While dressing he was full of the dread of not liking the book well enough to praise it as he wished. A first book was nothing, he said to himself; it might be what it would; but the second—that was another matter! He recalled what first books he knew. "Poems by Two Brothers" gave not a foretaste of what was to come so soon after them! Shelley's prose attempts in his boyhood were below criticism! Byron's "Hours of Idleness" were as idle as he called them! He knew what followed these and others, but what had followed Lady Lufa's? That he was now to discover! What if it should be no better than what preceded! For his own part he did not, he would not much care. It was not for her poetry, it was for herself he loved her! What she wrote was not she, and could make no difference! It was not as if she had no genuine understanding of poetry, no admiration or feeling for it! A poet could do well enough with a wife who never wrote a verse, but hardly with one who had no natural relation to it, no perception what it was! A poet in love with one who laughed at his poetry!—that would want scanning! What or wherein could be their relation to each other?
He is a poor poet—and Walter was such a poet—who does not know there are better things than poetry. Keats began to discover it just ere he died.
Walter feared therefore the coming gift, as he might that of a doubted enchantress. It was not the less a delight, however, to remember that she said "your copy." But he must leave thinking and put on his neck-tie! There are other things than time and tide that wait for no man!
Lady Tremaine gave him Lufa, and she took his arm with old familiarity. The talk at table was but such as it could hardly help being—only for Walter it was talk with Lufa! The pleasure of talk often owes not much to the sense of it. There is more than the intellect concerned in talk; there is more at its root than fact or logic or lying.
When the scene changed to the drawing-room, Lufa played tolerably and sung well, delighting Walter. She asked and received his permission to sing "my song," as she called it, and pleased him with it more than ever. He managed to get her into the conservatory, which was large, and there he talked much, and she seemed to listen much. It was but the vague, twilight, allusive talk which, coming readily to all men in love, came the more readily to one always a poet, and not merely a poet by being in love. Every one in love sees a little further into things, but few see clearly, and hence love-talk has in general so little meaning. Ordinary men in love gain glimpses of truth more and other than they usually see, but from having so little dealing with the truth, they do not even try to get a hold of it, they do not know it for truth even when dallying with it. It is the true man's dreams that come true.
He raised her hand to his lips as at length she turned toward the drawing-room, and he thought she more than yielded it, but could not be sure. Anyhow she was not offended, for she smiled with her usual sweetness as she bade him good-night.
"One instant, Mr. Colman!" she added: "I promised you a sedative! I will run and get it. No, I won't keep you; I will send it to your room."
He had scarce shut his door when it opened again, and there was Lufa.
"I beg your pardon!" she said; "I thought you would not be come up, and I wanted to make my little offering with my own hand: it owes so much to you!"
She slipped past him, laid her book on his table, and went.
He lighted his candles with eager anxiety, and took it up. It was a dramatic poem of some length, daintily bound in white vellum, with gilt edges. On the title-page was written "The Master's Copy," with the date and Lufa's initials. He threw himself into a great soft chair that with open arms invited him, and began to read.
He had taken champagne pretty freely at dinner; his mind was yet in the commotion left by the summer-wind of their many words that might seem so much; he felt his kiss on her dainty hand, and her pressure of it to his lips; as he read, she seemed still and always in the door-way, entering with the book; its inscription was continually turning up with a shine: such was the mood in which he read the poem. Through he read it, every word, some of it many times; then rose and went to his writing-table, to set down his judgment of his lady's poem. He wrote and wrote, almost without pause. The dawn began to glimmer, the red blood of the morning came back to chase the swoon of the night, ere at last, throwing down his pen, he gave a sigh of weary joy, tore off his clothes, plunged into his bed, and there lay afloat on the soft waves of sleep. And as he slept, the sun came slowly up to shake the falsehood out of the earth.
Walter slept until nearly noon, then rose, very weary, but with a gladness at his heart. On his table were spread such pages as must please Lufa! His thoughts went back to the poem, but, to his uneasy surprise, he found he did not recall it with any special pleasure. He had had great delight in reading it, and in giving shape to his delight, but he could not now think what kind of thing it was that had given him such satisfaction. He had worked too long, he said to himself, and this was the reaction; he was too tired to enjoy the memory of what he had so heartily admired. Aesthetic judgment was so dependent on mood! He would glance over what he had done, correct it a little, and inclose it for the afternoon post, that it might appear in the next issue!
He drank the cup of cold tea by his bedside, sat down, and took up his hurriedly written sheets. He found in them much that seemed good work—of his own; and the passages quoted gave ostensible grounds for the remarks made upon them; but somehow the whole affair seemed quite different. The review would incline any lover of verse to read the book; and the passages cited were preceded and followed by rich and praiseful epithets; but neither quotations nor remarks moved in him any echo of response. He gave the manuscript what correction it required, which was not much, for Walter was an accurate as well as ready writer, laid it aside, and took up the poem.
What could be the matter? There was nothing but embers where had been glow and flame! Something must be amiss with him! He recalled an occasion on which, feeling similarly with regard to certain poems till then favorites, he was sorely troubled, but a serious attack of illness very soon relieved his perplexity: something like it most surely be at hand to account for the contradiction between Walter last night and Walter this morning! Closer and closer he scanned what he read, peering if he might to its very roots, in agonized endeavor to see what he had seen as he wrote. But his critical consciousness neither acknowledged what he had felt, nor would grant him in a condition of poetic collapse. He read on and on; read the poem through; turned back, and read passage after passage again; but without one individual approach to the revival of former impression. "Commonplace! commonplace!" echoed in his inner ear, as if whispered by some mocking spirit. He argued that he had often found himself too fastidious. His demand for finish ruined many of his verses, rubbing and melting and wearing them away, like frost and wind and rain, till they were worthless! The predominance and overkeenness of the critical had turned in him to disease! His eye was sharpened to see the point of a needle, but a tree only as a blotted mass! A man's mind was meant to receive as a mirror, not to concentrate rays like a convex lens! Was it not then likely that the first reading gave the true impression of the ethereal, the vital, the flowing, the iridescent? Did not the solitary and silent night brood like a hen on the nest of the poet's imaginings? Was it not the night that waked the soul? Did not the commonplace vanish along with the "garish" day? How then could its light afford the mood fit for judging a poem—the cold sick morning, when life is but half worth living! Walter did not think how much champagne he had taken, nor how much that might have to do with one judgment at night and another in the morning. "Set one mood against another," he said, conscious all the time it was a piece of special pleading, "and the one weighs as much as the other!" For it was horrible to him to think that the morning was the clear-eyed, and that the praise he had lavished on the book was but a vapor of the night. How was he to carry himself to the lady of his love, who at most did not care half as much for him as for her book?
How poetry could be such a passion with her when her own was but mediocre, was a question Walter dared not shape—not, however, that he saw the same question might be put with regard to himself: his own poetry was neither strong nor fresh nor revealing. He had not noted that an unpoetic person will occasionally go into a mild ecstasy over phrase or passage or verse in which a poet may see little or nothing.
He came back to this:—his one hour had as good a claim to insight as his other; if he saw the thing so once, why not say what he had seen? Why should not the thing stand? His consciousness of the night before had certainly been nearer that of a complete, capable being, than that of to-day! He was in higher human condition then than now!
But there came another doubt: what was he to conclude concerning his other numerous judgments passed irrevocably? Was he called and appointed to influence the world's opinion of the labor of hundreds according to the mood he happened to be in, or the hour at which he read their volumes? But if he must write another judgment of that poem in vellum and gold, he must first pack his portmanteau! To write in her home as he felt now, would be treachery!
Not confessing it, he was persuading himself to send on the review. Of course, had he the writing of it now, he would not write a paper like that! But the thing being written, it could claim as good a chance of being right as another! Had it not been written as honestly as another of to-day would be? Might it not be just as true? The laws of art are so undefined!
Thus on and on went the windmill of heart and brain, until at last the devil, or the devil's shadow—that is, the bad part of the man himself—got the better, and Walter, not being true, did a lie—published the thing he would no longer have said. He thought he worshiped the truth, but he did not. He knew that the truth was everything, but a lie came that seemed better than the truth. In his soul he knew he was not acting truly; that had he honestly loved the truth, he would not have played hocus-pocus with metaphysics and logic, but would have made haste to a manly conclusion. He took the package, and on his way to the dining-room, dropped it into the post-box in the hall.
During lunch he was rather silent and abstracted; the package was not gone, and his conscience might yet command him to recall it! When the hour was passed, and the paper beyond recovery, he felt easier, saying to himself, what was done could not be undone; he would be more careful another time. One comfort was, that at least he had done no injustice to Lufa! He did not reflect that he had done her the greatest injustice in helping her to believe that worthy which was not worthy, herself worshipful who was not worshipful. He told her that he finished her drama before going to bed, and was perfectly charmed with it. That it as much exceeded his expectations then as it had fallen below them since, he did not say.
In the evening he was not so bright as before. Lufa saw it and was troubled. She feared he doubted the success of her poem. She led the way, and found he avoided talking about it. She feared he was not so well pleased with it as he had said. Walter asked if he might not read from it in the drawing-room. She would not consent.
"None there are of our sort!" she said. "They think literature foolishness. Even my mother, the best of mothers, doesn't care about poetry, can not tell one measure from another. Come and read a page or two of it in the summer-house in the wilderness instead. I want to know how it will sound in people's ears."
