"Don't—please don't!" she said, beginning to be frightened at his manner again.
"Don't what? Don't love you? Don't live, then—don't exist—don't anything! What would it all matter, if I didn't love you? Meanwhile, I do, and by the—no! What's the use of talking? You might laugh. You'd make a fool of me, if you hadn't killed the fool out of me with too much earnest—and what's left can't talk, though it can do something better worth while than a lot of talking."
Clare began to think that the heat had hurt his head. And all the time, in a secret, shame-faced way, she was listening to his incoherent sentences and rough exclamations, and remembering them one by one, and every one. And she looked at his pale face, and saw the queer light in his blue eyes, and the squaring of his jaw—and then and long afterwards the whole picture, with its memory of words, hot, broken, and confused, meant earnest love in her thoughts. No man in his senses, wishing to play a part and produce an impression upon a woman, would have acted as he did, and she knew it. It was the rough, real thing—the raw strength of an honest man's uncontrolled passion that she saw—and it told her more of love in a few minutes than all she had heard or read in her whole life. But while it was before her, alive and throbbing and incoherent of speech, it frightened her.
"Come," she said nervously, "we mustn't stay out here any longer, talking in this way."
He stopped again, close before her, and his eyes looked dangerous for an instant. Then he straightened himself, and seemed to swallow something with an effort.
"All right," he answered. "I don't want to keep you out here in the heat."
He faced about, and they walked slowly towards the house. When they reached the door he stood aside. She saw that he did not mean to go in, and she paused an instant on the threshold, looked at him gravely, and nodded before she entered. Again he bent his head, and said nothing. She left him standing there, and went straight to her room.
Then she sat down before a little table on which she wrote her letters, near the window, and she tried to think. But it was not easy, and everything was terribly confused. She rested her elbows upon the small desk and pressed her fingers to her eyes, as though to drive away the sight that would come back. Then she dropped her hands suddenly and opened her eyes wide, and stared at the wall-paper before her. And it came back very vividly between her and the white plaster, and she heard his voice again—but she was smiling now.
She started violently, for she felt two hands laid unexpectedly upon her shoulders, and some one kissed her hair. She had not heard her mother's footstep, nor the opening and shutting of the door, nor anything but Brook Johnstone's voice.
"What is it, my darling?" asked the elder woman, bending down over her daughter's shoulder. "Has anything happened?"
Clare hesitated a moment, and then spoke, for the habit of her confidence was strong. "He has asked me to marry him, mother—"
In her turn Mrs. Bowring started, and then rested one hand on the table.
"You? You?" she repeated, in a low and troubled voice. "You marry Adam Johnstone's son?"
"No, mother—never," answered the young girl.
And Mrs. Bowring sank into a chair, shivering as though she were cold.
Brook felt in his pocket mechanically for his pipe, as a man who smokes generally takes to something of the sort at great moments in his life, from sheer habit. He went through the operation of filling and lighting with great precision, almost unconscious of what he was doing, and presently he found himself smoking and sitting on the wall just where Clare had leaned against it during their interview. In three minutes his pipe had gone out, but he was not aware of the fact, and sat quite still in his place, staring into the shrubbery which grew at the back of the terrace.
He was conscious that he had talked and acted wildly, and quite unlike the self with which he had been long acquainted; and the consciousness was anything but pleasant. He wondered where Clare was, and what she might be thinking of him at that moment. But as he thought of her his former mood returned, and he felt that he was not ashamed of what he had done and said. Then he realised, all at once, for the second time, that Clare had been on the platform on that first night, and he tried to recall everything that Lady Fan and he had said to each other.
No such thing had ever happened to him before, and he had a sensation of shame and distress and anger, as he went over the scene, and thought of the innocent young girl who had sat in the shadow and heard it all. She had accidentally crossed the broad, clear line of demarcation which he drew between her kind and all the tribe of Lady Fans and Mrs. Cairngorms whom he had known. He felt somehow as though it were his fault, and as though he were responsible to Clare for what she had heard and seen. The sensation of shame deepened, and he swore bitterly under his breath. It was one of those things which could not be undone, and for which there was no reparation possible. Yet it was like an insult to Clare. For a man who had lately been rough to the girl, almost to brutality, he was singularly sensitive perhaps. But that did not strike him. When he had told her that he loved her, he had been too much in earnest to pick and choose his expressions. But when he had spoken to Lady Fan, he might have chosen and selected and polished his phrases so that Clare should have understood nothing—if he had only known that she had been sitting up there by the cross in the dark. And again he cursed himself bitterly.
It was not because her knowing the facts had spoilt everything and given her a bad impression of him from the first: that might be set right in time, even now, and he did not wish her to marry him believing him to be an angel of light. It was that she should have seen something which she should not have seen, for her innocence's sake—something which, in a sense, must have offended and wounded her maidenliness. He would have struck any man who could have laughed at his sensitiveness about that. The worst of it—and he went back to the idea again and again—was that nothing could be done to mend matters, since it was all so completely in the past.
