The unbroken greyness out of doors, and the gusty wind sending the dead curled-up leaves whirling through the chilly air, or racing over the pavement of Dawson Place, made Miss Starbrow's dining-room look very warm and pleasant one morning early in the month of October. The fire burning brightly in the grate, and the great white and yellow chrysanthemums in the blue pot on the breakfast-table, spoke of autumn and coming cold; and the fire and the misty flowers in their colours looked in harmony with the lady's warm terra-cotta red dressing-gown, trimmed with slaty-grey velvet; in harmony also with her face, so richly tinted and so soft in its expression, as she sat there leisurely sipping her coffee and reading a very long letter which the morning post had brought her. The letter was as follows:
DEAR MARY,—We have now been here a whole week, and I have more to tell you than I ever put in one letter before. Why do we always say that time flies quickly when we are happy? I am happiest in the country, and yet the days here seem so much longer than in town; and I seem to have lived a whole month in one week, and yet it has been such an exceedingly happy one. How fresh and peaceful and homelike it all seemed to me when we arrived! It was like coming back to my birthplace once more, and having all the sensations of a happy childhood returning to me. My happy childhood began so late!
But I must begin at the beginning and tell you everything. At first it was a little distressing. In the house, I mean, for out of doors there could be no change. You can't imagine how beautiful the woods look in their brown and yellow foliage. And the poor people I used to visit all seemed so glad to see me again, and all called me "Miss Affleck," which made it like old times. But Mrs. Churton received us almost as if we were strangers, and I could see that she had not got over the unhappiness both Constance and I had caused her. She was not unkind or cold, but she was not motherly; and while she studied to make us comfortable, she spoke little, and did not seem to take any interest in our affairs, and left us very much to ourselves. It seemed so unnatural. And one morning, when we had been three days in the house, she was not well enough to go out after breakfast, and Constance offered to go and do something for her in the village. She consented a little stiffly, and when we were left alone together I felt very uncomfortable, and at last sat down by her and took her hand in mine. She looked surprised but said nothing, which made it harder for me; but after a moment I got courage to say that it grieved me to see her looking so sad and ill, and that during all the time since I left Eyethorne I had never ceased to think of her and to remember that she had made me look on her as a mother. Then she began to cry; and afterwards we sat talking together for a long time—quite an hour, I think—and I told her all about our hard life in town, and she was astonished and deeply pained to hear what Constance had gone through. For she knew nothing about it; she only knew that her daughter had married Merton and was a widow and poor. I am so glad I told her, though it made her unhappy at first, because it has made such a difference. When Constance at last came in and found us still sitting there together, Mrs. Churton got up and put her arms round her and kissed her, but was unable to speak for crying. Since then she has been so different to both of us; and when she questioned me about spiritual things she seemed quite surprised and pleased to find that I was not an infidel, and no worse than when I was with her. I think that in her own heart she sets it down to Constance not having exerted herself to convert me, thinking, I suppose, that it would have been very easy to have done so. There is no harm in her thinking that, only it is not true. Now she even speaks to Constance on such subjects, and tries to win her back to her old beliefs; and although Constance does not say much, for she knows how useless it would be, she listens very quietly to everything, and without any sign of impatience.
With so much to make me happy, will you think me very greedy and discontented if I say that I should like to be still happier? I confess that there are several little, or big, things I still wish and hope for every day, and without them I cannot feel altogether contented. I must name two or three of them to you, but I am afraid to begin with the most important. I must slowly work up to that at the end. Arthur has not yet returned to England, and I am so anxious to see him again; but he says nothing definite in his letters about returning. I have just had a letter from him, which I shall show you when I see you, for he speaks of you in it. After all I have told him about you he must feel that he knows you very well.
Another thing. Since we have been here Constance has read me the first chapters of the book she is writing. It is a very beautiful story, I think; but it will be her first book, and as her name is unknown, she is afraid that the publishers will not have it. That is one thing that troubles me, for she says she must make her living by writing, and I am almost as anxious as she is herself about it.
Another thing is about you, Mary. Why, when we love each other so much— for you can't deny that you love me as much as I do you, and I know how much that is—why must we keep apart just now, when you can so easily get into a train and come to me? To us I should say, for I know how glad Constance would be to have you here. Dear Mary, will you come, if only for a fortnight—if only for a week? You remember that you wanted to go to the seaside or somewhere with me. Well, if you will come and join us here we might afterwards all go to Sidmouth for a short (or long) stay; for you and I together would be able to persuade Constance to go with us. My wish is so strong that it has made me believe you will come, and I have even spoken to Constance and Mrs. Churton about it, and they would give you a nice room; and you would be my guest, Mary; and if you should object to that, then you could pay Mrs. Churton for yourself. I have a great many other things to say to you, but shall not write them, in the hope that you will come to hear them from my lips. Only one thing I must mention, because it might vex you, and had therefore best be written. You must not think because I go back to the subject that I have any doubt about Tom being in the wrong in that quarrel you told me about; but I must say again, Mary, that if he was in the wrong, it is for you rather than for him to make the first advance. I would rather people offended me sometimes than not to have the pleasure of forgiving. Forgive me, dearest Mary, for saying this; but I can say it better than another, since no one in the world knows so well as I do how good you are.
And now, dearest Mary, good-bye, and come—come to your loving
She had read this letter once, and now while sipping her second cup of coffee was reading it again, when the door opened and Tom Starbrow walked into the room.
"Good-morning, Mary," he said, coming forward and coolly sitting down at some distance from her.
She had not heard him knock, and his sudden appearance made her start and the colour forsake her cheeks; but in a moment she recovered her composure, and returned, "Good-morning, Tom, will you have some breakfast?"
"No, thanks. I breakfasted quite early at Euston. I came up by a night train, and might have been here an hour or two ago, but preferred to wait until your usual getting-up hour."
"I suppose you got my letter in America?"
"Yes, I am here in answer to your letter."
"It was very good of you to come so soon, especially as it was entirely about my private affairs."
"I could not know that, Mary. That high and mighty letter of yours told me nothing except what I knew already—that I have a sister. In the postscript you said you wished to consult me about something, and had things to tell me. Your letter reached me in Canada. I was just getting ready to return to New York, and had made up my mind to go to California; then down the Pacific coast to Chili, and from there over the Andes, and across country to Buenos Ayres on the Atlantic side, and then by water to Brazil, and afterwards home. After getting your letter I came straight to England."
"I should think that after coming all that distance you might at least have shaken hands with your sister."
"No, Mary, the time to shake hands has not yet come; that you must know very well. You did not say in your letter what you had to tell me, but only that you had something to tell me; remembering what we parted in anger about, and knowing that you know how deeply I feel on that subject, I naturally concluded that you wished to see me about it. I do not wish to be trifled with."
"I am not accustomed to trifle with you or with anyone," retorted his sister with temper. "If your imagination is too lively, I am not to blame for it. I asked you to come and see me on your return to England, not to rush back in hot haste from America as if on a matter of life and death. It is quite a new thing for you to be so impetuous."
"Is that all you have to say to me then—have you brought me here only to talk to me in the old strain?"
"I have—I had a great many things to say to you, but was in no hurry to say them; and since you have come in this very uncomfortable frame of mind I think it best to hold my peace. My principal object in writing was to show you that I did not wish to be unfriendly."
