The servant announced Mr. Herbert St. Clare, a fastidiously-dressed man. He was tall and thin, and his eyes were pale and agreeable; his beard was close-clipped, he played with his eye-glass, and shook hands absent-mindedly.
'Oh, Mr. St. Clare, I'm enchanted with your last song,' said Lady Castlerich. 'Every one is talking of it, it is quite the rage, charmin', I wish I had had it ten years ago, my voice is gone now.'
'You still sing charmingly, Lady Castlerich, not much voice is required if the singer is a musician.'
'You're very kind,' and the old lady laughed with pleasure, and Mrs. Lahens smiled satirically, and whispered:
'Oh, you fibber, St. Clare.'
'I'm not fibbing,' he answered; 'she sings the old Italian airs charmingly.'
Soon after lunch was announced, and Mrs. Lahens once more asked Father White to stay. He begged her to excuse him, and she went into the diningroom leaving him in the passage with Agnes.
'Good-bye, my dear child, I shall see you next week. I will write telling you when I'm coming, and you'll tell me what you think of the world. The convent is only for those who have a vocation. You can serve God in the world as well as elsewhere.'
'I wonder,' said Agnes, and she looked doubtfully into the priest's eyes. 'I wonder. I confess I'm a little curious. At present I do not understand at all.'
'Of course the convent is very different from the world,' said Father White. 'You learnt to understand the convent, now you must learn to understand the life of the world.'
'Must I? Why must I?'
'So that you may be sure that you have a vocation. Good-bye, dear child. The Lord be with you.'
Agnes went into the dining-room, and she noticed that every one was listening to her father, who was talking of the success her mother had had at a concert. She had sung two songs by Gounod and Cherubino's Ave Maria. He declared that he had never seen anything like it. He wished every one had been there. His wife was in splendid voice. It was a treat, and the public thought so too.
Agnes listened and was touched by her father's admiration and love for her mother. But very soon she perceived that the others were listening superciliously. Suddenly Mrs. Lahens intervened. 'My dear Major, you're talking too much, remember your promise.' The Major said not another word, and Agnes felt sorry for her father. She remembered him far back in her childhood, always a little weak and kind, always devoted to her mother, always praising her, always attending on her, always carrying her music, reminding her of something she had forgotten, and running to fetch it. Looking at him now, after many years, she remembered that she used to see more of him than she did of her mother. He used to come to see her in the nursery, and she remembered how they used to go out together and sit on the stairs, so that they might hear mother, who was singing in the drawing-room. She remembered that she used to ask her father why they could not go to the drawing-room. He used to answer that mother had visitors. She used to hear men's voices, and then mother would call her father down to wish them good-bye.
Her memories of her mother were not so distinct. She never saw her mother except on the rare occasions when she was admitted to the drawing-room; she remembered her standing in long shining dresses with long trains curled around her feet, which she kicked aside when she advanced to receive some visitor; or she remembered her mother on the stairs, a bouquet in her hand, a diamond star in her hair; the front door was open, and the lamps of the brougham gleamed in the dark street. Then her mother would kiss her, and tell her she must be a good girl, and go to sleep when she went to bed.
There had never seemed to be but one person in the house, and that was mother. Where was mother going, to the theatre, to a dinner-party, to the opera? and the phrase 'When shall the carriage come to fetch mother' had fixed itself on her memory. And in her mother's bedroom— the largest and handsomest room in the house—she remembered the maid opening large wardrobes, putting away soft white garments, laces, green silk and pink petticoats, more beautiful than the dresses that covered them. The large white dressing-table, strewn with curious ivories, the uses of which she could not imagine, had likewise fixed itself on her memory. She remembered the hand-glasses, the scattered jewellery, the scent-bottles, and the little boxes of powder and rouge, and the pencil with which her mother darkened her eyebrows and eyelids. For Mrs. Lahens had always been addicted to the use of cosmetics, therefore the paint on her mother's face did not shock Agnes as it might otherwise have done. But she could not but notice that it had increased. Her mother's mouth seemed to her now like a red wound. Ashamed of the involuntary comment, Agnes repelled all criticism, and threw herself into the belief that all her mother did was right, that she was the best and most beautiful woman in London, that to be her daughter was the highest privilege.
Her thoughts were entirely with her parents; and she had hardly spoken to the men on either side of her. Mr. Moulton had asked her if she were glad to come home, if she rejoiced in the prospect of balls and parties, if she were sorry to leave her favourite nun. She had answered his questions briefly, and he had returned to his exchange of gallantries with Lady Castlerich, who he hoped would invite him to Morelands. Agnes did not quite like him. She liked Mr. St. Clare better. St. Clare had asked her if she sang, and when she told him that she was leading soprano in the convent choir he had talked agreeably until Miss Dare said:
'Now, Mr. St. Clare, leave off flirting with Agnes.'
Her remark made every one laugh, and in the midst of the laughter Mrs. Lahens said:
'So my little girl is coming out of her shell.'
'Out of cell,' said Mr. Moulton, laughing.
'Out of her what?' asked Lady Castlerich.
'You don't know, Lady Castlerich, that my Agnes wanted to become a nun, to enter a convent where they get up at four o'clock in the morning to say matins.'
'Oh, how very dreadful,' said Lady Castlerich, 'Agnes must come to my shootin' party.'
'Father White—the priest you saw here just now—brought her home. Fortunately he took our side, and he told Agnes she must see the world; it would be time enough a year hence to think if she had a vocation.'
'Mother dear, he said six months.'
'What, are you tired of us already, Agnes?'
'No, mother, but—' Agnes hung down her head.
'Agnes must come to my shootin' party, we must find a young man for her, there is Mr. Moulton, or would you like Mr. St. Clare better? I hope, Mr. Moulton, you'll be able to come to Morelands on the twenty- fifth.'
Mr. Moulton said that nothing would give him more pleasure, and feeling that Lady Castlerich intended that his charms should for ever obliterate Agnes' conventual aspiration he leaned towards her and asked her if she knew Yorkshire. Morelands was in Yorkshire. His conversation was, however, interrupted by Lady Castlerich, who said in her clear cracked voice:
'We must put Agnes in the haunted room amid the tapestries.'
'No, no, don't frighten her,' whispered the Major.
'But, father, I am not so easily frightened as that.'
'Who haunts the tapestry-room?'
'A nun, dear, so they say; Morelands was a monastery once—a nunnery, I mean. The monastery was opposite.'
'That was convenient,' giggled Mr. Moulton.
'And why does the nun haunt the tapestries?'
'Ah, my dear, that I can't tell you.'
'Perhaps the nun was a naughty nun,' suggested Mr. Moulton. 'Are there no naughty nuns in your convent?'
'Oh, no, not in my convent, all the sisters are very good, you cannot imagine how good they are,' said Agnes, and she looked out of eyes so pale and so innocent that he almost felt ashamed.
'But what a strange idea that was of yours, Agnes,' said Miss Dare across the table, 'to want to shut yourself up for ever among a lot of women, with nothing else to do but to say prayers.'
'You think like that because you do not know convent life. There is, I assure you, plenty to do, plenty to think about.'