He sat on the wall and pulled at his briar-root pipe, which had gone out and was quite cold by this time, though he hardly knew it. He had plenty to think of, and things were not going straight at all. He had pretended indifference when his mother had told him how Lady Fan meant to get a divorce and how she was telling her intimate friends under the usual vain promises of secrecy that she meant to marry Adam Johnstone's son as soon as she should be free. Brook had told her plainly enough that he would not marry her in any case, but he asked himself whether the world might not say that he should, and whether in that case it might not turn out to be a question of honour. He had secretly thought of that before now, and in the sudden depression of spirits which came upon him as a reaction he cursed himself a third time for having told Clare Bowring that he loved her, while such a matter as Lady Fan's divorce was still hanging over him as a possibility.
Sitting on the wall, he swung his legs angrily, striking his heels against the stones in his perplexed discontent with the ordering of the universe. Things looked very black. He wished that he could see Clare again, and that, somehow, he could talk it all over with her. Then he almost laughed at the idea. She would tell him that she disliked him—he was sick of the sound of the word—and that it was his duty to marry Lady Fan. What could she know of Lady Fan? He could not tell her that the little lady in the white serge, being rather desperate, had got herself asked to go with the party for the express purpose of throwing herself at his head, as the current phrase gracefully expresses it, and with the distinct intention of divorcing her husband in order to marry Brook Johnstone. He could not tell Clare that he had made love to Lady Fan to get rid of her, as another common expression put it, with a delicacy worthy of modern society. He could not tell her that Lady Fan, who was clever but indiscreet, had unfolded her scheme to her bosom friend Mrs. Leo Cairngorm, or that Mrs. Cairngorm, unknown to Lady Fan, had been a very devoted friend of Brook's, and was still fond of him, and secretly hated Lady Fan, and had therefore unfolded the whole plan to Brook before the party had started; or that on that afternoon at sunset on the Acropolis he had not at all assented to Lady Fan's mad proposal, as she had represented that he had when they had parted on the platform at Amalfi; he could not tell Clare any of these things, for he felt that they were not fit for her to hear. And if she knew none of them she must judge him out of her ignorance. Brook wished that some supernatural being with a gift for solving hard problems would suddenly appear and set things straight.
Instead, he saw the man who brought the letters just entering the hotel, and he rose by force of habit and went to the office to see if there were anything for him.
There was one, and it was from Lady Fan, by no means the first she had written since she had gone to England. And there were several for Sir Adam and two for Lady Johnstone. Brook took them all, and opened his own at once. He did not belong to that class of people who put off reading disagreeable correspondence. While he read he walked slowly along the corridor.
Lady Fan was actually consulting a firm of solicitors with a view to getting a divorce. She said that she of course understood his conduct on that last night at Amalfi—the whole plan must have seemed unrealisable to him then—she would forgive him. She refused to believe that he would ruin her in cold blood, as she must be ruined if she got a divorce from Crosby, and if Brook would not marry her; and much more.
Why should she be ruined? Brook asked himself. If Crosby divorced her on Brook's account, it would be another matter altogether. But she was going to divorce Crosby, who was undoubtedly a beast, and her reputation would be none the worse for it. People would only wonder why she had not done it before, and so would Crosby, unless he took it into his head to examine the question from a financial point of view. For Crosby was, or had been, rich, and Lady Fan had no money of her own, and Crosby was quite willing to let her spend a good deal, provided she left him in peace. How in the world could Clare ever know all the truth about such people? It would be an insult to her to think that she could understand half of it, and she would not think the better of him unless she could understand it all. The situation did not seem to admit of any solution in that way. All he could hope for was that Clare might change her mind. When she should be older she would understand that she had made a mistake, and that the world was not merely a high-class boarding-school for young ladies, in which all the men were employed as white-chokered professors of social righteousness. That seemed to be her impression, he thought, with a resentment which was not against her in particular, but against all young girls in general, and which did not prevent him from feeling that he would not have had it otherwise for anything in the world.
He stuffed the letter into his pocket, and went in search of his father. He was strongly inclined to lay the whole matter before him, and to ask the old gentleman's advice. He had reason to believe that Sir Adam had been in worse scrapes than this when he had been a young man, and somehow or other nobody had ever thought the worse of him. He was sure to be in his room at that hour, writing letters. Brook knocked and went in. It was about eleven o'clock.
Sir Adam, gaunt and grey, and clad in a cashmere dressing-jacket, was extended upon all the chairs which the little cell-like room contained, close by the open window. He had a very thick cigarette between his lips, and a half-emptied glass of brandy and soda stood on the corner of a table at his elbow. He had not failed to drink one brandy and soda every morning at eleven o'clock for at least a quarter of a century.
His keen old eyes turned sharply to Brook as the latter entered, and a smile lighted up his furrowed face, but instantly disappeared again; for the young man's features betrayed something of what he had gone through during the last hour.
"Anything wrong, boy?" asked Sir Adam quickly. "Have a brandy and soda and a pipe with me. Oh, letters! It's devilish hard that the post should find a man out in this place! Leave them there on the table."
Brook relighted his pipe. His father took one leg from one of the chairs, which he pushed towards his son with his foot by way of an invitation to sit down.
"What's the matter?" he asked, renewing his question. "You've got into another scrape, have you? Mrs. Crosby—of all women in the world. Your mother told me that ridiculous story. Wants to divorce Crosby and marry you, does she? I say, boy, it's time this sort of nonsense stopped, you know. One of these days you'll be caught. There are cleverer women in the world than Mrs. Crosby."
"Oh! she's not clever," answered Brook thoughtfully.
