The story being true, I must beg to be excused, if I abstain from mentioning names, places, and dates, when I enter on German ground. Let it be enough to say that I am writing of a bygone year in the present century, when no such thing as a German Empire existed, and when the revolutionary spirit of France was still an object of well-founded suspicion to tyrants by right divine on the continent of Europe.
ON joining the legation, I was not particularly attracted by my chief, the Minister. His manners were oppressively polite; and his sense of his own importance was not sufficiently influenced by diplomatic reserve. I venture to describe him (mentally speaking) as an empty man, carefully trained to look full on public occasions.
My colleague, the first secretary, was a far more interesting person. Bright, unaffected, and agreeable, he at once interested me when we were introduced to each other. I pay myself a compliment, as I consider, when I add that he became my firm and true friend.
We took a walk together in the palace gardens on the evening of my arrival. Reaching a remote part of the grounds, we were passed by a lean, sallow, sour-looking old man, drawn by a servant in a chair on wheels. My companion stopped, whispered to me, "Here is the Prince," and bowed bareheaded. I followed his example as a matter of course. The Prince feebly returned our salutation. "Is he ill?" I asked, when we had put our hats on again.
"Shakespeare," the secretary replied, "tells us that 'one man in his time plays many parts.' Under what various aspects the Prince's character may have presented itself, in his younger days, I am not able to tell you. Since I have been here, he has played the part of a martyr to illness, misunderstood by his doctors."
"And his daughter, the Princess—what do you say of her?"
"Ah, she is not so easily described! I can only appeal to your memory of other women like her, whom you must often have seen—women who are tall and fair, and fragile and elegant; who have delicate aquiline noses and melting blue eyes—women who have often charmed you by their tender smiles and their supple graces of movement. As for the character of this popular young lady, I must not influence you either way; study it for yourself."
"Without a hint to guide me?"
"With a suggestion," he replied, "which may be worth considering. If you wish to please the Princess, begin by endeavoring to win the good graces of the Baroness."
"Who is the Baroness?"
"One of the ladies in waiting—bosom friend of her Highness, and chosen repository of all her secrets. Personally, not likely to attract you; short and fat, and ill-tempered and ugly. Just at this time, I happen myself to get on with her better than usual. We have discovered that we possess one sympathy in common—we are the only people at Court who don't believe in the Prince's new doctor."
"Is the new doctor a quack?"
The secretary looked round, before he answered, to see that nobody was near us.
"It strikes me," he said, "that the Doctor is a spy. Mind! I have no right to speak of him in that way; it is only my impression—and I ought to add that appearances are all in his favor. He is in the service of our nearest royal neighbor, the Grand Duke; and he has been sent here expressly to relieve the sufferings of the Duke's good friend and brother, our invalid Prince. This is an honorable mission no doubt. And the man himself is handsome, well-bred, and (I don't quite know whether this is an additional recommendation) a countryman of ours. Nevertheless I doubt him, and the Baroness doubts him. You are an independent witness; I shall be anxious to hear if your opinion agrees with ours."
I was presented at Court, toward the end of the week; and, in the course of the next two or three days, I more than once saw the Doctor. The impression that he produced on me surprised my colleague. It was my opinion that he and the Baroness had mistaken the character of a worthy and capable man.
The secretary obstinately adhered to his own view.
"Wait a little," he answered, "and we shall see."
He was quite right. We did see.
BUT the Princess—the gentle, gracious, beautiful Princess—what can I say of her Highness?
I can only say that she enchanted me.
I had been a little discouraged by the reception that I met with from her father. Strictly confining himself within the limits of politeness, he bade me welcome to his Court in the fewest possible words, and then passed me by without further notice. He afterward informed the English Minister that I had been so unfortunate as to try his temper: "Your new secretary irritates me, sir—he is a person in an offensively perfect state of health." The Prince's charming daughter was not of her father's way of thinking; it is impossible to say how graciously, how sweetly I was received. She honored me by speaking to me in my own language, of which she showed herself to be a perfect mistress. I was not only permitted, but encouraged, to talk of my family, and to dwell on my own tastes, amusements, and pursuits. Even when her Highness's attention was claimed by other persons waiting to be presented, I was not forgotten. The Baroness was instructed to invite me for the next evening to the Princess's tea-table; and it was hinted that I should be especially welcome if I brought my music with me, and sang.
My friend the secretary, standing near us at the time, looked at me with a mysterious smile. He had suggested that I should make advances to the Baroness—and here was the Baroness (under royal instructions) making advances to Me!
"We know what that means," he whispered.
In justice to myself, I must declare that I entirely failed to understand him.
On the occasion of my second reception by the Princess, at her little evening party, I detected the Baroness, more than once, in the act of watching her Highness and myself, with an appearance of disapproval in her manner, which puzzled me. When I had taken my leave, she followed me out of the room.
"I have a word of advice to give you," she said. "The best thing you can do, sir, is to make an excuse to your Minister, and go back to England."
I declare again, that I entirely failed to understand the Baroness.
BEFORE the season came to an end, the Court removed to the Prince's country-seat, in the interests of his Highness's health. Entertainments were given (at the Doctor's suggestion), with a view of raising the patient's depressed spirits. The members of the English legation were among the guests invited. To me it was a delightful visit. I had again every reason to feel gratefully sensible of the Princess's condescending kindness. Meeting the secretary one day in the library, I said that I thought her a perfect creature. Was this an absurd remark to make? I could see nothing absurd in it—and yet my friend burst out laughing.
"My good fellow, nobody is a perfect creature," he said. "The Princess has her faults and failings, like the rest of us."
I denied it positively.
"Use your eyes," he went on; "and you will see, for example, that she is shallow and frivolous. Yesterday was a day of rain. We were all obliged to employ ourselves somehow indoors. Didn't you notice that she had no resources in herself? She can't even read."
"There you are wrong at any rate," I declared. "I saw her reading the newspaper."
"You saw her with the newspaper in her hand. If you had not been deaf and blind to her defects, you would have noticed that she couldn't fix her attention on it. She was always ready to join in the chatter of the ladies about her. When even their stores of gossip were exhausted, she let the newspaper drop on her lap, and sat in vacant idleness smiling at nothing."
I reminded him that she might have met with a dull number of the newspaper. He took no notice of this unanswerable reply.
"You were talking the other day of her warmth of feeling," he proceeded. "She has plenty of sentiment (German sentiment), I grant you, but no true feeling. What happened only this morning, when the Prince was in the breakfast-room, and when the Princess and her ladies were dressed to go out riding? Even she noticed the wretchedly depressed state of her father's spirits. A man of that hypochondriacal temperament suffers acutely, though he may only fancy himself to be ill. The Princess overflowed with sympathy, but she never proposed to stay at home, and try to cheer the old man. Her filial duty was performed to her own entire satisfaction when she had kissed her hand to the Prince. The moment after, she was out of the room—eager to enjoy her ride. We all heard her laughing gayly among the ladies in the hall."
I could have answered this also, if our discussion had not been interrupted at the moment. The Doctor came into the library in search of a book. When he had left us, my colleague's strong prejudice against him instantly declared itself.
"Be on your guard with that man," he said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Haven't you noticed," he replied, "that when the Princess is talking to you, the Doctor always happens to be in that part of the room?"
"What does it matter where the Doctor is?"