'Fancy, they hardly ever speak, only at certain hours,' said Mrs. Lahens.
'It is the getting up at four o'clock in the morning that seems to me the worst part,' said Miss Dare.
'The monotony,' said St. Clare, 'must be terrible; always the same faces, never seeing anything new, knowing that you will never see anything else.'
Agnes listened to these objections eagerly. 'The nuns are not sad at all,' she said. 'If you saw them playing at ball in the garden you would see that they were quite as happy as those who live in the world. I don't know if you are sad in the world; I don't know the world, but I can assure you that there is no sadness in the convent.'
Agnes paused and looked round. Every one was listening, and it was with difficulty she was induced to speak again.... Then in answer to her mother's questions, she said:
'We have our occupations and our interests. They would seem trivial enough to you, but they interest us and we are happy.'
'There must be,' said Lilian, 'satisfaction in having something definite to do, to know where you are going and what you are striving for. We don't know what we are striving for or where we are going. And the trouble we give ourselves! Say what you will, it is something to be spared all that.'
'Yet if we asked the ordinary man,' said Harding, 'what he'd do if he had ten thousand a year, he would answer that he would do nothing. But he may not. The only man who does nothing is the man who suddenly acquires ten thousand a year; he tries to live on his income; he doesn't, he dies of it.'
'And those who are born rich?' asked Moulton.
'They work hard enough, and their work is the hardest of all, their work is amusement. For by some strange misunderstanding all the most tedious and unsatisfactory means of distraction, are termed amusement, betting, gambling, travelling, dinner-parties, love-making. Whereas the valid and sufficient form of distraction, earning your livelihood by the sweat of your brow, is designated by the unpleasant word Labour.'
'But if you are fortunate in love, you're happy,' said old Lady Castlerich, 'I think I have made my lovers happy.'
Harding laughed. 'Happy! for how long?'
'That depends. Love is not a joy that lasts for ever,' the old lady added with a chuckle.
'But did no woman make you happy, Mr. Harding?' asked Lilian, and she fixed her round, prominent eyes upon him.
'The woman who gives most happiness gives most pain. The man who leaves an adoring mistress at midnight suffers most. A few minutes of distracted happiness as he drives home. He falls asleep thanking God that he will see her at midday. But he awakes dreading a letter putting him off. He listens for the footstep of a messenger boy.'
'If she doesn't disappoint him?'
'She will disappoint him sooner or later.'
'I have never disappointed you,' said Lilian, still looking at Harding.
'But you have not been to see me.'
'No; I've not been to see you,' she replied, and played distractedly with some dried fruit on her plate.
'These are confessions,' said Lady Castlerich, laughing.
'Confessions of missed opportunities,' said Moulton.
'So, then, your creed is that love cannot endure,' said Lord Chadwick.
'The love that endures is the heaviest burden of all,' Harding replied incautiously. A silence fell over the lunch table, and all feared to raise their eyes lest they should look at Mrs. Lahens and Lord Chadwick.
'I suppose you are right,' said Mrs. Lahens. 'It is not well that anything should outlive its day. But sometimes it happens so. But look,' she exclaimed, laughing nervously, 'how Agnes is listening to St. Clare. Those two were made for each other. Celibacy and Work. Which is Celibacy and which is Work?'
'I think, Olive,' said the Major, 'that you are rather hard upon the girl. You forget that she has only just come from school and doesn't understand,'
'My dear Major,' said Mrs. Lahens, and her voice was full of contempt for her husband, 'is it you or I who has to take Agnes into society? As I told you before, Agnes will have to accept society as it is. She won't find her convent in any drawing-room I know, and the sooner she makes up her mind on that point, the better for her and the better for us.'
'Society will listen for five minutes,' said Lilian, 'to tales of conventual innocence.'
'And be interested in them,' said Lord Chadwick, 'as in an account of the last burlesque.'
'With this difference,' said Moulton, 'that society will go to the burlesque, but not to the convent.'
Agnes glanced at her mother, seeing very distinctly the painted, worldly face. That her mother should speak so cruelly to her cut her to the heart: and she longed to rush from the room—from all these cruel, hateful people; another word and she would have been unable to refrain, but in the few seconds which had appeared an eternity to Agnes, the conversation suddenly changed. Lilian Dare had returned to the idea expressed by Harding that he had only found happiness in work, and this was St. Clare's opportunity to speak of the opera he was writing.
'In the first act barbarians are making a raft.'
'What are they making the raft for?' asked Lady Castlerich.
'To get to the other side of a lake. They have no women, and they hope to rob the folk on the other side of theirs.'
St. Clare explained the various motives he was to employ; the motive of aspiration, or the woman motive, was repeated constantly on the horns during the building of the raft. St. Clare sang the motive. It was with this motive that he began the prelude. Then came two variations on the motive, and then the motive of jealousy. St. Clare was eager to explain the combinations of instruments he intended to employ, and the effect of his trumpets at a certain moment, but the servant was handing round coffee and liqueurs, and the story of what happened to the women who were carried off on the raft had to be postponed. St. Clare looked disappointed. But he was in a measure consoled when Lady Castlerich told him that they'd go through the opera together when he came to stay with her for her shooting party.
'Won't you sing something, Lilian?' said Mrs. Lahens, as they went upstairs.
'No, dear, I'd sooner not, but you will.'
'I'd sooner sing a little later. I don't know where my music is, it has been all put away. But do you sing. St. Clare will accompany you. Do, to please me,' and Mrs. Lahens sat down in a distant corner.
She had said that very morning, as she painted her face before the glass, 'I am an old woman, or nearly. How many more years? Three at most, then I shall be like Lady Castlerich.' And the five minutes she had spent looking into an undyed and unpainted old age had frightened her. She had hated the world she had worshipped so long. She had hated all things, and wished herself out of sight of all things. That she who had been so young, so beautiful, so delightful to men, should become old, ugly, and undesirable. That she should one day be like Lady Castlerich! That such things should happen to others were well enough; that they should happen to her seemed an unspeakable and revolting cruelty. And it was at that moment that her husband had sent for her. He had told her she must give up her lover for her daughter's sake. Should she do this? Could she do this? She did not know. But this she did know, that the present was not the time to speak to her of it. Give him up, hand him over to that horrid Mrs. Priestly, who was trying all she could to get him. Whatever else might be, that should not be.... She loved her daughter, and would do her duty by her daughter, but they must not ask too much of her.... She had lost her temper, she had said things that she regretted saying; but what matter, what did the poor Major matter—a poor, mad thing like him?
These were the thoughts that filled Mrs. Lahens' mind while Lilian sang. The purity of Lilian's voice was bitterness to Mrs. Lahens, and it was bitterness to remember that St. Clare loved that face. For no one now loved her face except perhaps Chad, and they wanted her to give him up. It was the knowledge that the time of her youth was at an end that forced Mrs. Lahens to say that Lilian sang out of tune, and to revive an old scandal concerning her.
'Surely, mother,' said Agnes, 'all you say did not happen to the young girl who has just left the room?'
