"You know what has happened?" she asked, smiling. "The Redfords have taken Mrs. Mannering and her daughter motoring, and Sir Leslie and Clara have gone to the golf links. You and I are left to entertain one another."
"What would you like to do?" he asked, simply.
"I should like to walk," she answered, "down by the sea somewhere. I am ready now."
They made their way through the little town, along the promenade and on to the sands beyond. Then a climb, and they found themselves in a thick wood stretching back inland from the sea. She pointed to a fallen trunk.
"Let us sit down," she said. "There are so many things I want to ask you."
On the way they had spoken only of indifferent matters, yet from the first Mannering had felt the presence of a subtle something in her deportment towards him, for which he could find no explanation. He himself was feeling the tension of this meeting. He had expected to find her so different. Gracious, perhaps, because she was a great lady, but certainly without any of these suggestions of something kept back, which continually, without any sort of direct expression, made themselves felt. And when they sat down she said nothing. He had the feeling that it was because she dared not trust herself to speak. Surprise and agitation kept him, too, silent.
At last she spoke. Her voice was not very steady, and she avoided looking at him.
"I should like," she said, "to have you tell me about yourself—about your life—and your work."
"It is told in a few words," he answered. "Somewhere, somehow, I have failed! I could not adopt the Birmingham programme, I could not oppose it. You know what isolation means politically?—abuse from one side and contempt from the other. That is what I am experiencing. The working classes have some faith in me, I believe. My work, such as it is, is solely for them. I suppose the papers tell the truth when they say that mine is a ruined career—only, you see, I am trying to do the best I can with the pieces."
"Yes," she said, softly, "that is something. To do the best one can with the pieces. We all might try to do that."
"You, at least, have no need to consider such a thing," he said. "So far as any woman can be preeminent in politics you have succeeded in becoming so. I saw that a lady's paper a few weeks ago said that your influence outside the Cabinet was more powerful than any one man's within it."
"Yes," she said, calmly, "the papers talk like that. It gives their readers something to laugh at! I wonder what you would say, my friend, if I told you that I, too, am engaged in that same thankless task. I, too, am striving to do the best I can with the pieces."
"You are not serious!" he protested.
"I am very serious indeed," she declared. "Shall I tell you more? Shall I tell you when I made my mistake?"
"No!" he cried, hoarsely.
"But I shall," she continued, suddenly gripping his arm. "I meant to tell you. I brought you here to tell you. I made my mistake when I let Leslie Borrowdean take you back to Lord Redford just as we were entering the rose-garden at Bayleigh. Do you remember? I made my mistake when I suffered anything in this great world to come between me and a woman's only chance of happiness! I made my mistake when I was too proud to tell you that I loved you, and that nothing else in the world mattered. There! You tried me hard! You know that! But my mistake was none the less fatal. I ought to have held fast by you, and I let you go. And I shall suffer for it all my days."
"You cared like that?" he cried.
"Worse!" she answered, turning her flushed face towards him. "I care now. Kiss me, Lawrence!"
He held her in his arms. Time stood still until she stole away with an odd little laugh.
"There," she said, "I have vindicated myself. No one can ever call me a proud woman again. And you know the truth! I might have had you all to myself and I let you go. Now I am going to do the best I can with the pieces. The half of you I want belongs to your wife. I must be content with the other half. I suppose I may have that?"
"But your friends—"
"Bosh! My friends and your wife must make the best of it. I shan't rob her again as I did just now. You can blot that out—antedate it. It belonged to the past. But I am not going through life as I have gone through this last year, longing for a sight of you, longing to hear you speak, and denying myself just because you are married. Live with your wife, Lawrence, and make her as happy as you can, but remember that you owe me a great deal, too, and you must do your best to pay it. Don't look at me as though I were talking nonsense."
He held her hand. She placed it in his unresistingly. All the lines in his face seemed smoothed out. The fire of youth was in his eyes.
"Do you wonder that I am surprised?" he asked. "All this year you have made no sign. All the time I have been schooling myself to forget you."
"Don't dare to tell me that you have succeeded!" she exclaimed.
"Not an iota!" he answered. "It was the most miserable failure of my life."
She smiled upon him delightfully, and gently withdrew her hand.
"Lawrence," she said, "I am going to talk to you seriously for one minute. You are too conscientious for a politician. Don't let the same vice spoil our friendship! Certain things you owe to your wife. Mind, I admit that, though from some points of view even that might be disputed. But you also owe me certain things—and I mean to be paid. I won't be avoided, mind. I want to be treated as a very close—and dear—companion—and—kiss me once more, Lawrence, and then we'll begin," she wound up, with a little sob in her throat.
An hour later the whole party had dejeuner together in the courtyard of the little hotel. The Duchess was noticeably kind to Mrs. Mannering, and she snubbed Sir Leslie. Clara looked on a little gravely. The situation contained many elements of interest.
CLOUDS—AND A CALL TO ARMS
The first cloud appeared towards the end of the third day at Bonestre. Blanche and Sir Leslie were left alone, and he hastened to improve the opportunity.
"The Duchess and your husband," he remarked, "appear very easily to have picked up again the threads of their old friendship."
"The Duchess," she answered, "is a very charming woman. I am sure that you find her so, don't you?"
"We are very old friends," he answered, "but I was never admitted to exactly the same privileges as your husband enjoys."
"The Duchess," she answered, calmly, "is a woman of taste!"
Sir Leslie muttered something under his breath. Blanche made a movement as though to take up again the book which she had been reading in a sheltered corner of the hotel garden.
"Don't you think," he said, "that we should make better friends than enemies?"
"I am not at all sure," she answered, calmly. "To tell you the truth, I don't fancy you particularly in either capacity."
He laughed unpleasantly.
"You are scarcely complimentary," he remarked.
"I did not mean to be," she answered. "Why should I?"
"You are content, then, to let your husband drift back into his old relations with the Duchess? I presume that you know what they were?"
"Whether I am or not," she answered, "what business is it of yours?"
"I will tell you, if you like," he answered. "In fact, I think it would be better. It has been the one desire of my life to marry the Duchess of Lenchester myself."
She smiled at him scornfully.
"Come," she said, "let me give you a little advice. Give up the idea. They say that lookers-on see most of the game, and so far as I am concerned I'm certainly the looker-on of this party. The Duchess doesn't care a row of pins about you!"
"There are other marriages, besides marriages of affection," Sir Leslie said, stiffly. "The Duchess is ambitious."
"But she is also a woman," Blanche declared. "And she is in love."
"With my husband! I presume that is clear enough to most people!"
Sir Leslie was a little staggered.
"You take it very coolly," he remarked.
"Why not? The Duchess is too proud a woman to give herself away, and my husband—belongs to me!"
"You haven't any idea of taking poison, or anything of that sort, I suppose, have you?" he inquired. "The other woman nearly always does that."
"Not in real life," Blanche answered, composedly. "Besides, I'm not the other woman—I'm the one. The Duchess is the other!"
"But your husband—"
"Do you know, I should prefer not to discuss my husband—with you," Blanche said, calmly, taking up her book. "He is not the sort of man you would be at all likely to understand. If you want a rich wife why don't you propose to Clara Mannering? I suppose you knew that some unheard-of aunt had left her fifty thousand pounds?"
Sir Leslie rose to his feet.
"I don't fancy that you and I are very sympathetic this afternoon," he remarked. "I will go and see if any one has returned."
"Do," she answered. "I shall miss you, of course, but my book is positively absorbing, and I am dying to go on with it."
Sir Leslie left the garden without another word. Blanche held her book before her face until he had disappeared. Then it slipped from her fingers. She looked hard into a cluster of roses, and she saw only two figures—always the same figures. Her eyes were set, her face was wan and old.
"The other woman!" she murmured to herself. "That is what I am. And I can't live up to it. I ought to take poison, or get run over or something, and I know very well I shan't. Bother the man! Why couldn't he leave me alone?"
After dinner that evening she accepted her husband's nightly invitation and walked with him for a little while. The others followed.
"How much longer can you stay away from England, Lawrence?" she asked him.
"Oh—a fortnight, I should think," he answered. "I am not tied to any particular date. You like it here, I hope?"
"Immensely! Are—our friends going to remain?"
"I haven't heard them say anything about moving on yet," he answered.
"Are you in love with the Duchess still, Lawrence?"
"Don't be angry! You made a mistake once, you know. Don't make another. I'm not a jealous woman, and I don't ask much from you, but I'm your wife. That's all!"
She turned and called to Hester. The little party rearranged itself. Mannering found himself with Berenice.
"What was your wife saying to you?" she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"It was the beginning," he remarked.
"It is a strange thing," she said, "but in this world no one can ever be happy except at some one else's expense. It is a most unnatural law of compensation. Shall we move on to-morrow?"
"The day after," he pleaded. "To-morrow we are going to Berneval."
"We are queer people, I think," she said. "I have been perfectly satisfied this week simply to be with you. When it comes to an end I should like it to come suddenly."
He thought of her words an hour later, when on his return to the hotel they handed him a telegram. He passed it on at once to Lord Redford, and glanced at his watch.
"Poor Cunningham," he said, "it was a short triumph for him. I must go back to-night, or the first train to-morrow morning. The sitting member for my division of Leeds died suddenly last night, Blanche," he said to his wife. "I must be on the spot at once."
She rose to her feet.
"I will go and pack," she said.
Lady Redford followed her very soon. Clara and Sir Leslie had not yet returned from their stroll. Lord Redford remained alone with them.
"I scarcely know what sort of fortune to wish you, Mannering," he said. "Perhaps your first speech will tell us."
Berenice leaned back in her chair.
"I can't imagine you as a labour member in the least," she remarked.
"Doesn't this force your hand a little, Mannering?" Lord Redford said. "I understand that you were anxious to avoid a direct pronouncement upon the fiscal policy for the present."
