"Oh, no. Keep your own counsel, by all means. But you are placing yourself in a very risky position. Lady Alice Brooke knows something that would, I suppose, compromise you in the world's eyes, if it were generally known. Her daughter is coming to Brooke's house. You mean—you seriously mean—to go to his house and visit this girl? thereby offending her mother (who is sure to hear of the visit) and bringing down the ill-will of all the Courtleroys upon your head? Have you no regard for your character and your position in the world? You are risking both, and you have nothing to gain."
"Yes, I have."
"What is it?"
"I cannot tell you."
"You mean you will not tell me?"
Oliver Trent deliberately took a match-box from the mantelpiece, struck a match, and lighted a wax candle. "I should like to see your face," he said.
Rosalind looked at him fully and steadily for a few seconds; then her eyelids fell, and for the second time that evening the color mounted in her pale cheeks.
"I think that I know the truth," said her brother, composedly, after a careful study of her face. "You are mad, Rosalind, and you will live to rue that madness."
"I don't know what you mean," she said, turning away from the light of the candle. "You speak in riddles."
"I will speak in riddles, then, no longer. I will be very plain with you. Rosalind, you are in love with Caspar Brooke."
She sank down on a low chair as if her limbs would support her no longer and rested her face upon her hands.
"No," she said, in a low voice, "you are wrong: I do not love Caspar Brooke."
"What other motive can you have?"
She waited for a moment, and then said, still softly—
"I suppose I may as well tell you. I loved him once. In those first days of our acquaintance—when he was disappointed in his wife and seeking for sympathy elsewhere—I thought that he cared for me. I was mistaken. Oliver, can you keep my secret? No other soul in the world knows of this from me but you. I told him my love. I wrote to him—a wild, mad letter—offering to fly to the ends of the earth with him if he would go."
Oliver stared at her as if he could not believe his ears.
"And what answer did he make?"
"He made none—because he never saw it. That letter fell into Lady Alice's hands. She did not know that it was the first that had been written: she took it to be one of a series. She wrote a short note to me about it; and the next thing I heard was that she had gone. But I know that he never saw that letter of mine."
"All this," said Oliver, in a hard contemptuous voice, "does not explain your present line of conduct."
She lifted her face from her hands. "Yes, it does," she said quickly. "If you were a woman you would understand! Do you think I want her to come back to him? No, if he cannot make me happy, he shall not be happy at her side. I shall never forgive her for the words she wrote to me! If her daughter comes, Oliver, it is all the more reason why I should be here, ready to nip any notion of reconciliation in the bud. It is hate, not love, that dominates me: it is in my hatred for Caspar Brooke's wife that you must seek the explanation of my actions. Now, do you understand?"
"I understand enough," said Oliver, drily.
"And you will not interfere?"
"For the present I will not interfere. But I will not bind myself. I must see more of what you are doing before I make any promises. Whatever you do, you must not compromise yourself or me."
"Hate!" he repeated to himself scornfully as he left the house at a somewhat later hour in the evening. "It is all very well to put it down to her hate for Lady Alice. She is still in love with Brooke; and that is the beginning and the end of it."
And Oliver was not far wrong.
LESLEY COMES HOME.
Caspar Brooke was a busy man, and he was quite determined that his daughter's arrival should make no difference in his habits. In this determination he was less selfish than stern: he had reason to believe that his wife's treatment of him proceeded from folly and fickleness, and that his daughter had inherited her foibles. It was not worth while, he said to himself, to make any radical change in his way of life: Lesley must accommodate herself, if she could, to his habits; and if she could not, she must go back to her mother. He was not prepared, he told himself, to alter his hours, or his friendships, or his peculiarities one whit for Lesley's sake.
Lesley arrived an hour later than the time at which she had been expected. It was nearly eight o'clock when her cab stopped at the door of the house in Upper Woburn Place, and the evening was foggy and cold. To Lesley, fresh from the clear skies and air of a French city, street, house, and atmosphere alike seemed depressing. The chimes of St. Pancras' church, woefully out of tune, fell on her ear, and made her shiver as she mounted the steps that led to the front door. How dear they were to grow to her in time she did not then suspect, nor would have easily believed! At present their discordance was part of the general discordance of all things, and increased the weight of dejection which lay upon her. Her mother's maid had orders to deliver her over to Mr. Brooke and then to come away: she was not to spend an hour in the house, nor to partake of food within its walls. She had strict orders from Lady Alice on this point.
The house was a very good house, as London dwellings go; but to Lesley's eyes it looked strangely mean and narrow. It was very tall, and the front was painted a chocolate brown. The double front doors, which opened to admit Lesley's boxes, showed an ordinary London hall, narrow, crowded with an oaken chest, an umbrella and hat stand, and lighted by a flaring gas lamp. At these doors two persons showed themselves; a neat but hard-featured maid-servant, and a lady of uncertain age, whom Lesley correctly guessed to be his sister and housekeeper, Miss Brooke. There was no sign of her father.
"Is this Mr. Brooke's house?" inquired Dayman, formally. She used to know Mr. Brooke by sight, for she had lived with Lady Alice for many years.
"Yes, this is the house, and this is his daughter, I suppose?" said Miss Brooke, coming forward, and taking Lesley's limp hand in hers. Miss Brooke had a keen, clever, honest face, but she was undeniably plain, and Lesley was not in a condition to appreciate the kindness of her glance.
"I must see Mr. Brooke himself before I leave my young lady," Dayman announced.
"Run and fetch your master, Sarah," said Miss Brooke, quickly. "He cannot have heard the cab."
The white-aproned servant disappeared into the back premises, and thence, in a moment or two, issued Mr. Caspar Brooke himself, at the sight of whom Miss Brooke involuntarily frowned and bit her lip. She saw at one glance that Caspar was in his "study-coat," that his hair was dishevelled, and that he had just laid down his pipe. These were small details in themselves, but they meant a good deal. They meant that Caspar Brooke would not do a single thing, would not go a single step out of his way, to conciliate the affections of Lady Alice's daughter. He had never in his life looked more of a Bohemian than he did just then. And Miss Brooke suspected him of wilful perversity.
The lights swam before Lesley's eyes. The vision of a big, brown-bearded man, bigger and broader, it seemed to her, than any man she had ever spoken to before, took away her senses. As he came up to her she involuntarily shrank back; and when he stooped to kiss her, the novel sensation of his bristly beard against her face, the strong scent of tobacco, and the sense that she was unwelcome, all contributed towards complete self-betrayal. Dizzy from her voyage; faint, sick, and unhinged, she almost pushed him away from her and sank down on a hall-chair with a burst of sobbing which she could not control. She was terribly ashamed of herself next moment; but the next moment was too late. She had made as bad a beginning as she had it in her power to make, and no after-apology could alter what was done.
For a moment a dead silence fell on the little group. Miss Brooke heard her brother mutter something beneath his breath in a very angry tone. She wondered whether his daughter heard it too. The faithful and officious Dayman immediately pressed forward with soothing words and offers of help.
"There, there, my dear young lady, don't take on so. It won't be for long, remember; and I'll come for you again to take you back to your mamma——"
"You had better leave her alone, Dayman," said Mr. Brooke, coldly. "She will probably be more reasonable by and bye."
Lesley was on her feet again in a moment. "I am not unreasonable," she said distinctly, but with a little catch in her voice; "it is only that I am tired and upset with the journey—and the sudden light was too much for me. Give mamma my love, Dayman, and say that I am very well."
"Are the boxes all in?" asked Mr. Brooke. "We need not detain you, Mrs. Dayman."
Dayman turned and dropped him a mocking curtsey. "I have my orders from my mistress, sir. Having seen the young lady safe into your hands, I will go back to my lady at the railway station, where she now is, and tell her how she was received."
Miss Brooke, glancing anxiously at her brother, saw him bite his lip and frown. He did not speak, but he pointed to the door in a manner which Dayman did not see fit to disobey.
"Good-bye, Miss Lesley—and I'll look forward to the day when I see you back again," said the maid, in a tone of profound commiseration.
"Good-bye, Dayman, give my love to mamma," said Lesley. She would dearly have liked to add, "Don't tell her that I cried;" but with that circle of unsympathetic faces round her, she did not dare. She pressed her lips together, dashed the tears from her eyes, and managed to smile, however, as Dayman took her departure.
Meanwhile, Miss Brooke had quietly sent the maid for a glass of wine, which she administered to the girl without further ado. Lesley drank it obediently, and felt reinvigorated: but although her courage rose, her spirit remained sadly low as she looked at her father's face, and saw that it wore an uncompromising frown.
"You had better have these boxes carried upstairs as soon as possible," he remarked to his sister. "I will say good-night now: I have to go out."
He turned away rather brusquely, and went back into his study, which was situated behind the dining-room, on the ground-floor. Lesley looked after him helplessly, with a mingled feeling of offence and relief. She did not see him again, but was conveyed to her room by Miss Brooke, who spoke to her kindly indeed, but with a matter-of-fact directness which seemed hard and cold to the convent-bred girl, whose teachers and guardians had vied with one another in sugared sweetness and a tutored amiability of demeanor.
