Edmund Grosse had been shown into the library. The room looked east, and was now deliciously cool after the street. The dark blinds were half-way down, and a little pretence at a breeze was coming in over the burnt turf of the back garden.
Edmund's manner as he met her was as usual, but tinged perhaps with a little irony—very little, but just a flavour of it mingled with the immense friendliness and the wish to serve and help her.
Rose was, to his surprise, almost shy as she came into the room, but in another moment she was herself.
"Mamma has borne the journey splendidly. I've had an excellent account in a long telegram this morning."
But while she told him of their journey and of their life in Paris, a rather piteous look came into the blue eyes. Was she not to hear any of Edmund's own news? Was she not to be allowed to show any sympathy? She might not say how she had been thinking of him, dreaming of how nobly he had met his troubles, praying for him in Notre Dame des Victories. She saw at once that she must not; there was something changed. It was too odd, but she was afraid of him. She shook herself and determined not to be silly. She would venture to say what she wished.
"Are things——" she began, but her voice trembled a little as, raising her head, she saw that he was watching her. "Are things as bad as you feared?"
He at once looked out of the window.
"Quite as bad as possible. I am just holding out till I can get some work. Long ago, soon after I left the Foreign Office, I was asked to do some informal work in Egypt; they wanted a semi-official go-between for a time. I wish I had not refused then; I have been an ass throughout. If I had even done occasional jobs they would have had some excuses for putting me in somewhere now on the ground of my having had experience. I have just written two articles on an Indian question, for I know that part of the world as well as anybody over here, and they may lead to something. Meanwhile, I am very well, so don't waste sympathy on me, I am lodging with the Tarts, where everything is in apple-pie order."
"Oh, I am glad you are with those nice Tarts!" cried Rose, with genuine womanly relief, that in another class of life would have found form and expression in some such remark as that she knew Mary Tart would keep things clean and comfortable, and would do the airing thoroughly.
Edmund's voice alone had made sympathy impossible, but he was a little annoyed at the cheerful tone of Rose's words about the Tarts. It was unlikely that she could have satisfied him in any way by speech or by silence as to his own affairs. But why was she so very well dressed? He had got so accustomed to her in soft, shabby black that he was not sure if he liked this Paris frock; the simplicity of it was too clever.
There was silence, and Rose rearranged a bowl of roses her sister had sent her from the country. She chose out a copper-coloured bud and held it towards him, and a certain pleading would creep into her manner as she did so.
Edmund smiled. She was really always the same quite hopeless mixture of soft and hard elements.
"Have you seen Mr. Murray, Junior?" he asked.
"Yes; he came this morning, and I can't conceive what to do. At last I got so dazed with thinking that this afternoon I have tried to forget all about it."
"That will hardly get things settled," said Edmund, rather drily.
Tears came into her eyes, and were forced back by an effort of will. Then she told him quite quietly of Nurse Edith's evidence.
"You mean," he explained, "that there is a copy of the real will leaving everything to you. I can hardly believe it. In fact, I find it harder to believe than when I first guessed at the truth. I suppose it is an effect on the nerves, but now that we are actually proved right I am simply bewildered. It seems almost too good to be true."
Rose was also, it seemed, more dazed than triumphant. He felt it very strange that she had not told him the great news as soon as he came into the room.
"What made you say that you could not conceive what to do? There can be no doubt now." He spoke quickly and incisively.
"I cannot see," she said at last, "what is right. Mr. Murray is very positive, and absolutely insists that it is my duty to allow the thing to go on."
"Of course," Edmund interjected.
"But then, if he is mistaken! He really believes that Miss Dexter received the will from Dr. Larrone and has suppressed it."
Edmund got up suddenly, and looked down on her with what she felt to be a stern attention.
"And that," she concluded, looking bravely into the grave eyes bent on her, "I absolutely decline to believe!"
"Of course," said Grosse abruptly, "it's out of the question. It's just like a solicitor—fits his puzzle neatly together and is quite satisfied without seeing the gross absurdity of supposing that such a girl could carry on a huge fraud. A perfectly innocent, fresh, candid girl, brought up in a respectable English country house—the thing is ridiculous!"
He spoke with great feeling; he was more moved than she had seen him for a long time past, perhaps that was why she felt her own enthusiasm for Molly's innocence just a little damped. He sat down again as abruptly as he had risen.
"But it would be madness to drop the whole affair. This evidence of Nurse Edith's is really conclusive; and the only thing I can see to be said on the other side would be that David might have sent the will to Madame Danterre to give her the option of destroying it. But there is just another possibility, which Murray won't even consider, that Larrone destroyed the will on the journey."
"Do you know," said Rose, with a smile, "I believe it's conceivable that it is in the box, but that she has never opened the box at all! I believe a girl might shrink so much from reading that woman's papers that she might not even open the box."
"No one but a woman would have thought of such a possibility, but I daresay you are right."
He looked at her more gently, with more pleasure, and she instantly felt brighter.
"Then don't you think it would be possible to get at some plan, some arrangement with her? It seems to me," she went on earnestly, "that we ought to try to do it privately. Perhaps we might offer her the allowance that would have been made to her mother. If she could be convinced herself that the fortune is not really hers she might give it up without all the horrid shame and publicity of a trial."
"Yes, but the scandal was public, and you have to think of David's good name."
"Yes; but then you see, Edmund, the true will would be proved publicly, and the explanation of the delay would be that it had not been found before."
"She would have to expose her wretched mother."
"Not more than the trial would expose her; whether we won the case or lost it, Madame Danterre must be exposed. But if I am right how could it be done?"
"I think I had better do it myself," said Edmund. "I could see Miss Dexter. I really think I could do it, feeling my way, of course."
Rose did not answer. She locked her fingers tightly together as something inarticulate and shapeless struggled in her mind and in her heart. She had no right, no claim, she thought earnestly, trying to keep calm and at peace in her innermost soul. But she did not then or afterwards allow to herself what she meant by "right" or by "claim."
She looked up a moment later with a bright smile.
"Yes," she said, "you would be the best—far the best. Miss Dexter would feel more at her ease with you than with me or anyone I can think of."
"Of course, I must consult Murray first," said Edmund, absorbed in the thought of the proposed interview. "I ought to go now; I have an appointment at the Foreign Office—probably as futile as any of my efforts hitherto when looking for work."
He spoke the last words rather to himself than to his cousin, and then left her alone. He did not question as he walked through the streets across the park whether he had been as full of sympathy to Rose as he had ever been; he was far too much accustomed to his own constancy to question it now. But somehow his consciousness of Rose's presence had not been as apparent as usual. No half ironic, half tender comments on her attitude at this crisis had escaped him. He had been more business-like than usual, and, man-like, he did not know it.
THE WRATH OF A FRIEND
Canon Nicholls had had a hard fight with a naturally hot temper, and his servant would have given him a very fair character on that point if he had been applied to. But there came a stifling July morning when nothing could please him. He had been out to dinner the night before, and it was the man's opinion that he had "eaten something too good for him." He had been to church early, and had come back without the light in his face he usually brought with him, as if the radiance from the sanctuary lamp loved to linger on the blind face. He was difficult all the rest of the morning, and the kind, patient woman who read aloud to him and wrote his letters became nervous and diffident, thinking it was her own fault.
In the afternoon he usually took a stroll with his servant for guide, and then had a doze, after which he went to Benediction at a neighbouring convent. But to-day he settled into his arm-chair, and said he meant to stay there, and that he wanted nothing, and (with more emphasis) nobody.
He was, in truth, greatly disturbed in his mind. He had heard things he did not like to hear of Mark Molyneux. He had been quite prepared for some jealousy and some criticism of the young man he loved. Nobody charms everybody, and if anybody charms many bodies, then the rest of the bodies, who are not charmed, become surprised and critical, if not hostile. It is so among all sets of human beings: the Canon was no acrid critic of religious persons, only he had always found them to be quite human.
The immediate cause of the acute trouble the Canon was going through to-day had been a visit of the day before from Mrs. Delaport Green. Adela, who, as he had once told Mark, sometimes looked in for a few minutes, was under the impression that she very often called on the old blind priest, and often mentioned her little attempts to cheer him up with great complacence, especially to her Roman Catholic friends, as if she were a constant ray of light in his darkness. She had not seen him since her return from Cairo, but her first words were:
"I was so sorry not to be able to come last week," spoken with the air of a weekly visitor.
But the Canon thought it so kind of her to come at all that he was no critic of details in her regard.
She had cantered with a light hand over all sorts of subjects,—Westminster Cathedral, the reunion of Churches, her own Catholic tendencies, her charities, the newest play (which she described well), and her anxiety because her husband ate too much. Then, at last, she lighted on Mark's sermons.
