A LOST LEADER
E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM
Author of "A Maker of History," "Mysterious Mr. Sabin," "The Master Mummer," "Anna the Adventuress," Etc.
Illustrated by Fred Pegram
Boston Little, Brown & Company
II The Woman with an Alias
III Wanted—A Politician
IV The Duchess Asks a Question
V The Hesitation of Mr. Mannering
VII The Duchess's "At Home"
VIII The Mannering Mystery
IX The Pumping of Mrs. Phillimore
X The Man with a Motive
XI Mannering's Alternative
I Borrowdean makes a Bargain
II "Cherchez la Femme"
III One of the "Sufferers"
IV Debts of Honour
V Love versus Politics
VI The Conscience of a Statesman
VII A Blow for Borrowdean
VIII A Page from the Past
IX The Faltering of Mannering
X The End of a Dream
XI Borrowdean shows his "Hand"
XII Sir Leslie Borrowdean incurs a Heavy Debt
XIII The Woman and—the Other Woman
I Matrimony and an Awkward Meeting
II The Snub for Borrowdean
III Clouds—and a Call to Arms
V The Journalist Intervenes
VI Treachery and a Telegram
VII Mr. Mannering, M.P.
VIII Playing the Game
IX The Tragedy of a Key
X Blanche finds a Way Out
I The Persistency of Borrowdean
II Hester Thinks it "A Great Pity"
III Summoned to Windsor
IV Checkmate to Borrowdean
V A Brazen Proceeding
A LOST LEADER
The two men stood upon the top of a bank bordering the rough road which led to the sea. They were listening to the lark, which had risen fluttering from their feet a moment or so ago, and was circling now above their heads. Mannering, with a quiet smile, pointed upwards.
"There, my friend!" he exclaimed. "You can listen now to arguments more eloquent than any which I could ever frame. That little creature is singing the true, uncorrupted song of life. He sings of the sunshine, the buoyant air; the pure and simple joy of existence is beating in his little heart. The things which lie behind the hills will never sadden him. His kingdom is here, and he is content."
Borrowdean's smile was a little cynical. He was essentially of that order of men who are dwellers in cities, and even the sting of the salt breeze blowing across the marshes—marshes riven everywhere with long arms of the sea—could bring no colour to his pale cheeks.
"Your little bird—a lark, I think you called it," he remarked, "may be a very eloquent prophet for the whole kingdom of his species, but the song of life for a bird and that for a man are surely different things!"
"Not so very different after all," Mannering answered, still watching the bird. "The longer one lives, the more clearly one recognizes the absolute universality of life."
Borrowdean shrugged his shoulders, with a little gesture of impatience. He had left London at a moment when he could ill be spared, and had not travelled to this out-of-the-way corner of the kingdom to exchange purposeless platitudes with a man whose present attitude towards life at any rate he heartily despised. He seated himself upon a half-broken rail, and lit a cigarette.
"Mannering," he said, "I did not come here to simper cheap philosophies with you like a couple of schoolgirls. I have a real live errand. I want to speak to you of great things."
Mannering moved a little uneasily. He had a very shrewd idea as to the nature of that errand.
"Of great things," he repeated slowly. "Are you in earnest, Borrowdean?"
"Because," Mannering continued, "I have left the world of great things, as you and I used to regard them, very far behind. I am glad to see you here, of course, but I cannot think of any serious subject which it would be useful or profitable for us to discuss. You understand me, Borrowdean, I am sure!"
Borrowdean closely eyed this man who once had been his friend.
"The old sore still rankles, then, Mannering," he said. "Has time done nothing to heal it?"
Mannering laughed easily.
"How can you think me such a child?" he exclaimed. "If Rochester himself were to come to see me he would be as welcome as you are. In fact," he continued, more seriously, "if you could only realize, my friend, how peaceful and happy life here may be, amongst the quiet places, you would believe me at once when I assure you that I can feel nothing but gratitude towards those people and those circumstances which impelled me to seek it."
"What should you think, then," Borrowdean asked, watching his friend through half-closed eyes, "of those who sought to drag you from it?"
Mannering's laugh was as free and natural as the wind itself. He had bared his head, and had turned directly seawards.
"Hatred, my dear Borrowdean," he declared, "if I thought that they had a single chance of success. As it is—indifference."
Borrowdean's eyebrows were raised. He held his cigarette between his fingers, and looked at it for several moments.
"Yet I am here," he said slowly, "for no other purpose."
Mannering turned and faced his friend.
"All I can say is that I am sorry to hear it," he declared. "I know the sort of man you are, Borrowdean, and I know very well that if you have come down here with something to say to me you will say it. Therefore go on. Let us have it over."
Borrowdean stood up. His tone acquired a new earnestness. He became at once more of a man. The cynical curve of his lips had vanished.
"We are on the eve of great opportunities, Mannering," he said. "Six months ago the result of the next General Election seemed assured. We appeared to be as far off any chance of office as a political party could be. To-day the whole thing is changed. We are on the eve of a general reconstruction. It is our one great chance of this generation. I come to you as a patriot. Rochester asks you to forget."
Mannering held up his hand.
"Stop one moment, Borrowdean," he said. "I want you to understand this once and for all. I have no grievance against Rochester. The old wound, if it ever amounted to that, is healed. If Rochester were here at this moment I would take his hand cheerfully. But—"
"Ah! There is a but, then," Borrowdean interrupted.
"There is a but," Mannering assented. "You may find it hard to understand, but here is the truth. I have lost all taste for public life. The whole thing is rotten, Borrowdean, rotten from beginning to end. I have had enough of it to last me all my days. Party policy must come before principle. A man's individuality, his whole character, is assailed and suborned on every side. There is but one life, one measure of days, that you or I know anything of. It doesn't last very long. The months and years have a knack of slipping away emptily enough unless we are always standing to attention. Therefore I think that it becomes our duty to consider very carefully, almost religiously, how best to use them. Come here for a moment, Borrowdean. I want to show you something."
The two men stood side by side upon the grassy bank, Mannering broad-shouldered and vigorous, his clean, hard-cut features tanned with wind and sun, his eyes bright and vigorous with health; Leslie Borrowdean, once his greatest friend, a man of almost similar physique, but with the bent frame and listless pallor of a dweller in the crowded places of life. Without enthusiasm his tired eyes followed the sweep of Mannering's arm.
"You see those yellow sandhills beyond the marshes there? Behind them is the sea. Do you catch that breath of wind? Take off your hat, man, and get it into your lungs. It comes from the North Sea, salt and fresh and sweet. I think that it is the purest thing on earth. You can walk here for miles and miles in the open, and the wind is like God's own music. Borrowdean, I am going to say things to you which one says but once or twice in his life. I came to this country a soured man, cynical, a pessimist, a materialist by training and environment. To-day I speak of a God with bowed head, for I believe that somewhere behind all these beautiful things their prototype must exist. Don't think I've turned ranter. I've never spoken like this to any one else before, and I don't suppose I ever shall again. Here is Nature, man, the greatest force on earth, the mother, the mistress, beneficent, wonderful! You are a creature of cities. Stay with me here for a day or two, and the joy of all these things will steal into your blood. You, too, will know what peace is."
Borrowdean, as though unconsciously, straightened himself. If no colour came to his cheeks, the light of battle was at least in his eyes. This man was speaking heresies. The words sprang to his lips.
"Peace!" he exclaimed, scornfully. "Peace is for the dead. The last reward perhaps of a breaking heart. The life effective, militant, is the only possible existence for men. Pull yourself together, Mannering, for Heaven's sake. Yours is the faineant spirit of the decadent, masquerading in the garb of a sham primitivism. Were you born into the world, do you think, to loiter through life an idle worshipper at the altar of beauty? Who are you to dare to skulk in the quiet places, whilst the battle of life is fought by others?"
Another lark had risen almost from their feet, and, circling its way upwards, was breaking into song. And below, the full spring tide was filling the pools and creeks with the softly flowing, glimmering sea-water. The fishing boats, high and dry an hour ago, were passing now seaward along the silvery way. All these things Mannering was watching with rapt eyes, even whilst he listened to his companion.
"Dear friend," he said, "the world can get on very well without me, and I have no need of the world. The battle that you speak of—well, I have been in the fray, as you know. The memory of it is still a nightmare to me."
Borrowdean had the appearance of a man who sought to put a restraint upon his words. He was silent for a moment, and then he spoke very deliberately.
"Mannering," he said, "do not think me wholly unsympathetic. There is a side of me which sympathises deeply with every word which you have said. And there is another which forces me to remind you again, and again, that we men were never born to linger in the lotos lands of the world. You do not stand for yourself alone. You exist as a unit of humanity. Think of your responsibilities. You have found for yourself a beautiful corner of the world. That is all very well for you, but how about the rest? How about the millions who are chained to the cities that they may earn their living pittance, whose wives and children fill the churchyards, the echoes of whose weary, never-ceasing cry must reach you even here? They are the people, the sufferers, fellow-links with you in the chain of humanity. You may stand aloof as you will, but you can never cut yourself wholly away from the great family of your fellows. You may hide from your responsibilities, but the burden of them will lie heavy upon your conscience, the poison will penetrate sometimes into your most jealously guarded paradise. We are of the people's party, you and I, Mannering, and I tell you that the tocsin has sounded. We need you!"
A shadow had fallen upon Mannering's face. Borrowdean was in earnest, and his appeal was scarcely one to be treated lightly. Nevertheless, Mannering showed no sign of faltering, though his tone was certainly graver.