My friend looked at me with an oddly mingled expression of doubt and surprise. "Do you really not understand me?" he said.
"I don't indeed."
"My dear Ernest, you are a rare and admirable example to the rest of us—you are a truly modest man."
What did he mean?
EVENTS followed, on the next day, which (as will presently be seen) I have a personal interest in relating.
The Baroness left us suddenly, on leave of absence. The Prince wearied of his residence in the country; and the Court returned to the capital. The charming Princess was reported to be "indisposed," and retired to the seclusion of her own apartments.
A week later, I received a note f rom the Baroness, marked "private and confidential." It informed me that she had resumed her duties as lady-in-waiting, and that she wished to see me at my earliest convenience. I obeyed at once; and naturally asked if there were better accounts of her Highness's health.
The Baroness's reply a little surprised me. She said, "The Princess is perfectly well."
"Recovered already!" I exclaimed.
"She has never been ill," the Baroness answered. "Her indisposition was a sham; forced on her by me, in her own interests. Her reputation is in peril; and you—you hateful Englishman—are the cause of it."
Not feeling disposed to put up with such language as this, even when it was used by a lady, I requested that she would explain herself. She complied without hesitation. In another minute my eyes were opened to the truth. I knew—no; that is too positive—let me say I had reason to believe that the Princess loved me!
It is simply impossible to convey to the minds of others any idea of the emotions that overwhelmed me at that critical moment of my life. I was in a state of confusion at the time; and, when my memory tries to realize it, I am in a state of confusion now. The one thing I can do is to repeat what the Baroness said to me when I had in some degree recovered my composure.
"I suppose you are aware," she began, "of the disgrace to which the Princess's infatuation exposes her, if it is discovered? On my own responsibility I repeat what I said to you a short time since. Do you refuse to leave this place immediately?"
Does the man live, honored as I was, who would have hesitated to refuse? Find him if you can!
"Very well," she resumed. "As the friend of the Princess, I have no choice now but to take things as they are, and to make the best of them. Let us realize your position to begin with. If you were (like your elder brother) a nobleman possessed of vast estates, my royal mistress might be excused. As it is, whatever you may be in the future, you are nothing now but an obscure young man, without fortune or title. Do you see your duty to the Princess? or must I explain it to you?"
I saw my duty as plainly as she did. "Her Highness's secret is a sacred secret," I said. "I am bound to shrink from no sacrifice which may preserve it."
The Baroness smiled maliciously. "I may have occasion," she answered, "to remind you of what you have just said. In the meanwhile the Princess's secret is in danger of discovery."
"By her father?"
"No. By the Doctor."
At first, I doubted whether she was in jest or in earnest. The next instant, I remembered that the secretary had expressly cautioned me against that man.
"It is evidently one of your virtues," the Baroness proceeded, "to be slow to suspect. Prepare yourself for a disagreeable surprise. The Doctor has been watching the Princess, on every occasion when she speaks to you, with some object of his own in view. During my absence, young sir, I have been engaged in discovering what that object is. My excellent mother lives at the Court of the Grand Duke, and enjoys the confidence of his Ministers. He is still a bachelor; and, in the interests of the succession to the throne, the time has arrived when he must marry. With my mother's assistance, I have found out that the Doctor's medical errand here is a pretense. Influenced by the Princess's beauty the Grand Duke has thought of her first as his future duchess. Whether he has heard slanderous stories, or whether he is only a cautious man, I can't tell you. But this I know: he has instructed his physician—if he had employed a professed diplomatist his motive might have been suspected—to observe her Highness privately, and to communicate the result. The object of the report is to satisfy the Duke that the Princess's reputation is above the reach of scandal; that she is free from entanglements of a certain kind; and that she is in every respect a person to whom he can with propriety offer his hand in marriage. The Doctor, Mr. Ernest, is not disposed to allow you to prevent him from sending in a favorable report. He has drawn his conclusions from the Princess's extraordinary kindness to the second secretary of the English legation; and he is only waiting for a little plainer evidence to communicate his suspicions to the Prince. It rests with you to save the Princess."
"Only tell me how I am to do it!" I said.
"There is but one way of doing it," she answered; "and that way has (comically enough) been suggested to me by the Doctor himself."
Her tone and manner tried my patience.
"Come to the point!" I said.
She seemed to enjoy provoking me.
"No hurry, Mr. Ernest—no hurry! You shall be fully enlightened, if you will only wait a little. The Prince, I must tell you, believes in his daughter's indisposition. When he visited her this morning, he was attended by his medical adviser. I was present at the interview. To do him justice, the Doctor is worthy of the trust reposed in him—he boldly attempted to verify his suspicions of the daughter in the father's presence."
"Oh, in the well-known way that has been tried over and over again, under similar circumstances! He merely invented a report that you were engaged in a love-affair with some charming person in the town. Don't be angry; there's no harm done."
"But there is harm done," I insisted. "What must the Princess think of me?"
"Do you suppose she is weak enough to believe the Doctor? Her Highness beat him at his own weapons; not the slightest sign of agitation on her part rewarded his ingenuity. All that you have to do is to help her to mislead this medical spy. It's as easy as lying: and easier. The Doctor's slander declares that you have a love-affair in the town. Take the hint—and astonish the Doctor by proving that he has hit on the truth."
It was a hot day; the Baroness was beginning to get excited. She paused and fanned herself.
"Do I startle you?" she asked.
"You disgust me."
"What a thick-headed man this is!" she said, pleasantly. "Must I put it more plainly still? Engage in what your English prudery calls a 'flirtation,' with some woman here—the lower in degree the better, or the Princess might be jealous—and let the affair be seen and known by everybody about the Court. Sly as he is, the Doctor is not prepared for that! At your age, and with your personal advantages, he will take appearances for granted; he will conclude that he has wronged you, and misinterpreted the motives of the Princess. The secret of her Highness's weakness will be preserved—thanks to that sacrifice, Mr. Ernest, which you are so willing and so eager to make."
It was useless to remonstrate with such a woman as this. I simply stated my own objection to her artfully devised scheme.
"I don't wish to appear vain," I said; "but the woman to whom I am to pay these attentions may believe that I really admire her—and it is just possible that she may honestly return the feeling which I am only assuming."
"Well—and what then?"
"It's hard on the woman, surely?"
The Baroness was shocked, unaffectedly shocked.
"Good heavens!" she exclaimed, "how can anything that you do for the Princess be hard on a woman of the lower orders? There must be an end of this nonsense, sir! You have heard what I propose, and you know what the circumstances are. My mistress is waiting for your answer. What am I to say?"
"Let me see her Highness, and speak for myself," I said.
"Quite impossible to-day, without running too great a risk. Your reply must be made through me."
There was to be a Court concert at the end of the week. On that occasion I should be able to make my own reply. In the meanwhile I only told the Baroness I wanted time to consider.
"What time?" she asked.
"Until to-morrow. Do you object?"
"On the contrary, I cordially agree. Your base hesitation may lead to results which I have not hitherto dared to anticipate."
"What do you mean?"
"Between this and to-morrow," the horrid woman replied, "the Princess may end in seeing you with my eyes. In that hope I wish you good-morning."