Lesley was taken up two flights of stairs to a room which seemed close and stuffy to her, although in English eyes it might be deemed comfortable and even luxurious. But padded arm-chairs and couch, eider-down silken-covered quilts, cushions, curtains, and carpets, were things of which she had as yet no great appreciation. The room seemed to her altogether too full of furniture, and she longed to run to the window for a breath of fresh air. Miss Brooke, observing how white she looked, asked her if she felt faint.
"No, thank, you; I am only tired," said Lesley.
"You would like some tea, perhaps?"
"Thank you," said the girl, rather hesitatingly. Nobody drank tea at the convent, and in her visits to Lady Alice she had not cultivated a taste for it. "I think I would rather go to bed."
"You must have something to eat before you go," said Miss Brooke, drily. "Here, let me feel your pulse. Yes, you need food, and I'll send you up a soothing draught as well. You need not look so astonished, my dear: don't you know that I'm a doctor?"
"A doctor! You!" Lesley looked round the room as if seeking for some place in which to hide from such a monstrosity.
"Yes, a doctor—a lady doctor," said Miss Brooke, with grim but not unmirthful emphasis. "You never saw me before, did you? Well, I'm not in general practice just now; my health would not stand it, so I am keeping my brother's house instead; but I am fully qualified, my dear, I assure you, and can prescribe for you if you are ill as well as any physician in the land."
She laughed as she spoke, and there was a humorous twinkle in her shrewd, kindly eyes, which Lesley did not understand. As a matter of fact, her innocent horror and amaze tickled Miss Brooke immensely. It was evident that this girl, with her foreign, aristocratic, and Catholic training knew nothing at all of the strides that have of late been made in the direction of female emancipation; and her ignorance was amusing to Miss Brooke, who was one of the foremost champions of the woman's cause. Miss Sophia Brooke, whose name was on every committee under the sun, who spoke at meetings and wrote half a dozen letters after her name, to have a niece who had never met a lady doctor in her life before, and probably did not know anything at all about women's franchise! It was quite too funny, and Miss Brooke—or Doctor Brooke, as she liked better to be called—was genuinely amused. But it was not an amusing matter to Lesley, who felt as if the foundations of the solid world were shaking underneath her.
If she had heard of women doctors at all it was in terms of bitterest reprobation: she had been told that they were not persons of respectability, that they were "without the pale," and she had believed all she was told. And here she was, shut up for a year with a woman of the very class that she had been taught to reprobate—a woman, too, who, although no longer young, had a face which was pleasant to look upon, because it expressed refinement and kindliness as well as intellectual power, and whose dress, though plain, was severely neat, well-fitting, and of rich material. In fact, Miss Brooke was so unlike anything in the shape of womankind that Lesley had ever encountered, that the girl could only gaze at her in speechless amazement, and wonder whether she was expected to develop into something of the same sort!
She could not deny, however, that her aunt was very good-natured. Miss Brooke helped her to undress, put her to bed, unpacked her boxes in about half the time that a maid would have taken to do the work; then she brought her something to eat and drink, and waited on her with the care of a woman with a truly kindly heart. Lesley began to take courage and to ask questions.
"I suppose I shall see my father again to-morrow morning," she said.
"About mid-day you may see him," Miss Brooke answered, cheerfully. "He will be out till two or three in the morning, you know; and of course he can't be disturbed very early. You must remember that we keep the house very quiet until eleven or twelve, when he generally comes down. He breakfasts then, and goes out."
Lesley was mystified. Why did her father keep such extraordinary hours? She had not the slightest notion that these were the usual arrangements of a journalist's life. She thought that he must be very thoughtless, very self-indulgent, even very wicked. Surely her mother had been more than justified in leaving him. She laid her head upon the pillow, feeling rather inclined to cry.
Miss Brooke had not much of a clue to her emotions; but she was trying hard to fathom what was passing in the girl's mind, and she came very near the mark. She stooped down and kissed her affectionately.
"I daresay you feel lonely and strange, my dear," she said; "but you must remember that you have come to your own home, and that we belong to you, and you to us. So you must put up with us for a time, and you may—eventually—come to like us, you know. Stranger things than that have happened before now."
Lesley put one arm round her aunt's neck, undeterred by Miss Brooke's laugh and the little struggle she made to get away.
"Thank you," she said, "for being so kind. I am sorry I cried when I came in."
"You were hysterical and overwrought. I shall tell your father so."
"You think he was vexed?"
"I suppose," said Miss Brooke, "that a man hardly likes to see his daughter burst out crying and shrink away when she first looks at him."
"Oh, I was very stupid!" cried Lesley, remorsefully. "It must have looked so bad, and I did not mean anything—at least, I meant only——"
"I understand all about it," said her aunt, "and I shall tell your father what I think if he alludes to the matter. In the meantime you had better go to sleep, and wake up fresh and bright in the morning. Good-night, my dear."
And Lesley was left to her own reflections.
Although she went early to bed she did not sleep soon or soundly. There was not much traffic along the street in which her father lived, but the bells of St. Pancras rang out the hours and the quarters with painful tunelessness, and an occasional rumble of wheels would startle her into wakeful terror. At half-past two in the morning she heard the opening and shutting of the front door, and her father's footsteps on the stairs as he came up to bed. There seemed to her something uncanny in these nocturnal habits. The life of a journalist, of a literary man, of anybody who did any definite work in the world at all, was quite unknown to her.
She came down to breakfast at nine o'clock, feeling weary and depressed. Miss Brooke was kind but preoccupied; she had a committee at twelve, she said, and another at four, so she would be obliged to leave Lesley for the greater part of the day. "But you will have your own little arrangements to make you know," she said, "and Sarah will show you or tell you anything you want. You might as well fall into our ways as soon as you can."
"Oh, yes," said Lesley. "I only want to be no trouble."
"You'll be no trouble to anybody," said Miss Brooke, cheerfully, "so long as you find something to do, and do it. There's a good library of books in the house, and a piano in the drawing-room; and you ought to go out for an hour or two every day. I daresay you will be able to occupy yourself."
"Is there any one to go out with me?" queried Lesley, timidly. She had never been out alone in the whole course of her life.
"Go out with you?" repeated Miss Brooke, rather rudely, though with kind intent. "An able-bodied young woman of eighteen or nineteen surely can take care of herself! You are not in Paris now, my dear, you are in London; and girls in London have to be independent and courageous."
Lesley felt that she was being somewhat unjustly judged, but she did not like to reply. And her aunt, conscious of having spoken sharply, became immediately more gentle in manner, and told her certain details about the arrangements of the house, which it behoved Lesley to know, with considerable thoughtfulness and kind feeling.
Mr. Brooke usually rang for his coffee about half-past ten, and came down at half-past eleven. He then had breakfast served to him in the dining-room, and did not join his sister at luncheon at all. In the afternoon he walked out, or wrote, or saw friends; dined at six, and went down to the office of his paper at eight. From the office he did not usually return until the small hours of the morning; and then, as Miss Brooke explained, he often sat up writing or reading for an hour or two longer.
"Why does he work so late?" asked Lesley, innocently. "I should have thought the day-time was pleasanter."
Miss Brooke gave a short, explosive laugh, fixed a pair of eyeglasses on the bridge of her nose, and looked at Lesley as if she were a natural curiosity.
"Have you yet to learn," she said, "that we don't do what is pleasant in this life, but what we must?"
Then she got up and went away from the breakfast-table, leaving Lesley ashamed and confounded. The girl leaned her elbows upon the white cloth, and furtively wiped a tear away from her eyes. She found herself in a new atmosphere, and it did not seem to her a very congenial one. She was bewildered; it did not appear possible that she could live for a year in a home of this very peculiar kind. To her uncultivated imagination, Mr. Brooke and his sister looked to her like barbarians. She did not understand their ways at all.
She spent the morning in unpacking her things, and arranging them, with rather a sad heart, in her room. She did not like to go downstairs until the luncheon-bell rang; and then she found that she was to lunch alone. Miss Brooke was out; Mr. Brooke was in his study.
The white-capped and severe-visaged middle-aged servant, who was known as Sarah, came to Lesley after the meal with a message.
"Mr. Brooke says, Miss, that he would like to see you in his study, if you can spare him a few minutes."
Lesley flushed hotly as she was shown into the smoky, little den. It was a scene of confusion, such as she had never beheld before. The table was heaped high with papers: books and maps strewed every chair: even the floor was littered with bulky tomes and piles of manuscript. At a knee-hole table Caspar Brooke was sitting, writing hard, as if for dear life, his loose hair falling heavily over his big forehead, his left hand grasping his thick brown beard. He looked up as Lesley entered, and gave her a nod.
"Good-morning," he said. "Wait a minute: I must finish this and send it off by the quarter to three post. I have just done."