Through the house in Grosvenor Street men were always coming and going. Quite a number of men seemed to have acquired the right of taking their meals there. When Lord Chadwick absented himself he explained his enforced absence from the table; and Agnes noticed that while Lord Chadwick addressed her mother openly as Olive, Mr. Moulton did so surreptitiously, in a whisper, or when none but their intimate friends were present. They rarely assembled less than six or seven to lunch; after lunch they went to the drawing-room, and the eternal discussion on the relations of the sexes was only interrupted by the piano. St. Clare played better than Lord Chadwick, but Mrs. Lahens preferred Lord Chadwick to accompany her. He followed her voice, always making the most of it. At five o'clock the ladies had tea, very often the men chose brandies and sodas; cigarettes were permitted, and in these influences all the scandals of the fair ran glibly from the tongue, and surprising were the imaginations of Mrs. Lahens' scandalous brain.
The reserve that Agnes' innocence imposed on the wit of the various narratives, and on the philosophy of the comments often became painfully irksome, and on noticing Harding's embarrassments Mrs. Lahens would suggest that Agnes went to her room. Agnes gladly availed herself of the permission, and without the slightest admission to herself that she hated the drawing-room. Such admission would be to impugn her mother's conduct, and Agnes was far too good a little girl to do that. She preferred to remember that she liked her own room: her mother let her have a fire there all day; it was a very comfortable room and she was never lonely when she was alone. She had her books, and there were the dear sisters she had left, to think about. Besides, she would meet the men again at dinner, so it would be just as well to save her little store of conversation. She did not want to appear more foolish and ignorant than she could help.
After dinner, Mrs. Lahens and Lilian Dare went off somewhere in a hansom. They often went to the theatre. Sometimes Agnes went with them. She had been twice to the theatre. She had been thrilled by a melodrama and pleased by an operetta. But the rest of the party, mother, Mr. Moulton, Lilian, and Mr. St. Clare had declared that both pieces were very bad—very dull.
But they were all anxious to see a comedy about which every one was talking; they were certain that they would be amused by it; and there was some discussion whether Agnes should be taken. Agnes instantly withdrew from the discussion. She did not care to go, she felt she was not wanted, and she even suspected that she would not like the play. So it was just as well that she was not going. But after dinner it was decided that she was to go. Lord Chadwick was with them; Agnes had never seen him more attentive to her mother, and Mr. St. Clare was absorbed in Lilian. She had, Agnes heard her mother say, succeeded in making him so jealous that he had asked her to marry him. But Mrs. Lahens did not think that Lilian would marry him; nowadays girls in society did not often marry their lovers; they knew that the qualities that charm in a lover are out of place in a husband.
Agnes sat in the back of the box and wondered why Lilian's refusal to marry St. Clare had made no difference in his affection, nor in hers; they seemed as intimate as ever, and Agnes could hear them planning a rendezvous. Lilian was going south, but St. Clare was to meet her in Paris. Agnes wondered—a thought she did not like crossed her mind; she put it instantly aside and bent her attention on the play.
There was a great deal in it that she did not understand, or that she only understood vaguely. She did seem to wish to understand it. But the others listened greedily, as well they might, for the conversation on the stage was like the conversation in the Grosvenor Street drawing-room, as like as if a phonograph was repeating it.
'I should not make such a fuss if I heard that my dear Major had—-'
Agnes did not hear the rest of the sentence.
'If I were to revenge myself on you, Lilian.'
'You had better not.... Besides, there is nothing to revenge.'
'Isn't there,' said St. Clare, and his face grew suddenly grave.
'You are my first and you'll be my last,' Agnes heard her whisper, and she saw St. Clare look at her incredulously.
'You don't believe me. Well, I don't care what you believe,' and she turned her back on him and listened to the play.
And when the play was done Agnes went home in a hansom, sitting between her mother and Lord Chadwick. St. Clare and Lilian followed in another hansom, and the two hansoms drew up together in Grosvenor Street. After the theatre there was always supper, and Agnes knew that they would sit talking till one or two in the morning. She was not hungry; she was tired; she asked if she might go to her room; they were all glad to excuse her; and she ran up to her room and closed the door. She threw off her opera cloak hastily, and then stood looking into the fire. Suddenly her brain filled with thoughts which she could not repress, and involuntary sensation crowded upon her. There was the vivid sensation of her mother's painted face; there was the sensation of her father—his strange clothes, his shy, pathetic face.... She preferred to think of her father, and she asked herself why he did not go to the theatre with them; why he did not appear oftener at meals. His food was generally taken to him. Where did he live? Up that narrow flight of stairs? She had seen him run up those stairs in strange haste, as if he didn't wish to be seen, like a servant—an under servant whose presence in the front of the house is discrepant.
Suddenly Agnes felt that she was very unhappy, and she unlaced her bodice quickly. The action of unlacing distracted her thoughts. She would not go to bed yet. She took a chair, and sat down in front of the fire, thinking. The convent appeared to her clear and distinct in all its quiet life of happy devotion and innocent recreation. She remembered the pleasure she used to take in the work of the sacristy, in laying out the vestments for the priest, for Father White; and in the games at ball in the garden with those dear nuns. She remembered them all; and, seen through the tender atmosphere of sorrow, they seemed dearer than ever they had done before. How happy she had been with them; she did not expect ever to be so happy again. The world was so lonely, so indifferent. She was very unhappy.... And her life seemed so fragile that the least touch would break it. Her tears flowed as from a crystal, and they did not cease until the silence in the street allowed her to hear her father's quick steps pacing it. She could hear his steps coming from Grosvenor Square. Her poor father! Every night it was the same ceaseless pacing to and fro. She had heard her mother say that he sometimes walked till three in the morning. She had watched him a night or two ago out of her window. It was freezing hard, and he had on only an old grey suit of clothes buttoned tightly, and a comforter round his neck. Her father's subordination in the house was one of the mysteries which confronted Agnes. She did not understand, but she knew by instinct that her father was not happy, and her unhappiness went out to his. She pitied him, she longed to make him happier. Others might think him strange, but she understood him. Their talk was strange to her, not his. Last Sunday he had taken her to mass, and they had walked in the park afterwards, and he had been happy until they met Mr. Moulton. A little later they had met her mother and Lord Chadwick. Mr. St. Clare and Miss Lilian Dare had come to lunch. She had seen no more of her father that day. She had hoped that Father White would come and see her, but he had not come; she had sat in her room alone, and after dinner her mother had scolded her because she did not talk to Lord Chiselhurst, an old man who had talked to her in a loud rasping voice. He was overpowering; her strength had given way, she had fainted, and she had been carried out of the room. When she opened her eyes St. Clare was standing by her.... She was glad it was he and not Lord Chiselhurst who had carried her out.
But they would not let her back to the convent before six months. She had been a week at home, and it had seemed a century. The time would never pass. She did not think she would be able to endure it for six months. Her father did not like her to go back. Was it not her duty to remain by him? He was as unhappy as she, and she was very unhappy. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she cried until her tears were interrupted by the sound of her father's latchkey.
