"When one can," said Mrs. Bowring thoughtfully.
"Some people always can, whatever happens," said the young girl.
"Perhaps they are right," answered the young man. "Things are not often so serious as they are supposed to be. It's like being in a house that's supposed to be haunted—on All Hallow E'en, for instance—it's awfully gruesome and creepy at night when the wind moans and the owls screech. And then, the next morning, one wonders how one could have been such an idiot. Other things are often like that. You think the world's coming to an end—and then it doesn't, you know. It goes on just the same. You are rather surprised at first, but you soon get used to it. I suppose that is what is meant by losing one's illusions."
"Sometimes the world stops for an individual and doesn't go on again," said Mrs. Bowring, with a faint smile.
"Oh, I suppose people do break their hearts sometimes," returned Brook, somewhat thoughtfully. "But it must be something tremendously serious," he added with instant cheerfulness. "I don't believe it happens often. Most people just have a queer sensation in their throat for a minute, and they smoke a cigarette for their nerves, and go away and think of something else."
Clare looked at him, and her eyes flashed angrily, for she remembered Lady Fan's cigarette and the preceding evening. He remembered it too, and was thinking of it, for he smiled as he spoke and looked away at the horizon as though he saw something in the air. For the first time in her life the young girl had a cruel impulse. She wished that she were a great beauty, or that she possessed infinite charm, that she might revenge the little lady in white and make the man suffer as he deserved. At one moment she was ashamed of the wish, and then again it returned, and she smiled as she thought of it.
She was vaguely aware, too, that the man attracted her in a way which did not interfere with her resentment against him. She would certainly not have admitted that he was interesting to her on account of Lady Fan—but there was in her a feminine willingness to play with the fire at which another woman had burned her wings. Almost all women feel that, until they have once felt too much themselves. The more innocent and inexperienced they are, the more sure they are, as a rule, of their own perfect safety, and the more ready to run any risk.
Neither of the women answered the young man's rather frivolous assertion for some moments. Then Mrs. Bowring looked at him kindly, but with a far-away expression, as though she were thinking of some one else.
"You are young," she said gently.
"It's true that I'm not very old," he answered. "I was five-and-twenty on my last birthday."
"Five-and-twenty," repeated Mrs. Bowring very slowly, and looking at the distance, with the air of a person who is making a mental calculation.
"Are you surprised?" asked the young man, watching her.
She started a little.
"Surprised? Oh dear no! Why should I be?"
And again she looked at him earnestly, until, realising what she was doing, she suddenly shut her eyes, shook herself almost imperceptibly, and took out some work which she had brought out with her.
"Oh!" he exclaimed. "I thought you might fancy I was a good deal older or younger. But I'm always told that I look just my age."
"I think you do," answered Mrs. Bowring, without looking up.
Clare glanced at his face again. It was natural, under the circumstances, though she knew his features by heart already. She met his eyes, and for a moment she could not look away from them. It was as though they fixed her against her will, after she had once met them. There was nothing extraordinary about them, except that they were very bright and clear. With an effort she turned away, and the faint colour rose in her face.
"I am nineteen," she said quietly, as though she were answering a question.
"Indeed?" exclaimed Brook, not thinking of anything else to say.
Mrs. Bowring looked at her daughter in considerable surprise. Then Clare blushed painfully, realising that she had spoken without any intention of speaking, and had volunteered a piece of information which had certainly not been asked. It was very well, being but nineteen years old; but she was oddly conscious that if she had been forty she should have said so in just the same absent-minded way, at that moment.
"Nineteen and six are twenty-five, aren't they?" asked Mrs. Bowring suddenly.
"Yes, I believe so," answered the young man, with a laugh, but a good deal surprised in his turn, for the question seemed irrelevant and absurd in the extreme. "But I'm not good at sums," he added. "I was an awful idiot at school. They used to call me Log. That was short for logarithm, you know, because I was such a log at arithmetic. A fellow gave me the nickname one day. It wasn't very funny, so I punched his head. But the name stuck to me. Awfully appropriate, anyhow, as it turned out."
"Did you punch his head because it wasn't funny?" asked Clare, glad of the turn in the conversation.
"Oh—I don't know—on general principles. He was a diabolically clever little chap, though he wasn't very witty. He came out Senior Wrangler at Cambridge. I heard he had gone mad last year. Lots of those clever chaps do, you know. Or else they turn parsons and take pupils for a living. I'd much rather be stupid, myself. There's more to live for, when you don't know everything. Don't you think so?"
Both women laughed, and felt that the man was tactful. They were also both reflecting, of themselves and of each other, that they were not generally silly women, and they wondered how they had both managed to say such foolish things, speaking out irrelevantly what was passing in their minds.
"I think I shall go for a walk," said Brook, rising rather abruptly. "I'll go up the hill for a change. Thanks awfully. Good-bye!"
He lifted his hat and went off towards the hotel. Mrs. Bowring looked after him, but Clare leaned back in her seat and opened a book she had with her. The colour rose and fell in her cheeks, and she kept her eyes resolutely bent down.
"What a nice fellow!" exclaimed Mrs. Bowring when the young man was out of hearing. "I wonder who he is."
"What difference can it make, what his name is?" asked Clare, still looking down.
"What is the matter with you, child?" Mrs. Bowring asked. "You talk so strangely to-day!"
"So do you, mother. Fancy asking him whether nineteen and six are twenty-five!"
"For that matter, my dear, I thought it very strange that you should tell him your age, like that."
"I suppose I was absent-minded. Yes! I know it was silly, I don't know why I said it. Do you want to know his name? I'll go and see. It must be on the board by this time, as he is stopping here."
She rose and was going, when her mother called her back.
"Clare! Wait till he is gone, at all events! Fancy, if he saw you!"
"Oh! He won't see me! If he comes that way I'll go into the office and buy stamps."
Clare went in and looked over the square board with its many little slips for the names of the guests. Some were on visiting cards and some were written in the large, scrawling, illiterate hand of the head waiter. Some belonged to people who were already gone. It looked well, in the little hotel, to have a great many names on the list. Some seconds passed before Clare found that of the new-comer.
"Mr. Brook Johnstone."
Brook was his first name, then. It was uncommon. She looked at it fixedly. There was no address on the small, neatly engraved card. While she was looking at it a door opened quietly behind her, in the opposite side of the corridor. She paid no attention to it for a moment; then, hearing no footsteps, she instinctively turned. Brook Johnstone was standing on the threshold watching her. She blushed violently, in her annoyance, for he could not doubt but that she was looking for his name. He saw and understood, and came forward naturally, with a smile. He had a stick in his hand.
"That's me," he said, with a little laugh, tapping his card on the board with the head of his stick. "If I'd had an ounce of manners I should have managed to tell you who I was by this time. Won't you excuse me, and take this for an introduction? Johnstone—with an E at the end—Scotch, you know."
"Thanks," answered Clare, recovering from her embarrassment. "I'll tell my mother." She hesitated a moment. "And that's us," she added, laughing rather nervously and pointing out one of the cards. "How grammatical we are, aren't we?" she laughed, while he stooped and read the name which chanced to be at the bottom of the board.
"Well—what should one say? 'That's we.' It sounds just as badly. And you can't say 'we are that,' can you? Besides, there's no one to hear us, so it makes no difference. I don't suppose that you—you and Mrs. Bowring—would care to go for a walk, would you?"
"No," answered Clare, with sudden coldness. "I don't think so, thank you. We are not great walkers."
They went as far as the door together. Johnstone bowed and walked off, and Clare went back to her mother.
"He caught me," she said, in a tone of annoyance. "You were quite right. Then he showed me his name himself, on the board. It's Johnstone—Mr. Brook Johnstone, with an E—he says that he is Scotch. Why—mother! Johnstone! How odd! That was the name of—"
She stopped short and looked at her mother, who had grown unnaturally pale during the last few seconds.
"Yes, dear. That was the name of my first husband."
Mrs. Bowring spoke in a low voice, looking down at her work. But her hands trembled violently, and she was clearly making a great effort to control herself. Clare watched her anxiously, not at all understanding.
"Mother dear, what is it?" she asked. "The name is only a coincidence—it's not such an uncommon name, after all—and besides—"
"Oh, of course," said Mrs. Bowring, in a dull tone. "It's a mere coincidence—probably no relation. I'm nervous, to-day."
Her manner seemed unaccountable to her daughter, except on the supposition that she was ill. She very rarely spoke of her first husband, by whom she had no children. When she did, she mentioned his name gravely, as one speaks of dead persons who have been dear, but that was all. She had never shown anything like emotion in connection with the subject, and the young girl avoided it instinctively, as most children, of whose parents the one has been twice married, avoid the mention of the first husband or wife, who was not their father or mother.
"I wish I understood you!" exclaimed Clare.
"There's nothing to understand, dear," said Mrs. Bowring, still very pale. "I'm nervous—that's all."
Before long she left Clare by herself and went indoors, and locked herself into her room. The rooms in the old hotel were once the cells of the monks, small vaulted chambers in which there is barely space for the most necessary furniture. During nearly an hour Mrs. Bowring paced up and down, a beat of fourteen feet between the low window and the locked door. At last she stopped before the little glass, and looked at herself, and smoothed her streaked hair.
"Nineteen and six—are twenty-five," she said slowly in a low voice, and her eyes stared into their own reflection rather wildly.
Brook Johnstone's people did not come on the next day, nor on the day after that, but he expressed no surprise at the delay, and did not again say that it was a bore to have to wait for them. Meanwhile he spent a great deal of his time with the Bowrings, and the acquaintance ripened quickly towards intimacy, without passing near friendship, as such acquaintance sometimes will, when it springs up suddenly in the shallow ground of an out-of-the-way hotel on the Continent.
