"Not since I came to live with you," she said. "You are the most stay-at-home person by way of a gentleman that I ever heard of." Then there was a pause for a few minutes, and he said nothing further. "Might a person ask what you are going for?" This she asked in the playful manner which she knew he would take in good part.
"Well; I don't quite know that a person can. I am going to see a man upon business, and if I began to tell you part of it, I must tell it all,—which would not be convenient."
"May I not ask how long you will be away? There can't be any dreadful secret in that. And I shall want to know what to get for your dinner when you come back." She was standing now at his elbow, and he was holding her by the arm. It was to him almost as though she were already his wife, and the feeling to him was very pleasant. Only if she were his wife, or if it were positively decided among them that she would become so, he would certainly tell her the reason for which he might undertake any journey. Indeed there was no reason connected with any business of his which might not be told, other than that special reason which was about to take him to London. He only answered her now by pressing her hand and smiling into her face. "Will it be for a month?"
"Oh dear, no! what should I do away from home for a month?"
"How can I tell? The mysterious business may require you to be absent for a whole year. Fancy my being left at home all that time. You don't think of it; but you have never left me for a single night since you first brought me to live here."
"And you have never been away."
"Oh, no! why should I go away? What business can a woman have to move from home, especially such a woman as I am."
"You are just like Mrs Baggett. She always talks of women with supreme contempt. And yet she is just as proud of herself as the queen when you come to contradict her."
"You never contradict me."
"Perhaps the day may come when I shall." Then he recollected himself, and added, "Or perhaps the day may never come. Never mind. Put up my things for one week. At any rate I shall not be above a week gone." Then she left him, and went away to his room to do what was necessary.
She knew the business on which he was about to travel to London, as well as though he had discussed with her the whole affair. In the course of the last two or three days there had been moments in which she had declared to herself that he was cruel. There had been moments in which she had fainted almost with sorrow when she thought of the life which fate had in store for her. There must be endless misery, while there might have been joy, so ecstatic in its nature as to make it seem to her to be perennial. Then she had almost fallen, and had declared him to be preternaturally cruel. But these moments had been short, and had endured only while she had allowed herself to dream of the ecstatic joy, which she confessed to herself to be an unfit condition of life for her. And then she had told herself that Mr Whittlestaff was not cruel, and that she herself was no better than a weak, poor, flighty creature unable to look in its face life and all its realities. And then she would be lost in amazement as she thought of herself and all her vacillations.
She now was resolved to take his part, and to fight his battle to the end. When he had told her that he was going up to London, and going up on business as to which he could tell her nothing, she knew that it behoved her to prevent him from taking the journey. John Gordon should be allowed to go in quest of his diamonds, and Mr Whittlestaff should be persuaded not to interfere with him. It was for her sake, and not for John Gordon's, that he was about to make the journey. He had asked her whether she were willing to marry him, and she had told him that he was pressing her too hard. She would tell him now,—now before it was too late,—that this was not so. His journey to London must at any rate be prevented.
MR AND MRS TOOKEY.
On the day arranged, early on the morning after the dinner at Little Alresford Park, John Gordon went up to London. He had not been much moved by the intimation made to him by Mr Whittlestaff that some letter should be written to him at his London address. He had made his appeal to Mr Whittlestaff, and had received no answer whatever. And he had, after a fashion, made his appeal also to the girl. He felt sure that his plea must reach her. His very presence then in this house had been an appeal to her. He knew that she so far believed in him as to be conscious that she could at once become his wife—if she were willing to throw over his rival. He knew also that she loved him,—or had certainly loved him. He did not know the nature of her regard; nor was it possible that he should ever know that,—unless she were his wife. She had given a promise to that other man, and—it was thus he read her character—she could be true to her promise without any great heart-break. At any rate, she intended to be true to it. He did not for a moment suspect that Mr Whittlestaff was false. Mary had declared that she would not withdraw her word,—that only from her own mouth was to be taken her intention of such withdrawal, and that such intention she certainly would never utter. Of her character he understood much,—but not quite all. He was not aware of the depth of her feeling. But Mr Whittlestaff he did not understand at all. Of all those vacillating softnesses he knew nothing,—or of those moments spent with the poet, in which he was wont to fight against the poet's pretences, and of those other moments spent with Mrs Baggett, in which he would listen to, and always finally reject, those invitations to manly strength which she would always pour into his ears. That Mr Whittlestaff should spend hour after hour, and now day after day, in teaching himself to regard nothing but what might best suit the girl's happiness,—of that he was altogether in the dark. To his thinking, Mr Whittlestaff was a hard man, who, having gained his object, intended to hold fast by what he had gained. He, John Gordon, knew, or thought that he knew, that Mary, as his wife, would lead a happier life than with Mr Whittlestaff. But things had turned out unfortunately, and there was nothing for him but to return to the diamond-fields.
Therefore he had gone back to London with the purpose of preparing for his journey. A man does not start for South Africa to-morrow, or, if not to-morrow, then the next day. He was aware that there must be some delay; but any place would be better in which to stay than the neighbourhood of Croker's Hall. There were things which must be done, and people with whom he must do it; but of all that, he need say nothing down at Alresford. Therefore, when he got back to London, he meant to make all his arrangements—and did so far settle his affairs as to take a berth on board one of the mail steamers.
He had come over in company with a certain lawyer, who had gone out to Kimberley with a view to his profession, and had then, as is the case with all the world that goes to Kimberley, gone into diamonds. Diamonds had become more to him than either briefs or pleadings. He had been there for fifteen years, and had ruined himself and made himself half-a-dozen times. He had found diamonds to be more pleasant than law, and to be more compatible with champagne, tinned lobsters, and young ladies. He had married a wife, and had parted with her, and taken another man's wife, and paid for her with diamonds. He had then possessed nothing, and had afterwards come forth a third-part owner of the important Stick-in-the-Mud claim, which at one time was paying 12 per cent per month. It must be understood that the Stick-in-the-Mud claim was an almost infinitesimal portion of soil in the Great Kimberley mine. It was but the sixteenth part of an original sub-division. But from the centre of the great basin, or rather bowl, which forms the mine, there ran up two wires to the high mound erected on the circumference, on which continually two iron cages were travelling up and down, coming back empty, but going up laden with gemmiferous dirt. Here travelled the diamonds of the Stick-in-the-Mud claim, the owner of one-third of which, Mr Fitzwalker Tookey, had come home with John Gordon.
Taking a first general glance at affairs in the diamond-fields, I doubt whether we should have been inclined to suspect that John Gordon and Fitzwalker Tookey would have been likely to come together as partners in a diamond speculation. But John Gordon had in the course of things become owner of the other two shares, and when Fitzwalker Tookey determined to come home, he had done so with the object of buying his partner's interest. This he might have done at once,—only that he suffered under the privation of an insufficiency of means. He was a man of great intelligence, and knew well that no readier mode to wealth had ever presented itself to him than the purchase of his partner's shares. Much was said to persuade John Gordon; but he would not part with his documents without seeing security for his money. Therefore Messrs. Gordon and Tookey put the old Stick-in-the-Mud into the hands of competent lawyers, and came home together.
"I am not at all sure that I shall sell," John Gordon had said.
"But I thought that you offered it."
"Yes; for money down. For the sum named I will sell now. But if I start from here without completing the bargain, I shall keep the option in my own hands. The fact is, I do not know whether I shall remain in England or return. If I do come back I am not likely to find anything better than the old Stick-in-the-Mud." To this Mr Tookey assented, but still he resolved that he would go home. Hence it came to pass that Mr Fitzwalker Tookey was now in London, and that John Gordon had to see him frequently. Here Tookey had found another would-be partner, who had the needed money, and it was fervently desired by Mr Tookey that John Gordon might not go back to South Africa.
The two men were not at all like in their proclivities; but they had been thrown together, and each had learned much of the inside life of the other. The sort of acquaintance with whom a steady man becomes intimate in such a locality often surprises the steady man himself. Fitzwalker Tookey had the antecedents and education of a gentleman. Champagne and lobster suppers—the lobster coming out of tin cases,—diamonds and strange ladies, even with bloated cheeks and strong language, had not altogether destroyed the vestiges of the Temple. He at any rate was fond of a companion with whom he could discuss his English regrets, and John Gordon was not inclined to shut himself up altogether among his precious stones, and to refuse the conversation of a man who could talk. Tookey had told him of his great distress in reference to his wife. "By G——! you know, the cruellest thing you ever heard in the world. I was a little tight one night, and the next morning she was off with Atkinson, who got away with his pocket full of diamonds. Poor girl! she went down to the Portuguese settlement, and he was nabbed. He's doing penal service now down at Cape Town. That's a kind of thing that does upset a fellow." And poor Fitzwalker began to cry.
Among such confidences Gordon allowed it to escape from him that were he to become married in England, he did not think it probable that he should return. Thus it was known, at least to his partner, that he was going to look for a wife, and the desire in Mr Tookey's breast that the wife might be forthcoming was intense. "Well!" he said, immediately on Gordon's return to London.
"What does 'well' mean?"
"Of course you went down there to look after the lady."
"I have never told you so."
"But you did—did you not?"
"I have told you nothing about any lady, though you are constantly asking questions. As a fact, I think I shall go back next month."
"I think so. The stake I have there is of too great importance to be abandoned."
"I have the money ready to pay over;—absolute cash on the nail. You don't call that abandoning it?"
"The claim has gone up in value 25 per cent, as you have already heard."