Canon Nicholls spoke with reserve of Mark; he was shy of betraying his own affection for him.
"Yes; it is young eloquence, fresh and quite genuine," he said in response to Adela's enthusiasm.
"It sounds so very real," said Adela, with a sigh. "One couldn't imagine, you know, that he could have any doubts, or that he could be sorry, or disappointed, or anything of that sort—and yet——"
"And yet, what?" asked the Canon.
"And yet—well, I know I am foolish, and I do idealise people and make up heroes—I know I do! It is such a pleasure to admire people, isn't it? And after he gave up being heir to Groombridge Castle! I was staying there when poor, dear Lord Groombridge got the news of his ordination, and it was all so sad and so beautiful, and now I can't bear to think that Father Molyneux is sorry already that he gave it all up."
"Sorry that he gave it up—!"
Adela gave a little jump in her chair. It made her so nervous to see a blind man excited. But curiosity was strong within her.
"I am afraid it is quite true; a friend of mine who knows him quite well, told me."
"Told you what?"
"That he was unhappy, and has doubts or troubles of some kind. I didn't understand what exactly, but she knows that he will give it all up—the vows and all that, I mean—if——"
Adela was not really wanting in courage.
"If a certain very rich woman would marry him. It seems such a come-down, so very dull and dreadful, doesn't it?"
"You know all that's a lie!"
"Well, it was all told to me."
"But you knew there was not a word of truth in it, only you wanted to see how I would take it. And I thought you were a kind-hearted woman! How blind I am!"
Adela was galled to the quick. A quarrel, a scolding, would have been tolerable, and perhaps exciting, but this naive disappointment in herself, this judgment from the man to whom she had been so good, was too much!
"I thought it was much more kind to let you know what everybody is saying, that you might help him. I am very sorry I have made a mistake, and that I must be going now. It is much later than I thought."
"Must you?" There was the faintest sarcasm in the very polite tone of the Canon's voice.
Nor had this conversation been all; for out at dinner that night the Canon had been worried with much the same story from a totally different quarter. It was after the ladies had left the dining-room, and the gossip had been rougher.
He gave all his thoughts to brooding over the matter next day. Mark could not have managed well—must have done or said something stupid, and made enemies, he reflected gloomily.
Canon Nicholls had been young once, and almost as popular a preacher as Mark, and he did not underrate the difficulties. But it was his firm persuasion that, with tact and common-sense they were by no means insurmountable. What really distressed the old man was that perhaps Mark had been right in thinking that he personally could not surmount them. And it was Canon Nicholls's doing that he was not by this time a novice in a Carthusian Monastery! Therefore the Canon's soul was heavy with anxiety as to whether he had made a great mistake.
"He must be a fool, or else it's just possible that he has got an uncommonly clever enemy." The last thought revived the old man a little, and he received his tea without any of the demonstrations of disgust he had shown on drinking his coffee at breakfast.
Presently the subject of his thoughts came upon the scene, and the visitor saw at once that his old friend was unlike himself. The Canon was exceedingly alert from the moment Mark came into the room, trying to catch up the faintest indication, in his voice or movements, as to whether he were in good or low spirits; he almost thought he heard a quick sigh as Mark sat down. He could not see that Mark was undeniably thinner and paler than he had been only a few weeks ago, and that his eyes looked even more bright and keen in consequence.
"Take some tea," said the Canon; and then, when he had given him time to drink his tea, he turned on him abruptly.
"I've heard some lies about you, and I'm going to tell you what they are."
"Perhaps it's better to be ignorant."
"No, it's not, now why did you incite young men to Socialism in South London?"
"Good heavens!" said Mark. "Well, you shall catch it for that. I will read you every word of that paper; not a line of anything else shall you hear till you've been obliged to give your 'nihil obstat' to 'True and False Socialism,' by your humble servant."
"But that's not the worst that's said of you."
"Oh, no! I know that."
Perhaps if Canon Nicholls could have seen the strained look on the young face he could have understood. As it was, he believed him to be taking the matter too lightly.
"When I was young," he said, "I thought it my own fault if I made enemies, and you know where there is a great deal of smoke there has generally been some fire."
"Then you mean to say," answered Mark, in a voice that was hard from the effort at self-control, "that you think it is my fault that lies are told against me, although you do call them lies?"
"Frankly, I think you must have been careless," said the old man, leaning forward and grasping the arm of his chair. "I think you must have had too much disregard for appearances."
He paused, and there was a silence of several moments, while the ticking of the clock was quite loud in the little room.
"Unless this is the doing of an enemy," said Canon Nicholls.
"I do not know that it is an enemy," said Mark, "but I know there is some one who is excessively angry and excessively afraid because I know a secret of great importance."
"And that person is a woman, I suppose?"
"I cannot answer that," said Mark. He was standing now with one elbow on the end of the chimney-piece, and his head resting on his right hand, looking down at the worn rug at his feet.
"Will you tell me exactly what it is they do say?" said Mark, still speaking with an effort at cheerfulness that aggravated the nervous state of Canon Nicholls.
And there followed another silence, during which Father Molyneux realised to himself with fear and almost horror that he was nearly having a quarrel with the friend he loved so much, and on whose kindness he had always counted, and whose wisdom had so often been his guide. He was suffering already almost more than he owned to himself, and he had come into the room of the holy, blind old man as to a place of refuge. It gave him a sick feeling of misery and helplessness that there seemed in the midst of his other troubles the possibility of a quarrel with Canon Nicholls. This at least he must prevent; and so, leaning forward, he said very gently:
"Do tell me a little bit more of what you mean? I know you are speaking as my friend, and, believe me, I am not ungrateful. I am sure there is a definite story against me. I wish you would call a spade a spade quite openly."
"They have got hold of a story that you are tired of poverty and the priesthood, and so on, and that you will give it all up if you can persuade a certain very rich woman to marry you."
"That is definite enough." Mark was struggling to speak without bitterness. "And, for a moment, you thought——?" he could not finish the sentence.
"Good God! not for a fraction of a second. How can you?"
"Oh! forgive me, forgive me; I didn't mean it."
Mark knelt down by the chair, tears were flowing from the blind eyes. Canon Nicholls belonged to a generation whose emotions were kept under stern control; the tears would have come more naturally from Mark. There was a strange contrast between the academic figure of the old man in its reserved and negative bearing, seriously annoyed with himself for betraying the suffering he was enduring, and yet unable to check the flow of tears, and the eager, unreserved, sympathetic attitude of the younger man. After a few moments of silence Mark rose and began to speak in low, quick accents——
"It is a secret which is doing infinite harm to a soul made for good things, and yet it is a secret which I can tell no one, not even you—at least, so I am convinced. But it is a secret by which people are suffering. The result is that I cannot deal with this calumny as I should deal with it if I were free; and I believe that I have not got to the worst of it yet. I see what it must lead to."
He looked down wistfully for a moment, and then went on:
"Last year I had a dream that was full of joy and peace, and that seemed to me God's Will; but, through you, I came to see that I must give it up, and I threw myself into the life here with all my heart. And now, just when I had begun to feel that I was really doing a little good, now that I have got friends among the poor whom I love to see and help, I shall be sent away more or less under a cloud. I shall lose friends whom I love, and whom it had seemed to me that I was called to help even at the risk of my own soul. However, there it is. If I am not to be a Carthusian, if I am not to work for sinners in London, I suppose some other sphere of action will be found for me. I must leave it to Him Who knows best."
Canon Nicholls bent forward, and held out his long, white hands with an eager gesture, as though he were wrestling with his infirmity in his great longing to gain an outlook which would enable him to read a little further into the souls of men.
"I cannot explain more definitely. It is a case of fighting for a soul, or rather fighting with a soul against the devil in a terrible crisis. I don't know what to compare it to. Perhaps it is like performing a surgical operation while the patient is scratching your eyes out. If I can leave my own point of view out of sight for the present I can be of use, but I must let the scratching out of my eyes go on."
Mark went to the church early that evening, as it was his turn to be in the confessional. One or two people came to confession, and then the church seemed to be empty. He knelt down to his prayers and soon became absorbed. To-night he was oppressed in a new way by the sins, the temptations, and the unutterable weakness of man; his failures; his uselessness. Nothing else in Art had ever impressed him so much as the figure of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That beautiful figure, with all the freshness of its primal grace, stretching out its arms from a new-born world towards the infinite Creator, had expressed, with extraordinary pathos, the weakness, the failure, almost the non-existence of what is finite. "I Am Who Am" thundered Almighty Power, and how little, how helpless, was man!