He got up from his chair, looking deeply disappointed, even angry, and moved restlessly about for a minute or two. Near the door he paused as if in doubt whether to go away at once without more words or not. Finally he returned and sat down again. "Mary," he said, "you have not treated me well; but I am now here in answer to your letter. Perhaps I was mistaken in its meaning, but I have no wish to make our quarrel worse than it is. Let me hear what you have to say to me; and if you require my advice or assistance, you shall certainly have it. If I cannot feel towards you as I did in the good old times, I shall, at any rate, not forget that you are my sister."
"That's a good old sensible boy," she returned, smiling. "But, Tom, before we begin talking I should like you to read this letter, which I was reading when you came in so suddenly. Probably you noticed that I took what you said just now very meekly; well, that was the effect of reading this letter, it is written in such a gentle soothing spirit. If you will read it it might have the same quieting effect on your nerves as it did on mine."
He took the letter without a smile, glanced at a sentence here and there, and looked at the name at the end. "Pooh!" he exclaimed, "do you really wish me to wade through eight closely-written pages of this sort of stuff —the outpourings of a sentimental young lady? I see nothing in it except the very eccentric handwriting, and the fact that this Frances Eden—girl or woman—doesn't put the gist of the matter into a postscript."
"You needn't sneer. And you won't read it? Frances Eden is Fan."
"Fan—your Fan! Fan Affleck! Is she married then?"
"No, only changed her name to Eden—it was her father's name. Give me the letter back."
"Not till I have read it," he calmly returned. "Mary," he said at last, looking up, "this letter more than justifies what I have said to you dozens of times. No sweeter spirit ever existed."
"All that about the outpourings of a sentimental girl or woman?"
"I could never have said that if I had read the letter."
"And the eccentric writing—you admire that now, I suppose?"
"I do. I never saw more beautiful writing in my life."
"You needn't laugh," he said. "If I were you I should feel more inclined to cry. Tell me honestly now, from your heart, do you feel no remorse when you remember how you treated that girl—the girl who wrote you this letter; that I first saw in this room, standing there in a green dress with a great bunch of daffodils in her hand, and looking shyly at me from under those dark eyelashes? I thought then that I had never seen such tender, beautiful eyes in my life. Come, Mary, don't be too proud to acknowledge that you acted very harshly—very unjustly."
"No, Tom, I acted justly; she brought it on herself. But I did not act mercifully, and I will tell you why. When I threatened to cast her off I spoke in anger—I had good reasons to be angry with her—but I should not have done it; I should only have taken her away from those Churton people, and kept her in London, or sent her elsewhere. But my words brought that storm from you on my head, and that settled it; after that I could not do less than what I had threatened to do."
"If that is really so I am very sorry," he said. "But all's well that ends well; only I must say, Mary, that it was unkind of you to receive me as you did and tease me so before telling me that you were in correspondence with the girl once more."
"You are making a great mistake, I only tease those I like; but as for you, you have not even apologised to me yet, and I should not think of being so friendly with you as to tease you."
He laughed, and going to her side caught her in his strong arms and kissed her in spite of her resistance.
The resistance had not been great, but presently she wiped the cheek he had kissed, and said with a look of returning indignation, "I should not have allowed you to kiss me if I had remembered that you have never apologised for the insulting language you used to me at Ravenna, when you called me a demon."
"Did I call you a demon at Ravenna?"
"Yes, you did."
"Then, Mary, I am heartily ashamed of myself and beg your pardon now. There can be no justification, but at the same time—"
"You wish to justify yourself."
"No, no, certainly not; but I was scarcely myself at that moment, and you certainly did your best to vex me about Fan and other matters."
"What do you mean by other matters?"
"You know that I am alluding to Mr. Yewdell, and the way you treated him. I could not have believed it of you. I began to think that I had the most—well, capricious woman in all Europe for a sister."
"No, it is not poor man in this case, but poor woman. For you contemptuously flung away the best chance of happiness that ever came to you. I dare say that you have had offers in plenty—you have some money, and therefore of course you would get offers—but not from Yewdells. That could not happen to you more than once in your life. A better-hearted fellow, a truer man—"
"Call him a Nature's nobleman at once and have done with it."
"Yes, a Nature's nobleman; you couldn't have described him better. A man I should have been proud to call a brother, and who loved you not for your miserable pelf, for that was nothing to him, but for yourself, and with a good honest love. And he would have made you happy, Mary, not by giving way to you as you might imagine from his unfailing good temper and gentleness, but by being your master. For that is what you want, Mary—a man that will rule you. And Yewdell was that sort of man, gentle but firm—"
"Oh, do be original, Tom, and say something pretty about a steel hand under a silk glove."
"Ah, well, you may scoff if you like, but perhaps you regret now that you went so far with him. A mercenary man, or even a mean-spirited man, would have put up with it perhaps, and followed you still. He respected himself too much to do that. He paid you the greatest compliment a man has it in his power to pay a woman, and you did not know how to appreciate it. You scorned him, and he turned away from you for ever. If you were to go to him now, though you cast yourself on your knees before him, to ask him to renew that offer, he would look at you with stony eyes and pass on—"
"Stony fiddlesticks! That just shows, Tom, how well you know your own sex. Why, Mr. Yewdell and I are the best friends in the world, and he writes to me almost every week, and very nice letters, only too long, I think."
Her brother stared at her and almost gasped with astonishment.
"Well, I am surprised and glad," he said, recovering his speech at last. "It was worth crossing the Atlantic only to hear this."
"Don't make any mistake, Tom. I am no more in love with him now than when we were in Italy together."
"All right, Mary. In future I shall do nothing but abuse him, and then perhaps it will all come right in the end. And now about this letter from Fan. Will you go down to that place where she is staying?"
"I don't know, I should like to go. I have not yet made up my mind."
"Do go, Mary; and then I might run down and put up for a day or two at the 'Cow and Harrow,' or whatever the local inn calls itself, to have a stroll with you among those brown and yellow woods she writes about."
She did not answer his words. He was standing on the hearthrug watching her face, and noticed the change, the hesitancy and softness which had come over it.
"You are fonder now than ever of this girl," he said. "She draws you to her. Confess, Mary, that she has great influence over you, and that she is doing you good."
Her lips quivered a little, and she half averted her face.
"Yes, she draws me to her, and I cannot resist her. But I don't know about her doing me good, unless it be a good of which evil may come."
"What do you mean, Mary? There is something on your mind. Don't be afraid to confide in me."
She got up and came to his side; she could not speak sitting there with his eyes on her.
"Do you remember the confession I made to you when we were at Naples? When you spoke to me about Yewdell, and I said that I never wished to marry? I confessed that I had allowed myself to love a man, knowing him to be no good man. But in spite of reason I loved him, and did not believe him altogether bad—not too bad to be my husband. Then something happened—I found out something about him which killed my love, or changed it to hatred rather. I despised myself for having given him my heart, and was free again as if I had never seen him. I even thought that I might some day love someone else, only that the time had not yet come. But what will you think of the sequel? I did not tell you when I discovered his true character that Fan was living with me, and knew the whole affair—knew all that I knew—and that—she was very deeply affected by it. Now, since Fan and I have been thrown together once more, she has accidentally met this man again, and has persuaded herself that he has repented of his evil courses, and she has forgiven him, and become friendly with him, and, what is worse, has set her heart on making me forgive him."
"It is heavenly to forgive, Mary."
"Yes, very likely; in her case it might be right enough; she is only acting according to her—"
"Fanlights," interrupted her brother. "But to what does all this tend? If you feel inclined to forgive this man his past sins you can do so, I suppose, without throwing yourself into his arms."