MY enemies say that I am a weak man, unduly influenced by persons of rank—because of their rank. If this we re true, I should have found little difficulty in consenting to adopt the Baroness's suggestion. As it was, the longer I reflected on the scheme the less I liked it. I tried to think of some alternative that might be acceptably proposed. The time passed, and nothing occurred to me. In this embarrassing position my mind became seriously disturbed; I felt the necessity of obtaining some relief, which might turn my thoughts for a while into a new channel. The secretary called on me, while I was still in doubt what to do. He reminded me that a new prima donna was advertised to appear on that night; and he suggested that we should go to the opera. Feeling as I did at the time, I readily agreed.
We found the theater already filled, before the performance began. Two French gentlemen were seated in the row of stalls behind us. They were talking of the new singer.
"She is advertised as 'Mademoiselle Fontenay,'" one of them said. "That sounds like an assumed name."
"It is an assumed name," the other replied. "She is the daughter of a French singing-master, named Bonnefoy."
To my friend's astonishment I started to my feet, and left him without a word of apology. In another minute I was at the stage-door, and had sent in my card to "Mademoiselle Fontenay." While I was waiting, I had time to think. Was it possible that Jeanne had gone on the stage? Or were there two singing-masters in existence named Bonnefoy? My doubts were soon decided. The French woman-servant whom I remembered when I was Monsieur Bonnefoy's pupil, made her appearance, and conducted me to her young mistress's dressing-room. Dear good Jeanne, how glad she was to see me!
I found her standing before the glass, having just completed her preparations for appearing on the stage. Dressed in her picturesque costume, she was so charming that I expressed my admiration heartily, as became her old friend. "Do you really like me?" she said, with the innocent familiarity which I recollected so well. "See how I look in the glass—that is the great test." It was not easy to apply the test. Instead of looking at her image in the glass, it was far more agreeable to look at herself. We were interrupted—too soon interrupted—by the call-boy. He knocked at the door, and announced that the overture had begun.
"I have a thousand things to ask you," I told her. "What has made this wonderful change in your life? How is it that I don't see your father—"
Her face instantly saddened; her hand trembled as she laid it on my arm to silence me.
"Don't speak of him now," she said, "or you will unnerve me. Come to me to-morrow when the stage will not be waiting; Annette will give you my address." She opened the door to go out, and returned. "Will you think me very unreasonable if I ask you not to make one of my audience to-night? You have reminded me of the dear old days that can never come again. If I feel that I am singing to you—" She left me to understand the rest, and turned away again to the door. As I followed her out, to say good-by, she drew from her bosom the little brooch which had been my parting gift, and held it out to me. "On the stage, or off," she said, "I always wear it. Good-night, Ernest."
I was prepared to hear sad news when we met the next morning.
My good old friend and master had died suddenly. To add to the bitterness of that affliction, he had died in debt to a dear and intimate friend. For his daughter's sake he had endeavored to add to his little savings by speculating with borrowed money on the Stock Exchange. He had failed, and the loan advanced had not been repaid, when a fit of apoplexy struck him down. Offered the opportunity of trying her fortune on the operatic stage, Jeanne made the attempt, and was now nobly employed in earning the money to pay her father's debt.
"It was the only way in which I could do justice to his memory," she said, simply. "I hope you don't object to my going on the stage?"
I took her hand, poor child—and let that simple action answer for me. I was too deeply affected to be able to speak.
"It is not in me to be a great actress," she resumed; "but you know what an admirable musician my father was. He has taught me to sing, so that I can satisfy the critics, as well as please the public. There was what they call a great success last night. It has earned me an engagement for another year to come, and an increase of salary. I have already sent some money to our good old friend at home, and I shall soon send more. It is my one consolation—I feel almost happy again when I am paying my poor father's debt. No more now of my sad story! I want to hear all that you can tell me of yourself." She moved to the window, and looked out. "Oh, the beautiful blue sky! We used sometimes to take a walk, when we were in London, on fine days like this. Is there a park here?"
I took her to the palace gardens, famous for their beauty in that part of Germany.
Arm in arm we loitered along the pleasant walks. The lovely flowers, the bright sun, the fresh fragrant breeze, all helped her to recover her spirits. She began to be like the happy Jeanne of my past experience, as easily pleased as a child. When we sat down to rest, the lap of her dress was full of daisies. "Do you remember," she said, "when you first taught me to make a daisy-chain? Are you too great a man to help me again now?"
We were still engaged with our chain, seated close together, when the smell of tobacco-smoke was wafted to us on the air.
I looked up and saw the Doctor passing us, enjoying his cigar. He bowed; eyed my pretty companion with a malicious smile; and passed on.
"Who is that man?" she asked.
"The Prince's physician," I replied.
"I don't like him," she said; "why did he smile when he looked at me?"
"Perhaps," I suggested, "he thought we were lovers."
She blushed. "Don't let him think that! tell him we are only old friends."
We were not destined to finish our flower chain on that day.
Another person interrupted us, whom I recognized as the elder brother of Monsieur Bonnefoy—already mentioned in these pages, under the name of Uncle David. Having left France for political reasons, the old republican had taken care of his niece after her father's death, and had accepted the position of Jeanne's business manager in her relations with the stage. Uncle David's object, when he joined us in the garden, was to remind her that she was wanted at rehearsal, and must at once return with him to the theater. We parted, having arranged that I was to see the performance on that night.
Later in the day, the Baroness sent for me again.
"Let me apologize for having misunderstood you yesterday," she said: "and let me offer you my best congratulations. You have done wonders already in the way of misleading the Doctor. There is only one objection to that girl at the theater—I hear she is so pretty that she may possibly displease the Princess. In other respects, she is just in the public position which will make your attentions to her look like the beginning of a serious intrigue. Bravo, Mr. Ernest—bravo!"
I was too indignant to place any restraint on the language in which I answered her.
"Understand, if you please," I said, "that I am renewing an old friendship with Mademoiselle Jeanne—begun under the sanction of her father. Respect that young lady, madam, as I respect her."
The detestable Baroness clapped her hands, as if she had been at the theater.
"If you only say that to the Princess," she remarked, "as well as you have said it to me, there will be no danger of arousing her Highness's jealousy. I have a message for you. At the concert, on Saturday, you are to retire to the conservatory, and you may hope for an interview when the singers begin the second part of the programme. Don't let me detain you any longer. Go back to your young lady, Mr. Ernest—pray go back!"
ON the second night of the opera the applications for places were too numerous to be received. Among the crowded audience, I recognized many of my friends. They persisted in believing an absurd report (first circulated, as I imagine, by the Doctor), which asserted that my interest in the new singer was something more than the interest of an old friend. When I went behind the scenes to congratulate Jeanne on her success, I was annoyed in another way—and by the Doctor again. He followed me to Jeanne's room, to offer his congratulations; and he begged that I would introduce him to the charming prima donna. Having expressed his admiration, he looked at me with his insolently suggestive smile, and said he could not think of prolonging his intrusion. On leaving the room, he noticed Uncle David, waiting as usual to take care of Jeanne on her return from the theater—looked at him attentively—bowed, and went out.
The next morning, I received a note from the Baroness, expressed in these terms:
"More news! My rooms look out on the wing of the palace in which the Doctor is lodged. Half an hour since, I discovered him at his window, giving a letter to a person who is a stranger to me. The man left the palace immediately afterward. My maid followed him, by my directions. Instead of putting the letter in the post, he took a ticket at the railway-station—for what place the servant was unable to discover. Here, you will observe, is a letter important enough to be dispatched by special messenger, and written at a time when we have succeeded in freeing ourselves from the Doctor's suspicions. It is at least possible that he has decided on sending a favorable report of the Princess to the Grand Duke. If this is the case, please consider whether you will not act wisely (in her Highness's interests) by keeping away from the concert."
