"Berenice!" he exclaimed.
She let herself drift down the surging tide of this suddenly awakened passion. She held out her arms and pressed her lips on his as he caught her.
* * * * *
Presently she pushed him gently away—held him there at arm's length.
"This is too absurd," she murmured, and drew him once more towards her with a choking little laugh. "I came for something quite different!"
"What does it matter what you came for, so long as you stay," he answered. "Say that you came to bring a glimpse of paradise to a lonely man!"
She disengaged herself, and her long white fingers strayed mechanically to her tumbled hair. The elegant precision of her toilette had given place to a most distracting disarray. She felt her cheeks burning still, and the lace at her bosom was all crushed.
"And I was on my way to a dinner party," she whispered, with humorously uplifted eyebrows. "I must drive back home, and—and—"
"And what?" he demanded.
"And send an excuse," she declared, demurely. "I am not equal to a family dinner party."
"Would you like," she asked, "to take me out to dinner?"
"Would I like!"
"Go and change, and call for me in half an hour. We can go somewhere where we are not likely to be seen," she said, softly. "I must cover myself up in my cloak. Whatever will Perkins say? Please remember that I have no hat."
He held her hands and looked into her eyes.
"Don't go for one moment," he pleaded. "I want to realize it. I want to feel sure of you."
The gravity of his manner was for a moment reflected in her tone.
"I think," she said, "that you may feel sure. There are things which we may have to say to one another—presently—but—"
He stooped and kissed her fingers.
THE CONSCIENCE OF A STATESMAN
He was shown into her own little boudoir by a smiling maid-servant, who seemed already to treat him with an especial consideration. The wonder of this thing was still lying like a thrall upon him, and yet he knew that the joy of life was burning once more in his veins. He caught sight of himself in a mirror, and he was amazed. The careworn look had gone from his eyes, the sallowness from his complexion. His step was elastic, he felt the firm, quick beat of his heart, even his pulses seem to throb to a new and a wonderful tune. These moments whilst he waited for her were a joy to him. The atmosphere was fragrant with the perfume of her favourite roses, a book lay upon the little inlaid table face downwards as she had left it. There was a delicately engraved etching upon the wall, which he recognized as her work; the watercolours, all of a French school which he had often praised, were of her choosing. Perfect though the room was in colouring and detail, there was yet a habitable, almost a homely, air about it. Mannering moved about amidst her treasures like a man in a dream, only it was a dream of loneliness gone forever, of a grey life suddenly coloured and transformed. It was wonderful.
Then the soft swish of a skirt, and she came in. She had changed her gown. She wore white lace, with a string of pearls about her neck. He looked eagerly into her face, and a great relief took the place of that single instant of haunting fear. The change was still there. It was not the great lady who swept in, but the woman who has found an answer to the one question of life, a little tremulous still, a little less self-assured. She looked at him almost appealingly. A delicate tinge of colour lingered in her cheeks. He moved quickly forward to meet her.
"Dear!" she murmured.
He raised her hand to his lips. He was satisfied.
"You see what my new-born vanity has led to," she declared, smilingly. "I have had to keep you waiting whilst I changed my gown. I hope you like me in white."
"You are adorable," he declared.
"I wonder," she said, "would you mind dining here alone with me? It will be quite a scratch meal, but I thought that it would be cosier than a restaurant, and afterwards—we could come in here and talk."
"I should like it better than anything in the world," he declared, truthfully.
"You may take me in, then," she said. "I hope that you are as hungry as I am. No, not that way. I have ordered dinner to be served in the little room where I dine when I am alone."
To Mannering there seemed something almost unreal about the chaste perfection of the meal and its wonderful service. They dined at a small round table, so small that more than once their fingers touched upon the tablecloth. A single servant waited upon them, swiftly and perfectly. The butler appeared only with the wine, which he served, and quietly withdrew. Across the tangled mass of flowers, only a few feet away all the time, sat the woman who had suddenly made the world so beautiful to him. A murmur of conversation continually flowed between them, but he was never very sure what they were talking about. He wanted to sit still, to feast his eyes, all his senses, upon her, to strive to realize this new thing, that from henceforth she was his! And then suddenly she broke the spell. She leaned back in her chair and laughed softly.
"I have just remembered," she said, in response to his inquiring look, "why I came to call upon you this evening. What a long time ago it seems."
"And I never thought to ask you," he remarked.
"We must have no secrets now," she said, with a delightful smile. "Leslie Borrowdean came to see me this afternoon, and he was very anxious about you. He declared that you wanted to postpone your great meetings in the North until after you had made some independent investigations in some of the manufacturing centres. Poor Sir Leslie! You had frightened him so completely that he was scarcely coherent."
Mannering smiled a little gravely. It was like coming back to earth.
"Politics with Borrowdean are so much a matter of pounds, shillings and pence that the bare idea of his finding himself a day further away from office frightens him to death," he said. "We are all like the pawns, to be moved about the chessboard of his life."
"He is certainly a very self-centred person," she remarked; "but do you know, I am really a little curious to know how you succeeded in frightening him so thoroughly."
"I had a fright myself," Mannering said. "I was made to feel for an hour or so like a Rip van Winkle with the cobwebs hanging about me—Rip van Winkle looking out upon a new world!"
"You a Rip van Winkle!" she laughed. "What was it that man who wrote in the Nineteenth Century called you last week? 'The most precise and far-seeing of our politicians.'"
"The men who write in reviews," he murmured, "sometimes display the most appalling ignorance. There was also some one in the Saturday Review who alluded to me last week as a library politician. My friend quoted that against me. 'A man who essays to govern a people he knows nothing of.' It was one of the labour party who wrote it, I know, but it sticks."
"You are not losing confidence in yourself, surely?" she remarked, smiling.
"My views are unchanged, if that is what you mean," he answered. "I believe I know what is good for the people, and when I am sure of it I shall not be afraid to take up the gauntlet. But I must be quite sure."
"You puzzle me a little," she admitted. "Has any one written more convincingly than you? Arguments which are founded upon logic and statistics must yield truth, and you have set it down in black and white."
"On the other hand," he said, "my unlearned but eloquent friend dismissed all statistics, all the science of argument and deduction, with the wave of a not too scrupulously clean hand. 'Figures,' he said, 'are dead things. They are the playthings of the charlatan politician, who, by a sort of mental sleight of hand, can make them perform the most wonderful antics. If you desire the truth, seek it from live things. If you desire really to call yourself the champion of the people, come and see for yourself how they are faring. Figures will not feed them, nor statistics keep them from the great despair. Come and let me show you the sinews of the country, whether they are sound or rotten. You cannot see them through your library walls. It is only the echo of their voice which you hear so far off. If you would really be the people's man, come and learn something of the people from their own lips.' This is what my friend said to me."
"And who," she asked, "was this prophet who came to you and talked like this?"
"A retired bookmaker," he answered. "I will tell you of our meeting."
She listened gravely. After he had finished there was a short silence. The dessert was on the table, and they were alone. Berenice was looking thoughtful.
"Tell me," he begged, "exactly what that wrinkled forehead means?"
"I was wondering," she said, "whether Sir Leslie was right, when he said that you had too much conscience ever to be a great politician."
"It mirrors Borrowdean's outlook upon politics precisely," he remarked.
She smiled at him with a sudden radiance. She had risen to her feet, and with a quick, graceful movement leaned over him. This new womanliness which he had found so irresistible was alight once more in her face. Her eyes sought his fondly, she touched his lips with hers. The perfume of her clothes, the touch of her hair upon his cheek, were like a drug. He had no more words.
"You may have one peach and one glass of the Prince's Burgundy, and then you must come and look for me," she said. "We have wasted too much time talking of other things. You haven't even told me yet what I have a right to hear, you know. I want to be told that you care for me better than anything else in the world."
He caught her hands. There was a rare passion vibrating in his tone.
"You do not doubt it, Berenice?"
"Perhaps not," she answered, "but I want to be told. I am a middle-aged woman, you know, Lawrence, but I want to be made love to as though I were a silly girl! Isn't that foolish? But you must do it," she whispered, with her lips very close to his.
He drew her into his arms.
"I am not at all sure," he said, "that I have enough courage to make love to a Duchess!"
"Then you can remember only that I am a woman," she whispered, "very, very, very much a woman, and—I'm afraid—a woman shockingly in love!"
She disengaged herself suddenly, and was at the door before he could reach it. She looked back. Her cheeks were flushed. There was even a faint tinge of pink underneath the creamy white of her slender, stately neck.
"Don't dare," she said, "to be more than five minutes!"
Mannering poured himself out a glass of wine, and sat quite still with his head between his hands. He wanted to realize this thing if he could. The grinding of the great wheels fell no more upon his ears. He looked into a new world, so different from the old that he was almost afraid.
And in her room, Berenice waited for him impatiently.
A BLOW FOR BORROWDEAN
There was a somewhat unusual alertness in Borrowdean's manner as he passed out from the little house in Sloane Gardens and summoned a passing hansom. He drove to the corner of Hyde Park, and dismissing the cab strolled along the broad walk.
The many acquaintances whom he passed and repassed he greeted with a certain amount of abstraction. All the time he kept his eyes upon the road. He was waiting to catch sight of some familiar liveries. When at last they came he contrived to stop the carriage and hastily threaded his way to the side of the barouche.
Berenice was looking radiantly beautiful. The exquisite simplicity of her white muslin gown and large hat of black feathers, the slight flush with which she received him, as though she carried about with her a secret which she expected every one to read, the extinction of that air of listlessness which had robbed her for some time of a certain share of her good looks—of all these things Borrowdean made quick note. His face grew graver as he accepted her not very enthusiastic invitation and occupied the back seat of the carriage. For the first time he admitted to himself the possibility of failure in his carefully laid plans. He recognized the fact, that there were forces at work against which he had no weapon ready. He had believed that Berenice was attracted by Mannering's personality and genius. He had never seriously considered the question of her feelings becoming more deeply involved. So many men had paid vain court to her. She had a wonderful reputation for inaccessibility. And yet he remembered her manner when he had paid his first unexpected visit to Blakely. It should have been a lesson to him. How far had the mischief gone, he wondered!
