you of pleasure by asking you to come away from all your young friends just to talk to me for a few minutes in this dull room?"
She raised her beautiful eyes confidingly.
"Dear Mr. Helmsley, there can be no greater pleasure for me than to talk to you!" she answered sweetly.
His expression changed and hardened. "That's not true," he thought; "and she knows it, and I know it." Aloud he said: "Very prettily spoken, Lucy! But I am aware of my own tediousness and I won't detain you long. Will you sit down?" and he offered her an easy-chair, into which she sank with the soft slow grace of a nestling bird. "I only want to say just a few words,—such as your father might say to you if he were so inclined—about your future."
She gave him a swift glance of keen inquiry.
"My future?" she echoed.
"Yes. Have you thought of it at all yourself?"
She heaved a little sigh, smiled, and shook her head in the negative.
"I'm afraid I'm very silly," she confessed plaintively. "I never think!"
He drew up another armchair and sat down opposite to her.
"Well, try to do so now for five minutes at least," he said, gently. "I am going away to-morrow or next day for a considerable time——"
A quick flush flew over her face.
"Going away!" she exclaimed. "But—not far?"
"That depends on my own whim," he replied, watching her attentively. "I shall certainly be absent from England for a year, perhaps longer. But, Lucy,—you were such a little pet of mine in your childhood that I cannot help taking an interest in you now you are grown up. That is, I think, quite natural. And I should like to feel that you have some good and safe idea of your own happiness in life before I leave you."
She stared,—her face fell.
"I have no ideas at all," she answered after a pause, the corners of her red mouth drooping in petulant, spoilt-child fashion, "and if you go away I shall have no pleasures either!"
"I'm sorry you take it that way," he said. "But I'm nearing the end of my tether, Lucy, and increasing age makes me restless. I want change of scene—and change of surroundings. I am thoroughly tired of my present condition."
"Tired?" and her eyes expressed whole volumes of amazement. "Not really? You—tired of your present condition? With all your money?"
"With all my money!" he answered drily, "Money is not the elixir of happiness, Lucy, though many people seem to think it is. But I prefer not to talk about myself. Let me speak of you. What do you propose to do with your life? You will marry, of course?"
"I—I suppose so," she faltered.
"Is there any one you specially favour?—any young fellow who loves you, or whom you are inclined to love—and who wants a start in the world? If there is, send him to me, and, if he has anything in him, I'll make myself answerable for his prosperity."
She looked up with a cold, bright steadfastness.
"There is no one," she said. "Dear Mr. Helmsley, you are very good, but I assure you I have never fallen in love in my life. As I told you before supper, I don't believe in that kind of nonsense. And I—I want nothing. Of course I know my father and mother are poor, and that they have kept up a sort of position which ranks them among the 'shabby genteel,'—and I suppose if I don't marry quickly I shall have to do something for a living——"
She broke off, embarrassed by the keenness of the gaze he fixed upon her.
"Many good, many beautiful, many delicate women 'do something,' as you put it, for a living," he said slowly. "But the fight is always fierce, and the end is sometimes bitter. It is better for a woman that she should be safeguarded by a husband's care and tenderness than that she should attempt to face the world alone."
A flashing smile dimpled the corners of her mouth.
"Why, yes, I quite agree with you," she retorted playfully. "But if no husband come forward, then it cannot be helped!"
He rose, and, pushing away his chair, walked up and down in silence.
She watched him with a sense of growing irritability, and her heart beat with uncomfortable quickness. Why did he seem to hesitate so long? Presently he stopped in his slow movement to and fro, and stood looking down upon her with a fixed intensity which vaguely troubled her.