And then, as Mark, weary with the misery of human life, almost repined at the littleness of it all, he felt rebuked. Could anything be little that was so loved of God? If the primal truth, if Purity Itself and Love Itself could make so amazing a courtship of the human soul, how dared anyone despise what was so honoured of the King? No, under all the self-seeking, the impure motives, the horrid cruelties of life, he must never lose sight of the delicate loveliness, the pathetic aspiration, the exquisite powers of love that are never completely extinguished. He must see with God's eyes, if he were to do God's work. And in the thought that it was, after all, God's work and not his own, Mark found comfort. He had come into the church feeling the burden on his shoulders very hard to bear, and now he made the discovery that it was not he who was carrying it at all; he only appeared to have it laid upon him while Another bore it for him.
THE CONDEMNATION OF MARK
Two excellent and cheerful old persons were engaged in conversation on the subject of Father Molyneux. The Vicar-General of the diocese, a Monsignor of the higher, or pontifical rank, had called to see the Rector of Mark's church, and had already rapidly discussed other matters of varying importance when he said, leaning back in an old and faded leather chair:
"What's all this about young Molyneux?"
Both men were fairly advanced in years and old for their age, for they had both worked hard and constantly for many years on the mission. They had to be up early and to bed late, with the short night frequently interrupted by sick calls, and on a Sunday morning they had always fasted till one o'clock, and usually preached two or even three times on the same day. They had never known for very many years what it was to be without serious anxiety on the matter of finance. Their lives had been models of amazing regularity and self-control. Their recreations consisted chiefly in dining with each other at mid-day on Mondays, and spending the afternoon with whist and music. Probably, too, they had dined with a leading parishioner once or twice in the week.
In politics they were mildly Liberal, more warmly Home Rulers, but they put above all the interests of the Church. They were, too, fierce partisans on the controversies about Church music, and had a zeal for the beauty and order of their respective churches that was admirable in its minuteness and its perseverance. They both had a large circle of friends with whom they rejoiced at annual festivities at their Colleges, and with whom they habitually and freely censured their immediate authorities. Those who were warmest in their devotion to the Vatican were often the most inclined to make a scapegoat of a mere bishop. But now one of these two old friends had been made Vicar-General of the diocese, and it was likely that the Rector would speak to him with less than his usual freedom. Lastly, both men had that air of complete knowledge of life which comes with the habits of a circle of people who know each other intimately. And neither of them realised in the least that the minds of the educated laity were a shut book to them.
"Well," said the Rector, and after puffing at his pipe he went on, "we can hardly get into the church for the crowd, and I am going to put up a notice to ask ladies to wear small hats—toques; isn't that what they call them?"
"I heard him once," said the Vicar-General, "and, to tell the truth, it didn't seem up to much."
"Words," said the Rector; "it's Oxford all over. There must be a new word for everything. Why, he preached on Our Lady the other day, and I declare I don't think there were three sentences I'd ever heard before! And on Our Lady, too! A man must be gone on novelty who wants to find anything new to say about Our Lady."
"It doesn't warm me up a bit, that sort of thing," said the Vicar-General. "I like to hear the things I've heard all my life."
"Of course," responded the other, "but you won't get that from our popular preachers, I can tell you," and he laughed with some sarcasm.
"Is he making converts?"
"Too many, far too many; that's just what I complain of. We shall have a nice name for relapses here if it goes on like this."
Both men paused.
"You've nothing more to complain of?" asked the Monsignor.
"No—no—" The second "no" was drawn out to its full length. "Of course, he's unpunctual, and he's often late for dinner. I don't know where he gets his dinner at all sometimes. And there are always ladies coming to see him. If there are two in the parlour and another in the dining-room, and a young man on the stairs, it's for ever Father Molyneux they are asking for. And, of course, he has too much money given him for the poor, and we have double the beggars we had last year."
"But," said the other, "you know there's more being said than all that. There's an unpleasant story, and it's about that I want to ask you. Well—the same sort of thing as poor Nobbs; you'll remember Nobbs?"
"Remember Nobbs! Why, I was curate with him when I first left the seminary. Now, there was a preacher, if you like! But it turned his head completely. Poor, wretched Nobbs! It's a dangerous thing to preach too well, I'm certain of that."
"Well, it's a danger you and I have been spared," said the Monsignor, and they both laughed heartily.
Then they got back to the point.
"Well," said the Rector, "there's a lady comes here sometimes who spoke to me about this the other day. It seems she went to see John Nicholls, and the poor old blind fellow bit her head off, but she thought she ought to tell somebody who might put a stop to the talk, and so she came to me. There's some woman, a very rich Protestant, who gives out openly that she is waiting till Molyneux announces that he doesn't believe in the Church, and then they will marry and go to America. Then, another day Jim Dixon came along, and a friend of his had heard the tale from some Army man at his Club. It's exactly the way things went on about Nobbs, you know, beginning with talk like that. Really, if it wasn't for having seen Nobbs go down hill I shouldn't think anything of it. Young Molyneux is all straight so far, but so was Nobbs straight at first."
"A priest shouldn't be talked about," said the Monsignor.
"Of course not," said the Rector.
"He has started too young," the Monsignor went on, not unkindly; "it's all come on in such a hurry; he ought to have had a country mission first. But my predecessor thought he'd be so safe with you."
"But how can I help it?" asked the other hotly; "I'm sure I've done my best! You can ask him if I haven't warned him from his very first sermon that he'd be a popular preacher. I've even tried to teach him to preach. I've lent him Challoner, and Hay, and Wiseman, and tried to get him out of his Oxford notions, but he's no sooner in the pulpit than he's off at a hard gallop—three hundred words to a minute, and such words!—'vitality,' 'personality,' 'development,' 'recrudescence,' 'mentality'—the Lord knows what! And there they sit and gaze at him with their mouths open drinking it in as if they'd been starved! No, no; it won't be my fault if he turns out another Nobbs—poor, miserable old Nobbs! Now his really were sermons!"
"Well," said the other, in a business-like tone, "I am inclined to think it would be best for him to take a country mission for a few years. I've no doubt he is on the square now, and that will give him time to quiet down a bit. He'll be an older and a wiser man after that, and he could do some sound, theological reading. Lord Lofton has been asking for a chaplain, and we must send him a gentleman. I could tell him that Molyneux had been a little overworked in London, and if he goes down to the Towers at the end of July, no one will suppose he is leaving for good, eh?"
"Very well," answered the Rector; "I don't want anything said against him, you know. I've had many a curate not half as ready to work as this man."
"No, no; I quite understand. Well, I'll write to him in the course of the week. And now about this point of plain chant?" And both men forgot the existence of Mark as they waxed hot on melodious questions.
I can't believe that Jonathan loved David more than the second curate had come to love Mark Molyneux in their work together. It is good to bear the yoke in youth, and it is very good to have a hero worship for your yoke fellow. Father Jack Marny was a young Kelt, blue-eyed, straight-limbed, fair-haired, and very fair of soul. He would have told any sympathetic listener that he owed everything to Mark—zeal for souls, habits of self-denial, a new view of life, even enjoyment of pictures and of Browning, as well as interest in social science. All this was gross exaggeration, but in him it was quite truthful, for he really thought so. He had the run of Mark's room, and they took turns to smoke in each other's bedrooms, so as to take turns in bearing the rector's observations on the smell of smoke on the upstairs landing. Father Marny had a subscription at Mudie's—his only extravagance—and he always ordered the books he thought Mark wished for, and Mark always ordered from the London library the books he thought would most interest Jack. Father Marny revelled in secret in the thought of all that might have belonged to Mark, and he possessed, of course most carefully concealed, a wonderful old print he had picked up on a counter, of Groombridge Castle, exalting the round towers to a preposterous height, while in the foreground strolled ladies in vast hoops, and some animals intended apparently for either cows or sheep according to the fancy of the purchaser.
But what each of the curates loved best was the goodness he discerned in the other, and the more intimate they became the more goodness they discerned. The very genuinely good see good, and provoke good by seeing it, and reflect it back again, as two looking-glasses opposite to each other repeat each other's light ad infinitum.
It was a Monday, and the rector had gone out to dinner, and the two young men were smoking in the general sitting-room. Father Marny was looking over the accounts of a boot club, and objurating the handwriting of the lady who kept them. Mark was in the absolutely passive state to which some hard-working people can reduce themselves; he had hardly the energy to smoke. A loud knock produced no effect upon him.
"Lazy brute!" murmured Father Marny, in his affectionate, clear voice, "can't even fetch the letters." And a moment later he went for them himself, and having flung a dozen letters over his companion's shoulder, went back to the accounts.