Viewing this suggestion as another act of impertinence on the part of the Baroness, I persisted in my intention of going to the concert. It was for the Princess to decide what course of conduct I was bound to follow. What did I care for the Doctor's report to the Duke! Shall I own my folly? I do really believe I was jealous of the Duke.
ENTERING the Concert Room, I found the Princess alone on the dais, receiving the company. "Nervous prostration" had made it impossible for the Prince to be present. He was confined to his bed-chamber; and the Doctor was in attendance on him.
I bowed to the Baroness, but she was too seriously offended with me for declining to take her advice to notice my salutation. Passing into the conservatory, it occurred to me that I might be seen, and possibly suspected, in the interval between the first and second parts of the programme, when the music no longer absorbed the attention of the audience. I went on, and waited outside on the steps that led to the garden; keeping the glass door open, so as to hear when the music of the second part of the concert began.
After an interval which seemed to be endless, I saw the Princess approaching me.
She had made the heat in the Concert Room an excuse for retiring for a while; and she had the Baroness in attendance on her to save appearances. Instead of leaving us to ourselves, the malicious creature persisted in paying the most respectful attentions to her mistress. It was impossible to make her understand that she was not wanted any longer until the Princess said sharply, "Go back to the music!" Even then, the detestable woman made a low curtsey, and answered: "I will return, Madam, in five minutes."
I ventured to present myself in the conservatory.
The Princess was dressed with exquisite simplicity, entirely in white. Her only ornaments were white roses in her hair and in her bosom. To say that she looked lovely is to say nothing. She seemed to be the ethereal creature of some higher sphere; too exquisitely delicate and pure to be approached by a mere mortal man like myself. I was awed; I was silent. Her Highness's sweet smile encouraged me to venture a little nearer. She pointed to a footstool which the Baroness had placed for her. "Are you afraid of me, Ernest?" she asked softly.
Her divinely beautiful eyes rested on me with a look of encouragement. I dropped on my knees at her feet. She had asked if I was afraid of her. This, if I may use such an expression, roused my manhood. My own boldness astonished me. I answered: "Madam, I adore you."
She laid her fair hand on my head, and looked at me thoughtfully. "Forget my rank," she whispered—"have I not set you the example? Suppose that I am nothing but an English Miss. What would you say to Miss?"
"I should say, I love you."
"Say it to Me."
My lips said it on her hand. She bent forward. My heart beats fast at the bare remembrance of it. Oh, heavens, her Highness kissed me!
"There is your reward," she murmured, "for all you have sacrificed for my sake. What an effort it must have been to offer the pretense of love to an obscure stranger! The Baroness tells me this actress—this singer—what is she?—is pretty. Is it true?"
The Baroness was quite mischievous enough to have also mentioned the false impression, prevalent about the Court, that I was in love with Jeanne. I attempted to explain. The gracious Princess refused to hear me.
"Do you think I doubt you?" she said. "Distinguished by me, could you waste a look on a person in that rank of life?" She laughed softly, as if the mere idea of such a thing amused her. It was only for a moment: her thoughts took a new direction—they contemplated the uncertain future. "How is this to end?" she asked. "Dear Ernest, we are not in Paradise; we are in a hard cruel world which insists on distinctions in rank. To what unhappy destiny does the fascination which you exercise over me condemn us both?"
She paused—took one of the white roses out of her bosom—touched it with her lips—and gave it to me.
"I wonder whether you feel the burden of life as I feel it?" she resumed. "It is immaterial to me, whether we are united in this world or in the next. Accept my rose, Ernest, as an assurance that I speak with perfect sincerity. I see but two alternatives before us. One of them (beset with dangers) is elopement. And the other," she added, with truly majestic composure, "is suicide."
Would Englishmen in general have rightly understood such fearless confidence in them as this language implied? I am afraid they might have attributed it to what my friend the secretary called "German sentiment." Perhaps they might even have suspected the Princess of quoting from some old-fashioned German play. Under the irresistible influence of that glorious creature, I contemplated with such equal serenity the perils of elopement and the martyrdom of love, that I was for the moment at a loss how to reply. In that moment, the evil genius of my life appeared in the conservatory. With haste in her steps, with alarm in her face, the Baroness rushed up to her royal mistress, and said, "For God's sake, Madam, come away! The Prince desires to speak with you instantly."
Her Highness rose, calmly superior to the vulgar excitement of her lady in waiting. "Think of it to-night," she said to me, "and let me hear from you to-morrow."
She pressed my hand; she gave me a farewell look. I sank into the chair that she had just left. Did I think of elopement? Did I think of suicide? The elevating influence of the Princess no longer sustained me; my nature became degraded. Horrid doubts rose in my mind. Did her father suspect us?
NEED I say that I passed a sleepless night?
The morning found me with my pen in my hand, confronting the serious responsibility of writing to the Princess, and not knowing what to say. I had already torn up two letters, when Uncle David presented himself with a message from his niece. Jeanne was in trouble, and wanted to ask my advice.
My state of mind, on hearing this, became simply inexplicable. Here was an interruption which ought to have annoyed me. It did nothing of the kind—it inspired me with a feeling of relief!
I naturally expected that the old Frenchman would return with me to his niece, and tell me what had happened. To my surprise, he begged that I would excuse him, and left me without a word of explanation. I found Jeanne walking up and down her little sitting-room, flushed and angry. Fragments of torn paper and heaps of flowers littered the floor; and three unopen jewel-cases appeared to have been thrown into the empty fireplace. She caught me excitedly by the hand the moment I entered the room.
"You are my true friend," she said; "you were present the other night when I sang. Was there anything in my behavior on the stage which could justify men who call themselves gentlemen in insulting me?"
"My dear, how can you ask the question?"
"I must ask it. Some of them send flowers, and some of them send jewels; and every one of them writes letters—infamous, abominable letters—saying they are in love with me, and asking for appointments as if I was—"
She could say no more. Poor dear Jeanne—her head dropped on my shoulder; she burst out crying. Who could see her so cruelly humiliated—the faithful loving daughter, whose one motive for appearing on the stage had been to preserve her father's good name—and not feel for her as I did? I forgot all considerations of prudence; I thought of nothing but consoling her; I took her in my arms; I dried her tears; I kissed her; I said, "Tell me the name of any one of the wretches who has written to you, and I will make him an example to the rest!" She shook her head, and pointed to the morsels of paper on the floor. "Oh, Ernest, do you think I asked you to come here for any such purpose as that? Those jewels, those hateful jewels, tell me how I can send them back! spare me the sight of them!"
So far it was easy to console her. I sent the jewels at once to the manager of the theater—with a written notice to be posted at the stage door, stating that they were waiting to be returned to the persons who could describe them.
"Try, my dear, to forget what has happened," I said. "Try to find consolation and encouragement in your art."
"I have lost all interest in my success on the stage," she answered, "now I know the penalty I must pay for it. When my father's memory is clear of reproach, I shall leave the theater never to return to it again."
"Take time to consider, Jeanne."
"I will do anything you ask of me."