"It is difficult to advise," he said, "and it is still more difficult to control. In your case I have no right to do either. I am an old man, and you are a very young woman. You are beginning your life,—I am ending mine. Yet, young as you are, you say with apparent sincerity that you do not believe in love. Now I, though I have loved and lost, though I have loved and have been cruelly deceived in love, still believe that if the true, heavenly passion be fully and faithfully experienced, it must prove the chief joy, if not the only one, of life. You think otherwise, and perhaps you correctly express the opinion of the younger generation of men and women. These appear to crowd more emotion and excitement into their lives than ever was attained or attainable in the lives of their forefathers, but they do not, or so it seems to me, secure for themselves as much peace of mind and satisfaction of soul as were the inheritance of bygone folk whom we now call 'old-fashioned.' Still, you may be right in depreciating the power of love—from your point of view. All the same, I should be sorry to see you entering into a loveless marriage."
For a moment she was silent, then she suddenly plunged into speech.
"Dear Mr. Helmsley, do you really think all the silly sentiment talked and written about love is any good in marriage? We know so much nowadays,—and the disillusion of matrimony is so very complete! One has only to read the divorce cases in the newspapers to see what mistakes people make——"
He winced as though he had been stung.
"Do you read the divorce cases, Lucy?" he asked. "You—a mere girl like you?"
She looked surprised at the regret and pain in his tone.
"Why, of course! One must read the papers to keep up with all the things that are going on. And the divorce cases have always such startling headings,—in such big print!—one is obliged to read them—positively obliged!"
She laughed carelessly, and settled herself more cosily in her chair.
"You nearly always find that it is the people who were desperately in love with each other before marriage who behave disgracefully and are perfectly sick of each other afterwards," she went on. "They wanted perpetual poetry and moonlight, and of course they find they can't have it. Now, I don't want poetry or moonlight,—I hate both! Poetry makes me sleepy, and moonlight gives me neuralgia. I should like a husband who would be a friend to me—a real kind friend!—some one who would be able to take care of me, and be nice to me always—some one much older than myself, who was wise and strong and clever——"
"And rich," said Helmsley quietly. "Don't forget that! Very rich!"
She glanced at him furtively, conscious of a slight nervous qualm. Then, rapidly reviewing the situation in her shallow brain, she accepted his remark smilingly.
"Oh, well, of course!" she said. "It's not pleasant to live without plenty of money."
He turned from her abruptly, and resumed his leisurely walk to and fro, much to her inward vexation. He was becoming fidgety, she decided,—old people were really very trying! Suddenly, with the air of a man arriving at an important decision, he sat down again in the armchair opposite her own, and leaning indolently back against the cushion, surveyed her with a calm, critical, entirely businesslike manner, much as he would have looked at a Jew company-promoter, who sought his aid to float a "bogus" scheme.
"It's not pleasant to live without plenty of money, you think," he said, repeating her last words slowly. "Well! The pleasantest time of my life was when I did not own a penny in the bank, and when I had to be very sharp in order to earn enough for my day's dinner. There was a zest, a delight, a fine glory in the mere effort to live that brought out the strength of every quality I possessed. I learned to know myself, which is a farther reaching wisdom than is found in knowing others. I had ideals then,—and—old as I am, I have them still."
He paused. She was silent. Her eyes were lowered, and she played idly with her painted fan.
"I wonder if it would surprise you," he went on, "to know that I have made an ideal of you?"
She looked up with a smile.
"Really? Have you? I'm afraid I shall prove a disappointment!"
He did not answer by the obvious compliment which she felt she had a right to expect. He kept his gaze fixed steadily on her face, and his shaggy eyebrows almost met in the deep hollow which painful thought had ploughed along his forehead.
"I have made," he said, "an ideal in my mind of the little child who sat on my knee, played with my watch-chain and laughed at me when I called her my little sweetheart. She was perfectly candid in her laughter,—she knew it was absurd for an old man to have a child as his sweetheart. I loved to hear her laugh so,—because she was true to herself, and to her right and natural instincts. She was the prettiest and sweetest child I ever saw,—full of innocent dreams and harmless gaiety. She began to grow up, and I saw less and less of her, till gradually I lost the child and found the woman. But I believe in the child's heart still—I think that the truth and simplicity of the child's soul are still in the womanly nature,—and in that way, Lucy, I yet hold you as an ideal."