She listened to his footsteps as he came upstairs. When he arrived on her landing, instead of going to the end of the passage, and up the staircase, he stopped; it seemed as if he were hesitating about something. Agnes wondered, and hoped he was coming to see her. A moment after he knocked.
'Is that you, father?'
'Then wait a moment.'
She slipped her arms into her dressing-gown and opened the door to him.
'It is nice and snug here,' he said, coming towards the fire—' nice and snug. But bitterly cold in the street; I could not keep warm, yet I walked at the rate of five miles an hour. I ran round Grosvenor Square, but the moment I stopped running I began to get cold again. I couldn't keep up the circulation anyhow.'
'Then sit down and warm yourself, father.'
'No thank you, I like standing up best. I'll just stop a minute. I hope I am not in the way; tell me if I am.'
'In the way, father; what do you mean?'
'Nothing, dear, I only thought. Well, I'll just get the cold out of my bones before I go up to my room. It is cold up there, I can tell you.'
The girl's keen, passionate eyes looking out of a grief-worn face, and a figure so thin that she looked tall, contrasted with the little fat man dressed in the yellow tweed suit buttoned across his rounding stomach. To see them together by the fire in the bedroom made a strange and moving picture. For the figures seemed united by mysterious analogies and the fragments of bread and cheese which the Major held in his old blued fingers were significant.
'I could hear them singing in the drawing-room,' he said, 'when I came in, so I stepped into the dining-room. One feels a bit hungry after walking. How did you like the play, dear?'
'Pretty well, father,' she answered, and she strove to check the tears which rose to her eyes.
'You've been grieving, Agnes. What have you been grieving for—for your convent; tell me, dear? I can't bear to see you unhappy.'
'No, father; don't think of me.'
'Not think of you, Agnes! Of whom should I think, then? Tell me all, everything. If you're not happy here you shall go back. I won't see you unhappy. It is my fault; only I thought that you had better come home and see the world first. I had thought that we might have altered things here, just for your sake.'
'But you, father, you're not happy here; you would be still more unhappy if I went back to the convent. That is true, isn't it?'
'Yes, that is true, dear; but you must not think about me. There's no use thinking about me; I'm not worth thinking about.'
'Don't say that, father, you mustn't speak like that;' and unable to control her feelings any longer, Agnes threw herself into her father's arms. And she did not speak until she perceived that her father was weeping with her.
'What are you weeping for, father?'
'For you, dear, because you're not happy.'
'There are other reasons,' she said, looking inquiringly and tenderly.
'No, dear, there's nothing else now in the world for me to grieve for. You must go back to the convent if you're not happy.'
'But you, father?'
'It will be hard to lose you... things may change. You must have patience; wait a little while, will you?'
'Of course, father, as long as you like, but you'll come down and talk to me here?'
'Yes; I should have come oftener, but I know that I'm not clever, my conversation isn't amusing, so I stick at my work up there.'
'You live up there?'
'Yes; you've not seen my room—a little room under the slates— something like a monk's cell. I've often thought of going into a monastery. I daresay it is from me that you get the taste.'
'You live up there, father; your room is up there. May I go up and see you sometimes; I shan't be disturbing you at your work, shall I?'
'No; I should think not: just fancy you wishing to come to see me, and up there too!'
'When may I come, father? When are you least busy?'
'You can come now.'
'We mustn't make any noise; all the servants are asleep,' and he held the candle higher for her to see the last steps, and he pushed open a door. 'It is here.'
It was a little loft under the roof, and the roof slanted so rapidly that it was possible to stand upright only in one part of the room. There was in one corner a truckle bed, which Agnes could hardly believe her father slept in, and in the midst of the uncarpeted floor stood the type-writing machine, the working of which the Major at once explained to Agnes. He told her how much he had already earned, and entered into a calculation of the number of hours he would have to work before he could pay off the debt he had incurred in buying the machine. His wife had advanced him the money to buy it—she must be paid back. When that was done, he would be able to see ahead, and he looked forward to the time when he would be independent. There were other debts, but the first debt was the heaviest. His wife had advanced the money for the clothes he had worn at the luncheon party, and there was the furniture of his room. But that could not be much— the bed, well that little iron framework, he had borrowed it; it had come from the kitchen-maid's room. She had wanted a larger bed. 'But, father, dear, you've hardly any bedclothes.' 'Yes, I have, dear. I have that overcoat, and I sleep very well under it too. I bought it from the butler, I paid him ten shillings for it, and I made the ten shillings by copying. The money ought to have gone to your mother, but I had to have something to cover me; it is very cold up here, and I thought I had better keep her waiting than contract a new debt.'
'But what is mother's is yours, father.'
'Ah, I've heard people say that, but it isn't true.'
'How did you lose your money, father?' The Major told her how he had been robbed.
'Then it was not your fault, father. And the man who robbed you you say is now—-'
'A great swell, and very highly thought of.'
Agnes saw the coarse clothes, the common boots, and the rough comforter. And her eyes wandered round the room-the bare, miserable little attic garret in which he lived. 'And with that type-writing machine,' she thought, 'he is trying to redeem himself from the disrespect he has fallen into because he was robbed of his money.'
'It must be getting very late, father; I had better go to my room. But, father, you are not comfortable here; sleep in my room; let me sleep here.'
'Let you sleep here, my daughter—sleep up here among the servants!'
He stayed a few minutes in her room, and while warming his hands, he said:
'Everything in the world is dependent on money. We can preserve neither our own nor the respect of others if we have nothing. I have tried. It wasn't to be done.'
'I'm not disturbing you, father?'
'No, dear: you never disturb me,' he said, getting up from the type- writer and giving her his chair. 'But what is the matter?'
'Nothing, at least nothing in particular. I got tired of the drawing- room, and thought I'd like to come and sit with you. But I've taken your chair.'
'It doesn't matter. I can stand, I've been sitting so long.'
'But no, father, I can't take your chair. I don't want to stop you from working. I thought I'd like to sit and watch you. Here, take your chair.'
'I can get another. I can get one out of the butler's room. He won't mind just for once. He's a very particular man. But I'll tell him I took it for you.'
The Major returned a moment after with a chair. He gave it to Agnes and resumed his place at the machine.
'I shan't be many minutes before I finish this lot,' he said; 'then we shall be able to talk. I promised to get them finished this evening.'
She had never seen a type-writing machine at work before, and admired the nimbleness with which his fingers struck the letters, and the dexterity with which he passed fresh sheets of paper under the roller. When he had finished and was gathering the sheets together, she said,—
'How clever you are.'
'I think I picked it up pretty quickly. I can do seventy words a minute. Some typists can do eighty, but my fingers are too old for that. Still, seventy is a good average, and I have hardly any corrections to make. They are very pleased with my work.... I'll teach you—you'd soon pick it up.'
'Will you, father? Then I should be able to assist you. We could sit together, you in that corner, I in this. I wonder if mother would buy me a machine. I could pay her back out of the money I earned, just like you.'
'Your mother would say you were wasting your time. You've come home, she'd say, to go into society, and not to learn type-writing.'