"So Mannering has gone North," he remarked, noticing that she avoided the subject.
She nodded. Her parasol drooped a little his way, and he wondered whether it was because she desired her face hidden.
"You saw him?"
"Yes," she answered. "He explained how he felt to me."
"And you could not dissuade him?"
"I did not try," she answered, simply. "Lawrence Mannering is not a man of ordinary disposition, you know. He had come to the conclusion that it was right for him to go, and opposition would only have made him the more determined. I cannot see that there is any harm likely to come of it."
"I am not so sure of that," Borrowdean answered, seriously. "Mannering is au fond a man of sentiment. There is no clearer thinker or speaker when his judgment is unbiassed, but on the other hand, the man's nature is sensitive and complex. He has a sort of maudlin self-consciousness which is as dangerous a thing as the nonconformist conscience. Heaven knows into whose hands he may fall up there."
"He is going incognito," she remarked.
"He is not the sort of man to escape notice," Borrowdean answered. "He will be discovered for certain. Of course, if it comes off all right, the whole thing will be a feather in his cap. But when I think how much we are dependent upon him, I don't like the risk."
"You are sure," she remarked, thoughtfully, "that you do not over-rate—"
"Mannering himself, perhaps," Borrowdean interrupted. "There is no man whose personal place cannot be filled. But one thing is very certain. Mannering is the only man who unites both sides of our scattered party, the only man under whom Fergusson and Johns would both serve. You know quite well the curse which has rested upon us. We have become a party of units, and our whole effectiveness is destroyed. We want welding into one entity. A single session, a single year of office, and the thing would be done. We who do the mechanical work would see that there was no breaking away again. But we must have that year, we must have Mannering. That is why I watch him like a child, and I must say that he has given me a good deal of anxiety lately."
"In what way?" she asked.
Borrowdean hesitated. He seemed uncertain how to answer.
"If I explain what I mean," he said, "you will understand that I do not speak to you as a woman and an acquaintance of Mannering's, but simply as one of ourselves. Mannering's private life is, of course, interesting to me only as an index to his political destiny, and my acquaintance with it arises solely from my political interest in him. There are things in connection with it which I feel that I shall never properly be able to understand."
She looked at him steadily. Her cheeks were a little whiter, but her tone was deliberate.
"I do not wish to hear anything about Mr. Mannering's private life," she said. "You will understand that I am not free or disposed to listen when I tell you that I am going to marry him."
This was perhaps the worst blow Borrowdean had ever experienced in the course of his whole life. The possibility of this was a danger which he had recognized might some time have to be reckoned with, but for the present he had felt safe enough. He was taken so completely aback that for a few moments his mind was a blank. He remained silent.
"You do not offer me the conventional wishes," she remarked, presently.
"They go—from me to you—as a matter of course," he answered. "To tell you the truth, I never thought of Mannering, for many reasons, as a marrying man."
"You will have to readjust your views of him," she said, quietly, "for I think that we shall be married very soon."
Borrowdean was a little white, and his teeth had come together. Whatever happened, he told himself, fiercely, this must never be. He felt his breast-pocket mechanically. Yes, the letter was there. Dare he risk it? She was a proud woman, she would be unforgiving if once she believed. But supposing she found him out? He temporized.
"Thank you for telling me," he said. "Do you mind putting me down here?"
"Why? You seemed in no hurry a few minutes ago."
"The world," he said, "was a different place then."
She looked at him searchingly.
"You had better tell me all about it," she remarked. "You have something on your mind, something which you are half disposed to tell me, a little more than half, I think. Go on."
He looked at her as one might look at the magician who has achieved the apparently impossible.
"You are wonderful," he said. "Yes, I will tell you my dilemma, if you like. I have just come from Sloane Gardens!"
Her face changed instantly. It was as though a mask had been dropped over it. Her eyes were fixed, her features expressionless.
"Well?" she said, simply.
He drew a letter from his pocket.
"You may as well see it yourself," he remarked. "For reasons which you may doubtless understand, I have always kept on good terms with Mrs. Phillimore, and she was to have dined with me and some other friends to-morrow night. Here is a note which I had from her yesterday. Will you read it?"
Berenice held it between her finger tips. There were only a few lines, and she read them at a glance.
Sloane Gardens, Tuesday.
My dear Sir Leslie,
I am so sorry, but I must scratch for to-morrow night. L. is going North on some mysterious expedition, and I am afraid that he will want me to go with him. In fact, he has already said so. Ask me again some time, won't you?
Yours ever, Blanche Phillimore.
Berenice folded up the letter and returned it.
"It is a little extraordinary," she remarked. "I am much obliged to you for showing me this. If you do not mind, we will talk of something else. Look, there is Clara Mannering alone under the trees. Go and talk to her."
Berenice touched the checkstring, and Borrowdean was forced to depart. She smiled upon him graciously enough, but she spoke not another word about Mannering. Borrowdean was obliged to leave her without knowing whether he had lost or gained the trick.
Clara Mannering received him not altogether graciously. As a matter of fact, she was looking for some one else. They strolled along, talking almost in monosyllables. Borrowdean found time to notice the change which even these few months in London had wrought in her. She was still graceful in her movements, but a smart dressmaker had contrived to make her a perfect reproduction of the recognized type of the moment. She had lost her delicate colouring. There was a certain hardness in her young face, a certain pallor and listlessness in her movements which Borrowdean did not fail to note. He tried to lead the conversation into more personal channels.
"We seem to have met very little during the last month," he said. "I have scarcely had an opportunity to ask you whether you find the life here as pleasant as you hoped, whether it has realized your expectations."
"Does anything ever do that?" she asked, a little flippantly. "It is different, of course. I do not think that I should be willing to go back to Blakely, at any rate."
"You have made a great many friends," he remarked. "I hear of you continually."
"A host of acquaintances," she remarked. "I do not think that I have materially increased the circle of my friends. I hear of you too, Sir Leslie, very often. It seems that people give you a good deal of credit for inducing my uncle to come back into politics."
"I certainly did my best to persuade him," Sir Leslie answered, smoothly. "If I had known how much anxiety he was going to cause us I might perhaps have been a little less keen."
"Anxiety!" she repeated.
"Yes! Do you know where he is now?"
"I have no idea," Clara answered. "All that I do know is that he has gone away for three weeks, and that I am going to stay with the Duchess till he comes back. It is very nice of her, and all that, of course, but I feel rather as though I were going into prison. The Duchess isn't exactly the modern sort of chaperon."
Borrowdean nodded sympathetically.
"And consider my anxiety," he remarked. "Your uncle has gone North to consider the true position of the labouring classes. Now Mr. Mannering is a brilliant politician and a sound thinker, but he is also a man of sentiment. They will drug him with it up there. He will probably come back with half a dozen new schemes, and we don't want them, you know. He ought to be speaking at Glasgow and Leeds this week. He simply ignores his responsibilities. He yields to a sudden whim and leaves us plantes la."
She seemed scarcely to have heard the conclusion of his sentence. Her attention was fixed upon a group of men who were talking near.
"Do you know—isn't that Major Bristow?" she asked Borrowdean, abruptly.
Borrowdean put up his glass.
"Looks like him," he admitted.
"I should be so much obliged," she said, "if you would tell him that I wish to see him. I have a message for his sister," she concluded, a little lamely.
Borrowdean did as he was asked. He noticed the slight impatience of the man as he delivered his message, and the flush with which she greeted him. Then, with a little shrug of the shoulders, he pursued his way.
A PAGE FROM THE PAST
She swept into the room, humming a light opera tune, bringing with her the usual flood of perfumes, suggestion of cosmetics, a vivid apparition of the artificial. Her skirts rustled aggressively, her voice was just one degree too loud. Mannering rose to his feet a little wearily.
She looked at him with raised eyebrows.
"Heavens!" she exclaimed. "What have you been doing with yourself, Lawrence? You look like a ghost!"
"I am quite well," he answered, calmly.
"Then you don't look it," she answered, bluntly. "Where have you been for the last few weeks?"
"Up in the North," he answered. "It was very hot, and I had a great deal to do. I suppose I am suffering, like the rest of us, from a little overwork."
She spread herself out in a chair opposite to him.
"Don't stand," she said; "you fidget me. I have something to say to you."
"So I gathered from your note," he remarked.
"You haven't hurried."
"I only got back to London last night," he answered. "I could scarcely come sooner, could I?"
"I suppose not," she admitted.
Then for a moment or two she was silent. She was watching him a little curiously.
"Is this true?" she asked, "this rumour?"
"Won't you be a little more explicit?" he begged.
"They say that you are going to marry the Duchess of Lenchester!"
"It is true," he answered.
She leaned forward. Her clasped hands rested upon her knee. She seemed to be examining the tip of her patent shoe. Suddenly she looked up at him.
"You ought to have come and told me yourself!" she said.
"I had no opportunity," he reminded her. "I left London the morning after—it happened—and I returned last night."
"Political business?" she asked.
"Lawrence," she said, "I don't like it."
"Why not?" he asked. "Has mine been such a successful life, do you think, that you need grudge me a little happiness towards its close?"
"Bosh!" she answered. "You are only forty-six. You are a young man still."
"I had forgotten my years," he declared. "I only know that I am tired."
"You look it," she remarked. "I must say that there is very little of the triumphant suitor about you. You work too hard, Lawrence."
"If I do," he asked, with a note of fierceness in his tone, "whose fault is it? I was almost happy at Blakely. I had almost learned to forget. It was you who dragged me out again. You were not satisfied with half of my income; you were always in debt, always wanting more money. Then Borrowdean made use of you. He wanted me back into politics, you wanted more money for your follies and extravagances. Back I had to come into harness. Blanche, I've tried to do my duty to you, but there is a limit. I owed you a comfortable place in life, and I have tried to see that you have it. I have never refused anything you have asked me, I have never mentioned the sacrifices which I have been forced to make. But there is a limit. I draw it here. I will not suffer any interference between the Duchess of Lenchester and myself!"