"Leslie," he said, "you speak like a prophet, but believe me, my mind is made up. I have taken root here. Such work as I can do from my study is, as it always has been, at your service. But I myself have finished with actual political life. Don't press me too hard. I must seem churlish and ungrateful, but if I listened to you for hours the result would be the same. I have finished with actual political life."
Borrowdean shrugged his shoulders despairingly. Such a man was hard to deal with.
"Mannering," he protested, "you must not, you really must not, send me away like this. You speak of your written work. Don't think that I underestimate it because I have not alluded to it before. I myself honestly believe that it was those wonderful articles of yours in the Nineteenth Century which brought back to a reasonable frame of mind thousands who were half led away by the glamour of this new campaign. You kindled the torch, my friend, and you must bear it to victory. You bring me to my last resource. If you will not serve under Rochester, come back—and Rochester will serve under you when the time comes."
Mannering shook his head slowly.
"I wish I could convince you," he said, "once and for all, that my refusal springs from no such reasons as you seem to imagine. I would sooner sit here, with a volume of Pater or Meredith, and this west wind blowing in my face, than I would hear myself acclaimed Prime Minister of England. Let us abandon this discussion once and for all, Borrowdean. We have arrived at a cul-de-sac, and I have spoken my last word."
Borrowdean threw his half-finished cigarette into the ever-widening creek below. It was characteristic of the man that his face showed no sign of disappointment. Only for several moments he kept silence.
"Come," Mannering said at last. "Let us make our way back to the house. If you are resolved to get back to town to-night, we ought to be thinking about luncheon."
"Thank you," Borrowdean said. "I must return."
They started to walk inland, but they had taken only a few steps when they both, as though by a common impulse, stopped. An unfamiliar sound had broken in upon the deep silence of this quiet land. Borrowdean, who was a few paces ahead, pointed to the bend in the road below, and turned towards his companion with a little gesture of cynical amusement.
"Behold," he exclaimed, "the invasion of modernity. Even your time-forgotten paradise, Mannering, has its civilizations, then. What an anachronism!"
With a cloud of dust behind, and with the sun flashing upon its polished metal parts, a motor car swung into sight, and came rushing towards them. Borrowdean, always a keen observer of trifles, noticed the change in Mannering's face.
"It is a neighbour of mine," he remarked. "She is on her way to the golf links."
"Golf links!" Borrowdean exclaimed.
"Behind the sandhills there," he remarked.
There was a grinding of brakes. The car came to a standstill below. A woman, who sat alone in the back seat, raised her veil and looked upwards.
"Am I late?" she asked. "Clara has gone on—they told me!"
She had addressed Mannering, but her eyes seemed suddenly drawn to Borrowdean. As though dazzled by the sun, she dropped her veil. Borrowdean was standing as though turned to stone, perfectly rigid and motionless. His face was like a still, white mask.
"I am so sorry," Mannering said, "but I have had a most unexpected visit from an old friend. May I introduce Sir Leslie Borrowdean—Mrs. Handsell!"
The lady in the car bent her head, and Borrowdean performed an automatic salute. Mannering continued:
"I am afraid that I must throw myself upon your mercy! Sir Leslie insists upon returning this afternoon, and I am taking him back for an early luncheon. You will find Clara and Lindsay at the golf club. May we have our foursome to-morrow?"
"Certainly! I will not keep you for a moment. I must hurry now, or the tide will be over the road."
She motioned the driver to proceed, but Borrowdean interposed.
"Mannering," he said, "I am afraid that the poison of your lotos land is beginning to work already. May I stay until to-morrow and walk round with you whilst you play your foursome? I should enjoy it immensely."
Mannering looked at his friend for a moment in amazement. Then he laughed heartily.
"By all means!" he answered. "Our foursome stands, then, Mrs. Handsell. This way, Borrowdean!"
The two men turned once more seaward, walking in single file along the top of the grassy bank. The woman in the car inclined her head, and motioned the driver to proceed.
THE WOMAN WITH AN ALIAS
Borrowdean seemed after all to take but little interest in the game. He walked generally, some distance away from the players, on the top of the low bank of sandhills which fringed the sea. He was one of those men whom solitude never wearies, a weaver of carefully thought-out schemes, no single detail of which was ever left to chance or impulse. Such moments as these were valuable to him. He bared his head to the breeze, stopped to listen to the larks, watched the sea-gulls float low over the lapping waters, without paying the slightest attention to any one of them. The instinctive cunning which never deserted him led him without any conscious effort to assume a pleasure in these things which, as a matter of fact, he found entirely meaningless. It led him, too, to choose a retired spot for those periods of intensely close observation to which he every now and then subjected his host and the woman who was now his partner in the game. What he saw entirely satisfied him. Yet the way was scarcely clear.
They caught him up near one of the greens, and he stood with his hands behind him, and his eyeglass securely fixed, gravely watching them approach and put for the hole. To him the whole performance seemed absolutely idiotic, but he showed no sign of anything save a mild and genial interest. Clara, Mannering's niece, who was immensely impressed with him, lingered behind.
"Don't you really care for any games at all, Sir Leslie?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"I know that you think me a barbarian," he remarked, smiling.
"On the contrary," she declared, "that is probably what you think us. I suppose they are really a waste of time when one has other things to do! Only down here, you see, there is nothing else to do."
He looked at her thoughtfully. He had never yet in his life spoken half a dozen words with man, woman or child without wondering whether they might not somehow or other contribute towards his scheme of life. Clara Mannering was pretty, and no doubt foolish. She lived alone with her uncle, and possibly had some influence over him. It was certainly worth while.
"I do not know you nearly well enough, Miss Mannering," he said, smiling, "to tell you what I really think. But I can assure you that you don't seem a barbarian to me at all."
She was suddenly grave. It was her turn to play a stroke. She examined the ball, carefully selected a club from her bag, and with a long, easy swing sent it flying towards the hole.
"Wonderful!" he murmured.
She looked up at him and laughed.
"Tell me what you are thinking," she insisted.
"That if I played golf," he answered, "I should like to be able to play like that."
"But you must have played games sometimes," she insisted.
"When I was at Eton—" he murmured.
Mannering looked back, smiling.
"He was in the Eton Eleven, Clara, and stroked his boat at college. Don't you believe all he tells you."
"I shall not believe another word," she declared.
"I hope you don't mean it," he protested, "or I must remain dumb."
"You want to go off and tramp along the ridges by yourself," she declared. "Confess!"
"On the contrary," he answered, "I should like to carry that bag for you and hand out the—er—implements."
She unslung it at once from her shoulder.
"You have rushed upon your fate," she said. "Now let me fasten it for you."
"Is there any remuneration?" he inquired, anxiously.
"You mercenary person! Stand still now, I am going to play. Well, what do you expect?"
"I am not acquainted with the usual charges," he answered, "but to judge from the weight of the clubs—"
"Give me them back, then," she cried.
"Nothing," he declared, firmly, "would induce me to relinquish them. I will leave the matter of remuneration entirely in your hands. I am convinced that you have a generous disposition."
"The usual charge," she remarked, "is tenpence, and twopence for lunch."
"I will take it in kind!" he said.
She laughed gaily.
"Give me a mashie, please."
He peered into the bag.
"Which of these clubs now," he asked, "rejoices in that weird name?"
She helped herself, and played her shot.
"I couldn't think," she said, firmly, "of paying the full price to a caddie who doesn't know what a mashie is."
"I will be thankful," he murmured, "for whatever you may give me—even if it should be that carnation you are wearing."
She shook her head.
"It is worth more than tenpence," she said.
"Perhaps by extra diligence," he suggested, "I might deserve a little extra. By the bye, why does your partner, Mr. Lindsay, isn't it, walk by himself all the time?"
"He probably thinks," she answered, demurely, "that I am too familiar with my caddie."
"You will understand," he said, earnestly, "that if my behaviour is not strictly correct it is entirely owing to ignorance. I have no idea as to the exact position a caddie should take up."
"What a pity you are going away so soon," she said. "I might have given you lessons."
"Don't tempt me," he begged. "I can assure you that without me the constitution of this country would collapse within a week."
She looked at him—properly awed.
"What a wonderful person you are!"
"I am glad," he said, meekly, "that you are beginning to appreciate me."
"As a caddie," she remarked, "you are not, I must confess, wholly perfect. For instance, your attention should be entirely devoted to the person whose clubs you are carrying, instead of which you talk to me and watch Mrs. Handsell."
He was almost taken aback. For a pretty girl she was really not so much of a fool as he had thought her.
"I deny it in toto!" he declared.
"Ah, but I know you," she answered. "You are a politician, and you would deny anything. Don't you think her very handsome?"
Borrowdean gravely considered the matter, which was in itself a somewhat humorous thing. Slim and erect, with a long, graceful neck, and a carriage of the head which somehow suggested the environment of a court, Mrs. Handsell was distinctly, even from a distance, a pleasant person to look upon. He nodded approvingly.
"Yes, she is good-looking," he admitted. "Is she a neighbour of yours?"
"She has taken a house within a hundred yards of ours," Clara Mannering answered. "We all think that she is delightful."
"Is she a widow?" Borrowdean asked.
"I imagine so," she answered. "I have never heard her speak of her husband. She has beautiful dresses and things. I should think she must be very rich. Stand quite still, please. I must take great pains over this stroke."