'I'm afraid she would. But father, there is no use my going into society. I shall never get on in society. Last night at Lord Chiselhurst's——'
'Yes; tell me about it. You must have enjoyed yourself there.'
Agnes did not answer for a long while, at last she said,—
'There's something, father, dear, that I must speak to you about.... Mother thinks I ought to marry Lord Chiselhurst, that I ought to make up to him and catch him if I can. She says that he likes very young girls, and that she could see that he liked me. But, father, I cannot marry him. He is—no, I cannot marry him. I do not like him, I'm only sixteen, and he's forty or fifty. But that isn't the reason, at least not the only reason. I don't want to marry any one, and mother doesn't seem to understand that. She said if that were so, she really didn't see why I left the convent.'
She was too intent on what she was saying to notice the light which flashed in the Major's eyes.
'I said, "Mother, I never wanted to leave the convent, it was you who wanted me home." "No," she said, "it was not I, it was your father. But now that you are here I should like you to make a good marriage." Then she turned and kissed me.... I don't want to say anything against mother; she loves me, I'm sure: but we're so different, I shall never understand mother, I shall never get on in society. I cannot, father, dear, I cannot, I feel so far away; I do not know what to say to the people I meet. I do not feel that I understand them when they speak to me; I am far away, that is what I feel; I shall never get over that feeling; I shall not succeed, and then mother will get to hate me.... I am so unhappy, father, I'm so unhappy.'
Agnes dropped on her knees, and throwing her arms on her father's shoulder, she said:
'But, father, you're not listening. Listen to me, I've only you.'
'Of many things.'
'Poor father, you have a great deal to think of, and I come interrupting your work. How selfish I am.'
'No, dear, you're not selfish.... I'm very glad you told me. So you think you'll never get on in society.'
'I don't think I'm suited for society.'
'I'm afraid you think that all society is like our drawing-room?'
'How was it, father, that our drawing-room came to be what it is?'
'A great deal of it is my fault, dear. When I lost my money I got disheartened, and little by little I lost control. One day I was told that as I paid for nothing I had no right to grumble. Your mother said, in reply to some question about me, that I was "merely an expense." I believe the phrase was considered very clever, it went the round of society, and eventually was put into a play. And that is why I told you that money is everything, that it is difficult to be truthful, honourable, or respectable if you have no money, a little will do, but you must have a little, if you haven't you aren't respectable, you're nothing, you become like me, a mere expense.... I've borne it for your sake, dearest.'
'For my sake, father, what do you mean?'
'Never mind, best not to ask.... My dearest daughter, I would bear it all over again for your sake. But it is maddening work, it goes to the head at last. It makes one feel as if something was giving way there,' he said, touching his forehead, 'it does indeed.'
'But, father, you mustn't bear this any longer, not for my sake, father, no, not for my sake; you must find some way out of it.'
'I have found a way out of it. It took me a long while, but I have found the way—there it is,' he said, pointing to the type-writing machine. 'They don't suspect anything, not they, the fools; they don't know what is hanging over their heads. I'll tell you, Agnes, but you must not breathe a word of it to any one, if you did, they would take the machine from me: for they'd like me to remain a mere expense. As long as I'm that, they can do what they like, but as soon as I gain an independence, as soon as I am able to pay for my meals,' he whispered, 'I mean to put my house in order But you mustn't breathe a word.'
'I'll never do anything, father, you ask me not to do.'
'I shall be able to sweep out all those you don't like. There are too many men hanging about here?'
'Tell me, father, do you like Lord Chadwick?' The Major's face changed expression. 'Have I said anything to wound you?' she said, pressing his hand.
'No, dear. You asked me if I liked Lord Chadwick. I was thinking. Somehow it seems to me that I rather like him, though I have no reason to do so. He thinks me crazy, but so do others; I know that my conversation bores him, he always tries to get away from me, yet somehow it seems to me that I do like him.'
'Is he a fast man, father, is he like Lord Chiselhurst?'
'He is much the same as the other men that come here. I don't think he's a bad man—no worse than other men. Is he kind to you, dear; tell me that; do you like him?'
'Yes, father; he and Mr. St. Clare are the men I like best here. But why is he here so much, father, he's no relation.'
'He has dined and lunched here every day for the last ten years. He's been an expense too.'
'Mother said he is so poor that she has often to lend him money.'
'He should have spent some of the money she lent him, on a type- writing machine, and striven as I do to make an independence. When I've got together a little independence, when I can pay for my meals and my clothes, you shall see; none that you dislike shall ever come here, dearest. I'll put my house in order.'
'But that will take a long time, father; in the meantime——'
'Mother will want me to marry.'
'They shall not force you to marry, they shall not ask you to do anything you do not like. Lord Chiselhurst ought to be ashamed, a man of his age to want to marry a young girl like you. I will go and tell him so.'
The Major stood up, he was pale, and Agnes noticed that his lips trembled.
'No, father,' she said, 'do not go to him; I do not know that he wants to marry me; it is only mother's idea, she may be mistaken.'
'You shall not be persecuted by his attentions.'
'Lord Chiselhurst is a gentleman, father. Whatever his faults may be, I feel sure when he sees that I do not want him, that he will cease to think of me... Lord Chiselhurst is not the worst.'
'Who, then, is the worst? Who is it that you wish me to rid you of?'
'I don't wish you to be violent, father, but you might hint to Mr. Moulton that I do not wish——'
'That man—he, too, is merely an expense.'
'I am sure, father, that it is not right of him to put his arms round me—he tried to kiss me. I was alone in the drawing-room. And he speaks in a way that I do not like—I don't know.... I don't like him; he frightens me.'
'Frightens you! That fellow—that fellow!'
'Yes; he asks me questions.'
'He never shall do so again. Is he in the drawing-room?'
'Yes; but, father, you cannot speak to him now, there are people in the drawing-room.'
'I don't care who's there.'
'No, father, no; I beg of you. Mother will never forgive me.... Father, you mustn't make a scene. Father, you cannot go to the drawing-room in those clothes,' and in desperate resolve, Agnes threw herself between the Major and the door, pressing him back with both hands.
'They think me a sheep, I have been a sheep too long, but they shall see that even the sheep will turn to save its lamb from the butcher. I'll go to them, yes, and in these clothes—Agnes, let me go.'
'I want you to speak to Mr. Moulton.... But not now, this is not the time.'
He tried to push past her, but she resisted him, and sat down in front of his type-writing machine, pale and exhausted, the sweat pearling his bald forehead.
She tried to calm him and to induce him to understand the scandal he would make if he were to go down to the drawing-room, dressed as he was. But her words did not seem to reach the Major's brain. He only muttered that the time had come to put his house in order. Agnes answered, 'Father, for my sake ... not now.' But he must obey the idea which pierced his brain, and before she could prevent him he slipped past her and opened the door.
'Oh, father, don't, for my sake, please.'
His lips moved but he did not speak.
'I will not make a scene,' he said at last.
'I will not make a scene, but I must do something.... I promise you that I will not make a scene, but I must go down to the drawing-room in these clothes. In these clothes,' he repeated. There was something in his look which conveyed a sense of the inevitable, and Agnes watched him descend the stairs. She followed slowly, catching at the banisters leaning against the wall. She noticed that his step was heavy and irresolute and hoped he would refrain. But he went on, step after step.