Blanche Phillimore rose slowly to her feet. He was used to her fits of passion, but there was no sign of anything of the sort in her face. She was agitated, but in some new way. Her words were an attack, but her manner suggested rather an appeal. Her large, fine eyes, her one perfectly natural feature, were soft and luminous. They seemed somehow to transfigure her face. To him it seemed like the foolish, handsome woman of fifteen years ago who had suddenly come to life again.
"You owed me—a comfortable place in life, Lawrence! Thank—you. You have paid the debt very well. You owed me—a respectable guardianship; you paid that, too. Thank you again. Now tell me, do you owe me nothing else?"
"I owed you one debt," he said, gravely, "which neither I nor any other man who incurs it can ever discharge."
"I am glad you realize it," she answered. "But have you ever tried to discharge it? You have given me a home and money to throw away on any folly which could kill thought. What about the rest?"
"Blanche," he said, gravely, "the rest was impossible! You know that as well as I do."
"It is fifteen years ago, Lawrence," she said, "and all that time we have fenced with our words. Now I am going to speak a little more plainly. You robbed me of my husband. The fault may not have been wholly yours, but the fact remains. You struck him, and he died. I was left alone!"
Mannering's face was ashen. The whole horrible scene was rising up again before him. He covered his face with his hands. It was more distinct than ever. He saw the man's flushed face, heard his stream of abuse, felt the sting of his blow, the hot anger with which he had struck back. Then those few awful moments of suspense, the moment afterwards when they had looked at one another. He shivered! Why had she let loose this flood of memories? She was speaking to him again.
"I was left alone," she repeated, quietly, "and I have been alone ever since. You don't know much about women, Lawrence. You never did! Try and realize, though, what that must mean to a woman like myself, not strong, not clever, with very few resources—just a woman. I cared for my husband, I suppose, in an average sort of way. At any rate he loved me. Then—there was you. Oh, you never made love to me, of course. You were not the sort of man to make love to another man's wife. But you used to show that you liked to be with me, Lawrence. Your voice and your eyes and your whole manner used to tell me that. Then there came—that hideous day! I lost you both. What have I had since, Lawrence?"
"Very little, I am afraid, worth having."
"'Very little—worth having'!" She flung the words from her with passionate scorn. "I had your alms, your cold, hurried visits, when you seemed to shiver if our fingers touched. It would have seemed to you, I suppose, a terrible sin to have touched the lips of the woman whom you had helped to rob of her husband, to have spoken kindly to her, to have given her at least a little affection to warm her heart. Poor me! What a hell you made of my days, with your selfish model life, your panderings to conscience. I didn't want much, you know, Lawrence," she said, with a sudden choking in her voice. "I would never have robbed you of your peace of mind. All I wanted was kindness. And I think, Lawrence, that it was a debt, but you never paid it."
Mannering had a moment of self-revelation, a terrible, lurid moment. Every word that she had said was true.
"You have never spoken to me like this before," he reminded her, desperately. "I never knew that you cared."
"Don't lie!" she answered, calmly. "You turned your head away that you might not see. In your heart you knew very well. What else, do you think, made me, a very ordinary, nervous sort of woman, get you out of the house that day, tell my story, the story that shielded you, without faltering, put even the words into your own mouth? It was because I was fool enough to care! And oh, my God, how you have tortured me since! You would sit there, coldly censorious, and reason with me about my friends, my manner of life. I knew what you thought. You didn't hide it very well. Lawrence, I wonder I didn't kill you!"
"I wish that you had," he said, bitterly.
"Oh, I know how you are feeling just now," she said. "Truth strikes home, you know, and it hurts just a little, doesn't it? In a few days your admirable common sense will prevail. You will say to yourself: 'She was that sort of woman, she had that sort of disposition, she was bound to go to the dogs, anyway!' So you are going to marry the Duchess of Lenchester, Lawrence!"
He stood up.
"Blanche," he said, "that was all a mistake. I didn't understand. Let us forget that day altogether. Marry me now, and I will try to make up for these past years."
She stared at him blankly. The colour in her cheek was like a lurid patch under the pallor of her skin. She gave a little gasp, and her hand went to her side. Then she laughed hardly, almost offensively.
"What a man of sentiment," she declared. "After fifteen years, too, and only just engaged to another woman! No, thank you, my dear Lawrence. I've lived my life, such as it has been. I'm not so very old, but I look fifty, and I've vices enough to blacken an entire neighbourhood. Fancy, if people saw me, and heard that you might have married the Duchess of Lenchester. They'd hint at an asylum."
"Never mind about other people," he said. "Give me a chance, Blanche, to show that I'm not such an absolute brute."
"Rubbish," she interrupted. "Fifteen years ago I would have married you. In fact, I expected to. The reason why I found the courage to shield you from any unpleasantness that awful day was because I knew if trouble came and there was any scandal you would feel yourself obliged to marry me, and I wanted you to marry me—because you wanted to. What an idiot I was! Now, please go away, Lawrence. Marry the Duchess, if you like, but don't worry me with your re-awakened conscience. I'm going my own way for the rest of my few years, and the less I see of you the better I shall be pleased. You will forgive me—but I have an engagement—down the river! I really must hurry you off."
Her teeth were set close together, the sobs seemed tangled in her throat. It seemed to her that all the longing in her life was concentrated in that one passionate desire, that he should seize her in his arms now, hold her there—tell her that it had all been a mistake, that the ugly times were dreams, that after all he had cared—a little! The room swam round with her, but she pointed smilingly to the door, which her trim parlour-maid was holding open. And Mannering went.
THE FALTERING OF MANNERING
Mannering left by the afternoon train for Hampshire, where he was to be the guest for a few days of the leader of his party. He arrived without sending word of his coming, to find the whole of the house party absent at a cricket match. The short respite was altogether welcome to him. He changed his clothes and wandered off into the gardens. Here an hour or so later Berenice's maid found him.
"Her Grace would like to see you, sir, if you would come to her sitting-room," the girl said, with a demure smile.
Mannering, with something of an inward groan, followed her. Berenice, very slim and stately in her simple white muslin gown, rose from the couch as he entered, and held out her hands.
"At last," she murmured. "You provoking man, to stay away so long. And what have you been doing with yourself?"
Her sentence concluded with a little note of dismay. Mannering was positively haggard in the clear afternoon light. There were lines underneath his eyes, and his face had a tense, drawn appearance. He did not kiss her, as she had more than half expected. He held her hands for a moment, and then sank down upon the couch by her side.
"It was not exactly easy work—up there," he said.
She noticed the repression.
"Tell me all about it," she begged.
His thoughts surged back to those three weeks of tragedy. His personal misery became for the moment a shadowy thing. The sorrows of one man, what were they to the breaking hearts of millions? He thought of the children, and he shuddered.
"It isn't so much to tell," he said. "I have been to a dozen or so of the largest towns in the North, and have taken the manufacturers one by one. I have taken their wage sheets and compared them with past years. The result was always the same. Less money distributed amongst more people. Afterwards we went amongst the people themselves—to see how they lived. It was like a chapter from the inferno—an epic of loathsome tragedy. I have seen the children, Berenice, and God help the next generation."
"You must not forget, Lawrence," she said, "that character is an essential factor in poverty. Poverty there must always be, because of the idle and shiftless."
"Individual poverty, yes," he answered. "Not wholesale poverty, not streets of it, towns of it. I don't talk about starving people, although I saw them too. Our vicious charitable system may keep their cry from our ears, but my sympathies go out to the man who ought to be earning two pounds a week, and who is earning fifteen shillings; the man who used to have his bit of garden, and smoke, and Sunday clothes, and a day or so's holiday now and then. He was a contented, decent, God-fearing citizen, the backbone of the whole nation, and he has been blotted away from the face of the earth. They work now passively, like dumb brutes, to resist starvation, and human character isn't strong enough for such a strain. The public houses thrive, and the pawnshops are full. But the children haven't enough to eat. They are growing up lank, white, prematurely aged, the spectres to dance us statesmen down into hell."
"You are overwrought, dear," she said, gently. "You have been in the hands of a man whose object it was to show you only one side of all this."
"I have sought for the truth," Mannering answered, "and I have seen it. I have learned more in three weeks than all the Commissions and statistics and Board-of-Trade figures have taught me in five years."
"And yet," she said, thoughtfully, "you hesitated about that last Navy vote. Don't you see that the imperialism which you are a little disposed to shrug your shoulders at is the most logical and complete cure for all this? We must extend and maintain our colonies, and people them with our surplus population."
He shook his head.
"That is not a policy which would ever appeal to me," he answered. "It is like an external operation to remove a malady which is of internal origin. Either our social laws or our political systems are at fault when our trade leaves us, and our labouring classes are unable to earn a fair wage. That is the position we are in to-day."
She rose to her feet, and walked restlessly up and down the room. Mannering had the look of a crushed man. She watched him critically. Writers in magazines and reviews had often made a study of his character. She remembered a brilliant contributor to a recent review, who had dwelt upon a certain lack of cohesion in his constitution, an inability to relegate sentiment to its proper place in dealing with the great workaday problems of the world. Conscientious, but never to be trusted, was the last anomalous but luminous criticism. Was this frame of mind of his a sign of it, she wondered? His place in politics was fixed and sure. What right had he, as a man of principle, with a great following, to run even the risk of being led away by false prophets? A certain hardness stole into her face as she watched him. She tried to steel herself against the sight of his suffering, and though she was not wholly successful, there was a distinct change in her tone and attitude towards him as she resumed her seat.
"Tell me," she asked, "what this means from a practical point of view? How will it effect your plans?"
"I must give up my public meetings," he answered, slowly. "I have written to Manningham to tell him that he must get some one else to lead the campaign."