Mannering nodded gravely.
"It is quite time I made up my mind," he said. "I shall do so now."
"May we find ourselves in the same lobby!" Lord Redford said. "I will go and find my man. He may as well take you to the station in the car."
Berenice smiled at Mannering luminously through the shadowy lights.
"Dear friend," she said, "I am delighted that you are going. Our little time here has been delightful, but we had reached its limit. I like to think that you are going back into the thick of it. Don't be faint-hearted, Lawrence. Don't lose faith in yourself. You have chosen a terribly lonely path; if any man can find his way to the top, you can. And don't dare to forget me, sir!"
He caught her cheerful tone.
"You are inspiring," he declared. "Thank heaven, I have a twelve hours' journey before me. I need time for thought, if ever a man did."
"Don't worry about it," she answered, lightly. "The truth is somewhere in your brain, I suppose, and when the time comes you will find it. Much better think about your sandwiches."
The car backed into the yard. Blanche reappeared, and behind her Mannering's bag.
"I do hope that Hester and I have packed everything," she said. "We could come over to-morrow, if there's anything you want us for. If not we shall stay here for another week. Good-bye!"
She calmly held up her lips, and Mannering kissed them after a moment's hesitation. She remained by his side even when he turned to say farewell to Berenice.
"I am sure you ought to be going," she said calmly. "I will send on your letters if there are any to-morrow. Wire your address as soon as you arrive. Good luck!"
The car glided away. They all stood in a group to see him go, and waved indiscriminate farewells. Blanche moved a little apart as the car disappeared, and Berenice watched her curiously. She was rubbing her lips with her handkerchief.
"A sting!" she remarked, becoming suddenly aware of the other's scrutiny. "Nothing that hurts very much!"
Mannering, in his sitting-room at last, locked the door and drew a long breath of relief. Upon his ear-drums there throbbed still the yells of his enthusiastic but noisy adherents—the truculent cries of those who had heard his great speech with satisfaction, of those who saw pass from amongst themselves to a newer school of thought one whom they had regarded as their natural leader. It was over at last. He had made his pronouncement. To some it might seem a compromise. To himself it was the only logical outcome of his long period of thought. He spoke for the workingman. He demanded inquiry, consideration, experiment. He demanded them in a way of his own, at once novel and convincing. Many of the most brilliant articles which had ever come from his pen he abjured. He drew a sharp line between the province of the student and the duty of the politician.
And now he was alone at last, free to think and dream, free to think of Bonestre, to wonder what reports of his meeting would reach the little French watering-place, and how they would be received. He could see Berenice reading the morning paper in the little grey courtyard, with the pigeons flying above her head and the sunlight streaming across the flags. He could hear Borrowdean's sneer, could see Lord Redford's shrug of the shoulders. There is little sympathy in the world for the man who dares to change his mind.
There was a knock at the door, and his servant entered with a tray.
"I have brought the whiskey and soda, sandwiches and cigarettes, sir," he announced. "I am sorry to say that there is a person outside whom I cannot get rid of. His name is Fardell, and he insists upon it that his business is of importance."
"You can show him up at once," he ordered; "now, and whenever he calls."
Fardell appeared almost directly. Mannering had seen him before during the day, but noticed at once a change in him. He was pale, and looked like a man who had received some sort of a shock.
"Come in, Fardell, and sit down," Mannering said. "You look tired. Have a drink."
Fardell walked straight to the tray and helped himself to some neat whiskey.
"Thank you, sir," he said. "I—I've had rather a knockout blow."
He emptied the tumbler and set it down.
"Mr. Mannering, sir," he said, "I've just heard a man bet twenty to one in crisp five-pound bank-notes that you never sit for West Leeds."
"Was he drunk or sober?" Mannering asked.
"Sober as a judge!"
"How often did you take him?" he asked.
"Not once! I didn't dare!"
Mannering, who had been in the act of helping himself to a whiskey and soda, looked around with the decanter in his hand.
"I don't understand you," he said, bewildered. "You know very well that the chances, so far as they can be reckoned up, are slightly in my favour."
"They were!" Fardell answered. "Heaven knows what they are now."
Mannering was a little annoyed. It seemed to him that Fardell must have been drinking.
"Do you mind explaining yourself?" he asked.
"I can do so," Fardell answered. "I must do so. But while I am about it I want you to put on your hat and come with me."
Mannering laughed shortly.
"What, to-night?" he exclaimed. "No, thank you. Be reasonable, Fardell. I've had my day's work, and I think I've earned a little rest. To be frank with you, I don't like mysteries. If you've anything to say, out with it."
"Right!" Richard Fardell answered. "I am going to ask you a question, Mr. Mannering. Go back a good many years, as many years as you like. Is there anything in your life as a younger man, say when you first entered Parliament, which—if it were brought up against you now—might be—embarrassing?"
Mannering did not answer for several moments. He was already pale and tired, but he felt what little colour remained leave his face. Least of all he had expected this. Even now—what could the man mean? What could be known?
"I am not sure that I understand you," he said. "There is nothing that could be known! I am sure of that."
"There is a person," Fardell said, slowly, "who has made extraordinary statements. Our opponents have got hold of him. The substance of them is this: He says that many years ago you were the lover of a married woman, that you sold her husband worthless shares and ruined him, and that finally—in a quarrel—he declares that he was an eye-witness of this—that you killed him."
Mannering slowly subsided into his chair. His cheeks were blanched. Richard Fardell watched him with feverish anxiety.
"It is a lie," Mannering declared. "There is no man living who can say this."
"The man says," Fardell continued, stonily, "that his name is Parkins, and that he was butler to Mr. Stephen Phillimore eleven years ago."
"Parkins is dead!" Mannering said, hoarsely. "He has been dead for many years."
"He is living in Leeds to-day," Fardell answered. "A journalist from the Yorkshire Herald was with him for two hours this afternoon."
"Blanche—I was told that he was dead," Mannering said.
"Then the story is true?" Fardell asked.
"Not as you have told it," Mannering answered.
"There is truth in it?"
Richard Fardell was silent for several moments. He paced up and down the room, his hands behind his back, his eyebrows contracted into a heavy frown. For him it was a bitter moment. He was only a half-educated, illiterate man, possessed of sturdy common sense and a wonderful tenacity of purpose. He had permitted himself to indulge in a little silent but none the less absolute hero-worship, and Mannering had been the hero.
"You must come with me at once and see this man," he said at last. "He has not yet signed his statement. We must do what we can to keep him quiet."
Mannering took up his coat and hat without a word. They left the hotel, and Fardell summoned a cab.
"It is a long way," he explained. "We will drive part of the distance and walk the rest. We may be watched already."
Mannering nodded. The last blow was so unexpected that he felt in a sense numbed. His speech only a few hours ago had made large inroads upon his powers of endurance. His partial recantation had cost him many hours of torture, from which he was still suffering. And now, without the slightest warning, he found himself face to face with a crisis far graver, far more acute. Never in his most gloomy moments had he felt any real fear of a resurrection of the past such as that with which he was now threatened. It was a thunderbolt from a clear sky. Even now he found it hard to persuade himself that he was not dreaming.
They were in the cab for nearly half an hour before Fardell stopped and dismissed it. Then they walked up and down and across streets of small houses, pitiless in their monotony, squalid and depressing in their ugliness.
Finally Fardell stopped, and without hesitation knocked at the door of one of them. It was opened by a man in shirt-sleeves, holding a tallow candle in his hand.
"What yer want?" he inquired, suspiciously.
"Your lodger," Fardell answered, pushing past him and drawing Mannering into the room. "Where is he?"
The man jerked his thumb upwards.
"Where he won't be long," he answered, shortly. "The likes of 'im having visitors, and one a toff, too. Say, are yer going to pay his rent?"
"We may do that," Fardell answered. "Is he upstairs?"
"Ay!" the man answered, shuffling away. "Pay 'is rent, and yer can chuck 'im out of the winder, if yer like!"
They climbed the crazy staircase. Fardell opened the door of the room above without even the formality of knocking. An old man sat there, bending over a table, half dressed. Before him were several sheets of paper.
"I believe we're in time," Fardell muttered, half to himself. "Parkins, is that you?" he asked, in a louder tone.
The old man looked up and blinked at them. He shaded his eyes with one hand. The other he laid flat upon the papers before him. He was old, blear-eyed, unkempt.
"Is that Master Ronaldson?" he asked, in a thin, quavering tone. "I've signed 'em, sir. Have yer brought the money? I'm a poor old man, and I need a drop of something now and then to keep the life in me. If yer'll just hand over a trifle I'll send out for—eh—eh, my landlord, he's a kindly man—he'll fetch it. Eh? Two of yer! I don't see so well as I did. Is that you, Mr. Ronaldson, sir?"
Fardell threw some silver coins upon the table. The old man snatched them up eagerly.
"It's not Mr. Ronaldson," he said, "but I daresay we shall do as well. We want to talk to you about those papers there."
The old man nodded. He was gazing at the silver in his hand.
"I've writ it all out," he muttered. "I told 'un I would. A pound a week for ten years. That's what I 'ad! And then it stopped! Did she mean me to starve, eh? Not I! John Parkins knows better nor that. I've writ it all out, and there's my signature. It's gospel truth, too."
"We are going to buy the truth from you," Fardell said. "We have more money than Ronaldson. Don't be afraid. We have gold to spare where Ronaldson had silver."
The old man lifted the candle with shaking fingers. Then it dropped with a crash to the ground, and lay there for a moment spluttering. He shrank back.
"It's 'im!" he muttered. "Don't kill me, sir. I mean you no harm. It's Mr. Mannering!"
THE JOURNALIST INTERVENES
The old man had sunk into a seat. His face and hands were twitching with fear. His eyes, as though fascinated, remained fixed upon Mannering's. All the while he mumbled to himself. Fardell drew Mannering a little on one side.