He had intended to turn the entire crew out of the house; but Agnes had induced him to relinquish this idea, and, as no fresh idea had taken its place, he entered the drawing-room with no more than a vague notion that he should parade his old clothes, and reprove the conversation.
'Olive, I've come down for a cup of tea.'
'I don't mind giving you a cup,' said Mrs. Lahens, 'but I think you might have taken the trouble to change your clothes: that's hardly a costume to receive ladies in. Look at him, Lady Castlerich—that's what I've to put up with.'
'Lady Castlerich will excuse my clothes. You know, Lady Castlerich, that I'm very poor. Some years ago I lost my money, and since then I've been merely an expense. It is most humiliating to have to ask your wife for twopence to take the omnibus.'
'My dear Major,' said Harding, 'what on earth is the matter with you? You've been working too hard.... But, by the way, I forgot to tell you I've just finished a novel which I shall be glad if you'll copy it for me. You haven't shown me your machine. Come.'
'I shall be very glad to have your work to do, Harding, but I can't talk to you about it just at present. You must excuse me, I've an explanation to make. Oh, do not think of going, dear Lady Castlerich, do not let my costume frighten you away. These are my working clothes. The last money I took from my wife was sixteen pounds to buy a type- writing machine. I made five shillings last week, four shillings went towards paying for the machine. When I am clear of that debt I shall make enough to pay for my room and my meals. I had always intended then to put my house in order.'
'But, my dear Major,' said Lady Castlerich, trying to get past him, 'your house is charmin', the drawing-room is perfectly charmin', I don't know a more charmin' room.'
'The room is well enough, it is what one hears in the room.'
'Hears in the room! Major, I'm sure our conversation has been most agreeable.'
'You'll agree with me that it is a little hard that my daughter should have to sit in her bedroom all day.'
'But we should be charmed to have her here,' expostulated the old lady. 'She was here just now, but she ran away.'
'Yes; she ran away from the conversation.'
'Ran away from the conversation, Major! Now what were we talking about, Olive?'
'I don't know.... He's in one of his mad humours, pay no attention to him, Lady Castlerich,' said Mrs. Lahens.
'Perhaps you were talking about your lovers, Lady Castlerich,' said the Major.
'I'm sure I couldn't have been, for the fact is I don't remember.'
'I really must be going,' said Harding; 'goodbye, Mrs. Lahens. And now, Major, come with me and we'll talk about the typing of the novel.'
'Later on, Harding, later on, I've to speak about my daughter. There's so much she doesn't understand. You know, Lady Castlerich, she has been very strictly brought up.'
'How very strange. I must really be going. Good-bye, Major, charmin' afternoon, I'm sure.'
'I hope,' he said, turning to Lilian, 'that I can congratulate you on your engagement?'
'My engagement. With whom.... Mr. St. Clare? What makes you think that? We are not engaged; we're merely friends.'
'It was given out that you were engaged. Mr. Harding said it was physically impossible for you to see more than you did of each other.'
'My dear Major,' said Harding, 'you're mistaken; I never said such a thing, I assure you—'
'Physically impossible,' giggled Lady Castlerich. 'That's good. But won't you see me to my carriage, Mr. Harding. Did you say physically impossible?'
The Major looked round, uncertain whom to address next. Catching Mr. Moulton, who was stealing past him, by the arm, he said:
'You, too, understand how humiliating it is to be a mere expense. Why don't you buy a type-writing machine?'
'Perhaps I shall ... the first money I get,' Mr. Moulton answered, and disengaging his arm he hurried away, leaving the Major alone with his wife. She sat in her arm-chair looking into the fire. The Major waited, expecting her to speak, but she said not a word.
'I want to talk to you, Olive.'
'To hear what I have to say about your conduct, I suppose. I have nothing to say.'
'I'm not clever, like you, and don't say the right thing, but something had to be done, and I did it as best I could.'
'You're madder than I thought you were.'
'Something had to be done?'
'Something had to be done! What do you mean? But it doesn't matter.'
'Yes, it does, Olive. I want you to understand that Agnes must be saved.'
'Yes, saved from this drawing-room; you know that it is a pollution for one like her.'
'I remember,' said Mrs. Lahens, turning suddenly, 'that you said something about putting your house in order. I didn't understand what you meant. Did you mean this house?'
'But you forget that this is my house. So you intend to rescue Agnes from this drawing-room. You can go, both of you.... I'll have both of you put out of doors!'
'You'll not turn your daughter out of doors!'
'If my drawing-room is not good enough for her, let her go back to the convent. You took her from me years ago; you never thought I was good enough for your daughter.'
'There was Chadwick. I begged of you to break with him for the sake of your daughter. You might have done that. I made sacrifices for her; I endured this house; I accepted your lover.'
'Accepted my lover! You did not expect a woman to be faithful to a man like you.... You didn't think that possible, did you?'
'What was I to do; what can a man do who is dependent on his wife for his support? Besides, there was more than myself to consider, there was Agnes; had I divorced you she would have suffered.'
'Of course you never thought of yourself—of this house; I daresay you look upon yourself quite as a hero. Well, upon my word——' Mrs. Lahens laughed.
'I don't think I thought of myself. I daresay the world put the worst construction on my conduct. But you can't say that I took much advantage of the fact that you were willing to let me live in the house. I gave up my room—I live in the meanest room—the kitchen-maid complained about it; she left it; there was no use for it. What I eat does not cost you much; I eat very little. Of course I know that that little is too much. Meantime, I'm trying to create a little independence.'
'And meantime you shall respect my drawing-room.... But the mischief is done; you have insulted my friends; you have forced them out of my house. The story will be all over Mayfair to-morrow. It will be said that the sheep has turned at last. Nothing is to be gained by keeping you any longer.'
'Agnes will remain with me.... You don't propose to take her with you, do you?'
'I couldn't support her, at least not yet awhile, not even if Harding gave me the novel he was speaking of to copy.'
'Support her! ... Harding give you his novel to copy.... You poor fool, you could not spell the words.'
'True, that is my difficulty.... But Agnes cannot remain here without me. That is impossible. To remain here, seeing your friends in this drawing-room! things to go on as they are! that child! Olive, you must see that that is impossible. It would be worse than before.'
'If I refuse to have you here any longer, you've no one but yourself to thank.'
'Olive, remember that she is our child; we owe her something. I have suffered a great deal for her sake; you know I have. Do you now suffer something. You'll be better for it; you'll be happier. I am in a way happier for what I have suffered.'
'You mean if I consent to let you stay here?'
'I was not thinking of that; that is not enough.'
'Not enough! Well, what is enough? But I cannot listen,' said Mrs. Lahens, speaking half to herself. 'I'm keeping him waiting. What a fright I shall be! Our evening will be spoilt.'
'Where are you going?'
'I'm going to dine with Chad, if you wish to know.'