"Yes; it has gone up a little, but not so much as that. It will come down as much by the next mail. With diamonds you never can stick to anything."
"That's true. But you can only go by the prices as you see them quoted. They may be up 25 per cent again by next mail. At any rate, I am going back."
"The devil you are!"
"That's my present idea. As I like to be on the square with you altogether, I don't mind saying that I have booked a berth by the Kentucky Castle."
"The deuce you have! And you won't take a wife with you?"
"I am not aware that I shall have such an impediment."
Then Fitzwalker Tookey assumed a very long face. It is difficult to trace the workings of such a man's mind, or to calculate the meagre chances on which he is too often driven to base his hopes of success. He feared that he could not show his face in Kimberley, unless as the representative of the whole old Stick-in-the-Mud. And with that object he had declared himself in London to have the actual power of disposing of Gordon's shares. Gordon had gone down to Hampshire, and would no doubt be successful with the young lady. At any rate,—as he described it to himself,—he had "gone in for that." He could see his way in that direction, but in no other. "Upon my word, this, you know, is—what I call—rather throwing a fellow over."
"I am as good as my word."
"I don't know about that, Gordon."
"But I do, and I won't hear any assertion to the contrary. I offered you the shares for a certain price, and you rejected them."
"I did not do that."
"You did do that,—exactly. Then there came up in my mind a feeling that I might probably wish to change my purpose."
"And I am to suffer for that."
"Not in the least. I then told you that you should still have the shares for the price named. But I did not offer them to any one else. So I came home,—and you chose to come with me. But before I started, and again after, I told you that the offer did not hold good, and that I should not make up my mind as to selling till after I got to England."
"We understood that you meant to be married."
"I never said so. I never said a word about marriage. I am now going back, and mean to manage the mine myself."
"Without asking me?"
"Yes; I shall ask you. But I have two-thirds. I will give you for your share 10 per cent more than the price you offered me for each of my shares. If you do not like that, you need not accept the offer; but I don't mean to have any more words about it."
Mr Fitzwalker Tookey's face became longer and longer, and he did in truth feel himself to be much aggrieved within his very soul. There were still two lines of conduct open to him. He might move the stern man by a recapitulation of the sorrow of his circumstances, or he might burst out into passionate wrath, and lay all his ruin to his partner's doing. He might still hope that in this latter way he could rouse all Kimberley against Gordon, and thus creep back into some vestige of property under the shadow of Gordon's iniquities. He would try both. He would first endeavour to move the stern man to pity. "I don't think you can imagine the condition in which you are about to place me."
"I can't admit that I am placing you anywhere."
"I'll just explain. Of course I know that I can tell you everything in strictest confidence."
"I don't know it at all."
"Oh yes; I can. You remember the story of my poor wife?"
"Yes; I remember."
"She's in London now."
"What! She got back from the Portuguese settlement?"
"Yes. She did not stay there long. I don't suppose that the Portuguese are very nice people."
"At any rate they don't have much money among them."
"Not after the lavish expenditure of the diamond-fields," suggested Gordon.
"Just so. Poor Matilda had been accustomed to all that money could buy for her. I never used to be close-fisted with her, though sometimes I would be tight."
"As far as I could understand, you never used to agree at all."
"I don't think we did hit it off. Perhaps it was my fault."
"You used to be a little free in your way of living."
"I was. I confess that I was so. I was young then, but I am older now. I haven't touched a B. and S. before eleven o'clock since I have been in London above two or three times. I do mean to do the best I can for my young family." It was the fact that Mr Tookey had three little children boarding out in Kimberley.
"And what is the lady doing in London?"
"To tell the truth, she's at my lodgings."
"I do admit it. She is."
"She is indifferent to the gentleman in the Cape Town penal settlement?"
"Altogether, I don't think she ever really cared for him. To tell the truth, she only wanted some one to take her away from—me."
"And now she trusts you again?"
"Oh dear, yes;—completely. She is my wife, you know, still."
"I suppose so."
"That sacred tie has never been severed. You must always remember that. I don't know what your feelings are on such a subject, but according to my views it should not be severed roughly. When there are children, that should always be borne in mind. Don't you think so?"
"The children should be borne in mind."
"Just so. That's what I mean. Who can look after a family of young children so well as their young mother? Men have various ways of looking at the matter." To this John Gordon gave his ready consent, and was anxious to hear in what way his assistance was to be asked in again putting Mr and Mrs Tookey, with their young children, respectably on their feet. "There are men, you know, stand-off sort of fellows, who think that a woman should never be forgiven."
"It must depend on how far the husband has been in fault."
"Exactly. Now these stand-off sort of fellows will never admit that they have been in fault at all. That's not my case."
"You drank a little."
"For the matter of that, so did she. When a woman drinks she gets herself to bed somehow. A man gets out upon a spree. That's what I used to do, and then I would hit about me rather recklessly. I have no doubt Matilda did get it sometimes. When there has been that kind of thing, forgive and forget is the best thing you can do."
"I suppose so."
"And then at the Fields there isn't the same sort of prudish life which one is accustomed to in England. Here in London a man is nowhere if he takes his wife back. Nobody knows her, because there are plenty to know of another sort. But there things are not quite so strict. Of course she oughtn't to have gone off with Atkinson;—a vulgar low fellow, too."
"And you oughtn't to have licked her."
"That's just it. It was tit for tat, I think. That's the way I look at it. At any rate we are living together now, and no one can say we're not man and wife."
"There'll be a deal of trouble saved in that way."
"A great deal. We are man and wife, and can begin again as though nothing had happened. No one can say that black's the white of our eye. She'll take to those darling children as though nothing had happened. You can't conceive how anxious she is to get back to them. And there's no other impediment. That's a comfort."
"Another impediment would have upset you rather?"
"I couldn't have put up with that." Mr Fitzwalker Tookey looked very grave and high-minded as he made the assertion. "But there's nothing of that kind. It's all open sailing. Now,—what are we to live upon, just for a beginning?"
"You have means out there."
"Not as things are at present,—I am sorry to say. To tell the truth, my third share of the old Stick-in-the-Mud is gone. I had to raise money when it was desirable that I should come with you."
"Not on my account."
"And then I did owe something. At any rate, it's all gone now. I should find myself stranded at Kimberley without a red cent."
"What can I do?"
"Well,—I will explain. Poker & Hodge will buy your shares for the sum named. Joshua Poker, who is out there, has got my third share. Poker & Hodge have the money down, and when I have arranged the sale, will undertake to give me the agency at one per cent on the whole take for three years certain. That'll be L1000 a-year, and it's odd if I can't float myself again in that time." Gordon stood silent, scratching his head. "Or if you'd give me the agency on the same terms, it would be the same thing. I don't care a straw for Poker & Hodge."
"I daresay not."
"But you'd find me as true as steel."
"What little good I did at the Fields I did by looking after my own business."
"Then what do you propose? Let Poker & Hodge have them, and I shall bless you for ever." To this mild appeal Mr Tookey had been brought by the manner in which John Gordon had scratched his head. "I think you are bound to do it, you know." To this he was brought by the subsequent look which appeared in John Gordon's eyes.
"I think not."
"Men will say so."
"I don't care a straw what men say, or women."
"And you to come back in the same ship with me and my wife! You couldn't do it. The Fields wouldn't receive you." Gordon bethought himself whether this imagined rejection might not arise rather from the character of his travelling companions. "To bring back the mother of three little sainted babes, and then to walk in upon every shilling of property which had belonged to their father! You never could hold up your head in Kimberley again."
"I should have to stand abashed before your virtue?"
"Yes, you would. I should be known to have come back with my poor repentant wife,—the mother of three dear babes. And she would be known to have returned with her misguided husband. The humanity of the Fields would not utter a word of reproval to either of us. But, upon my word, I should not like to stand in your shoes. And how you could sit opposite to her and look her in the face on the journey out, I don't know."
"It would be unpleasant."
"Deuced unpleasant, I should say. You remember the old Roman saying, 'Never be conscious of anything within your own bosom.' Only think how you would feel when you were swelling it about in Kimberley, while that poor lady won't be able to buy a pair of boots for herself or her children. I say nothing about myself. I didn't think you were the man to do it;—I didn't indeed."
Gordon did find himself moved by the diversity of lights through which he was made to look at the circumstances in question. In the first place, there was the journey back with Mr Tookey and his wife, companions he had not anticipated. The lady would probably begin by soliciting his intimacy, which on board ship he could hardly refuse. With a fellow-passenger, whose husband has been your partner, you must quarrel bitterly or be warm friends. Upon the whole, he thought that he could not travel to South Africa with Mr and Mrs Fitzwalker Tookey. And then he understood what the man's tongue would do if he were there for a month in advance. The whole picture of life, too, at the Fields was not made attractive by Mr Tookey's description. He was not afraid of the reception which might be accorded to Mrs Tookey, but saw that Tookey found himself able to threaten him with violent evils, simply because he would claim his own. Then there shot across his brain some reminiscence of Mary Lawrie, and a comparison between her and her life and the sort of life which a man must lead under the auspices of Mrs Tookey. Mary Lawrie was altogether beyond his reach; but it would be better to have her to think of than the other to know. His idea of the diamond-fields was disturbed by the promised return of his late partner and his wife.
"And you mean to reduce me to this misery?" asked Mr Tookey.
"I don't care a straw for your misery."
"Not for your picture of your misery. I do not doubt but that when you have been there for a month you will be drunk as often as ever, and just as free with your fists when a woman comes in your way."