"Well, what's the foundation of the story? What the dickens did you go with those people for, when you found out that she was coming? You knew the sort of woman she was, I suppose? What happened? You made love to her, of course. That was what she wanted. Then she talked of eternal bliss together, and that sort of rot, didn't she? And you couldn't exactly say that you only went in for bliss by the month, could you? And she said, 'By Jove, as you don't refuse, you shall have it for the rest of your life,' and she said to herself that you were richer than Crosby, and a good deal younger, and better-looking, and better socially, and that if you were going to make a fool of yourself she might as well get the benefit of it as well as any other woman. Then she wrote to a solicitor—and now you are in the devil of a scrape. I fancy that's the history of the case, isn't it?"
"I wish you wouldn't talk about women in that sort of way, Governor!" exclaimed Brook, by way of answer.
"Don't be an ass!" answered Sir Adam. "There are women one can talk about in that way, and women one can't. Mrs. Crosby is one of the first kind. I distinguish between 'women' and 'woman.' Don't you? Woman means something to most of us—something a good deal better than we are, which we treat properly and would cut one another's throats for. We sinners aren't called upon to respect women who won't respect themselves. We are only expected to be civil to them because they are things in petticoats with complexions. Don't be an ass, Brook. I don't want to know what you said to Mrs. Crosby, nor what she said to you, and you wouldn't be a gentleman if you told me. That's your affair. But she's a woman with a consumptive reputation that's very near giving up the ghost, and that would have departed this life some time ago if Crosby didn't happen to be a little worse than she is. She wants to get a divorce and marry my son—and that's my affair. Do you remember the Arab and his slave? 'You've stolen my money,' said the sheikh. 'That's my business,' answered the slave. 'And I'm going to beat you,' said the sheikh. 'That's your business,' said the slave. It's a similar case, you know, only it's a good deal worse. I don't want to know anything that happened before you two parted. But I've a right to know what Mrs. Crosby has done since, haven't I? You don't care to marry her, do you, boy?"
"Marry her! I'd rather cut my throat."
"You needn't do that. Just tell me whether all this is mere talk, or whether she has really been to the solicitor's. If she has, you know, she will get her divorce without opposition. Everybody knows about Crosby."
"It's true," said Brook. "I've just had a letter from her again. I wish I knew what to do!"
"You can't do anything."
"I can refuse to marry her, can't I?"
"Oh—you could. But plenty of people would say that you had induced her to get the divorce, and then had changed your mind. She'll count on that, and make the most of it, you may be sure. She won't have a penny when she's divorced, and she'll go about telling everybody that you have ruined her. That won't be pleasant, will it?"
"No—hardly. I had thought of it."
"You see—you can't do anything without injuring yourself. I can settle the whole affair in half an hour. By return of post you'll get a letter from her telling you that she has abandoned all idea of proceedings against Crosby."
"I'll bet you she doesn't," said Brook.
"Anything you like. It's perfectly simple. I'll just make a will, leaving you nothing at all, if you marry her, and I'll send her a copy to-day. You'll get the answer fast enough."
"By Jove!" exclaimed Brook, in surprise. Then he thoughtfully relighted his pipe and threw the match out of the window. "I say, Governor," he added after a pause, "do you think that's quite—well, quite fair and square, you know?"
"What on earth do you mean?" cried Sir Adam. "Do you mean to tell me that I haven't a perfect right to leave my money as I please? And that the first adventuress who takes a fancy to it has a right to force you into a disgraceful marriage, and that it would be dishonourable of me to prevent it if I could? You're mad, boy! Don't talk such nonsense to me!"
"I suppose I'm an idiot," said Brook. "Things about money so easily get a queer look, you know. It's not like other things, is it?"
"Look here, Brook," answered the old man, taking his feet from the chair on which they rested, and sitting up straight in the low easy chair. "People have said a lot of things about me in my life, and I'll do the world the credit to add that it might have said twice as much with a good show of truth. But nobody ever said that I was mean, nor that I ever disappointed anybody in money matters who had a right to expect something of me. And that's pretty conclusive evidence, because I'm a Scotch-man, and we are generally supposed to be a close-fisted tribe. They've said everything about me that the world can say, except that I've told you about my first marriage. She—she got her divorce, you know. She had a perfect right to it."
The old man lit another cigarette, and sipped his brandy and soda thoughtfully.
"I don't like to talk about money," he said in a lower tone. "But I don't want you to think me mean, Brook. I allowed her a thousand a year after she had got rid of me. She never touched it. She isn't that kind. She would rather starve ten times over. But the money has been paid to her account in London for twenty-seven years. Perhaps she doesn't know it. All the better for her daughter, who will find it after her mother's death, and get it all. I only don't want you to think I'm mean, Brook."
"Then she married again—your first wife?" asked the young man, with natural curiosity. "And she's alive still?"
"Yes," answered Sir Adam, thoughtfully. "She married again six years after I did—rather late—and she had one daughter."
"What an odd idea!" exclaimed Brook. "To think that those two people are somewhere about the world. A sort of stray half-sister of mine, the girl would be—I mean—what would be the relationship, Governor, since we are talking about it?"
"None whatever," answered the old man, in a tone so extraordinarily sharp that Brook looked up in surprise. "Of course not! What relation could she be? Another mother and another father—no relation at all."
"Do you mean to say that I could marry her?" asked Brook idly.
Sir Adam started a little.
"Why—yes—of course you could, as she wouldn't be related to you."