'You shall not go to Lord Chadwick,' said the Major, walking close to his wife. Mrs. Lahens turned from the glass. 'You shall not go,' repeated the Major. 'Go at your peril.' ... They stood looking at each other a moment with hatred in their eyes. Then with tears in his voice, the Major said, 'For our daughter's sake give him up. She already suspects, and it makes her so unhappy. She is so good, so innocent. Think of what a shock it would be to her if she were to discover the truth. Give up Chadwick for her sake. You'll never regret. One day or other it will have to end; if you let it end now you'll repair the past.'
'Her innocence! her goodness! Had I married another man I might have been a virtuous woman. ... The world asks too much virtue from women. If I had not had Chad I should have gone mad long ago. He's been very good to me: why should I give him up? For why? What has my daughter done for me that I should give up all I have in the world; and what purpose would be served if I did? So that she should preserve her illusions a few months longer. That is all. If she remain in the world she must learn what the world is. If she doesn't want to learn what the world is, the sooner she goes back to the convent the better. And now I must go; I'm late.'
'You shall not go. You shall see no more of Lord Chadwick. You shall receive no more of your infamous friends. My daughter's mind shall not be polluted.'
'Don't talk nonsense, Major. Let me go, or I shall have you turned out of the house. I don't want to, but you'll force me to.... Now let me go.'
The Major took his wife by the throat, and repeated his demand.
'Say that this adultery shall cease, or else—-'
'Or else you'll kill me?'
Agnes had stolen downstairs. She had waited a few moments on the threshold before she entered the room necessity ordained... and she stood pale and courageous between her parents.
Mrs. Lahens sat down on the ottoman, and, when the servant arrived with the lamp, Agnes saw that her mother, notwithstanding her paint, was like death. The servant looked under the lamp's shade and turned up the wicks; he drew the curtains, and at last the wide mahogany door swept noiselessly over the carpet, and the three were alone.
'I'm sorry, Agnes, that you were present just now. Such a scene never happened before. I assure you. A point arose between us, and I'm afraid we both forgot ourselves. It would be better if you went upstairs.'
'I see,' said Mrs. Lahens, 'that you understand each other. It is I who had better go.'
'No, mother, don't go. I would not have you think that—that—oh, how am I to say it?'
Mrs. Lahens looked at her daughter—a strange look it was, of surprise and inquiry.
'Mother, I have been but an apple of discord thrown between you.... But, indeed, it was not my fault. Mother, dear, it was not my fault.'
For a moment it seemed as if Mrs. Lahens were going to take her daughter in her arms. But some thought or feeling checked the impulse, and she said:
'Talk to your father, Agnes. I cannot stay.'
'You shall not go,' said the Major, laying his hand on her arm. 'You shall not go to Lord Chadwick.'
'Oh, father; oh, father, I beg of you.... It is with gentleness and love that we overcome our troubles. Let mother go if she wants to go.'
The Major took his hand from his wife's arm, and Mrs. Lahens said:
'You're a good girl, Agnes. I wish you had always remained with me. If your father had not taken you from me, I might—-'
She left the room hurriedly, and, a few moments after, they heard her drive away in a cab.
'Father, I know everything.'
'Yes, father. As your voices grew more angry I crept downstairs. I heard about Lord Chadwick. You must have patience; you must be gentle.'
'Agnes, I have been patient, I have been gentle. That was my mistake.'
'Perhaps, father, it would have been better if you had acted differently at first, a long time ago. But I'm sure that the present is no time for anger. I know that it was on my account, that it was to save me, that you—that you—you know what I mean.'
'You're right, Agnes. My mistake began long ago. But you must not judge me harshly. You do not know, you cannot realise what my position has been in this house. I could do nothing. When a man has lost his money——'
'I do not judge you, father, nor mother either. It is not for me to judge. I am ignorant of the world and wish to remain ignorant of it. I always felt that it would be best so, now I am sure of it.'
'Agnes, it is too soon for you to judge. This house—'
'She's gone to meet that man; but she shall not. She shall not! I swear it! ... That man, I'll take him by the throat. I ought to have done so long ago; but it is not too late.'
'Father, let us say a prayer together; I have not said one with you since I was a little child. Will you kneel down with me and say a prayer for mother?'
She stretched out her hand to him, and they knelt down together in the drawing-room. Agnes said:
'Oh, my God, we offer up an our Our Father and Hail Mary that thou may'st give us all grace to overcome temptation.'
The Major repeated the prayers after his daughter, and, when they rose from their knees, Agnes said:
'Father, I never asked a favour of you before. You'll not refuse me this?'
The Major looked at his daughter tenderly.
'You will never again be violent. You promise me this, father. I shall be miserable if you don't. You promise me this, father? You cannot refuse me. It is my first request and my last.'
The Major's face was full of tears. There were none on Agnes' face; but her eyes shone with anticipation and desire.
'Promise,' she said, 'promise.'
'And when the temptation comes you'll remember your promise to me?'
'Yes, Agnes, I'll remember.'
The strain that the extortion of the promise had put upon her feelings had exhausted the girl; she then pressed her hands to her eyes and dropped on the ottoman. For a long while father and daughter sat opposite each other without speaking. At last the Major said:
'I must go out; I cannot stop here.'
'But, father, remember... you are not going to mother.'
'No; only for a trot round the Square.'
She pressed her hand to her forehead; she felt her eyes, they were dry and burning; and it was not until the servant announced Father White that her tears flowed.
'Then you've heard,' said Agnes, coming forward and taking the priest's hand. 'How did you hear? Did you meet father?'
'No, my dear child, I've heard nothing. I did not meet your father. I was in London to-day for the first time since I last saw you. I ought to have called earlier, but I was detained.... I'm afraid I'm late, it must be getting late. It must be getting near your dinner hour.'
'I see that you know nothing, and that I shall have to tell you all.'
'Yes, my dear child, tell me everything.' Agnes sat on the ottoman, Father White took a chair near her. 'Tell me everything. I see you've been weeping. You're not happy at home then?'
'Oh, Father; happy! if you only knew, if you only knew.... I cannot tell you.' Then seeing in the priest's arrival a means of escape from the danger of her position between her father and mother, she cried, 'You must take me back to the convent to-night. I cannot meet mother when she comes home. Something dreadful might happen. Father White, you must take me back to the convent, say that you will, say that you will.'
'My dear child, you are agitated, calm yourself. What has happened? Tell me.'
'It is too long a story, it is too dreadful. I cannot tell it all to you now. Later I'll tell you. Take me back to the convent. I cannot meet mother. I cannot.'
'But what has your mother done; has she been cruel to you—has she struck you?'
'Struck me! if that were all! that would be nothing.' The priest's face turned a trifle paler. He felt that something dreadful had happened. The girl was overcome; her nerves had given way, and she could hardly speak. It were not well to insist that she should be put to the torture of a complete narrative.
'Where is your father?' he said. 'Major Lahens will tell me, he knows, I suppose, all about it. Calm yourself, Agnes. Tell me where your father is, that will be sufficient.'
'Father is walking round the Square. But don't leave me, don't. I cannot remain in this room alone,' she said, looking round with a frightened air.