"The trouble is, Tom, that I can't separate the two things. No sooner did Fan begin to speak to me again of him, telling me about his new changed life, and insinuating that it would be a gracious and noble thing in me to forgive him, than all the old feeling came back to me. I have fought against it with my whole strength, but what is reason against a feeling like that! And then most unhappily I met him by chance, and—and I gave him my hand and forgave him, and even called him by his Christian name as I had been accustomed to do. And now I feel that—I cannot resist him."
"Good heavens, Mary, are you such a slave to a feeling as that! Who is this man—what is he like, and how does he live?"
"He is a gentleman, and was in the army, but is now on the Stock Exchange, and winning his way, I hear, in the world. He is about thirty- five, tall, very good-looking—I think; and he is also a cultivated man, and has a very fine voice. Even before I had that feeling for him I liked him more than any man I ever knew. Perhaps," she added with a little anxious laugh, "the reason I loved him was because I knew that—if I ever married him—he—would rule me."
Her brother considered for some time. "I remember what you told me, Mary. You said that this man had proved himself a scoundrel, but you sometimes use extravagant language. Now there are a great many bad things a man may do, and yet not be hopelessly bad. Passion gets the mastery, the moral feelings may for a time appear obliterated; but in time they revive—like that feeling of yours; and one who has seemed a bad man may settle down at last into a rather good fellow. Confide in me, Mary—I will not judge harshly. Let me hear the very worst you know of him."
She shook her head, smiling a little.
"You will not? Then how am I to help you, and why have you told me so much?"
"My trouble is that you can't help me, Tom. My belief is that no man who is worth anything ever changes. His circumstances change and he adapts himself to them, but that is all on the surface. Can you imagine your Mr. Yewdell something vile, degenerate, weak—a gambler, a noisy fool, a braggart, a tippler—"
"Good heavens, no!"
She laughed. "Nor can I imagine the man we are talking of a good man; nor can I believe that there is any change in him. If I had thought that—if I had taken Fan's views, I should not have forgiven him. Then I should not have been in danger. As it is—" She did not finish the sentence.
"As it is you are in danger, and deliberately refuse to let me help you." Then in a kind of despair, he added, "I know how headstrong you are, and that the slightest show of opposition only makes matters worse—what can I do?"
"Nothing," she answered in a very low voice. "But, Tom, you must know that it was hard for me to write you that letter, and that it has been harder still to make this confession. Can't you see what I mean? Well, I mean that I find it very refreshing to have a good talk with you. I hope you are not going to disappear into space again as soon as our conversation is over."
"No," he returned with a slight laugh, and a glance at her downcast eyes, "I am an idle man just now, and intend making a long stay in London."
On the beach at Sidmouth, about noon one day in the last week of November, a day of almost brilliant sunshine despite the season, with a light dry west wind crinkling the surface of the sea, Mary and Constance, with Fan between them, were seated on a heap of shingle sheltered from the wind by a sloping bank. Constance, with hands folded over the closed book on her lap, sat idly gazing on the blue expanse of water, watching the white little wave-crests that formed only to vanish so quickly. The quiet restful life she had experienced since Merton's death had had its effect; her form had partially recovered its roundness, her face something of that rich brown tint that had given a peculiar character to her beauty; the melancholy in her tender eyes was no longer "o'erlaid with black," but was more like the clear dark of early morning that tells of the passing of night and of the long day that is to be. She was like the Constance of the old days at Eyethorne, and yet unlike; something had been lost, something gained; for Nature, archaeologist and artist, is wiser than man in her restorations, restoring never on the old vanished lines. She was changed, but unhappy experience had left no permanent bitterness in her heart, nor made her world-weary, nor cynical, nor discontented; life's unutterable sadness had only served to deepen her love and widen her sympathies. And this was pure gain, compensation for the loss of that which had vanished and would not return—the virgin freshness when the tender early light is in the eye, and the lips are dewy, and no flower has yet perished in the heart.
To Fan at her side, interested in her novel, yet glancing up from time to time to see what her friends were doing, and perhaps make a random guess at their thoughts, these weeks of country and seaside life with those she loved had added a new brightness to her refined and delicate face. The autumn sunshine had not embrowned the transparent skin, but the red of the lips seemed deeper, and the ethereal almond-blossom tint on the cheeks less uncertain.
Mary was not reading, nor thinking apparently, but sat idly humming a tune and picking up pebbles only to throw them from her. She appeared to have no care at her heart, to be satisfied with the mere fact of existence while the sun shone as it did to-day, and wind and waters made music. That beautiful red colour that seldom failed her looked richer than ever on her cheeks; her abundant black hair hung loose on her back to dry in the wind. For she was a great sea-bather, and while the wintry cold of the water repelled her companions, she enjoyed her daily swim, sometimes creating alarm by her boldness in going far out to battle with the rough waves.
First there had been a pleasant fortnight at Eyethorne; and during those days of close intimacy in the Churtons' small house and out of doors, the kindly feelings Mary and Constance had begun to experience towards each other in London had ripened to a friendship so close that Fan might very well have been made a little jealous at it if she had been that way predisposed. She only felt that the highest object of her ambitions had been gained, that her happiness was complete. There was nothing more to be desired. The present was enough for her; if she thought of the future at all it was only in a vague way, as she might think of the French coast opposite, too far off to be visible, but where she would perhaps set her foot in other years.
At Eyethorne many letters had come to them all. Letters from Arthur Eden, who spoke of returning soon from Continental wanderings, and of coming down to see his sister in the country. And from Captain Horton, also to Fan, with one at last to Mary, begging them to allow him to come down from London to spend a few days with them. And from Mr. Northcott to Constance—letters full of friendliest feeling, no longer resented, and of some speculative matter; for these two had discovered an infinite number of deep questions that called for discussion. To those questions that concerned the spirit and were of first importance, the first place was given; but there were also worldly affairs to correspond about, for Constance had sent her manuscript to the curate for his opinion, and he had kept it some time to get another (more impartial) opinion, and now wished to submit it to a publisher. He had also expressed the intention of visiting Eyethorne shortly.
Eventually he came; he even preached once more in the old familiar pulpit at the invitation of the vicar, who had not treated him too well. On the Saturday evening before preaching, he said to Constance:
"Once I was eager to persuade you to come to church to hear me; will you think it strange if I ask you not to come on this occasion?"
"Why?" she returned, looking anxiously at him. "Do you mean that you are going to make some allusion to—"
"No, Constance. But my discourse will be about my life at the East End of London, and what I have seen there. I shall talk not of ancient things but of the present—that sad present we both know. You can realise it all so vividly—it will be painful to you."
"I had made up my mind to go. Thank you for warning me, but I shall go all the same."
"I am glad."
"You must not jump to any conclusions, Harold," she said, glancing at him.
"No," he replied, and went away with a shadow on his face that was scarcely a shadow.
After all, she was able to listen to his sermon with outward calm. But it was a happiness to Mrs. Churton when Wood End House sent so large a contingent of worshippers to the village church, where the pew in which she had sat alone on so many Sundays—poor Mr. Churton's increasing ailments having prevented him from accompanying her—was so well filled. Glancing about her, as was her custom, to note which of her poor were present and which absent, she was surprised to see the carpenter Cawood, with his wife and little ones, his eyes resting on the young girl at her side, and it made her glad to think that she had not perhaps angled in vain for this catcher of silly fish.