Walter was ready enough. He was fond of reading aloud, and believed he could so read the poem that he need not say anything. And certainly, if justice meant making the words express more than was in them, he did it justice. But in truth the situation was sometimes touching; and the more so to Walter that the hero was the lady's inferior in birth, means, and position—much more her inferior than Walter was Lufa's. The lady alone was on the side of the lowly born; father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins to the remotest degree, against him even to hatred. The general pathos of the idea disabled the criticism of the audience, composed of the authoress and the reader, blinding perhaps both to not a little that was neither brilliant nor poetic. The lady wept at the sound of her own verses from the lips of one who was to her in the position of the hero toward the heroine; and the lover, critic as he was, could not but be touched when he saw her weep at passages suggesting his relation to her; so that, when they found the hand of the one resting in that of the other, it did not seem strange to either. When suddenly the lady snatched hers away, it was only because a mischievous little bird spying them, and hurrying away to tell, made a great fluttering in the foliage. Then was Walter's conscience not a little consoled, for he was aware of a hearty love for the poem. Under such conditions he could have gone on reading it all the night!
THE RIDE TOGETHER.
Days passed, and things went on much the same, Walter not daring to tell the girl all he felt, but seizing every opportunity of a tete-a-tete, and missing none of the proximity she allowed him, and she never seeming other than pleased to be his companion. Her ways with him were always pretty, and sometimes playful. She was almost studious to please him; and if she never took a liberty with him, she never resented any he took with her, which certainly were neither numerous nor daring, for Walter was not presumptuous, least of all with women.
But Lufa was careful not to neglect their other guests. She was always ready to accompany any of the ladies riding out of a morning; and a Mr. Sefton, who was there when Walter arrived, generally rode with them. He was older than Walter, and had taken little notice of him, which Walter resented more than he would have cared to acknowledge. He was tall and lanky, with a look of not having been in the oven quite long enough, but handsome nevertheless. Without an atom of contempt, he cared nothing for what people might think; and when accused of anything, laughed, and never defended himself. Having no doubt he was in the right, he had no anxiety as to the impression he might make. In the hunting-field he was now reckless, now so cautious that the men would chaff him. But they knew well enough that whatever he did came either of pure whim or down-right good sense; no one ever questioned his pluck. I believe an intermittent laziness had something to do with his inconsistency.
It had been taken for granted by Lufa that Walter could not ride; whereas, not only had he had some experience, but he was one of the few possessed of an individual influence over the lower brotherhood of animals, and his was especially equine.
One morning, from an ailment in one of the horses, Lufa found that her mount required consideration. Sefton said the horse he had been riding would carry her perfectly.
"What will you do for a horse?"
"What shall we do for a gentleman?"
"I saw a groom this morning," suggested Walter, "on a lovely little roan!"
"Ah, Red Racket!" answered Lady Lufa, "He is no horse; he is a little fiend. Goes as gently as a lamb with my father, though, or any one that he knows can ride him. Try Red Racket, George."
They were cousins, though not in the next degree.
"I would if I could sit him. But I'm not a rough rider, and much disinclined to have my bones broken. It's not as if there was anything to be got by it, even a brush!"
"Two hours of your sister, your cousin, and their friend!" said Lufa.
"Much of you I should have with Red Racket under me—or over me as likely! at best jumping about, and taking all the attention I had! No, thank you!"
"Come, George," said his sister, "you will make them think you are no horseman!"
"Neither I am; I have not a good seat, and you know it! I am not going to make a fool of myself on compulsion! I know what I can do, and what I can't do."
"I wish I had the chance!" murmured Walter, as if to himself, but so that Lufa heard.
"You can ride?" said Lufa, with pleased surprise.
"Why not?" returned Walter. "Every Englishman should ride."
"Yes; every Englishman should swim; but Englishmen are drowned every day!"
"That is as often because they can swim, but have not Mr. Sefton's prudence."
"You mustn't think my cousin afraid of Red Racket!" she returned.
"I don't. He doesn't look like it!"
"Do you really wish to ride the roan?"
"Indeed I do!"
"I will order him round," she said, rising.
Walter did not quite enjoy her consenting so easily; had she no fear for him of the risk Mr. Sefton would not run?
"She wants me to cut a good figure!" he said to himself, and went to get ready.
I have no deed of prowess on Walter's part to record. The instant he was in the saddle, Red Racket recognized a master.
"You can't have ridden him before?" questioned Lufa.
"I never saw him till this morning."
"He likes you, I suppose!" she said.
As they returned, the other ladies being in front, and the groom some distance behind, Walter brought his roan side by side with Lufa's horse, and said—
"You know Browning's 'Last Ride Together'?"
"Yes," she answered, with a faint blush; "but this is not our last ride! It is our first! Why didn't you tell me? We might have had many rides together!"
"Promise me a last one," he said.
"How can I? How should I know it was the last?"
"Promise," he persisted, "that if ever you see just one last ride possible, you will let me know."
She hesitated a moment, then answered—
"Thank you!" said Walter with fervor.
As by consent, they rode after the others.
Walter had not yet the courage to say anything definite. But he had said many things that must have compelled her to imagine what he had not said; therefore the promise she had given him seemed encouraging. They rode in silence the rest of the way.
When Sefton saw Red Racket as quiet as a lamb, he went up to him, stroked his neck, and said to Walter:
"With me he would have capered like an idiot till he had thrown me. It is always my luck with horses of his color! You must have a light hand!"
He stroked his neck once more, turned aside, and was too late to help the ladies dismount.
It was the last ride for the present, because of a change in the weather. In a few days came "The Field Battery" with Walter's review, bringing a revival of the self-reproach he had begun to forget. The paper felt in his hand like bad news or something nasty. He could not bear the thought of having to take his part in the talk it would occasion. It could not now be helped, however, and that was a great comfort! It was impossible, none the less, to keep it up! As he had foreseen, all this time came no revival of his first impression of the poem. He went to find his hostess, and told her he must go to London that same afternoon. As he took his leave, he put the paper In Lufa's hand, saying,
"You will find there what I have said about the poem."
I need hardly say he found his first lonely evening dull. He was not yet capable of looking beneath the look of anything. He felt cabined, cribbed, confined. His world-clothing came too near him. From the flowing robes of a park, a great house, large rooms, wide staircases—with plenty of air and space, color, softness, fitness, completeness, he found himself in the worn, tight, shabby garment of a cheap London lodging! But Walter, far from being a wise man, was not therefore a fool; he was not one whom this world can not teach, and who has therefore to be sent to some idiot asylum in the next, before sense can be got into him, or, rather, out of him. No man is a fool, who, having work to do, sets himself to do it, and Walter did. He had begun a poem to lead the van of a volume, of which the rest was nearly ready: into it he now set himself to weave a sequel to her drama, from the point where she had left the story. Every hour he could spare from drudgery he devoted to it—urged by the delightful prospect of letting Lufa see what he could do. Gaining facility with his stanza as he went on, the pleasure of it grew, and more than comforted his loneliness. Sullivan could hardly get him from his room.
Finding a young publisher prepared to undertake half the risk, on the ground, unexpressed, of the author's proximity to the judgment-seat, Walter, too experienced to look for any gain, yet hoped to clear his expenses, and became liable for much more than he possessed.
He had one little note from Lufa, concerning a point in rhythm which perplexed her. She had a good ear, and was conscientious in her mechanics. There was not a cockney-rhyme from beginning to end of her poem, which is more than the uninitiated will give its weight to. But she understood nothing of the broken music which a master of verse will turn to such high service. There are lines in Milton which Walter, who knew far more than she, could not read until long after, when Dante taught him how.
In the month of December came another note from Lady Lufa, inviting him to spend a week with them after Christmas.
"Perhaps then we may have yet a ride together," added a postscript.
"What does she mean?" thought Walter, a pale fear at his heart. "She can not mean our last ride!"
One conclusion he came to—that he must tell her plainly he loved her. The thing was only right, though of course ridiculous in the eyes of worldly people, said the far from unworldly poet. True, she was the daughter of an earl, and he the son of a farmer; and those who called the land their own looked down upon those who tilled it! But a banker, or a brewer, or the son of a contractor who had wielded the spade, might marry an earl's daughter: why should not the son of a farmer—not to say one who, according to the lady's mother, himself belonged to an aristocracy? The farmer's son indeed was poor, and who would look at a poor banker, or a poor brewer, more than a poor farmer! it was all money! But was he going to give in to that? Was he to grant that possession made a man honorable, and the want of it despicable! To act as if she could think after such a silly fashion, would be to insult her! He would lay bare his heart to her! There were things in it which she knew what value to set upon—things as far before birth as birth was before money! He would accept the invitation, and if possible get his volume out before the day mentioned, so as, he hoped, to be a little in the mouth of the public when he went.
Walter, like many another youth, imagined the way to make a woman love him, was to humble himself before her, tell her how beautiful she was, and how much he loved her. I do not see why any woman should therefore love a man. If she loves him already, anything will do to make her love him more; if she does not, no entreaty will wake what is not there to be waked. Even wrong and cruelty and carelessness may increase love already rooted; but neither love, nor kindness, nor worship, will prevail to plant it.
In his formal acceptance of the invitation, he inclosed some verses destined for his volume, in which he poured out his boyish passion over his lady's hair, and eyes, and hands—a poem not without some of the merits made much of by the rising school of the day, and possessing qualities higher, perhaps, than those upon which that school chiefly prided itself. She made, and he expected, no acknowledgment, but she did not return the verses.
Lyric after lyric, with Lufa for its inspiration, he wrought, like damask flowers, into his poem. Every evening, and all the evening, sometimes late into the morning, he fashioned and filed, until at length it was finished.
When the toiling girl who waited on him appeared with the proof-sheets in her hand, she came like a winged ministrant laying a wondrous gift before him. And in truth, poor as he came to think it, was it not a gift greater than any angel could have brought him? Was not the seed of it sown in his being by Him that loved him before he was? These were the poor first flowers, come to make way for better—themselves a gift none but God could give.
The book was rapidly approaching its birth, as the day of Lufa's summons drew near. He had inscribed the volume to her, not by name, but in a dedication she could not but understand and no other would; founded on her promise of a last ride: it was so delightful to have a secret with her! He hoped to the last to take a copy with him, but was disappointed by some contretemps connected with the binding—about which he was as particular as if it had been itself a poem: he had to pack his portmanteau without it.