For a while we were silent. Without any influence to lead to it that I could trace, I found myself recalling the language that the Princess had used in alluding to Jeanne. When I thought of them now, the words and the tone in which they had been spoken jarred on me. There is surely something mean in an assertion of superiority which depends on nothing better than the accident of birth. I don't know why I took Jeanne's hand; I don't know why I said, "What a good girl you are! how glad I am to have been of some little use to you!" Is my friend the secretary right, when he reproaches me with acting on impulse, like a woman? I don't like to think so; and yet, this I must own—it was well for me that I was obliged to leave her, before I had perhaps said other words which might have been alike unworthy of Jeanne, of the Princess, and of myself. I was called away to speak to my servant. He brought with him the secretary's card, having a line written on it: "I am waiting at your rooms, on business which permits of no delay."
As we shook hands, Jeanne asked me if I knew where her uncle was. I could only tell her that he had left me at my own door. She made no remark; but she seemed to be uneasy on receiving that reply.
WHEN I arrived at my rooms, my colleague hurried to meet me the moment I opened the door.
"I am going to surprise you," he said; "and there is no time to prepare you for it. Our chief, the Minister, has seen the Prince this morning, and has been officially informed of an event of importance in the life of the Princess. She is engaged to be married to the Grand Duke."
Engaged to the Duke—and not a word from her to warn me of it! Engaged—after what she had said to me no longer ago than the past night! Had I been made a plaything to amuse a great lady? Oh, what degradation! I was furious; I snatched up my hat to go to the palace—to force my way to her—to overwhelm her with reproaches. My friend stopped me. He put an official document into my hand.
"There is your leave of absence from the legation," he said; "beginning from to-day. I have informed the Minister, in strict confidence, of the critical position in which you are placed. He agrees with me that the Princess's inexcusable folly is alone to blame. Leave us, Ernest, by the next train. There is some intrigue going on, and I fear you may be involved in it. You know that the rulers of these little German States can exercise despotic authority when they choose?"
"Whether the Prince has acted of his own free will—or whether he has been influenced by some person about him—I am not able to tell you. He has issued an order to arrest an old Frenchman, known to be a republican, and suspected of associating with one of the secret societies in this part of Germany. The conspirator has taken to flight; having friends, as we suppose, who warned him in time. But this, Ernest, is not the worst of it. That charming singer, that modest, pretty girl—"
"You don't mean Jeanne?"
"I am sorry to say I do. Advantage has been taken of her relationship to the old man, to include that innocent creature in political suspicions which it is simply absurd to suppose that she has deserved. She is ordered to leave the Prince's domains immediately.—Are you going to her?"
"Instantly!" I replied.
Could I feel a moment's hesitation, after the infamous manner in which the Princess had sacrificed me to the Grand Duke? Could I think of the poor girl, friendless, helpless—with nobody near her but a stupid woman-servant, unable to speak the language of the country—and fail to devote myself to the protection of Jeanne? Thank God, I reached her lodgings in time to tell her what had happened, and to take it on myself to receive the police.
IN three days more, Jeanne was safe in London; having traveled under my escort. I was fortunate enough to find a home for her, in the house of a lady who had been my mother's oldest and dearest friend.
We were separated, a few days afterward, by the distressing news which reached me of the state of my brother's health. I went at once to his house in the country. His medical attendants had lost all hope of saving him: they told me plainly that his release from a life of suffering was near at hand.
While I was still in attendance at his bedside, I heard from the secretary. He inclosed a letter, directed to me in a strange handwriting. I opened the envelope and looked for the signature. My friend had been entrapped into sending me an anonymous letter.
Besides addressing me in French (a language seldom used in my experience at the legation), the writer disguised the identity of the persons mentioned by the use of classical names. In spite of these precautions, I felt no difficulty in arriving at a conclusion. My correspondent's special knowledge of Court secrets, and her malicious way of communicating them, betrayed the Baroness.
I translate the letter; restoring to the persons who figure in it the names under which they are already known. The writer began in these satirically familiar terms:
"When you left the Prince's dominions, my dear sir, you no doubt believed yourself to be a free agent. Quite a mistake! You were a mere puppet; and the strings that moved you were pulled by the Doctor.
"Let me tell you how.
"On a certain night, which you well remember, the Princess was unexpectedly summoned to the presence of her father. His physician's skill had succeeded in relieving the illustrious Prince, prostrate under nervous miseries. He was able to attend to a state affair of importance, revealed to him by the Doctor—who then for the first time acknowledged that he had presented himself at Court in a diplomatic, as well as in a medical capacity.
"This state affair related to a proposal for the hand of the Princess, received from the Grand Duke through the authorized medium of the Doctor. Her Highness, being consulted, refused to consider the proposal. The Prince asked for her reason. She answered: 'I have no wish to be married.' Naturally irritated by such a ridiculous excuse, her father declared positively that the marriage should take place.
"The impression produced on the Grand Duke's favorite and emissary was of a different kind.
"Certain suspicions of the Princess and yourself, which you had successfully contrived to dissipate, revived in the Doctor's mind when he heard the lady's reason for refusing to marry his royal master. It was now too late to regret that he had suffered himself to be misled by cleverly managed appearances. He could not recall the favorable report which he had addressed to the Duke—or withdraw the proposal of marriage which he had been commanded to make.
"In this emergency, the one safe course open to him was to get rid of You—and, at the same time, so to handle circumstances as to excite against you the pride and anger of the Princess. In the pursuit of this latter object he was assisted by one of the ladies in waiting, sincerely interested in the welfare of her gracious mistress, and therefore ardently desirous of seeing her Highness married to the Duke.
"A wretched old French conspirator was made the convenient pivot on which the intrigue turned.
"An order for the arrest of this foreign republican having been first obtained, the Prince was prevailed on to extend his distrust of the Frenchman to the Frenchman's niece. You know this already; but you don't know why it was done. Having believed from the first that you were really in love with the young lady, the Doctor reckoned confidently on your devoting yourself to the protection of a friendless girl, cruelly exiled at an hour's notice.
"The one chance against us was that tender considerations, associated with her Highness, might induce you to hesitate. The lady in waiting easily moved this obstacle out of the way. She abstained from delivering a letter addressed to you, intrusted to her by the Princess. When the great lady asked why she had not received your reply, she was informed (quite truly) that you and the charming opera singer had taken your departure together. You may imagine what her Highness thought of you, and said of you, when I mention in conclusion that she consented, the same day, to marry the Duke.
"So, Mr. Ernest, these clever people tricked you into serving their interests, blindfold. In relating how it was done, I hope I may have assisted you in forming a correct estimate of the state of your own intelligence. You have made a serious mistake in adopting your present profession. Give up diplomacy—and get a farmer to employ you in keeping his sheep."
* * * * *
Do I sometimes think regretfully of the Princess?
Permit me to mention a circumstance, and to leave my answer to be inferred. Jeanne is Lady Medhurst.
MR. LISMORE AND THE WIDOW.
LATE in the autumn, not many years since, a public meeting was held at the Mansion House, London, under the direction of the Lord Mayor.
The list of gentlemen invited to address the audience had been chosen with two objects in view. Speakers of celebrity, who would rouse public enthusiasm, were supported by speakers connected with commerce, who would be practically useful in explaining the purpose for which the meeting was convened. Money wisely spent in advertising had produced the customary result—every seat was occupied before the proceedings began.