He suddenly rose, took up his glass, and gulped down what was left in it. Then he went and stood before the open window.
"I say, Brook," he began, his back turned to his son.
"What?" asked Brook, poking his knife into his pipe to clean it. "Anything wrong?"
"I can't stand this any longer. I've got to speak to somebody—and I can't speak to your mother. You won't talk, boy, will you? You and I have always been good friends."
"Of course! What's the matter with you, Governor? You can tell me."
"Oh—nothing—that is—Brook, I say, don't be startled. This Mrs. Bowring is my divorced wife, you know."
Sir Adam turned on his heels and met his son's look of horror and astonishment. He had expected an exclamation of surprise, but Brook's voice had fear in it, and he had started from his chair.
"Why do you say 'Good God'—like that?" asked the old man. "You're not in love with the girl, are you?"
"I've just asked her to marry me."
The young man was ghastly pale, as he stood stock-still, staring at his father. Sir Adam was the first to recover something of equanimity, but the furrows in his face had suddenly grown deeper.
"Of course she has accepted you?" he asked.
"No—she knew about Mrs. Crosby." That seemed sufficient explanation of Clare's refusal. "How awful!" exclaimed Brook hoarsely, his mind going back to what seemed the main question just then. "How awful for you, Governor!"
"Well—it's not pleasant," said Sir Adam, turning to the window again. "So the girl refused you," he said, musing, as he looked out. "Just like her mother, I suppose. Brook"—he paused.
"So far as I'm concerned, it's not so bad as you think. You needn't pity me, you know. It's just as well that we should have met—after twenty-seven years."
"She knew you at once, of course?"
"She knew I was your father before I came. And, I say, Brook—she's forgiven me at last."
His voice was low and unsteady, and he resolutely kept his back turned.
"She's one of the best women that ever lived," he said. "Your mother's the other."
There was a long silence, and neither changed his position. Brook watched the back of his father's head.
"You don't mind my saying so to you, Brook?" asked the old man, hitching his shoulders.
"Oh—well—there's no reason, I suppose. Gad! I wish—I suppose I'm crazy, but I wish to God you could marry the girl, Brook! She's as good as her mother."
Brook said nothing, being very much astonished, as well as disturbed.
"Only—I'll tell you one thing, Brook," said the voice at the window, speaking into space. "If you do marry her—and if you treat her as I treated her mother—" he turned sharply on both heels and waited a minute—"I'll be damned if I don't believe I'd shoot you!"
"I'd spare you the trouble, and do it myself," said Brook, roughly.
They were men, at all events, whatever their faults had been and might be, and they looked at the main things of life in very much the same way, like father like son. Another silence followed Brook's last speech.
"It's settled now, at all events," he said in a decided way, after a long time. "What's the use of talking about it? I don't know whether you mean to stay here. I shall go away this afternoon."
Sir Adam sat down again in his low easy chair, and leaned forward, looking at the pattern of the tiles in the floor, his wrists resting on his knees, and his hands hanging down.
"I don't know," he said slowly. "Let us try and look at it quietly, boy. Don't do anything in a hurry. You're in love with the girl, are you? It isn't a mere flirtation? How the deuce do you know the difference, at your age?"
"Gad!" exclaimed Brook, half angrily. "I know it! that's all. I can't live without her. That is—it's all bosh to talk in that way, you know. One goes on living, I suppose—one doesn't die. You know what I mean. I'd rather lose an arm than lose her—that sort of thing. How am I to explain it to you? I'm in earnest about it. I never asked any girl to marry me till now. I should think that ought to prove it. You can't say that I don't know what married life means."
"Other people's married life," observed Sir Adam, grimly. "You know something about that, I'm afraid."
"What difference does it make?" asked Brook. "I can't marry the daughter of my father's divorced wife."
"I never heard of a case, simply because such cases don't arise often. But there's no earthly reason why you shouldn't. There is no relationship whatever between you. There's no mention of it in the table of kindred and affinity, I know, simply because it isn't kindred or affinity in any way. The world may make its observations. But you may do much more surprising things than marry the daughter of your father's divorced wife when you are to have forty thousand pounds a year, Brook. I've found it out in my time. You'll find it out in yours. And it isn't as though there were the least thing about it that wasn't all fair and square and straight and honourable and legal—and everything else, including the clergy. I supposed that the Archbishop of Canterbury wouldn't have married me the second time, because the Church isn't supposed to approve of divorces. But I was married in church all right, by a very good man. And Church disapproval can't possibly extend to the second generation, you know. Oh no! So far as its being possible goes, there's nothing to prevent your marrying her."
"Except Mrs. Crosby," said Brook. "You'll prove that she doesn't exist either, if you go on. But all that doesn't put things straight. It's a horrible situation, no matter how you look at it. What would my mother say if she knew? You haven't told her about the Bowrings, have you?"
"No," answered Sir Adam, thoughtfully. "I haven't told her anything. Of course she knows the story, but—I'm not sure. Do you think I'm bound to tell her that—who Mrs. Bowring is? Do you think it's anything like not fair to her, just to leave her in ignorance of it? If you think so, I'll tell her at once. That is, I should have to ask Mrs. Bowring first, of course."
"Of course," assented Brook. "You can't do that, unless we go away. Besides, as things are now, what's the use?"
"She'll have to know, if you are engaged to the daughter."