Ten minutes later he looked up, and gave a little start. He was quick to see any change in Mark, and he did not like his attitude. He did not know till that moment how anxious he had been as to the possibility of some change. He moved quickly forward and stood in front of the deep chair in which Mark was sitting, leaning forward with his eyes fixed on the carpet.
"Bad news?" he asked abruptly.
"Bad enough," said Mark, and, very slowly raising his head, he gave a smile that was the worst part of all the look on his face. Jack Marny put one hand on his shoulder, and a woman's touch could not have been lighter.
"It's not——?" he said, and then stopped.
"Yes, it is," Mark answered. "I am to be a domestic chaplain to that pious old ass, Lord Lofton. It seems I need quiet for study—quiet to rot in! My God! is that how I am to work for souls?"
It was, perhaps, better for Mark that Jack Marny broke down completely at the news, for, by the time he had been forced into telling his friend that it was preposterous to suppose that any man was necessary for God's work, and that if they had faith at all they must believe that God allowed this to happen, light began to dawn in his own mind. But he was almost frightened at the passionate resentment of the Kelt; he saw there was serious danger of some outbreak on his part against the authorities.
"They won't catch me staying here after you are gone!"
"Much good that would do me," said Mark. "I should get all the blame."
"They must learn that we are not slaves!" thundered the curate, his fair face absolutely black with wrath.
"We are God's slaves," said Mark, in a low voice, and then there was silence between them for the space of half an hour.
The door opened and a shrill voice cried out, "There's Tom Turner at the door asking for Father Mark," and the door was banged to again.
Tom Turner was the very flower of Mark's converts to a good life.
Father Marny groaned at the name.
"Let me see him," he said. "Go out and get a walk."
"I'd rather see him; I don't know how much oftener——"
The sentence was not finished. He had left the room in two strides.
MENE THEKEL PHARES
The more Edmund reflected on the matter the more difficult he found it to decide what steps to take in order to approach Molly. In the first impulse he had thought only that here was the chance of serving her, of proving her friend in difficulty, which he had particularly wished for. It would make reparation for the past—a past he keenly defended in his own mind as he had defended it to Molly herself, but yet a past that he would wish to make fully satisfactory by reparation for what he would not confess to have been blameworthy. But when he tried to realise exactly what he should have to tell Molly it seemed impossible. For how could he meet her questions; her indignant protests? She would become more and more indignant at the plot that had been carried on against her, a plot which Edmund had started and had carried on until quite lately, and which had also until quite lately been entirely financed by him. Even if he baffled her questions, his consciousness of the facts would make it too desperately difficult a task for him to assume the role of Molly's disinterested friend now, although in truth he felt as such, and would have done and suffered much to help her.
Edmund had by nature a considerable sympathy with success, with pluck, with men or women who did things well. There are so many bunglers in life, so few efficient characters, and he felt Molly to be entirely efficient. Even the over-emphasis of wealth in the setting of her life had been effective; it fitted too well into what the modern world wanted to be out of proportion. A thing that succeeded so very well could hardly be bad form. Hesitation, weakness, would have made it vulgar; hesitation and weakness in past days had often made vulgar emphasis on rank and power, but in the hands of the strong such emphasis had always been effective and fitting. There was a kind of artistic regret in Edmund's mind at the thought that this excellent comedy of life as played by Molly should be destroyed. And he had come to think it certainly would be destroyed.
One last piece of evidence had convinced him more than any other.
Nurse Edith had a taste for the dramatic, and enjoyed gradual developments. Therefore she had kept back as a bonne bouche, to be served up as an apparent after-thought, a certain half sheet of paper which she had preserved carefully in her pocket-book since the night on which she had made the copy of Sir David Bright's will. It was the actual postscript to Sir David's long letter to Rose; the long letter Nurse Edith had put back in the box and which had remained there untouched until Molly had taken it out. The postscript would not be missed, and might be useful. It was only a few lines to this effect:
"P.S.—I think it better that you should know that I am sending a few words to Madame Danterre to tell her briefly that justice must be done. Also, in case anyone, in spite of my precautions to conceal it, is aware that I possessed the very remarkable diamond ring I mention in this letter, and asks you about it, I wish you to know that I am sending it direct to Madam Danterre in my letter to her. May God forgive me, and, by His Grace, may you do likewise."
The sight of David's handwriting, the astonishing verification of his own first surmise, the vivid memory of Rose unwillingly showing him the letter and the ring and the photograph she supposed to have been intended for herself, had a very powerful effect on Edmund Grosse. The whole story was so clear, so well connected, it seemed impossible to doubt it. Yet he believed in Molly's innocence without an effort. What was there to prove that Madame Danterre had not destroyed the will after Nurse Edith copied it? She had the key and the box within reach, and the dying, again and again, have shown incalculable strength—far greater than was needed in order to get at the will and burn it while a nurse was absent or asleep.
Again, it was to Larrone's interest to destroy that will. They had only Pietrino's persuasion of Larrone's integrity to set against the possibility of his having opened the box on his long journey to England, against the possibility of his having read the will, and destroyed it, before he gave the box to Molly. He would have seen at once not only that his own legacy would be lost, but, what might have more influence with him, he must have seen what a doubtful position he must hold in public opinion if this came to light. He had been the chief friend and adviser of Madame Danterre, who had paid him lavishly for his medical services from her first coming to Florence, and who had made no secret of the legacy he was to receive at her death. He had been with her at the last, and was now actually carrying on her gigantic fraud by taking the box to her daughter. Would it not have been a great temptation to him to destroy the will while he had no fear of discovery rather than put the matter in Molly's hands? Lastly came Rose's subtle feminine suggestion that the will might be in the box but that Molly had never opened it. Some instinct, some secret fear of painful revelations, might easily have made her shrink from any disclosures as to her mother's past. Rose was so often right, and the obvious suggestion, that such a shrinking from knowledge would have been natural to Rose and unnatural to Molly, did not occur to the male mind, always inclined to think of women as mostly alike.
At the same time he was really unwilling to relinquish the role of intermediary. His thoughts had hardly left the subject since the hour of his talk with Rose, and it was especially absorbing on the day on which Molly was to give a party, to which he was invited—and invited to meet royalty. He decided that he must that evening ask his hostess to give him an appointment for a private talk.
Edmund arrived late at Westmoreland House when the party was in full swing. He paused a moment on the wide marble steps of the well staircase as he saw a familiar face coming across the hall. It was the English Ambassador in Madrid, just arrived home on leave, as Edmund knew. He was a handsome grey-haired man of thin, nervous figure, and he sprang lightly to meet his old friend and put his hand on his arm.
"Grosse!" he cried, "well met." And then, in low, quick tones he added: "What am I going to see at the top of this ascent? This amazing young woman! What does it mean, eh? I knew the wicked old mother. Tell me, was she really married to David Bright all the time? Was it Enoch Arden the other way up? But we must go on," for other late arrivals were joining them. When they reached the landing the two men stood aside for a moment, for they saw that it was too late for them to be announced. Royalty was going in to supper.
A line of couples was crossing the nearest room, from one within. The great square drawing-room was lit entirely by candles in the sconces that were part of the permanent decoration. But the many lights hardly penetrated into the great depths of the pictures let into the walls. These big, dark canvases by some forgotten Italian of the school of Veronese, gave the room something of the rich gloom of a Venetian palace. Beyond a few stacks of lilies in the corners, Molly had done nothing to relieve its solemn dignity. As she came across it from the opposite corner, the depths of the old pictures were the background to her white figure.
She was bending her head towards the Prince who was taking her down—a tall, fair man with blue eyes and a heavy jaw. Then as she came near the doorway she raised her head and saw Edmund. There was a strange, soft light in her eyes as she looked at him. It was the touch of soul needed to give completeness to her magnificence as a human being. The white girlish figure in that room fitted the past as well as the present. The great women of the past had been splendidly young too, whereas we keep our girls as children, comparatively speaking.
Molly had that combination of youth and experience which gives a special character to beauty. There was no detailed love of fashion in her gorgeous simplicity of attire; there was rather something subtly in keeping with the house itself.
The Prince turned to speak to the Ambassador, and the little procession stopped.
Edmund was more artistic in taste than in temperament, and he was not imaginative. But he could not enjoy the full satisfaction of his fastidious tastes to-night, nor had he his usual facility for speech. He could not bring himself to utter one word to Molly. They stood for that moment close together, looking at each other in a silence that was electric. No wonder that Molly thought his incapacity to speak a wonderful thing; others, too, noticed it.
"What a bearing that girl has! What movement!" cried the Ambassador, as, after greeting the first few couples who passed him, he drew Grosse to a corner and looked at him curiously. But Edmund seemed moonstruck. Then, in a perfunctory voice, he said slowly.