"And I do not see that I am at all bound to provide for you and for your wife and children. You have seen many ups and downs, and will be doomed to see many more, as long as you can get hold of a bottle of wine."
"I mean to take the pledge,—I do indeed. I must do it gradually, because of my constitution,—but I shall do it."
"I don't in the least believe in it;—nor do I believe in any man who thinks to redeem himself after such a fashion. It may still be possible that I shall not go back."
"I may kill beasts in Buenos Ayres, or take a tea-farm in Thibet, or join the colonists in Tennessee. In that case I will let you know what arrangement I may propose to make about the Kimberley claim. At any rate, I may say this,—I shall not go back in the same vessel with you."
"I thought it would have been so comfortable."
"You and Mrs Tookey would find yourself more at your ease without me."
"Not in the least. Don't let that thought disturb you. Whatever misery fate may have in store for me, you will always find that, for the hour, I will endeavour to be a good companion. 'Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.' That is the first of my mottoes."
"At any rate, I shall not go back in the Kentucky Castle if you do."
"I'm afraid our money is paid."
"So is mine; but that does not signify. You have a week yet, and I will let you know by eleven o'clock on Thursday what steps I shall finally take. If in any way I can serve you, I will do so; but I can admit no claim."
"A thousand thanks! And I am so glad you approve of what I have done about Matilda. I'm sure that a steady-going fellow like you would have done the same." To this John Gordon could make no answer, but left his friend, and went away about his own business. He had to decide between Tennessee, Thibet, and Buenos Ayres, and wanted his time for his own purposes.
When he got to dinner at his club, he found a letter from Mr Whittlestaff, which had come by the day-mail. It was a letter which, for the time, drove Thibet and Buenos Ayres, and Tennessee also, clean out of his mind. It was as follows:—
CROKER'S HALL, — June 188—.
DEAR MR JOHN GORDON,—I shall be in town this afternoon, probably by the same train which will bring this letter, and will do myself the honour of calling upon you at your club the next day at twelve.—I am, dear Mr John Gordon, faithfully yours,
Then there was to be an answer to the appeal which he had made. Of what nature would be the answer? As he laid his hand upon his heart, and felt the violence of the emotion to which he was subjected, he could not doubt the strength of his own love.
MR WHITTLESTAFF'S JOURNEY DISCUSSED.
"I don't think that if I were you I would go up to London, Mr Whittlestaff," said Mary. This was on the Tuesday morning.
"I don't think I would."
"Why should you interfere?"
"I know I ought not to interfere."
"I don't think you ought. Especially as I have taken the trouble to conceal what I am going about."
"I can guess," said Mary.
"You ought not to guess in such a matter. You ought not to have it on your mind at all. I told you that I would not tell you. I shall go. That's all that I have got to say."
The words with which he spoke were ill-natured and savage. The reader will find them to be so, if he thinks of them. They were such that a father would hardly speak, under any circumstances, to a grown-up daughter,—much less that a lover would address to his mistress. And Mary was at present filling both capacities. She had been taken into his house almost as an adopted daughter, and had, since that time, had all the privileges accorded to her. She had now been promoted still higher, and had become his affianced bride. That the man should have turned upon her thus, in answer to her counsel, was savage, or at least ungracious. But at every word her heart became fuller and more full of an affection as for something almost divine. What other man had ever shown such love for any woman? and this love was shown to her,—who was nothing to him,—who ate the bread of charity in his house. And it amounted to this, that he intended to give her up to another man,—he who had given such proof of his love,—he, of whom she knew that this was a question of almost life and death,—because in looking into his face she had met there the truth of his heart! Since that first avowal, made before Gordon had come,—made at a moment when some such avowal from her was necessary,—she had spoken no word as to John Gordon. She had endeavoured to show no sign. She had given herself up to her elder lover, and had endeavoured to have it understood that she had not intended to transfer herself because the other man had come across her path again like a flash of lightning. She had dined in company with her younger lover without exchanging a word with him. She had not allowed her eyes to fall upon him more than she could help, lest some expression of tenderness should be seen there. Not a word of hope had fallen from her lips when they had first met, because she had given herself to another. She was sure of herself in that. No doubt there had come moments in which she had hoped—nay, almost expected—that the elder of the two might give her up; and when she had felt sure that it was not to be so, her very soul had rebelled against him. But as she had taken time to think of it, she had absolved him, and had turned her anger against herself. Whatever he wanted,—that she believed it would be her duty to do for him, as far as its achievement might be in her power.
She came round and put her arm upon him, and looked into his face. "Don't go to London. I ask you not to go."
"Why should I not go?"
"To oblige me. You pretend to have a secret, and refuse to say why you are going. Of course I know."
"I have written a letter to say that I am coming."
"It is still lying on the hall-table down-stairs. It will not go to the post till you have decided."
"Who has dared to stop it?"
"I have. I have dared to stop it. I shall dare to put it in the fire and burn it. Don't go! He is entitled to nothing. You are entitled to have,—whatever it is that you may want, though it is but such a trifle."
"A trifle, Mary!"
"Yes. A woman has a little gleam of prettiness about her,—though here it is but of a common order."
"Anything so uncommon I never came near before."
"Let that pass; whether common or uncommon, it matters nothing. It is something soft, which will soon pass away, and of itself can do no good. It is contemptible."
"You are just Mrs Baggett over again."
"Very well; I am quite satisfied. Mrs Baggett is a good woman. She can do something beyond lying on a sofa and reading novels, while her good looks fade away. It is simply because a woman is pretty and weak that she is made so much of, and is encouraged to neglect her duties. By God's help I will not neglect mine. Do not go to London."
He seemed as though he hesitated as he sat there under the spell of her little hand upon his shoulder. And in truth he did hesitate. Could it not be that he should be allowed to sit there all his days, and have her hand about his neck somewhat after this fashion? Was he bound to give it all up? What was it that ordinary selfishness allowed? What depth of self-indulgence amounted to a wickedness which a man could not permit himself to enjoy without absolutely hating himself? It would be easy in this case to have all that he wanted. He need not send the letter. He need not take this wretched journey to London. Looking forward, as he thought that he could look, judging from the girl's character, he believed that he would have all that he desired,—all that a gracious God could give him,—if he would make her the recognised partner of his bed and his board. Then would he be proud when men should see what sort of a wife he had got for himself at last in place of Catherine Bailey. And why should she not love him? Did not all her words tend to show that there was love?
And then suddenly there came a frown across his face, as she stood looking at him. She was getting to know the manner of that frown. Now she stooped down to kiss it away from his brow. It was a brave thing to do; but she did it with a consciousness of her courage. "Now I may burn the letter," she said, as though she were about to depart upon the errand.
"No, by heaven!" he said. "Let me have a sandwich and a glass of wine, for I shall start in an hour."
With a glance of his thoughts he had answered all those questions. He had taught himself what ordinary selfishness allowed. Ordinary selfishness,—such selfishness as that of which he would have permitted himself the indulgence,—must have allowed him to disregard the misery of John Gordon, and to keep the girl to himself. As far as John Gordon was concerned, he would not have cared for his sufferings. He was as much to himself,—or more,—than could be John Gordon. He did not love John Gordon, and could have doomed him to tearing his hair,—not without regret, but at any rate without remorse. He had settled that question. But with Mary Lawrie there must be a never-dying pang of self-accusation, were he to take her to his arms while her love was settled elsewhere. It was not that he feared her for himself, but that he feared himself for her sake. God had filled his heart with love of the girl,—and, if it was love, could it be that he would destroy her future for the gratification of his own feelings? "I tell you it is no good," he said, as she crouched down beside him, almost sitting on his knee.
At this moment Mrs Baggett came into the room, detecting Mary almost in the embrace of her old master. "He's come back again, sir," said Mrs Baggett.
"Who has come back?"
"Then you may tell him to go about his business. He is not wanted, at any rate. You are to remain here, and have your own way, like an old fool."
"I am that, sir."
"There is not any one coming to interfere with you."
Then Mary got up, and stood sobbing at the open window. "At any rate, you'll have to remain here to look after the house, even if I go away. Where is the Sergeant?"
"He's in the stable again."
"Well, no; he's not drunk. I think his wooden leg is affected sooner than if he had two like mine, or yours, sir. And he did manage to go in of his self, now that he knows the way. He's there among the hay, and I do think it's very unkind of Hayonotes to say as he'll spoil it. But how am I to get him out, unless I goes away with him?"
"Let him stay there and give him some dinner. I don't know what else you've to do."
"He can't stay always,—in course, sir. As Hayonotes says,—what's he to do with a wooden-legged sergeant in his stable as a permanence? I had come to say I was to go home with him."
"You're to do nothing of the kind."
"What is it you mean, then, about my taking care of the house?"
"Never you mind. When I want you to know, I shall tell you." Then Mrs Baggett bobbed her head three times in the direction of Mary Lawrie's back, as though to ask some question whether the leaving the house might not be in reference to Mary's marriage. But she feared that it was not made in reference to Mr Whittlestaff's marriage also. What had her master meant when he had said that there was no one coming to interfere with her, Mrs Baggett? "You needn't ask any questions just at present, Mrs Baggett," he said.
"You don't mean as you are going up to London just to give her up to that young fellow?"
"I am going about my own business, and I won't be inquired into," said Mr Whittlestaff.
"Then you're going to do what no man ought to do."
"You are an impertinent old woman," said her master.