He went on writing, and Lesley stood motionless beside the table, with a feeling of dire offence in her proud young heart. Why had he sent for her if he did not want her? She was half inclined to walk away without another word. Only a sense of filial duty restrained her. She thought to herself that she had never been treated so unceremoniously—even in her earliest days at school. And she was surprised to find that so small a thing could ruffle her so much. She had hardly known at the convent, or while visiting her mother, that she had such a thing as a "temper." It suddenly occurred to her now that her temper was very bad indeed.
And in truth she had a hot, strong temper—very like her father's, if she had but known it—and a will that was prone to dominate, not to submit itself to others. These were facts that she had yet to learn.
"Well, Lesley," said Caspar Brooke, laying down his pen, "I have finished my work at last. Now we can talk."
FRIENDS AND FOES.
Something in the slightly mutinous expression of Lesley's face seemed to strike her father. He looked at her fixedly for a minute or two, then smiled a little, and began to busy himself amongst his papers.
"You are very like your mother," he said.
Lesley felt a thrill of strong indignation. How dared he speak of her mother to her without shame and grief and repentance? She flushed to her temples and cast down her eyes, for she was resolved to say nothing that she might afterwards regret.
"Won't you sit down?" said Mr. Brooke, indifferently. "You must make yourself at home, you know. If you don't, I'm afraid you will be uncomfortable. You will have to look after yourself."
Lesley made no answer. She was thinking that it would be very disagreeable to look after herself. She did not know how clearly her face expressed her sentiments.
"You don't much like the prospect, apparently?" said her father. "Well"—for he was becoming a little provoked by her silence—"what would you like? Do you want a maid?"
"Oh, no, thank you," said Lesley, startled into speech.
"You can have one if you like, you know. Speak to your aunt about it. I suppose you have not been accustomed to wait upon yourself. Can you do your own hair?"
He spoke with a smile, half-indulgent, half-contemptuous. Lesley remembered, with intuitive comprehension of his mood, that her mother was singularly helpless, and never dressed without Dayman's help, or brushed the soft tresses that were still so luxuriant and so fair. She rebelled at once against the unspoken criticism.
"I can do everything for myself," she said; "I can do my own hair and mend my dresses and everything, because I am a schoolgirl; but of course when I am older I expect to have my own maid, as every lady does."
Mr. Brooke's short, hard laugh was distinctly unpleasing to her ear.
"I think you will find, when you are older," he said, with an emphasis on the words, "that a great many ladies have to do without maids—and very much better for them that they should—but as I do not wish to stint you in anything, nor to oppose any fairly reasonable desire of yours, I will tell your aunt to get you a maid as soon as possible."
"Oh, no, please!" cried Lesley, more alarmed than pleased by the prospect. "I really do not wish for one; I do not wish you to have the trouble—the ex——"
She stopped short: she did not quite like to speak of the "expense."
"It will not be much trouble to me if Sophia finds you a maid," said her father drily; "and as to the expense, which is what I suppose you were going to allude to, I am quite well able to afford it. Otherwise I should not have proposed such a thing."
Lesley felt herself snubbed, and did not like it, but again kept silence.
"I cannot promise you much amusement while you stay here," Mr. Brooke went on, "but anything that you like to see or hear when you are in town can be easily provided for. I mean in the way of picture galleries, concerts, theatres—things of that kind. Your Aunt Sophia will probably be too much occupied to take you to such places; but if you have a maid you will be pretty independent. I wonder she did not think of it herself. Of course a maid can go about with you, and so relieve her mind."
"I am sorry to be troublesome," said Lesley, stiffly.
He cast an amused glance at her. "You won't trouble me, my dear. And Mrs. Romaine says that she will call and make your acquaintance. I dare say you will find her a help to you."
"Is she—a friend of yours?"
"A very old friend," said Caspar Brooke, with decision. "Then there are the Kenyons, who live opposite. Ethel Kenyon is a clever girl—a great favorite of mine. Her brother is a doctor."
"And she lives with him and keeps his house?" said Lesley, growing interested.
"Well, she lives with him. I don't know that she does much in the way of keeping his house. I hope I shall not shock your prejudices"—how did he know that she had any prejudices?—"if I tell you that she is an actress."
"An actress!"—Lesley flushed with surprise, even with a little horror, though at the same moment she was conscious of a movement of pleasant curiosity and a desire to know what an actress was like in private life.
"I thought you would be horrified," said her father, looking at her with something very like satisfaction. "How could you be anything else? How long have you lived in a French convent? Eight or ten years, is it not? Ah, well, I can't be surprised if you have imbibed the conventional idea of what you would call, I suppose, your class." He gave a little shrug to his broad shoulders. "It can't be helped now. You must make yourself as happy as you can, my poor child, as long as you are here, and console yourself with visions of your happy future at the Courtleroys'."
It was exactly what Lesley intended to do, and yet she felt hurt by the slightly contemptuous pity of his tone.
"I have no doubt that I shall be very happy," she said, steadying her voice as well as she could; "and I hope that you will not concern yourself about me."
"I should not have time to do so if I wished," he answered coolly. "I never concern myself about anything but my proper business, which is not to look after girls of eighteen——"
"Then why did you send for me here?" she asked, with lightning rapidity.
The question seemed to surprise him. He raised his eyebrows as he looked at her.
"That was a family arrangement made many years ago," he answered at last deliberately. "And I think it was a wise one. There is no reason why you should grow up in utter ignorance of your father. And I prefer you to come when you have arrived at something like a reasonable age, rather than when you were quite a child. As you are at a reasonable age, Lesley," with a lightening of his tones, "I suppose you have some tastes, some inclinations, of your own? What are they?"
It must have been obstinacy that prompted Lesley's answer. "I have no taste," she said, looking down. "No inclinations."
"Are you not fond of music?"
"I play a little—a very little."
"Oh." The tone was one of disappointment. "Art? Drawing—carving—modelling—any of the fads young ladies are so fond of now-a-days?"
"Do you read much?"
"What do you do, then?"
"I can embroider a little," said Lesley, calmly. "The nuns taught me. And I can dance."
She raised her eyes and studied the stormy expressions that flitted one after another across her father's face. She knew that she had taken a delight in provoking him, and she wondered whether he was not going to retaliate by an angry word. But after a few moments' pause he only said—
"Would you like any lessons in singing or drawing now that you are in town?"
The offer was a temptation to Lesley. Yes, she would dearly have liked some good singing lessons; her mother even had suggested that she should take them while she was in London. She was the fortunate possessor of a voice that was worth cultivating, and she longed to make the best of her time. But she had come with the notion that her father was poor, and that she must not be an unnecessary expense to him; and this idea had not been counteracted by any appearance of luxury or lavish expenditure in her London home. The furniture, except in her own room, was heavy, old-fashioned, and decidedly shabby. Her father seemed to work very hard. He had already promised her a maid; and Lesley could not bear to ask him for anything else. So she answered—
"No, I think not, thank you."
There might be generosity, but there was also some resentment and hot temper at the bottom of Lesley's reply. This was a fact, however, that her father did not discern. He merely paused for a moment, nodded his head once or twice, and seemed slightly disconcerted. Then he said—
"Very well; do just as you like. Your aunt has a Mudie subscription, I believe"—what this meant Lesley had not the faintest idea—"and you will find books in the library, and a piano in the drawing-room. You must ask for anything you want." As if that was likely, Lesley thought! "I hope you will make friends and be comfortable. And—a—" he paused, and hesitated in his speech as he went on—"a—I hope—your mother—Lady Alice—was well when you left her?"
"Pretty well," Lesley answered, dropping her eyes.
"Was she going to Scotland for the winter?"
"I think so."
"Oh." He seemed satisfied with the answer. "By the way, Lesley, are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Protestant. Mamma would not allow the Sisters to talk to me about religion. I always drove to the English Church on Sundays."
"Oh, very well. Do as you please. There are plenty of churches near us. But you need not bring more clergy than you can help to the house," said Brooke, with a peculiar smile. "I am not very fond of the Blacks. I am more of a Red myself, you know."
"A Red?" Lesley asked, helplessly.
"A Red Republican—Radical—Socialist—anything you like," said Brooke, laughing outright. "You didn't read the papers in your convent, I suppose. You had better begin to study them straight away. It will be a pleasant change from the Lives of the Saints. And now, if we have finished all that we have to say—I am rather busy, and——"
"Oh, I beg your pardon: I will go," said Lesley, rising at once. "I had no wish to intrude upon you," she added, with an attempt to be dignified and womanly, which she felt to be a miserable failure. Her father simply nodded in reply, took up his pen, and allowed her to leave the room.
But when she had gone, he put the pen down and sat back in his chair, musing. Lesley had surprised him a little. She had more force and fire in her composition than he had expected to find. She was, as he had said, very like her mother in face and figure; and the minute differences of line and contour that showed Lesley to be strong where Lady Alice had been weak, original where Lady Alice had been most conventional, intellectual where Lady Alice had been only intelligent, were not perceptible at first sight even to a practised observer of men and women like Caspar Brooke. But the flash of her brown eyes, so like his own, and an occasional intonation in her voice, had told him something. She was in arms against him, so much he felt; and she had more individuality than her mother, in spite of her ignorance. It was a pity that her education had been so much neglected! Manlike, Caspar Brooke took literally every word that she had uttered; and reproached himself for having allowed his foolish, frivolous wife to bring up his daughter in a place where she had been taught nothing but embroidery and dancing.