"For Heaven's sake don't let that man fall in love with you, Clare!" said Mrs. Bowring one morning, with what seemed unnecessary vehemence.
Clare's lip curled scornfully as she thought of poor Lady Fan.
"There isn't the slightest danger of that!" she answered. "Any more than there is of my falling in love with him," she added.
"Are you sure of that?" asked her mother. "You seem to like him. Besides, he is very nice, and very good-looking."
"Oh yes—of course he is. But one doesn't necessarily fall in love with every nice and good-looking man one meets."
Thereupon Clare cut the conversation short by going off to her own room. She had been expecting for some time that her mother would make some remark about the growing intimacy with young Johnstone. To tell the truth, Mrs. Bowring had not the slightest ground for anxiety in any previous attachment of her daughter. She was beginning to wonder whether Clare would ever show any preference for any man.
But she did not at all wish to marry her at present, for she felt that life without the girl would be unbearably lonely. On the other hand, Clare had a right to marry. They were poor. A part of their little income was the pension that Mrs. Bowring had been fortunate enough to get as the widow of an officer killed in action, but that would cease at her death, as poor Captain Bowring's allowance from his family had ceased at his death. The family had objected to the marriage from the first, and refused to do anything for his child after he was gone. It would go hard with Clare if she were left alone in the world with what her mother could leave her. On the other hand, that little, or the prospect of it, was quite safe, and would make a great difference to her, as a married woman. The two lived on it, with economy. Clare could certainly dress very well on it if she married a rich man, but she could as certainly not afford to marry a poor one.
As for this young Johnstone, he had not volunteered much information about himself, and, though Mrs. Bowring sometimes asked him questions, she was extremely careful not to ask any which could be taken in the nature of an inquiry as to his prospects in life, merely because that might possibly suggest to him that she was thinking of her daughter. And when an Englishman is reticent in such matters, it is utterly impossible to guess whether he be a millionaire or a penniless younger son. Johnstone never spoke of money, in any connection. He never said that he could afford one thing or could not afford another. He talked a good deal of shooting and sport, but never hinted that his father had any land. He never mentioned a family place in the country, nor anything of the sort. He did not even tell the Bowrings to whom the yacht belonged in which he had come, though he frequently alluded to things which had been said and done by the party during a two months' cruise, chiefly in eastern waters.
The Bowrings were quite as reticent about themselves, and each respected the other's silence. Nevertheless they grew intimate, scarcely knowing how the intimacy developed. That is to say, they very quickly became accustomed, all three, to one another's society. If Johnstone was out of the hotel first, of an afternoon, he moped about with his pipe in an objectless way, as though he had lost something, until the Bowrings came out. If he was writing letters and they appeared first, they talked in detached phrases and looked often towards the door, until he came and sat down beside them.
On the third evening, at dinner, he seemed very much amused at something, and then, as though he could not keep the joke to himself, he told his companions that he had received a telegram from his father, in answer to one of his own, informing him that he had made a mistake of a whole fortnight in the date, and must amuse himself as he pleased in the interval.
"Just like me!" he observed. "I got the letter in Smyrna or somewhere—I forget—and I managed to lose it before I had read it through. But I thought I had the date all right. I'm glad, at all events. I was tired of those good people, and it's ever so much pleasanter here."
Clare's gentle mouth hardened suddenly as she thought of Lady Fan. Johnstone had been thoroughly tired of her. That was what he meant when he spoke of "those good people."
"You get tired of people easily, don't you?" she inquired coldly.
"Oh no—not always," answered Johnstone.
By this time he was growing used to her sudden changes of manner and to the occasional scornful speeches she made. He could not understand them in the least, as may be imagined, and having considerable experience he set them down to the score of a certain girlish shyness, which showed itself in no other way. He had known women whose shyness manifested itself in saying disagreeable things for which they were sometimes sorry afterwards.
"No," he added reflectively. "I don't think I'm a very fickle person."
Clare turned upon him the terrible innocence of her clear blue eyes. She thought she knew the truth about him too, and that he could not look her in the face. But she was mistaken. He met her glance fearlessly and quietly, with a frank smile and a little wonder at its fixed scrutiny. She would not look away, rude though she might seem, nor be stared out of countenance by a man whom she believed to be false and untrue. But his eyes were very bright, and in a few seconds they began to dazzle her, and she felt her eyelids trembling violently. It was a new sensation, and a very unpleasant one. It seemed to her that the man had suddenly got some power over her. She made a strong effort and turned away her face, and again she blushed with annoyance.
"I beg your pardon," Johnstone said quickly, in a very low voice. "I didn't mean to be so rude."
Clare said nothing as she sat beside him, but she looked at the opposite wall, and her hand made an impatient little gesture as the fingers lay on the edge of the table. Possibly, if her mother had not been on her other side, she might have answered him. As it was, she felt that she could not speak just then. She was very much disturbed, as though something new and totally unknown had got hold of her. It was not only that she hated the man for his heartlessness, while she felt that he had some sort of influence over her, which was more than mere attraction. There was something beyond, deep down in her heart, which was nameless, and painful, but which she somehow felt that she wanted. And aside from it all, she was angry with him for having stared her out of countenance, forgetting that when she had turned upon him she had meant to do the same by him, feeling quite sure that he could not look her in the face.
They spoke little during the remainder of the meal, for Clare was quite willing to show that she was angry, though she had little right to be. After all, she had looked at him, and he had looked at her. After dinner she disappeared, and was not seen during the remainder of the evening.
When she was alone, however, she went over the whole matter thoughtfully, and she made up her mind that she had been hasty. For she was naturally just. She said to herself that she had no claim to the man's secrets, which she had learned in a way of which she was not at all proud; and that if he could keep his own counsel, he, on his side, had a right to do so. The fact that she knew him to be heartless and faithless by no means implied that he was also indiscreet, though when an individual has done anything which we think bad we easily suppose that he may do every other bad thing imaginable. Johnstone's discretion, at least, was admirable, now that she thought of it. His bright eyes and frank look would have disarmed any suspicion short of the certainty she possessed. There had not been the least contraction of the lids, the smallest change in the expression of his mouth, not the faintest increase of colour in his young face.
So much the worse, thought the young girl suddenly. He was not only bad. He was also an accomplished actor. No doubt his eyes had been as steady and bright and his whole face as truthful when he had made love to Lady Fan at sunset on the Acropolis. Somehow, the allusion to that scene had produced a vivid impression on Clare's mind, and she often found herself wondering what he had said, and how he had looked just then.
Her resentment against him increased as she thought it all over, and again she felt a longing to be cruel to him, and to make him suffer just what he had made Lady Fan endure.
Then she was suddenly and unexpectedly overcome by a shamed sense of her inability to accomplish any such act of justice. It was as though she had already tried, and had failed, and he had laughed in her face and turned away. It seemed to her that there could be nothing in her which could appeal to such a man. There was Lady Fan, much older, with plenty of experience, doubtless; and she had been deceived, and betrayed, and abandoned, before the young girl's very eyes. What chance could such a mere girl possibly have? It was folly, and moreover it was wicked of her to think of such things. She would be willingly lowering herself to his level, trying to do the very thing which she despised and hated in him, trying to outwit him, to out-deceive him, to out-betray him. One side of her nature, at least, revolted against any such scheme. Besides, she could never do it.
She was not a great beauty; she was not extraordinarily clever—not clever at all, she said to herself in her sudden fit of humility; she had no "experience." That last word means a good deal more to most young girls than they can find in it after life's illogical surprises have taught them the terrible power of chance and mood and impulse.
She glanced at her face in the mirror, and looked away. Then she glanced again. The third time she turned to the glass she began to examine her features in detail. Lady Fan was a fair woman, too. But, without vanity, she had to admit that she was much better-looking than Lady Fan. She was also much younger and fresher, which should be an advantage, she thought. She wished that her hair were golden instead of flaxen; that her eyes were dark instead of blue; that her cheeks were not so thin, and her throat a shade less slender. Nevertheless, she would have been willing to stand any comparison with the little lady in white. Of course, compared with the famous beauties, some of whom she had seen, she was scarcely worth a glance. Doubtless, Brook Johnstone knew them all.
Then she gazed into her own eyes. She did not know that a woman, alone, may look into her own eyes and blush and turn away. She looked long and steadily, and quite quietly. After all, they looked dark, for the pupils were very large and the blue iris was of that deep colour which borders upon violet. There was something a little unusual in them, too, though she could not quite make out what it was. Why did not all women look straight before them as she did? There must be some mysterious reason. It was a pity that her eyelashes were almost white. Yet they, too, added something to the peculiarity of that strange gaze.
"They are like periwinkles in a snowstorm!" exclaimed Clare, tired of her own face; and she turned from the mirror and went to bed.
The first sign that two people no longer stand to each other in the relation of mere acquaintances is generally that the tones of their voices change, while they feel a slight and unaccountable constraint when they happen to be left alone together.
Two days passed after the little incident which had occurred at dinner before Clare and Johnstone were momentarily face to face out of Mrs. Bowring's sight. At first Clare had not been aware that her mother was taking pains to be always present when the young man was about, but when she noticed the fact she at once began to resent it. Such constant watchfulness was unlike her mother, un-English, and almost unnatural. When they were all seated together on the terrace, if Mrs. Bowring wished to go indoors to write a letter or to get something she invented some excuse for making her daughter go with her, and stay with her till she came out again. A French or Italian mother could not have been more particular or careful, but a French or Italian girl would have been accustomed to such treatment, and would not have seen anything unusual in it. But Mrs. Bowring had never acted in such a way before now, and it irritated the young girl extremely. She felt that she was being treated like a child, and that Johnstone must see it and think it ridiculous. At last Clare made an attempt at resistance, out of sheer contrariety.
"I don't want to write letters!" she answered impatiently. "I wrote two yesterday. It is hot indoors, and I would much rather stay here!"