"I daresay I am. All the same, it's my duty to tell you my mind. You can't eat me, Mr Whittlestaff, and it wouldn't much matter if you could. When you've said that you'll do a thing, you ought not to go back for any other man, let him be who it may,—especially not in respect of a female. It's weak, and nobody wouldn't think a straw of you for doing it. It's some idea of being generous that you have got into your head. There ain't no real generosity in it. I say it ain't manly, and that's what a man ought to be."
Mary, though she was standing at the window, pretending to look out of it, knew that during the whole of this conversation Mrs Baggett was making signs at her,—as though indicating an opinion that she was the person in fault. It was as though Mrs Baggett had said that it was for her sake,—to do something to gratify her,—that Mr Whittlestaff was about to go to London. She knew that she at any rate was not to blame. She was struggling for the same end as Mrs Baggett, and did deserve better treatment. "You oughtn't to bother going up to London, sir, on any such errand, and so I tells you, Mr Whittlestaff," said Mrs Baggett.
"I have told him the same thing myself," said Mary Lawrie, turning round.
"If you told him as though you meant it, he wouldn't go," said Mrs Baggett.
"That's all you know about it," said Mr Whittlestaff. "Now the fact is, I won't stand this kind of thing. If you mean to remain here, you must be less free with your tongue."
"I don't mean to remain here, Mr Whittlestaff. It's just that as I'm coming to. There's Timothy Baggett is down there among the hosses, and he says as I am to go with him. So I've come up here to say that if he's allowed to sleep it off to-day, I'll be ready to start to-morrow."
"I tell you I am not going to make any change at all," said Mr Whittlestaff.
"You was saying you was going away,—for the honeymoon, I did suppose."
"A man may go away if he pleases, without any reason of that kind. Oh dear, oh dear, that letter is not gone! I insist that that letter should go. I suppose I must see about it myself." Then when he began to move, the women moved also. Mary went to look after the sandwiches, and Mrs Baggett to despatch the letter. In ten minutes the letter was gone, and half an hour afterwards Mr Whittlestaff had himself driven down to the station.
"What is it he means, Miss?" said Mrs Baggett, when the master was gone.
"I do not know," said Mary, who was in truth very angry with the old woman.
"He wants to make you Mrs Whittlestaff."
"In whatever he wants I shall obey him,—if I only knew how."
"It's what you is bound to do, Miss Mary. Think of what he has done for you."
"I require no one to tell me that."
"What did Mr Gordon come here for, disturbing everybody? Nobody asked him;—at least, I suppose nobody asked him." There was an insinuation in this which Mary found it hard to bear. But it was better to bear it than to argue on such a point with the servant. "And he said things which put the master about terribly."
"It was not my doing."
"But he's a man as needn't have his own way. Why should Mr Gordon have everything just as he likes it? I never heard tell of Mr Gordon till he came here the other day. I don't think so much of Mr Gordon myself." To this Mary, of course, made no answer. "He's no business disturbing people when he's not sent for. I can't abide to see Mr Whittlestaff put about in this way. I have known him longer than you have."
"He's a man that'll be driven pretty nigh out of his mind if he's disappointed." Then there was silence, as Mary was determined not to discuss the matter any further. "If you come to that, you needn't marry no one unless you pleases." Mary was still silent. "They shouldn't make me marry them unless I was that way minded. I can't abide such doings," the old woman again went on after a pause. "I knows what I knows, and I sees what I sees."
"What do you know?" said Mary, driven beyond her powers of silence.
"The meaning is, that Mr Whittlestaff is to be disappointed after he have received a promise. Didn't he have a promise?" To this Mrs Baggett got no reply, though she waited for one before she went on with her argument. "You knows he had; and a promise between a lady and gentleman ought to be as good as the law of the land. You stand there as dumb as grim death, and won't say a word, and yet it all depends upon you. Why is it to go about among everybody, that he's not to get a wife just because a man's come home with his pockets full of diamonds? It's that that people'll say; and they'll say that you went back from your word just because of a few precious stones. I wouldn't like to have it said of me anyhow."
This was very hard to bear, but Mary found herself compelled to bear it. She had determined not to be led into an argument with Mrs Baggett on the subject, feeling that even to discuss her conduct would be an impropriety. She was strong in her own conduct, and knew how utterly at variance it had been with all that this woman imputed to her. The glitter of the diamonds had been merely thrown in by Mrs Baggett in her passion. Mary did not think that any one would be so base as to believe such an accusation as that. It would be said of her that her own young lover had come back suddenly, and that she had preferred him to the gentleman to whom she was tied by so many bonds. It would be said that she had given herself to him and had then taken back the gift, because the young lover had come across her path. And it would be told also that there had been no word of promise given to this young lover. All that would be very bad, without any allusion to a wealth of diamonds. It would not be said that, before she had pledged herself to Mr Whittlestaff, she had pleaded her affection for her young lover, when she had known nothing even of his present existence. It would not be known that though there had been no lover's vows between her and John Gordon, there had yet been on both sides that unspoken love which could not have been strengthened by any vows. Against all that she must guard herself, without thinking of the diamonds. She had endeavoured to guard herself, and she had thought also of the contentment of the man who had been so good to her. She had declared to herself that of herself she would think not at all. And she had determined also that all the likings,—nay, the affection of John Gordon himself,—should weigh not at all with her. She had to decide between the two men, and she had decided that both honesty and gratitude required her to comply with the wishes of the elder. She had done all that she could with that object, and was it her fault that Mr Whittlestaff had read the secret of her heart, and had determined to give way before it? This had so touched her that it might almost be said that she knew not to which of her two suitors her heart belonged. All this, if stated in answer to Mrs Baggett's accusations, would certainly exonerate herself from the stigma thrown upon her, but to Mrs Baggett she could not repeat the explanation.
"It nigh drives me wild," said Mrs Baggett. "I don't suppose you ever heard of Catherine Bailey?"
"And I ain't a-going to tell you. It's a romance as shall be wrapped inside my own bosom. It was quite a tragedy,—was Catherine Bailey; and one as would stir your heart up if you was to hear it. Catherine Bailey was a young woman. But I'm not going to tell you the story;—only that she was no more fit for Mr Whittlestaff than any of them stupid young girls that walks about the streets gaping in at the shop-windows in Alresford. I do you the justice, Miss Lawrie, to say as you are such a female as he ought to look after."
"Thank you, Mrs Baggett."
"But she led him into such trouble, because his heart is soft, as was dreadful to look at. He is one of them as always wants a wife. Why didn't he get one before? you'll say. Because till you came in the way he was always thinking of Catherine Bailey. Mrs Compas she become. 'Drat her and her babies!' I often said to myself. What was Compas? No more than an Old Bailey lawyer;—not fit to be looked at alongside of our Mr Whittlestaff. No more ain't Mr John Gordon, to my thinking. You think of all that, Miss Mary, and make up your mind whether you'll break his heart after giving a promise. Heart-breaking ain't to him what it is to John Gordon and the likes of him."
MR WHITTLESTAFF TAKES HIS JOURNEY.
Mr Whittlestaff did at last get into the train and have himself carried up to London. And he ate his sandwiches and drank his sherry with an air of supreme satisfaction,—as though he had carried his point. And so he had. He had made up his mind on a certain matter; and, with the object of doing a certain piece of work, he had escaped from the two dominant women of his household, who had done their best to intercept him. So far his triumph was complete. But as he sat silent in the corner of the carriage, his mind reverted to the purpose of his journey, and he cannot be said to have been triumphant. He knew it all as well as did Mrs Baggett. And he knew too that, except Mrs Baggett and the girl herself, all the world was against him. That ass Montagu Blake every time he opened his mouth as to his own bride let out the idea that John Gordon should have his bride because John Gordon was young and lusty, and because he, Whittlestaff, might be regarded as an old man. The Miss Halls were altogether of the same opinion, and were not slow to express it. All Alresford would know it, and would sympathise with John Gordon. And as it came to be known that he himself had given up the girl whom he loved, he could read the ridicule which would be conveyed by the smiles of his neighbours.
To tell the truth of Mr Whittlestaff, he was a man very open to such shafts of ridicule. The "robur et aes triplex" which fortified his heart went only to the doing of a good and unselfish action, and did not extend to providing him with that adamantine shield which virtue should of itself supply. He was as pervious to these stings as a man might be who had not strength to act in opposition to them. He could screw himself up to the doing of a great deed for the benefit of another, and could as he was doing so deplore with inward tears the punishment which the world would accord to him for the deed. As he sat there in the corner of his carriage, he was thinking of the punishment rather than of the glory. And the punishment must certainly come now. It would be a punishment lasting for the remainder of his life, and so bitter in its kind as to make any further living almost impossible to him. It was not that he would kill himself. He did not meditate any such step as that. He was a man who considered that by doing an outrage to God's work an offence would be committed against God which admitted of no repentance. He must live through it to the last. But he must live as a man who was degraded. He had made his effort, but his effort would be known to all Alresford. Mr Montagu Blake would take care of that.
The evil done to him would be one which would admit of no complaint from his own mouth. He would be left alone, living with Mrs Baggett,—who of course knew all the facts. The idea of Mrs Baggett going away with her husband was of course not to be thought of. That was another nuisance, a small evil in comparison with the great misfortune of his life.