"It is a pity," he reflected; "but we cannot alter the matter now. The poor girl will feel herself sadly out of place in this house, I fear; but perhaps it won't do her any harm. She may be a better woman all her life—the idle, selfish, self-indulgent life that she is bound by all her traditions and her upbringing to lead—for having seen for a few months what honest work is like. She is too handsome not to marry well: let us only hope that Alice won't secure a duke for her. She will if she can; and I—well, I haven't much opinion of dukes." And so with a laugh and a shrug, Caspar Brooke returned to his work.
Lesley went upstairs to the drawing-room with burning cheeks and a lump in her throat. She was offended by her father's manner towards her, although she could not but acknowledge that in essentials he had seemed wishful to be kind. And she knew that she had seemed ungracious and had felt resentful. But the resentment, she assured herself, was all on her mother's account. If he had treated Lady Alice as he had treated Lady Alice's daughter—with hardly concealed contempt, with the scornful indifference of one looking down from a superior height—Lesley did not wonder that her mother had left him. It was a manner which had never been displayed to her before, and she said to herself that it was horribly discourteous. And the worst of it was that it did not seem to be directed to herself alone: it included her friends the nuns, her mother, her mother's family, and all the circle of aristocratic relations to which she belonged. She was despised as part of the class which he despised; and it was difficult for her to understand the situation.
It would have been easier if she could have set her father down as a mere boor, without refinement or intelligence; but there was one item in her impression of him which she could not reconcile with a want of culture. She was keenly sensitive to sound; and voices were important to her in her judgment of acquaintances. Now, Caspar Brooke had a delightful voice. It was low, musical, and finely modulated: his accent, moreover, was particularly delicate and refined. Lesley had, without knowing it, the same charmingly modulated intonation; and her father's voice was instinctively familiar to her. People had often said that it was hard to dislike a man with a voice like Caspar Brooke's; and Lesley was not insensible to its fascination. No, he could not be a mere insensate clod, with that pleasant and cultivated voice, she decided to herself; but he might be something worse—a heartless man of the world, who cared for nothing but himself and his own low ambitions: not a man who was worthy to be the husband of a gentle, loving, highly-organized woman like the daughter of Lord Courtleroy.
With a deep sigh, Lesley ceased at last to meditate, and began to look about her. The room was large and lofty, and had three windows, opening upon a balcony. There were more books than Lesley had usually seen in drawing-rooms, and there was a very handsome Broadwood grand piano. The furniture was mostly of the solid type, handsome enough, but very heavy. Lesley, noticed, however, that the prints and paintings on the walls were really good, and that there was some valuable china on the mantlepiece. It was not an ugly room after all, and it displayed signs of culture on the part of its occupants; but Lesley turned from it with an impatient little shake of her head, expressive of deep disgust. And, indeed, it was sufficiently unlike the rooms to which she was accustomed to cause her considerable disappointment.
She drew aside the curtains which hung from the archway between the back room and the front; and here her brow cleared. The one wide window looked out on a space of green grass and trees, inexpressibly refreshing to Lesley's eye. The walls were lined with rows of books, from floor to ceiling; and some easy chairs and small tables gave a look of comfort and purpose to the room. It was Mr. Brooke's library, though not the room in which he did his work. That was chiefly done in his little den downstairs, or at his office in the city.
Lesley looked at the books with great and increasing pleasure. Here, indeed, was a joy of which her father could not rob her. No one would take any notice of what she read. She could "browse undisturbed" over the whole field of English literature if she were so minded. And the prospect was a delight.
She sauntered back into the front room, and stood at one of the windows for a minute or two. Her attention was speedily attracted by a little pantomime at a window opposite her own—a drawing-room window, too, with a balcony before it, like the window at which she stood. A young lady in a white dress was talking to a black poodle, who was standing on his hind-legs, and a young man was balancing a bit of biscuit on the dog's nose. That was all. But the young lady was so extremely pretty, and the young man looked so cheerful and bright, and the poodle was such an extremely fascinating dog, that Lesley sighed in very envy of the felicity of all three. And it never crossed her mind that the pretty girl in the white costume, who had such a simple and natural look, could possibly be Ethel Kenyon, the actress, of whom her father had been speaking half an hour before. Yet such was the case.
She was still observing the figures at the window when the door opened, and Sarah announced a visitor.
"Mrs. Romaine, please, ma'am."
Whereupon Lesley remembered the "very old friend" whom Mr. Brooke had mentioned. But was this the very old friend? This young and fashionably-dressed woman, with short, dark, curling hair, and a white veil to enhance the whiteness of her complexion. Mrs. Romaine was very handsome, without a doubt, but Lesley did not like her.
"Miss Brooke?" said the visitor, in a silvery, flute-like voice, which the girl could not but admire. "You will forgive me for calling so soon? My old friendship with Mr. Brooke—whom I have known for years—made me anxious to see you, dear, as soon as possible. You will receive me also as a friend, I hope——"
There could be but one answer. Lesley was delighted.
"I have heard so much of you," murmured Mrs. Romaine, sitting down with the girl's hand in hers and gazing into her face with liquid, dreamy eyes; "and I wanted to know if I could not be of use to you. Dear Miss Brooke is so much occupied. I may call you Lesley, may I not? Dear Lesley, it will be the greatest possible pleasure to me to assist you in any way."
"Thank you very much," said Lesley, rather lamely.
"Dear," said Mrs. Romaine, "may I speak to you frankly? I knew your dear mother many years ago——"
Lesley turned upon her with suddenly kindled eyes.
"You knew mamma?"
"I did, indeed, and I cannot express to you what my feeling was for her. Love, admiration—these seem cold words: worship, Lesley, expresses more nearly what I felt! Can you wonder that I hasten to welcome her daughter to her home?"
Lesley's innocent heart warmed to the new-comer at once. How unjust she had been, she thought, to shrink for a moment from the visitor because of her youthful and ultra-fashionable appearance. Had she not found a friend?—a woman who loved her mother?
Mrs. Romaine saw the impression that she had made, and did not try to deepen it just then. She went on more lightly:
"I am a widow, you know, and I live in Russell Square. I hope that you will come and see me sometimes. Drop in whenever you like, and if there is anything that I can do for you count on me. You will want to go shopping or making calls sometimes when Miss Brooke is too busy to take you; then you must come to me. And how was dear Lady Alice when you saw her last?"
Lesley did not like these effusive expressions of affection. But she answered, gently—
"Mamma was quite well, thank you." Which answer did not give Mrs. Romaine all the information that she desired.
"I have been looking at a pretty poodle dog over the way," she went on, conscious of some desire to change the subject. "Its mistress has been putting it through all sorts of tricks—ah, there it is again!"
"The Kenyons' dog?" said Mrs. Romaine, smiling, as she looked at the little group which had once more formed itself upon the balcony. "Oh, I see. That is young Mr. Kenyon, the doctor, a great friend of your father's; and that is his sister, Ethel Kenyon, the actress."
"My father spoke about her," said Lesley.
"Oh, yes, he admires her very much. He wrote a long article about her in the Tribune once. Do you see the Tribune regularly? Your dear father writes a great deal for it, and I am sure you must appreciate his exquisite writing."
"Do you know Miss Kenyon too?"
"Oh, yes, I know her very well. And I expect to know her better very soon, because I suppose we shall be connections before long."
Lesley looked a smiling inquiry.
"I have a younger brother—my brother Oliver," said Mrs. Romaine, with a little laugh; "and younger brothers, dear, have a knack of falling in love. He has fallen in love with Ethel, who is really a nice girl, as well as a pretty and a clever girl, and I believe they will be married by and by."
Lesley could not have said why, but somehow at that moment she was distinctly glad of the fact.
"Well, what is she like?" Oliver Trent asked, lightly, of his sister Rosalind, when they met that evening at dinner.
"Lesley Brooke? She is a handsome girl," said Mrs. Romaine, with some reserve of manner.
His sister waited until the servant had left the room before she replied.
"I wish you would be discreet, Oliver. My servants are often at the Brookes' with messages. I should not like them to repeat what you were saying."
Oliver shrugged his shoulders with the air of a man to whom women's caprices are incomprehensible. But he was silent until dessert was placed upon the table, and Mrs. Romaine's neat parlor-maid had disappeared.
"Now," he said, "you can disburthen your mind in peace."
"Oliver," said Mrs. Romaine, abruptly. "I want you to make Miss Brooke's acquaintance as soon as you can. I don't understand her, and I think that you can help me."
"Oh, don't be silly. You always get on with girls, and you can tell me what you think of her."
Oliver raised his eyebrows, took a peach from the dish before him, and began to peel it with great deliberation.
"Handsome, you say?"
"Like Lady Alice? I remember her; a willowy, shadowy creature, with a sort of ethereal loveliness which appealed very strongly to my imagination when I was a boy."