Continuously almost, on his way to the station, he kept repeating to himself: "Is it to be the last ride, or only another?"
A WINTER AFTERNOON.
When Walter arrived, he found the paradise under snow. But the summer had only run in-doors, and there was blooming. Lufa was kinder than ever, but, he fancied, a little embarrassed, which he interpreted to his advantage. He was shown to the room he had before occupied.
It did not take him long to learn the winter ways of the house. Mr. and Miss Sefton were there; and all seemed glad of his help against consciousness; for there could be no riding so long as the frost lasted and the snow kept falling, and the ladies did not care to go out; and in, some country-houses Time has as many lives as a cat, and wants a great deal of killing—a butchery to be one day bitterly repented, perhaps; but as a savage can not be a citizen, so can not people of fashion belong to the kingdom of heaven.
The third morning came a thaw, with a storm of wind and rain; and after lunch they gathered in the glooming library, and began to tell ghost stories. Walter happened to know a few of the rarer sort, and found himself in his element. His art came to help him, and the eyes of the ladies, and he rose to his best. As he was working one of his tales to its climax, Mr. Sefton entered the room, where Walter had been the only gentleman, and took a chair beside Lufa. She rose, saying,
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Colman, but would you mind stopping a minute while I get a little more red silk for my imperial dragon? Mr. Sefton has already taken the sting out of the snake!"
"What snake?" asked Sefton.
"The snake of terror," she answered. "Did you not see him as you came in—erect on his coiled tail, drawing his head back for his darting spring?"
"I am very sorry," said Sefton. "I have injured everybody, and I hope everybody will pardon me!"
When Lufa had found her silk, she took a seat nearer to Walter, who resumed and finished his narrative.
"I wonder she lived to tell it!" said one of the ladies.
"For my part," rejoined their hostess, "I do not see why every one should be so terrified at the thought of meeting a ghost! It seems to me cowardly."
"I don't think it cowardly," said Sefton, "to be frightened at a ghost, or at anything else."
"Now don't say you would run away!" remonstrated his sister.
"I couldn't very well, don't you know, if I was in bed! But I might—I don't know—hide my head under the blankets!"
"I don't believe it a bit!"
"To be sure," continued Sefton, reflectively, "there does seem a difference! To hide is one thing, and to run is another—quite another thing! If you are frightened, you are frightened and you can't help it; but if you run away, then you are a coward. Yes; quite true! And yet there are things some men, whom other men would be afraid to call cowards, would run from fast enough! Your story, Mr. Colman," he went on, "reminds me of an adventure I had—if that be an adventure where was no danger—except, indeed, of losing my wits, which Lufa would say was no great loss. I don't often tell the story, for I have an odd weakness for being believed; and nobody ever does believe that story, though it is as true as I live; and when a thing is true, the blame lies with those that don't believe it. Ain't you of my mind, Mr. Colman?"
"You had better not appeal to him!" said Lufa. "Mr. Colman does not believe a word of the stories he has been telling. He regards them entirely from the artistic point of view, and cares only for their effect. He is writing a novel, and wants to study people under a ghost story."
"I don't indorse your judgment of me, Lady Lufa," said Walter, who did not quite like what she said. "I am ready to believe anything in which I can see reason. I should like much to hear Mr. Sefton's story. I never saw the man that saw a ghost, except Mr. Sefton be that man."
"You shall say what you will when you have heard. I shall offer no explanation, only tell you what I saw, or, if you prefer it, experienced; you must then fall back on your own metaphysics. I don't care what anybody thinks about it."
"You are not very polite!" said Lufa.
"Only truthful," replied Sefton.
"Please go on?"
"We are dying to hear!"
"A real ghost story!"
"Is it your best, George?"
"It is my only one," Sefton answered, and was silent a few moments, as if arranging his thoughts.
"Well, here goes!" he began. "I was staying at a country house—"
"Not here, I hope!" said Lufa.
"I have reasons for not saying where it was, or where it wasn't. It may have been in Ireland, it may have been in Scotland, it may have been in England; it was in one of the three—an old house, parts very old. One morning I happened to be late, and found the breakfast-table deserted. I was not the last, however; for presently another man appeared, whom I had met at dinner the day before for the first time. We both happened to be in the army, and had drawn a little together. The moment I saw him, I knew he had passed an uncomfortable night. His face was like dough, with livid spots under the eyes. He sat down and poured himself out a cup of tea. 'Game-pie?' I said, but he did not heed me. There was nobody in the room but ourselves, and I thought it best to leave him alone. 'Are you an old friend of the family?' he said at length. 'About the age of most friends,' I answered. He was silent again, for a bit, then said, 'I'm going to cut!' 'Ha, ha!' thought I, and something more. 'No, it's not that!' he said, reading my thought, which had been about a lady in the house with us. 'Pray don't imagine I want to know,' I replied. 'Neither do I want to tell,' he rejoined. 'I don't care to have fellows laugh at me!' 'That's just what I don't care to do. Nothing hurts me less than being laughed at, so I take no pleasure in it,' I said. 'What I do want,' said he, 'is to have you tell Mrs. —-' There! I was on the very edge of saying her name! and you would have known who she was, all of you! I am glad I caught myself in time!—'tell Mrs. Blank,' said he, 'why I went.' 'Very well! I will. Why are you going?' 'Can't you help a fellow to an excuse? I'm not going to give her the reason.' 'Tell me what you want me to say, and I will tell her you told me to say so.' 'I will tell you the truth.' 'Fire away, then.' 'I was in a beastly funk last night. I dare say you think as I did, that a man ought never to be a hair off the cool?' 'That depends,' I replied; 'there are some things, and there may be more, at which any but an idiot might well be scared; but some fools are such fools they can't shiver! What's the matter? I give you my word I'll not make game of it.' The fellow looked so seedy, don't you know, I couldn't but be brotherly, or, at least, cousinly to him!—that don't go for much, does it, Lufa? 'Well,' he said, 'I will tell you. Last night, I had been in bed about five minutes, and hadn't even had time to grow sleepy, when I heard a curious shuffling in the passage outside my door, and an indescribable terror came over me. To be perfectly open with you, however, I had heard that was the sign she was coming!' 'Who coming?' said I. 'The ghost, of course!' he answered. 'The ghost!' 'You don't mean to say you never heard of the ghost?' 'Never heard a word of it.' 'Well, they don't like to speak of it, but everybody knows it!' 'Go on,' said I; and he did, but plainly with a tearing effort. 'The shuffling was like feet in slippers much too big. As if I had been five instead of five-and-thirty, I dived under the blankets, and lay so for minutes after the shuffling had ceased. But at length I persuaded myself it was but a foolish fancy, and I had never really heard anything. What with fear and heat I was much in want of breath too, I can tell you! So I came to the surface, and looked out.' Here he paused a moment, and turned almost livid. 'There stood a horrible old woman, staring at me, as if she had been seeing me all the time, and the blankets made no difference!' 'Was she really ugly?' I asked. 'Well, I don't know what you call ugly,' he answered, 'but if you had seen her stare, you would have thought her ugly enough! Had she been as beautiful as a houri, though, I don't imagine I should have been less frightened!' 'Well,' said I, for he had come to a pause, 'and what came next?' 'I can not tell. I came to myself all trembling, and as cold and as wet as if I had been dipped in a well' 'You are sure you were not dreaming?' I said. 'I was not. But I do not expect you believe me!' 'You must not be offended,' I said, 'if I find the thing stiff to stow! I believe you all the same.' 'What?' he said, not quite understanding me. 'An honest man and a gentleman,' I answered. 'And a coward to boot!' 'God forbid!' I returned: 'what man can answer for himself at every moment! If I remember, Hector turned at last and ran from Achilles!' He said nothing, and I went on. 'I once heard a preaching fellow say, "When a wise man is always wise, then is the kingdom of heaven!" and I thought he knew something!' I talked, don't you know, to quiet him. 'I once saw,' I said, 'the best-tempered man I ever knew, in the worst rage I ever saw man in—though I must allow he had good reason!' He drank his cup of tea, got up, and said, 'I'm off. Good-bye—and thank you! A million of money wouldn't make me stay in the house another hour! There is that in it I fear ten times worse than the ghost?' 'Gracious! what is that?' I said. 'This horrible cowardice oozing from her like a mist. The house is full of it!' 'But what shall I say to Mrs. Blank?' 'Anything you like.' 'I will say then, that you are very sorry, but were compelled to go.' 'Say what you please, only let me go! Tell them to send my traps after me. Good-bye! I'm in a sepulcher! I shall have to throw up my commission!' So he went."
"And what became of him?"
"I've neither seen nor heard of him to this day!"
He ceased with the cadence of an ended story.
"Is that all?"
"You spoke of an adventure of your own!"
"I was flattering myself," said Lufa, "that in our house Mr. Colman was at last to hear a ghost story from the man's own lips!"
"The sun is coming out!" said Sefton. "I will have a cigar at the stables."
The company protested, but he turned a deaf ear to expostulation, and went.
In the drawing-room after dinner, some of the ladies gathered about him, and begged the story of his own adventure. He smiled queerly.
"Very well, you shall have it!" he answered.
They seated themselves, and the company came from all parts of the room—among the rest, Lufa and Walter.
"It was three days, if I remember," began Sefton, "after my military friend left, when one night I found myself alone in the drawing-room, just waked from a brown study. No one had said good-night to me. I looked at my watch; it was half past eleven. I rose and went. My bedroom was on the first-floor.
"The stairs were peculiar—a construction later than much of the house, but by no means modern. When you reached the landing of the first-floor and looked up, you could see above you the second-floor, descended by a balustrade between arches. There were no carpets on stairs or landings, which were all of oak.