He had brought this girl home to his house to be the companion of his days, and she had come to have in his mouth a flavour, as it were, and sweetness beyond all other sweetnesses. She had lent a grace to his days of which for many years he had not believed them to be capable. He was a man who had thought much of love, reading about it in all the poets with whose lines he was conversant. He was one who, in all that he read, would take the gist of it home to himself, and ask himself how it was with him in that matter. His favourite Horace had had a fresh love for every day; but he had told himself that Horace knew nothing of love. Of Petrarch and Laura he had thought; but even to Petrarch Laura had been a subject for expression rather than for passion. Prince Arthur, in his love for Guinevere, went nearer to the mark which he had fancied for himself. Imogen, in her love for Posthumus, gave to him a picture of all that love should be. It was thus that he had thought of himself in all his readings; and as years had gone by, he had told himself that for him there was to be nothing better than reading. But yet his mind had been full, and he had still thought to himself that, in spite of his mistake in reference to Catherine Bailey, there was still room for a strong passion.
Then Mary Lawrie had come upon him, and the sun seemed to shine nowhere but in her eyes and in the expression of her face. He had told himself distinctly that he was now in love, and that his life had not gone so far forward as to leave him stranded on the dry sandhills. She was there living in his house, subject to his orders, affectionate and docile; but, as far as he could judge, a perfect woman. And, as far as he could judge, there was no other man whom she loved. Then, with many doubtings, he asked her the question, and he soon learned the truth,—but not the whole truth.
There had been a man, but he was one who seemed to have passed by and left his mark, and then to have gone on altogether out of sight. She had told him that she could not but think of John Gordon, but that that was all. She would, if he asked it, plight her troth to him and become his wife, although she must think of John Gordon. This thinking would last but for a while, he told himself; and he at his age—what right had he to expect aught better than that? She was of such a nature that, when she had given herself up in marriage, she would surely learn to love her husband. So he had accepted her promise, and allowed himself for one hour to be a happy man.
Then John Gordon had come to his house, falling upon it like the blast of a storm. He had come at once—instantly—as though fate had intended to punish him, Whittlestaff, utterly and instantly. Mary had told him that she could not promise not to think of him who had once loved her, when, lo and behold! the man himself was there. Who ever suffered a blow so severe as this? He had left them together. He had felt himself compelled to do so by the exigencies of the moment. It was impossible that he should give either one or the other to understand that they would not be allowed to meet in his house. They had met, and Mary had been very firm. For a few hours there had existed in his bosom the feeling that even yet he might be preferred.
But gradually that feeling had disappeared, and the truth had come home to him. She was as much in love with John Gordon as could any girl be with the man whom she adored. And the other rock on which he had depended was gradually shivered beneath his feet. He had fancied at first that the man had come back, as do so many adventurers, without the means of making a woman happy. It was not for John Gordon that he was solicitous, but for Mary Lawrie. If John Gordon were a pauper, or so nearly so as to be able to offer Mary no home, then it would clearly be his duty not to allow the marriage. In such case the result to him would be, if not heavenly, sweet enough at any rate to satisfy his longings. She would come to him, and John Gordon would depart to London, and to the world beyond, and there would be an end of him. But it became palpable to his senses generally that the man's fortunes had not been such as this. And then there came home to him a feeling that were they so, it would be his duty to make up for Mary's sake what was wanting,—since he had discovered of what calibre was the man himself.
It was at Mr Hall's house that the idea had first presented itself to him with all the firmness of a settled project. It would be, he had said to himself, a great thing for a man to do. What, after all, is the meaning of love, but that a man should do his best to serve the woman he loves? "Who cares a straw for him?" he said to himself, as though to exempt himself from any idea of general charity, and to prove that all the good which he intended to do was to be done for love alone. "Not a straw; whether he shall stay at home here and have all that is sweetest in the world, or be sent out alone to find fresh diamonds amidst the dirt and misery of that horrid place, is as nothing, as far as he is concerned. I am, at any rate, more to myself than John Gordon. I do not believe in doing a kindness of such a nature as that to such a one. But for her—! And I could not hold her to my bosom, knowing that she would so much rather be in the arms of another man." All this he said to himself; but he said it in words fully formed, and with the thoughts, on which the words were based, clearly established.
When he came to the end of his journey, he had himself driven to the hotel, and ordered his dinner, and ate it in solitude, still supported by the ecstasy of his thoughts. He knew that there was before him a sharp cruel punishment, and then a weary lonely life. There could be no happiness, no satisfaction, in store for him. He was aware that it must be so; but still for the present there was a joy to him in thinking that he would make her happy, and in that he was determined to take what immediate delight it would give him. He asked himself how long that delight could last; and he told himself that when John Gordon should have once taken her by the hand and claimed her as his own, the time of his misery would have come.
There had hung about him a dream, clinging to him up to the moment of his hotel dinner, by which he had thought it possible that he might yet escape from the misery of Pandemonium and be carried into the light and joy of Paradise. But as he sat with his beef-steak before him, and ate his accustomed potato, with apparently as good a gusto as any of his neighbours, the dream departed. He told himself that under no circumstances should the dream be allowed to become a reality. The dream had been of this wise. With all the best intentions in his power he would offer the girl to John Gordon, and then, not doubting Gordon's acceptance of her, would make the same offer to the girl herself. But what if the girl refused to accept the offer? What if the girl should stubbornly adhere to her original promise? Was he to refuse to marry her when she should insist that such was her right? Was he to decline to enter in upon the joys of Paradise when Paradise should be thus opened to him? He would do his best, loyally and sincerely, with his whole heart. But he could not force her to make him a wretch, miserable for the rest of his life!
In fact it was she who might choose to make the sacrifice, and thus save him from the unhappiness in store for him. Such had been the nature of his dream. As he was eating his beef-steak and potatoes, he told himself that it could not be so, and that the dream must be flung to the winds. A certain amount of strength was now demanded of him, and he thought that he would be able to use it. "No, my dear, not me; it may not be that you should become my wife, though all the promises under heaven had been given. Though you say that you wish it, it is a lie which may not be ratified. Though you implore it of me, it cannot be granted. It is he that is your love, and it is he that must have you. I love you too, God in his wisdom knows, but it cannot be so. Go and be his wife, for mine you shall never become. I have meant well, but have been unfortunate. Now you know the state of my mind, than which nothing is more fixed on this earth." It was thus that he would speak to her, and then he would turn away; and the term of his misery would have commenced.
On the next morning he got up and prepared for his interview with John Gordon. He walked up and down the sward of the Green Park, thinking to himself of the language which he would use. If he could only tell the man that he hated him while he surrendered to him the girl whom he loved so dearly, it would be well. For in truth there was nothing of Christian charity in his heart towards John Gordon. But he thought at last that it would be better that he should announce his purpose in the simplest language. He could hate the man in his own heart as thoroughly as he desired. But it would not be becoming in him, were he on such an occasion to attempt to rise to the romance of tragedy. "It will be all the same a thousand years hence," he said to himself as he walked in at the club door.
THE GREEN PARK.
He asked whether Mr John Gordon was within, and in two minutes found himself standing in the hall with that hero of romance. Mr Whittlestaff told himself, as he looked at the man, that he was such a hero as ought to be happy in his love. Whereas of himself, he was conscious of a personal appearance which no girl could be expected to adore. He thought too much of his personal appearance generally, complaining to himself that it was mean; whereas in regard to Mary Lawrie, it may be said that no such idea had ever entered her mind. "It was just because he had come first," she would have said if asked. And the "he" alluded to would have been John Gordon. "He had come first, and therefore I had learned to love him." It was thus that Mary Lawrie would have spoken. But Mr Whittlestaff, as he looked up into John Gordon's face, felt that he himself was mean.
"You got my letter, Mr Gordon?"
"Yes; I got it last night."
"I have come up to London, because there is something that I want to say to you. It is something that I can't very well put up into a letter, and therefore I have taken the trouble to come to town." As he said this he endeavoured, no doubt, to assert his own dignity by the look which he assumed. Nor did he intend that Mr Gordon should know anything of the struggle which he had endured.
But Mr Gordon knew as well what Mr Whittlestaff had to say as did Mr Whittlestaff himself. He had turned the matter over in his own mind since the letter had reached him, and was aware that there could be no other cause for seeing him which could bring Mr Whittlestaff up to London. But a few days since he had made an appeal to Mr Whittlestaff—an appeal which certainly might require much thought for its answer—and here was Mr Whittlestaff with his reply. It could not have been made quicker. It was thus that John Gordon had thought of it as he had turned Mr Whittlestaff's letter over in his mind. The appeal had been made readily enough. The making of it had been easy; the words to be spoken had come quickly, and without the necessity for a moment's premeditation. He had known it all, and from a full heart the mouth speaks. But was it to have been expected that a man so placed as had been Mr Whittlestaff, should be able to give his reply with equal celerity? He, John Gordon, had seen at once on reaching Croker's Hall the state in which things were. Almost hopelessly he had made his appeal to the man who had her promise. Then he had met the man at Mr Hall's house, and hardly a word had passed between them. What word could have been expected? Montagu Blake, with all his folly, had judged rightly in bringing them together. When he received the letter, John Gordon had remembered that last word which Mr Whittlestaff had spoken to him in the squire's hall. He had thought of the appeal, and had resolved to give an answer to it. It was an appeal which required an answer. He had turned it over in his mind, and had at last told himself what the answer should be. John Gordon had discovered all that when he received the letter, and it need hardly be said that his feelings in regard to Mr Whittlestaff were very much kinder than those of Mr Whittlestaff to him.
"Perhaps you wouldn't mind coming out into the street," said Mr Whittlestaff. "I can't say very well what I've got to say in here."