A wild shot from Clara's partner a few minutes later resulted in a scattering of the little party, searching for the ball. For the first time Borrowdean found himself near Mrs. Handsell.
"I must have a few words with you before I go back," he said, nonchalantly.
"Say that you would like to try my motor car," she answered. "What do you want here?"
"I came to see Mannering."
"It would be," he remarked, smoothly, "a mistake to quarrel."
They separated, and immediately afterwards the ball was found. A little later on the round was finished. Clara attributed her success to the excellence of her caddie. Mrs. Handsell deplored a headache, which had put her off her putting. Lindsay, who was in a bad temper, declined an invitation to lunch, and rode off on his bicycle. The rest of the little party gathered round the motor car, and Borrowdean asked preposterous questions about the gears and the speeds.
"If you are really interested," Mrs. Handsell said, languidly, "I will take you home. I have only room for one, unfortunately, with all these clubs and things."
"I should be delighted," Borrowdean answered, "but perhaps Miss Mannering—"
"Clara will look after me," Mannering interrupted, smiling. "Try to make an enthusiast of him, Mrs. Handsell. He needs a hobby badly."
They started off. She leaned back in her seat and pulled her veil down.
"Do not talk to me here," she said. "We shall have a quarter of an hour before they can arrive."
Borrowdean assented silently. He was glad of the respite, for he wanted to think. A few minutes' swift rush through the air, and the car pulled up before a queer, old-fashioned dwelling house in the middle of the village. A smart maid-servant came hurrying out to assist her mistress. Borrowdean was ushered into a long, low drawing-room, with open windows leading out on to a trim lawn. Beyond was a walled garden bordering the churchyard.
Mrs. Handsell came back almost immediately. Borrowdean, turning his head as she entered, found himself studying her with a new curiosity. Yes, she was a beautiful woman. She had lost nothing. Her complexion—a little tanned, perhaps—was as fresh and soft as a girl's, her smile as delightfully full of humour as ever. Not a speck of grey in her black hair, not a shadow of embarrassment. A wonderful woman!
"The one thing which we have no time to do is to stand and look at one another," she declared. "However, since you have tried to stare me out of countenance, what do you find?"
"I find you unchanged," he answered, gravely.
"Naturally! I have found a panacea for all the woes of life. Now what do you want down here?"
"Of course. But you won't get him. He declares that he has finished with politics, and I never knew a man so thoroughly in earnest."
"No man has ever finished with politics!"
"A platitude," she declared. "As for Mannering, well, for the first few weeks I felt about him as I suppose you do now. I know him better now, and I have changed my mind. He is unique, absolutely unique! Do you think that I could have existed here for nearly two months without him?"
"May I inquire," Borrowdean asked, blandly, "how much longer you intend to exist here with him?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"All my days—perhaps! He and this place together are an anchorage. Look at me! Am I not a different woman? I know you too well, my dear Leslie, to attempt your conversion, but I can assure you that I am—very nearly in earnest!"
"You interest me amazingly," he remarked, smiling. "May I ask, does Mannering know you as Mrs. Handsell only?"
"This," he continued, "is not the Garden of Eden. I may be the first, but others will come who will surely recognize you."
"I must risk it," she answered.
Borrowdean swung his eyeglass backwards and forwards. All the time he was thinking intensely.
"How long have you been here?" he asked.
"Very nearly two months," she answered. "Imagine it!"
"Quite long enough for your little idyll," he said. "Come, you know what the end of it must be. We need Mannering! Help us!"
"Not I," she answered, coolly. "You must do without him for the present."
"You are our natural ally," he protested. "We need your help now. You know very well that with a slip of the tongue I could change the whole situation."
"Somehow," she said, "I do not think that you are likely to make that slip."
"Why not?" he protested. "I begin to understand Mannering's firmness now. You are one of the ropes which hold him to this petty life—to this philandering amongst the flower-pots. You are one of the ropes I want to cut. Why not, indeed? I think that I could do it."
"Do you want a bribe?"
"I want Mannering."
"So do I!"
"He can belong to you none the less for belonging to us politically."
"Possibly! But I prefer him here. As a recluse he is adorable. I do not want him to go through the mill."
"You don't understand his importance to us," Borrowdean declared. "This is really no light affair. Rochester and Mellors both believe in him. There is no limit to what he might not ask."
"He has told me a dozen times," she said, "that he never means to sit in Parliament again."
"There is no reason why he should not change his mind," Borrowdean answered. "Between us, I think that we could induce him."
"Perhaps," she answered. "Only I do not mean to try."
"I wish I could make you understand," he said impatiently, "that I am in deadly earnest."
"Don't call it that."
"Very well, then," she declared, "I will tell him the truth myself."
"That," he answered, "is all that I should dare to ask. He would come to us to-morrow."
"You used not to underrate me," she murmured, with a glance towards the mirror.
"There is no other man like Mannering," he said. "He abhors any form of deceit. He would forgive a murderer, but never a liar."
"My dear Leslie," she said, "as a friend—and a relative—"
"Neither counts," he interrupted. "I am a politician."
She sat quite still, looking away from him. The peaceful noises from the village street found their way into the room. A few cows were making their leisurely mid-day journey towards the pasturage, a baker's cart came rattling round the corner. The west wind was rustling in the elms, bending the shrubs upon the lawn almost to the ground. She watched them idly, already a little shrivelled and tarnished with their endless struggle for life.
"I do not wish to be melodramatic," she said, slowly, "but you are forcing me into a corner. You know that I am rich. You know the people with whom I have influence. I want to purchase Lawrence Mannering's immunity from your schemes. Can you name no price which I could pay? You and I know one another fairly well. You are an egoist, pure and simple. Politics are nothing to you save a personal affair. You play the game of life in the first person singular. Let me pay his quittance."
Borrowdean regarded her thoughtfully.
"You are a strange woman," he said. "In a few months' time, when you are back in the thick of it all, you will be as anxious to have him there as we are. You will not be able to understand how you could ever have wished differently. This is rank sentiment, you know, which you have been talking. Mannering here is a wasted power. His life is an unnatural one."
"He is happy," she objected.
"How do you know? Will he be as happy, I wonder, when you have gone, when there is no longer a Mrs. Handsell? I think not! You are one of the first to whom I should have looked for help in this matter. You owe it to us. We have a right to demand it. For myself personally I have no life now outside the life political. I am tired of being in opposition. I want to hold office. One mounts the ladder very slowly. I see my way in a few months to going up two rungs at a time. We want Mannering. We must have him. Don't force me to make that slip of the tongue."
The sound of a gong came through the open window. She rose to her feet.
"We are keeping them waiting for luncheon," she remarked. "I will think over what you have said."
Sir Leslie carefully closed the iron gate behind him, and looked around.
"But where," he asked, "are the roses?"
Clara laughed outright.
"You may be a great politician, Sir Leslie," she declared, "but you are no gardener. Roses don't bloom out of doors in May—not in these parts at any rate."
"I understand," he assented, humbly. "This is where the roses will be."
"That wall, you see," she explained, "keeps off the north winds, and the chestnut grove the east. There is sun here all the day long. You should come to Blakely in two months' time, Sir Leslie. Everything is so different then."
"You forget, my dear child," he murmured, "that you are speaking to a slave."
"A slave!" she repeated. "How absurd! You are a Cabinet Minister, are you not, Sir Leslie?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I was once," he answered, "until an ungrateful country grew weary of the monotony of perfect government and installed our opponents in our places. Just now we are in opposition."
"In opposition," she repeated, a little vaguely.
"Meaning," he explained, "that we get all the fun, no responsibility, and, alas, no pay."
"How fascinating," she exclaimed. "Do sit down here, and tell me all about it. But I forgot. You are not used to sitting down out of doors. Perhaps you will catch cold."
Sir Leslie smiled.
"I am inclined to run the risk," he said gravely, "if you will share it. Seriously, though, these rustic seats are rather a delusion, aren't they, from the point of view of comfort?"
"There shall be cushions," she declared, "for the next time you come."
"Ah, the next time! I dare not look forward to it. So you are interested in politics, Miss Mannering?"
"Well, I believe I am," she answered, a little doubtfully. "To tell you the truth, Sir Leslie, I am shockingly ignorant. You must live in London to be a politician, mustn't you?"
"It is necessary," he assented, "to spend some part of your time there, if you want to come into touch with the real thing."
"Then I am very interested in politics," she declared. "Please go on."
He shook his head.
"I would rather you talked to me about the roses. You should ask your uncle to tell you all about politics. He knows far more than I do."
"More than you! But you have been a Cabinet Minister!" she exclaimed.
"So was your uncle once," he answered. "So he could be again whenever he chose."
She looked at him incredulously.
"You don't really mean that, Sir Leslie?"
"Indeed I do!" he asserted. "There was never a man within my recollection or knowledge who in so short a time made for himself a position so brilliant as your uncle. There is no man to-day whose written word carries so much weight with the people."
She sighed a little doubtfully.
"Then if that is so," she said, "I cannot imagine why we live down here, hundreds of miles away from everywhere. Why did he give it up? Why is he not in Parliament now?"
"It is to ask him that question, Miss Mannering," Borrowdean said, "that I am here. No wonder it seems surprising to you. It is surprising to all of us."
She looked at him eagerly.
"You mean, then, that you—that his party want him to go back?" she asked.
"You have told him this?"
"Of course! It was my mission!"