"What can we do with him?" he asked. "We might tear up those sheets, give him money, keep him soddened with drink. And even then he'd give the whole show away the moment any one got at him. It isn't so bad as he makes out, I suppose?"
"It is not so bad as that," Mannering answered, "but it is bad enough."
"What became of the woman?" Fardell asked. "Parkins's mistress, I mean?"
"She is my wife," Mannering answered.
Fardell threw out his hands with a little gesture of despair.
"We must get him away from here," he said. "If Polden gets hold of him you might as well resign at once. It is dangerous for you to stay. He was evidently expecting that fellow Ronaldson to-night."
"What shall you do with him?" he asked.
"Hide him if I can," Fardell answered, grimly. "If I can get him out of this place, it ought not to be impossible. The most important thing at present is for you to get away without being recognized."
Mannering took up his hat.
"I will go," he said. "I shall leave the cab for you. I can find my way back to the hotel."
"It would be better," he said. "Turn your coat-collar up and draw your hat down over your eyes. You mustn't be recognized down here. It's a pretty low part."
Nevertheless, Mannering had not reached the corner of the street before he heard hasty footsteps behind him, and felt a light touch upon his shoulder. He turned sharply round.
"Well, sir!" he exclaimed, "what do you want with me?"
The newcomer was a tall, thin young man, wearing glasses, and although he was a complete stranger to Mannering, he knew at once who he was.
"Mr. Mannering, I believe?" he said, quickly.
"What has my name to do with you, sir?" Mannering answered, coldly.
"Mine is Ronaldson," the young man answered. "I am a reporter."
Mannering regarded him steadily for a moment.
"You are the young man, then," he said, "who has discovered the mare's nest of my iniquity."
"If it is a mare's nest," the young man answered, briskly, "I shall be quite as much relieved as disappointed. But your being down here doesn't look very much like that, does it?"
"No man," Mannering answered, "hears that a bomb is going to be thrown at him without a certain amount of curiosity as to its nature. I have been down to examine the bomb. Frankly, I don't think much of it."
"You are prepared, then, to deny this man Parkins's story?" the reporter asked.
"I am prepared to have a shot at your paper for libel, anyhow, if you use it," Mannering answered.
"Do you know the substance of his communication?"
"I can make a pretty good guess at it," Mannering answered.
"You really mean to deny it, then?" the reporter asked.
"Assuredly, for it is not true," Mannering answered. "Pray don't let me detain you any longer!"
He turned on his heel and walked away, but the reporter kept pace with him.
"You will pardon me, but this is a very serious affair, Mr. Mannering," he said. "Serious for both of us. Do you mind discussing it with me?"
"Not in the least," Mannering answered, "so long as you permit me to continue my way homewards."
"I will walk with you, sir, if you don't mind," the reporter said. "It is a very serious matter indeed, this! My people are as keen as possible to make use of it. If they do, and it turns out a true story, you, of course, will never sit for Leeds. And if on the other hand it is false, I shall get the sack!"
"Well, it is false," Mannering said.
"Some parts of it, perhaps," the young man answered, smoothly. "Not all, Mr. Mannering."
"Old men are garrulous," Mannering remarked. "I expect you will find that your friend has been letting his tongue run away with him."
"He has committed his statements to paper," Ronaldson remarked.
"And signed them?"
"He is willing to do so," the reporter answered. "I was to have fetched them away to-night."
"You may be a little late," Mannering remarked.
The double entente in his tone did not escape Ronaldson's notice. He stopped short on the pavement.
"So you have bought him," he remarked.
Mannering glanced at him superciliously.
"Will you pardon me," he said, "if I remark that this conversation has no particular interest for me? Don't let me bring you any further out of your way."
Ronaldson took off his hat.
"Very good, sir," he remarked. "I will wish you good-night!"
Mannering pursued his way homeward with the briefest of farewells. The young reporter retraced his steps. Arrived at Parkins's lodgings he mounted the stairs, and found the room empty. He returned and interviewed the landlord. From him he only learned that Parkins had departed with one of two gentlemen who had come to see him that evening, and that they had paid his rent for him. The reporter was obliged to depart with no more satisfactory information. But next morning, before nine o'clock, he was waiting to see Mannering, and would not be denied. He was accompanied, too, by a person of no less importance than the editor of the Yorkshire Herald himself.
Mannering kept them waiting an hour, and then received them coolly.
"I am glad to see you, Mr. Polden," he said, glancing at the editor's card. "I have already had some conversation with our young friend there," he added, glancing towards the reporter. "What can I have the pleasure of doing for you?"
Mr. Polden produced a sheet of proofs from his pocket. He passed them over to Mannering.
"I should like you to examine these, sir," he said.
"In type already!" Mannering remarked, calmly.
"In proof for our evening's issue," Polden answered.
Mannering read them through.
"It will cost you several thousand pounds!" he said.
"Then the money will be well spent," Polden answered. "No one has a higher regard for you politically than I have, Mr. Mannering, but we don't want you as member for West Leeds. That's all!"
"It happens," Mannering said, "that I am particularly anxious to sit for West Leeds."
"You will go on—in the face of this?" the editor asked Mannering.
"Yes, and with the suit for libel which will follow," Mannering answered.
The editor shrugged his shoulders.
"Do me the favour to believe, Mr. Mannering," he said, "that we have not gone into this matter blindfold. We had a preliminary intimation as to this affair from a person whose word carries considerable weight, and our investigations have been searching. I will admit that the disappearance of the man Parkins is a little awkward for us, but we have ample justification in publishing his story."
"I trust for your sakes that the law courts will support your views," Mannering said, coldly. "I scarcely think it likely."
"Mr. Mannering," Polden said, "I quite appreciate your attitude, but do you really think it is a wise one? I very much regret that it should have been our duty to unearth this unsavoury story, and having unearthed it, to use it. But you must remember that the issue on hand is a great one. I belong to the Liberal party and the absolute Free Traders, and I consider that for this city to be represented by any one who shows the least indication of being unsafe upon this question would be a national disaster and a local disgrace. I want you to understand, therefore, that I am not playing a game of bluff. The proofs you hold in your hand have been set and corrected. Within a few hours the story will stand out in black and white. Are you prepared for this?"
Mannering shrugged his shoulders.
"I am not prepared to resign my candidature, if that is what you mean," he said. "I presume that nothing short of that will satisfy you?"
"Nothing," the editor answered, firmly.
"Then there remains nothing more," Mannering remarked, coldly, "than for me to wish you a very good-morning."
"I am sorry," Mr. Polden said. "I trust you will believe, Mr. Mannering, that I find this a very unpleasant duty."
Mannering made no answer save a slight bow. He held open the door, and Mr. Polden and his satellite passed out. Afterwards he strolled to the window and looked down idly upon the crowd.
"If I act in accordance with the conventions," he murmured to himself, "I suppose I ought to take, a glass of poison, or blow my brains out. Instead of which—"
He shrugged his shoulders, and rang for his hat and coat. He was due at one of the great foundries in half an hour to speak to the men during their luncheon interval.
"Instead of which," he muttered, as he lit a cigarette, "I shall go on to the end."
TREACHERY AND A TELEGRAM
The sunlight streamed down into the little grey courtyard of the Leon D'or at Bonestre. Sir Leslie Borrowdean, in an immaculate grey suit, and with a carefully chosen pink carnation in his button-hole, sat alone at a small table having his morning coffee. His attention was divided between a copy of the Figaro and a little pile of letters and telegrams on the other side of his plate. More than once he glanced at the topmost of the latter and smiled.
Mrs. Mannering and Hester came down the grey stone steps and crossed towards their own table. The former lingered for a moment as she passed Sir Leslie, who rose to greet the two women.
"Another glorious day!" he remarked. "What news from Leeds?"
"None," she said. "My husband seldom writes."
Sir Leslie smiled reflectively, and glanced towards the pile of papers at his side.
"Perhaps," she remarked, "you know better than I do how things are going there."
He shook his head.
"I have no correspondents in Leeds," he answered.
At that moment a puff of wind disturbed the papers by his side. A telegram would have fluttered away, but Blanche Mannering caught it at the edge of the table. She was handing it back, when a curious expression on Borrowdean's face inspired her with a sudden idea. She deliberately looked at the telegram, and her fingers stiffened upon it. His forward movement was checked. She stood just out of his reach.
"No correspondents in Leeds," she repeated. "Then what about this telegram?"
"You will permit me to remind you," he said, stretching out his hand for it, "that it is addressed to me."
Her hands were behind her. She leaned over towards him.
"It can be addressed to you a thousand times over," she answered, "but before I part with it I want to know what it means."
Borrowdean was thinking quickly. He wanted to gain time.
"I do not even know which document you have—purloined," he said.
"It is from Leeds," she answered, "and it is signed Polden. 'Parkins found, has made statement, appears to-night.' Can you explain what this means, Sir Leslie Borrowdean?"
Her voice was scarcely raised above a whisper, but there was a dangerous glitter in her eyes. There were few traces left of the woman whom once before he had found so easy a tool.
"I cannot tell you," he answered. "It is not an affair for you to concern yourself with at all."
"Not an affair for me to concern myself about!" she repeated, leaning a little over towards him. "Isn't it my husband against whom you are scheming? Don't I know what low tricks you are capable of? Isn't this another proof of it? Not an affair for me to concern myself about, indeed! Didn't you worm the whole miserable story out of me?"
"My dear Mrs. Mannering!"
She checked a torrent of words. Her bosom was heaving underneath her lace blouse. She was pale almost to the lips. The sudden and complete disuse of all manner of cosmetics had to a certain extent blanched her face. There was room there now for the writing of tragedy. Borrowdean, still outwardly suave, was inwardly cursing the unlucky chance which had blown the telegram her way.