Berenice was very pale. So many of these wonderful dreams of hers seemed vanishing into thin air.
"This is a terrible blow," she said. "It is the worst thing which has happened to us for years. Are you going over to the other side, Lawrence?"
He shook his head.
"I can't do that altogether," he said. "The position is simply this: I am still, so far as my judgment and research go, opposed to tariff reform. On the other hand, I dare not take any leading part in fighting any scheme which has the barest chance of bringing better times to the working classes. I simply stand apart for the moment on this question."
She laughed a little bitterly.
"There is no other question," she said. "You will never be allowed to remain neutral. You appear to me to be in a very singular position. You are divided between sentiment and conviction, and you prefer to yield to the former. Lawrence, do not be hasty! Think of all that depends upon your judgment in this matter. From the very first you have been the bitterest and most formidable opponent of this absurd scheme. If you turn round you will unsettle public opinion throughout the country. Remember, the power of the statesman is almost a sacred charge."
"I am remembering," he murmured, "those children. I am bound to think this matter out, Berenice. I am going to meet Graham and Mellors next week. I shall not rest until I have made some effort to put my hand upon the weak spot. Somewhere there is a rotten place. I want to reach it."
"Do you mean to give up your seat?" she asked.
"Not unless I am asked to," he answered. "I may need to work from there."
"I suppose your mind is quite made up," she said.
"Absolutely," he answered.
Her maid came in just then, and Mannering offered to withdraw. She made no effort to detain him, and he went at once in search of his host and hostess. He found every one assembled in the hall below. Lord Redford, Borrowdean, and the chief whip of his party were talking together in a corner, and from their significant look at his approach, he felt sure that he himself had been the subject of their conversation. The situation was more than a little awkward. Lord Redford stepped forward and welcomed him cordially.
"I'm afraid you've been knocking yourself up, Mannering," he said. "I've just been proposing to Culthorpe here that we bar politics completely for twenty-four hours. We'll leave the dinner table with the ladies, and you and I will play golf to-morrow. I've had Taylor down here, and I can assure you that my links are worth playing over now. Then on Thursday we'll have a conference."
"I was scarcely sure," Mannering said, with a slight smile, "whether I should be expected to stay until then. Sir Leslie has told you of my telegrams?"
"Yes, yes," Lord Redford said, quickly. "We've postponed the meetings for the present. We'll talk that all out later on. You've had some tea, I hope? No? Well, Eleanor, you are a nice hostess," he added, turning to his wife. "Give Mr. Mannering some tea at once, and feed him up with hot cakes. Come into the billiard-room afterwards, Mannering, will you? I've got a new table in the winter-garden, and we're going to have a pool before dinner."
Berenice came in and laid her hand upon her host's arm.
"You need not worry about Mr. Mannering," she declared. "He is going to have tea with me at that little table, and I am going to take him for a walk in the park afterwards."
"So long as you feed him well," Lord Redford declared, with a little laugh, "and turn up in good time for dinner, you may do what you like. If you take my advice, Berenice, you will join our league. We have pledged ourselves not to utter a word of shop for twenty-four hours."
"I submit willingly," Berenice answered. "Mr. Mannering and I will find something else to talk about."
THE END OF A DREAM
"You can guess why I brought you here, perhaps," Berenice said, gently, as she motioned him to sit down by her side. "This place, more than any other I know, certainly more than any other at Bayleigh, seems to me to be completely restful. There are the trees, you see, and the water, and the swans, that are certainly the laziest creatures I know. You look to me as though you needed rest, Lawrence."
"I suppose I do," he answered, slowly. "I am not sure, though, whether I deserve it."
"You are rather a self-distrustful mortal," she remarked, leaning back in her corner and looking at him from under her parasol. "You have worked hard all the session, and now you have finished up by three weeks of, I should think, herculean labour. If you do not deserve rest who does?"
"The rest which I deserve," Mannering answered, bitterly, "is the rest of those whose bones are bleaching amongst the caves and corals of the sea there! That is Matapan Point, isn't it, where the hidden rocks are?"
"Really, you are developing into a very gloomy person," she said. "Lawrence, don't let us fence with one another any longer. What you may decide to do politically may be ruinous to your career, to your chance of usefulness in the world, and to my hopes. But I want you to understand this. It can make no difference to me. I have had dreams perhaps of a great future, of being the wife of a Prime Minister who would lead his country into a new era of prosperity, who would put the last rivets into the bonds of a great imperial empire. But one never realizes all one's hopes, Lawrence. I love politics. I love being behind the scenes, and helping to move the pawns across the board. But I am a woman, too, Lawrence, and I love you. Put everything connected with your public life on one side. Let me ask you this. You are changed. Has anything come between us as man and woman?"
"Yes," he answered, "something has come between us."
She sat quite still for several minutes. She prayed that he too might keep silence, and he seemed to know her thoughts. Over the little sheet of ornamental water, down the glade of beech and elm trees narrowing towards the cliffs, her eyes travelled seawards. It was to her a terrible moment. Mannering had represented so much to her, and her standard was a high one. If there was a man living whom she would have reckoned above the weaknesses of the herd, it was he. In those days at Blakely she had almost idealized him. The simple purity of his life there, his delicate and carefully chosen pleasures, combined with his almost passionate love of the open places of the earth, had led her to regard him as something different from any other man whom she had ever known. All Borrowdean's hints and open statements had gone for very little. She had listened and retained her trust. And now she had a horrible fear. Something had gone out of the man, something which went for strength, something without which he seemed to lack that splendid militant vitality which had always seemed to her so admirable. Perhaps he was going to make a confession, one of those crude, clumsy confessions of a stained life, which have drawn the colour and the joy from so many beautiful dreams. She shivered a little, but she inclined her head to listen.
"Well," she said, "what is it?"
"I have asked another woman to marry me only a few hours ago," he said, quietly.
Berenice was a proud woman, and for the moment she felt her love for this man a dried-up and shrivelled thing. She was white to the lips, but she commanded her voice, and her eyes met his coldly.
"May I inquire into the circumstances—of this—somewhat remarkable proceeding?" she inquired.
"There is a woman," he said, "whose life I helped to wreck—not in the orthodox way," he added, with a note of scorn in his tone, "but none the less effectually. The one recompense I never thought of offering her was marriage. I have seen that, despite all my efforts to aid her, her life has been a failure. Her friends have been the wrong sort of friends, her life the wrong sort of life. What it was that was dragging her downwards I never guessed, for she, too, in her way, was a proud woman. To-day she sent for me. What passed between us is her secret as much as mine. I can only tell you that before I left I had asked her to marry me."
"I think," she said, calmly, "that you need tell me no more."
"There is very little more that I can tell you," he answered. "I have no affection for her, and she has refused to marry me. But she remains—between us—irrevocably!"
"You are lucidity itself," she replied. "Will you forgive me if I leave you? I am scarcely used to this sort of situation, and I should like to be alone."
"Go by all means, Berenice," he answered. "You and I are better apart. But there is one thing which I must say to you, and you must hear. What has passed between you and me is the epitome of the love-making of my life. You are the only woman whom I have desired to make my wife. You are the only woman whom I have loved, and shall love until I die. I can make you no reparation, none is possible! Yet these things are my justification."
Berenice had turned away. The passionate ring of truth in his tone arrested her footsteps. She paused. Her heart was beating very fast, her coldness was all assumed. It was so much happiness to throw away, if indeed there was a chance. She turned and faced him, nervous, gaunt, hollow-eyed, the wreck of his former self. Pity triumphed in spite of herself. What was this leaven of weakness in the man, she wondered, which had so suddenly broken him down? He had only to hold on his way and he would be Prime Minister in a year. And at the moment of trial he had crumpled up like a piece of false metal. A wave of false sentiment, a maniacal hyper-conscientiousness, had been sufficient to sap the very strength from his bones. And then—there was this other woman. Was she to let him go without an effort? He might recover his sanity. It was perhaps a mere nervous breakdown, which had made him the prey of strange fancies. She spoke to him differently. She spoke once more as the woman who loved him.
"Lawrence," she said, "you are telling me too much, and not enough. If you want to send me away I must go. But tell me this first. What claim has this woman upon you?"
"It is not my secret," he groaned. "I cannot tell you."
"Leslie Borrowdean knows it," she said. "I could have heard it, but I refused to listen. Remember, whatever you may owe to other people you owe me something, too."
"It is true," he answered. "Well, listen. I killed her husband!"
"You! You—killed her husband!" she repeated vaguely.
"Yes! She shielded me. There was an inquest, and they found that he had heart disease. No one knew that I had even seen him that day, no one save she and a servant, who is dead. But the truth lives. He had reason to be angry with me—over a money affair. He came home furious, and found me alone with his wife. He called me—well, it was a lie—and he struck me. I threw him on one side—and he fell. When we picked him up he was dead."
"It was terrible!" she said, "but you should have braved it out. They could have done very little to you."
"I know it," he answered. "But I was young, and my career was just beginning. The thing stunned me. She insisted upon secrecy. It would reflect upon her, she thought, if the truth came out, so I acquiesced, I left the house unseen. All these days I have had to carry the burden of this thing with me. To-day—seemed to be the climax. For the first time I understood."
"She can never marry you," Berenice said. "It would be horrible."
"She refused to marry me to-day," he answered, "but she laid her life bare, and I cannot marry any one else."
Berenice was trembling. She was no longer ashamed to show her agitation.
"I am very sorry for you, Lawrence," she said. "I am very sorry for myself. Good-bye!"
She left him, and Mannering sank back upon the seat.
BORROWDEAN SHOWS HIS "HAND"
"To be plain with you," Borrowdean remarked, "Mannering's defection would be irremediable. He alone unites Redford, myself, and—well, to put it crudely, let us say the Imperialistic Liberal Party with Manningham and the old-fashioned Whigs who prefer the ruts. There is no other leader possible. Redford and I talked till daylight this morning. Now, can nothing be done with Mannering?"