"Sir Leslie, you must tell me what he said."
"My dear young lady," he said, "it is rather a painful subject with me just now. Yet since you insist, I will tell you. Something has come over your uncle which I do not understand. His party—no, it is his country that needs him. He prefers to stay here, and watch his roses blossom."
"It is wicked of him!" she declared, energetically.
"It is inexplicable," he agreed. "Yet I have used every argument which can well be urged."
"Oh, you must think of others," she begged. "If you knew how weary one gets of this place—a man, too, like my uncle! How can he be content? The monotony here is enough to drive even a dull person like myself mad. To choose such a life, actually to choose it, is insanity!"
Borrowdean raised his head. He had heard the click of the garden gate.
"They are coming," he said. "I wish you would talk to your uncle like this."
"I only wish," she answered, passionately, "that I could make him feel as I do."
They entered the garden, Mannering, bareheaded, following his guest. Borrowdean watched them closely as they approached. The woman's expression was purely negative. There was nothing to be learned from the languid smile with which she recognized their presence. Upon Mannering, however, the cloud seemed already to have fallen. His eyebrows were set in a frown. He had the appearance of a man in some manner perplexed. He carried two telegrams, which he handed over to Borrowdean.
"A boy on a bicycle," he remarked, "is waiting for answers. Two telegrams at once is a thing wholly unheard of here, Borrowdean. You really ought not to have disturbed our postal service to such an extent."
Borrowdean smiled as he tore them open.
"I think," he said, "that I can guess their contents. Yes, I thought so. Can you send me to the station, Mannering?"
"I can—if it is necessary," Mannering answered. "Must you really go?"
"I must be in the House to-night," he said, a little wearily. "Rochester is going for them again."
"You didn't take a pair?" Mannering asked.
"It isn't altogether that," Borrowdean answered, "though Heaven knows we can't spare a single vote just now. Rochester wants me to speak. We are a used-up lot, and no mistake. We want new blood, Mannering!"
"I trust that the next election," Mannering said, "may supply you with it. Will you walk round to the stables with me? I must order a cart for you."
"I shall be glad to," Borrowdean answered.
They walked side by side through the chestnut grove. Borrowdean laid his hand upon his friend's arm.
"Mannering," he said, slowly, "am I to take it that you have spoken your last word? I am to write my mission down a failure?"
"A failure without doubt, so far as regards its immediate object," Mannering assented. "For the rest, it has been very pleasant to see you again, and I only wish that you could spare us a few more days."
Borrowdean shook his head.
"We are better apart just now, Mannering," he said, "for I tell you frankly that I do not understand your present attitude towards life—your entire absence of all sense of moral responsibility. Are you indeed willing to be written down in history as a philanderer in great things, to loiter in your flower gardens, whilst other men fight the battle of life for you and your fellows? Persist in your refusal to help us, if you will, Mannering, but before I go you shall at least hear the truth."
"Be precise, my dear friend. I shall hear your view of the truth!"
"I do not accept the correction," Borrowdean answered, quickly. "There are times when a man can make no mistake, and this is one of them. You shall hear the truth from me this afternoon, and when your days here have been spun out to their limit—your days of sybaritic idleness—you shall hear it again, only it will be too late. You are fighting against Nature, Mannering. You were born to rule, to be master over men. You have that nameless gift of genius—power—the gift of swaying the minds and hearts of your fellow men. Once you accepted your destiny. Your feet were firmly planted upon the great ladder. You could have climbed—where you would."
A curious quietness seemed to have crept over Mannering. When he answered, his voice seemed to rise scarcely above a whisper.
"My friend," he said, "it was not worth while!"
Borrowdean was almost angry.
"Not worth while," he repeated, contemptuously. "Is it worth while, then, to play golf, to linger in your flower gardens, to become a dilettante student, to dream away your days in the idleness of a purely enervating culture? What is it that I heard you yourself say once—that life apart from one's fellows must always lack robustness. You have the instincts of the creator, Mannering. You cannot stifle them. Some day the cry of the world to its own children will find its echo in your heart, and it may be too late. For sooner or later, my friend, the place of all men on earth is filled."
For a moment that somewhat cynical restraint which seemed to divest of enthusiasm Borrowdean's most earnest words, and which militated somewhat against his reputation as a public speaker, seemed to have fallen from him. Mannering, recognizing it, answered him gravely enough, though with no less decision.
"If you are right, Borrowdean," he said, "the suffering will be mine. Come, your time is short now. Perhaps you had better make your adieux to my niece and Mrs. Handsell."
They all came out into the drive to see him start. A curious change had come over the bright spring day. A grey sea-fog had drifted inland, the sunlight was obscured, the larks were silent. Borrowdean shivered a little as he turned up his coat-collar.
"So Nature has her little caprices, even—in paradise!" he remarked.
"It will blow over in an hour," Mannering said. "A breath of wind, and the whole thing is gone."
Borrowdean's farewells were of the briefest. He made no further allusion to the object of his visit. He departed as one who had been paying an afternoon call more or less agreeable. Clara waved her hand until he was out of sight, then she turned somewhat abruptly round and entered the house. Mannering and Mrs. Handsell remained for a few moments in the avenue, looking along the road. The sound of the horse's feet could still be heard, but the trap itself was long since invisible.
"The passing of your friend," she remarked, quietly, "is almost allegorical. He has gone into the land of ghosts—or are we the ghosts, I wonder, who loiter here?"
Mannering answered her without a touch of levity. He, too, was unusually serious.
"We have the better part," he said. "Yet Borrowdean is one of those men who know very well how to play upon the heartstrings. A human being is like a musical instrument to him. He knows how to find out the harmonies or strike the discords."
She turned away.
"I am superstitious," she murmured, with a little shiver. "I suppose that it is this ghostly mist, and the silence which has come with it. Yet I wish that your friend had stayed away from Blakely!"
* * * * *
Upstairs from her window Clara also was gazing along the road where Borrowdean had disappeared. And Borrowdean himself was puzzling over a third telegram which Mannering had carelessly passed on to him with his own, and which, although it was clearly addressed to Mannering, he had, after a few minutes' hesitation, opened. It had been handed in at the Strand Post-office.
"I must see you this week.—Blanche."
A few hours later, on his arrival in London, Borrowdean repeated this message to Mannering from the same post-office, and quietly tearing up the original went down to the House.
"I cannot tell," he reported to his chief, "whether we have succeeded or not. In a fortnight or less we shall know."
THE DUCHESS ASKS A QUESTION
Clara stepped through the high French window, and with skirts a little raised crossed the lawn. Lindsay, who was following her, stopped to light a cigarette.
"We're getting frightfully modern," she remarked, turning and waiting for him. "Mrs. Handsell and I ought to have come out here, and you and uncle ought to have stayed and yawned at one another over the dinner-table."
"You have an excellent preceptress—in modernity," he remarked. "May I?"
"If you mean smoke, of course you may," she answered. "But you may not say or think horrid things about my best friend. She's a dear, wonderful woman, and I'm sure uncle has not been like the same man since she came."
"I'm glad you appreciate that," he answered. "Do you honestly think he's any the better for it?"
"I think he's immensely improved," she answered. "He doesn't grub about by himself nearly so much, and he's had his hair cut. I'm sure he looks years younger."
"Do you think that he seems quite as contented?"
"Contented!" she repeated, scornfully. "That's just like you, Richard. He hasn't any right to be contented. No one has. It is the one absolutely fatal state."
He stretched himself out upon, the seat, and frowned.
"You're picking up some strange ideas, Clara," he remarked.
"Well, if I am, that's better than being contented to all eternity with the old ones," she replied. "Mrs. Handsell is doing us all no end of good. She makes us think! We all ought to think, Richard."
"What on earth for?"
"You are really hopeless," she murmured. "So bucolic—"
"Thanks," he interrupted. "I seem to recognize the inspiration. I hate that woman."
"My dear Richard!" she exclaimed.
"Well, I do!" he persisted. "When she first came she was all right. That fellow Borrowdean seems to have done all the mischief."
"Poor Sir Leslie!" she exclaimed, demurely. "I thought him so delightful."
"Obviously," he replied. "I didn't. I hate a fellow who doesn't do things himself, and has a way of looking on which makes you feel a perfect idiot. Neither Mr. Mannering nor Mrs. Handsell—nor you—have been the same since he was here."
"I gather," she said, softly, "that you do not find us improved."
"I do not," he answered, stolidly. "Mrs. Handsell has begun to talk to you now about London, of the theatres, the dressmakers, Hurlingham, Ranelagh, race meetings, society, and all that sort of rot. She talks of them very cleverly. She knows how to make the tinsel sparkle like real gold."
She laughed softly.
"You are positively eloquent, Richard," she declared. "Do go on!"
"Then she goes for your uncle," he continued, without heeding her interruption. "She speaks of Parliament, of great causes, of ambition, until his eyes are on fire. She describes new pleasures to you, and you sit at her feet, a mute worshipper! I can't think why she ever came here. She's absolutely the wrong sort of woman for a quiet country place like this. I wish I'd never let her the place."
"You are a very foolish person," she answered. "She came here simply because she was weary of cities and wanted to get as far away from them as possible. Only last night she said that she would be content never to breathe the air of a town again."
Lindsay tossed his cigarette away impatiently.
"Oh, I know exactly her way of saying that sort of thing!" he exclaimed. "A moment later she would be describing very cleverly, and a little regretfully, some wonderful sight or other only to be found in London."