Mrs. Bowring went as far as the parapet, and looked down at the sea for a moment. Then she came back and sat down again.
"It's quite true," she said. "It is hot indoors. I don't think I shall write, after all."
Brook Johnstone could not help smiling a little, though he turned away his face to hide his amusement. It was so perfectly evident that Mrs. Bowring was determined not to leave Clare alone with him that he must have been blind not to see it. Clare saw the smile, and was angry. She was nineteen years old, she had been out in the world, the terrace was a public place, Johnstone was a gentleman, and the whole thing was absurd. She took up her work and closed her lips tightly.
Johnstone felt the awkwardness, rose suddenly, and said he would go for a walk. Clare raised her eyes and nodded as he lifted his hat. He was still smiling, and her resentment deepened. A moment later, mother and daughter were alone. Clare did not lay down her work, nor look up when she spoke.
"Really, mother, it's too absurd!" she exclaimed, and a little colour came to her cheeks.
"What is absurd, my dear?" asked Mrs. Bowring, affecting not to understand.
"Your abject fear of leaving me for five minutes with Mr. Johnstone. I'm not a baby. He was laughing. I was positively ashamed! What do you suppose could have happened, if you had gone in and written your letters and left us quietly here? And it happens every day, you know! If you want a glass of water, I have to go in with you."
"My dear! What an exaggeration!"
"It's not an exaggeration, mother—really. You know that you wouldn't leave me with him for five minutes, for anything in the world."
"Do you wish to be left alone with him, my dear?" asked Mrs. Bowring, rather abruptly.
Clare was indignant.
"Wish it? No! Certainly not! But if it should happen naturally, by accident, I should not get up and run away. I'm not afraid of the man, as you seem to be. What can he do to me? And you have no idea how strangely you behave, and what ridiculous excuses you invent for me. The other day you insisted on my going in to look for a train in the time-tables when you know we haven't the slightest intention of going away for ever so long. Really—you're turning into a perfect duenna. I wish you would behave naturally, as you always used to do."
"I think you exaggerate," said Mrs. Bowring. "I never leave you alone with men you hardly know—"
"You can't exactly say that we hardly know Mr. Johnstone, when he has been with us, morning, noon, and night, for nearly a week, mother."
"My dear, we know nothing about him—"
"If you are so anxious to know his father's Christian name, ask him. It wouldn't seem at all odd. I will, if you like."
"Don't!" cried Mrs. Bowring, with unusual energy. "I mean," she added in a lower tone and looking away, "it would be very rude—he would think it very strange. In fact, it is merely idle curiosity on my part—really, I would much rather not know."
Clare looked at her mother in surprise.
"How oddly you talk!" she exclaimed. Then her tone changed. "Mother dear—is anything the matter? You don't seem quite—what shall I say? Are you suffering, dearest? Has anything happened?"
She dropped her work, and leaned forward, her hand on her mother's, and gazing into her face with a look of anxiety.
"No, dear," answered Mrs. Bowring. "No, no—it's nothing. Perhaps I'm a little nervous—that's all."
"I believe the air of this place doesn't suit you. Why shouldn't we go away at once?"
Mrs. Bowring shook her head and protested energetically.
"No—oh no! I wouldn't go away for anything. I like the place immensely, and we are both getting perfectly well here. Oh no! I wouldn't think of going away."
Clare leaned back in her seat again. She was devotedly fond of her mother, and she could not but see that something was wrong. In spite of what she said, Mrs. Bowring was certainly not growing stronger, though she was not exactly ill. The pale face was paler, and there was a worn and restless look in the long-suffering, almost colourless eyes.
"I'm sorry I made such a fuss about Mr. Johnstone," said Clare softly, after a short pause.
"No, darling," answered her mother instantly. "I dare say I have been a little over careful. I don't know—I had a sort of presentiment that you might take a fancy to him."
"I know. You said so the first day. But I sha'n't, mother. You need not be at all afraid. He is not at all the sort of man to whom I should ever take a fancy, as you call it."
"I don't see why not," said Mrs. Bowring thoughtfully.
"Of course—it's hard to explain." Clare smiled. "But if that is what you are afraid of, you can leave us alone all day. My 'fancy' would be quite, quite different."
"Very well, darling. At all events, I'll try not to turn into a duenna."
Johnstone did not appear again until dinner, and then he was unusually silent, only exchanging a remark with Clare now and then, and not once leaning forward to say a few words to Mrs. Bowring as he generally did. The latter had at first thought of exchanging places with her daughter, but had reflected that it would be almost a rudeness to make such a change after the second day.
They went out upon the terrace, and had their coffee there. Several of the other people did the same, and walked slowly up and down under the vines. Mrs. Bowring, wishing to destroy as soon as possible the unpleasant impression she had created, left the two together, saying that she would get something to put over her shoulders, as the air was cool.
Clare and Johnstone stood by the parapet and looked at each other. Then Clare leaned with her elbows on the wall and stared in silence at the little lights on the beach below, trying to make out the shapes of the boats which were hauled up in a long row. Neither spoke for a long time, and Clare, at least, felt unpleasantly the constraint of the unusual silence.
"It is a beautiful place, isn't it?" observed Johnstone at last, for the sake of hearing his own voice.
"Oh yes, quite beautiful," answered the young girl in a half-indifferent, half-discontented tone, and the words ended with a sort of girlish sniff.
Again there was silence. Johnstone, standing up beside her, looked towards the hotel, to see whether Mrs. Bowring were coming back. But she was anxious to appear indifferent to their being together, and was in no hurry to return. Johnstone sat down upon the wall, while Clare leaned over it.
"Miss Bowring!" he said suddenly, to call her attention.
"Yes?" She did not look up; but to her own amazement she felt a queer little thrill at the sound of his voice, for it had not its usual tone.
"Don't you think I had better go to Naples?" he asked.
Clare felt herself start a little, and she waited a moment before she said anything in reply. She did not wish to betray any astonishment in her voice. Johnstone had asked the question under a sudden impulse; but a far wiser and more skilful man than himself could not have hit upon one better calculated to precipitate intimacy. Clare, on her side, was woman enough to know that she had a choice of answers, and to see that the answer she should choose must make a difference hereafter. At the same time, she had been surprised, and when she thought of it afterwards it seemed to her that the question itself had been an impertinent one, merely because it forced her to make an answer of some sort. She decided in favour of making everything as clear as possible.
"Why?" she asked, without looking round.
At all events she would throw the burden of an elucidation upon him. He was not afraid of taking it up.
"It's this," he answered. "I've rather thrust my acquaintance upon you, and, if I stay here until my people come, I can't exactly change my seat and go and sit at the other end of the table, nor pretend to be busy all day, and never come out here and sit with you, after telling you repeatedly that I have nothing on earth to do. Can I?"
"Why should you?"
"Because Mrs. Bowring doesn't like me."
Clare rose from her elbows and stood up, resting her hands upon the wall, but still looking down at the lights on the beach.
"I assure you, you're quite mistaken," she answered, with quiet emphasis. "My mother thinks you're very nice."
"Then why—" Johnstone checked himself, and crumbled little bits of mortar from the rough wall with his thumbs.
"I don't know whether I know you well enough to ask the question, Miss Bowring."
"Let's assume that you do—for the sake of argument," said Clare, with a short laugh, as she glanced at his face, dimly visible in the falling darkness.
"Thanks awfully," he answered, but he did not laugh with her. "It isn't exactly an easy thing to say, is it? Only—I couldn't help noticing—I hope you'll forgive me, if you think I'm rude, won't you? I couldn't help noticing that your mother was most awfully afraid of leaving us alone for a minute, you know—as though she thought I were a suspicious character, don't you know? Something of that sort. So, of course, I thought she didn't like me. Do you see? Tremendously cheeky of me to talk in this way, isn't it?"
"Do you know? It is, rather." Clare was more inclined to laugh than before, but she only smiled in the dark.
"Well, it would be, of course, if I didn't happen to be so painfully respectable."
"Painfully respectable! What an expression!" This time, Clare laughed aloud.
"Yes. That's just it. Well, I couldn't exactly tell Mrs. Bowring that, could I? Besides, one isn't vain of being respectable. I couldn't say, Please, Mrs. Bowring, my father is Mr. Smith, and my mother was a Miss Brown, of very good family, and we've got five hundred a year in Consols, and we're not in trade, and I've been to a good school, and am not at all dangerous. It would have sounded so—so uncalled for, don't you know? Wouldn't it?"
"Very. But now that you've explained it to me, I suppose I may tell my mother, mayn't I? Let me see. Your father is Mr. Smith, and your mother was a Miss Brown—"
"Oh, please—no!" interrupted Johnstone. "I didn't mean it so very literally. But it is just about that sort of thing—just like anybody else. Only about our not being in trade, I'm not so sure of that. My father is a brewer. Brewing is not a profession, so I suppose it must be a trade, isn't it?"
"You might call it a manufacture," suggested Clare.
"Yes. It sounds better. But that isn't the question, you know. You'll see my people when they come, and then you'll understand what I mean—they really are tremendously respectable."
"Of course!" assented the young girl. "Like the party you came with on the yacht. That kind of people."
"Oh dear no!" exclaimed Johnstone. "Not at all those kind of people. They wouldn't like it at all, if you said so."
"Ah! indeed!" Clare was inclined to laugh again.
"The party I came with belong rather to a gay set. Awfully nice, you know," he hastened to add, "and quite the people one knows at home. But my father and mother—oh no! they are quite different—the difference between whist and baccarat, you know, if you understand that sort of thing—old port and brandy and soda—both very good in their way, but quite different."
"I should think so."
"Then—" Johnstone hesitated again. "Then, Miss Bowring—you don't think that your mother really dislikes me, after all?"