"Certainly," said Gordon; "I will go anywhere."
"Let us go into the Park. It is green there, and there is some shade among the trees." Then they went out of the club into Pall Mall, and Mr Whittlestaff walked on ahead without a word. "No; we will not go down there," he said, as he passed the entrance into St. James's Park by Marlborough House, and led the way through St. James's Palace into the Green Park. "We'll go on till we come to the trees; there are seats there, unless the people have occupied them all. One can't talk here under the blazing sun;—at least I can't." Then he walked on at a rapid pace, wiping his brow as he did so. "Yes, there's a seat. I'll be hanged if that man isn't going to sit down upon it! What a beast he is! No, I can't sit down on a seat that another man is occupying. I don't want any one to hear what I've got to say. There! Two women have gone a little farther on." Then he hurried to the vacant bench and took possession of it. It was placed among the thick trees which give a perfect shade on the north side of the Park, and had Mr Whittlestaff searched all London through, he could not have found a more pleasant spot in which to make his communication. "This will do," said he.
"Very nicely indeed," said John Gordon.
"I couldn't talk about absolutely private business in the hall of the club, you know."
"I could have taken you into a private room, Mr Whittlestaff, had you wished it."
"With everybody coming in and out, just as they pleased. I don't believe in private rooms in London clubs. What I've got to say can be said better sub dio. I suppose you know what it is that I've got to talk about."
"Hardly," said John Gordon. "But that is not exactly true. I think I know, but I am not quite sure of it. On such a subject I should not like to make a surmise unless I were confident."
"It's about Miss Lawrie."
"I suppose so."
"What makes you suppose that?" said Whittlestaff, sharply.
"You told me that you were sure I should know."
"So I am, quite sure. You came all the way down to Alresford to see her. If you spoke the truth, you came all the way home from the diamond-fields with the same object."
"I certainly spoke the truth, Mr Whittlestaff."
"Then what's the good of your pretending not to know?"
"I have not pretended. I merely said that I could not presume to put the young lady's name into your mouth until you had uttered it yourself. There could be no other subject of conversation between you and me of which I was aware."
"You had spoken to me about her," said Mr Whittlestaff.
"No doubt I had. When I found that you had given her a home, and had made yourself, as it were, a father to her—"
"I had not made myself her father,—nor yet her mother. I had loved her, as you profess to do."
"My profession is at any rate true."
"I daresay. You may or you mayn't; I at any rate know nothing about it."
"Why otherwise should I have come home and left my business in South Africa? I think you may take it for granted that I love her."
"I don't care twopence whether you do or don't," said Mr Whittlestaff. "It's nothing to me whom you love. I should have been inclined to say at first sight that a man groping in the dirt for diamonds wouldn't love any one. And even if you did, though you might break your heart and die, it would be nothing to me. Had you done so, I should not have heard of you, nor should I have wished to hear of you."
There was an incivility in all this of which John Gordon felt that he was obliged to take some notice. There was a want of courtesy in the man's manner rather than his words, which he could not quite pass by, although he was most anxious to do so. "I daresay not," said he; "but here I am and here also is Miss Lawrie. I had said what I had to say down at Alresford, and of course it is for you now to decide what is to be done. I have never supposed that you would care personally for me."
"You needn't be so conceited about yourself."
"I don't know that I am," said Gordon;—"except that a man cannot but be a little conceited who has won the love of Mary Lawrie."
"You think it impossible that I should have done so."
"At any rate I did it before you had seen her. Though I may be conceited, I am not more conceited for myself than you are for yourself. Had I not known her, you would probably have engaged her affections. I had known her, and you are aware of the result. But it is for you to decide. Miss Lawrie thinks that she owes you a debt which she is bound to pay if you exact it."
"Exact it!" exclaimed Mr Whittlestaff. "There is no question of exacting!" John Gordon shrugged his shoulders. "I say there is no question of exacting. The words should not have been used. She has my full permission to choose as she may think fit, and she knows that she has it. What right have you to speak to me of exacting?"
Mr Whittlestaff had now talked himself into such a passion, and was apparently so angry at the word which his companion had used, that John Gordon began to doubt whether he did in truth know the purpose for which the man had come to London. Could it be that he had made the journey merely with the object of asserting that he had the power of making this girl his wife, and of proving his power by marrying her. "What is it that you wish, Mr Whittlestaff?" he asked.
"Wish! What business have you to ask after my wishes? But you know what my wishes are very well. I will not pretend to keep them in the dark. She came to my house, and I soon learned to desire that she should be my wife. If I know what love is, I loved her. If I know what love is, I do love her still. She is all the world to me. I have no diamonds to care for; I have no rich mines to occupy my heart; I am not eager in the pursuit of wealth. I had lived a melancholy, lonely life till this young woman had come to my table,—till I had felt her sweet hand upon mine,—till she had hovered around me, covering everything with bright sunshine. Then I asked her to be my wife;—and she told me of you."
"She told you of me?"
"Yes; she told me of you—of you who might then have been dead, for aught she knew. And when I pressed her, she said that she would think of you always."
"She said so?"
"Yes; that she would think of you always. But she did not say that she would always love you. And in the same breath she promised to be my wife. I was contented,—and yet not quite contented. Why should she think of you always? But I believed that it would not be so. I thought that if I were good to her, I should overcome her. I knew that I should be better to her than you would be."
"Why should I not be good to her?"
"There is an old saying of a young man's slave and an old man's darling. She would at any rate have been my darling. It might be that she would have been your slave."
"My fellow-workman in all things."
"You think so now; but the man always becomes the master. If you grovelled in the earth for diamonds, she would have to look for them amidst the mud and slime."
"I have never dreamed of taking her to the diamond-fields."
"It would have been so in all other pursuits."
"She would have had none that she had not chosen," said John Gordon.
"How am I to know that? How am I to rest assured that the world would be smooth to her if she were your creature? I am not assured—I do not know."
"Who can tell, as you say? Can I promise her a succession of joys if she be my wife? She is not one who will be likely to look for such a life as that. She will know that she must take the rough and smooth together."
"There would have been no rough with me," said Mr Whittlestaff.
"I do not believe in such a life," said John Gordon. "A woman should not wear a stuff gown always; but the silk finery and the stuff gown should follow each other. To my taste, the more there may be of the stuff gown and the less of the finery, the more it will be to my wishes."
"I am not speaking of her gowns. It is not of such things as those that I am thinking." Here Mr Whittlestaff got up from the bench, and began walking rapidly backwards and forwards under the imperfect shade on the path. "You will beat her."
"I think not."
"Beat her in the spirit. You will domineer over her, and desire to have your own way. When she is toiling for you, you will frown at her. Because you have business on hand, or perhaps pleasure, you will leave her in solitude. There may a time come when the diamonds shall have all gone."
"If she is to be mine, that time will have come already. The diamonds will be sold. Did you ever see a diamond in my possession? Why do you twit me with diamonds? If I had been a coal-owner, should I have been expected to keep my coals?"
"These things stick to the very soul of a man. They are a poison of which he cannot rid himself. They are like gambling. They make everything cheap that should be dear, and everything dear that should be cheap. I trust them not at all,—and I do not trust you, because you deal in them."
"I tell you that I shall not deal in them. But, Mr Whittlestaff, I must tell you that you are unreasonable."
"No doubt. I am a poor miserable man who does not know the world. I have never been to the diamond-fields. Of course I understand nothing of the charms of speculation. A quiet life with my book is all that I care for;—with just one other thing, one other thing. You begrudge me that."
"Mr Whittlestaff, it does not signify a straw what I begrudge you." Mr Whittlestaff had now come close to him, and was listening to him. "Nor, as I take it, what you begrudge me. Before I left England she and I had learned to love each other. It is so still. For the sake of her happiness, do you mean to let me have her?"
"Of course I do. You have known it all along. Of course I do. Do you think I would make her miserable? Would it be in my bosom to make her come and live with a stupid, silly old man, to potter on from day to day without any excitement? Would I force her into a groove in which her days would be wretched to her? Had she come to me and wanted bread, and have seen before her all the misery of poverty, the stone-coldness of a governess's life; had she been left to earn her bread without any one to love her, it might then have been different. She would have looked out into another world, and have seen another prospect. A comfortable home with kindness, and her needs supplied, would have sufficed. She would then have thought herself happy in becoming my wife. There would then have been no cruelty. But she had seen you, and though it was but a dream, she thought that she could endure to wait. Better that than surrender all the delight of loving. So she told me that she would think of you. Poor dear! I can understand now the struggle which she intended to make. Then in the very nick of time, in the absolute moment of the day—so that you might have everything and I nothing—you came. You came, and were allowed to see her, and told her all your story. You filled her heart full with joy, but only to be crushed when she thought that the fatal promise had been given to me. I saw it all, I knew it. I thought to myself for a few hours that it might be so. But it cannot be so."
"Oh, Mr Whittlestaff!"
"It cannot be so," he said, with a firm determined voice, as though asserting a fact which admitted no doubt.
"Mr Whittlestaff, what am I to say to you?"
"You! What are you to say? Nothing. What should you say? Why should you speak? It is not for love of you that I would do this thing; nor yet altogether from love of her. Not that I would not do much for her sake. I almost think that I would do it entirely for her sake, if there were no other reason. But to shame myself by taking that which belongs to another, as though it were my own property! To live a coward in mine own esteem! Though I may be the laughing-stock and the butt of all those around me, I would still be a man to myself. I ought to have felt that it was sufficient when she told me that some of her thoughts must still be given to you. She is yours, Mr Gordon; but I doubt much whether you care for the possession."