"Really," she declared, "I am getting afraid of you. You are more observant than I thought."
"There is one gift, at least," he answered, "which we country folk are supposed to possess. We know truth when we see it. But I am saying more than I have any right to. I don't want to make you angry, Clara!"
She shook her head.
"You won't do that," she said. "But I don't think you quite understand. Let me tell you something. You know that I am an orphan, don't you? I do not remember my father at all, and I can only just remember my mother. I was brought up at a pleasant but very dreary boarding-school. I had very few friends, and no one came to see me except my uncle, who was always very kind, but always in a desperate hurry. I stayed there until I was seventeen. Then my uncle came and fetched me, and brought me straight here. Now that is exactly what my life has been. What do you think of it?"
"Very dull indeed," he answered, frankly.
"I have never been in London at all," she continued. "I really only know what men and women are like from books, or the one or two types I have met around here. Now, do you think that that is enough to satisfy one? Of course it is very beautiful here, I know, and sometimes when the sun is shining and the birds singing and the sea comes up into the creeks, well, one almost feels content. But the sun doesn't always shine, Richard, and there are times when I am right down bored, and I feel as though I'd love to draw my allowance from uncle, pack my trunk, and go up to London, on my own!"
He laughed. Somehow all that she had said had sounded so natural that some part of his uneasiness was already passing away.
"Yours," he admitted, "is an extreme case. I really don't know why your uncle has never taken you up for a month or so in the season."
"We have lived here for four years," she said, "and he has never once suggested it. He goes himself, of course, sometimes, but I am quite sure that he doesn't enjoy it. For days before he fidgets about and looks perfectly miserable, and when he comes back he always goes off for a long walk by himself. I am perfectly certain that for some reason or other he hates going. Yet he seems to have been everywhere, to know every one. To hear him talk with Mrs. Handsell is like a new Arabian Nights to me."
"Your uncle was a very distinguished man," he said. "I was only at college then, but I remember what a fuss there was in all the papers when he resigned his seat."
"What did they say was the reason?" she asked, eagerly.
"A slight disagreement with Lord Rochester, and ill-health."
"Absurd!" she exclaimed. "Uncle is as strong as a horse."
"Would you like him," he asked, "to go back into political life?"
Her eyes sparkled.
"Of course I should."
"You may have your wish," he said, a little sadly. "I don't fancy he has been quite the same man since Sir Leslie Borrowdean was here, and Mrs. Handsell never leaves him alone for a moment."
"You talk as though they were conspirators!" she exclaimed.
"That is precisely what I believe them to be," he answered, grimly.
"Can't help it," he declared. "I will tell you something that I have no right to tell you. Mrs. Handsell is not your friend's real name."
"Richard, how exciting!" she exclaimed. "Do tell me how you know."
"Her solicitors told mine so when she took the farm."
"Not her real name? But—I wonder they let it to her."
"Oh, her references were all right," he answered. "My people saw to that. I do not mean to insinuate for a moment that she had any improper reasons for calling herself Mrs. Handsell, or anything else she liked. The explanations given were quite satisfactory. But she has become very friendly with you and with your uncle, and I think that she ought to have told you both about it."
"Do you know her real name?"
"No! It is not my affair. My solicitors knew, and they were satisfied. Perhaps I ought not to have told you this, but—"
"Hush!" she said. "They are coming out. If you like you can take me down to the orchard wall, and we will watch the tide come in—"
Mannering came out alone and looked around. The full moon was creeping into the sky. The breath of wind which shook the leaves of the tall elm trees that shut in his little demesne from the village, was soft, and, for the time of year, wonderfully mild. Below, through the orchard trees, were faint visions of the marshland, riven with creeks of silvery sea. He turned back towards the room, where red-shaded lamps still stood upon the white tablecloth, a curiously artificial daub of color after the splendour of the moonlit land.
"The night is perfect," he exclaimed. "Do you need a wrap, or are you sufficiently acclimatized?"
She came out to him, tall and slender in her black dinner gown, the figure of a girl, the pale, passionate face of a woman, to whom every moment of life had its own special and individual meaning. Her eyes were strangely bright. There was a tenseness about her manner, a restraint in her tone, which seemed to speak of some emotional crisis. She passed out into the quiet garden, in itself so exquisitely in accordance with this sleeping land, and even Mannering was at once conscious of some alien note in these old-world surroundings which had long ago soothed his ruffled nerves into the luxury of repose.
"A wrap!" she murmured. "How absurd! Come and let us sit under the cedar tree. Those young people seem to have wandered off, and I want to talk to you."
"I am content to listen," he answered. "It is a night for listeners, this!"
"I want to talk," she continued, "and yet—the words seem difficult. These wonderful days! How quickly they seem to have passed."
"There are others to follow," he answered, smiling. "That is one of the joys of life here. One can count on things!"
"Others for you!" she murmured. "You have pitched your tent. I came here only as a wanderer."
"But scarcely a month ago," he exclaimed, "you too—"
"Don't!" she interrupted. "A month ago it seemed to me possible that I might live here always. I felt myself growing young again. I believed that I had severed all the ties which bound me to the days which have gone before. I was wrong. It was the sort of folly which comes to one sometimes, the sort of folly for which one pays."
His face was almost white in the moonlight. His deep-set grey eyes were fixed upon her.
"You were content—a month ago," he said. "You have been in London for two days, and you have come back a changed woman. Why must you think of leaving this place? Why need you go at all?"
"My friend," she said, softly, "I think that you know why. It is very beautiful here, and I have never been happier in all my life. But one may not linger all one's days in the pleasant places. One sleeps through the nights and is rested, but the days—ah, they are different."
"I cannot reason with you," he said. "You are too vague. Yet—you say that you have been contented here."
"I have been happy," she murmured.
"Then you must speak more plainly," he insisted, a note of passion throbbing in his hoarse tones. "I ask you again—why do you talk of going back, like a city slave whose days of holiday are over? What is there in the world more beautiful than the gifts the gods shower on us here? We have the sun, and the sea, and the wind by day and by night—this! It is the flower garden of life. Stay and pluck the roses with me."
"Ah, my friend," she murmured, "if that were possible!"
She sank down into the seat under the cedar tree. Her hands were clasped nervously together, her head was downcast.
"Your words," she continued, her voice sinking almost to a whisper, yet lacking nothing in distinctness, "are like wine. They mount to the head, they intoxicate, they tempt! And yet all the time one knows that it is not possible. Surely you yourself—in your heart—must know it!"
"Not I!" he answered, fiercely. "The world would have claimed me if it could, but I laughed at it. Our destinies are our own. With our own fingers we mould and shape them."
"There is the little voice," she said, "the little voice, which rings even through our dreams. Life—actual, militant life, I mean—may have its vulgarities, its weariness and its disappointments, but it is, after all, the only place for men and women. The battle may be sordid, and the prizes tinsel—yet it is only the cowards who linger without."
"Then let you and me be cowards," he answered. "We shall at least be happy."
She shook her head a little sadly.
"I doubt it," she answered. "Happiness is a gift, not a prize. It comes seldom enough to those who seek it."
He laughed scornfully.
"I am not a seeker," he cried. "I possess. It seems to me that all the beautiful things of life are here to-night. Listen! Do you hear the sea, the full tide sweeping softly up into the land, a long drawn out undernote of breathless harmonies, the rustling of leaves there in the elm trees, the faint night wind, like the murmuring of angels? Lift your head! Was there anything ever sweeter than the perfume from that hedge of honeysuckle? What can a man want more than these things—and—"
"And the woman he loves! There, I have said it. Useless words enough! You know very well that I love you. I meant to have said nothing just yet, but who could help it—on such a night as this! Don't talk of going away, Berenice. I want you here always."
She held herself away from him. Her face was deathly white now. Her eyes questioned him fiercely.
"Before I answer you. You were in London last week?"
"I had business."
"In Chelsea, in Merton Street?"
He gave a little gasp.
"What do you know about that?" he asked, almost roughly.
"You were seen there, not for the first time. The person whom you visited—I have heard about. She is somewhat notorious, is she not?"
He was very quiet, pale to the lips. A strange, hunted expression had crept into his eyes.
"I want to know what took you there. Am I asking too much? Remember that you have asked me a good deal."
"Has Borrowdean anything to do with this?" he demanded.
"I have known Sir Leslie Borrowdean for many years," she answered, "and it is quite true that we have discussed certain matters—concerning you."
"You have known Sir Leslie Borrowdean for many years," he repeated. "Yet you met here as strangers."
"Sir Leslie divined my wishes," she answered. "He knew that it was my wish to spend several months away from everybody, and, if possible, unrecognized. Perhaps I had better make my confession at once. My name is not Mrs. Handsell. I am the Duchess of Lenchester."
Mannering stood as though turned to stone. The woman watched him eagerly. She waited for him to speak—in vain. A sudden mist of tears blinded her. She closed her eyes. When she opened them Mannering was gone.
THE HESITATION OF MR. MANNERING
The peculiar atmosphere of the room, heavy with the newest perfume from the Burlington Arcade, and the scent of exotic flowers, at no time pleasing to him, seemed more than usually oppressive to Mannering as he fidgetted about waiting for the woman whom he had come to see. He was conscious of a restless longing to open wide the windows, take the flowers from their vases, throw them into the street, and poke out the fire. The little room, with all its associations, its almost pathetic attempts at refinement, its furniture which reeked of the Tottenham Court Road, was suddenly hateful to him. He detested his presence there, and its object. He was already in a state of nervous displeasure when the door opened.