"I can not certainly say what made me look up; but I think, indeed I am almost sure, I had heard a noise like that the ghost was said to make, as of one walking in shoes too large: I saw a lady looking down over the balusters on the second-floor. I thought some one was playing me a trick, and imitating the ghost, for the ladies had been chaffing me a good deal that night; they often do. She wore an old-fashioned, browny, silky looking dress. I rushed up to see who was taking the rise out of me. I looked up at her as I ran, and she kept looking down, but apparently not at me. Her face was that of a middle-aged woman, beginning, indeed, to be old, and had an intent, rather troubled look, I should say; but I did not consider it closely.
"I was at the top in a moment, on the level where she stood leaning over the handrail. Turning, I approached her. Apparently, she neither saw nor heard me. 'Well acted!' I said to myself—but even then I was beginning to be afraid, without knowing why. Every man's impulse, I fancy, is to go right up to anything that frightens him—at least, I have always found it so. I walked close up to the woman. She moved her head and turned in my direction, but only as if about to go away. Whether she looked at me I can not tell, but I saw her eyes plain enough. By this time, I suppose, the idea of a ghost must have been uppermost, for, being now quite close to her, I put out my hand as if to touch her. My hand went through her—through her head and body! I am not joking in the least; I mean you to believe, if you can, exactly what I say. What then she did, or whether she took any notice of my movement, I can not tell; I only know what I did, or rather what I did not do. For, had I been capable, I should have uttered a shriek that would have filled the house with ghastliest terror; but there was a load of iron on my chest, and the hand of a giant at my throat. I could not help opening my mouth, for something drew all the muscles of my jaws and throat, but I could not utter a sound. The horror I was in, was entirely new to me, and no more under my control than a fever. I only wonder it did not paralyze me, that I was able to turn and run down the stair! I ran as if all the cardinal sins were at my heels. I flew, never seeming to touch the stairs as I went. I darted along the passage, burst into my room, shut and locked the door, lighted my candles, fell into a chair, shuddered, and began to breathe again."
He ceased, not without present signs of the agitation he described.
"But that's not all!"
"And what else?"
"Did anything happen?"
"Do tell us more."
"I have nothing more to tell," answered Sefton. "But I haven't done wondering what could have put me in such an awful funk! You can't have a notion what it was like!"
"I know I should have been in a worse!"
"Perhaps—but why? Why should any one have been terrified? The poor thing had lost her body, it is true, but there she was notwithstanding—all the same! It might be nicer or not so nice to her, but why should it so affect me? that's what I want to know! Am I not, as Hamlet says, 'a thing immortal as itself?' I don't see the sense of it! Sure I am that one meets constantly—sits down with, eats and drinks with, hears sing, and play, and remark on the weather, and the fate of the nation—"
He paused, his eyes fixed on Walter.
"What are you driving at?" said Lufa.
"I was thinking of a much more fearful kind of creature," he answered.
"What kind of a creature?" she asked.
"A creature," he said, slowly, "that has a body, but no soul to it. All body, with brain enough for its affairs, it has no soul. Such will never wander about after they are dead! there will be nothing to wander! Good-night, ladies! Were I to tell you the history of a woman whose acquaintance I made some years ago at Baden, you would understand the sort Good-night!"
There was silence for a moment or two. Had his sister not been present, something other than complimentary to Sefton might have crept about the drawing-room—to judge from the expression of two or three faces. Walter felt the man worth knowing, but felt also something about him that repelled him.
In his room, Walter threw himself in a chair, and sat without thinking, for the mental presence of Lufa was hardly thought Gradually Sefton's story revived, and for a time displaced the image of Lufa. It was the first immediately authenticated ghost-narration he had ever heard. His fancy alone had hitherto been attracted by such tales; but this brought him close to things of import as profound as marvelous. He began to wonder how he was likely to carry himself in such an interview. Courage such as Mr. Sefton's he dared not claim—any more than hope for the distinction of ever putting his hand through a ghost! To be sure, the question philosophically considered, Sefton could have done no such thing; but where no relations existed, he reasoned, or rather assumed, the one could not be materially present to the other; a fortiori there could be no passing of the one through the other! Where the ghost was, the hand was; both existed in the same space at the same time; therefore the one did not penetrate the other! The ghost, he held, never saw Sefton, knew or thought of his presence, or was aware of any intrusive outrage from his hand! He shrunk none the less, however, from such phantasmic presence as Sefton had described; a man's philosophy made but a fool of him when it came to the pinch! He would indeed like to see a ghost, but not to be alone with one!
Here came back to him a certain look in Lufa's face, which he had not understood: was it possible she knew something about the thing? Could this be the house where it took place, where the ghost appeared? The room in which he sat was very old! the pictures in it none but for their age would hang up on any wall! And the bed was huger and gloomier than he had ever elsewhere seen! It was on the second-floor too! What if this was the very room the officer slept in!
He must run into port, find shelter from the terrors of the shoreless sea of the unknown! But all the harbor he could seek, was bed and closed eyes! The dark is a strange refuge from the darkness—yet that which most men seek. It is so dark! let us go further from the light! Thus deeper they go, and come upon greater terrors! He undressed hurriedly, blew out his candles, and by the light of the fire, glowing rather than blazing, plunged into the expanse which glimmered before him like a lake of sleep in the moonshine of dreams.
The moment he laid down his head, he became aware of what seemed unnatural stillness. Throughout the evening a strong wind had been blowing about the house; it had ceased, and without having noted the tumult, he was now aware of the calm. But what made him so cold? The surface of the linen was like a film of ice! He rolled himself round, and like a hedge-hog sought shelter within the circumference of his own person. But he could not get warm, lie close as he might to his own door; there was no admittance! Had the room turned suddenly cold? Could it be that the ghost was near, making the air like that of the sepulcher from which she had issued? for such ghosts as walk the world at night, what refuge so fit as their tombs in the day-time! The thought was a worse horror than he had known himself capable of feeling. He shivered with the cold. It seemed to pierce to his very bones. A strange and hideous constriction seized the muscles of his neck and throat; had not Sefton described the sensation? Was it not a sure sign of ghostly presence?
How much longer he could have endured, or what would have been the result of the prolongation of his suffering, I can not tell. Molly would have found immediate refuge with Him to whom belong all the ghosts wherever they roam or rest—with Him who can deliver from the terrors of the night as well as from the perplexities of the day; but Walter felt his lonely being exposed on all sides.
The handle of the door moved. I am not sure whether ghosts always enter and leave a room in silence, but the sound horribly shook Walter's nerves, and nearly made an end of him for a time. But a voice said, "May I come in?" What he answered or whether he answered, Walter could not have told, but his terror subsided. The door opened wider, some one entered, closed it softly, and approached the bed through the dull fire-light. "I did not think you would be in bed!" said the voice, which Walter now knew for Sefton's; "but at the risk of waking you, even of giving you a sleepless night, I must have a little talk with you!"
"I shall be glad," answered Walter.
Sefton little thought how welcome was his visit!
But he was come to do him a service for which he could hardly at once be grateful. The best things done for any are generally those for which they are at the moment least grateful; it needs the result of the service to make them able to prize it.
Walter thought he had more of the story to tell—something he had not chosen to talk of to the ladies.
Sefton stood, and for a few moments there was silence. He seemed to be meditating, yet looked like one who wanted to light his cigar.
"Won't you take a seat?" said Walter.
"Thank you!" returned Sefton, and sat on the bed.
"I am twenty-seven," he said at length. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-three," answered Walter.
"When I was twenty-three, I knew ever so much more than I do now! I'm not half so sure about things as I was. I wonder if you will find it so!"
"I hope I shall—otherwise I sha'n't have got on."
"Well, now, couldn't you just—why not?—forestall your experience by making use of mine? I'm talking like a fool, I know, but never mind; it is the more genuine. Look here, Mr. Colman! I like you, and believe you will one day be something more than a gentleman. There, that won't do! What's my opinion, good or bad, to you? Listen to me anyhow: you're on the wrong tack here, old boy!"
"I'm sorry I don't understand you," said Walter.
"Naturally not; how could you? I will explain."
"Please. Don't mind me. I shall do my best not to be offended."
"That is more than I should have presumed to ask." Again a brief silence followed.
"You heard my story about the ghost?" said Sefton.
"I was on the point of asking you if I might tell it in print!"
"You may do what you like with it, except the other fellow's part."
"Thank you. But I wish you would tell me what you meant by that other more fearful—apparition—or what did you call it? Were you alluding to the vampire?"
"No. There are live women worse than vampires. Scared as I confess I was, I would rather meet ten such ghosts as I told you of, than another woman such as I mean. I know one, and she's enough. By the time you had seen ten ghosts you would have got used to them, and found there was no danger from them; but a woman without a soul will devour any number of men. You see she's all room inside! Look here! I must be open with you: tell me you are not in love with my cousin Lufa, and I will bid you good-night"
"I am so much in love with her, that I dare not think what may come of it," replied Walter.