Her breath quickened a little.
"You think too kindly of me," she murmured, furling and unfurling her fan slowly; "I'm not at all clever."
He gave a slight deprecatory gesture.
"Cleverness is not what I expect or have ever expected of you," he said. "You have not as yet had to endure the misrepresentation and wrong which frequently make women clever,—the life of solitude and despised dreams which moves a woman to put on man's armour and sally forth to fight the world and conquer it, or else die in the attempt. How few conquer, and how many die, are matters of history. Be glad you are not a clever woman, Lucy!—for genius in a woman is the mystic laurel of Apollo springing from the soft breast of Daphne. It hurts in the growing, and sometimes breaks the heart from which it grows."
She answered nothing. He was talking in a way she did not understand,—his allusion to Apollo and Daphne was completely beyond her. She smothered a tiny yawn and wondered why he was so tedious. Moreover, she was conscious of some slight chagrin, for though she said, out of mere social hypocrisy, that she was not clever, she thought herself exceptionally so. Why could he not admit her abilities as readily as she herself admitted them?
"No, you are not clever," he resumed quietly. "And I am glad you are not. You are good and pure and true,—these graces outweigh all cleverness."
Her cheeks flushed prettily,—she thought of a girl who had been her schoolmate at Brighton, one of the boldest little hussies that ever flashed eyes to the light of day, yet who could assume the dainty simpering air of maiden—modest perfection at the moment's notice. She wished she could do the same, but she had not studied the trick carefully enough, and she was afraid to try more of it than just a little tremulous smile and a quick downward glance at her fan. Helmsley watched her attentively—almost craftily. It did not strain his sense of perspicuity over much to see exactly what was going on in her mind. He settled himself a little more comfortably in his chair, and pressing the tips of his fingers together, looked at her over this pointed rampart of polished nails as though she were something altogether curious and remarkable.
"The virtues of a woman are her wealth and worth," he said sententiously, as though he were quoting a maxim out of a child's copybook. "A jewel's price is not so much for its size and weight as for its particular lustre. But common commercial people—like myself—even if they have the good fortune to find a diamond likely to surpass all others in the market, are never content till they have tested it. Every Jew bites his coin. And I am something of a Jew. I like to know the exact value of what I esteem as precious. And so I test it."
"Yes?" She threw in this interjected query simply because she did not know what to say. She thought he was talking very oddly, and wondered whether he was quite sane.
"Yes," he echoed; "I test it. And, Lucy, I think so highly of you, and esteem you as so very fair a pearl of womanhood, that I am inclined to test you just as I would a priceless gem. Do you object?"
She glanced up at him flutteringly, vaguely surprised. The corners of his mouth relaxed into the shadow of a smile, and she was reassured.
"Object? Of course not! As if I should object to anything you wish!" she said amiably. "But—I don't quite understand——"
"No, possibly not," he interrupted; "I know I have not the art of making myself very clear in matters which deeply and personally affect myself. I have nerves still, and some remnant of a heart,—these occasionally trouble me——"
She leaned forward and put her delicately gloved hand on his.
"Dear King David!" she murmured. "You are always so good!"
He took the little fingers in his own clasp and held them gently.
"I want to ask you a question, Lucy," he said; "and it is a very difficult question, because I feel that your answer to it may mean a great sorrow for me,—a great disappointment. The question is the 'test' I speak of. Shall I put it to you?"
"Please do!" she answered, her heart beginning to beat violently. He was coming to the point at last, she thought, and a few words more would surely make her the future mistress of the Helmsley millions! "If I can answer it I will!"
"Shall I ask you my question, or shall I not?" he went on, gripping her hand hard, and half raising himself in his chair as he looked intently at her telltale face. "For it means more than you can realise. It is an audacious, impudent question, Lucy,—one that no man of my age ought to ask any woman,—one that is likely to offend you very much!"