The girl who entered seemed in a sense as ill in accord with such surroundings as himself. She was plainly dressed in black, her hair brushed back, her complexion pale, her eyes brilliant with a not altogether natural light. She regarded him with a curious mixture of fear and welcome. The latter, however, triumphed easily. She came towards him with out-stretched hand and a delightful smile.
"You;—so soon again!" she exclaimed. "Were there—so many mistakes?"
Mannering's face softened. He was half ashamed of his irritation. He answered her kindly.
"Scarcely any, Hester," he answered. "Your typing is always excellent."
Her anxiety was only half allayed.
"There is nothing else wrong?" she demanded, breathlessly.
"Nothing whatever," he assured her. "Where is your mother?"
She sat down. The light died out of her face.
"Out!" she answered. "Gone to Brighton for the day. What do you want with her?"
"Nothing," he answered, gravely. "I only wanted to know whether we were likely to be interrupted."
"She will not be in for some time," the girl answered. "She is almost certain to stay down there and dine."
"Hester," he asked, "do you know any one—a man named Borrowdean? Sir Leslie Borrowdean?"
She shook her head a little doubtfully.
"I have heard mother speak of him," she said.
"He is a friend of hers, then?"
"She met him at a supper party at the Savoy a few weeks ago," she answered.
"I believe so! She talks about him a great deal. Why do you ask me this?"
"I cannot tell you, Hester," he said, gravely. "By the bye, do you think that she is likely to have mentioned my name to him?"
The girl flushed up to her eyebrows.
"I—I don't know! I am sorry," she faltered. "You know what mother is. If any one asked her questions she would be more than likely to answer them. I do hope that she has not been making mischief."
He left her anxiety unrelieved. For some few moments he did not speak at all. Already he fancied that he could see the whole pitiful little incident—Borrowdean, diplomatic, genial, persistent, the woman a fool, fashioned to his own making; himself the sacrifice. Yet the meaning of it all was dark to him.
She moved over to his side. Her eyes and tone were full of appeal. She sat close to him, her long white fingers nervously interlocked.
"I am afraid of you. More afraid than ever to-day," she murmured. "You look stern, and I don't understand why you have come."
"To see you, Hester," he answered, with a sudden impulse of kindness.
"Ah, no!" she interrupted, choking back a little sob. "We both know so well that it is not that. It is pity which brings you, pity and nothing else. You know very well what a difference it makes to me. If I have your work to do, and a letter sometimes, and see you now and then, I can bear everything. But it is not easy. It is never easy!"
"Of course it is not," he assented. "Hester, have you thought over what I said to you last time I was here?"
She shook her head.
"What is the use of thinking?" she asked, quietly. "I could not leave her."
"You mean that she would not let you go?" Mannering asked.
"No! It is not that," the girl answered. "Sometimes I think that she would be glad. It is not that."
He nodded gravely.
"I understand. But—"
"If you understand, please do not say any more."
"But I must, Hester," he persisted. "There is no one else to give you advice. I know all that you can tell me, and I say that this is no fitting home for you. Your mother's friends are not fit friends for you. She has chosen her way in life, and she will not brook any interference. You can do no good by remaining with her. On the contrary, you are doing yourself a great deal of harm. I am old enough to be your father, child. Wise enough, I hope, to be your adviser. You shall be my secretary, and come and live at Blakely."
A faint flush stole into her anaemic. One realized then that under different conditions she might have been pretty. Her face was no longer expressionless.
"You are so kind," she said, softly. "I shall always like to think of this. And yet—it is impossible."
"It is difficult to explain," she said. "But my being here makes a difference. I found it out once when I went away for a week. Some of—of mother's friends came to the house then whom she will not have when I am here. If I were away altogether—oh, I can't explain, but I would not dare to go."
Mannering seemed to have much to say—and said nothing. This queer, pale-faced girl, with her earnest eyes and few simple words, had silenced him. She was right—right at least from her own point of view. A certain sense of shame suddenly oppressed him. He was acutely conscious of his only half-admitted reason for this visit. He had argued for himself. It was his own passionate desire to free himself from associations that were little short of loathsome which had prompted this visit. And then what he had dreaded most of all happened. As they sat facing one another in the silent, half-darkened room, Mannering trying to bring himself into accord with half-admitted but repugnant convictions, she watching him hopelessly, the tinkle of a hansom bell sounded outside. The sudden stopping of a horse, the rattle of a latchkey, and she was in the room. Mannering rose to his feet with a little exclamation.
The woman stood and looked in upon them. She wore a pink cloth gown, a flower-garlanded hat, a white coaching veil, beneath which her features were indistinguishable. She brought with her a waft of strong perfume. Her figure was a living suggestion of the struggle between maturity and the corsetiere. Before she spoke she laughed—not altogether pleasantly.
"You here again!" she exclaimed to Mannering. "Upon my word! I'm not a ghost! Hester, go and see about some tea, and a brandy and soda. Billy Foa brought me up on his motor, and I'm half choked with dust."
The girl rose obediently and quitted the room. The woman untwisted her veil, drew out the pins from her hat, and threw both upon the sofa. Then she turned suddenly upon Mannering.
"Look here," she said, "the last twice you've been here you seem to have carefully chosen times when I am out. I don't understand it. It can't be that you want to see that chit of a girl of mine. Why don't you come when I ask you? Why do you act as though I were something to be avoided?"
Mannering rose to his feet.
"I came to-day without knowing where you were," he answered, "but I will admit that I wished to see Hester."
"I have asked her to come and live at Blakely with my niece and myself. She is an excellent typist, and I require a secretary."
The woman looked at him angrily. Without her veil she displayed features not in themselves unattractive, but a complexion somewhat impaired by the use of cosmetics. The powder upon her cheeks was even then visible.
"What about me?" she asked, sharply.
Mannering looked her steadily in the face.
"I do not think," he said, "that such a life would suit you."
She was an angry woman, and she did not become angry gracefully.
"You mean that I'm not good enough for you and your friends in the country. That's what you mean, isn't it? And I should like to know, if I'm not, whose fault it is. Tell me that, will you?"
Mannering flinched, though almost imperceptibly.
"I meant simply what I said," he said. "Blakely would not suit you at all. We have few friends there, and our simple life would not attract you in the slightest. With Hester it is different. She would have her work, in which she takes some interest, and I believe the change would be in every way good for her."
"Well, she shan't come," the woman said, throwing herself into a chair, and regarding him insolently. "I'm not going to live all alone—and be talked about. Don't stare at me like that, Lawrence. I'm the child's mother, am I not?"
"It is because you are her mother," he said, quietly, "that I thought you might be glad to find a suitable home for her."
"What's good enough for me ought to be good enough for her," she answered, doggedly.
Mannering was silent for a moment. This woman seemed to belong to a different world from that with whose denizens he was in any way familiar. Years of isolation, and a certain epicureanism of taste, from which necessity had never taken the fine edge, had made him a little intolerant. He could see nothing that was not absolutely repulsive in this woman, whose fine eyes were seeking even now to attract his admiration. She was making the best of herself. She had chosen the darkest corner of the room, and her pose was not ungraceful. Her skirts were skilfully raised to show just as much as possible of her long, slender foot, with the patent shoes and silver buckles. She knew that her ankles were above reproach, and her dress becoming. A dozen men had paid her compliments during the day, yet she knew that every admiring glance, every whispered word which had come to her to-day, or for many days past, would count for nothing if only she could pierce for a single moment the unchanging coldness of the man who sat watching her now with the face of a Sphynx. A slow tide of passion welled up in her heart. Was not he a man and free, and was not she a woman? It was not much she asked from him, no pledge, no bondage. His kindness only, she told herself, was all she craved. She wanted him to look at her as other men looked at her. Who was he that he should set himself on a pedestal? Perhaps he had grown shy from the rust of his country life, the slow drifting apart from the world of men and women. Perhaps—she rose swiftly to her feet and crossed the room.
She leaned over him, one hand on the back of his chair, the other seeking in vain for his.
"Lawrence," she said, "you grow colder and more unkind every day. What have I done to change you so? I am a foolish woman, I know, but there are things which I cannot forget."
He rose at once to his feet, and stood apart from her.
"I thought," he said, "I believed that we understood one another."
She laughed softly.
"I am very sure that I do not understand you," she said. "And as for you—I do not believe that you have ever understood any woman. There was a time, Lawrence—"
His impassivity was gone. He threw out his hands.
"Remember," he said, "there is a promise between us. Don't break it. Don't dare to break it!"
She looked at him curiously. A new idea concerning this man and his avoidance of her crept into her mind. It was at least consoling to her vanity, and it left her a chance. She had roused him too, at last, and that was worth something.
"Why not?" she asked, moving a step towards him. "It was a foolish promise. It has done neither of us any good. It has spoilt a part of my life. Why should I keep silence, and let it go on to the end? Do you know what it has made of me, this promise?"
He shrank back.
"Don't! I have done all I could!"
"All you could!" she repeated, scornfully. "You drew a diagram of your duty, and you have moved like a machine along the lines. You talk like a Pharisee, Lawrence! Come! You knew me years ago! Do you find me changed? Tell me the truth."
"Yes," he admitted, "you are changed."