"Then for God's sake tell her, and have done with it! Anything will be better than going on like this. I will not say what Lufa is; indeed I don't know what name would at all fit her! You think me a queer, dry, odd sort of a customer: I was different when I fell in love with Lufa. She is older than you think her, though not so old as I am. I kept saying to myself she was hardly a woman yet; I must give her time. I was better brought up than she; I thought things of consequence that she thought of none. I hadn't a stupid ordinary mother like hers. She's my second cousin. She took my love-making, never drew me on, never pushed me back; never refused my love, never returned it. Whatever I did or said, she seemed content. She was always writing poetry. 'But where's her own poetry?' I would say to myself. I was always trying to get nearer to what I admired; she never seemed to suspect the least relation between the ideal and life, between thought and action. To have an ideal implied no aspiration after it! She has not a thought of the smallest obligation to carry out one of the fine things she writes of, any more than people that go to church think they have anything to do with what they hear there. Most people's nature seems all in pieces. They wear and change their moods as they wear and change their dresses. Their moods make them, and not they their moods. They are different with every different mood. But Lufa seems never to change, and yet never to be in one and the same mood. She is always in two moods, and the one mood has nothing to do with the other. The one mood never influences, never modifies the other. They run side by side and do not mingle. The one mood is enthusiasm for what is not, the other indifference to what is. She has not the faintest desire to make what is not into what is. For love, I believe all she knows about it is, that it is a fine thing to be loved. She loves nobody but her mother, and her only after a fashion. I had my leg broken in the hunting-field once; my horse got up and galloped off; I lay still. She saw what had happened, and went after the hounds. She said she could do no good; Doctor Black was in the field, and she went to find him. She didn't find him, and he didn't come. I believe she forgot. But it's worth telling you, though it has nothing to do with her, that I wasn't forgot. Old Truefoot went straight home, and kept wheeling and tearing up and down before the windows, but, till his own groom came, would let no one touch him. Then when he would have led him to the stable, he set his forefeet out in front of him, and wouldn't budge. The groom got on his back, but was scarce in the saddle when Truefoot was oft in a bee-line over everything to where I was lying. There's a horse for you! And there's a woman! I'm telling you all this, mind, not to blame her, but to warn you. Whether she is to blame or not, I don't know; I don't understand her.
"I was free to come and go, and say what I pleased, for both families favored the match. She never objected; never said she would not have me; said she liked me as well as any other. In a word she would have married me, if I would have taken her. There are men, I believe, who would make the best of such a consent, saying they were so in love with the woman they would rejoice to take her on any terms: I don't understand that sort of love! I would as soon think of marrying a woman I hated as a woman that did not love me. I know no reason why any woman should love me, and if no woman can find any, I most go alone. Lufa has found none yet, and life and love too seem to have gone out of me waiting. If you ask me why I do not give it all up, I have no answer. You will say for Lufa, it is only that the right man is not come! It may be so; but I believe there is more than that in it. I fear she is all outside. It is true her poetry is even passionate sometimes; but I suspect all her inspiration comes of the poetry she reads, not of the nature or human nature around her; it comes of ambition, not of love. I don't know much about verse, but to me there is an air of artificiality about all hers. I can not understand how you could praise her long poem so much—if you were in love with her. She has grown to me like the ghost I told you of. I put out my hand to her, and it goes through her. It makes me feel dead myself to be with her. I wonder sometimes how it would be if suddenly she said she loved me. Should I love her, or should we have changed parts? She is very dainty—very lady-like—but womanly! At one time—and for this I am now punished—the ambition to wake love in her had no small part in my feeling toward her—ambition to be the first and only man so to move her: despair has long cured me of that; but not before I had come to love her in a way I can not now understand. Why I should love her I can not tell; and were it not that I scorn to marry her without love, I should despise my very love. You are thinking, 'Well then, the way is clear for me!' It is; I only want to prepare you for what I am confident will follow: you will have the heart taken out of you! That you are poor will be little obstacle if she loves you. She is the heiress, and can do much as she pleases. If she were in love, she would be obstinate. It must be in her somewhere, you will say, else how could she write as she does? But, I say again, look at the multitudes that go to church, and communicate, with whose being religion has no more to do than with that of Satan! I've said my say. Good-night!"
He rose, and stood.
He had not uttered the depth of what he feared concerning Lufa—that she was simply, unobtrusively, unconsciously, absolutely selfish.
Walter had listened with a beating heart, now full of hope that he was to be Hildebrand to this Undine, now sick with the conviction that he was destined to fare no better than Sefton.
"Let me have my say before you go," he protested. "It will sound as presumptuous in your ears as it does in mine—but what is to be done except put the thing to the question?"
"There is nothing else. That is all I want. You must not go on like this. It is sucking the life out of you. I can't bear to see it. Pray do not misunderstand me."
"That is impossible," returned Walter.
Not a wink did he sleep that night. But ever and again across his anxiety, throughout the dark hours, came the flattering thought that she had never loved man yet, and he was teaching her to love. He did not doubt Sefton, but Sefton might be right only for himself.
THE LAST RIDE.
In the morning, as Walter was dressing, he received a copy of his poems which he had taken in sheets to a book-binder to put in morocco for Lady Lufa. Pleased like a child, he handled it as if he might hurt it. Such a feeling he had never had before, would never have again. He was an author! One might think, after the way in which he had treated not a few books and not a few authors, he could scarcely consider it such a very fine thing to be an author; but there is always a difference between thine and mine, treated by the man of this world as essential. The book was Walter's book and not another's!—no common prose or poetry this, but the first-born of his deepest feeling! At length it had taken body and shape! From the unseen it had emerged in red morocco, the color of his heart, its edges golden with the light of his hopes!
As to the communication of the night, its pain had early vanished. Was not Sefton a disappointed lover? His honesty, however evident, could not alter that fact! Least of all could a man himself tell whether disguised jealousy and lingering hope might not be potently present, while he believed himself solely influenced by friendly anxiety!
"I will take his advice, however," said Walter to himself, "and put an end to my anxiety this very day!"
"Do you feel inclined for a gallop, Mr. Colman?" asked Lufa as they sat at the breakfast-table. "It feels just like a spring morning. The wind changed in the night. You won't mind a little mud—will you?"
In common phrase, but with a foolish look of adoring gratitude, Walter accepted the invitation. "How handsome he is!" thought Lufa; for Walter's countenance was not only handsome but expressive. Most women, however, found him attractive chiefly from his frank address and open look; for, though yet far from a true man, he was of a true nature. Every man's nature indeed is true, though the man be not true; but some have come into the world so much nearer the point where they may begin to be true, that, comparing them with the rest, we say their nature is true.
Lufa rose and went to get ready. Walter followed, and overtook her on the stair.
"I have something for you," he said; "may I bring it you?"
He could not postpone the effect his book might have. Authors young and old think so much of their books that they seldom conceive how little others care about them.
She was hardly in her room, when he followed her with the volume.
She took it, and opened it.
"Yours!" she cried. "And poetry! Why, Walter!"
She had once or twice called him by his name before.
He took it from her hand, and turning the title-page, gave it her again to read the dedication. A slight rose-tinge suffused her face. She said nothing, but shut the book, and gave it a tender little hug.
"She never did that to anything Sefton gave her!" thought Walter.
"Make haste," she said, and turning, went in, and closed her door.
He walked up and down the hall for half an hour before she appeared. When she came tripping down the wide, softly descending stair, in her tight-fitting habit and hat and feather, holding up her skirt, so that he saw her feet racing each other like a cataract across the steps, saying as she came near him, "I have kept you waiting, but I could not help it; my habit was torn!" he thought he had never seen her so lovely. Indeed she looked lovely, and had she loved, would have been lovely. As it was, her outer loveliness was but a promise whose fulfillment had been too long postponed. His heart swelled into his throat and eyes as he followed her and helped her to mount.
"Nobody puts me up so well as you!" she said.
He could hardly repress the triumph that filled him from head to foot. Anyhow, and whoever might object, she liked him! If she loved him and would confess it, he could live on the pride of it all the rest of his days!
They were unattended, but neither spoke until they were well beyond the lodge-gate. Winter though it was, a sweet air was all abroad, and the day was full of spring-prophecies: all winters have such days, even those of the heart! how could we get through without them? Their horses were in excellent spirits—it was their first gallop for more than a week; Walter's roan was like a flame under him. They gave them so much to do, that no such talk as Walter longed for, was possible. It consoled him, however, to think that he had never had such a chance of letting Lufa see he could ride.
At length, after a great gallop, they were quieter, seeming to remember they were horses and not colts, and must not overpass the limits of equine propriety.
"Is it our last ride, Lufa?" said Walter.
"Why should it be?" she answered, opening her eyes wide on him.
"There is no reason I know," he returned, "except—except you are tired of me."
"Nobody is tired of you—except perhaps George, and you need not mind him; he is odd. I have known him from childhood, and don't understand him yet."
"He is clever!" said Walter.
"I dare say he is—if he would take the trouble to show it."
"You hardly do him justice, I think!"
"How can I? he bores me! and when I am bored, I am horribly bored. I have been very patient with him."
"Why do you ask him so often then?"
"I don't ask him. Mamma is fond of him, and so—"
"You are the victim!"
"I can bear it; I have consolations!"
She laughed merrily.
"How do you like my binding?" he asked, when they had ridden awhile in silence.
She looked up with a question.
"The binding of my book, I mean," he explained.
"It is a good color."
He felt his hope rather damped.
"Will you let me read a little from it?"
"With pleasure. You shall have an audience in the drawing-room, after luncheon."
"Oh, Lufa! how could you think I would read my own poems to a lot of people!"
"I beg your pardon! Will the summer-house do?"
"Yes, indeed; nowhere better."
"Very well! The summer-house, after lunch!"
This was not encouraging! Did she suspect what was coming? and was she careful not to lead the way to it? She had never been like this before! Perhaps she did not like having the book dedicated to her! But there was no mention of her name, or anything to let "the heartless world" know to whom it was offered!
As they approached the house, Walter said,
"Would you mind coming at once to the summer-house?"
"Lunch will be ready."
"Then sit down in your habit, and come immediately after. Let me have my way for once, Lufa."
The moment the meal was over, he left the room, and in five minutes they met at the place appointed—a building like a miniature Roman temple.
"Oh," said Lufa, as she entered, "I forgot the book. How stupid of me!"
"Never mind," returned Walter. "It was you, not the book I wanted."
A broad bench went round the circular wall; Lufa seated herself on it, and Walter placed himself beside her, as near as he dared. For some moments he did not speak. She looked up at him inquiringly. He sunk at her feet, bowed his head toward her, and but for lack of courage would have laid it on her knees.
"Oh, Lufa!" he said, "you can not think how I love you!"
"Poor, dear boy!" she returned, in the tone of a careless mother to whom a son has unburdened his sorrows, and laid her hand lightly on his curls.
The words were not repellent, but neither was the tone encouraging.