Among the late arrivals, who had no choice but to stand or to leave the hall, were two ladies. One of them at once decided on leaving the hall. "I shall go back to the carriage," she said, "and wait for you at the door." Her friend answered, "I shan't keep you long. He is advertised to support the second Resolution; I want to see him—and that is all."
An elderly gentleman, seated at the end of a bench, rose and offered his place to the lady who remained. She hesitated to take advantage of his kindness, until he reminded her that he had heard what she said to her friend. Before the third Resolution was proposed, his seat would be at his own disposal again. She thanked him, and without further ceremony took his place He was provided with an opera-glass, which he more than once offered to her, when famous orators appeared on the platform; she made no use of it until a speaker—known in the City as a ship-owner—stepped forward to support the second Resolution.
His name (announced in the advertisements) was Ernest Lismore.
The moment he rose, the lady asked for the opera-glass. She kept it to her eyes for such a length of time, and with such evident interest in Mr. Lismore, that the curiosity of her neighbors was aroused. Had he anything to say in which a lady (evidently a stranger to him) was personally interested? There was nothing in the address that he delivered which appealed to the enthusiasm of women. He was undoubtedly a handsome man, whose appearance proclaimed him to be in the prime of life—midway perhaps between thirty and forty years of age. But why a lady should persist in keeping an opera-glass fixed on him all through his speech, was a question which found the general ingenuity at a loss for a reply.
Having returned the glass with an apology, the lady ventured on putting a question next. "Did it strike you, sir, that Mr. Lismore seemed to be out of spirits?" she asked.
"I can't say it did, ma'am."
"Perhaps you noticed that he left the platform the moment he had done?"
This betrayal of interest in the speaker did not escape the notice of a lady, seated on the bench in front. Before the old gentleman could answer, she volunteered an explanation.
"I am afraid Mr. Lismore is troubled by anxieties connected with his business," she said. "My husband heard it reported in the City yesterday that he was seriously embarrassed by the failure—"
A loud burst of applause made the end of the sentence inaudible. A famous member of Parliament had risen to propose the third Resolution. The polite old man took his seat, and the lady left the hall to join her friend.
"Well, Mrs. Callender, has Mr. Lismore disappointed you?"
"Far from it! But I have heard a report about him which has alarmed me: he is said to be seriously troubled about money matters. How can I find out his address in the City?"
"We can stop at the first stationer's shop we pass, and ask to look at the Directory. Are you going to pay Mr. Lismore a visit?"
"I am going to think about it."
THE next day a clerk entered Mr. Lismore's private room at the office, and presented a visiting-card. Mrs. Callender had reflected, and had arrived at a decision. Underneath her name she had written these explanatory words: "On important business."
"Does she look as if she wanted money?" Mr. Lismore inquired.
"Oh dear, no! She comes in her carriage."
"Is she young or old?"
To Mr. Lismore—conscious of the disastrous influence occasionally exercised over busy men by youth and beauty—this was a recommendation in itself. He said: "Show her in."
Observing the lady, as she approached him, with the momentary curiosity of a stranger, he noticed that she still preserved the remains of beauty. She had also escaped the misfortune, common to persons at her time of life, of becoming too fat. Even to a man's eye, her dressmaker appeared to have made the most of that favorable circumstance. Her figure had its defects concealed, and its remaining merits set off to advantage. At the same time she evidently held herself above the common deceptions by which some women seek to conceal their age. She wore her own gray hair; and her complexion bore the test of daylight. On entering the room, she made her apologies with some embarrassment. Being the embarrassment of a stranger (and not of a youthful stranger), it failed to impress Mr. Lismore favorably.
"I am afraid I have chosen an inconvenient time for my visit," she began.
"I am at your service," he answered a little stiffly; "especially if you will be so kind as to mention your business with me in few words."
She was a woman of some spirit, and that reply roused her.
"I will mention it in one word," she said smartly. "My business is—gratitude."
He was completely at a loss to understand what she meant, and he said so plainly. Instead of explaining herself, she put a question.
"Do you remember the night of the eleventh of March, between five and six years since?"
He considered for a moment.
"No," he said, "I don't remember it. Excuse me, Mrs. Callender, I have affairs of my own to attend to which cause me some anxiety—"
"Let me assist your memory, Mr. Lismore; and I will leave you to your affairs. On the date that I have referred to, you were on your way to the railway-station at Bexmore, to catch the night express from the North to London."
As a hint that his time was valuable the ship-owner had hitherto remained standing. He now took his customary seat, and began to listen with some interest. Mrs. Callender had produced her effect on him already.
"It was absolutely necessary," she proceeded, "that you should be on board your ship in the London Docks at nine o'clock the next morning. If you had lost the express, the vessel would have sailed without you."
The expression of his face began to change to surprise. "Who told you that?" he asked.
"You shall hear directly. On your way into the town, your carriage was stopped by an obstruction on the highroad. The people of Bexmore were looking at a house on fire."
He started to his feet.
"Good heavens! are you the lady?"
She held up her hand in satirical protest.
"Gently, sir! You suspected me just now of wasting your valuable time. Don't rashly conclude that I am the lady, until you find that I am acquainted with the circumstances."
"Is there no excuse for my failing to recognize you?" Mr. Lismore asked. "We were on the dark side of the burning house; you were fainting, and I—"
"And you," she interposed, "after saving me at the risk of your own life, turned a deaf ear to my poor husband's entreaties, when he asked you to wait till I had recovered my senses."
"Your poor husband? Surely, Mrs. Callender, he received no serious injury from the fire?"
"The firemen rescued him under circumstances of peril," she answered, "and at his great age he sank under the shock. I have lost the kindest and best of men. Do you remember how you parted from him—burned and bruised in saving me? He liked to talk of it in his last illness. 'At least' (he said to you), 'tell me the name of the man who has preserved my wife from a dreadful death.' You threw your card to him out of the carriage window, and away you went at a gallop to catch your train! In all the years that have passed I have kept that card, and have vainly inquired for my brave sea-captain. Yesterday I saw your name on the list of speakers at the Mansion House. Need I say that I attended the meeting? Need I tell you now why I come here and interrupt you in business hours?"
She held out her hand. Mr. Lismore took it in silence, and pressed it warmly.
"You have not done with me yet," she resumed with a smile. "Do you remember what I said of my errand, when I first came in?"
"You said it was an errand of gratitude."
"Something more than the gratitude which only says 'Thank you,'" she added. "Before I explain myself, however, I want to know what you have been doing, and how it was that my inquiries failed to trace you after that terrible night."
The appearance of depression which Mrs. Callender had noticed at the public meeting showed itself again in Mr. Lismore's face. He sighed as he answered her.
"My story has one merit," he said; "it is soon told. I cannot wonder that you failed to discover me. In the first place, I was not captain of my ship at that time; I was only mate. In the second place, I inherited some money, and ceased to lead a sailor's life, in less than a year from the night of the fire. You will now understand what obstacles were in the way of your tracing me. With my little capital I started successfully in business as a ship-owner. At the time, I naturally congratulated myself on my own good fortune. We little know, Mrs. Callender, what the future has in store for us."
He stopped. His handsome features hardened—as if he was suffering (and concealing) pain. Before it was possible to speak to him, there was a knock at the door. Another visitor, without an appointment, had called; the clerk appeared again, with a card and a message.
"The gentleman begs you will see him, sir. He has something to tell you which is too important to be delayed."
Hearing the message, Mrs. Callender rose immediately.