"To be plain with you, too, then, Sir Leslie," Berenice answered, "I do not think that anything can be done with him. In his present frame of mind I should say that he is better left alone. He has worked himself up into a thoroughly sentimental and nervous state. For the moment he has lost his sense of balance."
"Desperate necessity," he said, "sometimes justifies desperate measures. We need Mannering, the country and our cause need him. If argument will not prevail there is one last alternative left to us. It may not be such an alternative as we should choose, but beggars must not be choosers. I think that you will know what I mean."
"I have no idea," Berenice answered.
"You are aware," he continued, "that there is in Mannering's past history an episode, the publication of which would entail somewhat serious consequences to him."
It was a most eloquent monosyllable, but Borrowdean had gone too far to retreat.
"I propose that we make use of it," he said. "Mannering's attitude is rankly foolish, or I would not suggest such a thing. But I hold that we are entitled, under the circumstances, to make use of any means whatever to bring him to his senses."
Berenice smiled. They were standing together upon a small hillock in the park, watching the golf.
"Charlatanism in politics does not appeal to me," she said, drily. "Any party that adopted such means would completely alienate my sympathies. No, my dear Sir Leslie, don't stoop to such low-down means. Mannering is honest, but infatuated. Win him back by fair means, if you can, but don't attempt anything of the sort you are suggesting. I, too, know his history, from his own lips. Any one who tried to use it against him, would forfeit my friendship!"
"Success then would be bought too dearly," Borrowdean answered, with a gallantry which it cost him a good deal to assume. "May I pass on, Duchess, in connexion with this matter, to ask you a somewhat more personal question?"
"I think," Berenice said, calmly, "that I can spare you the necessity. You were going to speak, I believe, of the engagement between Lawrence Mannering and myself."
"I was," Borrowdean admitted.
"It does not exist any longer," Berenice said, "I should be glad if you would inform any one who has heard the rumour that it is without any foundation."
Borrowdean looked thoughtfully at the woman by his side.
"I am very glad to hear it," he declared. "I am glad for many reasons, and I am glad personally."
She raised her eyebrows.
"Indeed! I cannot imagine how it should affect you personally."
"I perhaps said more than I meant to," he replied, calmly. "I am a poor, struggling politician myself, whose capital consists of brains and a capacity for work, and whose hopes are coloured with perhaps too daring ambitions. Amongst them—"
"Mr. Mannering has holed out from off the green," she interrupted. "Positively immoral, I call it."
"Amongst them," Borrowdean continued, calmly, "is one which some day or other I must tell you, for indeed you are concerned in it."
"I can assure you, Sir Leslie," she said, looking at him steadily, "that I am not at all a sympathetic person. My strong advice to you would be—not to tell me. I do not think that you would gain anything by it."
Borrowdean met his fate with a bow and a shrug of the shoulders.
"It only remains," he said, "for me to beg you to pardon what might seem like presumption. Shall we meet them on the last green?"
Mannering would have avoided Berenice, but she gave him no option. She laid her hand upon his arm, and volunteered to show him a new way home.
"You must be on your guard, Lawrence," she said. "Lord Redford is very fond of concealing his plans to the last moment, but he is a very clever man. And Sir Leslie Borrowdean would give his little finger to catch you tripping. All this avoidance of politics is part of a scheme. They will spring something upon you quite suddenly. Don't give any hasty pledges."
"Thank you for your warning," he said. "I will be careful."
"Tell me," she said, "as a friend, what are your plans? Forget that I am interested in politics altogether. I simply want to know how you are spending your time for the next few months."
"It depends upon them," he answered, looking downwards into the valley, where Lord Redford and Borrowdean were walking side by side. "If they ask me to resign my seat I shall go North again, and it is just possible that I might come back into the House as a labour member. On the other hand, if they are content with such support as I can give them, and to have me on the fence at present so far as the tariff question is concerned, why, I shall go back and do the best I can for them."
"You are not quite won over to the other side yet, then," she remarked, smiling.
"Not yet," he answered. "If ever there was an honest doubter, I am one. If I had never left my study, England could not have contained a more rabid opponent of any change in our fiscal policy than I. I am like a small boy who is absolutely sure that he has worked out his sum correctly, but finds the answer is not the one which his examiner expects. There is something wrong somewhere. I want, if I can, to discover it. I only want the truth! I don't see why it should be so hard to find, why figures and common sense should clash entirely and horribly with existing facts."
"You wore dun-coloured spectacles when you took your walks abroad," she said, smiling. "No one else seems to have discovered so distressing a state of affairs as you have spoken of."
"Because they never looked beneath the surface," he answered. "I myself might have failed to understand if I had not been shown. Remember that our workingman of the better class does not go marching through the streets with an unemployed banner and a tin cup when he is in want. He takes his half wages and closes the door upon his sufferings. God help him!"
"Adieu, politics," she declared, with a shrug of the shoulders. "Isn't that Clara playing croquet with Major Bristow? I wish I didn't dislike that man so much. I hate to see the child with him."
"Poor Clara!" he said. "I am afraid I have left her a good deal to herself lately."
"I am afraid you have," she agreed, a little gravely. "May I give you a word of advice?"
"You know that I should be grateful for it," he declared.
"Be sure that she never goes to the Bristows again, and ask her whether she has any other card debts. It may be my fancy, but I don't like the way that man hangs about her, and looks at her. I am sure that she does not like him, and yet she never seems to have the courage to snub him."
"I am very much obliged to you," he said. "I will speak to her to-day."
"I don't know where I am going, or what I shall do for the autumn," she continued, with a little sigh, "but if you like to trust Clara with me I will look after her. I think that she needs a woman. Yes, I thought so. Redford and Sir Leslie are waiting for you. Go and have it out with them, my friend."
"You are too kind to me," he said; "kinder than I deserve!"
"Oh, I don't know," she answered. "I am afraid that my kindness is only another form of selfishness. I am rather a lonely person, you know. Lord Redford is beckoning to you. I am going to break up that croquet party."
Mannering joined the other two men. Berenice strolled on to the lawn. Major Bristow eyed her coming with some disfavour. He was one of the men whom she always ignored. Clara, on the other hand, seemed proportionately relieved.
"I want you to come to my room as soon as you possibly can, child," Berenice said. "Shall I wait while you finish your game?"
"Oh, I will come at once," Clara exclaimed, laying down her mallet. "Major Bristow will not mind, I am sure."
Major Bristow looked as though he did mind very much, but lacked the nerve to say so. Berenice calmly took Clara by the arm and led her away.
"You are not engaged to Major Bristow by any chance, are you?" she asked, calmly.
"Engaged to Major Bristow? Heavens, no!" Clara answered. "I don't think he is in the least a marrying man."
"So much the better for our sex," Berenice answered. "I wouldn't spend so much time with him, my dear, if I were you. I have known people with nicer reputations."
Clara turned a shade paler.
"I can never get away from him," she said. "He follows me—everywhere, and—"
"You do not by any chance, I suppose, owe him money?" Berenice asked. "They tell me that he has a somewhat objectionable habit of winning money from girls, more than they can afford to pay, and then suggesting that it stand over for a time."
Clara turned towards her with terrified eyes.
"I—I do owe Major Bristow a little still," she admitted. "I seem to have been so unlucky. He told me that any time would do, that I should win it back again, and I had no idea what stakes we were playing. I don't touch a card now at all, but this was at Ellingham House. They insisted on my making a fourth at bridge."
Berenice tightened her grasp upon the girl's arm.
"Don't say anything about this to your uncle just now," she insisted. "I am going to take you up to my room and write you a cheque for the amount, whatever it may be. Afterwards I will have a talk with Major Bristow. Nonsense, child, don't cry! The money is nothing to me, and I always promised your uncle that I would look after you a little."
"I have been such a fool!" the girl sobbed.
Berenice for a moment was also sad. Her lips quivered, her eyes were wistful.
"We all think that sometimes, child," she said, quietly. "We all have our foolish moments and our hours of repentance, even the wisest of us!"
SIR LESLIE BORROWDEAN INCURS A HEAVY DEBT
"I suppose," Lord Redford remarked, thoughtfully, "politics represents a different thing to all of us, according to our temperament. To me, I must confess, it is a plain, practical business, the business of law-making. To you, Mannering, I fancy that it appeals a little differently. Now, let us understand one another. Are you prepared to undertake this campaign which we planned out a few months ago?"
"If I did undertake it," Mannering said, "it would be to leave unsaid the things which you would naturally expect from me, and to say things of which you could not possibly approve. I am very sorry. You can command my resignation at any moment, if you will. But my views, though in the main they have not changed, are very much modified."
Lord Redford nodded.
"That," he said, "is our misfortune, but it certainly is not your fault. As for your resignation, if you crossed the floor of the House to-morrow we should not require it of you. You are responsible to your constituents only. We dragged you back into public life—you see I admit it freely—and we are willing to take our risk. Whether you are with us or against us, we recognize you as one of those whose place is amongst the rulers of the people."
"You are very generous, Lord Redford," Mannering answered.
"Not at all. It is no use being peevish. You are a great disappointment to us, but we have not given up hope. If you are not altogether with us to-day, there is to-morrow. I tell you frankly, Mannering, that I look upon you as a man temporarily led astray by a wave of sentimentality. So long as the world lasts there will be rich men and poor, but you must always remember in considering this that it is character as well as circumstances which is at the root of the acquisition of wealth. Generations have gone to the formation of our social fabric. It is the slow evolution of the human laws of necessity. The socialist and the sentimentalist and the philanthropist, dropping gold through his fingers, have each had their fling at it, but their cry is like the cry from the wilderness—a long, lone thing! And then to come to the real point, Mannering. Grant for a moment all that you have told Borrowdean and myself about the condition of the labour classes in the great towns and the universal depression of trade. How can you possibly imagine that the imposition of tariff duties is the sovereign, or even a possible, remedy? Why, you yourself have been one of the most brilliant pamphleteers against anything of the sort. You have been called the Cobden of the day. You cannot throw principles away like an old garment."