"I'm not engaged to Miss Bowring," said Brook, disconsolately. "She won't look at me. What an infernal mess I've made of my life!"
"Don't be an ass, Brook!" exclaimed Sir Adam, for the third time that morning.
"It's all very well to tell me not to be an ass," answered the young man gravely. "I can't mend matters now, and I don't blame her for refusing me. It isn't much more than two weeks since that night. I can't tell her the truth—I wouldn't tell it to you, though I can't prevent your telling it to me, since you've guessed it. She thinks I betrayed Mrs. Crosby, and left her—like the merest cad, you know. What am I to do? I won't say anything against Mrs. Crosby for anything—and if I were low enough to do that I couldn't say it to Miss Bowring. I told her that I'd marry her in spite of herself—carry her off—anything! But of course I couldn't. I lost my head, and talked like a fool."
"She won't think the worse of you for that," observed the old man. "But you can't tell her—the rest. Of course not! I'll see what I can do, Brook. I don't believe it's hopeless at all. I've watched Miss Bowring, ever since we first met you two, coming up the hill. I'll try something—"
"Don't speak to her about Mrs. Crosby, at all events!"
"I don't think I should do anything you wouldn't do yourself, boy," said Sir Adam, with a shade of reproval in his tone. "All I say is that the case isn't so hopeless as you seem to think. Of course you are heavily handicapped, and you are a dog with a bad name, and all the rest of it. The young lady won't change her mind to-day, nor to-morrow either, perhaps. But she wouldn't be a human woman if she never changed it at all."
"You don't know her!" Brook shook his head and began to refill his refractory pipe. "And I don't believe you know her mother either, though you were married to her once. If she is at all what I think she is, she won't let her daughter marry your son. It's not as though anything could happen now to change the situation. It's an old one—it's old, and set, and hard, like a cast. You can't run it into a new mould and make anything else of it. Not even you, Governor—and you are as clever as anybody I know. It's a sheer question of humanity, without any possible outside incident. I've got two things against me which are about as serious as anything can be—the mother's prejudice against you, and the daughter's prejudice against me—both deuced well founded, it seems to me."
"You forget one thing, Brook," said Sir Adam, thoughtfully.
Neither spoke for some time.
"You ought to know," said Brook in a low tone, at last. "They forgive when they love—or have loved. That's the right way to put it, I think."
"Well—put it in that way, if you like. It will just cover the ground. Whatever that young lady may say, she likes you very much. I've seen her watch you, and I'm sure of it."
"How can a woman love a man and hate him at the same time?"
"Why do jealous women sometimes kill their husbands? If they didn't love them they wouldn't care; and if they didn't hate them, they wouldn't kill them. You can't explain it, perhaps, but you can't deny it either. She'll never forgive Mrs. Crosby—perhaps—but she'll forgive you, when she finds out that she can't be happy without you. Stay here quietly, and let me see what I can do."
"You can't do anything, Governor. But I'm grateful to you all the same. And—you know—if there's anything I can do on my side to help you, just now, I'll do it!"
"Thank you, Brook," said the old man, leaning back, and putting up his feet again.
Brook rose and left the room, slowly shutting the door behind him. Then he got his hat and went off for a solitary walk to think matters over. They were grave enough, and all that his father had said could not persuade him that there was any chance of happiness in his future. There was a sort of horror in the situation, too, and he could not remember ever to have heard of anything like it. He walked slowly, and with bent head.
Sir Adam sat still in his place and smoked another thick cigarette before he moved. Then he roused himself, got up, sat down at his table, and took a large sheet of paper from a big leather writing-case.
He had no hesitation about what he meant to put down. In a quarter of an hour he had written out a new will, in which he left his whole fortune to his only son Brook, on condition that Brook did not marry Mrs. Crosby. But if he married her before his father's death he was to have nothing, and if he married her afterwards he was to forfeit the whole, to the uttermost farthing. In either of these cases the property was to go to a third person. Sir Adam hesitated a moment, and then wrote the name of one of his sisters as the conditional legatee. His wife had plenty of money of her own, and besides, the will was a mere formality, drawn up and to be executed solely with a view to checking Lady Fan's enthusiasm. He did not sign it, but folded it smoothly and put it into his pocket. He also took his own pen, for he was particular in matters appertaining to the mechanics of writing, and very neat in all he did.
He went out and wandered up and down the terrace in the heat, but no one was there. Then he knocked at his wife's door, and found her absorbed in an interesting conversation with her maid in regard to matters of dress, as connected with climate. Lady Johnstone at once appealed to him, and the maid eyed him with suspicion, fearing his suggestions. He satisfied her, however, by immediately suggesting that she should go away, whereat she smiled and departed.
Lady Johnstone at once understood that something very serious was in the air. A wonderful good fellowship existed between husband and wife; but they very rarely talked of anything which could not have been discussed, figuratively, on the housetops.
"Brook has got himself into a scrape with that Mrs. Crosby, my dear," said Sir Adam. "What you heard is all more or less true. She has really been to a solicitor, and means to take steps to get a divorce. Of course she could get it easily enough. If she did, people would say that Brook had let her go that far, telling her that he would marry her, and then had changed his mind and left her to her fate. We can't let that happen, you know."
Lady Johnstone looked at her husband with anxiety while he was speaking, and then was silent for a few seconds.