"What is the writing in that picture?"
"Mene Thekel Phares," said his friend. "My dear Grosse! surely you know a picture of the 'Fall of Babylon' when you see it? Now let us go where we shall not be interrupted. Tell me all about this girl with the amazing bearing and big eyes, whom princes delight to honour, and Duchesses to dine with! How did she get dear Rose Bright's money?"
Edmund had never disliked a question more.
"I'll tell you all I know," he said unblushingly, "but not to-night, old fellow. It would take too long."
And to his joy a countess and a beauty seized upon the terribly curious diplomatist and made him take her down to supper. And they agreed while they supped exquisitely that the real job dear old Grosse ought to be given was that of husband to their hostess.
"But then there is poor Rose Bright."
"Lady Rose Bright would not have him when he was rich," he objected. "No; this will do very nicely. If I am not mistaken (and I'm pretty well read in human eyes), the lady is willing."
After supper there was dancing. Edmund did not dance. He stood in a corner, his tall form a little bent, merely watching, and presently he turned away. He had made up his mind. He would not try to speak to Molly to-night, and he would not ask her for a talk.
She was dancing as he left the room, and he turned half mechanically to watch her. It was always an exquisite pleasure to see her dance. He left her with a curious sense of farewell in his mind. Fate was coming fast, he knew; he could not doubt that for a moment. He was not the man to avert it. No one could avert it. It was part of the tragedy that, pity her as he might, he could not really wish to avert it. He would give no warning. Some other hand must write "Mene Thekel Phares" on the wall of her palace of pleasure and success.
Edmund Grosse declined the task.
Molly danced on in the long gallery between its walls of mirrors and their infinite repetitions of twinkling candles and dancing figures pleasantly confused to the eye by the delicate wreaths of gold foliage that divided their panes. In the immeasurable depths of those reflections the nearest objects melted by endless repetition into dim distances, and the present dancing figures might seem to melt into a far past where men and women were dancing also.
Gallery within gallery in that mirrored world, with very little effort of imagination, might become peopled by different generations. As the figures receded in space so they receded in time. Groups of human beings, with all the subtle ease of a decadent civilisation, ceded their place to groups of men and women who moved with more slowness and dignity in the middle distance of those endless reflections. And looking down those avenues of gilded foliage into that fancied past, the old cry might well rise to the lips: "What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!"
But, whether in the foreground of to-day, or in the secrets that the mirrors held of a century before, or in the indistinguishable mist of their greatest depths, wherever the imagination roamed, it found in every group of human beings a woman who was young and beautiful, and yet it could come back to the dancing figure of Molly without any shock of disappointment or disdain.
"But it is daylight!" cried two young men who paused breathless with their partners by the high narrow windows, at the end of the gallery, and they threw back the shutters. The growing dawn mingled with the lights of the decreasing candles, with the infinite repetitions of the mirror, with the soft music of the last valse.
And Molly bore the light perfectly, as the chorus of praise and thanks and "good-nights" of the late stayers echoed round her.
"Not 'good-night' but 'good-bye,'" said a very young girl, looking up at Molly with facile tears rising in her blue eyes. "We go away to-morrow, and this perfect night is the last!"
MARK ENTERS INTO TEMPTATION
The more he realised Molly's danger, the more he believed in her innocence—the more anxious Edmund became to find a suitable envoy to approach her from the enemy's side, and one who, if possible, would understand his position.
Like most men who have a repugnance to clerical influence he had a great idea of its power, and a perfect readiness to make use of it. He was delighted when he remembered having met Mark Molyneux at Molly's house. The meeting had not been quite a success, but this he did not remember. Edmund's half-sleepy easy manner had been more cordial, but not quite so good as usual. He was just too conscious of the strangeness of the fact that Edmund Grosse should be talking with a "bon petit cure." He knew Father Molyneux to be Groombridge's cousin, and to have been considered a man of unusual promise at Oxford, but, all the same, whatever he had been, he was a priest now, and Grosse had never quite made up his mind as to his own manner to a priest. He was so practised in dealing with other people, but not with ecclesiastics. He did not in the least realise that the slight condescension and uncertainty in his manner, with all his effort at cordiality, was the outcome of a rather deeply-seated antagonism to the claims he conceived all priests to make, in their hearts, on the souls of men. I have known a man, not altogether unlike Edmund Grosse, to cross the street in London rather than pass a priest on the same pavement. Grosse would not have been so foolish as that, but still, it was not surprising that the two men did not get on particularly well. All that Edmund now remembered of this chance meeting was Molly's evidently deep interest in the young priest, and he recalled her saying at the time when she had been much moved by her mother's cruel letter, that she was going to hear Father Molyneux preach that evening. From the avowedly anti-clerical Molly, that meant much.
Edmund knew nothing of the recent talk about Mark, although Mrs. Delaport Green had tried to sigh out some insinuations on the subject in talking to him. Perhaps he was a less receptive listener than of yore, when he had more empty spaces in his mind than he had this year. He received, indeed, a faint impression that Mrs. Delaport Green was sentimentalising over some disappointment she was suffering under acutely with regard to the popular preacher, and had felt her motive to be curiosity to gain information from himself on some point of which he knew nothing. But if he had been more attentive he might have gained enough information to make him hesitate to involve poor Mark in Molly's affairs.
Almost as soon as he had thought of consulting Mark, he proposed the notion to Rose, who was enthusiastic in its support.
It is not necessary to give his letter to Father Molyneux, which had to be long and careful, and was written after consultation with Mr. Murray.
Mr. Murray was quite in favour of an informal interview, and disposed to agree in the choice of Father Molyneux as ambassador. "I am not afraid of your letting Miss Dexter know the strength of our case," he said. "Father Molyneux must judge for himself how far it is wise to frighten Miss Dexter for her own sake. He is, as I understand, to try to persuade her to produce the will, and I suppose he will assume that she does not know of its existence among her mother's papers. This would save her pride, and you might come to terms if she would produce it. If you fail, the next course would be for me to insist on an interview, and to carry things with a high hand. I should say, in effect: 'We are aware that Sir David Bright made a will on his way to Africa, and we can prove that it was sent by mistake to your mother, because we have a witness who saw it in her box. It was in her box when it was handed to Dr. Larrone, and it has been traced, therefore, into your hands. We have a copy of it which we can produce if you have destroyed the original, and, if you have not done so, we can get an order of the court compelling you to produce it. You cannot deny the fact that the will was sent to Madame Danterre by mistake, for you have the letter which accompanied it, and we have the postscript to the letter taken from the box by a witness whom we are prepared to call. Will you produce the box in which, no doubt, the will has escaped your notice, or shall we get the order of the court? The will has, as I have said, been traced into your hands.' I doubt if any woman (at all events one such as you describe Miss Dexter) would resist, and no solicitor whom she consulted, and to whom she told the truth, would advise her to do so—no respectable solicitor, that is to say, and no prudent one."
When Edmund showed Rose his letter to Father Mark she had only one criticism to make. She felt that Edmund took too easily for granted that the priest would be ready to put his finger into so very hot a pie. Father Mark must be appealed to more earnestly to come to the rescue, and less as if it were quite obvious that he would be ready to do so as part of his natural business in life. Edmund agreed to add some sentences at her suggestion.
It is important to realise Mark's state of mind, at the time when this strong, additional trial was to come upon him.
With the full approval of his friend, Canon Nicholls, Mark decided not to take the decree of banishment from London without remonstrance. He was not astonished at the result of the talk against him. That his one great enemy should have poisoned the wells so easily was not very surprising. He could not help knowing that the very keenness and ardour of his friends had produced prejudice against him. There was, among the religious circles in London, a perhaps healthy suspicion of hero worship for popular preachers, and of any indiscreet zeal. The great Religious Orders knew how to deal with life, and it was safer to have an enthusiasm for an Order than for an individual. Seculars were the right people for daily routine and work among the poor, but for a young secular priest to become a bright, particular star was unusual and alarming.
Jealousy is the fault of the best men because it eludes their most vigilant examinations, and, while their energy is taken up with visible enemies, it dresses itself in a complete and dignified disguise and comes out either as discretion or zeal or a love of humility.
Mark saw all this less clearly than did the blind Canon, but he realised it enough not to be surprised at the quick growth of the seed Molly had sown in well-prepared ground.
But the blow he did not expect came from his own rector. He went to him, thinking he would back him up in his efforts to get an explanation of this sudden order, and he was told, between pinches of snuff, that he had much better do as he was bid without making a fuss, and that he was being sent to an excellent berth, which was exactly what he needed. The rector was sorry to lose him certainly, but he thought it was the best possible arrangement for himself. There was something of grunts and sniffs between the short phrases that did not soften them. Mark became speechless with hurt feeling.