"Oh dear no! Not in the least. I've heard her say all sorts of nice things about you."
"Really? Then I think I'll stay here. I didn't want to be a nuisance, you know—always in the way."
"You're not in the way," answered Clare.
Mrs. Bowring came back with her shawl, and the rest of the evening passed off as usual. Later, when she was alone, the young girl remembered all the conversation, and she saw that it had been in her power to make Johnstone leave Amalfi. While she was wondering why she had not done so, since she hated him for what she knew of him, she fell asleep, and the question remained unanswered. In the morning she told the substance of it all to her mother, and ended by telling her that Johnstone's father was a brewer.
"Of course," answered Mrs. Bowring absently. "I know that." Then she realised what she had said, and glanced at Clare with an odd, scared look.
Clare uttered an exclamation of surprise.
"Mother! Why, then—you knew all about him! Why didn't you tell me?"
A long silence followed, during which Mrs. Bowring sat with her face turned from her daughter. Then she raised her hand and passed it slowly over her forehead, as though trying to collect her thoughts.
"One comes across very strange things in life, my dear," she said at last. "I am not sure that we had not better go away, after all. I'll think about it."
Beyond this Clare could get no information, nor any explanation of the fact that Mrs. Bowring should have known something about Brook Johnstone's father. The girl made a guess, of course. The elder Johnstone must be a relation of her mother's first husband; though, considering that Mrs. Bowring had never seen Brook before now, and that the latter had never told her anything about his father, it was hard to see how she could be so sure of the fact. Possibly, Brook strongly resembled his father's family. That, indeed, was the only admissible theory. But all that Clare knew and could put together into reasonable shape could not explain why her mother so much disliked leaving her alone with the man, even for five minutes.
In this, however, Mrs. Bowring changed suddenly, after the first evening when she had left them on the terrace. She either took a totally different view of the situation, or else she was ashamed of seeming to watch them all the time, and the consequence was that during the next three or four days they were very often together without her.
Johnstone enjoyed the young girl's society, and did not pretend to deny the fact in his own thoughts. Whatever mischief he might have been in while on the yacht, his natural instincts were simple and honest. In a certain way, Clare was a revelation to him of something to which he had never been accustomed, and which he had most carefully avoided. He had no sisters, and as a boy he had not been thrown with girls. He was an only son, and his mother, a very practical woman, had warned him as he grew up that he was a great match, and had better avoid young girls altogether until he saw one whom he should like to marry, though how he was to see that particular one, if he avoided all alike, was a question into which his mother did not choose to enter. Having first gone into society upon this principle, however, and having been at once taken up and made much of by an extremely fashionable young woman afflicted with an elderly and eccentric husband, it was not likely that Brook would return to the threshold of the schoolroom for women's society. He went on as he had begun in his first "salad" days, and at five-and-twenty he had the reputation of having done more damage than any of his young contemporaries, while he had never once shown the slightest inclination to marry. His mother, always a practical woman, did not press the question of marriage, deeming that with his disposition he would stand a better chance of married peace when he had expended a good deal of what she called his vivacity; and his father, who came of very long-lived people, always said that no man should take a wife before he was thirty. As Brook did not gamble immoderately, nor start a racing stable, nor propose to manage an opera troupe, the practical lady felt that he was really a very good young man. His father liked him for his own sake; but as Adam Johnstone had been gay in his youth, in spite of his sober Scotch blood, even beyond the bounds of ordinary "fastness," the fact of his being fond of Brook was not of itself a guarantee that the latter was such a very good young man as his mother said that he was. Somehow or other Brook had hitherto managed to keep clear of any entanglement which could hamper his life, probably by virtue of that hardness which he had shown to poor Lady Fan, and which had so strongly prejudiced Clare Bowring against him. His father said cynically that the lad was canny. Hitherto he had certainly shown that he could be selfish; and perhaps there is less difference between the meanings of the Scotch and English words than most people suppose.
Daily and almost hourly intercourse with such a young girl as Clare was a totally new experience to Brook Johnstone, and there were moments when he hardly recognised himself for the man who had landed from the yacht ten days earlier, and who had said good-bye to Lady Fan on the platform behind the hotel.
Hitherto he had always known in a day or two whether he was inclined to make love to a woman or not. An inclination to make love and the satisfaction of it had been, so far, his nearest approach to being in love at all. Nor, when he had felt the inclination, had he ever hesitated. Like a certain great English statesman of similar disposition, he had sometimes been repulsed, but he never remembered having given offence. For he possessed that tactful intuition which guides some men through life in their intercourse with women. He rarely spoke the first word too soon, and if he were going to speak at all he never spoke too late—which error is, of the two, by far the greater. He was young, perhaps, to have had such experience; but in the social world of to-day it is especially the fashion for men to be extremely young, even to youthfulness, and lack of years is no longer the atrocious crime which Pitt would neither attempt to palliate or deny. We have just emerged from a period of wrinkles and paint, during which we were told that age knew everything and youth nothing. The explosion into nonsense of nine tenths of all we were taught at school and college has given our children a terrible weapon against us; and women, who are all practical in their own way, prefer the blundering whole-heartedness of youth to the skilful tactics and over-effective effects of the middle-aged love-actor. In this direction, at least, the breeze that goes before the dawn of a new century is already blowing. Perhaps it is a good sign—but a sign of some sort it certainly is.
Brook Johnstone felt that he was in an unfamiliar position, and he tried to analyse his own feelings. He was perfectly honest about it, but he had very little talent for analysis. On the other hand, he had a very keen sense of what we roughly call honour. Clare was not Lady Fan, and would probably never get into that category. Clare belonged amongst the women whom he respected, and he respected them all, with all his heart. They included all young girls, and his mother, and all young women who were happily married. It will be admitted that, for a man who made no pretence to higher virtues, Brook was no worse than his contemporaries, and was better than a great many.
Be that as it may, in lack of any finer means of discrimination, he tried to define his own position with regard to Clare Bowring very simply and honestly. Either he was falling in love, or he was not. Secondly, Clare was either the kind of girl whom he should like to marry, spoken of by his practical mother—or she was not.
So far, all was extremely plain. The trouble was that he could not find any answers to the questions. He could not in the least be sure that he was falling in love, because he knew that he had never really been in love in his life. And as for saying at once that Clare was, or was not, the girl whom he should like to marry, how in the world could he tell that, unless he fell in love with her? Of course he did not wish to marry her unless he loved her. But he conceived it possible that he might fall in love with her and then not wish to marry her after all, which, in his simple opinion, would have been entirely despicable. If there were any chance of that, he ought to go away at once. But he did not know whether there were any chance of it or not. He could go away in any case, in order to be on the safe side; but then, there was no reason in the world why he should not marry her, if he should love her, and if she would marry him. The question became very badly mixed, and under the circumstances he told himself that he was splitting hairs on the mountains he had made of his molehills. He determined to stay where he was. At all events, judging from all signs with which he was acquainted, Clare was very far indeed from being in love with him, so that in this respect his sense of honour was perfectly safe and undisturbed.
Having set his mind at rest in this way, he allowed himself to talk with her as he pleased. There was no reason why he should hamper himself in conversation, so long as he said nothing calculated to make an impression—nothing which could come under the general head of "making love." The result was that he was much more agreeable than he supposed. Clare's innocent eyes watched him, and her mind was divided about him.
She was utterly young and inexperienced, but she was a woman, and she believed him to be false, faithless, and designing. She had no idea of the broad distinction he drew between all good and innocent women like herself, and all the rest whom he considered lawful prey. She concluded therefore, very rashly, that he was simply pursuing his usual tactics, a main part of which consisted in seeming perfectly unaffected and natural while only waiting for a faint sign of encouragement in order then to play the part of the passionate lover.
The generalisations of youth are terrible. What has failed once is despicably damned for ever. What is true to-day is true enough to-morrow to kill all other truths outright. The man whose hand has shaken once is a coward; he who has fought one battle is to be the hero of seventy. Life is a forest of inverted pyramids, for the young; upon every point is balanced a gigantic weight of top-heavy ideals, spreading base-upwards.
To Clare, everything Johnstone said or did was the working of a faithless intention towards its end. It was clear enough that he sought her and stayed with her as long as he could, day by day. Therefore he intended to make love to her, sooner or later, and then, when he was tired, he would say good-bye to her just as he had said good-bye to Lady Fan, and break her heart, and have one story more to laugh over when he was alone. It was quite clear that he could not mean anything else, after what she had seen.
All the same, he pleased her when he was with her, and attracted her oddly. She told herself that unless he had some unusual qualities he could not possibly break hearts for pastime, as he undoubtedly did, from year's end to year's end. She studied the question, and reached the conclusion that his strength was in his eyes. They were the most frank, brave, good-humoured, clear, unaffected eyes she had ever seen, but she could not look at them long. There was no reason why she should, indeed, but she hated to feel that she could not, if she chose. Whenever she tried, she at once had the feeling that he had power over her, to make her do things she did not wish to do. That was probably the way in which he had influenced Lady Fan and the other women, probably a dozen, thought Clare. If they were really as honest as they seemed, she thought she should have been able to meet them without the least sensation of nervousness.
One day she caught herself wishing that he had never done the thing she so hated. She was too honest to attribute to him outward defects which he did not possess, and she could not help thinking what a fine fellow he would be if he were not so bad. She might have liked him very much, then. But as it was, it was impossible that she should ever not hate him. Then she smiled to herself, as she thought how surprised he would be if he could guess what she thought of him.
But there was no probability of that, for she felt that she had no right to know what she knew, and so she treated him always, as she thought, with the same even, indifferent civility. But not seldom she knew that she was wickedly wishing that he might really fall in love with her and find out that men could break their hearts as well as women. She should like to fight with him, with his own weapons, for the glory of all her sex, and make him thoroughly miserable for his sins. It could not be wrong to wish that, after what she had seen, but it would be very wrong to try and make him fall in love, just with that intention. That would be almost as bad as what he had done; not quite so bad, of course, because it would serve him right, but yet a deed which she might be ashamed to remember.