"Oh, you Johnstones! You Johnstones!" she cried at last, shaking her head. "You're perfectly incorrigible!"
"Oh no, my dear," answered Sir Adam; "don't forget me, you know."
Her tone expressed an extraordinary conflict of varying sentiment—amusement, affection, reproach, a retrospective distrust of what might have been, but could not be, considering Sir Adam's age.
"Never mind me, then," he answered. "I've made a will cutting Brook off with nothing if he marries Mrs. Crosby, and I'm going to send her a copy of it to-day. That will be enough, I fancy."
"Yes—what? Do you disapprove? You always say that you are a practical woman, and you generally show that you are. Why shouldn't I take the practical method of stopping this woman as soon as possible? She wants my money—she doesn't want my son. A fortune with any other name would smell as sweet."
"I don't know—it seems—somehow—" Lady Johnstone was perplexed to express what she meant just then. "I mean," she added suddenly, "it's treating the woman like a mere adventuress, you know—"
"That's precisely what Mrs. Crosby is, my dear," answered Sir Adam calmly. "The fact that she comes of decent people doesn't alter the case in the least. Nor the fact that she has one rich husband, and wishes to get another instead. I say that her husband is rich, but I'm very sure he has ruined himself in the last two years, and that she knows it. She is not the woman to leave him as long as he has money, for he lets her do anything she pleases, and pays her well to leave him alone. But he has got into trouble—and rats leave a sinking ship, you know. You may say that I'm cynical, my dear, but I think you'll find that I'm telling you the facts as they are."
"It seems an awful insult to the woman to send her a copy of your will," said Lady Johnstone.
"It's an awful insult to you when she tries to get rid of her husband to marry your only son, my dear."
"Oh—but he'd never marry her!"
"I'm not sure. If he thought it would be dishonourable not to marry her, he'd be quite capable of doing it, and of blowing out his brains afterwards."
"That wouldn't improve her position," observed the practical Lady Johnstone.
"She'd be the widow of an honest man, instead of the wife of a blackguard," said Sir Adam. "However, I'm doing this on my own responsibility. What I want is that you should witness the will."
"And let Mrs. Crosby think I made you do this? No—"
"Nonsense. I sha'n't copy the signatures—"
"Then why do you need them at all?"
"I'm not going to write to her that I've made a will, if I haven't," answered Sir Adam. "A will isn't a will unless it's witnessed. I'm not going to lie about it, just to frighten her. So I want you and Mrs. Bowring to witness it."
"Yes—there are no men here, and Brook can't be a witness, because he's interested. You and Mrs. Bowring will do very well. But there's another thing—rather an extraordinary thing—and I won't let you sign with her until you know it. It's not a very easy thing to tell you, my dear."
Lady Johnstone shifted her fat hands and folded them again, and her frank blue eyes gazed at her husband for a moment.
"I can guess," she said, with a good-natured smile. "You told me you were old friends—I suppose you were in love with her somewhere!" She laughed and shook her head. "I don't mind," she added. "It's one more, that's all—one that I didn't know of. She's a very nice woman, and I've taken the greatest fancy to her!"
"I'm glad you have," said Sir Adam, gravely. "I say, my dear—don't be surprised, you know—I warned you. We knew each other very well—it's not what you think at all, and she was altogether in the right and I was quite in the wrong about it. I say, now—don't be startled—she's my divorced wife—that's all."
"She! Mrs. Bowring! Oh, Adam—how could you treat her so!"
Lady Johnstone leaned back in her chair and slowly turned her head till she could look out of the window. She was almost rosy with surprise—a change of colour in her sanguine complexion which was equivalent to extreme pallor in other persons. Sir Adam looked at her affectionately.
"What an awfully good woman you are!" he exclaimed, in genuine admiration.
"I! No, I'm not good at all. I was thinking that if you hadn't been such a brute to her I could never have married you. I don't suppose that is good, is it? But you were a brute, all the same, Adam, dear, to hurt such a woman as that!"
"Of course I was! I told you so when I told you the story. But I didn't expect that you'd ever meet."
"No, it is an extraordinary thing. I suppose that if I had any nerves I should faint. It would be an awful thing if I did; you'd have to get those porters to pick me up!" She smiled meditatively. "But I haven't fainted, you see. And, after all, I don't see why it should be so very dreadful, do you? You see, you've rather broken me in to the idea of lots of other people in your life, and I've always pitied her sincerely. I don't see why I should stop pitying her because I've met her and taken such a fancy to her without knowing who she was. Do you?"
"Most women would," observed Sir Adam. "It's lucky that you and she happen to be the two best women in the world. I told Brook so this morning."
"Brook? Have you told him?"
"I had to. He wants to marry her daughter."
"Brook! It's impossible!"
Lady Johnstone's tone betrayed so much more surprise and displeasure than when her husband had told her of Mrs. Bowring's identity that he stared at her in surprise.
"I don't see why it's impossible," he said, "except that she has refused him once. That's nothing. The first time doesn't count."
"He sha'n't!" said the fat lady, whose vivid colour had come back. "He'll make her miserable—just as you—no, I won't say that! But they are not in the least suited to one another—he's far too young; there are fifty reasons."