It became clearly evident to Canon Nicholls that the rector and one or two of the older priests who had wind of the matter could not see why there should be any fuss about it. Young Molyneux was under no cloud; why should he behave as if it were a disgrace to be chaplain to poor old Lord Lofton? Was he crying out because London would be in such a bad way without him? What the Canon could not get them to see was the effect on public opinion. To send Mark away now was to advertise backbiting until it might become a real scandal. They could not see beyond their own immediate circle; if all the priests knew he was really a good fellow they thought that quite enough. They had a horror of a man making himself talked of outside, but they had no notion of giving him the chance to right himself with the outside world. It was much better that he should go away and be forgotten.
Canon Nicholls had always been of opinion that the secular clergy in England were more hardly treated than the regulars. They were expected to have the absolute detachment of monks, without the support that a Religious Order gives to its subjects. They were given the standards of the cloister in the seminary, and then tumbled out into life in the world. No one in authority seemed anxious not to discourage a young secular priest. To be regular and punctual, to avoid rows, and to keep out of debt were the virtues that naturally appealed to the approval of a harassed bishop. But a zeal that put a man forward and brought him into public notice was likely to be troublesome, and such men were seldom very good at accounts. The type of young man which Mark resembled, according to the priests who discussed the question, was not a popular one among them. As a type it had not been found to wash well.
Canon Nicholls was not popular among them for other reasons, but chiefly because of a biting tongue. He would let his talk flow without tact or diplomacy on these questions, and often did far more harm than good, in consequence. He fairly stormed to one or two of his visitors at the absurdity of hiding a man away because of unjust slander. It was the very moment in which he ought to be brought forward and supported in every way. The fact was that the man was to be sacrificed to the supposed good of the Church, only no one would say so candidly. Whereas, in reality, by justice to the man the Church would be saved from a scandal!
Mark was outwardly very calm, but he was changed. His friends said that his vitality and earnestness were bound to suffer in the struggle for self-repression. His sermons were becoming mechanical tasks and the confessional a weariness. He made his protest, as Canon Nicholls wished, but after the talk with his rector he knew it was useless. He wrapped himself in silence, even with Father Jack Marny. He began, half consciously, to be more self-indulgent in details and the only subject on which he ever showed animation was a projected holiday in Switzerland. He once alluded to the possibility of going to Groombridge for the shooting.
At first he had not allowed Father Marny to take any of his now painful work among the people he was so soon to leave, but, after a week or two, he acquiesced. What was the use when he was to leave them for good and all? It were better they should learn at once to get on without him. Father Marny, in passionate sympathy, was ready to work himself to death and acknowledge no fatigue. It was easy to conceal fatigue or anything else from Mark in his preoccupied state of mind. He showed no interest when Lord Lofton wrote him a most warmly and tactfully expressed letter of welcome, in which he told the coming chaplain that he must not suppose there was not work in plenty to be done for souls in the country.
"Humbugging old men and women who want pensions and soup and blankets!" Mark said with unusual irritation, as he flung the letter to his friend.
But to the curate Mark was as much above criticism as a martyr at the foot of the gallows.
Strangely enough, the first break into this moral fog that was settling down in his spiritual world was, of all unlikely things, the letter from Edmund Grosse.
When he got Edmund's letter Mark was sulking—there is no other word for it—over his answer to Lord Lofton, which ought to have gone several days ago. Of course he was bound by his mission oath to go where he was placed, but the authorities might at least have waited to hear from him before handing him over as if he were a parcel or a Jesuit. He read Edmund's cramped writing with a little difficulty, and then threw the three sheets it covered on to the table with a bang, and jumped up.
"Dash it!" he cried, "this is rather too much."
He did not stop to think that Edmund could not have been so idiotic as to write that letter if he had known of the state of the case between him and Miss Dexter. It only seemed at the moment that it was another instance of cruelty and utter unfairness, part of the same treatment he was receiving, which expected a man to be a plaster saint with no thought for himself, no natural feelings, no sense of his own reputation! First of all he was to be buried, torn from his friends, from his work for souls, from the joy of the Good Shepherd seeking the lost sheep. He was to lose all he loved and for which he had given up his life, his career, his position, and, for the first time, he enumerated among his sacrifices the possession of Groombridge. Then he blushed for shame—also for the first time. How little that had been, compared to what he had to do now! What had he to do now? And here the Little Master made his great mistake. He came out of the fog and shadow, he came into the light because he thought it was safe now.
What had Mark to do that was so much harder? To submit to authority and forgive its blunders. He hesitated for a moment; he almost thought it was that. Then came the light, and he saw the real crux. What he had to do was to forgive Molly Dexter. He was startled by the revelation, as men are startled who have been in love without knowing it. He had been nursing hatred and revenge without knowing it, for, until he had become bitter at the treatment of the authorities, he had felt no anger against Molly. She had simply been the patient who would scratch out the eyes of the surgeon. He was surprised into a quiet analysis of the discovery, and then his thoughts stood quite still. It was only necessary for a noble soul to see such a temptation for him to fight it. But he passed back from that to the whole of the wrath and hurt feeling that he recognised too. He was angry with those in authority who expected him to behave like a saint; he had been angry vaguely with Sir Edmund Grosse, but more with circumstances that also demanded of him that he should behave like a saint and do the very worst thing for himself and confirm the calumny against him by acting as Molly's confidential friend! But he could not be equally angry at the same time with Miss Dexter, with his own authorities, with Edmund Grosse, and with circumstances. One injury alone might have been different, but taken together they suggested a plot and intention. Whose plot? Whose intention?
And the answer was thundered and yet whispered through his consciousness. Is was God's plot, God's Will, God's demand, that he should do the impossible and behave like a saint!
Mark had said easily enough in the first noble instinct of bearing his blow well: "We are God's slaves." But that first light had gradually been obscured. He had not felt then that the impossible was demanded of him. He had come to feel it, and to feel it without remembering that man's helplessness was God's opportunity. Had he forgotten, erased from the tablets of his mind and heart, all he had loved and trusted most? Now all was terribly clear. Augustine, in a decadent, delicate age, had not minced matters, and had insisted that all hope must be placed in Him Who would not spare the scourge. "Oftentimes," he had cried, "does our Tamer bring forth His scourge too." Mark took down the old, worn book.
"In Him let us place our hope, and until we are tamed and tamed thoroughly—that is, are perfected—let us bear our Tamer.... Whereas, when thou art tamed, God reserveth for thee an inheritance which is God Himself.... For God will then be all in all; neither will there be any unhappiness to exercise us, but happiness alone to feed us.... What multiplicity of things soever thou seekest here, He alone will be Himself all these things to thee.
"Unto this hope is man tamed, and shall his Tamer then be deemed intolerable? Unto this hope is man tamed, and shall he murmur against his beneficient Tamer, if He chance to use the scourge?...
"Whether, therefore, Thou dealest softly with us that we be not wearied in the way, or chastisest us that we wander not from the way, Thou art become our refuge, O Lord."
As Mark read, the pain of too great light was softened to him. What had been hard, white light, glowed more rosy until it flushed his horizon with full glory.
It wanted a small space in time, but a mighty change in the spirit, before Mark read Edmund's letter with a keen wish to enter into its full meaning, and judge it wisely. Having come to himself, he was, as ever, ready to give that self away. He was full of a strange energy; he smiled to feel that the strokes of the lash were unfelt, while consciousness was lost in love. This was God's anaesthetic. But it thrilled the soul with vitality, and in no sense but the absence of pain did it suspend the faculties. He had no doubt, no hesitation, as to what he must do. He would go to Molly, he must see her at once, but not a word should pass his lips of what Edmund wanted him to say. Not a moment must be lost. Who might not betray her danger and destroy her opportunity? Molly must be brought to do this thing of herself without any admixture of fear, without any aim or object but to sacrifice all for what was right. He yearned with utter simplicity that this might be her way out. Let her do it for herself. Let her do it of herself, thought Mark—not because she is afraid, not because her vast possessions appear the least insecure. And the action would be far more noble just because, at the moment of renunciation, the world would, for the first time, suspect her guilt. To Mark it seemed now the crowning touch of mercy that the criminal should be allowed to drink deep of the chalice. "Her own affair"—that was what the dying mother had said of the unfortunate child to whom she offered so gross a temptation.
And in the depths of his mind there was the conviction that it was a particular truth as to this individual soul, that not only would the heroic be the only antagonist to the base, but that some such moral revolution alone could be the beginning of cleansing of what had become foul, and the driving out of the noxious and the vile.