"You do not mind my saying it?" he resumed, feeling his way timidly.
"What could you do but tell me?" she answered.
"What could I do for you if you did not let me know! I'm so sorry, Walter!"
"Why should you be sorry? You can do with me as you please!"
"I don't know about such things. I don't quite know what you mean, or what you want. I will be as kind to you as I can—while you stay with us."
"But, Lufa—I may call you Lufa?"
"Yes, surely! if that is any comfort to you."
"Nothing but your love, Lufa, can be a comfort to me. That would make me one of the blessed!"
"I like you very much. If you were a girl, I should say I loved you."
"Why not say it as it is?"
"Would you be content with the love I should give a girl? Some of you want so much!"
"I will be glad of any love you can give me. But to say I should be content with any love you could give me, would be false. My love for you is such, I don't know how to bear it! It aches so! My heart is full of you, and longs for you till I can hardly endure the pain. You are so beautiful that your beauty burns me. Night nor day can I forget you!"
"You try to forget me then?"
"Never. Your eyes have so dazzled my soul that I can see nothing but your eyes. Do look at me—just for one moment, Lufa."
She turned her face and looked him straight in the eyes—looked into them as if they were windows through which she could peer into the convolutions of his brain. She held her eyes steady until his dropped, unable to sustain the nearness of her presence.
"You see," she said, "I am ready to do anything I can to please you!"
He felt strangely defeated, rose, and sat down beside her again, with the sickness of a hot summer noon in his soul.
But he must leave no room for mistake! He had been dreaming long enough! What had not Sefton told him!
"Is it possible you do not understand, Lufa, what a man means when he says, 'I love you'?"
"I think I do! I don't mind it!"
"That means you will love me again?"
"Yes; I will be good to you."
"You will love me as a woman loves a man?"
"I will let you love me as much as you please."
"To love you as much as I please, would be to call you my own; to marry you; to say wife to you; to have you altogether, with nobody to come between, or try to stop my worshiping of you—not father, not mother—nobody!"
"Now you are foolish, Walter! You know I never meant that! You must have known that never could be! I never imagined you could make such a fantastic blunder! But then how should you know how we think about things! I must remember that, and not be hard upon you!"
"You mean that your father and mother would not like it?"
"There it is! You do not understand! I thought so! I do not mean my father and mother in particular; I mean our people—people of our position—I would say rank, but that might hurt you! We are brought up so differently from you, that you can not understand how we think of such things. It grieves me to appear unkind, but really, Walter! There is not a man I love more than you—but marriage! Lady Lufa would be in everybody's mouth, the same as if I had run off with my groom! Our people are so blind that, believe me, they would hardly see the difference. The thing is simply impossible!"
"It would not be impossible if you loved me!"
"Then I don't, never did, never could love you. Don't imagine you can persuade me to anything unbecoming, anything treacherous to my people! You will find yourself awfully mistaken!"
"But I may make myself a name! If I were as famous as Lord Tennyson, would it be just as impossible?"
"To say it would not, would be to confess myself worldly, and that I never was! No, Walter; I admire you; if you could be trusted not to misunderstand, I might even say I loved you! I shall always be glad to see you, always enjoy hearing you read; but there is a line as impassable as the Persian river of death. Talk about something else, or I must go!"
Here Walter, who had been shivering with cold, began to grow warm again as he answered:
"How could you write that poem, Lady Lufa—full of such grand things about love, declaring love everything and rank nothing; and then, when it came to yourself, treat me like this! I could not have believed it possible! You can not know what love is, however much you write about it!"
"I hope I never shall, if it means any confusion between friendship and folly! It shall not make a fool of me! I will not be talked about! It is all very well and very right in poetry! The idea of letting all go for love is so splendid, it is the greatest pity it should be impossible. There may be some planet, whose social habits are different, where it might work well enough; but here it is not to be thought of—except in poetry, of course, or novels. Of all human relations, the idea of such love is certainly the fittest for verse, therefore we have no choice; we must use it. But because I think with pleasure of such lovers, why must I consent to be looked at with pleasure myself? What obligation does my heroine lay on me to do likewise? I don't see the thing. I don't want to pose as a lover. Why should I fall in love with you in real life, because I like you to read my poem about lovers? Can't you see the absurdity of the argument? Life and books are two different spheres. The one is the sphere of thoughts, the other of things, and they don't touch."
But for pride, Walter could have wept with shame: why should he care that one with such principles should grant or refuse him anything! Yet he did care!
"There is no reason at all," she resumed, "why we should not be friends. Mr. Colman, I am not a flirt. It is in my heart to be a sister to you! I would have you the first to congratulate me when the man appears whom I may choose to love as you mean! He need not be a poet to make you jealous! If he were, I should yet always regard you as my poet."
"And you would let me kiss your shoe, or perhaps your glove, if I was very good!" said Walter.
She took no notice of the outburst: it was but a bit of childish temper!
"You must learn," she went on, "to keep your life and your imaginations apart. You are always letting them mix, and that confuses everything. A poet of all men ought not to make the mistake. It is quite monstrous! as monstrous as if a painter joined the halves of two different animals! Poetry is so unlike life, that to carry the one into the other is to make the poet a ridiculous parody of a man! The moment that, instead of standing aloof and regarding, he plunges in, he becomes a traitor to his art, and is no longer able to represent things as they ought to be, but can not be. My mother and I will open to you the best doors in London because we like you; but pray do not dream of more. Do, please, Walter, leave it possible for me to say I like you—oh, so much!"
She had been staring out of the window as she spoke; now she turned her eyes upon him where he sat, crushed and broken, beside her. A breath of compassion seemed to ruffle the cold lake of her spirit, and she looked at him in silence for a moment. He did not raise his eyes, but her tone made her present to his whole being as she said,
"I don't want to break your heart, my poet! It was a lovely thought—why did you spoil it?—that we two understood and loved each other in a way nobody could have a right to interfere with!"
Walter lifted his head. The word loved wrought on him like a spell: he was sadly a creature of words! He looked at her with flushed face and flashing eyes. Often had Lufa thought him handsome, but she had never felt it as she did now.
"Let it be so!" he said. "Be my sister-friend, Lufa. Leave it only to me to remember how foolish I once made myself in your beautiful eyes—how miserable always in my own blind heart."
So little of a man was our poet, that out of pure disappointment and self-pity he burst into a passion of weeping. The world seemed lost to him, as it seemed at such a time to many a better man. But to the true the truth of things will sooner or later assert itself, and neither this world nor the next prove lost to him. A man's well-being does not depend on any woman. The woman did not create, and could not have contented him. No woman can ruin a man by refusing him, or even by accepting him, though she may go far toward it. There is one who has upon him a perfect claim, at the entrancing recognition of which he will one day cry out, "This, then, is what it all meant!" The lamp of poetry may for a time go out in the heart of the poet, and nature seem a blank; but where the truth is, the poetry must be; and truth is, however the untrue may fail to see it. Surely that man is a fool who, on the ground that there can not be such a God as other fools assert, or such a God as alone he is able to imagine, says there is no God!
Lufa's bosom heaved, and she gave a little sob; her sentiment, the skin of her heart, was touched, for the thing was pathetic! A mist came over her eyes, and might, had she ever wept, have turned to tears.
Walter sat with his head in his hands and wept. She had never before seen a man weep, yet never a tear left its heavenly spring to flow from her eyes! She rose, took his face between her hands, raised it, and kissed him on the forehead.
He rose also, suddenly calmed.
"Then it was our last ride, Lufa!" he said, and left the summer-house.
Walter did not know where he was going when he turned from Lufa. It was solitude he sought, without being aware that he sought anything. Must it not be a deep spiritual instinct that drives trouble into solitude? There are times when only the highest can comfort even the lowest, and solitude is the ante-chamber to his presence. With him is the only possibility of essential comfort, the comfort that turns an evil into a good. But it was certainly not knowledge of this that drove Walter into the wide, lonely park. "Away from men!" moans the wounded life. Away from the herd flies the wounded deer; away from the flock staggers the sickly sheep—to the solitary covert to die. The man too thinks it is to die; but it is in truth so to return to life—if indeed he be a man, and not an abortion that can console himself with vile consolations. "You can not soothe me, my friends! leave me to my misery," cries the man; and lo his misery is the wind of the waving garments of him that walks in the garden in the cool of the day! All misery is God unknown.
Hurt and bleeding Walter wandered away. His life was palled with a sudden hail-cloud which hung low, and blotted out color and light and loveliness. It was the afternoon; the sun was fast going down; the dreary north wind had begun again to blow, and the trees to moan in response; they seemed to say, "How sad thou art, wind of winter! see how sad thou makest us! we moan and shiver! each alone, we are sad!" The sorrow of nature was all about him; but the sighing of the wind-sifting trees around his head, and the hardening of the earth about the ancient roots under his feet, was better than the glow of the bright drawing-room, with its lamps and blazing fires, its warm colors and caressing softnesses. Who would take joy in paradise with hell in his heart! Let him stay out in the night with the suffering, groaning trees, with the clouds that have swallowed the moon and the stars, with the frost and the silent gathering of the companies, troops, and battalions of snow!
Every man understands something of what Walter felt. His soul was seared with cold. The ways of life were a dull sickness. There was no reason why things should be, why the world should ever have been made! The night was come: why should he keep awake! How cold the river looked in its low, wet channel! How listlessly the long grasses hung over its bank! And the boy on the other side was whistling!
It grew darker. He had made a long round, and unaware was approaching the house. He had not thought what he must do. Nothing so practical as going away had yet occurred to him. She had not been unkind! She had even pressed on him a sister's love! The moth had not yet burned away enough of its wings to prevent it from burning its whole body! it kept fluttering about the flame. Nor was absent the childish weakness, the unmanly but common impulse, to make the woman feel how miserable she had made him. For this poor satisfaction, not a few men have blown their brains out; not a few women drowned themselves or taken poison—and generally without success! Walter would stand before her the ruin she had made him, then vanish from her sight. To-morrow he would leave the house, but she must see him yet once, alone, before he went! Once more he must hang his shriveled pinions in the presence of the seraph whose radiance had scorched him! And still the most hideous thought of all would keep lifting its vague ugly head out of chaos—the thought that, lovely as she was, she was not worshipful.