"Brook won't act as I did, my dear," said Sir Adam. "He's like you in that. He'll make as good a husband as you have been a good wife—"
"Nonsense!" interrupted Lady Johnstone. "You're all alike, you Johnstones! I was talking to him this morning about her—I knew there was the beginning of something—and I told him what I thought. You're all bad, and I love you all; but if you think that Clare Bowring is as practical as I am, you're very much mistaken, Adam, dear! She'll break her heart—"
"If she does, I'll shoot him," answered the old man with a grim smile. "I told him so."
"Did you? Well, I am glad you take that view of it," said Lady Johnstone, thoughtfully, and not at all realising what she was saying. "I'm glad I'm not a nervous woman," she added, beginning to fan herself. "I should be in my grave, you know."
"No—you are not nervous, my dear, and I'm very glad of it. I suppose it really is rather a trying situation. But if I didn't know you, I wouldn't have told you all this. You've spoiled me, you know—you really have been so tremendously good to me—always, dear."
There was a rough, half unwilling tenderness in his voice, and his big bony hand rested gently on the fat lady's shoulder, as he spoke. She bent her head to one side, till her large red cheek touched the brown knuckles. It was, in a way, almost grotesque. But there was that something in it which could make youth and beauty and passion ridiculous—the outspoken truthful old rake and the ever-forgiving wife. Who shall say wherein pathos lies? And yet it seems to be something more than a mere hack-writer's word, after all. The strangest acts of life sometimes go off in such an oddly quiet humdrum way, and then all at once there is the little quiver in the throat, when one least expects it—and the sad-eyed, faithful, loving angel has passed by quickly, low and soft, his gentle wings just brushing the still waters of our unwept tears.
Sir Adam left his wife to go in search of Mrs. Bowring. He sent a message to her, and she came out and met him in the corridor. They went into the reading-room together, and he shut the door. In a few words he told her all that he had told his wife about Mrs. Crosby, and asked her whether she had any objection to signing the document as a witness, merely in order that he might satisfy himself by actually executing it.
"It is high handed," said Mrs. Bowring. "It is like you—but I suppose you have a right to save your son from such trouble. But there is something else—do you know what has happened? He has been making love to Clare—he has asked her to marry him, and she has refused. She told me this morning—and I have told her the truth—that you and I were once married."
She paused, and watched Sir Adam's furrowed face.
"I'm glad of that," he said. "I'm glad that it has all come out on the same day. He knows everything, and he has told me everything. I don't know how it's all going to end, but I want you to believe one thing. If he had guessed the truth, he would never have said a word of love to her. He's not that kind of boy. You do believe me, don't you?"
"Yes, I believe you. But the worst of it is that she cares for him too—in a way I can't understand. She has some reason, or she thinks she has, for disliking him, as she calls it. She wouldn't tell me. But she cares for him all the same. She has told him, though she won't tell me. There is something horrible in the idea of our children falling in love with each other."
Mrs. Bowring spoke quietly, but her pale face and nervous mouth told more than her words.
Sir Adam explained to her shortly what had happened on the first evening after Brook's arrival, and how Clare had heard it all, sitting in the shadow just above the platform. Mrs. Bowring listened in silence, covering her eyes with her hands. There was a long pause after he had finished speaking, but still she said nothing.
"I should like him to marry her," said Sir Adam at last, in a low voice.
She started and looked at him uneasily, remembering how well she had once loved him, and how he had broken her heart when she was young. He met her eyes quietly.
"You don't know him," he said. "He loves her, and he will be to her—what I wasn't to you."
"How can you say that he loves her? Three weeks ago he loved that Mrs. Crosby."
"He? He never cared for her—not even at first."
"He was all the more heartless and bad to make her think that he did."
"She never thought so, for a moment. She wanted my money, and she thought that she could catch him."
"Perhaps—I saw her, and I did not like her face. She had the look of an adventuress about her. That doesn't change the main facts. Your son and she were—flirting, to say the least of it, three weeks ago. And now he thinks himself in love with my daughter. It would be madness to trust such a man—even if there were not the rest to hinder their marriage. Adam—I told you that I forgave you. I have forgiven you—God knows. But you broke my life at the beginning like a thread. You don't know all there has been to forgive—indeed, you don't. And you are asking me to risk Clare's life in your son's hands, as I risked mine in yours. It's too much to ask."
"But you say yourself that she loves him."
"She cares for him—that was what I said. I don't believe in love as I did. You can't expect me to."
She turned her face away from him, but he saw the bitterness in it, and it hurt him. He waited a moment before he answered her.
"Don't visit my sins on your daughter, Lucy," he said at last. "Don't forget that love was a fact before you and I were born, and will be a fact long after we are dead. If these two love each other, let them marry. I hope that Clare is like you, but don't take it for granted that Brook is like me. He's not. He's more like his mother."
"And your wife?" said Mrs. Bowring suddenly. "What would she say to this?"
"My wife," said Sir Adam, "is a practical woman."
"I never was. Still—if I knew that Clare loved him—if I could believe that he could love her faithfully—what could I do? I couldn't forbid her to marry him. I could only pray that she might be happy, or at least that she might not break her heart."
"You would probably be heard, if anybody is. And a man must believe in God to explain your existence," added Sir Adam, in a gravely meditative tone. "It's the best argument I know."