"Might I suggest," he said, in a low tone, "that we postpone our conversation till after breakfast time? The waiters seem to be favouring us with a great deal of attention, and several of them understand English."
She did not even turn her head. Thinner a good deal since her marriage, she seemed to him to have grown taller, to have gained in dignity and presence, as she stood there before him, her angry eyes fixed upon his face. She was no longer a person to be ignored.
"You must tell me about this—or—"
"Or?" he repeated, stonily.
"Or I will make a public statement," she answered. "If you ruin my husband's career, I can at least do the same with yours. Politics is supposed to be a game for honourable men to play with honourable weapons. I wonder if Lord Redford would approve of your methods?"
"You can go and ask him, my dear madam," he answered. "I am perfectly ready to defend myself."
"Defend! You have no defence," she answered. "Can you deny that you are plotting to keep my husband out of Parliament now, just as a few months ago you plotted to bring him back? You are making use of a personal secret, a forgotten chapter of his life, to move him about like a puppet to do your will."
"I work for the good of a cause and a great party," he answered. "You do not understand these things."
"I understand you so far as this," she answered. "You are one of those to whom life is a chessboard, and your one aim is to make the pieces work for you, and at your bidding, till you sit in the place you covet. There isn't much of the patriot about you, Sir Leslie Borrowdean."
He glanced down at his unfinished breakfast. He had the air of one who is a little bored.
"My dear lady," he said, "is this discussion really worth while?"
"No," she answered, bluntly, "it isn't. You are quite right. We are wandering from the subject."
"Let us talk," he suggested, "after breakfast. Give me back that telegram now, and I will explain it, say, in the garden in half an hour. I detest cold coffee."
"You can do like me, order some fresh," she said. "If I let you out of my sight I know very well how much I shall see of you for the rest of the day. Explain now if you can. What does that telegram mean?"
"Surely it is obvious enough," he answered. "The man Parkins, whom you told me was dead, is alive and in Leeds. He has seen Mannering's name about, has been talking, and the press have got hold of his story. I am sorry, but there was always this possibility, wasn't there?"
"And this telegram?" she asked.
"I know Polden, the editor of the paper, and he referred to me to know if there could be any truth in it."
"These are lies!" she declared. "You were the instigator. You set them on the track."
"I have nothing more to say," Borrowdean declared, coldly.
"I have," she said. "I shall take this telegram to Lord Redford. I shall tell him everything!"
A faint smile flickered upon Borrowdean's lips.
"Lord Redford would, I am sure, be charmed to hear your story," he remarked. "Unfortunately he started for Dieppe this morning before eight o'clock, and will not be back until to-morrow."
"And to-morrow will be too late," she added, rapidly pursuing his train of thought. "Then I will try the Duchess!"
He started very slightly, but she saw it.
"Sit down for a moment, Mrs. Mannering," he said.
She accepted the chair he placed for her. There was a distinct change in his manner. He realized that this woman held a trump card against him. Even in her hands it might mean disaster.
"Blanche—" he began.
"Thank you," she interrupted, "I prefer 'Mrs. Mannering.'"
He bit his lips in annoyance.
"Mrs. Mannering, then," he continued, "we have been allies before, and I think that you will admit that I have always kept faith with you. I don't see any reason why we should play at being enemies. You have a price, I suppose, for that telegram and your silence. Name it."
"Yes, I have a price," she admitted.
"Remember that, after all, this is not a great issue," he said. "If your husband does not get in for Leeds he will probably find a seat somewhere else."
"That is false," she answered, "If your man Polden publishes Parkins's story my husband's political career is over, and you know it. Do keep as near to the truth as you can."
"I will give you," he said, "five hundred pounds for that telegram and your silence."
She rose slowly to her feet. A dull flush of colour mounted almost to her eyes. Borrowdean watched her anxiously. Then for a moment came an interruption. The Duchess was descending the grey stone steps from the hotel.
She had addressed some word of greeting to them. They both turned towards her. She wore a white serge dress, and she carried a white lace parasol over her bare head. She moved towards them with her usual languid grace, followed by her maid carrying a tiny Maltese dog and a budget of letters. The loiterrers in the courtyard stared at her with admiration. It was impossible to mistake her for anything but a great lady.
"You have the air of conspirators, you two!" she said, as she approached them. "Is it an expedition for the day that you are planning?"
Blanche Mannering turned her back upon Borrowdean.
"Sir Leslie," she said, "has just offered me five hundred pounds for a telegram which I have here and for my silence concerning its contents. I was wondering whether he had bid high enough."
The Duchess looked from one to the other. She almost permitted herself to be astonished. Borrowdean's face was dark with anger. Blanche Mannering's apparent calmness was obviously of the surface only.
"Are you serious?" she asked.
"Miserably so!" Blanche answered. "Sir Leslie has strange ideas of honour, I find. He is making use of a story which I told him once concerning my husband, to drive him out of political life. Duchess, will you do me the favour to let me talk with you for five minutes, and to make Sir Leslie Borrowdean promise not to leave this hotel till you have seen him again?"
"I have no intention of leaving the hotel," Sir Leslie said, stiffly.
Berenice pointed to her table.
"Come and take your coffee with me, Mrs. Mannering," she said.
* * * * *
Mannering passed through the day like a man in a nightmare. He addressed two meetings of working-men, and interviewed half a dozen of his workers. At mid-day the afternoon edition of the Yorkshire Herald was being sold in the streets. He bought a copy and glanced it feverishly through. Nothing! He lunched and went on with his work. At three o'clock a second edition was out. Again he purchased a copy, and again there was nothing. The suspense was getting worse even than the disaster itself. Between four and five they brought him in a telegram. He tore it open, and found that it was from Bonestre. The words seemed to stare up at him from the pink form. It was incredible:
"Polden muzzled. Go in and win."
The form fluttered from his fingers on to the floor of his sitting-room. He stood looking at it, dazed. Outside, a mob of people, standing round his carriage, were shouting his name.
MR. MANNERING, M.P.
Mannering threw up his window with a sigh of immense relief. The air was cold and fresh. The land, as yet unwarmed by the slowly rising sun, was hung with a faint autumn mist. Traces of an early frost lay in the brown hedgerows inland; the sea was like a sheet of polished glass. Gone the smoke-stained rows of shapeless houses, the atmosphere polluted by a thousand chimneys belching smuts and black vapour, the clanging of electric cars, the rattle of all manner of vehicles over the cobbled streets. Gone the hoarse excitement of the shouting mobs, the poisonous atmosphere of close rooms, all the turmoil and racket and anxiety of those fighting days. He was back again in Bonestre. Below in the courtyard the white cockatoo was screaming. The waiters in their linen coats were preparing the tables for the few remaining guests. And the other things were of yesterday!
Mannering had arrived in the middle of the night unexpectedly, and his appearance was a surprise to every one. He had knocked at his wife's door on his way downstairs, but Blanche had taken to early rising, and was already down. He found them all breakfasting together in a sheltered corner of the courtyard.
Berenice, after the usual greetings and explanations, smiled at him thoughtfully.
"I am not sure," she said, "whether I ought to congratulate you or not. Sir Leslie here thinks that you mean mischief!"
"Only on the principle," Borrowdean said, "that whoever is not with us is against us."
"We are all agreed upon one thing," Berenice said. "It was your last speech, the one the night before the election, which carried you in. A national party indeed! A legislator, not a politician! You talked to those canny Yorkshiremen with your head in the clouds, and yet they listened."
Mannering smiled as he poured out his coffee.
"I talked common sense to them," he remarked, "and Yorkshiremen like that. We have been slaves to the old-fashioned idea of party Government long enough. It's an absurd thing when you come to think of it. Fancy a great business being carried on by a board of partners of divergent views, and unable to make a purchase or a sale or effect any change whatever without talking the whole thing threadbare, and then voting upon it. The business would go down, of course!"
"Party Government," Borrowdean declared, "is the natural evolution of any republican form of administration. A nation that chooses its own representatives must select them from its varying standpoint."
"Their views may differ slightly upon some matters," Mannering said, "but their first duty should be to come into accord with one another. It is a matter for compromises, of course. The real differences between intelligent men of either party are very slight. The trouble is that under the present system everything is done to increase them instead of bridging them over."
"If you had to form a Government, then," Berenice asked, "you would not choose the members from one party?"
"Certainly not," Mannering answered. "Supposing I were the owner of Redford's car there, and wanted a driver. I should simply try to get the best man I could, and I should certainly not worry as to whether he were, say, a churchman or a dissenter. The best man for the post is what the country has a right to expect, whatever he may call himself, and the country doesn't get it. The people pay the piper, and I consider that they get shocking bad value for their money. The Boer War, for instance, would have cost us less than half as much if we had had the right men to direct the commercial side of it. That money would have been useful in the country just now."
"An absolute monarchy," Hester said, smiling, "would be really the most logical form of Government, then? But would it answer?"
"Why not?" Borrowdean asked. "If the monarch were incapable he would of course be shot!"
"A dictator—" Berenice began, but Mannering held out his hands, laughing.
"Think of my last few days, and spare me!" he begged. "I have thirty-six hours' holiday. How do you people spend your time here?"
Berenice took him away with her as a matter of course. Blanche watched them depart with a curious tightening of the lips. She was standing alone in the gateway of the hotel, and she watched them until they were out of sight. Borrowdean, sauntering out to buy some papers, paused for a moment as he passed.
"Your husband, Mrs. Mannering," he said, drily, "is a very fortunate man."
She made no reply, and Borrowdean passed on. Hester came out with a message from Lady Redford—would Mrs. Mannering care to motor over to Berneval for luncheon? Blanche shook her head. She scarcely heard the invitation. She was still watching the two figures disappearing in the distance. Hester understood, but she spoke lightly.