Mrs. Romaine flushed a little. It occurred to her that she had never been called shadowy or ethereal-looking.
"She is much more substantial than Lady Alice," she said, drily. "I should say that she had more individuality about her. She looks to me like a girl of character and intellect."
"In which case your task will be the more difficult, you mean?"
"I don't know what you mean by a task. I have not set myself to do anything definite."
"No? Then you are very unlike your sex, Rosalind. I generally find women much too definite—damnably so."
"Well, then, I must be an exception. You are always trying to entrap me into damaging admissions, Oliver, and I won't put up with it. All that I want is to be sure that Lady Alice shall not return to her husband. But there is nothing definite in that."
"Oh, nothing at all," said Oliver, satirically. "All that you have got to do is to prejudice father and daughter against each other as much as possible, make Brooke believe that the girl has been set against him by her mother, and persuade Miss Brooke that her father is not the sort of man that Lady Alice can return to. Nothing definite in that, is there?"
"Oliver, you are quite too bad. I never made any plans of the kind." But there was a distinctly guilty look in Mrs. Romaine's soft eyes. "Besides, that is a piece of work which hardly needs doing. Father and daughter are too much alike to get on."
"Alike, are they?"
"Yes, in a sense. The girl is very like her mother, too—she has Lady Alice's features and figure, but the expression of her face is her father's. And her eyes and her brow are her father's. And she is like her father—I think—in disposition."
"You have found out so much that I think you scarcely need me to interview her in order to tell you more. What do you want me to do?"
"I want to find out more about Lady Alice. Could you not get Ethel Kenyon to ask her about her mother, and then persuade Ethel to tell you?"
"Can't take Ethel into our confidence," said Oliver with a disparaging emphasis upon the name. "She is such a little fool." And then he began to roll a cigarette for himself.
Mrs. Romaine watched him thoughtfully for a minute or two. "Noll," she said at length, "I thought you were really fond of Ethel?"
Oliver's eyes were fixed upon the cigarette that he was now lighting, and, perhaps, that was the reason why he did not answer for a minute or two. At last, he said, in his soft, drawling way—
"I am very fond of Ethel. And especially of the twenty thousand pounds that her uncle left her."
"Ethel Kenyon is handsome enough to be loved for something beside her money."
"Handsome? Oh, she's good-looking enough: but she's not exactly to my taste. A little too showy, too abrupt for me. Personally I like a softer, quieter woman; but as a rule the women that I really admire haven't got twenty thousand pounds."
"I know who would suit you," said Mrs. Romaine, leaning forward and speaking in a very low voice—"Lesley Brooke."
"What is her fortune? If it's a case of her face is her fortune, she really won't do for me, Rosy, however suitable she might be in other respects."
"But," said Mrs. Romaine, eagerly, "she is sure to have plenty of money. Her father is well off—better off than people know—and would probably settle a considerable sum upon her; then think of the Courtleroys—there is a fair amount of wealth in that family, surely——"
"Which they would be so very likely to give her if she married me," said her brother, with irony. "Moonshine, my dear. Do you think that Lady Alice would allow her daughter to marry your brother?—knowing what she does, and hating you as she does, would she like to be connected with you by marriage?"
"That is exactly why I wish that you would marry her," said Mrs. Romaine, almost below her breath. "Think of the triumph for me!"
Her eyes glowed, and she breathed more quickly as she spoke. "That woman scorned me—gloated over my sorrow and my love," she said; "she dared to reproach me for what she called my want of modesty—my want of womanly feeling, and—oh, I cannot tell you what she said! But this I know, that if I could reach her through her daughter or her husband, and stab her to the heart as she once stabbed me, the dearest wish of my life would be fulfilled!"
"Women are always vindictive," said Oliver, philosophically. "The fact is, you want to revenge yourself on Lady Alice through me, and yet you don't consider me in the very least. If I married this Lesley Brooke, Lady Alice and all the Courtleroys would no doubt get into an awful rage with her and you and me and everybody; and what would be the upshot? Why, they would cut her off with a shilling and we should be next door to penniless. Then Brooke—well, he may be fairly prosperous, but he has only what he makes, you know; and I doubt if he could settle very much upon his daughter, even if he wanted to. And he does not like me. I doubt whether even you, my dear Rosy, could dispose him to look favorably on my advances."
Mrs. Romaine was perhaps convinced, but she did not like to own herself mistaken. She was silent for a minute or two, and then said with a sigh and a smile—
"You may be right. But it would have been splendid if you could have married Lesley Brooke. We should have been thorns in Lady Alice's side ever afterwards."
"You are one already, aren't you?" asked Oliver. He got up from the table and approached the mantelpiece as if to show that the discussion was ended. "No, my dear Rosalind," he said, "I'm booked. I am going to woo and wed Miss Ethel Kenyon and her twenty thousand pounds. She will be sick of her fad for the stage in twelve months. And then we shall live very comfortably. But I'll tell you what I will do to please you. I'll flirt with this Lesley girl, nineteen to the dozen. I'll make love to her: I'll win her young affections, and do my best to break her heart, if you like. How would that suit you?"
He spoke with a smile, but Rosalind knew that there was a ring of serious earnest in his voice.
"It sounds a very cold-blooded sort of thing to do," she said.
"Please yourself. I won't do it, then."
"Yes, I know you would like to see Lady Alice's daughter pining away for love of me," said Oliver, with a little laugh. "It is not a bad idea. The difficulty will be to manage both girls—seriously, Rosalind, Ethel Kenyon is the girl I mean to marry."
"You are clever enough for anything if you like."
"Thank you. Well, I'll see how far I can go."
"I must tell you, first, however," said Mrs. Romaine, with some hesitation, "that I told Lesley Brooke this afternoon that you were in love with Ethel. I had not thought of this plan, you see, Oliver."
"Ah, that complicates matters. Still, I think that we can manage—after a little reflection," said her brother, quietly. "Leave me to think it over, and I'll let you know what to do. And now I'm going out."
"Why should you ask? Do I generally tell you where I am going? Well, if you particularly want to know, I am going to the Novelty Theatre."
"To see Ethel act?"
"No—her part will be over by the time I get there. I shall probably see her home."
Mrs. Romaine made no remonstrance. If she thought her brother's conduct a trifle heartless, she did not venture to say so. She was sometimes considerably in awe of Oliver, although he was only a younger brother.
She went into the drawing-room rather slowly, watching him as he put on his hat and overcoat in the hall.
"There is one thing I meant to tell you to-night, but I forgot it until now," she said, pausing at the drawing-room door. "I am nearly sure that I saw Francis in the Square to-day."
Oliver turned round quickly. "The deuce you did! Did he see you?—did he try to speak to you?"
"No, but I think that he is lying in wait. You made me promise to tell you when I saw him next."
"Yes, indeed. I won't have him bothering you for money. If he wants money he had better come to me."
"Have you so much, Noll?"
He frowned and turned away. "At any rate he is not to annoy you," he said. "And I shall tell him so."
Mrs. Romaine made no objection. This ne'er-do-weel brother of hers—Francis by name—had always been a trouble and perplexity to her. He had been in the habit of appealing periodically to her for help, and she had seldom failed to respond to the appeal, although she believed that all the money she gave him went for gambling debt or drink; but lately Oliver had interfered. He had said that Francis must henceforth apply to him and not to Rosalind if he wanted help, which sounded kind and brotherly enough; but Rosalind had a vague suspicion that there was more than met the ear in this declaration. She fancied somehow, that Oliver had secret and special reasons for preventing Francis' applications to her. But she knew very well that it was useless to ask questions or to make surmises respecting Oliver's motives and actions, unless he chose to show a readiness to make them clear to her. So she let him go out of the house without further remark.
As Oliver crossed the road, he noticed that a man was leaning against the iron railings of the green enclosure in the middle of the Square. The man's form was in shadow, but his face seemed to be turned to Mrs. Romaine's house. Oliver sedulously averted his eyes and hailed a passing hansom cab. He had no mind to be delayed just then, and he was almost certain that he recognized in that gaunt and shabby figure his disreputable brother. No, by-and-bye he would talk to Francis, he said to himself, but not to-night. He had other game in view on this particular evening in September.
The Novelty Theatre was just then occupied by a company that claimed to be the interpreters of a Scandinavian play-writer whose dramatic poems were just then the talk of London. Ethel Kenyon was playing a very minor part—a smaller role, indeed, than she was generally supposed to take, but one which she had accepted simply as an expression of her enthusiastic admiration for the author. Oliver knew the state of mind in which she generally came away from the representation of this play, and counted on her bright and elevated mood as a help to him in the course he meant to pursue.
He knew her habits as well as he knew her moods. For the last three years, ever since Rosalind had settled in London, and he had been able to cultivate Miss Kenyon's acquaintance, he had watched her blossom from a saucy, laughing girl into a very attractive woman. It was only during the past few months, however, that he had thought of her as his future wife—only since she had succeeded to that enticing legacy of twenty thousand pounds. Since then he had studied her more carefully than ever.