Brook Johnstone had gone to his room when he had left his father, and was hastily packing his belongings, for he had made up his mind to leave Amalfi at once without consulting anybody. It is a special advantage of places where there is no railway that one can go away at a moment's notice, without waiting tedious hours for a train. Brook did not hesitate, for it seemed to him the only right thing to do, after Clare's refusal, and after what his father had told him. If she had loved him, he would have stayed in spite of every opposition. If he had never been told her mother's history, he would have stayed and would have tried to make her love him. As it was, he set his teeth and said to himself that he would suffer a good deal rather than do anything more to win the heart of Mrs. Bowring's daughter. He would get over it somehow in the end. He fancied Clare's horror if she should ever know the truth, and his fear of hurting her was as strong as his love. He made no phrases to himself, and he thought of nothing theatrical which he should like to say. He just set his teeth and packed his clothes alone. Possibly he swore rather unmercifully at the coat which would not fit into the right place, and at the starched shirt-cuffs which would not lie flat until he smashed them out of shape with unsteady hands.
When he was ready, he wrote a few words to Clare. He said that he was going away immediately, and that it would be very kind of her to let him say good-bye. He sent the note by a servant, and waited in the corridor at a distance from her door.
A moment later she came out, very pale.
"You are not really going, are you?" she asked, with wide and startled eyes. "You can't be in earnest?"
"I'm all ready," he answered, nodding slowly. "It's much better. I only wanted to say good-bye, you know. It's awfully kind of you to come out."
"Oh—I wouldn't have—" but she checked herself, and glanced up and down the long corridor. "We can't talk here," she added.
"It's so hot outside," said Brook, remembering how she had complained of the heat an hour earlier.
"Oh no—I mean—it's no matter. I'd rather go out for a moment."
She began to walk towards the door while she was speaking. They reached it in silence, and went out into the blazing sun. Clare had Brook's note still in her hand, and held it up to shield the glare from the side of her face as they crossed the platform. Then she realised that she had brought him to the very spot whereon he had said good-bye to Lady Fan. She stopped, and he stood still beside her.
"Not here," she said.
"No—not here," he answered.
"There's too much sun—really," said she, as the colour rose faintly in her cheeks.
"It's only to say good-bye," Brook answered sadly. "I shall always remember you just as you are now—with the sun shining on your hair."
It was so bright that it dazzled him as he looked. In spite of the heat she did not move, and their eyes met.
"Mr. Johnstone," Clare began, "please stay. Please don't let me feel that I have sent you away." There was a shade of timidity in the tone, and the eyes seemed brave enough to say something more. Brook hesitated.
"Well—no—it isn't that exactly. I've heard something—my father has told me something since I saw you—"
He stopped short and looked down.
"What have you heard?" she asked. "Something dreadful about us?"
"About us all—about him, principally. I can't tell you. I really can't."
"About him—and my mother? That they were married and separated?"
The steady innocent eyes had waited for him to look up again. He started as he heard her words.
"You don't mean to say that you know it too?" he cried. "Who has dared to tell you?"
"My mother—she was quite right. It's wrong to hide such things—she ought to have told me at once. Why shouldn't I have known it?"
"Doesn't it seem horrible to you? Don't you dislike me more than ever?"
"No. Why should I? It wasn't your fault. What has it to do with you? Or with me? Is that the reason why you are going away so suddenly?"
Brook stared at her in surprise, and the dawn of returning gladness was in his face for a moment.
"We have a right to live, whatever they did in their day," said Clare. "There is no reason why you should go away like this, at a moment's notice."
With an older woman he would have understood the first time, but he did not dare to understand Clare, nor to guess that there was anything to be understood.
"Of course we have a right to live," he answered, in a constrained tone. "But that does not mean that I may stay here and make your life a burden. So I'm going away. It was quite different before I knew all this. Please don't stay out here—you'll get a sunstroke. I only wanted to say good-bye."
Man-like, having his courage at the striking-point, he wished to get it all over quickly and be off. The colour sank from Clare's face again, and she stood quite still for a moment, looking at him. "Good-bye," he said, holding out his hand, and trying hard to smile a little.
Clare looked at him still, but her hand did not meet his, though he waited, holding it out to her. Her face hardened as though she were making an effort, then softened again, and still he waited.
"Won't you say good-bye to me?" he asked unsteadily.
She hesitated a moment longer.
"No!" she answered suddenly. "I—I can't!"
* * * * *
And here the story comes to its conclusion, as many stories out of the lives of men and women seem to end at what is only their turning-point. For real life has no conclusion but real death, and that is a sad ending to a tale, and one which may as well be left to the imagination when it is possible.
Stories of strange things, which really occur, very rarely have what used to be called a "moral" either. All sorts of things happen to people who afterwards go on living just the same, neither much better nor much worse than they were in the beginning. The story is a slice, as it were, cut from the most interesting part of a life, generally at the point where that life most closely touches another, so that the future of the two momentarily depends upon each separately, and upon both together. The happiness or unhappiness of both, for a long time to come, is founded upon the action of each just at those moments. And sometimes, as in the tale here told, the least promising of all the persons concerned is the one who helps matters out. The only logical thing about life is the certainty that it must end. If there were any logic at all about what goes between birth and death, men would have found it out long ago, and we should all know how to live as soon as we leave school; whereas we spend our lives under Fate's ruler, trying to understand, while she raps us over the knuckles every other minute because we cannot learn our lesson and sit up straight, and be good without being prigs, and do right without sticking it through other people's peace of mind as one sticks a pin through a butterfly.