She withdrew her hand from his.
"Offend me?" and her eyes widened with a blank wonder. "What can it be?"
"Ah! What can it be! Think of all the most audacious and impudent things a man—an old man—could say to a young woman! Suppose,—it is only supposition, remember,—suppose, for instance, I were to ask you to marry me?"
A smile, brilliant and exultant, flashed over her features,—she almost laughed out her inward joy.
"I should accept you at once!" she said.
With sudden impetuosity he rose, and pushing away his chair, drew himself up to his full height, looking down upon her.
"You would!" and his voice was low and tense. "You!—you would actually marry me?"
She, rising likewise, confronted him in all her fresh and youthful beauty, fair and smiling, her bosom heaving and her eyes dilating with eagerness.
"I would,—indeed I would!" she averred delightedly. "I would rather marry you than any man in the world!"
There was a moment's silence. Then—
"Why?" he asked.
The simple monosyllabic query completely confused her. It was unexpected, and she was at her wit's end how to reply to it. Moreover, he kept his eyes so pertinaciously fixed upon her that she felt her blood rising to her cheeks and brow in a hot flush of—shame? Oh no!—not shame, but merely petulant vexation. The proper way for him to behave at this juncture, so she reflected, would be that he should take her tenderly in his arms and murmur, after the penny-dreadful style of elderly hero, "My darling, my darling! Can you, so young and beautiful, really care for an old fogey like me?'" to which she would, of course, have replied in the same fashion, and with the most charming insincerity—"Dearest! Do not talk of age! You will never be old to my fond heart!" But to stand, as he was standing, like a rigid figure of bronze, with a hard pale face in which only the eyes seemed living, and to merely ask "Why" she would rather marry him than any other man in the world, was absurd, to say the least of it, and indeed quite lacking in all delicacy of sentiment. She sought about in her mind for some way out of the difficulty and could find none. She grew more and more painfully crimson, and wished she could cry. A well worked-up passion of tears would have come in very usefully just then, but somehow she could not turn the passion on. And a horrid sense of incompetency and failure began to steal over her—an awful foreboding of defeat. What could she do to seize the slippery opportunity and grasp the doubtful prize? How could she land the big golden fish which she foolishly fancied she had at the end of her line? Never had she felt so helpless or so angry.
"Why?" he repeated—"Why would you marry me? Not for love certainly. Even if you believed in love—which you say you do not,—you could not at your age love a man at mine. That would be impossible and unnatural. I am old enough to be your grandfather. Think again, Lucy! Perhaps you spoke hastily—- out of girlish thoughtlessness—or out of kindness and a wish to please me,—but do not, in so serious a matter, consider me at all. Consider yourself. Consider your own nature and temperament—your own life—your own future—your own happiness. Would you, young as you are, with all the world before you—would you, if I asked you, deliberately and of your own free will, marry me?"
She drew a sharp breath, and hurriedly wondered what was best to do. He spoke so strangely!—he looked so oddly! But that might be because he was in love with her! Her lips parted,—she faced him straightly, lifting her head with a little air of something like defiance.
"I would!—of course I would!" she replied. "Nothing could make me happier!"
He gave a kind of gesture with his hands as though he threw aside some cherished object.
"So vanishes my last illusion!" he said. "Well! Let it go!"
She gazed at him stupidly. What did he mean? Why did he not now emulate the penny-dreadful heroes and say "My darling!" Nothing seemed further from his thoughts. His eyes rested upon her with a coldness such as she had never seen in them before, and his features hardened.
"I should have known the modern world and modern education better," he went on, speaking more to himself than to her. "I have had experience enough. I should never have allowed myself to keep even the shred of a belief in woman's honesty!"
She started, and flamed into a heat of protest.
He raised a deprecatory hand.
"Pardon me!" he said wearily—"I am an old man, accustomed to express myself bluntly. Even if I vex you, I fear I shall not know how to apologise. I had thought——"