The Scandinavian writer's play was always over by a quarter to ten o'clock, and was succeeded by another in which Ethel had no share. She never stayed longer than was necessary on these nights. She was generally ready to leave the theatre soon after ten o'clock with her companion, Mrs. Durant, who had the right of entry to her dressing-room, and generally acted as her dresser. Maurice Kenyon had refused to let his sister go upon the stage unless she was always most carefully chaperoned. Mrs. Durant was always at hand whenever Ethel went to the Novelty Theatre. And Oliver knew exactly what to expect when he took up his position—not for the first time—at the narrow little stage-door.
It was after ten o'clock, and the moon had risen in an almost cloudless sky. Even London looked beautiful beneath its light. Oliver cast a glance towards it and nodded as if in satisfaction. He did not care for the moon one jot; but he held a theory that women, being more romantic, were more likely to say "yes" to a wooer than "no," where they were wooed beneath a moonlit sky. The chances were all in his favor, he said to himself.
A cab was already waiting. Presently the door opened and a young lady in hood and cloak came out. The light fell on a delicate, piquante face, with a complexion of ivory fairness which cosmetics had not had time to destroy, with charming scarlet lips, long-lashed dark eyes, a dimpled chin, and a great quantity of curling dark hair—the kind of hair which will not lie straight, but twists itself into tight rings, and gets into apparently inextricable tangles, and looks pretty all the time. And this was Ethel Kenyon. Her companion, a woman of forty-five, staid and demure, followed close behind her, giving no sign of surprise when Oliver raised his hat and gently accosted the two ladies.
"Good-evening, Miss Kenyon. Good-evening, Mrs. Durant: I hope you notice what a lovely evening it is!"
"Indeed I do!" said Ethel, fervently. "Oh, how I wish I were in the country! I should like a long country walk."
"Would not a town walk do as well, for once?" asked Oliver, in his most persuasive tones. "I was wondering whether you would consent to let me see you home, as it is such a lovely night. But I see you have a cab——"
"I would rather drive, I must say," remarked Mrs. Durant. It was what she knew she was expected to say, and she was not sorry for it, "I am tired of being on my feet so long. But if you would like to walk, Ethel, I daresay Mr. Trent would escort you."
"I should be only too pleased," said Oliver.
Ethel laughed happily. "All right, Mrs. Durant. You drive, and I'll walk home with Mr. Trent."
She scarcely waited for Oliver to offer his arm. She laid her hand in it so naturally, so securely, that even Oliver felt an impulse of pleasure. He looked down at the lovely, smiling creature at his side with admiration, even with tenderness.
At first they did not speak much, for they had to pass through some crowded and ill-smelling thoroughfares, where conversation was almost impossible. By-and-bye they emerged from these into Holborn, and thence they made their way into the wider streets and airier squares which abound in the West Central district. When they came in sight of the white pillars and paved yard of the British Museum, they were deep in talk on all sorts of matters—"Shakespeare and the musical glasses," as Oliver afterwards laughingly remarked. But he did not choose that she should altogether guide the course of conversation. Now and then he took the reins into his own hands. And it amused him to see how readily she allowed him to direct matters. She responded to the slightest hint, was attentive to the least check. Such quickness of apprehension, he argued, meant only one thing in a woman: not intellectual faculty, but love.
"And you still like the stage?" he said to her, after a time.
"I like it immensely. I can express myself there as I could in no other sphere of life. People used to advise me to take to recitations: how glad I am that I stood out for what I liked best."
"What one likes best is not always the safest path."
"You might as well say it is not always the easiest path! Mine is a very hard life, so far as work is concerned, you know. I toil early and late. But how can you be so awfully trite, Mr. Trent? I did not expect it of you."
"A good deal of life is rather trite," said Oliver. "I know only one thing that can preserve it from commonplaceness and dullness and dreariness."
"And that is——"
A little silence fell on both of them. Oliver's voice had sunk almost to a whisper: Ethel's cheeks had grown suddenly very hot.
"Love makes everything easy and beautiful. Does not your poet say so—the man whose play you have acted in to-night? Ethel, why don't you try the experiment?—the experiment of loving?"
"I do try it," she said, laughing, and trying to regain her lost lightness of tone. "I love Maurice and Mrs. Durant and hosts of people."
"Add one more to the list," said Oliver. "Love me."
"You?" she said, doubtingly. "I am not sure whether you are a person to be loved."
"Oh, yes, I am. Seriously, Ethel, may I speak to your brother? May I hope that you can love me a little, and that you will some day be my wife?"
"Oh, that is very serious!" she said, mockingly. And she withdrew her fingers from his arm. "I did not bargain for so much solemnity when I set out with you from the theatre to-night."
"But I set out, Ethel, with the intention of asking you to be my wife. Come, my darling, won't you give me an answer? Don't send me away disconsolate! Let me teach you what love means—love and happiness!"
His voice sank once more to its lowest murmur. Ethel listened, hesitated, smiled. Her little fingers found their way back to his arm again, and were instantly caught and pressed, and even kissed, when they came to a dark and shady place. And before he parted with her at the door of her brother's house, he had put his arms round her and kissed her on the lips.
Was it all pretence—all for the sake of those twenty thousand pounds of hers? Oliver swore to himself that it was not. She was such a pretty little thing—such a dear, loving little girl, in spite of her fun and merriment and spirit—one could not help feeling fond of her. Not that he was going to acknowledge himself capable of such a weakness when he next talked to Rosalind.
He was strolling idly along the east side of Russell Square as these thoughts passed through his mind. He had completely forgotten the stroller whom he had seen leaning against the railings of the Square gardens; but he was unpleasantly reminded of that gentleman's existence when a hand was laid upon his shoulder, and a voice said in his ear—
"I've been waiting here six hours, Oliver, and I must have a word or two with you."
THE ELDER BROTHER.
Oliver turned round sharply, with an air of visible impatience. He knew the voice well enough, and the moon-light left him no doubt as to the lineaments of a face with which he was quite familiar. Francis Trent was not unlike either Rosalind or Oliver; but of the two he resembled his sister rather than his younger brother. True, he did not possess her beauty, but he had her sleepy eyes, her type of feature, her colorless skin, and jetty hair. The colorlessness had degenerated, however, into an unhealthy pallor, and the stubbly beard which covered his cheeks and chin did not improve his appearance. Besides he was terribly out at elbows; his coat was green with age, his boots were broken, and his cuffs frayed and soiled. His hat was unnaturally shiny, and dented in two or three places. Altogether he looked as unlike a brother of the immaculate Oliver and the exquisitely-dressed Rosalind as could possibly have been found for either in the world of London.
Oliver surveyed him with polite disgust, and waved him back a little.
"You have been drinking coarse brandy, Francis," he said, coolly; "and you have been smoking bad tobacco. I wish you would consult my susceptibilities on those points when you come to interview me. You would really find it pleasanter in the end."
"Where am I to find the money to consult your susceptibilities with?" asked the man, with a burst of what seemed like very genuine feeling. "Will you provide me with it? If you don't, what remains for me but to drink British brandy and smoke strong shag? I must drink something—I must smoke something. Will you pay the piper if I go to more expense?"
"Not if you talk so loudly as to attract the attention of every passing policeman," said Oliver, dryly. "If you want to talk to me, as you say you do, keep quiet please."
Francis Trent growled something like an imprecation on his brother below his breath, and then went on in a lowered tone.
"It's easy for you to talk. You are not saddled by a wife and a lot of debts. You haven't to keep out of the way for fear you should be wanted by the police—although you have not been very particular about keeping your hands clean after all. But you've been the lucky dog and I the unlucky one, and this is the result."
"If you are going to be abusive, my good friend," said Oliver, calmly, "I shall turn round and go home again. If you will keep a civil tongue in your head I don't mind listening to you for five minutes. What have you got to say?"
The man was evidently in a state of only half-repressed irritation. His brows twitched, he gnawed savagely at his beard, he looked at Oliver with furtive hate from under his heavy dark brows. But the younger man's cool tones seemed to possess the power of keeping him in check. He made a visible effort to calm himself as he replied,
"You needn't be so down on me, Oliver. You must allow for a fellow's feeling a little out of sorts when he's kept waiting about here for hours. I am convinced that Rosalind saw me this afternoon; I'm certain that you saw me to-night. If I had not caught you now I would have gone to the front door and hammered at it till one of you came out."
"And you think that you would have advanced your cause thereby?"
"Why, hang it all, Oliver, one would think that I was not your own flesh and blood! Have you no natural affection left?"
"Not much. Natural affection is a mistake. You need not count on that with me."
"You always were a cold-blooded, half-hearted sort of a fellow. Not one to help a friend, or even a brother," said Francis, sullenly.
"Suppose you come to the point," remarked Oliver. "It is getting on to eleven o'clock. I really can't stand here all night."
"It is nothing to you that I have stood here for hours already."
"No, it is not." There was a touch of sharpness in his tone. "I am in no mood for sentiment. Say what you have to say and get done with it, or I shall leave you."