NO SHADOW OF A CLOUD
It was in the evening, and Edmund was waiting in Rose's drawing-room until she should come back from a meeting of one of her charitable committees.
He was walking up and down the room with a face at once very grave and very alert. Even his carriage during the last few weeks had seemed to Rose to have gained in firmness and dignity, and perhaps she was right. Nor had she failed to notice that one or two small, straight pieces of grey hair could now be seen near the temples. He looked a little older, a little more brisk, a little more firm, and distinctly more cheerful since his reverses. It is no paradox to speak of cheerfulness in sorrow, or to say that the whole nature may be happier in grief than in the days of apparent pleasure. It is not only in those who have acquired deep religious peace that this may be true, for even in gaining energy and a balance in natural action, there may be happiness amidst pain.
Rose came in without seeing that anyone was in the room, and gave a start when she saw the tall figure by the window. The evening light showed him a little grey, a little worn in appearance, a little more openly kindly in the dark eyes. Something that she had fancied dim and clouded lately—only once or twice, not always—now shone in his face with its full brightness.
"Has anything happened, Edmund? Have you come to tell me anything?"
He came across the room to her and took her hand in silence, and then said:
"You look tired. Have you had tea?"
"Oh, never mind tea," she answered. "Do tell me! Seriously, something has happened?"
"It is nothing of any consequence—nothing that need disturb you in the least. It is only about my own stupid affairs, and, on the whole, it is very good news. I have just come from the Foreign Office, and they have told me there that I am to have that job in India, and that the sooner I am ready to start the better."
As he spoke he turned from her with a sudden, quick hurt in his heart. It was, after all, only of great importance to himself. He knew she would be kindly glad that he had got the post he wanted. Had she not always urged him to some real work? Had she not pressed him again and again during the last four years, consciously and unconsciously, to bring out all his talents and to do a man's work in a man's way? So she would be simply glad, and she would wave him "God speed," and would, no doubt, pray for him at those innumerable services she attended, and write to him long, gentle, feminine letters full of details about all sorts of matters, good or indifferent, and she would ask about his health and press him to take care of himself and tell him of any word that was spoken kindly of him here in England. And she would somehow manage to know, or think she knew, that he was doing great things in the East. And so, no doubt, in the two years in which he was away there would be no apparent break in this very dear intimacy. But what, in reality, would he know of her inmost feelings, of her loneliness, of her sufferings, of any repentance that might come to her, any softening towards himself? He seemed to see all of the two years that were to come in a flash as he stood silent on one side of the neglected tea-table, and Rose stood silent, turning away from him on the other.
When he raised his eyes, he almost felt a surprise that the figure, a little turned away from him, was not dressed in a plain, white frock, and that the shadows and the flickering sunlight making its way through the mulberry leaves were not still upon her; for that was how, through life and in eternity, Rose would be present in the mind of her lover.
Time had gone; it seemed now as nothing. Whatever changes had come between, he felt as if he saw in the averted face that same expression of sorrowful denial and gentle resistance that had baffled him now for over twelve years. It was still that his soul asked something of this other purer, gentler, more unworldly, more loving soul, which she, with all her beneficence would not give him. He did no think of the impracticability of any question of marriage; he did not think in any definite sense of their relations as man and woman. At other times he had known so frequently just the overpowering wish for the possession of the woman he loved best, but now she stood to him as the history of his moral existence here below, and he felt as if, in missing her, he should miss the object and crown of his life.
At last silence became intolerable. He moved as though he wanted to speak and could not, and then he said huskily, almost gruffly:
"It is not 'good-bye' to-day, of course," and then he laughed at the feebleness of his own words.
Rose turned to him at that, and he was not really surprised to see that the tears were flowing rapidly over her cheeks—tears so large that they splashed like big raindrops on the white hands which were clasped as they hung before her. But that made it no easier. He thought very little of those tears; he felt even a little bitter at their apparent bitterness. He hardened at the sight of those tears; they made him feel that he could leave her with more dignity, more firmness in his own mind, than he had ever thought would be possible.
"Vous pleurez et vous etes roi?" He hardly knew that he had muttered the words as he so often muttered a quotation to himself. But Rose did not hear them. She was too preoccupied with her own thoughts and feelings to notice him closely. Ah! if she had but known before what it would be to lose him! She was horrified as she felt her self-control failing her, and an enormous agony entering into possession of all her faculties. She was so startled, so amazed at this revelation of herself. If she had felt less, she would have thought more for him. She did not think for a moment what that silent standing by her side meant for him. She knew at last the selfishness of passion. She wanted him as she had never wanted anyone or anything before. She could only think of the craving of her own heart, the extraordinary trouble that possessed it. Those who have had a passing acquaintance with love, those who have sown brief passages of love thoughts over their early youth, can form no notion of what that first surrender meant to Rose. "Too late!" cried the tyrant love, the only tyrant that can carry conviction by its mere fiat to the innermost recesses of a nature. "Too late!—it might have been, but not now; it is all your own doing; you made him suffer once; you are the only one to suffer now. You are crying now the easy tears of a child, but there are years and years before you when the tears will not come, call for them as you may; they cannot go on coming from a broken heart. They flow away out of the fissures, and then the dryness and barrenness of daily misery will not let them come again."
"He never cared as I do," thought Rose; "he does not know what it is!"
She called her persecutor "it"; she shrank from its name even now with an unutterable embarrassment. When she did turn to Edmund it was more as if to confide to him what she was suffering from someone else; it was so habitual to her to turn to him. What was the use? what was the use? How could she use him against himself? No, no; she must, she must control herself. She must not tell him; she must let him go quite quietly now; she must make no appeal to the past; he was too generous—she did not want his generosity. She put her hands to her forehead and pushed the hair backwards.
"I'm not well, I think," she said; "the room at the meeting was stuffy. I—I didn't quite understand what you said—I'm glad."
She sank on to a chair, and then got up again.
"I'm glad you've got what you wanted, but I'm startled—no, I mean I'm not quite well. I don't think I can talk to-day—I don't understand—I——"
She stood almost with her back to him then.
He was so amazed at her words that he could not speak at all. This was not sweetness, kindness, pity; this was something else, something different; it was almost a shock!
"I am so silly," she said, with a most absurd attempt at a natural voice, "I think I must——" Her figure swayed a little.
Edmund watched her with utter amazement. All his knowledge of women was at fault, and that child in the white frock—where was she? Where was that sense of his soul's history and its failure, its mystic tragedy, just now? Gone, quite gone, for he knew now that that long tragedy was ended. But Rose did not know it.
He moved, half consciously, a few feet towards the door.
"Rose," he said, in a very low voice, "if it has come at last, don't deny it! I have waited patiently, God knows! but I don't want it now unless it is true. For Heaven's sake do nothing in mere pity!"
"But it has come, Edmund; it has come!" she interrupted him, so quickly that he had barely time to reach her before she came to him.
And yet it had been many years in coming—so many years that he could hardly believe it now; could hardly believe that the white hands he had watched so often trembled with delight as they caressed him; could hardly believe that the fair face was radiant with joy when he, Edmund, ventured to kiss her; could hardly believe that it was of her own wish and will that she leant against him now!
"I ought not to have said it was the stuffy room, ought I?"
It was the sweetest, youngest laugh she had ever given. Then she looked up at the ceiling where the sun flickered a little.
"Edmund, it is better than if I had known under the mulberry tree. Tell me you forgive me all I have done wrong. I could not," she gasped a little, "have loved you then as I do now, because I had known no sorrow then."
And Edmund told her that she was forgiven. But one sin she confessed gave him, I fear, unmixed delight; she was so dreadfully afraid that she had lately been a little jealous!
Strange—very strange and unfathomable—is the heart of man. It did not even occur to him as the wildest scruple to be at all afraid that he had been lately a little, ever so little, less occupied with the thought of her. No shadow of a cloud rested on the great output of a strong man's deep affection.
"WITHOUT CONDITION OR COMPROMISE"
It was on the same evening that Mark succeeded in seeing Molly. He had failed the day before, but at the second attempt he succeeded.