"Let us leave for one moment," Mannering answered, "the personal side of the matter. I have seen in the majority of our large cities terrible and convincing proof of the decline of our manufacturing industries. I have seen the outcome of this in hundreds of ruined homes, in a whole generation coming into the world half starved, half clothed—God help those children. I have always maintained that the labouring classes should be the happiest race of people in this country. I find them without leisure or recreation, fighting fate with both hands for food. Redford, the whole world has never shown us a greater tragedy than the one which we others deliberately and persistently close our eyes to—I mean the struggle for life which is being waged in every one of our great cities."
"We have statistics," Borrowdean began.
"Damn statistics!" Mannering interrupted. "I have juggled with figures myself in the old days, and I know how easy it is. So do you, and so does Redford. This is what I want to put to you. The tragedy is there. Perhaps those who have faced it and come back again to tell of their experiences have been a little hysterical—the horror of it has carried them away. They may not have adopted the most effectual means of making the world understand, but it is there. I have seen it. A thousandth part of this misery in a country with which we had nothing to do, and no business to interfere, and we should be having mass meetings at Exeter Hall, and making general asses of ourselves all over the country, shrieking for intervention, wasting a whole dictionary of rhetoric, and probably getting well snubbed for our pains. And because the murders are by slow poison instead of with steel, because they are in our own cities and amongst our own people, we accept them with a sort of placid satisfaction. You, Lord Redford, speak of character and enunciate social laws, and Borrowdean will argue that after all the trade of the country is not so bad as it might be, and will make an epigram on the importation of sentimentality into politics. In plain words, Lord Redford, we, as a party, are asleep to what is going on. One statesman has recognized it, and proposed a startling and drastic remedy. We attack the remedy tooth and nail, but we place forward no counter proposition. It is as though a dying man were attended by two doctors, one of whom has prepared a remedy which the other declines to administer without suggesting one of his own. It is not a logical position. The medicine may not cure, but let the man have his chance of life."
"Your simile," Lord Redford said, "assumes that the man is dying."
"I have seen the mark of death upon his face," Mannering answered. "The men who are traitors to their country to-day are those who, healthy enough themselves, talk causeless and shallow optimism which is fed alone by their own prosperity. The doctrine of Christ is the care of others. If you do not believe, the sick-room is open also to you; go there unprejudiced, and with an open mind, and you will come away as I have come away."
"Must we take it, then, Mannering," Lord Redford said, gravely, "that you are prepared to support the administering of the medicine you spoke of?"
Mannering was silent for a moment.
"At least," he said, "I am not going to be amongst those who cry out against it and offer nothing themselves. I am going to analyze that medicine, and if I see a chance of life in it I shall say, let us run a little risk, rather than stand by inactive, to look upon the face of death. In other words, I become for the moment a passive figure in politics so far as this question is concerned."
Lord Redford held out his hand.
"Let it go at that, Mannering," he said. "I believe that you will come back to us. We shall be always glad of your support, but of course you will understand that the position from to-day is changed. If you had carried the standard, as we had hoped, the reward also was to have been yours. We must elect one of ourselves to take your place. To put it plainly, your defection now releases us from all pledges."
"I understand," Mannering answered. "It was scarcely ambition which brought me back into politics, and I must work for the cause in which I believe. If I am forced to take any definite action, I shall, of course, resign my seat."
The door closed behind him. Borrowdean struck a match, and Lord Redford looked thoughtfully out of the window across the park.
"I was always afraid of this," Borrowdean said, gloomily. "There is a leaven of madness in the man."
Lord Redford shrugged his shoulders.
"Genius or madness," he remarked. "We may yet see him a modern Rienzi carried into power on the shoulders of the people. Such a man might become anything. As a matter of fact, I think that he will go back into his study. He has the brain to fashion wonderful thoughts, and the lips to fire them into life. But I doubt his adaptability. I cannot imagine him ever becoming a real and effective force."
Borrowdean, who was bitterly disappointed, smoked furiously.
"We shall see," he said. "If Mannering is not for us, I think that I can at least promise that he does no harm on the other side."
Lord Redford turned away from the window. He eyed Borrowdean curiously.
"It was you," he remarked, "who brought Mannering back into public life. You had a certain reward for it, and you would have had a much greater one if things had gone our way. But I want you to remember this. Mannering is best left alone—now, for the present. You understand me?"
Borrowdean shrugged his shoulders. There was a good deal too much sentiment in politics.
* * * * *
Mannering and Berenice came together for a few moments on the terrace after dinner. He was not so completely engrossed in his own affairs as to fail to notice her lack of colour and a certain weariness of manner, which had kept her more silent than usual during the whole evening.
"Well?" she said.
"There is nothing definite," he answered. "You see, the question of tariff reform is not before the House at present, and Redford does not require me to resign my seat. But of course it will come to that sooner or later."
She leaned over the grey balustrade. With her it was a moment of weakness. She was suddenly conscious of the fact that she was no longer a young woman. The time when she might hope to find in life the actual flavour and joy of passionate living was nearing the end. And a little while ago they had seemed so near! The pity of it stirred up a certain sense of rebellion in her heart. She was still a beautiful woman. She knew very well the arts by which men are enslaved. Why should she not try them upon him—this man who loved her, who seemed willing to sacrifice both their lives to a piece of senseless quixoticism? Her fingers touched his, and held them softly. Thrilled through all his senses, he turned towards her wonderingly.
"Are we wise, Lawrence," she whispered, "if indeed you love me? Life is so short, and I am not a young woman any more. I have been lonely so long. I want a little happiness before I go."
"Don't!" he cried, hoarsely. "You know—what comes between us."
She was a little indignant, but still tender.
"This woman does not want you, Lawrence," she cried. "I do! Oh, Lawrence!"
He faltered. She laid her fingers upon his arm.
"Come down the steps," she murmured, "and I will show you Lady Redford's rose-garden."
Her touch was compelling. He could not have resisted it. And about his heart lay the joy of her near presence. Side by side they moved along the terrace—it seemed to him that they passed towards their destiny. The gentle rustling of her clothes, their slight, mysterious perfume, was like music to him. A sudden wave of passion carried him away. The primitive virility of the man, awake at last, demanded its birthright.
And then upon the lower step they met Borrowdean, and he placed himself squarely in their way.
"I am sorry to interrupt you," he said, gravely, "but Lord Redford has sent me out to look for you and to send you at once into the library. Something rather serious has happened."
Mannering came down to earth.
"The evening papers have come," Borrowdean said. "The Pall Mall has the whole story. You were seen at the working-men's club in Glasgow!"
Mannering turned towards the house. His nerves were all tingling with excitement, but the thread had suddenly been snapped. He was no longer in danger of yielding to that flood of delicious sensations. His voice had been almost steady as he had begged Berenice to excuse him. Berenice stood quite still. Her hand was pressed to her side, her dark eyes were lit with passion. She leaned forward towards Borrowdean, and seemed about to strike him.
"You will find yourself—repaid for this, Sir Leslie," she murmured.
Then she turned abruptly away. For an hour or more she walked alone amongst the trellised walks of Lady Redford's rose-garden. But Mannering did not return.
THE WOMAN AND—THE OTHER WOMAN
"You see, Mannering," Lord Redford said, tapping the outspread evening paper with his forefinger, "the situation now presents a different aspect. I have no wish to force your hand—a few hours ago I think I proved this. But if you are to remain even nominally with us some sort of pronouncement must come from you in reply to these statements."
"Yes," Mannering said, "that is quite reasonable."
"The postponement of your campaign has been hinted at before," Lord Redford continued, "but we have never used the word abandonment. Now, to speak bluntly, the whole fat is in the fire. Your place on the fence is no longer possible. You must make your own declaration, and it must be for one of three things. You must remain with us, abandon public life for a time, or go over to the other side. And you must make promptly an announcement of your intentions."
"I have no alternative in the matter," Mannering said. "In fact, I think that this has happened opportunely. My presence with you was sure to prove something of an embarrassment to all of us. I shall apply for the Chiltern Hundreds to-morrow, and I shall not seek to re-enter the present Parliament. The few months' respite will be useful to me. I can only express to you, Lord Redford, my sincere gratitude for all your consideration, and my regret for this disarrangement of your plans."
Lord Redford sighed. Why were men born, he wondered, with such a prodigious capacity for playing the fool?
"My chief regret, Mannering," he said, "is for you. The Fates so controlled circumstances that you seemed certain to achieve as a young man what is the crowning triumph of us veterans in the political world. I respect the honest scruples of every man, but it seems to me that you are throwing away an unparalleled opportunity in a fit of what a practical man like myself can only call sentimentality. I have no more to say. Forgive me if I have said too much. For the rest, give us the pleasure of your company here for as long as you find it convenient. We will abjure politics, and you shall give me my revenge at golf."
Mannering shook his head.
"I am very much obliged to you," he said, "but there is only one course open to me. I must go back and make my plans. If I could have a carriage for the nine-forty!"
Lord Redford made no effort to induce him to change his mind, though he remained courteous to the last.
"I was really glad to have him go," he told Borrowdean afterwards. "His very presence—the thought that there could be such colossal fools in the world—irritated me beyond measure. You can write his epitaph, Leslie, if your humorous vein is working, for the man is politically dead."
"One never knows," Berenice said, quietly. "There must be something great about a man capable of such prodigious self-sacrifice. For at heart Lawrence Mannering is an ambitious man."
Lord Redford shrugged his shoulders.
"Perhaps," he said, "but I am very sure of this. There is nothing so great about the man as his folly."
"We shall see," she said. "Personally, I believe that Sir Leslie would find his epitaph a little previous. I saw a great deal of Lawrence Mannering in the country, and I think that I understand him as well as either of you. I believe that his day will come."
"Well, all I can say is," Lord Redford pronounced, "that I very much wish you had left him down at his country home. Between you you have created a very serious situation. I must go up to town to-morrow and see Manningham. In the meantime, Leslie, I shall leave those reports severely alone. We must ignore Mannering altogether."