The curate had not been long in the village before Tom Starbrow appeared and established himself at the "Eyethorne Inn"; but most of his time was spent at Wood End House, and in long drives and rambles with his sister and Fan. Then had come the migration to Sidmouth, Tom and the curate accompanying the ladies. Shortly afterwards Fan heard from her brother; he was back in London, and proposed running down to pay her a visit. It was a pleasant letter he wrote, and she had no fear of meeting him now; he had recovered from his madness, or, to put it another way, from a feeling that was not convenient.
"Have you answered your brother yet?" said Mary, the morning after Arthur's letter had been received. "I am awfully anxious to see him."
"No, not yet; I wish to ask you something first. Arthur says he will come down as soon as he gets my reply. And—I should like Captain Horton to come with him."
"They are strangers to each other, I believe," said Mary coldly.
"Yes, I know, but my idea was to send a note to Captain Horton at the same time, asking him to call on Arthur at his rooms, and arrange to come down with him. But I must ask your consent first."
"Why my consent? Your brother is coming at your invitation, and I suppose you have the same right you exercise in his case to ask anyone you like without my permission. You may if you think proper invite all the people you have ever met in London, and tell them to bring their relations and friends with them. I am not the proprietor of Sidmouth."
"But, Mary, the cases are so different. You know Captain Horton, and though he is my friend, and I consider myself greatly in his debt—" The other laughed scornfully.
"Still, I should not think of asking him to come unless you were willing to meet him."
"My knowing him makes no difference. I happen to be perfectly indifferent, and care as little whether he comes or not as if he were an absolute stranger. Less, in fact, for your brother is a stranger to me, and I am anxious to meet him."
Fan reflected a little, then, with a smiling look and pleading tone, she said:
"If you are really quite indifferent about it, Mary, you will not refuse to let me couple your name with mine when I ask him to come down. That would be nothing more than common politeness, I think."
"Use my name? I shall consent to nothing of the sort!" But as she turned to leave the room Fan caught her hand and pulled her back.
"Don't go yet, Mary dear," she said; "we have not yet quite settled what to do."
The other looked at her, a little frown on her forehead, a half-smile on her lips.
"Very well, Fan, hear my last word, then take your own course. I quite understand your wheedling ways, and I have so often given way that you have come to think you can do just what you like with me. You have yet to learn that when my mind is once made up about anything you might just as well attempt to move the Monument as to move me. You shall not couple my name with yours; and if you are going to ask Captain Horton down here, I advise you, to prevent mistakes, to inform him that I distinctly refuse to join you in the invitation."
Fan, without replying, sat down before her writing-case. The other paused at the door, and after hesitating a few moments came back and put her hands on the girl's shoulder.
"I know exactly what you are going to do, Fan," she spoke, "for you are perfectly transparent, and I can read you like a book. You are going to write one of your very simple candid letters to tell him what I have said, and then finish by asking him to come down with Mr. Eden."
"Yes, that is what I am going to do."
"Then, my dear girl, I should like to ask you a simple straightforward question: What is your motive in acting in this way?"
"My motive, Mary! Just now you said you could read me like a book; must I begin to think that you boast a little too much—or are you only pretending to be ignorant?"
"You grow impertinent, Miss Eden," said the other with a laugh. "But if your motive is what I imagine, then, thank goodness, your efforts are wasted. Listen to this. If, instead of being a young innocent girl, you were an ancient, shrivelled-up, worldly-minded woman, with a dried-up puff-ball full of blue dust for a heart, and a scheming brain manufactured by Maskelyne and Cook; and if you had Captain Horton for a son, and had singled me out for his victim, you could not have done more to put me in his power."
Fan glanced into her face, then dropped her eyes and turned crimson.
"Have I frightened the shy little innocent? Doesn't she like to have her wicked little plans exposed?" said the other mockingly.
"Can you not read me better, Mary?" said Fan; but her face was still bent over her writing-case, nor would she say more, although the other stood by waiting.
Nor would Mary question her any further. She had said too much already, and shame made her silent.
When Captain Horton read her letter one thing only surprised him—the reality and completeness of the forgiveness he had won from the girl, her faith in his better nature, the single-hearted friendship she freely gave him. He could never cease to be surprised at it. Mary's attitude, so faithfully reported, did not surprise or discourage him; hers was a more complex nature: she had given him her hand, and he believed that in spite of everything something of the old wayward passion still existed in her heart. The opportunity of meeting her again, where he might be with her a great deal, was not to be neglected, and he did not greatly fear the result.
Two or three days later he arrived with Arthur Eden at Sidmouth, so that the party now numbered seven. It was a pleasant gathering, for Mary did not quarrel with Fan for what she had done; nor was Tom Starbrow unfriendly towards his sister's lover; and as to Eden, he had grafted a new and better stock on that wild olive that had flourished so vigorously; and it thus came to pass that they spent an unclouded fortnight together. But that is perhaps saying a little too much. Four men and three women, so that when they broke up there was one dame always attended by two cavaliers: strange to say, Fan was always the favoured one. For some occult reason no one contested the curate's right to have Constance all to himself on such occasions; for what right had he, a religious man, to monopolise this pretty infidel? Then, too, she was a widow, entitled by prescription to the largest share of attention; nevertheless, the curate was allowed to have her all to himself whenever the party broke up into couples and one inconvenient triplet.
Arthur Eden was most inconsiderate. There were whispers and signs for those who had ears to hear and eyes to see, but he chose not to see and hear. On all occasions when he found an opportunity or could make one, he took possession of Miss Starbrow; while she, on her part, appeared willing enough to be taken possession of by him. Their sudden liking to each other seemed strange, considering the great difference in their dispositions; but about the fact there was no mistake, they were constantly absent together on long drives and walks, exploring the adjacent country, lunching at distant rural villages, and coming home to dinner glowing with health and happy as young lovers.
And while these two were thus taken up with each other, and the curate and widow soberly paced the cliffs or sat on the beach discoursing together of lofty matters—of the mysteries of our being and the hunger of the spirit, and argued of fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute, wandering through eternity without lighting on any fresh discovery of importance in that extensive field—Fan not infrequently found herself taking part in a somewhat monotonous trio, with the Captain, baritone, or basso rather, for he was rather depressed in mind, and Tom, tenor, an artist who sang with feeling, but with insufficient control over his voice.
And one day this gentle maiden, having got her brother all to herself, began "at him":
"I am very glad, Arthur, that you and Mary are such good friends."
"I'm so glad that you are glad that I'm glad," he returned airily, quoting Mallock.
"At the same time—"
"Oh, yes, now you are going to say something to spoil it all, I suppose," he interrupted.
"I can't help thinking that it is not quite fair to the others to carry her off day after day—especially after she has not been with her brother for so long a time."
"Ah, yes, her brother! Poor girl, I'm afraid you've been sadly bored. We must somehow manage to reshuffle the cards. Starbrow might have a turn at Constance, while you could try Northcott. Would that be better?"
"No," she replied gravely, colouring a little, and with a troubled glance at his face. "I am thinking principally of Mary and Captain Horton. I know that he would like to see a little more of her, and—I don't quite see the justice of your monopolising her."
"And why should I give way to Captain Horton, or to any man? That's not the way to win a lady's favour. I understand that you look on Miss Starbrow as a species of goddess; don't you think it would be a grand thing to be sister-in-law to one of the immortals?"