The windows were dimly shining through their thick curtains. The house looked a great jewel of bliss, in which the spirits of paradise might come and go, while such as he could not enter! What should he do? Where should he go? To his room, and dress for dinner? It was impossible! How could he sit feeling her eyes, and facing Sefton! How endure the company, the talk, the horrible eating! All so lately full of refinement, of enchantment—the music, the pictures, the easy intercourse—all was stupid, wearisome, meaningless! He would go to his room and say he had a headache! But first he would peep into the drawing-room: she might be there—and looking sad!
He opened a door into one of the smaller compartments of the drawing-room, looked, crept in, and closed the door behind him.
Lufa was there—alone! He durst not approach her, but if he seated himself in a certain corner, he could see her and she him! He did not, however, apprehend that the corner he had chosen was entirely in shadow, or reflect that the globe of a lamp was almost straight between them. He thought she saw him, but she did not.
The room seemed to fold him round with softness as he entered from the dreary night; and he could not help being pervaded by the warmth, and weakened by the bodily comfort. He sat and gazed at his goddess—a mere idol, seeming, not being, until he hardly knew whether she was actually before him, or only present to his thought. She was indeed a little pale—but that she always was when quiet; no sorrow, not a shadow was on her face. She seemed brooding, but over nothing painful. At length she smiled.
"She is pleased to think that I love her!" thought Walter. "She leans to me a little! When the gray hair comes and the wrinkles, it will be a gracious memory that she was so loved by one who had but his life to give her! 'He was poor,' she will say, 'but I have not found the riches he would have given me! I have been greatly loved!'"
I believe myself, she was ruminating a verse that had come to her in the summer-house, while Walter was weeping by her side.
A door opened, and Sefton came in.
"Have you seen the 'Onlooker'?" he said—a journal at the time in much favor with the more educated populace. "There is a review in it that would amuse you."
"Of what?" she asked, listlessly.
"I didn't notice the name of the book, but it is a poem, and just your sort, I should say. The article is in the 'Onlooker's' best style."
"Pray let me see it!" she answered, holding out her hand.
"I will read it to you, if I may."
She did not object. He sat down a little way from her, and read.
He had not gone far before Walter knew, although its name had not occurred as Sefton read, that the book was his own. The discovery enraged him: how had the reviewer got hold of it when he himself had seen no copy except Lufa's? It was a puzzle he never got at the root of. Probably some one he had offended had contrived to see as much of it, at the printer's or binder's, as had enabled him to forestall its appearance with the most stinging, mocking, playfully insolent paper that had ever rejoiced the readers of the "Onlooker." But he had more to complain of than rudeness, a thing of which I doubt if any reviewer is ever aware. For he soon found that, by the blunder of reviewer or printer, the best of the verses quoted were misquoted, and so rendered worthy of the epithet attached to them. This unpleasant discovery was presently followed by another—that the rudest and most contemptuous personal remark was founded on an ignorant misapprehension of the reviewer's own; while in ridicule of a mere misprint which happened to carry a comic suggestion on the face of it, the reviewer surpassed himself.
As Sefton read, Lufa laughed often and heartily: the thing was gamesomely, cleverly, almost brilliantly written. Annoyed as he was, Walter did not fail to note, however, that Sefton did not stop to let Lufa laugh, but read quietly on. Suddenly she caught the paper from his hand, for she was as quick as a kitten, saying:
"I must see who the author of the precious book is!"
Her cousin did not interfere, but sat watching her—almost solemnly.
"Ah, I thought so!" she cried, with a shriek of laughter. "I thought so! I could hardly be mistaken! What will the poor fellow say to it! It will kill him!" She laughed immoderately. "I hope it will give him a lesson, however!" she went on. "It is most amusing to see how much he thinks of his own verses! He worships them! And then makes up for the idolatry by handling without mercy those of other people! It was he who so maltreated my poor first! I never saw anything so unfair in my life!"
Sefton said nothing, but looked grim.
"You should see—I will show it you—the gorgeous copy of this same comical stuff he gave me to-day! I am so glad he is going: he won't be able to ask me how I like it, and I sha'n't have to tell a story! I'm sorry for him, though—truly! He is a very nice sort of boy, though rather presuming. I must find out who the writer of that review is, and get mamma to invite him! He is a host in himself! I don't think I ever read anything so clever—or more just!"
"Oh, then, you have read the book?" spoke her cousin at length.
"No; but ain't those extracts enough? Don't they speak for themselves—for their silliness and sentimentality?"
"How would you like of a book of yours judged by scraps chopped off anywhere, Lufa!—or chosen for the look they would have in the humorous frame of the critic's remarks! It is less than fair! I do not feel that I know in the least what sort of book this is. I only know that again and again, having happened to come afterward upon the book itself, I have set down the reviewer as a knave, who for ends of his own did not scruple to make fools of his readers. I am ashamed, Lufa, that you should so accept everything as gospel against a man who believes you his friend!"
Walter's heart had been as water, now it had turned to ice, and with the coldness came strength: he could bear anything except this desert of a woman. The moment Sefton had thus spoken, he rose and came forward—not so much, I imagine, to Sefton's surprise as Lufa's and said,
"Thank you, Mr. Sefton, for undeceiving me. I owe you, Lady Lufa, the debt of a deep distrust hereafter of poetic ladies."
"They will hardly be annihilated by it, Mr. Colman!" returned Lufa. "But, indeed, I did not know you were in the room; and perhaps you did not know that in our circle it is counted bad manners to listen!"
"I was foolishly paralyzed for a moment," said Walter, "as well as unprepared for the part you would take."
"I am very glad, Mr. Colman," said Sefton, "that you have had the opportunity of discovering the truth! My cousin well deserves the pillory in which I know you will not place her!"
"Lady Lufa needs fear nothing from me. I have some regard left for the idea of her—the thing she is not! If you will be kind, come and help me out of the house."
"There is no train to-night."
"I will wait at the station for the slow train."
"I can not press you to stay an hour where you have been so treated, but—"
"It is high time I went!" said Walter—not without the dignity that endurance gives. "May I ask you to do one thing for me, Mr. Sefton?"
"Twenty things, if I can."
"Then please send my portmanteau after me."
With that he left the room, and went to his own, far on the way of cure, though not quite so far as he imagined. The blood, however, was surging healthily through his veins: he had been made a fool of, but he would be a wiser man for it!
He had hardly closed his door when Sefton appeared.
"Can I help you?" he said.
"To pack my portmanteau? Did you ever pack your own?"
"Oftener than you, I suspect! I never had but one orderly I could bear about me, and he's dead, poor fellow! I shall see him again, though, I do trust, let believers in dirt say what they will! Never till I myself think no more, will I cease hoping to see my old Archie again! Fellows must learn something through the Lufas, or they would make raving maniacs of us! God be thanked, he has her in his great idiot-cage, and will do something with her yet! May you and I be there to see when she comes out in her right mind!"
"Amen!" said Walter.
"And now, my dear fellow," said Sefton, "if you will listen to me, you will not go till to-morrow morning. No, I don't want you to stay to breakfast! You shall go by the early train as any other visitor might. The least scrap of a note to Lady Tremaine, and all will go without remark."
He waited in silence. Walter went on putting up his things.
"I dare say you are right!" he said at length. "I will stay till the morning. But you will not ask me to go down again?"
"It would be a victory if you could."
"Very well, I will. I am a fool, but this much less of a fool, that I know I am one."
Somehow Walter had a sense of relief. He began to dress, and spent some pains on the process. He felt sure Sefton would take care the "Onlooker" should not be seen—before his departure anyhow. During dinner he talked almost brilliantly, making Lufa open her eyes without knowing she did.
He retired at length to his room with very mingled feelings. There was the closing paragraph of the most interesting chapter of his life yet constructed! What was to follow?
Into the gulf of an empty heart Something must always come. "What will it be?" I think with a start, And a fear that makes me dumb.
I can not sit at my outer gate And call what shall soothe my grief; I can not unlock to a king in state, Can not bar a wind-swept leaf!
Hopeless were I if a loving Care Sat not at the spring of my thought— At the birth of my history, blank and bare. Of the thing I have not wrought.
If God were not, this hollow need. All that I now call me, Might wallow with demons of hate and greed In a lawless and shoreless sea!
Watch the door of this sepulcher, Sit, my Lord, on the stone, Till the life within it rise and stir. And walk forth to claim its own.
This was how Walter felt and wrote some twelve months after, when he had come to understand a little of the process that had been conducted in him; when he knew that the life he had been living was a mere life in death, a being not worth being.
But the knowledge of this process had not yet begun. A thousand subtle influences, wrapped in the tattered cloak of dull old Time, had to come into secret, potent play, ere he would be able to write thus.
And even this paragraph was not yet quite at an end.
A MIDNIGHT INTERVIEW.
Walter drew his table near the fire, and sat down to concoct a brief note of thanks and farewell to his hostess, informing her that he was compelled to leave in haste. He found it rather difficult, though what Lufa might tell her mother he neither thought nor cared, if only he had his back to the house, and his soul out of it. It was now the one place on the earth which he would sink in the abyss of forgetfulness.
He could not get the note to his mind, falling constantly into thought that led nowhither, and at last threw himself back in his chair, wearied with the emotions of the day. Under the soothing influence of the heat and the lambent motions of the flames, he fell into a condition which was not sleep, and as little was waking. His childhood crept back to him, with all the delights of the sacred time when home was the universe, and father and mother the divinities that filled it. A something now vanished from his life, looked at him across a gulf of lapse, and said, "Am I likewise false? The present you desire to forget; you say, it were better it had never been: do you wish I too had never been? Why else have you left my soul in the grave of oblivion?" Thus talking with his past, he fell asleep.