"I believe," she said, "that the Duchess still has hopes of Mr. Mannering."
"She is a persistent woman," Blanche answered. "They say that she generally succeeds. Let us go in."
* * * * *
Berenice was listening to Mannering's account of his last few days' electioneering.
"The whole affair came upon me like a thunderclap," he told her. "Richard Fardell found it out somehow, and he took me to see Parkins. But it was too late. Polden had hold of the story and meant to use it. I never imagined but that Parkins had been talking and this journalist had got hold of him by accident. Now I understand that it was Borrowdean who was pulling the strings."
"He traced Parkins out some time ago, and knew exactly where he was to be found."
"I think," Mannering said, "that it is time Borrowdean and I came to some understanding. I haven't said anything about it yet. I don't exactly know what to say now. You are a very generous woman."
"No," she said, "I don't think that. Sir Leslie is a schemer of the class I detest. I listened to him once, and I have regretted it ever since. Yet you must remember this! If it had not been for him you would have been at Blakely to-day."
His thoughts carried him backwards with a rush. Once more the thrall of that quiet life of passionless sweetness held him. He looked back upon it curiously, as a man who has passed into another country. Days of physical exaltation, alone with the sun and the wind and all the murmuring voices of Nature, God's life he had called it then. And now! The stress of battle was hard upon him. He was fighting in the front ranks, a somewhat cheerless battle, fighting for great causes with inefficient weapons. But he could not go back. Life had become a more strenuous, a more vital, a less beautiful thing! He felt himself ageing. All the inevitable sadness of the man in touch with the world's great problems was in his heart. But he could not go back.
"Yes," he said, quietly, "I owe that much to Borrowdean."
"There is a question," she said, "which I have wanted to ask you. Do you regret, or are you glad to have been forced out once more upon the world's stage?"
"How can I answer you?" he asked. "At Blakely I was as happy as I knew how to be, and until you came I was content! But to-day, well, there are different things. How can I answer your question, indeed? Tell me what happiness means! Tell me whether it is an ignoble or a praiseworthy state!"
Berenice was silent. Into her face there had come a sudden gravity. Mannering, glancing towards her, was at once conscious of the change. He saw the weariness so often and zealously repressed, the ageing of her face, the sudden triumph of the despair which in the quiet moments chilled her heart. It seemed to him that for that moment they had come into some closer communion. He bent over towards her.
"Ah!" he murmured, "you, too, are beginning to understand. Happiness is only for the ignorant. For you and for me knowledge has eaten its way too far into our lives. We climb all the while, but the flowers in the meadows are the fairest."
She shook her head.
"The little white flower which grows in the mountains is what we must always seek," she answered. "The meadows are for the others."
"We are accursed with this knowledge, and the desire for it," he declared, fiercely. "The suffering is for us, and the joy for the beasts of the field. Why not throw down the cards? We are the devil's puppets in this game of life."
"There is no place for us down there," she answered, sadly. "There is joy enough for them, because the finger has never touched their eyes. But for us—no, we have to go on! I was a foolish woman, Lawrence. I lost my sense of proportion. Traditions, you see, were hard to break away from. I did not understand. Let this be the end of all mention of such things between us. We have missed the turning, and we must go on. That is the hardest thing in life. One can never retrace one's steps."
"We go on—apart?"
"We must," she said. "Don't think me prejudiced, Lawrence. I must stand by my party. Theoretically, I think that you are the only logical politician I have ever known. Actually, I think that you are steering your course towards the sandbanks. You will fail, but you will fail magnificently. Well, that is something."
"It is a good deal," he answered, "but if I live long enough, and my strength remains, I shall succeed. I shall place the Government of this country upon an altogether different basis. I shall empty the work-houses and fill the factories. Nothing short of that will content me. Nothing short of that would content any man upon whose shoulders the burden has fallen."
"You have centuries of prejudice to fight," she warned him. "You may not succeed! Yet you have all my good wishes. I shall always watch you."
They turned homeward in silence. All that had passed between them seemed to be already far back in the past. Their retrogression seemed almost symbolical. They spoke of indifferent things.
"Tell me," he asked, "how you came to know what was going on in Leeds."
"It was your wife," she said, "who discovered it!"
"She saw a telegram on Sir Leslie's table at breakfast, a telegram from the man Polden. She read it and demanded an explanation. Sir Leslie tried all he could to wriggle out of it, but in vain. She appealed to me. Even I had a great deal of difficulty in dealing with him, but eventually he gave way."
"Then the telegram," Mannering asked, "wasn't that from you?"
She shook her head.
"It was from your wife," she said. "I cannot take much credit for myself. It is she whom you must thank for your election. I came out at rather a dramatic moment. Sir Leslie had just offered her money, five hundred pounds, I think, to give him back his telegram and say nothing. She appealed to me at once, and Sir Leslie looked positively foolish."
"I am much obliged to you for telling me," Mannering muttered. He remembered now that he had scarcely spoken a dozen words to his wife since his return.
"Mrs. Mannering appears to have your interests very much at heart," Berenice said, quietly. "She proved herself quite a match for Sir Leslie. I think that he would have left here at once, only we are expecting Clara back."
Mannering smiled scornfully.
"I do not think that even Clara," he said, "is quite fool enough not to recognize in Borrowdean the arrant opportunist. For my part I am glad that all pretence at friendship between us is now at an end. He is one of those men whom I should count more dangerous as a friend than as an enemy."
Berenice did not reply. They were already in the courtyard of the hotel. Blanche was in a wicker chair in a sunny corner, talking to a couple of young Englishmen. Berenice turned towards the steps. They parted without any further words.
PLAYING THE GAME
Mannering for a moment hesitated. One of the two young men who were talking to his wife he recognized as a former acquaintance of hers—one of a genus whom he had little sympathy with and less desire to know. While he stood there Blanche laughed at some remark made by one of her companions, and the laugh, too, seemed somehow to remind him of the old days. He moved slowly forward.
The young men strolled off almost at once. Mannering took a vacant chair by his wife's side.
"I have only just heard," he said, "how much I have to thank you for. I took it for granted somehow that it was the Duchess who had discovered our friend Borrowdean's little scheme and sent that telegram. Why didn't you sign it?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"It was the Duchess who made him chuck it up," she said. "I could never have made him do that. I was an idiot to let Parkins stay in England at all."
"I always understood," he said, "that he was dead."
"I let you think so," she answered. "I thought you might worry. But seriously, if he told the truth, now, after all these years, would any one take any notice of it?"
"Very likely not," he said, "so far as regards any criminal responsibility. But our political life is fenced about by all the middle-class love of propriety and hatred of all form of scandal. Parkins's story, authenticated or not, would have lost me my seat for Leeds."
"Then I am very glad," she said, "that I happened to see the telegram. Do you know where Parkins is now?"
"One of my supporters," he said, "a queer little man named Richard Fardell, has him in tow. He is bringing him up to London, I think."
"What are you doing this afternoon?" he asked.
She looked at him curiously.
"Mr. Englehall has asked me to go out in his car," she said. "I am rather tired of motoring, but I think I shall go."
Mannering lit a cigarette which he had just taken from his case.
"I don't think I should," he remarked.
She turned her head slowly, and looked at him.
"Why not?" she asked. "How can it concern you? Your plans for the afternoon are, I presume, already made!"
"It may not concern me directly," he answered, "but I have an idea that Mr. Englehall is not exactly the sort of person I care to have you driving about with."
She laughed hardly.
"I am most flattered by your interest in me," she declared. "Pray consider Mr. Englehall disposed of. You have some other plans, perhaps?"
"If you care to," he said, "we will walk down to the club for lunch and come home by the sea."
"Certainly! Unless you choose to bring Hester."
She rose slowly to her feet.
"No," she said. "Let us go alone. It will be almost the first time since we were married, I think. I am curious to see how much I can bore you! Will you wait here while I find a hat?"
She disappeared inside the hotel. Mannering watched her absently. In a vague sort of way he was wondering what it was that had made their married life so completely a failure. He had imagined her as asking very little from him, content with the shelter of his name and home, content at any rate without those things of which he had made no mention when he had spoken to her of marriage. And he was becoming gradually aware that it was not so. She expected, had hoped for more. The terms which he had zealously striven to cultivate with her were terms of which she clearly did not approve. The signs of revolt were already apparent.
Mannering became absorbed in thought. He remembered clearly the feelings with which he had gone to her and made his offer. He went over it all again. Surely he had made himself understood? But then there was her confession to him, the confession of her love. He had ignored that, but it was unforgetable. Had he not tacitly accepted the whole situation? If so, was he doing his duty? The shelter of his name and home, what were those to a warm-hearted woman, if she loved him? He had married her, loving another woman. She must have known this, but did she understand that he was not prepared to make any effort to accept the inevitable? He was still deep in thought when Berenice came out.
"What are you doing there all by yourself?" she asked. "Where is your wife?"
"She has gone to get a hat," he answered. "We thought of going to the club for dejeuner."
"A delightful idea," she said. "Do invite me, and I will take you in the car. Mrs. Mannering likes motoring, I know."
"Of course!" he said. "We shall be delighted!"
She beckoned to her chauffer, who was in the courtyard. Just then Blanche came out. She had changed her gown for one of plain white serge, and she wore a hat of tuscan straw which Mannering had once admired.
"You won't mind motoring, Mrs. Mannering?" Berenice said, as she approached. "I have invited myself to luncheon with you, and I am going to take you round to the club in the car."
Blanche stood quite still for a moment. The sun was in her eyes, and she lowered her parasol for a moment.
"It will be very pleasant," she said, quietly, "only I think that I will go in and change my hat. I thought that we were going to walk."
She retraced her steps, walking a little wearily. Berenice came and sat down by Mannering's side.
"I hope Mrs. Mannering does not object to my coming," she said. "It occurred to me that she was not particularly cordial."