"You admit that. Perhaps, perhaps," she continued more slowly, "there are things about me now of which you don't approve. My friends are a little fast, I go out alone, I daresay people have said things. There, you see I am very frank. I mean to be! I mean you to know that whatever I am, the fault is yours."
"You are as God or the Devil made you," he answered, hardly. "You are what you would have become, in any case."
Already he hated the memory of his words. True or not, they were spoken to a woman who was cowering under them as under a lash. He was at a disadvantage now. If she had met him with anger they might have cried quits. But he had seen her wince, seen her sudden pallor, and it was not a pleasant sight.
"Forgive me," he said. "I do not know quite what I am saying. You have broken a compact which I had hoped might have lasted all our days. Let us be better friends, if you will, but let us keep that promise which we made to one another."
"It was so many years ago," she said, in a low tone. "I am afraid to think how many. It makes me lonely, Lawrence, to look ahead. I am afraid of growing old!"
He looked at her steadily. Yes, the signs were there. She was a good-looking woman to-day, a handsome woman in some lights, but she had reached the limit. It was a matter of a few years at most, and then—He stood with his hands behind his back.
"It is a fear which we must all share," he said, quietly. "The only antidote is work."
"Work!" she repeated, scornfully. "That is the man's resource. What about us? What about me?"
"It is no matter of sex," he declared. "We all make our own choice. We are what we make of ourselves."
"It is not true," she answered, bluntly. "Not with us, at any rate. We are what our menkind make of us. Oh, what cowards you all are."
"Yes. You do what mischief you choose, and then soothe your conscience with platitudes. You will take hold of pleasure with both hands, but your shoulders are not broad enough for the pack of responsibility. Don't look at me as though I were a mile off, Lawrence, as though this were simply an impersonal discussion. I am speaking to you—of you. You avoid me whenever you can. I don't often get a chance of speaking to you. You shall listen now. You live the life of a poet and a scholar, they tell me. You live in a beautiful home, you take care that nothing ugly or disturbing shall come near you. You are pleased with it, aren't you? You think yourself better than other men. Well, you are making a big mistake. A man doesn't have to answer for his own life only. He has to carry the burden of the lives his influence has wrecked and spoilt. I know just what you think of me. I am a middle-aged woman, clinging to my youth and pleasures—the sort of pleasures for which you have a vast contempt. There isn't an hour of my days of which you wouldn't disapprove. I'm not your sort of woman at all. And yet I was all right once, Lawrence, and what I am now—" she paused, "what I am now—"
Hester came in, followed by a maid with the tea-tray. She looked from one to the other a little anxiously. The atmosphere of the room seemed charged with electricity. Mannering's face was grey. Her mother was nervously crumpling into a ball her tiny lace handkerchief. Mrs. Phillimore rose abruptly from her seat.
"Have you got the brandy and soda, Hester?" she asked.
"I'm afraid I forgot it, mother," the girl answered. "Mayn't I make you some Russian tea? I've had the lemon sliced."
The woman laughed, a little unnaturally.
"What a dutiful daughter," she exclaimed. "That's right! I want looking after, don't I? I'll have the tea, Hester, but send it up to my room. I'm going to lie down. That wretched motoring has given me a headache, and I'm dining out to-night. Good-bye, Mr. Mannering, if I don't see you again."
She nodded, without glancing in his direction, and left the room. The maid arranged the tea-tray and departed. Hester showed no signs of being aware that anything unusual had happened. She made a little desultory conversation. Mannering answered in monosyllables.
When at last he put his cup down he rose to go.
"You are quite sure, Hester," he said. "You have made up your mind?"
She, too, rose, and came over to him.
"You know that I am right," she answered, quietly. "The life you offer me would be paradise, but I dare not even think of it. I may not do any good here, perhaps I don't, but I can't come away."
"You are a true daughter of your sex," he said, smiling. "The keynote of your life must be sacrifice."
"Perhaps we are not so unwise, after all," she answered, "for I think that there are more happy women in the world than men."
"There are more, I think, who deserve to be, dear," he answered, holding her hand for a moment. "Good-bye!"
Mannering walked in somewhat abstracted fashion to the corner of the street, and signalled for a hansom. With his foot upon the step he hesitated.
THE DUCHESS'S "AT HOME"
"The perfect man," the Duchess murmured, as she stirred her tea, "does not exist. I know a dozen perfect women, dear, dull creatures, and plenty of men who know how to cover up the flaw. But there is something in the composition of the male sex which keeps them always a little below the highest pinnacle."
"It is purely a matter of concealment," her friend declared. "Women are cleverer humbugs than men."
Borrowdean shrugged his shoulders.
"I know your perfect woman!" he remarked, softly. "You search for her through the best years of your life, and when you have found her you avoid her. That," he added, handing his empty cup to a footman, "is why I am a bachelor."
The Duchess regarded him complacently.
"My dear Sir Leslie," she said, "I am afraid you will have to find a better reason for your miserable state. The perfect woman would certainly have nothing to do with you if you found her."
"On the contrary," he declared, confidently, "I am convinced that she would find me attractive."
The Duchess shook her head.
"Your theory," she declared, "is antiquated. Like and unlike do not attract. We seek in others the qualities which we strive most zealously to develop in ourselves. I know a case in point."
"Good!" Sir Leslie remarked. "I like examples. The logic of them appeals to me."
The Duchess half closed her eyes. For a moment she was silent. She seemed to be listening to something a long way off. Through the open windows of her softly shaded drawing-rooms, odourous with flowers, came the rippling of water falling from a fountain in the conservatory, the lazy hum of a mowing machine on the lawn, the distant tinkling of a hansom bell in the Square. But these were not the sounds which for a moment had changed her face.
"I myself," she murmured, "am an example!"
A woman who had risen to go sat down again.
"Do go on, Duchess!" she exclaimed. "Anything in the nature of a personal confession is so fascinating, and you know you are such an enigma to all of us."
"Am I?" she answered, smiling. "Then I am likely to remain so."
"A perfectly obvious person like myself," the woman remarked, "is always fascinated by the unusual. But if you are really not going to give yourself away, Duchess, I am afraid I must move on. One hates to leave your beautifully cool rooms. Shall I see you to-night, I wonder, at Esholt House?"
There were still many people in the room. Some fresh arrivals occupied his hostess's attention, and Borrowdean, with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, prepared to depart. He had come, hoping for an opportunity to be alone for a few minutes with the Duchess, and himself a skilful tactician in such small matters, he could not but admire the way she had kept him at arm's length. And then the opportunity for a master stroke came. A servant sought him out with a card. A man of method, he seldom left his rooms without instructions as to where he was to be found.
"The gentleman begged you to excuse his coming here, sir," the man whispered, confidentially, "but he is returning to the country this evening, and was anxious to see you. He is quite ready to wait your convenience."
Borrowdean held the card in his hand, scrutinizing it with impassive face. Was this a piece of unparalleled good fortune, or simply a trick of the fates to tempt him on to catastrophe? With that wonderful swiftness of thought which was part of his mental equipment he balanced the chances—and took his risk.
"I should be glad," he said, looking the servant in the face, "if you would show the gentleman up here as an ordinary visitor. I should like to find you down stairs when I come out. You understand?"
"Perfectly, sir," the man answered, and withdrew.
Mannering had no idea whose house he was in. The address Borrowdean's servant had given him had been simply 81, Grosvenor Square. Nevertheless, he was conscious of a little annoyance as he followed the servant up the broad stairs. He would much have preferred waiting until Borrowdean had concluded his call. He remembered his grey travelling clothes, and all his natural distaste for social amenities returned with unabated force as he neared the reception-rooms and heard the softly modulated rise and fall of feminine voices, the swishing of silks and muslin, the faint perfume of flowers and scents which seemed to fill the air. At the last moment he would have withdrawn, but his guide seemed deaf. His words passed unheeded. His name, very softly but very distinctly, had been announced. He had no option but to pass into the room and play the cards which fate and his friend had dealt him.
Borrowdean rose to greet his friend. Mannering, not knowing who his hostess might be, and feeling absolutely no curiosity concerning her, confined his attention wholly to the man whom he had come to seek.
"I did not wish to disturb you here, Borrowdean," he said, quickly, "but if your call is over, could you come away for a few minutes? I have a matter to discuss with you."
Borrowdean smiled slightly, and laid his hand upon the other's shoulder.
"By all means, Mannering," he answered. "But since you have discovered our little secret, don't you think that you had better speak to our hostess?"
Mannering was puzzled, but his eyes followed Borrowdean's slight gesture. Berenice, who at the sound of his voice had suddenly abandoned her conversation and risen to her feet, was within a few feet of him. A sudden light swept into Mannering's face.
"You!" he exclaimed softly.
Her hands went out towards him. Borrowdean, with an almost imperceptible movement, checked his advance.
"So you see we are found out, after all, Duchess," he said, turning to her. "You have known Mrs. Handsell, Mannering, let me present you now to her other self. Duchess, you see that our recluse has come to his senses at last. I must really introduce you formally: Mr. Mannering—the Duchess of Lenchester."
Berenice, arrested in her forward movement, watched Mannering's face eagerly. So carefully modulated had been Borrowdean's voice that no word of his had reached beyond their own immediate circle. It was as though a silent tableau were being played out between the three, and Mannering, to whom repression had become a habit, gave little indication of anything he might have felt. Borrowdean's fixed smile betokened nothing but an ordinary interest in the introduction of two friends, and the Duchess's back was turned towards her friends. They both waited for Mannering to speak.