It could have been but for a few minutes, though when he awoke it seemed a century had passed, he had dreamed of so much. But something had happened! What was it? The fire was blazing as before, but he was chilled to the marrow! A wind seemed blowing upon him, cold as if it issued from the jaws of the sepulcher! His imagination and memory together linked the time to the night of Sefton's warning: was the ghost now really come? Had Sefton's presence only saved him from her for the time? He sat bolt upright in his chair listening, the same horror upon him as then. It seemed minutes he thus sat motionless, but moments of fearful expectation are long drawn out; their nature is of centuries, not years. One thing was certain, and one only—that there was a wind, and a very cold one, blowing upon him. He stared at the door. It moved. It opened a little. A light tap followed. He could not speak. Then came a louder, and the spell was broken. He started to his feet, and with the courage of terror extreme, opened the door—not opened it a little, as if he feared an unwelcome human presence, but pulled it, with a sudden wide yawn, open as the grave!
There stood no bodiless soul, but soulless Lufa!
He stood aside, and invited her to enter. Little as he desired to see her, it was a relief that it was she, and not an elderly lady in brown silk, through whose person you might thrust your hand without injury or offense.
As a reward of his promptitude in opening the door, he caught sight of Lady Tremaine disappearing in the corridor.
Lady Lufa walked in without a word, and Walter followed her, leaving the door wide. She seated herself in the chair he had just left, and turned to him with a quiet, magisterial air, as if she sat on the seat of judgment.
"You had better shut the door," she said.
"I thought Lady Tremaine might wish to hear," answered Walter.
"Not at all. She only lighted me to the door."
"As you please," said Walter, and having done as she requested, returned, and stood before her.
"Will you not take a seat?" she said, in the tone of—"You may sit down."
"Your ladyship will excuse me!" he answered.
She gave a condescending motion to her pretty neck, and said,
"I need hardly explain, Mr. Colman, why I have sought this interview. You must by this time be aware how peculiar, how unreasonable indeed, your behavior was!"
"Pardon me! I do not see the necessity for a word on the matter. I leave by the first train in the morning!"
"I will not dwell on the rudeness of listening—"
"—To a review of my own book read by a friend!" interrupted Walter, with indignation; "in a drawing-room where I sat right in front of you, and knew no reason why you should not see me! I did make a great mistake, but it was in trusting a lady who, an hour or two before, had offered to be my sister! How could I suspect she might speak of me in a way she would not like to hear!"
Lady Lufa was not quite prepared for the tone he took. She had expected to find him easy to cow. Her object was to bring him into humble acceptance of the treatment against which he had rebelled, lest he should afterward avenge himself! She sat a moment in silence.
"Such ignorance of the ways of the world," she said, "is excusable in a poet—especially—"
"Such a poet!" supplemented Walter, who found it difficult to keep his temper in face of her arrogance.
"But the world is made up of those that laugh and those that are laughed at."
"They change places, however, sometimes!" said Walter—which alarmed Lufa, though she did not show her anxiety.
"Certainly!" she replied. "Everybody laughs at everybody when he gets a chance! What is society but a club for mutual criticism! The business of its members is to pass judgment on each other! Why not take the accident, which seems so to annoy you, with the philosophy of a gentleman—like one of us! None of us think anything of what is said of us; we do not heed what we say of each other! Every one knows that all his friends pull him to pieces the moment he is out of sight—as heartily as they had just been assisting him to pull others to pieces. Every gathering is a temporary committee, composed of those who are present, and sitting upon those whose who are not present. Nobody dreams of courtesy extending beyond presence! when that is over, obligation is over. Any such imaginary restriction would render society impossible. It is only the most inexperienced person that could suppose things going on in his absence the same as in his presence! It is I who ought to be pitied, not you! I am the loser, not you!"
Walter bowed and was silent. He did not yet see her drift. If his regard had been worth anything, she certainly had lost a good deal, but, as it was, he did not understand how the loss could be of importance to her.
With sudden change of tone and expression, she broke out—
"Be generous, Walter! Forgive me. I will make any atonement you please, and never again speak of you as if you were not my own brother!"
"It is not of the least consequence how you speak of me now, Lady Lufa: I have had the good though painful fortune to learn your real feelings, and prefer the truth to the most agreeable deception. Your worst opinion of me I could have borne and loved you still; but there is nothing of you, no appearance of anything even, left to love! I know now that a woman may be sweet as Hybla honey, and false as an apple of Sodom!"
"Well, you are ungenerous! I hope there are not many in the world to whom one might confess a fault and not be forgiven. This is indeed humiliating!"
"I beg your pardon; I heard no confession!"
"I asked you to forgive me."
"For talking of you as I did.'
"Which you justified as the custom of society!"
"I confess, then, that in your case I ought not to have done so."
"Then I forgive you; and we part in peace."
"Is that what you call forgiveness?"
"Is it not all that is required? Knowing now your true feeling toward me, I know that in this house I am a mistake. Nothing like a true relation exists, nothing more than the merest acquaintance can exist between us!"
"It is terrible to have such an enemy!"
"I do not understand you!"
"The match is not fair! Here stands poor me undefended, chained to the rock! There you lurk, behind the hedge, invisible, and taking every advantage! Do you think it fair?"
"I begin to understand! The objection did not seem to strike you while I was the person shot at! But still I fail to see your object. Please explain."
"You must know perfectly what I mean, Walter! and I can not but believe you too just to allow a personal misunderstanding to influence your public judgment! You gave your real unbiased opinion of my last book, and you are bound by that!"
"Is it possible," cried Walter, "that at last I understand you! That you should come to me on such an errand, Lady Lufa, reveals yet more your opinion of me! Could you believe me capable of such vileness as to take my revenge by abusing your work?"
"Ah, no! Promise me you will not."
"If such a promise were necessary, how could it set you at your ease? The man who could do such a thing would break any promise!"
"Then whatever rudeness is offered me in your journal, I shall take as springing from your resentment."
"If you do you will wrong me far worse than you have yet done. I shall not merely never review work of yours, I will never utter an opinion of it to any man."
"Thank you. So we part friends!"
She rose. He turned to the door and opened it. She passed him, her head thrown back, her eyes looking poisonous, and let a gaze of contemptuous doubt rest on him for a moment. His eyes did not quail before hers.
She had left a taper burning on a slab outside the door. Walter had but half closed it behind her when she reappeared with the taper in one hand and the volume he had given her in the other. He took the book without a word, and again she went; but he had hardly thrown it on the hot coals when once more she appeared. I believe she had herself blown her taper out.
"Let me have a light, please," she said.
He took the taper from her hand, and turned to light it. She followed him into the room, and laid her hand on his arm.
"Walter," she said, "it was all because of Sefton! He does not like you, and can't bear me to like you! I am engaged to him. I ought to have told you!"
"I will congratulate him next time I see him!" said Walter.
"No, no!" she cried, looking at once angry and scared.
"I will not, then," answered Walter; "but allow me to say I do not believe Sefton dislikes me. Anyhow, keep your mind at ease, pray. I shall certainly not in any way revenge myself."
She looked up in his eyes with a momentary glimmer of her old sweetness, said "Thank you!" gently, and left the room. Her last glance left a faint, sad sting in Walter's heart, and he began to think whether he had not been too hard upon her. In any case, the sooner he was out of the house the better! He must no more trifle with the girl than a dipsomaniac with the brandy bottle!
All the time of this last scene, the gorgeous book was frizzling and curling and cracking on the embers. Whether she saw it or not I can not say, but she was followed all along the corridor by the smell of the burning leather, which got on to some sleeping noses, and made their owners dream the house was on fire.
In the morning, Sefton woke him, helped him to dress, got him away in time, and went with him to the station. Not a word passed between them about Lufa. All the way to London, Walter pondered whether there could be any reality in what she had said about Sefton. Was it not possible that she might have imagined him jealous? Sefton's dislike of her treatment of him might to her have seemed displeasure at her familiarity with him! "And indeed," thought Walter, "there are few friends who care so much for any author, I suspect, as to be indignant with his reviewers!"
If London was dreary when Lufa left it, it was worse than dreary to Walter now that she was gone from his world; gone from the universe past and future both—for the Lufa he had dreamed of was not, and had never been! He had no longer any one to dream about, waking or asleep. The space she had occupied was a blank spot, black and cold, charred with the fire of passion, cracked with the frost of disappointment and scorn. It had its intellectual trouble too—the impossibility of bringing together the long-cherished idea of Lufa, and the reality of Lufa revealed by herself; the two stared at each other in mortal irreconcilement. Now also he had no book to occupy him with pleasant labor. It had passed from him into the dark; the thought of it was painful, almost loathesome to him. No one, however, he was glad to find, referred to it. His friends pitied him, and his foes were silent. Three copies of it were sold. The sneaking review had had influence enough with the courted public to annihilate it.
But the expenses of printing it remained; he had yet to pay his share of them; and, alas, he did not know how! The publisher would give him time, no doubt, but, work his hardest, it would be a slow clearance! There was the shame too of having undertaken what he was unable at once to fulfill! He set himself to grind and starve.
At times the clouds would close in upon him, and there would seem nothing in life worth living for; though in truth his life was so much the more valuable that Lufa was out of it. Occasionally his heart would grow very gentle toward her, and he would burrow for a possible way to her excuse. But his conclusion was ever the same: how could he forget that laugh of utter merriment and delight when she found it was indeed himself under the castigation of such a mighty beadle of literature! In his most melting mood, therefore, he could only pity her. But what would have become of him had she not thus unmasked herself! He would now be believing her the truest, best of women, with no fault but a coldness of which he had no right to complain, a coldness comforted by the extent of its freezing!