"It is only her manner," he answered. "It is very good of you to take us."
"Your wife doesn't like me," Berenice said. "I wonder why. I thought that I had been rather decent to her."
"Blanche is a little odd," Mannering answered. "I am afraid that it is my fault. Here are the Redfords. I wonder if they would join us."
"Three," she murmured, "is certainly an awkward number."
In the end the party became rather a large one, for Lord Redford met some old friends at the club who insisted upon their joining tables. In the interval, whilst they waited for luncheon, Mannering contrived to have a word alone with his wife.
"I am not responsible," he said, "for this enlargement of our party. The Duchess invited herself."
"It does not matter," she declared, listlessly. "What are you doing afterwards?"
"Playing golf, I fancy," he answered. "You heard what Redford said about a foursome."
"And you are returning—when?"
"I must leave here at six to-morrow morning."
They were leaning over the white palings of the pavilion, looking out upon the last green. She seemed to be watching the approach of two players who were just coming in.
"It is a long way to come," she remarked, "for so short a time."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"The aftermath of a contested election is a thing to escape from," he said. "I felt that I wanted to get as far away as possible, and then again I wanted to find out who it was who had sent that telegram."
They sat apart at luncheon, and Blanche was much quieter than usual. The others were all old friends. It seemed to her more than ordinarily apparent that she was present on sufferance, accepted as Mannering's wife, as an evil to be endured, and, so far as possible, ignored. Mannering himself spoke to her now and then across the table. Lord Redford, always good-natured, made a few efforts to draw her into the conversation. But it seemed to her that she had lost her confidence. The freemasonry of old acquaintance which existed between all of them left her outside an invisible but very real circle. Words came to her with difficulty. She felt stupid, almost shy. When she made an effort to break through it she was acutely conscious of her failure. Her laugh was too hard, it lacked sincerity or restraint. The cigarette which she smoked out of bravado with her coffee, seemed somehow out of place. When at last luncheon was over Mannering left his place and came over to her.
"The Duchess and I," he said, "are going to play Lord Redford and Mrs. Arbuthnot. Won't you walk round with us? The links are really very pretty."
"Thanks, I hate watching golf," she answered, rising and shaking out her skirt. "Hester and I will walk home."
"Do take the car, Mrs. Mannering," Berenice said. "It will simply be waiting here doing nothing."
"Thank you," Blanche answered. "I shall enjoy the walk."
The foursome was played in very leisurely fashion. There was plenty of time for conversation.
"I don't quite understand your wife," Berenice said to Mannering. "Her dislike of me is a little too obvious. What does it mean? Do you know?"
He shook his head. He was looking very pale and tired.
"I am not sure that I know anything about it at all," he said. "I am beginning to distrust my own judgment."
"Your marriage—" she began, thoughtfully.
"Don't let us talk about it," he interrupted. "I tried to pay a debt. It seems to me that I have only incurred a fresh one."
They were silent for some time. Then their opponents lost a ball and displayed no particular diligence in attempting to find it. Berenice sat down upon a plank seat.
"Your marriage," she said, "seemed always to me a piece of quixotism. I never altogether understood it."
"It was an affair of impulse," he said, slowly. "Life from a personal point of view had lost all interest to me. I did not dream after my—shall we call it apostacy?—that I could rely upon even a modicum of your friendship. I looked upon myself as an outcast commencing life afresh. Then chance intervened. I thought I saw my way to making some atonement to a woman whose life I had certainly helped to ruin. That was where the serious part of the mistake came. I thought what I had to offer would be sufficient. I am beginning now to doubt it."
"And what are you going to do?" she asked, looking steadily away from him.
"Heaven knows," he answered, bitterly. "I cannot give what I do not possess."
Was it his fancy, or was there a gleam of satisfaction about her still, pale face? He went on.
"I don't want to play the hypocrite. On the other hand I don't want all that I have done to go for nothing. Can you advise me?"
"No, nor any one else," she answered, softly.
"Yet I can perhaps correct a little your point of view. I think that you overestimate your indebtedness to the woman whom you have made your wife. Her husband was a weak, dissipated creature and he was a doomed man long before that unfortunate day. It is even very questionable whether that scene in which you figured had anything whatever to do in hastening his death. That is a good many years ago, and ever since then you seem to have impoverished yourself to find her the means to live in luxury. I consider that you paid your debt over and over again, and that your final act of self-abnegation was entirely uncalled for. What more she wants from you I do not know. Perhaps I can imagine."
There was a moment's silence. She turned her head and looked at him—looked him in the eyes unshamed, yet with her secret shining there for him to see.
"There may be others, Lawrence," she said, "to whom you owe something. A woman cannot take back what she has given. There may be sufferers in the world whom you ought also to consider. And a woman loves to think that what she may not have herself is at least kept sacred—to her memory."
"Fore!" cried Lord Redford, who had found his ball. "Awfully decent of you people to wait so long. We were afraid you meant to claim the hole!"
Mannering rose to play his shot.
"The Duchess and I, Lord Redford," he said, lightly, "scorn to take small advantages. We mean to play the game!"
THE TRAGEDY OF A KEY
Blanche, in a plain black net gown, sat on Lord Redford's right hand at the hastily improvised dinner party that evening. Berenice, more subtly and more magnificently dressed, was opposite, by Mannering's side. The conversation seemed mostly to circle about them.
"A very charming place," Lord Redford declared. "I have enjoyed my stay here thoroughly. Let us hope that we may all meet here again next year," he added, raising his glass. "Mannering, you will drink to that, I hope?"
"With all my heart," Mannering answered. "And you, Blanche?"
She raised her almost untasted glass and touched it with her lips. She set it down with a faint smile. Berenice moved her head towards him.
"Your wife is not very enthusiastic," she remarked.
"She neither plays golf nor bathes," Mannering said. "It is possible that she finds it a little dull."
"Both are habits which it is possible to acquire," Berenice answered. "I am telling your husband, Mrs. Mannering," she continued, "that you ought to learn to play golf."
"Lawrence has offered to teach me more than once," Blanche answered, calmly. "I am afraid that games do not attract me. Besides, I am too old to learn!"
"My dear Mrs. Mannering!" Lord Redford protested.
"I am forty-two," Blanche replied, "and at that age a woman thinks twice before she begins anything new in the shape of vigorous exercise. Besides, I find plenty to amuse me here."
"Might one ask in what direction?" Berenice murmured. "I have found in the place many things that are delightful, but not amusing."
"I find amusement often in watching my neighbours," Blanche said. "I like to ask myself what it is they want, and to study their way of attaining it. You generally find that every one is fairly transparent when once you have found the key—and everybody is trying for something which they don't care for other people to know about."
The Duchess looked at Blanche steadily. There was a certain insolence, the insolence of her aristocratic birth and assured position in the level stare of her clear brown eyes. But Blanche did not flinch.
"I had no idea, Mrs. Mannering, that you had tastes of that sort," Berenice said, languidly. "Suppose you give us a few examples."
"Not for the world," Blanche answered, fervently. "Did you say that we were to have coffee outside, Lord Redford? How delightful! I wonder if Lady Redford is ready."
They all trooped out in a minute or two. Berenice laid her hand upon Mannering's arm.
"Your wife," she said, quietly, "is going a little too far. She is getting positively rude to me!"
Mannering muttered some evasive reply. He, too, had marked the note of battle in Blanche's tone. He had noticed, too, the unusual restraint of her manner. She had drunk little or no wine at dinner time, and she had talked quietly and sensibly. Directly they reached the courtyard she seated herself on a settee for two, and made room for him by her side.
"Come and tell me about the golf match," she said. "Who won?"
Mannering had no alternative but to obey. Lady Redford, however, drew her chair up close to theirs, and the conversation was always general. Berenice in a few minutes rose to her feet.
"Listen to the sea," she exclaimed. "Don't some of you want to come down to the rocks and watch it?"
Blanche rose up at once.
"Do come, Lawrence, if you are not too tired!" she said.
The whole party trooped out on to the promenade. Blanche passed her arm through her husband's, and calmly appropriated him.
"You can walk with whom you please presently, Lawrence," she said, "but I want you for a few minutes. I suppose you will admit that I have some claim?"
"Certainly," Mannering answered. "I have never denied it."
"I am your wife," Blanche said, "though heaven knows why you ever married me. The Duchess is, I suppose, the woman whom you would have married if you hadn't got into a mess with your politics. She is a very attractive woman, and you married me, of course, out of pity, or some such maudlin reason. But all the same I am here, and—I don't care what you do when I can't see you, but I won't have her make love to you before my face."
"The Duchess is not that sort of woman, Blanche," Mannering said, gravely.
"Isn't she?" Blanche remarked, unconvinced. "Well, I've watched her, and in my opinion she isn't very different from any other sort of woman. Do you wish you were free very much? I know she does!"
"Is there any object to be gained by this conversation?" Mannering asked. "Frankly, I don't like it. I made you no absurd promises when I married you. I think that you understood the position very well. So far as I know I have given you no cause to complain."
They had reached the end of the promenade. Blanche leaned over the rail. Her eyes seemed fixed upon a light flashing and disappearing across the sea. Mannering stood uncomfortably by her side.
"No cause to complain!" she repeated, as though to herself. "No, I suppose not. And yet, how much the better off do you think I am, Lawrence? I had friends before of some sort or another. Some of them pretended to like me, even if they didn't. I did as I chose. I lived as I liked. I was my own mistress. And now—well, there is no one! I enjoy the respectability of your name, the privilege of knowing your friends, the ability to pay my bills, but I should go stark mad if it wasn't for Hester. I gave myself away to you, I know. You married me for pity, I know. But what in God's name do I get out of it?"