"Not care for her! Up to the moment when I received your note, I was about to start again for South Africa. South Africa is no place for her,—nor for me either, with such a wife. Mr Whittlestaff, will you not allow me to say one word to you in friendship?"
"Not a word."
"How am I to come and take her out of your house?"
"She must manage it as best she can. But no; I would not turn her from my door for all the world could do for me. This, too, will be part of the punishment that I must bear. You can settle the day between you, I suppose, and then you can come down; and, after the accustomed fashion, you can meet her at the church-door. Then you can come to my house, and eat your breakfast there if you will. You will see fine things prepared for you,—such as a woman wants on those occasions,—and then you can carry her off wherever you please. I need know nothing of your whereabouts. Good morning now. Do not say anything further, but let me go my way."
JOHN GORDON WRITES A LETTER.
When they parted in the park, Mr Whittlestaff trudged off to his own hotel, through the heat and sunshine. He walked quickly, and never looked behind him, and went as though he had fully accomplished his object in one direction, and must hurry to get it done in another. To Gordon he had left no directions whatever. Was he to be allowed to go down to Mary, or even to write her a letter? He did not know whether Mary had ever been told of this wonderful sacrifice which had been made on her behalf. He understood that he was to have his own way, and was to be permitted to regard himself as betrothed to her, but he did not at all understand what steps he was to take in the matter, except that he was not to go again to the diamond-fields. But Mr Whittlestaff hurried himself off to his hotel, and shut himself up in his own bedroom,—and when there, he sobbed, alas! like a child.
The wife whom he had won for himself was probably more valuable to him than if he had simply found her disengaged and ready to jump into his arms. She, at any rate, had behaved well. Mr Whittlestaff had no doubt proved himself to be an angel, perfect all round,—such a man as you shall not meet perhaps once in your life. But Mary, too, had so behaved as to enhance the love of any man who had been already engaged to her. As he thought of the whole story of the past week, the first idea that occurred to him was that he certainly had been present to her mind during the whole period of his absence. Though not a word had passed between them, and though no word of absolute love for each other had even been spoken before, she had been steady to him, with no actual basis on which to found her love. He had known, and she had been sure, and therefore she had been true to him. Of course, being a true man himself, he worshipped her all the more. Mr Whittlestaff was absolutely, undoubtedly perfect; but in Gordon's estimation Mary was not far off perfection. But what was he to do now, so that he might approach her?
He had pledged himself to one thing, and he must at once go to work and busy himself in accomplishing it. He had promised not to return to Africa; and he must at once see Mr Tookey, and learn whether that gentleman's friends would be allowed to go on with the purchase as arranged. He knew Poker & Hodge to be moneyed men, or to be men, at any rate, in command of money. If they would not pay him at once, he must look elsewhere for buyers; but the matter must be settled. Tookey had promised to come to his club this day, and there he would go and await his coming.
He went to his club, but the first person who came to him was Mr Whittlestaff. Mr Whittlestaff when he had left the park had determined never to see John Gordon again, or to see him only during that ceremony of the marriage, which it might be that he would even yet escape. All that was still in the distant future. Dim ideas as to some means of avoiding it flitted through his brain. But even though he might see Gordon on that terrible occasion, he need not speak to him. And it would have to be done then, and then only. But now another idea, certainly very vague, had found its way into his mind, and with the object of carrying it out, Mr Whittlestaff had come to the club. "Oh, Mr Whittlestaff, how do you do again?"
"I'm much the same as I was before, thank you. There hasn't happened anything to improve my health."
"I hope nothing may happen to injure it."
"It doesn't much matter. You said something about some property you've got in diamonds, and you said once that you must go out to look after it."
"But I'm not going now. I shall sell my share in the mines. I am going to see a Mr Tookey about it immediately."
"Can't you sell them to me?"
"The diamond shares,—to you!"
"Why not to me? If the thing has to be done at once, of course you and I must trust each other. I suppose you can trust me?"
"Certainly I can."
"As I don't care much about it, whether I get what I buy or not, it does not much matter for me. But in truth, in such an affair as this I would trust you. Why should not I go in your place?"
"I don't think you are the man who ought to go there."
"I am too old? I'm not a cripple, if you mean that. I don't see why I shouldn't go to the diamond-fields as well as a younger man."
"It is not about your age, Mr Whittlestaff; but I do not think you would be happy there."
"Happy! I do not know that my state of bliss here is very great. If I had bought your shares, as you call them, and paid money for them, I don't see why my happiness need stand in the way."
"You are a gentleman, Mr Whittlestaff."
"Well; I hope so."
"And of that kind that you would have your eyes picked out of your head before you had been there a week. Don't go. Take my word for it, that life will be pleasanter to you here than there, and that for you the venture would be altogether dangerous. Here is Mr Tookey." At this point of the conversation, Mr Tookey entered the hall-door, and some fashion of introduction took place between the two strangers. John Gordon led the way into a private room, and the two others followed him. "Here's a gentleman anxious to buy my shares, Tookey," said Gordon.
"What! the whole lot of the old Stick-in-the-Mud? He'll have to shell down some money in order to do that! If I were to be asked my opinion, I should say that the transaction was hardly one in the gentleman's way of business."
"I suppose an honest man may work at it," said Mr Whittlestaff.
"It's the honestest business I know out," said Fitzwalker Tookey; "but it does require a gentleman to have his eyes about him."
"Haven't I got my eyes?"
"Oh certainly, certainly," said Tookey; "I never knew a gentleman have them brighter. But there are eyes and eyes. Here's Mr Gordon did have a stroke of luck out there;—quite wonderful! But because he tumbled on to a good thing, it's no reason that others should. And he's sold his claim already, if he doesn't go himself,—either to me, or else to Poker & Hodge."
"I'm afraid it is so," said John Gordon.
"There's my darling wife, who is going out with me, and who means to stand all the hardship of the hard work amidst those scenes of constant labour,—a lady who is dying to see her babies there. I am sure, sir, that Mr Gordon won't forget his promises to me and my wife."
"If you have the money ready."
"There is Mr Poker in a hansom cab outside, and ready to go with you to the bank at once, as the matter is rather pressing. If you will come with him, he will explain everything. I will follow in another cab, and then everything can be completed." John Gordon did make an appointment to meet Mr Poker in the city later on in the day, and then was left together with Mr Whittlestaff at the club.
It was soon decided that Mr Whittlestaff should give up all idea of the diamond-fields, and in so doing he allowed himself to be brought back to a state of semi-courteous conversation with his happy rival. "Well, yes; you may write to her, I suppose. Indeed I don't know what right I have to say that you may, or you mayn't. She's more yours than mine, I suppose." "Turn her out! I don't know what makes you take such an idea as that in your head." John Gordon had not suggested that Mr Whittlestaff would turn Mary Lawrie out,—though he had spoken of the steps he would have to take were he to find Mary left without a home. "She shall have my house as her own till she can find another. As she will not be my wife, she shall be my daughter,—till she is somebody else's wife." "I told you before that you may come and marry her. Indeed I can't help myself. Of course you may go on as you would with some other girl;—only I wish it were some other girl. You can go and stay with Montagu Blake, if you please. It is nothing to me. Everybody knows it now." Then he did say good-bye, though he could not be persuaded to shake hands with John Gordon.
Mr Whittlestaff did not go home that day, but on the next, remaining in town till he was driven out of it by twenty-four hours of absolute misery. He had said to himself that he would remain till he could think of some future plan of life that should have in it some better promise of success for him than his sudden scheme of going to the diamond-fields. But there was no other plan which became practicable in his eyes. On the afternoon of the very next day London was no longer bearable to him; and as there was no other place but Croker's Hall to which he could take himself with any prospect of meeting friends who would know anything of his ways of life, he did go down on the following day. One consequence of this was, that Mary had received from her lover the letter which he had written almost as soon as he had received Mr Whittlestaff's permission to write. The letter was as follows:—
DEAR MARY,—I do not know whether you are surprised by what Mr Whittlestaff has done; but I am,—so much so that I hardly know how to write to you on the matter. If you will think of it, I have never written to you, and have never been in a position in which writing seemed to be possible. Nor do I know as yet whether you are aware of the business which has brought Mr Whittlestaff to town.
I suppose I am to take it for granted that all that he tells me is true; though when I think what it is that I have to accept,—and that on the word of a man who is not your father, and who is a perfect stranger to me,—it does seem as though I were assuming a great deal. And yet it is no more than I asked him to do for me when I saw him at his own house.
I had no time then to ask for your permission; nor, had I asked for it, would you have granted it to me. You had pledged yourself, and would not have broken your pledge. If I asked for your hand at all, it was from him that I had to ask. How will it be with me if you shall refuse to come to me at his bidding?
I have never told you that I loved you, nor have you expressed your willingness to receive my love. Dear Mary, how shall it be? No doubt I do count upon you in my very heart as being my own. After this week of troubles it seems as though I can look back upon a former time in which you and I had talked to one another as though we had been lovers. May I not think that it was so? May it not be so? May I not call you my Mary?
And indeed between man and man, as I would say, only that you are not a man, have I not a right to assume that it is so? I told him that it was so down at Croker's Hall, and he did not contradict me. And now he has been the most indiscreet of men, and has allowed all your secrets to escape from his breast. He has told me that you love me, and has bade me do as seems good to me in speaking to you of my love.