"She could not be more to me than she is; but that you have any feeling of that kind for Mary, I don't believe, Arthur."
"You are right," he replied, with a laugh. "I am not sure that wooing Mary would be an altogether pleasant process; but as a friend she is a treasure—the chummiest woman I ever came across."
He did not tell her that the strongest bond between them was their feeling for Fan herself. He, on his part, felt that he could never be sufficiently grateful to the woman who had rescued his half-sister from such a depth of destitution and misery, and had protected and loved her; she, on hers, could not sufficiently admire him for the way in which he had acted, in spite of social prejudices as strong almost as instincts, when he had once discovered a sister in the poor shop-girl. At different periods and in different ways they had both treated her badly; but the something of remorse they could not help feeling on that account only served to increase their present love and care for her.
At length, one day during one of their expeditions, Arthur spoke to Mary on a subject about which he had kept silence all along. Replying to a remark she had made about his resemblance to the girl, he said, "Everything I resemble her in is inherited from my grandmother on my father's side." Then he began to laugh.
"I don't quite see where the laugh comes in," said Mary, who had pricked up her ears at the mention of his grandmother, for she had been waiting to hear him say something about his relations.
"No, but you would see it if you knew my aunt—my father's sister—and had heard what passed between us about Fan. She is a widow, and lives in Kensington with her two daughters—both pretty, clever girls, I think, though they are my cousins. Let me tell you about her. She is a dear good creature, and I am awfully fond of her; very religious too, but what the world thinks and says, and what it will say, is as much to her as what her Bible says, although it would shock her very much to hear me say so. When I made the discovery that Fan was my half-sister, I told aunt all about it. She was greatly troubled in her mind, and I suppose that her mental picture of the girl must have been rather a disagreeable one; but she asked no questions on the point, and I gave her no information. She said that it was right to provide for her, and so on, but that it would be a great mistake to make her take the family name, or to bring her forward in any way. After a few days she wrote to me asking what I had done or was going to do about it. I replied that Fan was my father's daughter, and as much to me as if we had been born of one mother as well, and that I had nothing more to say. Then I got letter after letter, reasoning with me about my quixotic ideas, and trying to convince me that my action would only result in spoiling the girl, and in creating a coldness between myself and relations. It was rather hard, because I am really fond of my aunt and my cousins. My only answer to all her letters was to give her an account of that dream or fancy of my father's; her reply was that that made no difference, that I would do the girl no good by dragging her among people she was not fitted to associate with.
"So the matter rested until my return to England, when I called to see her. She was still anxious, and at once asked me if I had come round to her view. I said no. At last, finding that I was not to be moved, she asked me to let her see the girl—she did not wish her daughters to see her. I declined, and that brought us to a deadlock. She informed me that there was nothing more to be said, but she couldn't help saying more, and asked me what I intended doing about it. Nothing, I answered; since she refused to countenance Fan, there was nothing I could do. Not quite satisfied, she asked whether this disagreement between us would make any difference. I said that it would make all the difference in the world. She was angry at that, but got over it by the time my visit came to an end, and she asked me very sweetly when I was going to see her again. I laughed, and said that after she had turned me, quixotic ideas and all, out of her house, I could not very well return. It distressed her very much; for she knows that I am not all softness, that I can sometimes stick to a resolution. Then at last came the question that should have come first: What was this poor girl of the lower orders about whom I had lost my reason like?
"Before finishing I must tell you something about that grandmother I have mentioned. She was a gentle, lovely woman, just such a one as Fan in character, and her memory is almost worshipped by my aunt. And Fan is exactly like what she was when a girl. I knew that my aunt possessed an exquisite miniature portrait of her taken before her marriage, which I had not seen for a long time. I asked her to let me look at it, and one of the girls went and fetched it. 'This,' I said, 'allowing for the different arrangement of the hair, might be a portrait of Fan; and in character, the resemblance is as great as in face. I believe that my grandmother's soul has come back to earth.'
"'Arthur, I can't believe you!' she exclaimed. 'It is wicked of you to compare this poor girl, the child of a person of the lower classes, to my mother—a most heavenly-minded woman!' I only laughed, and then they begged me to show them a photograph of Fan. I hadn't one to show, but I got back that picture you have heard about, and forwarded it to Kensington. Now my aunt and cousins are most anxious to see the girl, and are rather vexed with me because I am taking my time about it. Now you know, Mary, why I laughed."
"My dear boy," she said, putting her hand in his, "I thought well of you before, but better now; you have acted nobly."
"Oh please don't say that. Besides—I think I am too old to be called a boy—especially by a girl."
Mary laughed. "And you can tell me all this and keep it from Fan, when it would make her so unutterably happy!"
"She will know it all in good time. It will be a pleasant little surprise when she is back in London. I have sent my aunt to confer with Mr. Travers, and his account of Fan has quite excited her."
From all this it will be seen, that if Captain Horton feared Eden's rivalry, he imagined a vain thing. But it was natural that he should be disquieted. His only season of pleasure was at the end of the day, when a reunion took place; for then Mary would lay aside her coldness, and sing duets with him and talk in the old familiar way. But his opportunity came at last.
Arthur took Fan to Exeter one morning to show her the cathedral, and at the same time to pay a visit to an old school-fellow who had a curacy there. Tom Starbrow went with them, and they were absent all day. Constance occupied herself with her writing, and Mary would not leave the house alone, but towards evening they went out for a walk on the cliff together, and there they were unexpectedly joined by Captain Horton and Mr. Northcott, who had apparently been consoling each other. The curate and Constance had some literary matters to discuss, and presently drifted away from the others. Then Mary's face lost its gaiety; even the rich colour faded from her cheeks; she was silent and distressed, then finally grew cold and hard.
"Shall we sit here and rest for a few minutes?" he said at length, as they came to an old bench on the cliff overlooking the sea.
"I am not tired, thank you."
"But I am, Mary. Or at all events I have an uncomfortable sensation just now, and should like to sit down if you don't mind."
She sat down without reply, and began gazing seawards, still with that cloud on her face.
"May I speak to you now, Mary?"
"You may speak, but I warn you not to."
"And if I speak of other things?"
"Then I shouldn't mind."
"When you said you forgave me, did you in very truth forgive?"
"And if I say no more now, will it be better for me afterwards?"
"No, I cannot say that."
But she remained silent, still gazing seawards.
"Will you not say?"
"I warned you not to speak."
"But it is horrible—this silence and suspense."
"We all have to bear horrible things—worse things than this."
"I understand you. I believed you when you told me what you did just now —of the past."
"What then?" she questioned, turning her eyes full on him for the first time. For a moment their eyes met; then his dropped and hers were again turned towards the sea.
"Is it possible, Mary, for us to be together, for our eyes to meet, our hands to touch, without a return of that feeling you once had for me— that was strong in you before some devil out of hell caused me to offend you?"
"Quite possible—that is a short answer to a long speech. It does not seem quite fair to try and shuffle the responsibility of your actions on to some poor imaginary devil."
"It was a mere figure of speech. Why should you allude to things that are forgiven?"
"You alluded to them yourself. You know that they cannot be forgotten. What do you expect? Let me also talk to you in figurative language. It happens sometimes that a tree is struck by lightning and killed in an instant—leaf, branch, and root—killed and turned to dust and ashes."
"And still there may be a living rootlet left in the soil, which will sprout and renew the dead tree in time."