A note of real passion quivered in her tone. Mannering looked down at her helplessly, taken wholly aback, without the power for a moment to formulate his thoughts. There was a touch of colour in her pale cheeks, her eyes were lit with an unusual fire. The faint moonlight was kind to her. Her features, thinner than they had been, seemed to have gained a certain refinement. She reminded him more than ever before of the Blanche of many years ago. He answered her kindly, almost tenderly.
"I am very sorry," he said, "if I have caused you any suffering. What I did I did for the best. I don't think that I quite understood, and I thought that you knew—what had come into my life."
"I knew that you cared for her, of course," she answered, with a little sob, "but I did not know that you meant to nurse it—that feeling. I thought that when we were married you would try to care for me—a little. I—Here are the others!"
Lord Redford, who had failed to amuse Berenice, and who had a secret preference for the woman who generally amused him, broke up their tete-a-tete. He led Blanche away, and Mannering followed with Berenice.
"What does this change in your wife mean?" she asked, abruptly.
"Change?" he repeated.
"Yes! She watches us! If it were not too absurd, one would believe her jealous. Of course, it is not my business to ask you on what terms you are with your wife, but—"
"You know what terms," he interrupted.
Her manner softened. She looked at him for a moment and then her eyes dropped.
"I am rather a hateful woman!" she said, slowly. "I wish I had not said that. I don't think we have managed things very cleverly, Lawrence. Still, I suppose life is made up of these sorts of idiotic blunders."
"Mine," he said, "has been always distinguished by them."
"And mine," she said, "only since I came to Blakely, and learnt to talk nonsense in your rose-garden! But come," she added, more briskly, "we are breaking our compact. We agreed to be friends, you know, and abjure sentiment."
"It seemed quite easy then," he remarked.
"And it is easy now! It must be," she added. "I have scarcely congratulated you upon your election. What it all means, and with which party you are going to vote, I scarcely know even now. But I can at least congratulate you personally."
"You are generous," he said, "for I suppose I am a deserter. As to where I shall sit, it is very hard to tell. I fancy myself that we are on the eve of a complete readjustment of parties. Wherever I may find myself, however, it will scarcely be with your friends."
"I realize that, and I am sorry," she said. "All that we need is a leader, and you might have been he. As it is, I suppose we shall muddle along somehow until some one comes out of the ruck strong enough to pull us together.... Come and see me in London, Lawrence. Who knows but that you may be able to convert me!"
"You are too staunch," he answered, "and you have not seen what I have seen."
"Didn't you once tell me at Blakely that politics for a woman was a mischosen profession—that we were at once too obstinate and too sentimental? Perhaps you were right. We don't come into touch with the same forces that you meet with, and we come into touch with others which make the world seem curiously upside-down. Good-night, Lawrence! I am going to my room quietly. Lady Redford wants to play bridge, and I don't feel like it! Bon voyage!"
Mannering stood alone in the little courtyard, lit now with hanging lights, and crowded with stray visitors who had strolled in from the streets. The rest of the party had gone into the salon beyond, and Mannering felt curiously disinclined to join them. Suddenly there was a touch upon his arm. He turned round. Blanche was standing there looking up at him. Something in her face puzzled him. Her eyes fell before his. She was pale, yet as he looked at her a flood of colour rushed into her cheeks. His momentary impression of her eyes was that they were very soft and very bright. She had thrown off her wrap, and with her left hand was holding up her white skirt. Her right hand was clenched as though holding something, and extended timidly towards him.
"I wanted to say good-night to you—and—there was something else—this!"
Something passed from her hand to his, something cold and hard. He looked at her in amazement, but she was already on her way up the grey stone steps which led from the courtyard into the hotel, and she did not turn back. He opened his hand and stared at what he found there. It was a key—number forty-four, Premier etage.
BLANCHE FINDS A WAY OUT
Mannering was conscious of an overpowering desire to be alone. He made his way out of the courtyard and back to the promenade. Some of the lights were already extinguished, and a slight drizzling rain was falling. He walked at once to the further wall, and stood leaning over, looking into the chaos of darkness. The key, round which his fingers were still tightly clenched, seemed almost to burn his flesh.
What to do? How much more of himself was he bound to surrender? Through a confusion of thoughts some things came to him then very clearly. Amongst others the grim, pitiless selfishness of his life. How much must she have suffered before she had dared to do this thing! He had taken up a burden and adjusted the weight to suit himself. He had had no thought for her, no care save that the seemliness of his own absorbed life might not be disturbed. And behind it all the other reason. What a pigmy of a man he was, after all.
A clock from the town struck eleven. He must decide! A vision of her rose up before him. He understood now her weakness and her strength. She was an ordinary woman, seeking the affection her sex demanded from its legitimate source. He understood the coming and going of the colour in her cheeks, her strained attempts to please, her barely controlled jealousy. In that mad moment when he had planned for her salvation he had imagined that she would have understood. What folly! Why should she? The complex workings of his innermost nature were scarcely likely to have been patent to her. What right had he to build upon that? What right, as an honest man, to contract a debt he never meant to pay? If he had not at the moment realized his responsibilities that was his own fault. From her point of view they were obvious enough, and it was from her point of view as well as his own that they must be considered.
He turned back to the hotel, walking a little unsteadily. All the time he was not sure that this was not a dream. And then on the wet pavement he came face to face with two cloaked figures, one of whom stopped short and called him by name. It was Berenice!
"You!" he exclaimed, more than ever sure that he was not properly awake.
"Is it so wonderful?" she answered. "To tell you the truth, I was not sleepy, and I felt like a little walk. You can go back now, Bryan," she said, turning to her maid. "Mr. Mannering will see me home."
As though by mutual consent they crossed to the sea-wall.
"What made you come out again?" she asked. "No, don't answer me! I think that I know."
"Impossible," he murmured.
"I was going up to my room," she said, "and as I passed the landing window which looks into the courtyard I saw you talking to your wife. I—I am afraid that I watched. I saw her leave you."
"What was it that she gave you? What is it that you have in your hand?"
He opened his fingers. She turned her head away. It seemed to him an eternity that she stood there. When she spoke her voice was scarcely more than a whisper.
"Lawrence," she said, "we have been very selfish, you and I! There have been no words between us, but I think the compact has been there all the same. It seemed to me somehow that it was a compensation, that it was part of the natural order of things, that as our own folly had kept us apart, you should still belong to me—in my thoughts. And I have no right to this, or any share of you, Lawrence."
He drew a little nearer to her. She moved instantly away.
"I am glad," she said, "that our party breaks up to-morrow. When we meet again, Lawrence, it must be differently. I am parting with a great deal that has been precious to me, but it must be. It is quite clear."
"I made no promise!" he cried, hoarsely. "I did not mean—"
She stopped him with a swift glance.
"Never mind that. You and I are not of the race of people who shrink from their duty, or fear to do what is right. Your wife's face taught me mine. Your conscience will tell you yours."
"You mean?" he exclaimed.
"You know what I mean. We shall meet again, of course, but this is none the less our farewell. No, don't touch me! Not even my hand, Lawrence. Don't make it any harder. Let us go in."
But he did not move. The place where they stood was deserted. From below the white spray came leaping up almost to their faces as the waves beat against the wall. Behind them the town was black and deserted, save where a few lights gleamed out from the hotel. She shivered a little, and drew her cloak around her.
"Come," she said, "I am getting cold and cramped."
He walked by her side to the hotel. At the foot of the steps she left him.
"We shall meet again in London," she said, quietly. "Don't be too hard upon your old friends when you take your seat. Remember that you were once one of us."
She looked round and waved her hand as she disappeared. He caught a glimpse of her face as she passed underneath the hanging lamp—the face of a tired woman suddenly grown old. With a little groan he made his way into the hotel, and slowly ascended the stairs.
Early the next morning Mannering left Bonestre, and in twenty-four hours he was back again, summoned by a telegram which had met him in London. It seemed to him that everybody at the station and about the hotel regarded him with shocked and respectful sympathy. Hester, looking like a ghost, took him at once to her room. He was haggard and weary with rapid travelling, and he sank into a chair.
"Tell me—the worst!" he said.
"She started with Mr. Englehall about mid-day," Hester said. "They had luggage, but I explained that he was going to Paris, she was coming back by train. At two o'clock we were rung up on the telephone. Their brake had snapped going down the hill by St. Entuiel, and the chauffeur—he is mad now—but they think he lost his nerve. They were dashed into a tree, and—they were both dead—when they were got out from the wreck."
"God in Heaven!" Mannering murmured, white to the lips.
There was a silence between them. Mannering had covered his head with his hands. Hester tried once or twice to speak, but the tears were streaming from her eyes. She had the air of having more to say. The white horror of tragedy was still in her face.
"There is a letter," she said at last. "She left a letter for you."
Mannering rose slowly to his feet and moved to the lamp. Directly he had broken the seal he understood. He read the first line and looked up. His eyes met Hester's.
"Who knows—this?" he asked, hoarsely.
"No one! They had not been gone two hours. I explained everything."
Then Mannering read on.
"My dear Husband:
"I call you that for the last time, for I am going off with Englehall to Paris. Don't be too shocked, and don't despise me too much. I am just a very ordinary woman, and I'm afraid I've bad blood in my veins. Anyhow, I can't go on living under a glass case any longer. The old life was rotten enough, but this is insupportable. I'm going to have a fling, and after that I don't care what becomes of me.
"Now, Lawrence, I don't want you to blame yourself. I did think perhaps that when we were married I might have got you to care for me a little, but I suppose that was just my vanity. It wasn't very possible with a woman like—well, never mind who—about. You did your best. You were very nice and very kind to me last night, but it wasn't the real thing, was it? I knew you hated being where you were. I could almost hear your sigh of relief when I let you go. The fact of it is, our marriage was a mistake. I ought to have been satisfied with your name, I suppose, and the position it gave me, but I'm not that sort of woman. I've been in Bohemia too long. I like cheery friends, even if their names are not in Debrett, and I must have some one to care for me, or to pretend to care for me. You know I've cared for you—only you in a certain way—but I'm not heroic enough to be content with a shadowy love. I'm not an idealist. Imagination doesn't content me in the least. I'd rather have an inferior substance than ideal perfection. You see, I'm a very commonplace person at heart, Lawrence—almost vulgar. But these are my last words to you, so I've gone in for plain speaking. Now you're rid of me.