She herself felt perfectly safe. She was neither sentimental nor susceptible, for if she had been one or the other she must by this time have had some "experience," as she vaguely called it. But she had not. She had never even liked any man so much as she liked this man whom she hated. This was not a contradiction of facts, which, as Euclid teaches us, is impossible. She liked him for what she saw, and she hated him for what she knew.
One day, when Mrs. Bowring was present, the conversation turned upon a recent novel in which the hero, after making love to a woman, found that he had made a mistake, and promptly made love to her sister, whom he married in the end.
"I despise that sort of man!" cried Clare, rather vehemently, and flashing her eyes upon Johnstone.
For a moment she had thought that she could surprise him, that he would look away, or change colour, or in some way betray his most guilty conscience. But he did not seem in the least disturbed, and met her glance as calmly as ever.
"Do you?" he asked with an indifferent laugh. "Why? The fellow was honest, at all events. He found that he didn't love the one to whom he was engaged, and that he did love the other. So he set things straight before it was too late, and married the right one. He was a very sensible man, and it must have taken courage to be so honest about it."
"Courage!" exclaimed the young girl in high scorn. "He was a brute and a coward!"
"Dear me!" laughed Brook. "Don't you admit that a man may ever make a mistake?"
"When a man makes a mistake of that sort, he should either cut his throat, or else keep his word to the woman and try to make her happy."
"That's a violent view—really! It seems to me that when a man has made a mistake the best thing to do is to go and say so. The bigger the mistake, the harder it is to acknowledge it, and the more courage it needs. Don't you think so, Mrs. Bowring?"
"The mistake of all mistakes is a mistake in marriage," said the elder woman, looking away. "There is no remedy for that, but death."
"Yes," answered Clare. "But don't you think that I'm right? It's what you say, after all—"
"Not exactly, my dear. No man who doesn't love a woman can make her happy for long."
"Well—a man who makes a woman think that he loves her, and then leaves her for some one else, is a brute, and a beast, and a coward, and a wretch, and a villain—and I hate him, and so do all women!"
"That's categorical!" observed Brook, with a laugh. "But I dare say you are quite right in theory, only practice is so awfully different, you know. And a woman doesn't thank a man for pretending to love her."
Clare's eyes flashed almost savagely, and her lip curled in scorn.
"There's only one right," she said. "I don't know how many wrongs there are—and I don't want to know!"
"No," answered Brook, gravely enough. "And there is no reason why you ever should."
"You seemed to be most tremendously in earnest yesterday, when we were talking about that book," observed Brook on the following afternoon.
"Of course I was," answered Clare. "I said just what I thought."
They were walking together along the high road which leads from Amalfi towards Salerno. It is certainly one of the most beautiful roads in Europe, and in the whole world. The chain of rocky heights dashes with wild abruptness from its five thousand feet straight to the dark-blue sea, bristling with sharp needles and spikes of stone, rough with a chaos of brown boulders, cracked from peak to foot with deep torn gorges. In each gorge nestles a garden of orange and lemons and pomegranates, and out of the stones there blows a perfume of southern blossom through all the month of May. The sea lies dark and clear below, ever tideless, often still as a woodland pool; then, sometimes, it rises suddenly in deep-toned wrath, smiting the face of the cliff, booming through the low-mouthed caves, curling its great green curls and combing them out to frothing ringlets along the strips of beach, winding itself about the rock of Conca in a heavily gleaming sheet and whirling its wraith of foam to heaven, the very ghost of storm.
And in the face of those rough rocks, high above the water, is hewn a way that leads round the mountain's base, many miles along it, over the sharp-jutting spurs, and in between the boulders and the needles, down into the gardens of the gorges and past the dark towers whence watchmen once descried the Saracen's ill-boding sail and sent up their warning beacon of smoke by day and fire by night.
It is the most beautiful road in the world, in its infinite variety, in the grandeur above and the breadth below, and the marvellous rich sweetness of the deep gardens—passing as it does out of wilderness into splendour, out of splendour into wealth of colour and light and odour, and again out to the rugged strength of the loneliness beyond.
Clare and Johnstone had exchanged idle phrases for a while, until they had passed Atrani and the turn where the new way leads up to Ravello, and were fairly out on the road. They were both glad to be out together and walking, for Clare had grown stronger, and was weary of always sitting on the terrace, and Johnstone was tired of taking long walks alone, merely for the sake of being hungry afterwards, and of late had given it up altogether. Mrs. Bowring herself was glad to be alone for once, and made little or no objection, and so the two had started in the early afternoon.
Johnstone's remark had been premeditated, for his curiosity had been aroused on the preceding day by Clare's words and manner. But after she had given him her brief answer she said no more, and they walked on in silence for a few moments.
"Yes," said Johnstone at last, as though he had been reflecting, "you generally say what you think. I didn't doubt it at the time. But you seem rather hard on the men. Women are all angels, of course—"
"Not at all!" interrupted Clare. "Some of us are quite the contrary."
"Well, it's a generally accepted thing, you know. That's what I mean. But it isn't generally accepted that men are. If you take men into consideration at all, you must make some allowances."
"I don't see why. You are much stronger than we are. You all think that you have much more pride. You always say that you have a sense of honour which we can't understand. I should think that with all those advantages you would be much too proud to insist upon our making allowances for you."
"That's rather keen, you know," answered Brook, with a laugh. "All the same, it's a woman's occupation to be good, and a man has a lot of other things to do besides. That's the plain English of it. When a woman isn't good she falls. When a man is bad, he doesn't—it's his nature."
"Oh—if you begin by saying that all men are bad! That's an odd way out of it."
"Not at all. Good men and bad women are the exceptions, that's all—in the way you mean goodness and badness."
"And how do you think I mean goodness and badness? It seems to me that you are taking a great deal for granted, aren't you?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Brook, growing vague on a sudden. "Those are rather hard things to talk about."
"I like to talk about them. How do you think I understand those two words?"
"I don't know," repeated Johnstone, still more vaguely. "I suppose your theory is that men and women are exactly equal, and that a man shouldn't do what a woman ought not to do—and all that, you know. I don't exactly know how to put it."
"I don't see why what is wrong for a woman should be right for a man," said Clare. "The law doesn't make any difference, does it? A man goes to prison for stealing or forging, and so does a woman. I don't see why society should make any distinction about other things. If there were a law against flirting, it would send the men to prison just like the women, wouldn't it?"
"What an awful idea!" laughed Brook.
"Yes, but in theory—"
"Oh, in theory it's all right. But in practice we men are not wrapped in cotton and tied up with pink ribbons from the day we are born to the day we are married. I—I don't exactly know how to explain what I mean, but that's the general idea. Among poor people—I believe one mustn't say the lower classes any more—well, with them it isn't quite the same. The women don't get so much care and looking after, when they are young, you know—that sort of thing. The consequence is, that there's much more equality between men and women. I believe the women are worse, and the men are better—it's my opinion, at all events. I dare say it isn't worth much. It's only what I see at home, you know."
"But the working people don't flirt!" exclaimed Clare. "They drink, and that sort of thing—"
"Yes, lots of them drink, men and women. And as for flirting—they don't call it flirting, but in their way I dare say it's very much the same thing. Only, in our part of the country, a man who flirts, if you call it so, gets just as bad a name as a woman. You see, they have all had about the same bringing up. But with us it's quite different. A girl is brought up in a cage, like a turtle dove, with nothing to do except to be good, while a boy is sent to a public school when he is eleven or twelve, which is exactly the same as sending him to hell, except that he has the certainty of getting away."
"But boys don't learn to flirt at Eton," observed the young girl.
"Well—no," answered Johnstone. "But they learn everything else, except Latin and Greek, and they go to a private tutor to learn those things before they go to the university."
"You mean that they learn to drink and gamble, and all that?" asked Clare.
"Oh—more or less—a little of everything that does no good—and then you expect us afterwards to be the same as you are, who have been brought up by your mothers at home. It isn't fair, you know."
"No," answered Clare, yielding. "It isn't fair. That strikes me as the best argument you have used yet. But it doesn't make it right, for all that. And why shouldn't men be brought up to be good, just as women are?"
"That's quite another matter. Only a paternal government could do that—or a maternal government. We haven't got either, so we have to do the best we can. I only state the fact, and you are obliged to admit it. I can't go back to the reason. The fact remains. In certain ways, at a certain age, all men as a rule are bad, and all women, on the whole, are good. Most of you know it, and you judge us accordingly and make allowances. But you yourself don't seem inclined to be merciful. Perhaps you'll be less hard-hearted when you are older."
"I'm not hard-hearted!" exclaimed Clare, indignantly. "I'm only just. And I shall always be the same, I'm sure."
"If I were a Frenchman," said Brook, "I should be polite, and say that I hoped so. As I'm not, and as it would be rude to say that I didn't believe it, I'll say nothing. Only to be what you call just, isn't the way to be liked, you know."
"I don't want to be liked," Clare answered, rather sharply. "I hate what are called popular people!"
"So do I. They are generally awful bores, don't you know? They want to keep the thing up and be liked all the time."
"Well—if one likes people at all, one ought to like them all the time," objected Clare, with unnecessary contrariety.
"That was the original point," observed Brook. "That was your objection to the man in the book—that he loved first one sister and then the other. Poor chap! The first one loved him, and the second one prayed for him! He had no luck!"
"A man who will do that sort of thing is past praying for!" retorted the young girl. "It seems to me that when a man makes a woman believe that he loves her, the best thing he can do is to be faithful to her afterwards."