She glanced at him again and was silent. She had spoken falsely; the words which she had spoken to herself on a former occasion, when struggling against the revival of the old feeling, he had now used against her.
"Will you tell me, Mary, that there is not one living rootlet left?"
She was silent for some moments; then, feeling the blood forsake her cheeks, replied deliberately, "Not one. Can I speak plainer?"
He, too, grew white as she spoke, and was silent for a while, then said, "Mary, has some new growth taken the place of the old roots, which you say were killed and turned to ashes? There would be a hollow place where they existed—an emptiness which is hateful to Nature."
"Still pounding away at the same metaphor!" she returned, trying with poor success to speak in a mocking tone, and laughing in a strange, almost hysterical way.
"Yes, still at the same metaphor," he returned, with a keen glance at her face. Her tone, her strained laughter, something in her expression, told him that she had spoken falsely—that he might still hope. "You have not answered my question, Mary."
"You have no right to expect an answer," she returned, angry at her own weakness and his keenness in detecting it. "But I don't mind telling you that no other growth has occupied that hollow empty place you described." Her voice had recovered its steadiness, and growing bolder she added, "I don't believe that Nature really hates hollow empty places, as you say— the world itself is hollow. Anyhow, it doesn't matter to me in the least what she hates or likes: Nature is Nature, and I am I."
"But answer me this: If you can suffer me, are not my chances equally good with those of any other man?"
"Jack, I am getting heartily tired of this. Why do you keep on harking back to the subject when I have spoken so plainly? Whether I shall ever feel towards any other man as I did towards you, to my sorrow, I cannot say; but this I can say, even if that dead feeling I once had for you should come to life again, it would avail you nothing. I shall say no more—except one thing, which you had better know. I shall always be friendly, and shall never think about the past unless you yourself remind me of it, as you did just now. This much you owe to Fan."
He took the proffered hand in his, and bending, touched his lips to it. Then they rose and walked on in silence—she grave, yet with a feeling of triumph in her heart, for the feared moment had come, and she had not been weak, and the cup of shame had passed for ever from her lips; he profoundly sad, for it had been revealed to him that the old feeling, in spite of her denial, was not wholly dead, and yet he knew that he had lost her.
Meanwhile that important literary matter was being discussed on another portion of the cliff by the curate and Constance. It referred to the tale she had written, which he had submitted to a publisher, who had offered a small sum for the copyright. The book, the publisher had said, was moderately good, but it formed only one volume; readers preferred their novels in three volumes, even if they had to put up with inferior quality. Besides, there was always a considerable risk in bringing out a book by an unknown hand, with more in the same strain of explanation of the smallness of the sum offered for the manuscript. The price being so small, Constance was not strongly tempted to accept it. Then she wanted to get the manuscript back. The thought of appearing as a competitor for public favour in the novel-writing line began to produce a nervousness in her similar to the stage-fright of young actors on their first appearance. She had not taken pains enough, and could improve the work by introducing new and better scenes; she had imprudently said things she ought not to have said, and could imagine the reviewers (orthodox to a man) tearing her book to pieces in a fine rage, and scattering its leaves to the four winds of heaven.
Mr. Northcott smiled at her fears. He maintained that the one fault of the book was that the style was too good—for a novel. It was not well, he said, to write too well. On the contrary, a certain roughness and carelessness had their advantage, especially with critical readers, and served to show the hand of the professed novelist who, sick or well, in the spirit or not, fills his twenty-four or thirty-six quarto pages per diem. A polished style, on the other hand, exhibited care and looked amateurish. He had no very great opinion of this kind of writing, and advised her to get rid of the delusion that when she wrote a novel she made literature. To clinch the argument, he proceeded to put a series of uncomfortable questions to her. Did she expect to live by novel-writing? How long would it take her to write three volumes? How long could she maintain existence on the market price of a three-volume novel? It was clear that, unless she was prepared to live on bread-and-cheese, she could not afford to re-write anything. As for the reviewers, if they found her book tiresome, they would dismiss it in a couple of colourless or perhaps contemptuous paragraphs; if they found it interesting, they would recommend it; but about her religious opinions expressed in it they would not think it necessary to say anything.
When this matter had been settled, and she had agreed, albeit with some misgivings, to accept the publisher's offer and let the book take its chance, they passed to other subjects.
"I shall feel it most," said Constance, referring to his intended departure on the morrow.
"These words," he returned, "will be a comfort to me when I am back in London, after the peaceful days we have spent together."
"You needed this holiday more than any of us, Harold. I am glad it has given you fresh strength for your sad toiling life in town."
"Not sad, Constance, so long as I have your sympathy."
"You know that you always have that. It is little to give when I think of all you were to me—to us, at that dark period of our life." She turned her face from him.
"Do you call it little, Constance?" He spoke with an intensity of feeling that made his voice tremble. "It is inexpressibly dear to me; it sweetens existence; without it I know that my life would be dark indeed."
"Dark, Harold! For me, and all who think with me, there is nothing to guide but the light of nature that cannot satisfy you—that you regard as a pale false light; it is not strange, therefore, that we make so much of human sympathy and affection—that it sustains us. But if there is any reality in that divine grace supposed to be given to those who are able to believe in certain things, in spite of reason, then you are surely wrong in speaking as you do."
Her earnestness, a something of bitterness imparted into her words, seemed strange, considering that as a rule she avoided discussions of this kind. Now she appeared eager for the fray; but it was a fictitious eagerness, a great fear had come into her heart, and she was anxious to turn the current of his thoughts from personal and therefore dangerous subjects.
"I do not know—I cannot say," he returned, evading the point. "I only know that we are no longer like soldiers in opposing camps. Perhaps I have had some influence on you—everything we do and say must in some degree affect those around us. I know that you have greatly changed me. Your words, and more than your words, the lesson of your life, has sunk into my heart, and I cannot rebuke you. For though you have not Christ's Name on your lips, the spirit which gives to the Christian religion its deathless vitality is in your soul, and shines in your whole life."
They walked on in silence, he overcome with deep feeling, she unable to reply, still apprehending danger. Then sinking his voice, he said:
"Your heart does not blame, do not let your reason blame me for thinking so much of your sympathy." After a while he went on, his voice still lower and faltering, as if hope faltered—"Constance, you have done so much for me.... You have made my life so much more to me than it was.... Will you do more still? ... Will you let me think that the sympathy, the affection you have so long felt for me, may in time ripen to another feeling which will make us even more to each other than we are now?"
His voice had grown husky and had fallen almost to a whisper at the end. They were standing now, she pale and trembling, tears gathering in her eyes, her fingers clasped together before her.
"Oh, I am to blame for this," she spoke at last with passion. "But your kindness was more to me than wine to the faint, and I believed—I flattered myself that it was nothing more than Christian kindness, that it never would, never could be more. I might have known—I might have known! Harold, if you knew the pain I suffer, you would try for my sake as well as your own to put this thought from you. The power to feel as you would wish has gone from me—it is dead and can never live again. Ah, why has this trouble come to divide us when our friendship was so sweet— so much to me!"
Every word she had spoken had pierced him; but at the end his spirit suddenly shook off despondency, and he returned eagerly, "Constance, do not say that it will divide us. Nothing can ever change the feelings of deep esteem and affection I have had for you since I first knew you at Eyethorne; nothing can make your sympathy less to me than it has been in the past. Can you not forgive me for the pain I have caused you, and promise that you will not be less my friend than you have been up till now?"