"Well," said Francis, after a pause, in which he was perhaps estimating his own powers of persuasion against his brother's powers of resistance, and coming to the conclusion that it was not worth his while to contend with him any longer, "I have come to say this. I am hard up—devilish hard up. But that's not all. It is not enough to offer me a five-pound note or a ten-pound note and tell me to spend it as I please. I want something definite. You seem to have plenty of money: I have none. I want an allowance, or else a sum of money down, sufficient to take Mary and myself to the Colonies. I don't think that is much to ask."
The icy tone which Oliver assumed exasperated his brother.
"No, be hanged if I think it is!" he said vehemently, though still in lowered tones. "I want two hundred a year—it's little enough: or two or three thousand on the nail. Give me that, and I'll not trouble you or Rosy any more."
"And where do you suppose that I'm to get two or three thousand pounds, or two hundred a year?"
"I don't care where you get it, so long as you hand it over to me."
"Very sorry I can't oblige you," said Oliver, nonchalantly "but as your proposition is a perfect impossibility, I don't see my way to saying anything else."
"You think I don't mean it, do you?" growled his brother. "I tell you that I will have it. And if I don't have it I'll not hold my tongue any longer. I'll ruin you."
"Don't talk in that melodramatic way," said Oliver, quietly. But his lip twitched a little as if something had touched him unpleasantly. "You know very well that you have no more power of ruining me than you have of flying to yonder moon. You can't substantiate any of your stories. You can blacken me in the eyes of a few persons who know me, perhaps; but really I doubt your power of doing that. People wouldn't believe you, you know; and they would believe me. There is so much moral power in a good hat and patent leather boots."
"Do you dare to trifle with me——" the man was beginning, furiously, but Oliver checked him with a slight pressure on his arm, and went on suavely.
"All this threatening sort of business is out of date, as you ought to know. One would think that you had been to the Surrey-side Theatres, lately, or the Porte St. Martin, and taken lessons of a stage villain. 'Beware! I will be revenged,' and all that sort of thing. It doesn't go down now, you know. The fact is this—you can't do me any harm, you can only harm yourself; and I think you had better be advised by me and hold your tongue."
Francis was silent for a minute or two. He was evidently impressed by Oliver's manner.
"You're right in one way," he said, in a much more subdued tone. "People wouldn't listen to me because I am so badly dressed—I look so poor. But that could be remedied. A new suit of clothes might make all the difference, Oliver. And then we could see whether some people would believe me or not!"
"And what difference will it make to me if people did believe you?" said Oliver, slowly.
The man stared at him open-mouthed. Oliver was taking a view of things which was unknown to Francis.
"Well," he answered, "considering that you and most of my relations and friends have cut me for the last ten years because I got into trouble over a few accounts at the bank—and considering the sorry figure I cut now in consequence—I don't know why you should be so careless of the possibility of partaking my downfall! I should say that it would be rather worse for you than it has been for me; and it hasn't been very nice for me, I can assure you!"
Oliver's face grew a trifle paler, but his voice was as smooth as ever when he began to speak.
"Now, look here, Francis," he said, "I'll be open and plain with you. Of course, I know what you are alluding to; it would be weakness to pretend that I did not. But I assure you that you are on the wrong track. In your case you were found to have embezzled money, falsified accounts, and played the devil with old Lawson's affairs generally. You were prosecuted for it, and the whole case was in the papers. You got off on some technical point, but everybody knew that you were guilty, and everybody cut you dead—except, you will remember, your brother and sister, who continued to give you money, and were exceedingly kind to you. You were publicly disgraced, and there was no way of hushing the matter up at all. I am sorry to be obliged to put things so disagreeably——"
"Go on! You needn't apologize," said Francis, with a rather husky laugh. "I know it all as well as you do. Go on."
"I wish to point out the difference between our positions," said Oliver, calmly. "I did something a little shady myself, when I was a lad of twenty—at your instigation, mind; I signed old Romaine's name in the wrong place, didn't I? Old Romaine found it out, kept the thing quiet, and said that he had given me the money. I expressed my regret, and the matter blew over. What can you make out of that story?"
He spoke very quietly, but there was a watchfulness in his eye, a slight twitching of his nostril, which proved him to be not entirely at his ease. His elder brother laughed aloud.
"If that were all!" he said. "But you forget how base the action would seem if all the circumstances were known! how black the treachery and ingratitude to a man who was, after all, your benefactor. Rosalind never knew of that little episode, I believe? And she has a good deal of respect for her husband's memory. I should like to see what she would say about it."
"She would not believe you, my dear boy."
"But if I could prove it? If I had in my possession a full confession signed by yourself—the confession that Romaine insisted on, you will remember? What effect would that have upon her mind? And there was that other business, you know, about Mary's sister, whom you lured away from her home and ruined. She is dead, but Mary is alive and can bear witness against you. How would you like these facts blazoned abroad and brought home to the mind of the pretty girl whom I saw you kissing a little while ago on the steps of a house in Upper Woburn Place? She is a Miss Kenyon, I know: an actress; I have heard all about her. Her brother is a doctor; and she has twenty thousand pounds in her own right."
"You do seem, indeed, to know everything," said Oliver, with a sneer.
"I make it my business to know everything about you. You've been so confoundedly mean of late that I had begun to understand that I must put the screw on you. And I warn you, if you don't give me what I ask, or promise to do so within a reasonable time, I shall first go to Rosalind, and then to these Kenyon people, and Caspar Brooke, and all these other friends of yours, and see what they will give me for your secrets."
"They'll kick you out of the house, and you'll be called a fool for your pains," said the younger man, furiously.
"No, I don't think so. Not if I play my game properly. You are engaged to Miss Kenyon, are you not?" Oliver stood silent.
"I tell you that she shall never marry you in ignorance of your past unless you shut my mouth first. And you are the best judge of whether she will marry you at all or not, when she knows what we know."
Then the two brothers were both silent for a little while. Oliver stood frowning, tracing a pattern on the pavement with the toe of his polished boot, and gazing at it. He was evidently considering the situation. Francis stood with his back to the railings, his eyes fixed, with a somewhat crafty look, upon his brother's face. He was not yet sure that his long-cherished scheme for extracting money from Oliver would succeed. He believed that it would; but there was never any counting upon Oliver. Astute as Francis considered himself (in spite of his failure in the world), Oliver was astuter still.
Presently Oliver looked up and met Francis' fixed gaze. He started a little, and made an odd grimace, intended to conceal a nervous twitch of the muscles of his face. Then he spoke.
"You think yourself very clever, no doubt. Well, perhaps you are. I'll acknowledge that, in a certain sense, you might spoil my game for me. Not quite in the way you think, you know; but up to a certain point. As I don't want to have my game spoilt, I am willing to make a bargain with you—is that plain?"
"Fair sailing, so far," said Francis, doggedly. "Go on. What will you give?"
"Nothing just now. The sum you named on the day when I marry Ethel Kenyon, on condition that you give me back that confession you talk about, swear not to mention your wife's sister, and take yourself off to Australia."
"Hm!" said Francis considering. "So I have brought you to terms, have I? So much the better for you—and perhaps for me. Are you engaged to Miss Kenyon?"
"I asked her to-night to marry me, and she consented."
"You always were a lucky dog, Oliver," said Francis, with almost a wistful expression on his crafty face. "I never could see how you managed it, for my part. If that pretty girl"—with a laugh—"knew all that I knew——"
"Exactly. I don't want her to know all you do. Are you going to agree to my terms or not?"
"I should have said they were my terms," said the elder brother, "but we won't haggle about names. Say two thousand five hundred pounds down?"
"No, two thousand," said Oliver, boldly. "That will suit me better than two hundred a year."
"Ah, you want to get rid of me, don't you? How soon is it likely to be?"
"Oh, that I can't tell you. As soon as she fixes the day."
"I swear by all that I hold sacred," said Francis, with sudden energy, "that I won't wait more than six months, and then I'll take two thousand."
"Six? Make it twelve. The girl may want a year's freedom."
"I won't wait twelve. I swear I won't. I'm tired of this life. I can't get any work to do, though I've tried over and over again. And I'm always unlucky at play. There's Mary threatening to go out to work again. If we were in another country, with a clear start, she should not have to do that."
Oliver meditated. It did not seem to him likely that Ethel would refuse to marry him in six months' time, but of course it was possible. Still he was pretty sure that he could get the money advanced as soon as his engagement was noised abroad. It was rather a pity that he would have to publish it so soon—especially when his projects respecting Lesley Brooke had not been carried out—but it could not be helped. The prospect of ridding himself of his brother Francis was most welcome to him. And—if he could quiet him by promises, it might perhaps not be necessary to pay him the money after all.
"Well," he said, at last, "I promise it within six months, Francis. On the conditions I named, of course."
"And you will keep your word?" said Francis, looking suspiciously into his brother's smooth, pale face.
"If not," answered Oliver, airily, "you have the remedy in your own hands, you know. You can easily bring me to book. And now that this interesting conversation is ended, perhaps you will kindly allow me to go home? The night is fine, but I am a good deal chilled with standing——"
"And what am I, then? I've been waiting for you, off and on, for hours. And I haven't got a shilling in my pocket, either. Haven't you got a pound or two to spare, Oliver? For the sake of old times, you know."