"It is enough for to-day that we understand each other," she said. "Have you any engagement to-morrow, after the hours of business?"
She pointed to her card on the writing-table. "Will you come to me to-morrow evening at that address? I am like the gentleman who has just called; I, too, have my reason for wishing to see you."
He gladly accepted the invitation. Mrs. Callender stopped him as he opened the door for her.
"Shall I offend you," she said, "if I ask a strange question before I go? I have a better motive, mind, than mere curiosity. Are you married?"
"Forgive me again," she resumed. "At my age, you cannot possibly misunderstand me; and yet—"
She hesitated. Mr. Lismore tried to give her confidence. "Pray don't stand on ceremony, Mrs. Callender. Nothing that you can ask me need be prefaced by an apology."
Thus encouraged, she ventured to proceed.
"You may be engaged to be married?" she suggested. "Or you may be in love?"
He found it impossible to conceal his surprise. But he answered without hesitation.
"There is no such bright prospect in my life," he said. "I am not even in love."
She left him with a little sigh. It sounded like a sigh of relief.
Ernest Lismore was thoroughly puzzled. What could be the old lady's object in ascertaining that he was still free from a matrimonial engagement? If the idea had occurred to him in time, he might have alluded to her domestic life, and might have asked if she had children? With a little tact he might have discovered more than this. She had described her feeling toward him as passing the ordinary limits of gratitude; and she was evidently rich enough to be above the imputation of a mercenary motive. Did she propose to brighten those dreary prospects to which he had alluded in speaking of his own life? When he presented himself at her house the next evening, would she introduce him to a charming daughter?
He smiled as the idea occurred to him. "An appropriate time to be thinking of my chances of marriage!" he said to himself. "In another month I may be a ruined man."
THE gentleman who had so urgently requested an interview was a devoted friend—who had obtained a means of helping Ernest at a serious crisis in his affairs.
It had been truly reported that he was in a position of pecuniary embarrassment, owing to the failure of a mercantile house with which he had been intimately connected. Whispers affecting his own solvency had followed on the bankruptcy of the firm. He had already endeavored to obtain advances of money on the usual conditions, and had been met by excuses for delay. His friend had now arrived with a letter of introduction to a capitalist, well known in commercial circles for his daring speculations and for his great wealth.
Looking at the letter, Ernest observed that the envelope was sealed. In spite of that ominous innovation on established usage, in cases of personal introduction, he presented the letter. On this occasion, he was not put off with excuses. The capitalist flatly declined to discount Mr. Lismore's bills, unless they were backed by responsible names.
Ernest made a last effort.
He applied for help to two mercantile men whom he had assisted in their difficulties, and whose names would have satisfied the money-lender. They were most sincerely sorry—but they, too, refused.
The one security that he could offer was open, it must be owned, to serious objections on the score of risk. He wanted an advance of twenty thousand pounds, secured on a homeward-bound ship and cargo. But the vessel was not insured; and, at that stormy season, she was already more than a month overdue. Could grateful colleagues be blamed if they forgot their obligations when they were asked to offer pecuniary help to a merchant in this situation? Ernest returned to his office, without money and without credit.
A man threatened by ruin is in no state of mind to keep an engagement at a lady's tea-table. Ernest sent a letter of apology to Mrs. Call ender, alleging extreme pressure of business as the excuse for breaking his engagement.
"Am I to wait for an answer, sir?" the messenger asked.
"No; you are merely to leave the letter."
IN an hour's time—to Ernest's astonishment—the messenger returned with a reply.
"The lady was just going out, sir, when I rang at the door," he explained, "and she took the letter from me herself. She didn't appear to know your handwriting, and she asked me who I came from. When I mentioned your name, I was ordered to wait."
Ernest opened the letter.
"DEAR MR. LISMORE—One of us must speak out, and your letter of apology forces me to be that one. If you are really so proud and so distrustfull as you seem to be, I shall offend you. If not, I shall prove myself to be your friend.
"Your excuse is 'pressure of business.' The truth (as I have good reason to believe) is 'want of money.' I heard a stranger, at that public meeting, say that you were seriously embarrassed by some failure in the City.
"Let me tell you what my own pecuniary position is in two words. I am the childless widow of a rich man—"
Ernest paused. His anticipated discovery of Mrs. Callender's "charming daughter" was in his mind for the moment. "That little romance must return to the world of dreams," he thought—and went on with the letter.
"After what I owe to you, I don't regard it as repaying an obligation—I consider myself as merely performing a duty when I offer to assist you by a loan of money.
"Wait a little before you throw my letter into the wastepaper basket.
"Circumstances (which it is impossible for me to mention before we meet) put it out of my power to help you—unless I attach to my most sincere offer of service a very unusual and very embarrassing condition. If you are on the brink of ruin, that misfortune will plead my excuse—and your excuse, too, if you accept the loan on my terms. In any case, I rely on the sympathy and forbearance of the man to whom I owe my life.
"After what I have now written, there is only one thing to add. I beg to decline accepting your excuses; and I shall expect to see you tomorrow evening, as we arranged. I am an obstinate old woman—but I am also your faithful friend and servant,
Ernest looked up from the letter. "What can this possibly mean?" he wondered.
But he was too sensible a man to be content with wondering—he decided on keeping his engagement.
WHAT Doctor Johnson called "the insolence of wealth" appears far more frequently in the houses of the rich than in the manners of the rich. The reason is plain enough. Personal ostentation is, in the very nature of it, ridiculous. But the ostentation which exhibits magnificent pictures, priceless china, and splendid furniture, can purchase good taste to guide it, and can assert itself without affording the smallest opening for a word of depreciation, or a look of contempt. If I am worth a million of money, and if I am dying to show it, I don't ask you to look at me—I ask you to look at my house.
Keeping his engagement with Mrs. Callender, Ernest discovered that riches might be lavishly and yet modestly used.
In crossing the hall and ascending the stairs, look where he might, his notice was insensibly won by proofs of the taste which is not to be purchased, and the wealth which uses but never exhibits its purse. Conducted by a man-servant to the landing on the first floor, he found a maid at the door of the boudoir waiting to announce him. Mrs. Callender advanced to welcome her guest, in a simple evening dress perfectly suited to her age. All that had looked worn and faded in her fine face, by daylight, was now softly obscured by shaded lamps. Objects of beauty surrounded her, which glowed with subdued radiance from their background of sober color. The influence of appearances is the strongest of all outward influences, while it lasts. For the moment, the scene produced its impression on Ernest, in spite of the terrible anxieties which consumed him. Mrs. Callender, in his office, was a woman who had stepped out of her appropriate sphere. Mrs. Callender, in her own house, was a woman who had risen to a new place in his estimation.
"I am afraid you don't thank me for forcing you to keep your engagement," she said, with her friendly tones and her pleasant smile.
"Indeed I do thank you," he replied. "Your beautiful house and your gracious welcome have persuaded me into forgetting my troubles—for a while."
The smile passed away from her face. "Then it is true," she said gravely.
"Only too true."
She led him to a seat beside her, and waited to speak again until her maid had brought in the tea.
"Have you read my letter in the same friendly spirit in which I wrote it?" she asked, when they were alone again.
"I have read your letter gratefully, but—"
"But you don't know yet what I have to say. Let us understand each other before we make any objections on either side. Will you tell me what your present position is—at its worst? I can and will speak plainly when my turn comes, if you will honor me with your confidence. Not if it distresses you," she added, observing him attentively.