Berenice turned away with a smile at her lips. She had a very little opinion of Lord Redford and his following. Already she saw the man whose career they counted finished, at the head of a new and greater party. There were plenty of clever men of the coming generation, plenty of room for compromises, for the formation of a great national party out of the scattered units of a disunited opposition. She believed Mannering strong enough to do this. She saw in it greater possibilities than might have been forthcoming even if he had been chosen to lead the somewhat ragged party represented by Lord Redford and his followers. For the rest, she had been very near the success she so desired. Only an accident had robbed her of victory. If once they had reached the rose-garden she knew that she would have triumphed.
As her maid took off her jewellery that night she smiled at herself in the glass. She was thinking of that moment on the terrace. The glow had not wholly faded from her face—she saw herself with her long, slender neck and smooth, unwrinkled complexion, still beautiful, still a woman to be loved. Her maid ventured to whisper a word of respectful compliment. Truly Madame La Duchesse was growing younger!
* * * * *
What strange whim, or evil fate, had turned his feet in that direction? Mannering often tried to trace backwards the workings of his mind that night, but he never wholly succeeded. He reached London about eleven, and sent his man home with his luggage, intending merely to call in at the club for letters. But afterwards he remembered only that he had strolled aimlessly along homewards, thinking deeply, and not particularly careful as to his direction. Even then he would have passed the house in Sloane Gardens without looking up, but for the civil "Good-night, sir," of a coachman sitting on the box of a small brougham drawn up against the kerb. He raised his head to return the salute, and realized at once where he was. Almost at the same moment the front door opened, and behind a glow of light in the hall he saw a familiar figure in the act of passing out to her carriage. The street was well lit, and he was almost opposite a lamp-post. She recognized him at once.
"Lawrence," she exclaimed, incredulously. "You—were you coming in?"
She was wrapped from head to foot in a long white opera cloak, but the jewels in her hair and at her throat glistened in the flashing light. She moved slowly forward to his side. Her maid, who had been coming out to open the carriage door, lingered behind.
"I—upon my word, I scarcely know how I came here," he answered, a little bewildered. "I was walking home—it is scarcely out of my way—and thinking. You are going out?"
She nodded. Looking at her now more closely he saw the shadows under her eyes, only imperfectly concealed. The little gesture with which she answered him savoured of weariness.
"Yes, I was going out. I have sat alone with my thoughts all day, and I don't want to end my life in a lunatic asylum. I want a little change, that is all. If you will come in and talk to me instead, that will do as well. Any sort of distraction, you see," she added, with a hard little laugh, "just to keep me from—"
She did not finish her sentence. He looked at her gravely, and from her to the waiting carriage. He suddenly realized how the altered condition of affairs must affect her.
"I shall have to come and see you in a day or two," he said. "But now—" he hesitated.
"Why not now, then?" she asked.
"You have an engagement," he said.
She shook her head.
"I was only going somewhere to supper. I was going to call for Eva Fanesborough, and I suppose we should have had some bridge afterwards. Come in instead, Lawrence. I can telephone to her."
Already a presage of evil seemed to be forming itself in his mind. He would have given anything to have thought of some valid excuse.
"Pooh!" she answered. "John, I shall not want you to-night," she said to the coachman. "Come!"
She led the way, and Mannering followed. As the maid closed the door behind them Mannering felt his breath quicken—his sense of depression grew stronger. He seemed threatened by some new and intangible danger. He stood on the hearthrug while she bent over the switch and turned on the electric light in the sitting-room. Then she threw off her cloak and looked at him curiously for a moment. Her face softened.
"My dear Lawrence," she said, "has politics done this, or are you ill?"
"I am quite well," he answered. "A little tired, perhaps. I have had rather a trying day."
She rang the bell, and ordered sandwiches and wine.
"You look like a corpse," she said, and stood over him while he ate and drank. And all the time that indefinable fear within him grew. She made him smoke. Then she leaned back in an easy-chair and looked across at him.
"You had something to say to me. What was it?"
"Nothing good," he answered. "I have quarrelled with my party, and I have to resign my seat in the House."
"Already! I am sorry, as of course in a few months' time I should have been in office, and drawing a considerable salary. As it is—" he hesitated.
"Oh, I understand!" she said. "Well, it doesn't matter much. I only have the house for six months furnished, and that's paid for in advance. John must go, and the horses can be sold."
He looked at her in amazement. Only a few months ago she had talked very differently.
"I—I am not sure whether all that will be necessary," he said. "I can find a tenant for Blakely, and I daresay I can manage another hundred a year or so. Only, of course, the large increase we had thought of will not be possible now."
"No, I suppose not," she answered, idly.
He moved in his chair uncomfortably. He found her wholly incomprehensible.
"What a beast I must have seemed to you always," she exclaimed, suddenly.
"Why?" he asked, pointlessly.
"I've sponged on you all my life, and you're not a rich man, are you, Lawrence? Then I dragged you into politics to supply me with the means to spend more money. My claim on you was one of sentiment only, but—I've made you pay. No wonder you hate me!"
"Your claim on me, even to every penny I possess," Mannering answered, "was a perfectly just one. I have never denied it, and I have done my best. And as to hating you, you know quite well it is not true!"
"Ah!" She rose suddenly to her feet, and before he had realized her intention she was on her knees by his side. She caught at his hand and kept her face hidden from him.
"Lawrence," she cried, "I was mad the other day. It was all the pent-up bitterness of years which seemed to escape me so suddenly. I said so much that I did not mean to—I was mad, dear. Oh, Lawrence, I am so lonely!"
Then the fear in his heart became a live thing. He was dumb. He could not have spoken had he tried.
"It was your coldness all these years," she murmured. "You were different once. You know that. At first, when the horror of what happened was young, I thought I understood. I thought, as it wore off, that you would be different. The horror has gone now, Lawrence. We know that it was an accident, it might as well have been another as you. But you have not changed. I have given up hoping. I have tried everything else, and I am a very miserable woman. Now I am going to pray to you, Lawrence. You do not care for me more. Pretend that you do! You cannot give me your love. Give me the best you can. Don't despise me too utterly, Lawrence! Pity me, if you will. Heaven knows I need it. And—you will be a little kind!"
Her hands were clasped about his neck. He disengaged himself gently.
"Blanche!" he cried, hoarsely, "I love another woman!"
"Are you engaged to her?"
"No! Not now!"
"Then what does it matter? What does it matter, anyhow? It is not the real thing I am asking you for, Lawrence—only the make-belief! Keep the rest for her, if you must, but give me lies, false looks, hollow caresses, anything! You see what depths I have fallen to."
He held her hands tightly. A great pity for her filled his heart—pity for her, and for himself.
"Blanche," he said, "there is one way only. It is for you to decide. Will you marry me? I will do my best to make you a good husband!"
"Marry you?" she gasped. "Lawrence, I dare not!"
"I cannot alter the past," he said, sadly. "It never seemed to me possible that you could care for my—after what happened. But—"
"Oh, it is not that," she interrupted. "There is—the other woman, and, Lawrence, I should be afraid. I am not good enough!"
"Whatever you are, Blanche," he said, gravely, "remember that it is I who am responsible for your having been left alone to face the world. Your follies belong to me. I am quite free to share their burden with you."
"But the other woman?" she faltered.
"I must love her always," he said, quietly, "but I cannot marry her."
"And you would kiss me sometimes, Lawrence?" she whispered.
He took her quietly into his arms and kissed her forehead.
"I will do my best, Blanche," he said. "I dare not promise any more."
MATRIMONY AND AN AWKWARD MEETING
"How delightfully Continental!" Blanche exclaimed, as the head-waiter showed them to their table. "Hester, did you ever see anything more quaint?"
"It is perfect," the girl answered, leaning back in her chair, and looking around with quiet content.
Mannering took up the menu and ordered dinner. Then he lit a cigarette and looked around.
"It certainly is quaint," he said. "One dines out of doors often enough, especially over here, but I have never seen a courtyard made such excellent use of before. The place is really old, too."
They had found their way to a small seaside resort, in the north of France, which Mannering had heard highly praised by some casual acquaintance. The courtyard of the small hotel was set out with round dining tables, and the illumination was afforded by Japanese lanterns hung from every available spot. A small band played from a wooden balcony. Monsieur, the proprietor, walked anxiously from table to table, all smiles and bows. Through the roofed way, which led from the street, one caught a distant glimpse of the sea.
Mannering, to the surprise of his friends, and to his own secret amazement, had survived the crisis which had seemed at one time likely enough to wreck his life. Politically he was no longer a great power, for the party whose cause he had half espoused had met with a distinct reverse, and he himself was without a seat in Parliament, but amongst the masses his was still a name to conjure with. Socially his marriage with Blanche Phillimore had scarcely proved the disaster which every one had anticipated. Her old ways and manner of life lay in the background. She had aged a little, perhaps, and grown thinner, but she had shown from the first an almost pathetic desire to adapt her life to his, to assume an altogether unobtrusive position, and if she could not in any way influence his destiny, at least she did not hamper it. She had made no demands upon him which he was not able to grant. She had lived where he had suggested, she had never embarrassed him with too vehement an affection. As for Mannering himself, he had found solace in work. Defeated at the polls, he had declined a safe seat, and remained the chosen independent candidate of a great Northern constituency. He addressed public meetings occasionally, and he contributed to the reviews. Without having ever finally committed himself to a definite scheme of tariff reform, he preached everywhere the doctrine of consideration. In a modified way he was reckoned now as one of its possible supporters.
They were almost halfway through their dinner when some commotion was heard in the narrow street outside. Then with much tooting of horns and the shrill shouting of directions from the bystanders, two heavily laden touring cars turned slowly into the cobbled courtyard, and drew up within a few feet of the semicircular line of tables. Mannering's little party watched the arrivals with an interest shared by every one in the place. Muffled up in cloaks and veils, they were at first unrecognized. It was Mannering himself who first realized who they were.