But, Mary, why should there be any mock modesty or pretence between us? When a man and woman mean to become husband and wife, they should at any rate be earnest in their profession. I am sure of my love for you, and of my earnest longing to make you my wife. Tell me;—am I not right in counting upon you for wishing the same thing?
What shall I say in writing to you of Mr Whittlestaff? To me personally he assumes the language of an enemy. But he contrives to do so in such a way that I can take it only as the expression of his regret that I should be found to be standing in his way. His devotion to you is the most beautiful expression of self-abnegation that I have ever met. He tells me that nothing is done for me; but it is only that I may understand how much more is done for you. Next to me,—yes, Mary, next to myself, he should be the dearest to you of human beings. I am jealous already, almost jealous of his goodness. Would that I could look forward to a life in which I would be regarded as his friend.
Let me have a line from you to say that it is as I would wish it, and name a day in which I may come to visit you. I shall now remain in London only to obey your behests. As to my future life, I can settle nothing till I can discuss it with you, as it will be your life also. God bless you, my own one.—Yours affectionately,
We are not to return to the diamond-fields. I have promised Mr Whittlestaff that it shall be so.
Mary, when she received this letter, retired into her own room to read it. For indeed her life in public,—her life, that is, to which Mrs Baggett had access,—had been in some degree disturbed since the departure of the master of the house. Mrs Baggett certainly proved herself to be a most unreasonable old woman. She praised Mary Lawrie up to the sky as being the only woman fitted to be her master's wife, at the same time abusing Mary for driving her out of the house were the marriage to take place; and then abusing her also because Mr Whittlestaff had gone to town to look up another lover on Mary's behalf. "It isn't my fault; I did not send him," said Mary.
"You could make his going of no account. You needn't have the young man when he comes back. He has come here, disturbing us all with his diamonds, in a most objectionable manner."
"You would be able to remain here and not have to go away with that dreadfully drunken old man." This Mary had said, because there had been rather a violent scene with the one-legged hero in the stable.
"What's that to do with it? Baggett ain't the worst man in the world by any means. If he was a little cross last night, he ain't so always. You'd be cross yourself, Miss, if you didn't get straw enough under you to take off the hardness of the stones."
"But you would go and live with him."
"Ain't he my husband! Why shouldn't a woman live with her husband? And what does it matter where I live, or how. You ain't going to marry John Gordon, I know, to save me from Timothy Baggett!" Then the letter had come—the letter from Mary's lover; and Mary retired to her own room to read it. The letter she thought was perfect, but not so perfect as was Mr Whittlestaff. When she had read the letter, although she had pressed it to her bosom and kissed it a score of times, although she had declared that it was the letter of one who was from head to foot a man, still there was room for that jealousy of which John Gordon had spoken. When Mary had said to herself that he was of all human beings surely the best, it was to Mr Whittlestaff and not to John Gordon that she made allusion.
AGAIN AT CROKER'S HALL.
About three o'clock on that day Mr Whittlestaff came home. The pony-carriage had gone to meet him, but Mary remained purposely out of the way. She could not rush out to greet him, as she would have done had his absence been occasioned by any other cause. But he had no sooner taken his place in the library than he sent for her. He had been thinking about it all the way down from London, and had in some sort prepared his words. During the next half hour he did promise himself some pleasure, after that his life was to be altogether a blank to him. He would go. To that only had he made up his mind. He would tell Mary that she should be happy. He would make Mrs Baggett understand that for the sake of his property she must remain at Croker's Hall for some period to which he would decline to name an end. And then he would go.
"Well, Mary," he said, smiling, "so I have got back safe."
"Yes; I see you have got back."
"I saw a friend of yours when I was up in London."
"I have had a letter, you know, from Mr Gordon."
"He has written, has he? Then he has been very sudden."
"He said he had your leave to write."
"That is true. He had. I thought that, perhaps, he would have taken more time to think about it."
"I suppose he knew what he had to say," said Mary. And then she blushed, as though fearing that she had appeared to have been quite sure that her lover would not have been so dull.
"I didn't quite mean that I knew."
"But you did."
"Oh, Mr Whittlestaff! But I will not attempt to deceive you. If you left it to him, he would know what to say,—immediately."
"No doubt! No doubt!"
"When he had come here all the way from South Africa on purpose to see me, as he said, of course he would know. Why should there be any pretence on my part?"
"But I have not answered him;—not as yet."
"There need be no delay."
"I would not do it till you had come. I may have known what he would say to me, but I may be much in doubt what I should say to him."
"You may say what you like." He answered her crossly, and she heard the tone. But he was aware of it also, and felt that he was disgracing himself. There was none of the half-hour of joy which he had promised himself. He had struggled so hard to give her everything, and he might, at any rate, have perfected his gift with good humour. "You know you have my full permission," he said, with a smile. But he was aware that this smile was not pleasant,—was not such a smile as would make her happy. But it did not signify. When he was gone away, utterly abolished, then she would be happy.
"I do not know that I want your permission."
"No, no; I daresay not."
"You asked me to be your wife."
"Yes; I did."
"And I accepted you. The matter was settled then."
"But you told me of him,—even at first. And you said that you would always think of him."
"Yes; I told you what I knew to be true. But I accepted you; and I determined to love you with all my heart,—with all my heart."
"And you knew that you would love him without any determination."
"I think that I have myself under more control. I think that in time,—in a little time,—I would have done my duty by you perfectly."
"Loving you with all my heart."
"And now?" It was a hard question to put to her, and so unnecessary! "And now?"
"You have distrusted me somewhat. I begged you not to go to London. I begged you not to go."
"You cannot love two men." She looked into his face, as though imploring him to spare her. For though she did know what was coming,—though had she asked herself, she would have said that she knew,—yet she felt herself bound to disown Mr Gordon as her very own while Mr Whittlestaff thus tantalised her. "No; you cannot love two men. You would have tried to love me and have failed. You would have tried not to love him, and have failed then also."
"Then I would not have failed. Had you remained here, and have taken me, I should certainly not have failed then."
"I have made it easy for you, my dear;—very easy. Write your letter. Make it as loving as you please. Write as I would have had you write to me, could it have been possible. O, Mary! that ought to have been my own! O, Mary! that would have made beautiful for me my future downward steps! But it is not for such a purpose that a young life such as yours should be given. Though he should be unkind to you, though money should be scarce with you, though the ordinary troubles of the world should come upon you, they will be better for you than the ease I might have prepared for you. It will be nearer to human nature. I, at any rate, shall be here if troubles come; or if I am gone, that will remain which relieves troubles. You can go now and write your letter."
She could not speak a word as she left the room. It was not only that her throat was full of sobs, but that her heart was laden with mingled joy and sorrow, so that she could not find a word to express herself. She went to her bedroom and took out her letter-case to do as he had bidden her;—but she found that she could not write. This letter should be one so framed as to make John Gordon joyful; but it would be impossible to bring her joy so to the surface as to satisfy him even with contentment. She could only think how far it might yet be possible to sacrifice herself and him. She sat thus an hour, and then went back, and, hearing voices, descended to the drawing-room. There she found Mr Blake and Kattie Forrester and Evelina Hall. They had come to call upon Mr Whittlestaff and herself, and were full of their own news. "Oh, Miss Lawrie, what do you think?" said Mr Blake. Miss Lawrie, however, could not think, nor could Mr Whittlestaff. "Think of whatever is the greatest joy in the world," said Mr Blake.
"Don't make yourself such a goose," said Kattie Forrester.
"Oh, but I am in earnest. The greatest joy in all the world."
"I suppose you mean you're going to be married," said Mr Whittlestaff.
"Exactly. How good you are at guessing! Kattie has named the day. This day fortnight. Oh dear, isn't it near?"
"If you think so, it shall be this day fortnight next year," said Kattie.
"Oh dear no! I didn't mean that at all. It can't be too near. And you couldn't put it off now, you know, because the Dean has been bespoke. It is a good thing to have the Dean to fasten the knot. Don't you think so, Miss Lawrie?"
"I suppose one clergyman is just the same as another," said Mary.
"So I tell him. It will all be one twenty years hence. After all, the Dean is an old frump, and papa does not care a bit about him."
"But how are you to manage with Mr Newface?" asked Mr Whittlestaff.
"That's the best part of it all. Mr Hall is such a brick, that when we come back from the Isle of Wight he is going to take us all in."
"If that's the best of it, you can be taken in without me," said Kattie.
"But it is good; is it not? We two, and her maid. She's to be promoted to nurse one of these days."
"If you're such a fool, I never will have you. It's not too late yet, remember that." All which rebukes—and there were many of them—Mr Montagu Blake received with loud demonstrations of joy. "And so, Miss Lawrie, you're to be in the same boat too," said Mr Blake. "I know all about it."
Mary blushed, and looked at Mr Whittlestaff. But he took upon himself the task of answering the clergyman's remarks. "But how do you know anything about Miss Lawrie?"
"You think that no one can go up to London but yourself, Mr Whittlestaff. I was up there myself yesterday;—as soon as ever this great question of the day was positively settled, I had to look after my own trousseau. I don't see why a gentleman isn't to have a trousseau as well as a lady. At any rate, I wanted a new black suit, fit for the hymeneal altar. And when there I made out John Gordon, and soon wormed the truth out of him. At least he did not tell me downright, but he let the cat so far out of the bag that I soon guessed the remainder. I always knew how it would be, Miss Lawrie."