Some men would have found it pitiful to hear poor Francis Trent, with his broken-down, cringing, crafty look, thus sueing for a sovereign. For he had the air of a ruined gentleman, not of an ordinary beggar, and the signs of refinement in his face and bearing made his state of abasement and destitution more apparent. But Oliver was not touched by any such sentimental considerations. He looked at first as if he were about to refuse his brother's request; but policy dictated another course. He must not drive to desperation the man in whose hands lay his character and perhaps his future fortune. He put his hand into his pocket, brought out a couple of sovereigns, and dropped them into Francis' greedily outstretched palm. Then he crossed the road towards his sister's house, while the elder brother slunk away with an air of anything but triumph. It was sad to see him so depressed, so broken-spirited, so hopeless. For he had been meant for better things. But his will was weak, his principles had never been settled, and with his first lapse from honesty all self-respect seemed to leave him. Thenceforth he went down hill, and would long ago have reached the bottom but for the one helping hand that had been held out to stay him in his mad career. That hand belonged to none of his kith and kin, however. It was seamed and roughened and reddened by honest toil; but the toil had at least been honest and the toiler's love for the fine gentleman for whom she worked was loving and sincere. To cut a long story short, Francis Trent had married a dressmaker of the lower grade, and a dressmaker, moreover, who had once been a ladies'-maid.
While he slouched away to his poverty-stricken home, and Oliver solaced himself with a novel and a cigar, and Miss Ethel Kenyon sank to sleep in spite of a tumult of innocent delight which would have kept a person of less healthy mind and body wide awake for hours, Lesley Brooke, who was to influence the fate of all these three, lay upon her bed bemoaning her loneliness of heart, and saying to herself that she should never be happy in her father's house. It was not that she had met with any positive unkindness: she could accuse nobody of wishing to be rude or cold, but the atmosphere was not one to which she was accustomed, and it gave her considerable discomfort. Even the Mrs. Romaine of whom her father spoke as if she would be a friend, was not very congenial to her. Rosalind's eyes remained cold, despite their softness, and Lesley was vaguely conscious of a repulsion—such as we sometimes feel on touching a toad or a snake—when Mrs. Romaine put her hand on the girl's listless fingers. No, what it was Lesley could not tell, but she was sure of this, that she could never like Mrs. Romaine.
And she cried herself to sleep, and dreamed of the convent and the sunny skies of France.
Lesley found that she had unintentionally given great offence to Sarah, who was a supreme authority in her father's house, and possibly to her aunt as well, by the arrangement with her father that she would have a maid of her own. In vain she protested that she did not need one, and had not really asked for one; the impression remained upon Miss Brooke's mind and Sarah's mind that she had in some way complained of the treatment which she had received, and they were a little prejudiced against her in consequence.
Miss Brooke was a good woman, and, to some extent, a just woman; but it was scarcely possible for her to judge Lesley correctly. All Miss Brooke's traditions favored the cult of the woman who worked: and Lesley, like her mother before her, had the look of a tall, fair lily—one of those who toil not, neither do they spin. Miss Brooke was quite too liberal-minded to have any great prejudice against a girl because she had been educated in a French convent, though naturally she thought it the worst place of training that could have been secured for her; and she had made up her mind at once, when she saw Lesley, that although there might be "no great harm" in the poor child, she was probably as frivolous, as shallow-hearted, and as ignorant as the ordinary French school-girl was supposed to be.
With Sarah the case was different. Sarah was an ardent Protestant, of a strict Calvinist type, and she had taken up the impression that Miss Lesley must needs be a Romanist. Now this was not the case, for Lesley had always been allowed to go to her own church, see her own clergyman, and hold aloof from the devotional exercises prescribed for the other girls. But Sarah believed firmly that she belonged to the Church of Rome, and she did not feel at all easy in her mind at staying under the same roof with her. She made this remark to Miss Brooke on the third day after Lesley's arrival, and was offended at the burst of laughter with which Miss Brooke received it.
"Do you think the house will fall in, Sarah? or that you will be corrupted?"
"I think I may hold myself safe, ma'am," said Sarah, with dignity. "But I'm not so sure about the house."
She stood with her arms folded, grimly surveying her mistress, who, if the truth must be told, was lying on a sofa in her bedroom, smoking a cigarette. Sarah knew her mistress' tastes, and had grown generally tolerant of them, but she still looked on the cigarettes with disapproval. Miss Brooke was discreet enough to smoke only in her own room or in her brother's study—a fact which had mollified Sarah a little when her mistress first began the practice.
"The minute you smoke one o' them nasty things in the street, ma'am, I shall give notice," she had said.
And Miss Brooke had quietly answered: "Very well, Sarah, we'll wait till then."
It must be added, for the benefit of all who are shocked by Miss Brooke's practice, that she had begun it by order of a doctor as a cure for neuralgia. She continued it because she liked it. Lesley was only just beginning to suspect her aunt of the habit, and was inexpressibly startled and alarmed at the thought of such a thing. That her aunt, who was indisputably kind, clever, benevolent, respectable in every way, should smoke cigarettes, seemed to Lesley to justify all that she had heard against her father's Bohemian household. She could not get over it. Sarah had got over this outrage on conventionality, but she was not yet prepared to forgive Lesley for having lived in a French convent.
"Oh, you're not sure about the house," said Miss Brooke. "Well, I'm sorry for you, Sarah. I'll send in a plumber if you think that would be any good."
"No, ma'am, don't; but if it will not ill-convenience you I should like to put a few tracts in Miss Lesley's room, so that she may look at them sometimes instead of the little book of Popish prayers that she has brought with her."
Miss Brooke wondered for a moment what the book of Popish prayers could be; and then remembered a little Russia-bound book—the well-known "Imitation of Christ" which she had noticed in Lesley's room, and which Sarah had doubtless mistaken for a book of prayer. It would not have been at all like Miss Brooke to clear up the mistake. She generally let mistakes clear themselves. She only gave one of her short, clear, rather hard laughs, and told Sarah to put as many tracts as she pleased in Lesley's room. Whereon, Lesley shortly afterwards found a bundle of these publications in her room, and, as she rather disliked their tone and tendency, she requested Sarah to take them away.
"They were put there for you to read," said Sarah, with stolid displeasure.
"By my aunt?"
"Your aunt knew that I was going to put them there. And it would be better for you to sit and read them rather than them rubbishy books you gets out of master's libery. Your poor, perishing soul ought to be looked after as well as your body."
"Take them away, please," said Lesley, wearily. "I do not want to read them: I am not accustomed to that sort of book." Then, the innate sweetness of her nature gaining the day, she added, "Please do not be angry with me, Sarah. I would read them if I thought that they would do me any good, but I am afraid they will not."
"Just like your mother," Sarah said, sharply. "She wouldn't touch 'em with the tips of her fingers, neither. And a maid, and all that nonsense. And dresses from France. Deary me, this is a sad upsetting for poor master."
"I don't interfere with your master," said Lesley, somewhat bitterly. "He does not trouble about me—and I don't see why I should trouble about him."
She said it almost below her breath, not thinking that Sarah would hear or understand; but Sarah—after flouncing out of the room with an indignant "Well, I'm sure!"—went straight to Miss Brooke and repeated every word, with a few embellishments of her own. Miss Brooke came to the conclusion that Lesley was, first of all, very indiscreet to take servants so much into her confidence, and, secondly, that she was inclined to rebel against her father's authority. And it seemed good to her to take counsel with Mrs. Romaine in this emergency; and Mrs. Romaine soon found an opportunity of pouring a sugared, poisoned version of what she had heard into Caspar Brooke's too credulous ears. So that he became colder than ever in his manner to Lesley, and Lesley wondered vainly how she could have offended him.
The sole comfort that she gleaned at this time came from the Kenyons. Ethel called on her, and won her heart at once by a peculiarly caressing winsomeness that reminded one of some tropical bird—all dainty coquetries and shy, sweet playfulness. Not that Ethel was in the least bit shy, in reality; but she had a very tiny touch of the stage habit of posing, and with strangers she invariably posed as being a little shy. But in spite of this innocent little affectation, and in spite of a very fashionable style of dress and demeanor, Ethel was true-hearted and affectionate, and Lesley's own heart warmed to the tenderness of Ethel's nature before she had been in her company half an hour.
"You know you are not a bit like what I expected you to be," Ethel said sagely, when the two girls had talked together for some little time.
"What did you expect?" said Lesley, her face aglow.
"I hardly know—something more French, I think—a girl with airs and graces," said Ethel, who had herself more airs and graces than Lesley had ever donned in all her life; "nothing so Puritan as you are!"
"Puritan, after so many years of a French convent?"
"Yes, Puritan: no word suits you half so well! There is a sort of restrained life and gladness about you, and it is the restraint that gives it its attraction! Oh, forgive me for speaking so frankly; but when I see you I forget that I have not known you for years and years! I feel somehow as if we had been friends all our life!"