"This," he said, slowly, "is a surprise! I had no idea when I called to see Borrowdean here, of the pleasure which was in store for me."
Borrowdean dropped his eyeglass.
"Are you serious, my dear Mannering?" he exclaimed. "Do you mean to say that you came here—"
"Only to see you," Mannering interrupted. "That you should know perfectly well. I am sorry to hurry you out, but the few minutes' conversation which I desired with you is of some importance, and my train leaves in an hour. I hope that you will pardon me," he added, looking steadily at Berenice, "if I hurry away one of your guests."
She laughed quite in her natural manner.
"I will forgive anything," she said, "except that you should hurry away yourself so unceremoniously. Come and sit down near me. I want to talk to you about Blakeley."
She swept her gown on one side, disclosing a vacant place on the settee where she had been sitting. For a second her eyes said more to him than her courteous but half-careless words of invitation. Mannering made no movement forward.
"I am sorry," he said, "but it is impossible for me to stay!"
She seemed to dismiss him and the whole subject with a careless little shrug of the shoulders, which was all the farewell she vouchsafed to either of them. A woman who had just entered seemed to absorb her whole attention. The two men passed out.
Mannering spoke no word until they stood upon the pavement. Then he turned almost savagely upon his companion.
"This is a trick of yours, I suppose!" he exclaimed. "Damn you and your meddling, Borrowdean. Why can't you leave me and my affairs alone? No, I am not going your way. Let us separate here!"
Borrowdean shook his head.
"You are unreasonable, Mannering," he said. "I have done only what I believe you were on your way to ask me to do. I have brought you and Berenice together again. It was for both your sakes. If there has been any misunderstanding between you, it would be better cleared up."
Mannering gripped his arm.
"Let us go to your rooms, Borrowdean," he said. "It is time we understood one another."
"Willingly!" Borrowdean said. "But your train?"
"Let my train go," Mannering answered. "There are some things I have to say to you."
Borrowdean called a hansom. The two men drove off together.
THE MANNERING MYSTERY
Borrowdean was curter than usual, even abrupt. The calm geniality of his manner had departed. He spoke in short, terse sentences, and he had the air of a man struggling to subdue a fit of perfectly reasonable and justifiable anger. It was a carefully cultivated pose. He even refrained from his customary cigarette.
"Look here, Mannering," he said, "there are times when a few plain words are worth an hour's conversation. Will you have them from me?"
"This thing was started six months ago, soon after those two bye-elections in Yorkshire. Even the most despondent of us then saw that the Government could scarcely last its time. We had a meeting and we attempted to form on paper a trial cabinet. You know our weakness. We have to try to form a National party out of a number of men who, although they call themselves broadly Liberals, are as far apart as the very poles of thought. It was as much as they could do to sit in the same room together. From the opening of the meeting until its close, there was but one subject upon which every one was unanimous. That was the absolute necessity of getting you to come back to our aid."
"You flatter me," Mannering said, with fine irony.
"You yourself," Borrowdean continued, without heeding the interruption, "encouraged us. From the first pronouncement of this wonderful new policy you sprang into the arena. We were none of us ready. You were! It is true that your weapon was the pen, but you reached a great public. The country to-day considers you the champion of Free Trade."
"Pass on," Mannering interrupted, brusquely. "All this is wasted time!"
"A smaller meeting," Borrowdean continued, "was held with a view of discussing the means whereby you could be persuaded to rejoin us. At that meeting the Duchess of Lenchester was present."
Mannering, who had been pacing the room, stopped short. He grasped the back of a chair, and turning round faced Borrowdean.
"You know what place the Duchess has held in the councils of our party since the Duke's death," Borrowdean continued. "She has the political instinct. If she were a man she would be a leader. All the great ladies are on the other side, but the Duchess is more than equal to them all. She entertains magnificently, and with tact. She never makes a mistake. She is part and parcel of the Liberal Party. It was she who volunteered to make the first effort to bring you back."
Mannering turned his head. Apparently he was looking out of the window.
"Her methods," Borrowdean continued, "did not commend themselves to us, but beggars must not be choosers. Besides, the Duchess was in love with her own scheme. Such objections as we made were at once overruled."
He paused, but Mannering said nothing. He was still looking out of the window, though his eyes saw nothing of the street below, or the great club buildings opposite. A scent of roses, lost now and then in the salter fragrance of the night breeze sweeping over the marshes, the magic of a wonderful, white-clad presence, the low words, the sense of a world apart, a world of speechless beauty.... What empty dreams! A palace built in a poet's fancy upon a quicksand.
"The Duchess," Borrowdean continued, "undertook to discover from you what prospects there were, if any, of your return to political life. She took none of us into her confidence. We none of us knew what means she meant to employ. She disappeared. She communicated with none of us. We none of us had the least idea what had become of her. Time went on, and we began to get a little uneasy. We had a meeting and it was arranged that I should come down and see you. I came, I saw you, I saw the Duchess! The situation very soon became clear to me. Instead of the Duchess converting you, you had very nearly converted the Duchess."
"I can assure you—" Mannering began.
"Let me finish," Borrowdean pleaded. "I realized the situation at a glance. Your attitude I was not so much surprised at, but the attitude of the Duchess, I must confess, amazed me. I came to the conclusion that I had found my way into a forgotten corner of the world, where the lotos flowers still blossomed, and the sooner I was out of it the better. Now I think that brings us, Mannering, up to the present time."
Mannering turned from the window, out of which he had been steadfastly gazing. There was a strained look under his eyes, and little trace of the tan upon his, cheeks. He had the air of a jaded and a weary man.
"That is all, then," he remarked. "I can still catch my train."
Borrowdean held out his hand.
"No," he said. "It is not all. This explanation I have made for your sake, Mannering, and it has been a truthful and full one. Now it is my turn. I have a few words to say to you on my own account."
Mannering paused. There was a note of something unusual in Borrowdean's voice, a portent of things behind. Mannering involuntarily straightened himself. Something was awakened in him which had lain dormant for many years—dormant since those old days of battle, of swift attack, of ambushed defence and the clamour of brilliant tongues. Some of the old light flashed in his eyes.
"Say it then—quickly!"
"We speak of great things," Borrowdean continued, "and the catching of a train is a trifle. My wardrobe and house are at your service. Don't hurry me!"
"Go on!" he said.
"The men who count in this world," Borrowdean declared, calmly lighting a cigarette, "are either thinkers of great thoughts or doers of great deeds. To the former belong the poets and the sentimentalists; to the latter the statesmen and the soldiers."
"What have I done," Mannering murmured, "that I should be sent back to kindergarten? Platitudes such as this bore me. Let me catch my train."
"In a moment. To all my arguments and appeals, to all my entreaties to you to realize yourself, to do your duty to us, to history and to posterity, you have replied in one manner only. You have spoken from the mushroom pedestal of the sentimentalist. Not a single word that has fallen from your lips has rung true. You have spoken as though your eyes were blind all the time to the letters of fire which truth has spelled out before you. Any further argument with you is useless, because you are not honest. You conceal your true position, and you adopt a false defence. Therefore, I relinquish my task. You can go and grow your roses, and think your poetry, and call it life if you will. But before you go I should like you to know that I, at least, am not deceived. I do not believe in you, Mannering. I ask you a question, and I challenge you to answer it. What is your true reason for making a scrap-heap of your career?"
"Are you my friend," Mannering asked, quietly, "that you wish to pry behind the curtain of my life? If I have other reasons they concern myself alone."
Borrowdean shook his head. He had scored, but he took care to show no sign of triumph.
"The issue is too great," he said, "to be tried by the ordinary rules which govern social life. Will you presume that I am your friend, and let us consider the whole matter afresh together?"
"I will not," Mannering answered. "But I will do this. I will answer your question. There is another reason which makes my reappearance in public life impossible. Not even your subtlety, Borrowdean, could remove it. I do not even wish it removed. I mean to live my own life, and not to be pitchforked back into politics to suit the convenience of a few adventurous office-seekers, and the Duchess of Lenchester!"
But Mannering had gone.
* * * * *
Borrowdean felt that this was a trying day. After a battle with Mannering he was face to face with an angry woman, to whose presence an imperious little note had just summoned him. Berenice was dressed for a royal dinner party, and she had only a few minutes to spare. Nevertheless she contrived to make them very unpleasant ones for Borrowdean.
"The affair was entirely an accident," he pleaded.
"It was nothing of the sort," she answered, bluntly. "I know you too well for that. Your bringing him here without warning was an unwarrantable interference with my affairs."
Borrowdean could hold his own with men, but Berenice in her own room, a wonderful little paradise of soft colourings and luxury so perfectly chosen that it was rather felt than seen; Berenice, in her marvellous gown, with the necklace upon her bosom and the tiara flashing in her dark hair, was an overwhelming opponent. Borrowdean was helpless. He could not understand the attack itself. He failed altogether to appreciate its tenour.
"Forgive me," he protested, "but I did not know that you had any plans. All that you told us on your return from Blakely was that you had failed. So far as you were concerned the matter seemed to me to be over, and with it, I imagined, your interest in Mannering. I brought him here—"
"Because I wished him to know who you were. I wished him to understand the improbability of your ever again returning to Blakely."
"You are telling the truth now, at any rate," she remarked, curtly, "or what sounds like the truth. Why did you trouble in the matter at all? Where I have failed you are not likely to succeed."