Strangely enough, the very declaration that her power to feel as he wished was dead, and could not live again, which might well have made his case seem hopeless, had served to inspire him with fresh hope; and while begging for a continuance of her friendship he had said to himself, "Once I shilly-shallied, and was too late; now I have spoken too soon; but my time will come, for so long as the heart beats its power to love cannot be dead."
She could not read his thoughts; his words relieved and made her glad, and she freely gave him her hand in token of continued friendship and intimacy, just about the time when Captain Horton, with no secret hope in his heart, was touching his red moustache to Mary's wash-leather glove.
"A Pebble for your thoughts, Constance," said Mary, tossing one to her feet. "But I can guess them—for so many sisters is there not one brother?"
"Are you so sorry that they have all left us?" returned the other, smiling and coming back from the realms of fancy.
"I'm sure I am," said Fan, looking up from her book. "It was so delightful to have them with us at this distance from London."
"But why at this distance from London?" objected Mary. "According to that, our pleasure would have been greater if we had met them at the Canary Islands, and greater still at Honolulu or some spot in Tasmania. Imagine what it would be to meet them in one of the planets; but if the meeting were to take place in the furthest fixed star the delight would be almost too much for us. At that distance, Sidmouth would seem little further from London than Richmond or Croydon."
Fan bent her eyes resolutely on her book.
"You have not yet answered my question, Mary," said Constance.
"Nor you mine, which has the right of priority. But I am not a stickler for my rights. Listen, both of you, to a confession. I don't feel sorry at being left alone with you two, much as I have been amused, especially by Arthur, who has a merrier soul than his demure little sister."
"Why will you call me little, Mary? I am five feet six inches and a half, and Arthur says that's as tall as a woman ought to be."
"A sneer at me because I am two inches taller! What other disparaging things did he say, I wonder?"
"You don't say that seriously, Mary—you are so seldom serious about anything! You know, I dare say, that he is always praising you."
"That's pleasant to hear. But what did he say—can't you remember something?"
"Well, for one thing, he said you had a sense of humour—and that covers a multitude of sins."
The others laughed. "A propos of what did he pay me that pretty compliment?" asked Mary.
Fan, reddening a little at being laughed at, returned somewhat defiantly, "He was comparing you to me—to your advantage, of course—and said that I had no sense of humour. I answered that you were always mocking at something, and if that was what he meant by a sense of humour, I was very pleased to be without it."
"Oh, traitress! it was you then who abused me behind my back."
"And what about me?" asked Constance. "Did he say that I had any sense of humour?"
"I asked him that," said Fan, not joining in the laugh. "He said that women have a sense of humour of their own, quite different from man's; that it shows in their conversation, but can't be written. What they put in their books is a kind of imitation of man's humour, and very bad. He said that George Eliot was a very mannish woman, but that even her humour made him melancholy."
"Oh, then I shall be in very good company if I am so fortunate as to make this clever young gentleman melancholy."
"I quite agree with him," said Mary, wishing to tease Constance. "As a rule, there is something very depressing about a woman's writing when she wishes to be amusing."
But the other would not be teased. "Do you know, Mary," she said, returning to the first subject, "I was in hopes that you were going to make a much more important confession. I'm sure we both expected it."
"You must speak for yourself about a confession," said Fan. "But I did feel sorry to see how cast down poor Captain Horton looked before going away."
"The more I see of him," continued Constance, heedless of Mary's darkening brow, "the better I like him. He is the very type of what a man should be—strong and independent, yet gentle, so patient when his patience is tried. It was easy to see that he was not happy, and that the cause of it was the coldness of one Mary Starbrow."
"Why not your coldness, or Fan's coldness?" snapped the other.
"I was not, and could not, be cold to him, and as to Fan——"
"Why, he was constantly with me; we were the best of friends, as you know very well, Mary."
"So handsome too, and he has such a fine voice," continued Constance. "Sometimes when he and Mary sang duets together, and when he seemed so grateful for her graciousness, I thought what a splendid couple they would make. Didn't you think the same, Fan?"
"Yes," she replied a little doubtfully.
"Yes!" mocked Mary. "It would be a great pleasure to me to duck you in the sea for slavishly echoing everything Constance says."
"Thank you, Mary, but I'm not so fond of getting wet as you are," said Fan, with a somewhat troubled smile.
Constance went on pitilessly:
Oh, he was the half part of a better man Left to be finished by such as she; And she a fair divided excellence Whose fullness of perfection was in him.
"And pray what are you, Constance?" retorted the other. "A fair divided excellence or an excellence all by yourself, or what? If you find pleasure in contemplating a deep romantic attachment, think a little more of Mr. Northcott. He is the type of a gentleman, if you like—brave and gentle, and without stain. And how was he rewarded for his devotion? At all events he did not look quite like a conquering hero when he went away."
Constance reddened. "He is everything you say, Mary—you can't say more in praise of him than he deserves; but you have no right to assume what you do, and if you can't keep such absurd fancies out of your head, I think you might refrain from expressing them."
"But, Constance dear, what harm can there be in expressing them?" said Fan. "They are not absurd fancies any more than what you were saying just now. I am quite sure that Mr. Northcott is very fond of you."
"That is your opinion, Fan; but I would rather you found some other subject of conversation."
"No doubt," said Mary, not disposed to let her off so easily; "but let me warn you first that unless you treat Mr. Northcott better in future there will be a split in the Cabinet, and Fan, I think, will be on my side."
"I certainly shall," said Fan.
"In that case," said Constance with dignity, "I shall try to bear it."
"We'll boycott you," said Mary.
"And refuse to read your books," said Fan.
"And tell everyone that the creator of tender-hearted heroines is anything but tender-hearted herself."
"This amuses you, Mary," said Constance, "but you don't seem to reflect that it gives me pain."
"I'm sorry, Constance, if anything I have said has given you pain," spoke Fan. "At the same time I can't understand why it should: it must surely be a good thing to be—loved by a good man."
"Then, Fan, you must feel very happy," retorted the other, suddenly changing her tactics.
"I don't know what you mean, Constance."
"What sweet simplicity! Do you imagine that we are so blind, Fan, as not to see how devoted Mr. Starbrow is to you?"
The girl reddened and darted a look at Mary, who only smiled, observing strict neutrality.
"You are wrong, Constance, and most unkind to say such a thing. You say it only to turn the conversation from yourself. No one noticed such a thing; but about Mr. Northcott it was quite different—everybody saw it."
"I beg you will not allude to that subject again. When I have distinctly told you that it is annoying—that it is painful to me, you should have a little more consideration."
"This grows interesting," broke in Mary. "The conspirators have quarrelled among themselves, and I shall now perhaps discover in whose breast the evil thought was first hatched."
The others were silent, a little abashed; Fan still blushing and agitated after her hot protest, fearing perhaps that it had failed of its effect.
Mary went on: "Are we then to hear no more of these delightful revelations? Considering that the Mr. Starbrow whose name has been brought into the case happens to be my brother—"
She said no more, for just then Fan burst into tears.
"Oh, you are unkind, both of you, to say such things, when you know—when you know—"
"That there is no truth in them?" interrupted Mary. "Then, my dear girl, why take it to heart?"
"You brought it on yourself, Fan," said Constance.
"No, Constance, it was all your doing. Even Mary never said a word till you began it."
"Even Mary—who is not as a rule responsible for her words," said that lady vindictively.