"Yes—but supposing that he is quite sure that he can't make her happy—"
"Then he had no right to make love to her at all."
"But he didn't know it at first. He didn't find out until he had known her a long time."
"That makes it all the worse," exclaimed Clare with conviction, but without logic.
"And while he was trying to find out, she fell in love with him," continued Brook. "That was unlucky, but it wasn't his fault, you know—"
"Oh yes, it was—in that book at least. He asked her to marry him before he had half made up his mind. Really, Mr. Johnstone," she continued, almost losing her temper, "you defend the man almost as though you were defending yourself!"
"That's rather a hard thing to say to a man, isn't it?"
Johnstone was young enough to be annoyed, though he was amused.
"Then why do you defend the man?" asked Clare, standing still at a turn of the road and facing him.
"I won't, if we are going to quarrel about a ridiculous book," he answered, looking at her. "My opinion's not worth enough for that."
"If you have an opinion at all, it's worth fighting for."
"I don't want to fight, and I won't fight with you," he answered, beginning to laugh.
"With me or with any one else—"
"No—not with you," he said with sudden emphasis.
"Why not with me?"
"Because I like you very much," he answered boldly, and they stood looking at each other in the middle of the road.
Clare had started in surprise, and the colour rose slowly to her face, but she would not take her eyes from his. For the first time it seemed to her that he had no power over her.
"I'm sorry," she answered. "For I don't like you."
"Are you in earnest?" He could not help laughing.
"Yes." There was no mistaking her tone.
Johnstone's face changed, and for the first time in their acquaintance he was the one to turn his eyes away.
"I'm sorry too," he said quietly. "Shall we turn back?" he asked after a moment's pause.
"No, I want to walk," answered Clare.
She turned from him, and began to walk on in silence. For some time neither spoke. Johnstone was puzzled, surprised, and a little hurt, but he attributed what she had said to his own roughness in telling her that he liked her, though he could not see that he had done anything so very terrible. He had spoken spontaneously, too, without the least thought of producing an impression, or of beginning to make love to her. Perhaps he owed her an apology. If she thought so, he did, and it could do no harm to try.
"I'm very sorry, if I have offended you just now," he said gently. "I didn't mean to."
"You didn't offend me," answered Clare. "It isn't rude to say that one likes a person."
"Oh—I beg your pardon—I thought perhaps—"
He hesitated, surprised by her very unexpected answer. He could not imagine what she wanted.
"Because I said that I didn't like you?" she asked.
"Then it was I who offended you," answered the young girl. "I didn't mean to, either. Only, when you said that you liked me, I thought you were in earnest, you know, and so I wanted to be quite honest, because I thought it was fairer. You see, if I had let you think that I liked you, you might have thought we were going to drift into being friends, and that's impossible, you know—because I never did like you, and I never shall. But that needn't prevent our walking together, and talking, and all that. At least, I don't mean that it should. That's the reason why I won't turn back just yet—"
"But how in the world can you enjoy walking and talking with a man you don't like?" asked Johnstone, who was completely at sea, and began to think that he must be dreaming.
"Well—you are awfully good company, you know, and I can't always be sitting with my mother on the terrace, though we love each other dearly."
"You are the most extraordinary person!" exclaimed Johnstone, in genuine bewilderment. "And of course your mother dislikes me too, doesn't she?"
"Not at all," answered Clare. "You asked me that before, and I told you the truth. Since then, she likes you better and better. She is always saying how nice you are."
"Then I had better always talk to her," suggested Brook, feeling for a clue.
"Oh, I shouldn't like that at all!" cried the young girl, laughing.
"And yet you don't like me. This is like twenty questions. You must have some very particular reason for it," he added thoughtfully. "I suppose I must have done some awful thing without knowing it. I wish you would tell me. Won't you, please? Then I'll go away."
"No," Clare answered. "I won't tell you. But I have a reason. I'm not capricious. I don't take violent dislikes to people for nothing. Let it alone. We can talk very pleasantly about other things. Since you are good enough to like me, it might be amusing to tell me why. If you have any good reason, you know, you won't stop liking me just because I don't like you, will you?"
She glanced sideways at him as she spoke, and he was watching her and trying to understand her, for the revelation of her dislike had come upon him very suddenly. She was on the right as they walked, and he saw her against the light sky, above the line of the low parapet. Perhaps the light behind her dazzled him; at all events, he had a strange impression for a moment. She seemed to have the better of him, and to be stronger and more determined than he. She seemed taller than she was, too, for she was on the higher part of the road, in the middle of it. For an instant he felt precisely what she so often felt with him, that she had power over him. But he did not resent the sensation as she did, though it was quite as new to him.
Nevertheless, he did not answer her, for she had spoken only half in earnest, and he himself was not just then inclined to joke for the mere sake of joking. He looked down at the road under his feet, and he knew all at once that Clare attracted him much more than he had imagined. The sidelong glance she had bestowed upon him had fascination in it. There was an odd charm about her girlish contrariety and in her frank avowal that she did not like him. Her dislike roused him. He did not choose to be disliked by her, especially for some absurd trifle in his behaviour, which he had not even noticed when he had made the mistake, whatever it might be.
He walked along in silence, and he was aware of her light tread and the soft sound of her serge skirt as she moved. He wished her to like him, and wished that he knew what to do to change her mind. But that would not be easy, since he did not know the cause of her dislike. Presently she spoke again, and more gravely.
"I should not have said that. I'm sorry. But of course you knew that I wasn't in earnest."
"I don't know why you should not have said it," he answered. "As a matter of fact, you are quite right. I don't like you any the less because you don't like me. Liking isn't a bargain with cash on delivery. I think I like you all the more for being so honest. Do you mind?"
"Not in the least. It's a very good reason." Clare smiled, and then suddenly looked grave again, wondering whether it would not be really honest to tell him then and there that she had overheard his last interview with Lady Fan.
But she reflected that it could only make him feel uncomfortable.
"And another reason why I like you is because you are combative," he said thoughtfully. "I'm not, you know. One always admires the qualities one hasn't oneself."
"And you are not combative? You don't like to be in the opposition?"
"Not a bit! I'm not fond of fighting. I systematically avoid a row."
"I shouldn't have thought that," said Clare, looking at him again. "Do you know? I think most people would take you for a soldier."
"Do I look as though I would seek the bubble reputation at the cannon's mouth?" Brook laughed. "Am I full of strange oaths?"
"Oh, that's ridiculous, you know!" exclaimed Clare. "I mean, you look as though you would fight."
"I never would if I could help it. And so far I have managed 'to help it' very well. I'm naturally mild, I think. You are not, you know. I don't mean to be rude, but I think you are pugnacious—'combative' is prettier."
"My father was a soldier," said the girl, with some pride.
"And mine is a brewer. There's a lot of inheritable difference between handling gunpowder and brewing mild ale. Like father, like son. I shall brew mild ale too. If you could have charged at Balaclava, you would. By the way, it isn't the beer that you object to? Please tell me. I shouldn't mind at all, and I'd much rather know that it was only that."
"How absurd!" cried Clare with scorn. "As though it made any difference!"
"Well—what is it, then?" asked Brook with sudden impatience. "You have no right to hate me without telling me why."
"No right?" The young girl turned on him half fiercely, and then laughed. "You haven't a standing order from Heaven to be liked by the whole human race, you know!"
"And if I had, you would be the solitary exception, I suppose," suggested Johnstone with a rather discontented smile.
"Is there anything I could do to make you change your mind? Because, if it were anything in reason, I'd do it."
"It's rather a pity that you should put in the condition of its being in reason," answered Clare, as her lip curled. "But there isn't anything. You may just as well give it up at once."
"It's a waste of time, I assure you. Besides, it's mere vanity. It's only because everybody likes you—so you think that I should too."
"Between us, we are getting at my character at last," observed Brook with some asperity. "You've discovered my vanity, now. By-and-by we shall find out some more good qualities."
"Perhaps. Each one will be a step in our acquaintance, you know. Steps may lead down, as well as up. We are walking down hill on this road just now, and it's steep. Look at that unfortunate mule dragging that cart up hill towards us! That's like trying to be friends, against odds. I wish the man would not beat the beast like that, though! What brutes these people are!"
Her dark blue eyes fixed themselves keenly on the sight, and the pupils grew wide and angry. The cart was a hundred yards away, coming up the road, piled high with sacks of potatoes, and drawn by one wretched mule. The huge carter was sprawling on the front sacks, yelling a tuneless chant at the top of his voice. He was a black-haired man, with a hideous mouth, and his face was red with wine. As he yelled his song he flogged his miserable beast with a heavy whip, accenting his howls with cruel blows. Clare grew pale with anger as she came nearer and saw it all more distinctly. The mule's knees bent nearly double at every violent step, its wide eyes were bright red all round, its white tongue hung out, and it gasped for breath. The road was stony, too, besides being steep, for it had been lately mended and not rolled.
"Brute!" exclaimed Clare, in a low voice, and her face grew paler.
Johnstone said nothing, and his face did not change as they advanced.
"Don't you see?" cried the young girl. "Can't you do anything? Can't you stop him?"
"Oh yes. I think I can do that," answered Brook indifferently. "It is rather rough on the mule."
"Rough! It's brutal, it's beastly, it's cowardly, it's perfectly inhuman!"
At that moment the unfortunate animal stumbled, struggled to recover itself as the lash descended pitilessly upon its thin flanks, and then fell headlong and tumbled upon its side. The heavy cart pulled back, half turning, so that the shafts were dragged sideways across the mule, whose weight prevented the load from rolling down hill. The carrier stopped singing and swore, beating the beast with all his might, as it lay still gasping for breath.
"Ah, assassin! Ah, carrion! I will teach thee! Curses on the dead of thy house!" he roared.
Brook and Clare were coming nearer.