'I'll wait till he comes in.'
'He may not come in for hours. Perhaps he'll never come back, anything may happen.'
'If he's walking round the Square he can be sent for.'
'No, Father White. I'll be calm. I'll tell you. I must tell you, but you'll not desert me, you'll not leave me here to meet mother.'
'Don't you think, my dear child, that it would be better that I should see your father, that he should tell me?'
'No, I'd sooner tell you myself. Father could not explain. To-morrow, or after in the convent I'll tell you. I'll tell you and the Mother Abbess.'
'You must see, Agnes, that I cannot take you away from your father's house without his permission.'
'It is not father's house.'
'Well, your mother's house.'
'That is quite different. I see that I must tell you—of course I must.'
'Surely, Agnes, it would be better to postpone telling me till to- morrow, you're tired, you've been crying, you'll be able to tell me better in the morning. I'll call here early to-morrow morning.'
'No; you must take me back to the convent to-night, I cannot remain here.... You'll agree with me that I cannot when I tell you all.'...
Agnes looked at Father White, she was no longer crying, she had regained her self possession in the necessity of the moment, and she began with hardly a tremble In her voice.
'Mother is not—is not—I'm afraid she is not—But how am I to accuse my own mother.'
'I'm sure now, my dear child, that I was right when I suggested that I should speak to Major Lahens.'
'Because you don't know the circumstances, nor do you know my father. No, it must be I. I must tell you.'
There was a note of conviction in Agnes' voice which silenced further protestation, and Father White listened.
'You see, this house and everything here belongs to mother. It is she who pays for everything. Father lost all his money some years ago; he was cheated out of it in the city. The loss of his money preyed upon his mind; he could not stand the humiliation of asking his wife, as he puts it, for twopence to take the omnibus. Mother did not care for father, she cared for some one else, and that of course made father's dependence still more humiliating. It preyed on his mind, and he lives in the house like a servant, in a little room under the roof that the kitchen-maid would not sleep in. He has a type-writing machine up there, and he makes a few shillings a week by copying; he bought the butler's old overcoat... It is very sad to see him up there at work, and to hear him talk.... I must tell you that the people who come here are not good people, I don't think that they can be very nice; the conversation in this drawing-room I'm sure is not. ... There is a man who comes here whom I don't like at all, a Mr. Moulton. He says things that are not nice, and he tried to kiss me the other day. I was afraid of him, and mother used to leave me alone with him. I had difficulty in getting away from him, so I asked father to speak. I thought that father, when he met him alone, would tell him not to talk as he did, but father got so angry, that notwithstanding all I could do to prevent him he went down in his old clothes to the drawing-room, and, I suppose, insulted every one. Anyhow they all went away. I felt that something was happening, so I listened on the stairs. Father and mother were talking violently, and when he grasped mother's throat—I rushed between them. That is the whole story.'
'A very terrible story.'
'So you see that it is impossible for me to remain here. I cannot meet mother after what has happened. You must take me to the convent to- night. Say that you will, Father White.'
'Have you not thought, my child, that it may be your duty to remain here as mediator, as peace-maker?'
'Father has promised me that he will never raise his hand to mother again. I made him understand that it was by gentleness and patience she must be won back.'
'All the more reason that you should remain here to watch and encourage the good work you have begun.'
'But, Father White, I feel that I have done all that I can do.... My prayers must do the rest.'
'But your presence in this house would be an influence for good, and would check again, as it did to-day, these unhappy outbursts of violence.'
'Father has promised me never to resort to violence again; my presence is the temptation to do so, things might happen—things would be sure to happen that would force him to forget his promise. He might kill mother—that is the way these things end. He has borne with a great deal; he has said nothing; people think that he feels nothing; he may think so himself, but something is all the while growing within him, and the day comes when he will stand it no longer, when he will kill mother. Very little suffices, I very nearly sufficed.... I must go, Father, you must take me away.'
Agnes spoke out of the fulness of her instinct, and Father White wondered, for such knowledge of life seemed very strange in one of Agnes' age and ignorance.
'I understand, my child. As you say, it is difficult for you to remain here. But I cannot take you away without consulting your father.'
'Father will not oppose my returning to the convent, I have spoken to him. He knows how unhappy I am.'
'But I cannot take you away without his authority.'
'I did not intend to leave without bidding father good-bye. We can stop the cab as we go round the Square.'
'But your clothes are not packed.'
'They will lend me all I want at the convent, my clothes can be sent after me. Father, you must take me away, I cannot remain here and meet mother after what happened. My mission here is ended; prayer will do the rest. I want to go to the convent so that I shall be free to pray for mother.'
Unable to resist the intensity of the girl's will, Father White answered that he would wait for her while she went upstairs to get her hat and jacket. As he paced the room he tried to think, but he could not catch a single thread of thought. He was merely aware of the horrible position that this dear, good and innocent girl had so unexpectedly found herself thrust into, and of the good sense and resource she had displayed in her time of trial. 'No doubt she is right,' he thought, 'she cannot remain here.... She must go back to the convent, at least for the present. But once she goes back she will never again be persuaded to leave it. So much the better, another soul for God and joy everlasting.'
The door opened. Agnes wore the same dress as she had arrived in, the same little black fur jacket, and her hands were in the same little muff. They went downstairs without speaking, and Father White called a four-wheeled cab. As they got in he said:
'You know that I cannot possibly take you away without first obtaining your father's authority.'
'We shall meet him as we go round the Square. Tell the cabman to drive slowly, I'll keep watch this side, you keep watch that side, we can't miss him.'
'I'm to drive round the Square till you see a gentleman walking?'
'Yes, and then we'll stop you,' said Father White.
Suddenly Agnes cried 'There is father, there.' Father White poked his umbrella through the window, and Agnes screamed, and she had to scream her loudest, so absorbed was the Major.
'Father White called to see me. I've asked him to take me back to the convent. You'll let me go, father? I shall be happier there than at home.'
The Major did not answer and the priest said:
'If you'll allow me, Major Lahens, I'd like to have a few minutes' conversation with you.'
He got out of the cab and Agnes waited anxiously. She could hear them talking, and she prayed that she might sleep at the convent that night. At last the Major came to the cab door and said:
'If you wish, Agnes, to go back to the convent with Father White you can. I'll work hard and make some money and then you'll come and live with me.'
'Yes, father.... Remember you'll always be in my thoughts... It is good of you to let me go, indeed it is. You must try not to miss me too much and you'll often come and see me.'
'And, father, dear, you'll remember your promise.'
'Yes, dear... Good-bye.'
She kissed her father on the forehead and burst into tears. The cab jangled on, the priest did not speak and gradually through the girl's grief there grew remembrance of the road leading to the convent. And, though they were still five miles away or more, she saw the gate at the corner of the lane, the porteress too. She saw the quiet sedate nuns hastening down the narrow passages towards their chapel. She saw them playing with their doves like innocent children, she saw them chase the ball down the gravel walks and across the swards. She saw her life from end to end, from the moment when the porteress would open the door to the time when she would be laid in the little cemetery at the end of the garden where the nuns go to rest.