It was the first time he had entered Westmoreland House, and he had never, even in the autumn weeks when Miss Dexter had been most cordial to him, tried to see her except by her own invitation. Altogether the position now was as embarrassing as it is possible to conceive. He had been her confidant as to a crime for which the law sees no kind of palliative, no possible grounds for mercy. As he greeted her it wanted little imaginative power to feel the dramatic elements in the picture. Molly was standing in the middle of the great drawing-room dressed in something very white and very beautiful. At any other moment he must have been impressed by the subdued splendour of the room, and the grace and youth of the dominating figure in the midst. Mark was too absorbed to-day in the spiritual drama which he must now force to its conclusion to realise that he had also come to threaten the destruction of Molly's material world and all the glory thereof. He had, too, so far forgotten himself, that the mischief Molly had wrought against him had faded into the background of his consciousness. His absorbing anxiety lay in the extreme difficulty of his task. It would need an angel from Heaven, gifted too with great knowledge of human nature, to accomplish what he meant to attempt. First he would throw everything into the desperate endeavour to make her give up the will simply and entirely from the highest motives. But what possibility was there of success? Why should he hope that, just because he called and asked her for it, she would give up all that for which she had sold her soul? He could not feel that he was a prophet sent by God from whose lips would fall such inspired words that the iron frost would thaw and the great depths of her nature be broken up. In fact, he felt singularly uninspired, and very much embarrassed. And when he had tried the impossible (he said to himself), and had given her the last chance of going back on this ugly fraud from nobler motives than that of fear, and had failed—he must then enter on the next stage and must merge the priest's office in that of the ambassador. He must bring home to her that what she clung to was already lost, and that nothing but shame and disgrace lay before her. He had the case, as presented by Sir Edmund's letter in all its convicting simplicity, clearly in his mind—quite as clearly as the facts of Molly's own confession to himself. It would not be difficult to crush the criminal, to make her see the hopeless horror of the trial that must follow unless she consented to a compromise. But it was the completeness of her defeat that he dreaded the most; it was for that last stage of his plan that he was gathering unconsciously all his nerve-power together. He seemed to hear with ominous distinctness her words at their last meeting: "If I can't go through with it (which is quite possible) I shall throw up the sponge and get out of this world as soon as I can." That had been spoken without any sort of fear of detection, without the least suspicion that she would have no choice in the matter of giving up her ill-gotten wealth. What he dreaded unutterably was the despair that must overpower her as he developed the long chain of evidence against her. As he came into her presence, overwhelmed with these thoughts, he was also anxiously recalling two mental notes. He must make her clearly understand that he had not betrayed her by one word or hint to Sir Edmund Grosse or any living human being; and secondly, he thought it very important to impress upon her that Sir Edmund and Lady Rose were of opinion that Larrone had suppressed the will or that Molly had never opened the box which contained it—were, in fact, of any or every opinion except that Molly was guilty of crime. For the rest he could, at this eleventh hour, hardly see anything clearly, and as he shook hands with Miss Dexter an unutterable longing to escape came over him. Molly's greeting was haughty—almost rude—but that seemed to him natural and inevitable. He made some comment on a political event which she did not pretend to answer, and then as if speech were almost impossible, he actually murmured that the weather was very hot.
Then he became silent and remained so. For quite a minute neither spoke.
Molly was not naturally silent, naturally restrained. She moved uneasily about the room; she lit a cigarette, and threw it away again. At last she stood in front of him.
"What made you come to-day?" she asked.
Her large restless eyes looked full of anger as she spoke.
"I came to-day partly because I am going away very soon, so I thought that it might be——" He hesitated.
"But where are you going?" Molly asked abruptly.
"I am to take a chaplaincy at Lord Lofton's."
"And your preaching?" cried Molly in astonishment.
"Is not wanted," said Mark.
"And your poor?"
"Can get on without me."
"You are to be buried in the country?" she cried in indignation; "you are to leave all the people you are helping? But what a horrible shame! What,"—she suddenly turned away as a thought struck her—"what can be the reason?"
"It seems," he said very quietly, "that I have been foolish; people are talking, things are said against me, and things should not be said against a priest. But I did not come here to talk about myself. I came here——" He paused.
Molly sat down close to the empty fireplace, and was bending over it, her very thin figure curiously twisted, and one foot twitching nervously.
"You are going away," she said suddenly, "and it is my doing. I did not know I was doing that; it felt as if hitting at you were the only way to defend myself. Good God! I shall have a lot to answer for!"
She did not turn round; she crouched lower on the low chair and shuddered.
"And you," she went on in a low voice, "you want to save my soul! I have always been afraid you would get the best of it, and now I have destroyed your life's work. Did you know it was I who was talking against you?"
"And that I have said everything I dared to say against you ever since I told you my secret?"
"Yes; more or less I knew."
"Why didn't you tell your authorities the truth long ago?"
"How could I?"
Molly made no answer. She got up in silence and took a key from her pocket and moved toward a small bureau between the windows. She unlocked the lower drawer and took out a packet of papers, and in the middle of this packet was an envelope in which lay the key of the room upstairs. Her movements were slow but unhesitating, and when she left the room Mark had not the slightest idea of what she would do. If he had seen her face as she slowly mounted the great well staircase he might have understood.
How simple it all was. She reached the top of the many steps with little loss of breath; she turned to the right into the dark passage that led to her own room, passed her own door, and put the key in the lock of the one next to it. She knew so exactly which box she sought, though she had never seen it since the day when Dr. Larrone brought it to her. Although she had actually come in the cab that brought the small boxes from the flat, she had succeeded in not recognising that one among the number heaped up together. She knew exactly where it stood now, and how many things had been piled above the boxes from the flat with seeming carelessness, but by her orders.
The shutters were closed, but she could have found that box in inky darkness, and now a ray from between the chinks fell upon it. She did not think now of how often she had told herself that she did not know what the box was like. Now it seemed to have been the only box she had ever known in her life. The cases on the top of it were heavy, and Molly had to strain herself to move them, but she was very strong, and every reserve of muscular power was called out unconsciously to meet her need. She did not know that her hands were covered with dust, and that blood was breaking through a scratch over the right thumb made by a jagged nail.
When she came back into the drawing-room, Father Molyneux was sitting with his back towards her, looking with unseeing eyes into the trees of the park. She moved towards him and held out a long envelope.
"Take it away," she said, "If I have ruined your life, you have ruined mine."
She moved with uncertain steps to the chimney-piece, leant upon it, and, turning round, looked wildly at the envelope in his hands.
"Why didn't you come for it before?" she asked him.
Mark could not answer. He was absolutely astonished at what had happened. He could hardly believe that he held in his hand a thing of such momentous importance. He had nerved himself for a great fight, but he had not known what he should say, how he should act, and then—amazing fact—a few minutes after he came into the room, and without his having even asked for it, the will was put into his hands! Nothing had been said of conditions or compromise; she only asked the amazing question why he had not come for it before!
"You were right," she mused, "right to leave me alone. I wonder, do you remember the words that have haunted me this summer?—Browning's words about the guilty man in the duel:
'Let him live his life out, Life will try his nerves.'
It has tried my nerves unbearably; I could not go on, I have not the strength. I might have had a glorious time if I had been a little stronger. As it is, it's not worth while."
It is impossible to convey the heavy dreariness of outlook conveyed by her voice and manner. There seemed no higher moral quality in it all.
"Half a dozen times I have nearly sent for you. But"—she did not shudder now, or make the restless movements he had noticed when he first came in: Molly had regained the stillness which follows after storms—"as soon as you are gone I shall be longing to have it back again. Men have done worse things than I have for thirty thousand a year! It won't be easy to be a pauper; I think it would be easier to kill myself."
She was silent again, and Mark could not find one word that he was not afraid to say—one word that might not quench the smoking flax.
"I had to give it to you without waiting to talk of the future, or I might not have given it at all. But I should be glad if the case could be so arranged that my mother's name and my own should not be dragged in the mud. It is only an appeal for mercy—nothing else." Her voice trembled almost into silence.
"I think that is all safe," said Mark. "I think if you will leave it all in my hands I can get better conditions for you than you suppose now. They will be only too glad."
"But I gave it to you without conditions." Her manner for the moment was that of a child seeking reassurance.
"Thank God! you did," he cried, with an irrepressible burst of sympathy.
"It's not much for a thief to have done, is it? But now I should like to do it all properly. Tell me; ought I to come away from here to-day, and give everything I have here to Lady Rose? If I ought, I will!"
"No, certainly not," said Mark. "I have been asked to offer you liberal conditions if you would agree to a compromise. I said they had come to quite the wrong person. No, no, don't think I told them. They have fresh evidence that there was a will, and they believe they know that important papers were brought to you by Dr. Larrone when your mother died."
"And you came to frighten me with this?" There was a touch of reproach in her tone.
"No, I came, hoping you would give me the paper, as you have done, without knowing this."
Evidently this news impressed Molly deeply, but she did not want to discuss it. Presently she said:
"I am glad you came in time before I was frightened. How you have wanted to make me save my soul! You have helped me very much, but I cannot save my soul."
"But God can," said Mark.
"You see," she went on, "I never know what I am going to do—going to be—next. Imagine my being a thief! It seems now almost incredible. And I don't know what may come next."