"That's all! From your point of view I suppose, and your friends, I've gone to the devil. Don't be too sure of it. I'm going to have a good time, and when the end comes I'm willing to pay. If you are idiotic enough to come after me, I shall be angry with you for the first time in my life, and it wouldn't be the least bit of use. Englehall's an old friend of mine, and he's a good sort. He's wanted me to do this often enough for years, but I never felt quite like it. I believe he'd marry me after, but he's got a wife shut up somewhere.
"I expect you think this a callous sort of letter. Well, I can't help it. If it disgusts you with me, so much the better. I'm sorry for the scandal, but you will get over that. Good-bye, Lawrence. Forgive me all the bother I've been to you.
Mannering looked up from the letter, and again his eyes met Hester's. The secret was theirs alone. Very carefully he tore the pages into small pieces. Then he opened the stove and watched them consumed.
"No one will ever know," Hester said. "She said—when she left—that it was a morning's ride—but motors were so uncertain that she took a bag."
Mannering's eyes were filled once more with tears. The intolerable pity of the whole thing, its awful suddenness swept every other thought out of his mind. He remembered how anxiously she had tried to please him on that last night. He loathed himself for the cold brutality of his chilly affection. Hester came and knelt by his side, but she said nothing. So the hours passed.
THE PERSISTENCY OF BORROWDEAN
"And what does Mannering think of it all, I wonder!" Lord Redford remarked, lighting a fresh cigarette. "This may be his opportunity, who can tell!"
"Will he have the nerve to grasp it?" Borrowdean asked. "Mannering has never been proved in a crisis."
"He may have the nerve. I should be more inclined to question the desire," Lord Redford said. "For a man in his position he has always seemed to me singularly unambitious. I don't think that the prospect of being Prime Minister would dazzle him in the least. It is part of the genius of the politician too, to know exactly when and how to seize an opportunity. I can imagine him watching it come, examining it through his eyeglass, and standing on one side with a shrug of the shoulders."
"You do not believe, then," Berenice said, "that he is sufficiently in earnest to grasp it?"
"Exactly," Lord Redford said. "I have that feeling about Mannering, I must admit, especially during the last two years. He seems to have drawn away from all of us, to live altogether too absorbed and self-contained a life for a man who has great ambitions to realize, or who is in downright earnest about his work."
"What you all forget when you discuss Lawrence Mannering is this," Berenice said. "He holds his position almost as a sacred charge. He is absolutely conscientious. He wants certain things for the sake of the people, and he will work steadily on until he gets them. I believe it is the truth that he has no personal ambition, but if the cause he has at heart is to be furthered at all it must be by his taking office. Therefore I think that when the time comes he will take it."
"That sounds reasonable enough," Lord Redford admitted. "By the bye, did you notice that he is included in the house party at Sandringham again this week?"
Anstruther, the youngest Cabinet Minister, and Lord Redford's nephew, joined in the conversation.
"I can tell you something for a fact," he said. "My cousin is Lady-in-Waiting, and she's been up in town for a few days, and she asked me about Mannering. A Certain Personage thinks very highly of him indeed. Told some one that Mr. Mannering was the most statesman-like politician in the service of his country. I believe he'd sooner see Mannering Prime Minister than any one."
"But he has no following," Borrowdean objected.
"I think," Berenice said, slowly, "that he keeps as far aloof as possible for one reason, and one reason only. He avoids friendship, but he makes no enemies. He cultivates a neutral position whenever he can. What he is looking forward to, I am sure, is to found a coalition Government."
"It is very possible," Lord Redford remarked. "I wonder if he will ask me to join."
"Always selfish," Berenice laughed. "You men are all alike!"
"On the contrary," Lord Redford answered, "my interest was purely patriotic. I cannot imagine the affairs of the country flourishing deprived of my valuable services. Let us go and wander through the crowd. Members of a Government in extremes like ours ought not to whisper together in corners. It gives rise to comment."
Anstruther came hurrying up. He drew Redford on one side.
"Mannering is here," he said, quietly. "Just arrived from Sandringham. He is looking for you."
Almost as he spoke Mannering appeared. He did not at first see Berenice, and from the corner where she stood she watched him closely.
It was two years since those few weeks at Bonestre, and during all that time they had scarcely met. Berenice knew that he had avoided her. For twelve months he had declined all social engagements, and since then he had pleaded the stress of political affairs as an excuse for leading the life almost of a recluse. Unseen herself, she studied him closely. He was much thinner, and every trace of his once healthy colouring had disappeared. His eyes seemed deeper set. There were streaks of grey in his hair. But for all that to her he was unaltered. He was still the one man in the world. She saw him shake hands with Lord Redford and draw him a little on one side.
"Can you spare me five minutes?" he asked. "I have a matter to discuss with you."
"Certainly!" Lord Redford answered. "I am leaving directly, and I might drive you home if you liked. We heard that you were at Sandringham."
"I came up this afternoon," Mannering answered. "I heard that you were likely to be here, and as Lady Herrington had been kind enough to send me a card I came on."
Lord Redford nodded.
"Borrowdean and Anstruther are here too," he remarked. "We all felt in need of diversion. As you know very well, we're in a tight corner."
Berenice came out from her place. At the sound of the rustling of her skirts both men turned their heads. She wore a gown of black velvet and a wonderful rope of pearls hung from her neck. She raised her hand and smiled at Mannering.
"I am glad to see you again," she said, softly. "It is quite an age since we met, isn't it?"
He held her hand for a moment. The touch of his fingers chilled her. He greeted her with quiet courtesy, but there was no answering smile upon his lips.
"I have heard often of your movements from Clara," he said. "You have been very kind to her."
"It has never occurred to me in that light," she said. "Clara needs a chaperon, and I need a companion. We were talking yesterday of going to Cairo for the winter. My only fear is that I am robbing you of your niece."
"Please do not let that trouble you," he said. "Clara would be a most uncomfortable member of my household."
"But are you never at all lonely?" she asked.
"I never have time to think of such a thing," he answered. "Besides, I have Hester. She makes a wonderful secretary, and she seems to enjoy the work."
"I should like to have a talk with you some time," she said. "Won't you come and see me?"
"It is very kind of you to ask me," he said. "Don't think me churlish, but I go nowhere. I am trying to make up, you see, for my years of idleness."
She looked at him steadfastly, and her heart sank. The change in his outward appearance seemed typical of some deeper and more final alteration in his whole nature. She felt herself powerless against the absolute impenetrability of his tone and manner. She felt that he had fought a battle within himself and conquered; that for some reason or other he had decided to walk no longer in the pleasanter paths of life. She had come to him unexpectedly, but he had shown no sign of emotion. Her influence over him seemed to be wholly a thing of the past. She made one more effort.
"I think," she said, "that as one grows older one parts the less readily with the few friends who count. I hope that you will change your mind."
He bowed gravely, but he made no answer. Berenice took Borrowdean's arm and passed on. There was a little spot of colour in her cheeks. Borrowdean felt nerved to his enterprise.
"Let us go somewhere and sit down for a few minutes," he suggested. "The rooms are so hot this evening."
She assented without words, and he found a solitary couch in one of the further apartments.
"I wonder," he said, after a moment's pause, "whether I might say something to you, whether you would listen to me for a few minutes."
Berenice was absorbed in her own thoughts. She allowed him to proceed.
"For a good many years," he said, lowering his voice a little, "I have worked hard and done all I could to be successful. I wanted to have some sort of a position to offer. I am a Cabinet Minister now, and although I don't suppose we can last much longer this time, I shall have a place whenever we are in again."
The sense of what he was saying began to dawn upon her. She stopped him at once.
"Please do not say any more, Sir Leslie," she begged. "I should have given you credit for sufficient perception to have known beforehand the absolute impossibility of—of anything of the sort."
"You are still a young woman," he said, quietly. "The world expects you to marry again."
"I have no interest in what the world expects of me," she answered, "but I may tell you at once that my refusal has nothing whatever to do with the question of marriage in the abstract. You are a man of perception, Sir Leslie! It will be, I trust, sufficient if I say that I have no feelings whatever towards you which would induce me to consider the subject even for a moment."
She was unchanged, then! This time he recognized the note of finality in her tone. All the time and thought he had given to this matter were wasted. He had failed, and he knew why. He seldom permitted himself the luxury of anger, but he felt all the poison of bitter hatred stirring within him at that moment, and craving for some sort of expression. There was nothing he could do, nothing he could say. But if Mannering had been within reach then he would have struck him. He rose and walked slowly away.
HESTER THINKS IT "A GREAT PITY"
"You will understand," Mannering said, as the brougham drove off, "that you and I are speaking together merely as friends. I have nothing official to say to you. It would be presumption on my part to assume that the time is ripe for anything definite while you are still at the head of an unbeaten Government. But one learns to read the signs of the times. I think that you and I both know that you cannot last the session."
"It is a positive luxury at times," Redford answered, "to be able to indulge in absolute candour. We cannot last the session. You pulled us through our last tight corner, but we shall part, I suppose, on the New Tenement Bill, and then we shall come a cropper."
"The Opposition," he said, "are not strong enough to form a Government alone. And I do not think that a one-man Cabinet would be popular. It has been suggested to me that at no time in political history have the conditions been more favourable for a really strong coalition Government, containing men of moderate views on both sides. I am anxious to know whether you would be willing to join such a combination."