"I shall not stay here any longer," exclaimed Fan, picking up her book and attempting to rise.
But the others put out their arms and prevented her.
"Dear Fan," said Constance, "let us say no more to vex each other; the remark I made was a very harmless one. And you forget, dear, that I am different to you and Mary—that words about some things, though spoken in jest, may hurt me very much." After a while she continued hesitatingly— "I am sure that neither of you will return to the subject when you know how I feel about it. I shall never love again. To others my husband is dead, but not to me; his place can be taken by no other."
Fan, who had recovered her composure, although still a little "teary about the lashes," answered:
"And I am equally sure that I shall never want to—change my name. I have Arthur to love and—and to think of, and that will be enough to make me happy."
"And I shall get a cat," said Mary, in a broken voice, and ostentatiously wiping her eyes, "and devote myself to it, and love it with all the strength of my ardent nature, and that will be enough to make me happy. I shall name it Constance Fan, out of compliment to you two, and feed it on the most expensive canaries. Of course it will be a very beautiful cat and very intelligent, with opinions of its own about the sense of humour and other deep questions."
Constance looked offended, while Fan laughed uncomfortably. Mary was satisfied; she had turned the tables on her persecutor and provoked a little tempest to vary the monotony of life at the seaside. Without saying more they got up and moved towards the town, it being near their luncheon hour. Fan lagged behind reading, or pretending to read, as she walked.
"Oh, let's stay and see this race," said Mary, pausing beside a bench on the beach near an excited group of idlers, mostly boys, with one white- headed old man in the midst, who was arranging a racing contest between one youngster mounted on a small, sleepy-looking, longhaired donkey, and his opponent, dirty as to his face and argumentative, seated on one of those archaeological curiosities commonly called "bone-shakers," which are occasionally to be seen at remote country places. But the preliminaries were not easily settled, and Constance grew impatient.
"I can't stay," she said. "I have a letter to write before lunch."
"All right, go on," said Mary, "and I'll wait for that lazy-bones Fan."
As soon as Constance had gone Fan quickened her steps.
"Mary," she spoke, coming to the other's side, "will you promise me something?"
"What is it, dear?" said her friend, looking into her face, surprised to see how flushed it was.
"I suppose that Constance was only joking when she said that to me; but promise, Mary, that you will never speak to Mr. Starbrow about such a thing?"
"Promise, Mary—do promise," pleaded the girl.
"But, Fan, I have already talked to him more than once on that same dreadful subject."
"Oh, how could you do it, Mary! You had no right to speak to him of such a thing."
"You must not blame me, Fan. He spoke to me first about it."
"He did! I can hardly believe it. Was it right of him to speak of such a thing to you?"
"And not to you first, Fan? Poor Tom spoke to me because he was afraid to speak to you—afraid that you had no such feeling for him as he wished you to have. He wanted sympathy and advice, and so the poor fellow came to me."
"And what did you say, Mary?"
"Of course I told him the simple truth about you. I said that you were cold and stern in disposition, very strong-minded and despotic; but that at some future time, if he would wait patiently, you might perhaps condescend to make him happy and take him just for the pleasure of possessing a man to tyrannise over."
Fan did not laugh nor reply. Her face was bent down, and when the other stooped and looked into it, there were tears in her eyes.
"Crying! Oh, you foolish, sensitive child! Was it true, then, that you did not know—never even suspected that Tom loved you?"
"No; I think I have known it for some time. But it was so hard to hear it spoken of in that way. I have felt so sorry; I thought it would never be noticed—never be known—that he would see that it could never be, and forget it. Why did you say that to him, Mary—that some day I might feel as he wished? Don't you know that it can never be?"
"But why can't it be, Fan? You are so young, and your feelings may change. And he is my brother—would you not like to have me for a sister?"
"You are my sister, Mary—more than a sister. If Arthur had had sisters it would have made no difference. But about Tom, you must believe me, Mary; he is just like a brother to me, and I know I shall never change about that."
"Ah, yes; we are all so wise about such things," returned the other with a slight laugh, and then a long silence followed.
There was excuse for it, for just then, the arguments about the conditions of the race had waxed loud, degenerating into mere clamour. It almost looked as if the more excited ones were about to settle their differences with their flourishing fists. But Mary was scarcely conscious of what was passing before her; she was mentally occupied recalling certain things which she had heard two or three days ago; also things she had seen without attention. Fan, Tom, and Arthur had told her about that day spent in Exeter. At their destination their party had been increased to four by Arthur's clerical friend, Frank Arnold. This young gentleman had acted as guide to the cathedral, and had also entertained them at luncheon, which proved a very magnificent repast to be given by a young curate in apartments. It was all a dull wretched affair, according to Tom; the young fellow had never left off making himself agreeable to Fan until she had got into her carriage to return to Sidmouth. And yet Fan had scarcely mentioned Mr. Arnold, only saying that she had passed a happy day. How happy it must have been, thought Mary, a new light dawning on her mind, for the sparkle of it to have lasted so long!
"Shall you meet your brother's friend, Mr. Arnold, again?" she asked a little suddenly.
"I—I think so—yes," returned Fan, a little confused. "He is coming to London next month, and will be a great deal with Arthur, and—of course I shall see him. Why do you ask, Mary?"
But Mary was revolving many things in her mind, and kept silent.
"What are you thinking about, Mary?" persisted the other.
"Oh, about all kinds of things; mysteries, for instance, and about how little we know of what's going on in each other's minds. You are about as transparent a person as one could have, and yet half the time, now I come to think of it, I don't seem to know what you would be at. A little while ago you joined with Constance in that attack on me. I am just asking myself, 'Would it have been pleasant to you if Jack had gone away yesterday happy and triumphant—if I had promised him my hand?'"
"Your hand, Mary—how can you ask such a question? How could you imagine such a thing?"
"Does it seem so dreadful a thing? Have you not worked on me to make me forgive and think well of him? You do not think his repentance all a sham; you have forgotten the past, are his friend, and trust him. Do you, in spite of it all, still think evil of him and separate him from other men? Was the thief on the cross who repented a less welcome guest at that supper he was invited to because of his evil deeds? And is this man, in whose repentance you really believe, less a child of God than other men, that you make this strange distinction?"
The girl cast down her eyes and was silent for some time.
"Mary," she spoke at length, "I can't explain it, but I do feel that there is a difference—that it is not wrong to make such a distinction. It is in us already made, and we can't unmake it. I know that I feel everything you have said about him, and I am very, very glad that you too have forgiven him and are his friend. But it would have been horrible if you had felt for him again as you did once."
Mary turned her face away, her eyes growing dim with tears of mingled pain and happiness; for how long it had taken her to read the soul that was so easy to read, so crystalline, and how much it would have helped her if she could have understood it sooner! But now the shameful cup had passed for ever from her, and the loved girl at her side had never discovered, never suspected, how near to her lips it had been.
And while she stood thus, while Fan waited for her to turn her face, hard by there sounded a great clatter and rattling of the old ramshackle machine, and pounding of the donkey's hoofs on the gravel, and vigorous thwacks from sticks and hands and hats on his rump by his backers, accompanied with much noise of cheering and shouting.
"Oh, look; it is all over!" cried Mary. "What a shame to miss it after all—what could we have been thinking about! Come, let's go and find out who won. I shall give sixpence to the winner, just to encourage local sport."
"And I," said Fan, "shall give a shilling to the loser—to encourage—" In her haste she did not say what.