"Clara!" he exclaimed to the young lady who was standing almost by his side. "Welcome to Bonestre!"
She turned towards him with a little start.
"Uncle!" she exclaimed. "How extraordinary! Why, how long have you been here?"
"We arrived this afternoon," he answered. "You remember Hester, don't you? And this is Mrs. Mannering."
Clara shook hands with both. She declared afterwards that she was surprised into it, but she would certainly never have recognized in the quiet, rather weary-looking, woman who sat at her uncle's side the Blanche Phillimore whom she had more than once passionately declared that she would sooner die than speak to. She murmured a few mechanical words, and then, suddenly realizing the situation, she glanced a little anxiously over her shoulder.
"You know who I am with, uncle?" she whispered.
But Mannering was already face to face with Berenice. She held out her hand without hesitation. If she felt any emotion she concealed it perfectly. Her voice was steady and cordial, if her cheeks were pale. The dust lay thickly upon them all. Mannering, tall and grave in his plain dinner clothes and black tie, stood almost like a statue before her, until her extended hand invited his movement.
"What an extraordinary meeting," she said, quietly. "I am very glad to see you again, Mr. Mannering. We have had such a ride, all the way from Havre along roads an inch thick in dust. This is your wife, is it not? I am very glad to know you, Mrs. Mannering."
All that might have been embarrassing in the encounter seemed dissolved by the utterly conventional tone of her greeting. Sir Leslie Borrowdean came up and joined them, and Lord and Lady Redford. Then the little party, escorted by the landlord, disappeared into the hotel. Mannering resumed his seat and continued his dinner. He leaned over and addressed his wife. His tone was kinder than usual.
"When we have had our coffee," he said, "I hope that you will feel like a walk. The moon is coming up over the sea."
She shook her head.
"Take Hester," she said. "She loves that sort of thing. I have a headache, and I should like to go upstairs as soon as possible."
So Hester walked with Mannering out to the rocks where pools of water, left by the tide, shone like silver in the moonlight. They talked very little at first, but as they leaned over the rail and looked out seawards Hester broke the silence, and spoke of the things which they both had in their minds.
"I am sorry they came," she said. "I am afraid it will upset mother, and it is not pleasant for you, is it?"
"For me it is nothing, Hester," he answered, "and I hope that your mother will not worry about it. They all behaved very nicely, and we need not see much of them."
She passed her arm through his.
"Tell me how you feel about it," she begged. "It must seem to you like a glimpse of the life you left when—when you—married!"
"Hester," he said, earnestly, "don't make any mistake about this. Don't let your mother make any mistake. It was my political change of views which separated me from all my former friends—that entirely. To them I am an apostate, and a very bad sort of one. I deserted them just when they needed me. I did it from convictions which are stronger to-day than ever. But none the less I threw them over. I always said that they very much exaggerated my importance as a factor in the situation, and my words are proved. They carried the elections without any difficulty, and they have formed a strong Government. They can afford to be magnanimous to me. If I had stayed with them I should have been in office. As it was, I lost even my seat."
"You did what you thought was right," she said, softly. "No one can do any more!"
Mannering thought over her words as they walked homewards over the sand-dunes. Yes, he had done that! Was he satisfied with the result? He had become a minor power in politics. Men spoke of him as a weakling—as one who had shrunk from the burden of great responsibility, and left the friends who had trusted him in the lurch. And then—there was the other thing. He had paid a great price for this woman's salvation. Had he succeeded? She had given up all her old ways. She dressed, she lived, she carried herself through life even with a furtive, almost a pathetic, attempt to reach his standard. Often he caught her watching him as though fearful lest some word or action of hers had been displeasing to him. And yet—he wondered—was this what she had hoped for? Had he given her what she had the right to expect? Had he indeed received value for the price he had paid? He asked Hester a sudden question:
"Hester, is your mother happy?"
Hester started a little.
"If she is not," she answered, gravely, "she must be a very ungrateful woman."
He left it at that, and together they retraced their steps to the hotel. Hester slipped up to her room by a side entrance, but Mannering was obliged to pass the table where the new arrivals were lingering over their coffee. Clara and Lord Redford both called to him.
"Come and have a smoke with us, Mannering, and tell us all about this place," the latter said. "The Duchess and your niece are charmed with it, and they want to stay for a few days. Are there any golf links?"
"Come and sit next me, uncle," Clara cried, "and tell me how you like being guardian to an heiress. How I have blessed that dear departed aunt of mine every day of my life."
Mannering accepted a cigarette, and sat down.
"The golf links are excellent," he said. "As for your aunt, Clara, she was a very sensible woman. Her money was so well invested that I have practically nothing to do. I expect my duties will commence when the young men come!"
"Miss Mannering," Sir Leslie said, gravely, "is not at all attracted by young men. She prefers something more staid. I have serious hopes that before our little tour is over I shall have persuaded her to marry me!"
"You dear man!" Clara exclaimed. "I only wish you'd give me the chance."
"There's a brazen child to have to chaperon," the Duchess said. "Positively asking for a proposal."
"And not in vain," Sir Leslie declared. "Walk down to the sea with me, Miss Clara, and I'll propose to you in my most approved fashion. I think you said that the investments were sound, Mannering?"
"The investments are all right," Mannering answered, "but I shall have nothing to do with fortune-hunters."
"And I a Cabinet Minister!" Sir Leslie declared. "Miss Clara, let us have that walk."
"To-morrow night," she promised. "When I get up it will be to go to bed. Even your love-making, Sir Leslie, could not keep me awake to-night."
The Duchess rose. The dust was gone, but she was pale, and looked tired.
"Let us leave these men to make plans for us," she said. "I hope we shall see something of you to-morrow, Mr. Mannering. Good-night, everybody."
Mannering rose and bowed with the others. For a moment their eyes met. Not a muscle of her face changed, and yet Mannering was conscious of a sudden wave of emotion. He understood that she had not forgotten!
THE SNUB FOR BORROWDEAN
Berenice sat at one of the small round tables in the courtyard, finishing her morning coffee. Sir Leslie sat upon the steps by her side. It was one of those brilliant mornings in early September, when the sunlight seems to find its way everywhere. Even here, surrounded by the pile of worn grey stone buildings, which threw shadows everywhere, it had penetrated. A long shaft of soft, warm light stretched across the cobbles to their feet. Berenice, slim and elegant, fresh as the morning itself, glanced up at her companion with a smile.
"Clara," she remarked, "does not like to be kept waiting."
"She is not down yet," he answered, "and there is something I want to say to you."
Her delicate eyebrows were a trifle uplifted.
"Do you think that you had better?" she asked.
"I am a man," he said, "and things are known to me which a woman would scarcely discover. Do you think that it is quite fair to send Lady Redford out motoring with Mrs. Mannering?"
"Lady Redford is, of course, ignorant of Mrs. Mannering's antecedents. What you may do yourself concerns no one. You make your own social laws, and you have a right to. But I do not think that even you have a right to pass Blanche Phillimore on to your friends, even under the shelter of Mannering's name."
Berenice looked at him for several seconds without speaking. Borrowdean bit his lip.
"If we were not acquaintances of long standing, Sir Leslie," she said, calmly, "I should consider your remarks impertinent. As it is, I choose to look upon them as a regrettable mistake. The person, whoever she may be, whom the Duchess of Lenchester chooses to receive is usually acceptable to her friends. I beg that you will not refer to the subject again."
Sir Leslie bowed.
"I have no more to say," he declared. "Knowing naturally a good deal more than you concerning the lady in question, I considered it my duty to say what I have said."
"It is the sort of duty," Berenice murmured, "which the whole world seems to accept always with a relish. One does not expect it so much from your sex. Mrs. Mannering was born one of us, and she has had an unhappy life. If she has been indiscreet she has her excuses. I choose to whitewash her. Do you understand? I pay dearly enough for my social position, and I certainly claim its privileges. I recognize Mrs. Mannering, and I require my friends to do so."
Sir Leslie rose up.
"You are, if you will forgive my saying so," he remarked, drily, "more generous than wise."
"That," she answered, "is my affair. Here comes Clara. Before you start, find Mr. Mannering. He is in the hotel somewhere writing letters, and tell him that when he has finished I wish to speak to him."
Sir Leslie only bowed. He felt himself opposed by a will as strong as his own, and he was too seriously annoyed to trust himself to speech. Clara, in her cool white linen dress, came strolling up.
"What have you been doing to Sir Leslie?" she asked, laughing. "He has just gone into the hotel with a face like a thunder-cloud."
"I have been giving him a lesson in Christian charity," Berenice answered. "He needs it."
Clara nodded. She understood.
"I think you are awfully kind," she said.
"I hate all narrowness," she said, "and if there is a man on God's earth who deserves to have people kind to him it is your uncle."
Sir Leslie returned, and he and Clara departed for the golf links. Berenice was left alone in the little grey courtyard, fragrant with the perfume of scented shrubs and blossoming plants, filled too, with the warm sunlight, which seemed to find its way into every corner. She sat at her little table, paler than a few moments ago, her teeth clenched, her white fingers clasped together. Underneath her muslin blouse her heart had suddenly commenced to beat fiercely—a sense of excitement, long absent, was stealing through her veins. The bonds which a year's studied self-repression had forged were snapped apart. She knew now what it meant, the great inexpressible thing, the one eternal emotion which has come throbbing down the world from the days when poets sung their first song and painters flung truth on to canvas. She was a woman like the others, and she loved. Her unique position in society, her carefully studied life, her lofty ambitions, were like vain things crumbling into dust before her eyes. A year of cold misery seemed atoned for by the simple fact that within a few yards of her he sat writing—that within a few minutes he would be by her side. Of the future she scarcely thought. Hers was the woman's love, content with small things. Its passion was of the soul, and its song was self-sacrifice. But if she had known—if she had only known!
He came out to her soon. His manner was quiet and a little grave. Self-control came easier to him because the truth had been with him longer. Nevertheless, he was not wholly at his ease.