"That's not very intelligent of the fellow," observed Johnstone indifferently. "He had much better get down."
"Oh, stop it, stop it!" cried the young girl, suffering acutely for the helpless creature.
But the man had apparently recognised the impossibility of producing any impression unless he descended from his perch. He threw the whip to the ground and slid off the sacks. He stood looking at the mule for a moment, and then kicked it in the back with all his might. Then, just as Johnstone and Clare came up, he went round to the back of the cart, walking unsteadily, for he was evidently drunk. The two stopped by the parapet and looked on.
"He's going to unload," said Johnstone. "That's sensible, at all events."
The sacks, as usual in Italy, were bound to the cart by cords, which were fast in front, but which wound upon a heavy spindle at the back. The spindle had three holes in it, in which staves were thrust as levers, to turn it and hold the ropes taut. Two of the staves were tightly pressed against the load, while the third stood nearly upright in its hole.
The man took the third stave, a bar of elm four feet long and as thick as a man's wrist, and came round to the mule again on the side away from Clare and Johnstone. He lifted the weapon high in air, and almost before they realised what horror he was perpetrating he had struck three or four tremendous blows upon the creature's back, making as many bleeding wounds. The mule kicked and shivered violently, and its eyes were almost starting from its head.
Johnstone came up first, caught the stave in air as it was about to descend again, wrenched it out of the man's hands, and hurled it over Clare's head, across the parapet and into the sea. The man fell back a step, and his face grew purple with rage. He roared out a volley of horrible oaths, in a dialect perfectly incomprehensible even to Clare, who knew Italian well.
"You needn't yell like that, my good man," said Johnstone, smiling at him.
The man was big and strong, and drunk. He clenched his fists, and made for his adversary, head down, in the futile Italian fashion. The Englishman stepped aside, landed a left-handed blow behind his ear, and followed it up with a tremendous kick, which sent the fellow upon his face in the ditch under the rocks. Clare looked on, and her eyes brightened singularly, for she had fighting blood in her veins. The man seemed stunned, and lay still where he had fallen. Johnstone turned to the fallen mule, which lay bleeding and gasping under the shafts, and he began to unbuckle the harness.
"Could you put a big stone behind the wheel?" he asked, as Clare tried to help him.
He knew that the cart must roll back if it were not blocked, for he had noticed how it stood. Clare looked about for a stone, picked one up by the roadside, and went to the back of the cart, while Johnstone patted the mule's head, and busied himself with the buckles of the harness, bending low as he did so. Clare also bent down, trying to force the stone under the wheel, and did not notice that the carter was sitting up by the roadside, feeling for something in his pocket.
An instant later he was on his feet. When Clare stood up, he was stepping softly up behind Johnstone. As he moved, she saw that he had an open clasp-knife in his right hand. Johnstone was still bending down unconscious of his danger. The young girl was light on her feet and quick, and not cowardly. The man was before her, halfway between her and Brook. She sprang with all her might, threw her arms round the drunken man's neck from behind, and dragged him backward. He struck wildly behind him with the knife, and roared out curses.
"Quick!" cried Clare, in her high, clear voice. "He's got a knife! Quick!"
But Johnstone had heard their steps, and was already upon him from before, while the young girl's arms tightened round his neck from behind. The fellow struck about him wildly with his blade, staggering backwards as Clare dragged upon him.
"Let go, or you'll fall!" Brook shouted to her.
As he spoke, dodging the knife, he struck the man twice in the face, left and right, in an earnest, business-like way. Clare caught herself by the wheel of the cart as she sprang aside, almost falling under the man's weight. A moment later, Brook was kneeling on his chest, having the knife in his hand and holding it near the carter's throat.
"Lie still!" he said rather quietly, in English. "Give me the halter, please!" he said to Clare, without looking up. "It's hanging to the shaft there in a coil."
Kneeling on the man's chest—to tell the truth, he was badly stunned, though not unconscious—Brook took two half-hitches with the halter round one wrist, passed the line under his neck as he lay, and hauled on it till the arm came under his side, then hitched the other wrist, passed the line back, hauled on it, and finally took two turns round the throat. Clare watched the operation, very pale and breathing hard.
"He's drunk," observed Johnstone. "Otherwise I wouldn't tie him up, you know. Now, if you move," he said in English to his prisoner, "you'll strangle yourself."
Thereupon he rose, forced the fellow to roll over, and hitched the fall of the line round both wrists again, and made it fast, so that the man lay, with his head drawn back by his own hands, which he could not move without tightening the rope round his neck.
"He's frightened now," said Brook. "Let's get the poor mule out of that."
In a few minutes he got the wretched beast free. It was ready enough to rise as soon as it felt that it could do so, and it struggled to its feet, badly hurt by the beating and bleeding in many places, but not seriously injured. The carter watched them as he lay on the road, half strangled, and cursed them in a choking voice.
"And now, what in the world are we going to do with them?" asked Brook, rubbing the mule's nose. "It's a pretty bad case," he continued, thoughtfully. "The mule can't draw the load, the carter can't be allowed to beat the mule, and we can't afford to let the carter have his head. What the dickens are we to do?"
He laughed a little. Then he suddenly looked hard at Clare, as though remembering something.
"It was awfully plucky of you to jump on him in that way," he said. "Just at the right moment, too, by Jove! That devil would have got at me if you hadn't stopped him. Awfully plucky, upon my word! And I'm tremendously obliged, Miss Bowring, indeed I am!"
"It's nothing to be grateful for, it seems to me," Clare answered. "I suppose there's nothing to be done but to sit down and wait until somebody comes. It's a lonely road, of course, and we may wait a long time."
"I say," exclaimed Johnstone, "you've torn your frock rather badly! Look at it!"
She drew her skirt round with her hand. There were long, clean rents in the skirt, on her right side.
"It was his knife," she said, thoughtfully surveying the damage. "He kept trying to get at me with it. I'm sorry, for I haven't another serge skirt with me."
Then she felt herself blushing, and turned away.
"I'll just pin it up," she said, and she disappeared behind the cart rather precipitately.
"By Jove! You have pretty good nerves!" observed Johnstone, more to himself than to her. "Shut up!" he cried to the carter, who was swearing again. "Stop that noise, will you?"
He made a step angrily towards the man, for the sight of the slit frock had roused him again, when he thought what the knife might have done. The fellow was silent instantly, and lay quite still, for he knew that he should strangle himself if he moved.
"I'll have you in prison before night," continued Johnstone, speaking English to him. "Oh yes! the carabinieri will come, and you will go to galera—do you understand that?"
He had picked up the words somewhere. The man began to moan and pray.
"Stop that noise!" cried Brook, with slow emphasis.
He was not far wrong in saying that the carabineers would come. They patrol the roads day and night, in pairs, as they patrol every high road and every mountain path in Italy, all the year round. And just then, far up the road down which Johnstone and Clare had come, two of them appeared in sight, recognisable a mile away by their snow-white crossbelts and gleaming accoutrements. There are twelve or fourteen thousand of them in the country, trained soldiers and picked men, by all odds the finest corps in the army. Until lately no man could serve in the carabineers who could not show documentary evidence that neither he nor his father nor his mother had ever been in prison even for the smallest offence. They are feared and respected, and it is they who have so greatly reduced brigandage throughout the country.
Clare came back to Johnstone's side, having done what she could to pin the rents together.
"It's all right now," she cried. "Here come the carabineers. They will take the man and his cart to the next village. Let me talk to them—I can speak Italian, you know."
She was pale again, and very quiet. She had noticed that her hands trembled violently when she was pinning her frock, though they had been steady enough when they had gone round the man's throat.
When the patrol men came up, she stepped forward and explained what had happened, clearly and briefly. There was the bleeding mule, Johnstone standing before it and rubbing its dusty nose; there was the knife; there was the man. With a modest gesture she showed them where her frock had been cut to shreds. Johnstone made remarks in English, reflecting upon the Italian character, which she did not think fit to translate.
The carabineers were silent fellows with big moustaches—the one very dark, the other as fair as a Swede—they were clean, strong, sober men, with frank eyes, and they said very little. They asked the strangers' names, and Johnstone, at Clare's request, wrote her name on his card, and the address in Amalfi. One of them knew the carter for a bad character.
"We will take care of him and his cart," said the dark man, who was the superior. "The signori may go in quiet."
They untied the rope that bound the man. He rose trembling, and stood on his feet, for he knew that he was in their power. But they showed no intention of putting him in handcuffs.
"Turn the cart round!" said the dark man.
They helped the carter to do it, and blocked it with stones.
"Put in the mule!" was the next order, and the carabineers held up the shafts while the man obeyed.
Then both saluted Johnstone and Clare, and shouldered their short carbines, which had stood against the parapet.
"Forward!" said the dark man, quietly.
The carter took the mule by the head and started it gently enough. The creature understood, and was glad to go down hill; the wheels creaked, the cart moved, and the party went off, one of the carabineers marching on either side.
Clare drew a long breath as she stood looking after them for a moment.
"Let us go home," she said at last, and turned up the road.
For some minutes they walked on in silence.
"I think you probably saved my life at the risk of yours, Miss Bowring," said Johnstone, at last, looking up. "Thank you very much."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed the young girl, and she tried to laugh.
"But you were telling me that you were not combative—that you always avoided a fight, you know, and that you were so mild, and all that. For a very mild man, Mr. Johnstone, who hates fighting, you are a good 'man of your hands,' as they say in the Morte d'Arthur."
"Oh, I don't call that a fight!" answered Johnstone, contemptuously. "Why, my collar isn't even crumpled. As for my hands, if I could find a spring I would wash them, after touching that fellow."
"That's the advantage of wearing gloves," observed Clare, looking at her own.
They were both very young, and though they knew that they had been in great danger they affected perfect indifference about it to each other, after the manner of true Britons. But each admired the other, and Brook was suddenly conscious that he had never known a woman whom, in some ways, he thought so admirable as Clare Bowring, but both felt a singular constraint as they walked homeward.
"Do you know?" Clare began, when they were near Amalfi, "I think we had better say nothing about it to my mother—that is, if you don't mind."
"By all means," answered Brook. "I'm sure I don't want to talk about it."
"No, and my mother is very nervous—you know—about my going off to walk without her. Oh, not about you—with anybody. You see, I'd been very ill before I came here."
In obedience to Clare's expressed wish, Johnstone made no mention that evening of the rather serious adventure on the Salerno road. They had fallen into the habit of shaking hands when they bade each other good-night. When it was time, and the two ladies rose to withdraw, Johnstone suddenly wished that Clare would make some little sign to him—the least thing to show that this particular evening was not precisely what all the other evenings had been, that they were drawn a little closer together, that perhaps she would change her mind and not dislike him any more for that unknown reason at which he could not even guess.
They joined hands, and his eyes met hers. But there was no unusual pressure—no little acknowledgment of a common danger past. The blue eyes looked at him straight and proudly, without softening, and the fresh lips calmly said good-night. Johnstone remained alone, and in a singularly bad humour for such a good-tempered man. He was angry with Clare for being so cold and indifferent, and he was ashamed of himself for wishing that she would admire him a little for having knocked down a tipsy carter. It was not much of an exploit. What she had done had been very much more remarkable. The man would not have killed him, of course, but he might have given him a very dangerous wound with that ugly clasp-knife. Clare's frock was cut to pieces on one side, and it was a wonder that she had escaped without a scratch. He had no right to expect any praise for what he had done, when she had done so much more.
To tell the truth, it was not praise that he wanted, but a sign that she was not indifferent to him, or at least that she no longer disliked him. He was ashamed to own to himself that he was half in love with a young girl who had told him that she did not like him and would never even be his friend. Women had not usually treated him in that way, so far. But the fact remained, that she had got possession of his thoughts, and made him think about his actions when she was present. It took a good deal to disturb Brook Johnstone's young sleep, but he did not sleep well that night.
As for Clare, when she was alone, she regretted that she had not just nodded kindly to him, and nothing more, when she had said good-night. She knew perfectly well that he expected something of the sort, and that it would have been natural, and quite harmless, without any possibility of consequence. She consoled herself by repeating that she had done quite right, as the vision of Lady Fan rose distinctly before her in a flood of memory's moonlight. Then it struck her, as the vision faded, that her position was a very odd one. Personally, she liked the man. Impersonally, she hated and despised him. At least she believed that she did, and that she should, for the sake of all women. To her, as she had known him, he was brave, kind, gentle in manner and speech, boyishly frank. As she had seen him that once, she had thought him heartless, cowardly, and cynical. She could not reconcile the two, and therefore, in her thoughts, she unconsciously divided him into two individualities—her Mr. Johnstone and Lady Fan's Brook. There was very little resemblance between them. Oddly enough, she felt a sort of pang for him, that he could ever have been the other man whom she had first seen. She was getting into a very complicated frame of mind.
They met in the morning and exchanged greetings with unusual coldness. Brook asked whether she were tired; she said that she had done nothing to tire her, as though she resented the question; he said nothing in answer, and they both looked at the sea and thought it extremely dull. Presently Johnstone went off for a walk alone, and Clare buried herself in a book for the morning. She did not wish to think, because her thoughts were so very contradictory. It was easier to try and follow some one else's ideas. She found that almost worse than thinking, but, being very tenacious, she stuck to it and tried to read.
At the midday meal they exchanged commonplaces, and neither looked at the other. Just as they left the dining-room a heavy thunderstorm broke overhead with a deluge of rain. Clare said that the thunder made her head ache, and she disappeared on pretence of lying down. Mrs. Bowring went to write letters, and Johnstone hung about the reading-room, and smoked a pipe in the long corridor, till he was sick of the sound of his own footsteps. Amalfi was all very well in fine weather, he reflected, but when it rained it was as dismal as penny whist, Sunday in London, or a volume of sermons—or all three together, he added viciously, in his thoughts. The German family had fallen back upon the guide book, Mommsen's History of Rome, and the Gartenlaube. The Russian invalid was presumably in his room, with a teapot, and the two English old maids were reading a violently sensational novel aloud to each other by turns in the hotel drawing-room. They stopped reading and got very red, when Johnstone looked in.
It was a dreary afternoon, and he wished that something would happen. The fight on the preceding day had stirred his blood—and other things perhaps had contributed to his restless state of mind. He thought of Clare's torn frock, and he wished he had killed the carter outright. He reflected that, as the man was attacking him with a knife, he himself would have been acquitted.
Late in the afternoon the sky cleared and the red light of the lowering sun struck the crests of the higher hills to eastward. Brook went out and smelled the earth-scented air, and the damp odour of the orange-blossoms. But that did not please him either, so he turned back and went through the long corridor to the platform at the back of the hotel. To his surprise he came face to face with Clare, who was walking briskly backwards and forwards, and saw him just as he emerged from the door. They both stood still and looked at each other with an odd little constraint, almost like anxiety, in their faces. There was a short, awkward silence.
"Well?" said Clare, interrogatively, and raising her eyebrows a very little, as though wondering why he did not speak.
"Nothing," Johnstone answered, turning his face seaward. "I wasn't going to say anything."
"Oh!—you looked as though you were."
"No," he said. "I came out to get a breath of air, that's all."
"So did I. I—I think I've been out long enough. I'll go in." And she made a step towards the door.
"Oh, please, don't!" he cried suddenly. "Can't we walk together a little bit? That is, if you are not tired."
"Oh no! I'm not tired," answered the young girl with a cold little laugh. "I'll stay if you like—just a few minutes."
"Thanks, awfully," said Brook in a shy, jerky way.
They began to walk up and down, much less quickly than Clare had been walking when alone. They seemed to have nothing to say to each other. Johnstone remarked that he thought it would not rain again just then, and after some minutes of reflection Clare said that she remembered having seen two thunderstorms within an hour, with a clear sky between, not long ago. Johnstone also thought the matter over for some time before he answered, and then said that he supposed the clouds must have been somewhere in the meantime—an observation which did not strike either Clare or even himself as particularly intelligent.
"I don't think you know much about thunderstorms," said Clare, after another silence.
"I? No—why should I?"
"I don't know. It's supposed to be just as well to know about things, isn't it?"
"I dare say," answered Brook, indifferently. "But science isn't exactly in my line, if I have any line."
They recrossed the platform in silence.
"What is your line—if you have any?" Clare asked, looking at the ground as she walked, and perfectly indifferent as to his answer.
"It ought to be beer," answered Brook, gravely. "But then, you know how it is—one has all sorts of experts, and one ends by taking their word for granted about it. I don't believe I have any line—unless it's in the way of out-of-door things. I'm fond of shooting, and I can ride fairly, you know, like anybody else."
"Yes," said Clare, "you were telling me so the other day, you know."
"Yes," Johnstone murmured thoughtfully, "that's true. Please excuse me. I'm always repeating myself."
"I didn't mean that." Her tone changed a little. "You can be very amusing when you like, you know."
"Thanks, awfully. I should like to be amusing now, for instance, but I can't."
"Now? Why now?"
"Because I'm boring you to madness, little by little, and I'm awfully sorry too, for I want you to like me—though you say you never will—and of course you can't like a bore, can you? I say, Miss Bowring, don't you think we could strike some sort of friendly agreement—to be friends without 'liking,' somehow? I'm beginning to hate the word. I believe it's the colour of my hair or my coat—or something—that you dislike so. I wish you'd tell me. It would be much kinder. I'd go to work and change it—"
"Dye your hair?" Clare laughed, glad that the ice was broken again.
"Oh yes—if you like," he answered, laughing too. "Anything to please you."
"Anything 'in reason'—as you proposed yesterday."
"No—anything in reason or out of it. I'm getting desperate!" He laughed again, but in his laughter there was a little note of something new to the young girl, a sort of understreak of earnestness.
"It isn't anything you can change," said Clare, after a moment's hesitation. "And it certainly has nothing to do with your appearance, or your manners, or your tailor," she added.
"Oh well, then, it's evidently something I've done, or said," Brook murmured, looking at her.
But she did not return his glance, as they walked side by side; indeed, she turned her face from him a little, and she said nothing, for she was far too truthful to deny his assertion.
"Then I'm right," he said, with an interrogation, after a long pause.
"Don't ask me, please! It's of no importance after all. Talk of something else."
"I don't agree with you," Brook answered. "It is very important to me."
"Oh, nonsense!" Clare tried to laugh. "What difference can it make to you, whether I like you or not?"
"Don't say that. It makes a great difference—more than I thought it could, in fact. One—one doesn't like to be misjudged by one's friends, you know."
"But I'm not your friend."
"I want you to be."
"You won't," said Brook, in a lower tone, and almost angrily. "You've made up your mind against me, on account of something you've guessed at, and you won't tell me what it is, so I can't possibly defend myself. I haven't the least idea what it can be. I never did anything particularly bad, I believe, and I never did anything I should be ashamed of owning. I don't like to say that sort of thing, you know, about myself, but you drive me to it. It isn't fair. Upon my word, it's not fair play. You tell a man he's a bad lot, like that, in the air, and then you refuse to say why you think so. Or else the whole thing is a sort of joke you've invented—if it is, it's awfully one-sided, it seems to me."
"Do you really think me capable of anything so silly?" asked Clare.
"No, I don't. That makes it all the worse, because it proves that you have—or think you have—something against me. I don't know much about law, but it strikes me as something tremendously like libel. Don't you think so yourself?"
"Oh no! Indeed I don't. Libel means saying things against people, doesn't it? I haven't done that—"