He was ashamed of his hesitation—and he made amends for it.
"Do you thoroughly understand me?" he asked, when the whole truth had been laid before her without reserve.
She summed up the result in her own words.
"If your overdue ship returns safely, within a month from this time, you can borrow the money you want, without difficulty. If the ship is lost, you have no alternative (when the end of the month comes) but to accept a loan from me or to suspend payment. Is that the hard truth?"
"And the sum you require is—twenty thousand pounds?"
"I have twenty times as much money as that, Mr. Lismore, at my sole disposal—on one condition."
"The condition alluded to in your letter?"
"Does the fulfillment of the condition depend in some way on any decision of mine?"
"It depends entirely on you."
That answer closed his lips.
With a composed manner and a steady hand she poured herself out a cup of tea.
"I conceal it from you," she said; "but I want confidence. Here" (she pointed to the cup) "is the friend of women, rich or poor, when they are in trouble. What I have now to say obliges me to speak in praise of myself. I don't like it—let me get it over as soon as I can. My husband was very fond of me: he had the most absolute confidence in my discretion, and in my sense of duty to him and to myself. His last words, before he died, were words that thanked me for making the happiness of his life. As soon as I had in some degree recovered, after the affliction that had fallen on me, his lawyer and executor produced a copy of his will, and said there were two clauses in it which my husband had expressed a wish that I should read. It is needless to say that I obeyed."
She still controlled her agitation—but she was now unable to conceal it. Ernest made an attempt to spare her.
"Am I concerned in this?" he asked.
"Yes. Before I tell you why, I want to know what you would do—in a certain case which I am unwilling even to suppose. I have heard of men, unable to pay the demands made on them, who began business again, and succeeded, and in course of time paid their creditors."
"And you want to know if there is any likelihood of my following their example?" he said. "Have you also heard of men who have made that second effort—who have failed again—and who have doubled the debts they owed to their brethren in business who trusted them? I knew one of those men myself. He committed suicide."
She laid her hand for a moment on his.
"I understand you," she said. "If ruin comes—"
"If ruin comes," he interposed, "a man without money and without credit can make but one last atonement. Don't speak of it now."
She looked at him with horror.
"I didn't mean that!" she said.
"Shall we go back to what you read in the will?" he suggested.
"Yes—if you will give me a minute to compose myself."
IN less than the minute she had asked for, Mrs. Callender was calm enough to go on.
"I now possess what is called a life-interest in my husband's fortune," she said. "The money is to be divided, at my death, among charitable institutions; excepting a certain event—"
"Which is provided for in the will?" Ernest added, helping her to go on.
"Yes. I am to be absolute mistress of the whole of the four hundred thousand pounds—" her voice dropped, and her eyes looked away from him as she spoke the next words—"on this one condition, that I marry again."
He looked at her in amazement.
"Surely I have mistaken you," he said. "You mean on this one condition, that you do not marry again?"
"No, Mr. Lismore; I mean exactly what I have said. You now know that the recovery of your credit and your peace of mind rests entirely with yourself."
After a moment of reflection he took her hand and raised it respectfully to his lips. "You are a noble woman!" he said.
She made no reply. With drooping head and downcast eyes she waited for his decision. He accepted his responsibility.
"I must not, and dare not, think of the hardship of my own position," he said; "I owe it to you to speak without reference to the future that may be in store for me. No man can be worthy of the sacrifice which your generous forgetfulness of yourself is willing to make. I respect you; I admire you; I thank you with my whole heart. Leave me to my fate, Mrs. Callender—and let me go."
He rose. She stopped him by a gesture.
"A young woman," she answered, "would shrink from saying—what I, as an old woman, mean to say now. I refuse to leave you to your fate. I ask you to prove that you respect me, admire me, and thank me with your whole heart. Take one day to think—and let me hear the result. You promise me this?"
He promised. "Now go," she said.
NEXT morning Ernest received a letter from Mrs. Callender. She wrote to him as follows:
"There are some considerations which I ought to have mentioned yesterday evening, before you left my house.
"I ought to have reminded you—if you consent to reconsider your decision—that the circumstances do not require you to pledge yourself to me absolutely.
"At my age, I can with perfect propriety assure you that I regard our marriage simply and solely as a formality which we must fulfill, if I am to carry out my intention of standing between you and ruin.
"Therefore—if the missing ship appears in time, the only reason for the marriage is at an end. We shall be as good friends as ever; without the encumbrance of a formal tie to bind us.
"In the other event, I should ask you to submit to certain restrictions which, remembering my position, you will understand and excuse.
"We are to live together, it is unnecessary to say, as mother and son. The marriage ceremony is to be strictly private; and you are so to arrange your affairs that, immediately afterward, we leave England for any foreign place which you prefer. Some of my friends, and (perhaps) some of your friends, will certainly misinterpret our motives—if we stay in our own country—in a manner which would be unendurable to a woman like me.
"As to our future lives, I have the most perfect confidence in you, and I should leave you in the same position of independence which you occupy now. When you wish for my company you will always be welcome. At other times, you are your own master. I live on my side of the house, and you live on yours—and I am to be allowed my hours of solitude every day, in the pursuit of musical occupations, which have been happily associated with all my past life and which I trust confidently to your indulgence.
"A last word, to remind you of what you may be too kind to think of yourself.
"At my age, you cannot, in the course of Nature, be troubled by the society of a grateful old woman for many years. You are young enough to look forward to another marriage, which shall be something more than a mere form. Even if you meet with the happy woman in my lifetime, honestly tell me of it—and I promise to tell her that she has only to wait.
"In the meantime, don't think, because I write composedly, that I write heartlessly. You pleased and interested me, when I first saw you, at the public meeting. I don't think I could have proposed, what you call this sacrifice of myself, to a man who had personally repelled me—though I might have felt my debt of gratitude as sincerely as ever. Whether your ship is saved, or whether your ship is lost, old Mary Callender likes you—and owns it without false shame.
"Let me have your answer this evening, either personally or by letter—whichever you like best."
MRS. CALLENDER received a written answer long before the evening. It said much in few words:
"A man impenetrable to kindness might be able to resist your letter. I am not that man. Your great heart has conquered me."
The few formalities which precede marriage by special license were observed by Ernest. While the destiny of their future lives was still in suspense, an unacknowledged feeling of embarrassment, on either side, kept Ernest and Mrs. Callender apart. Every day brought the lady her report of the state of affairs in the City, written always in the same words: "No news of the ship."
ON the day before the ship-owner's liabilities became due, the terms of the report from the City remained unchanged—and the special license was put to its contemplated use. Mrs. Callender's lawyer and Mrs. Callender's maid were the only persons trusted with the secret. Leaving the chief clerk in charge of the business, with every pecuniary demand on his employer satisfied in full, the strangely married pair quitted England.
They arranged to wait for a few days in Paris, to receive any letters of importance which might have been addressed to Ernest in the interval. On the evening of their arrival, a telegram from London was waiting at their hotel. It announced that the missing ship had passed up Channel—undiscovered in a fog, until she reached the Downs—on the day before Ernest's liabilities fell due.
"Do you regret it?" Mrs. Lismore said to her husband.
"Not for a moment!" he answered.
They decided on pursuing their journey as far as Munich.
Mrs. Lismore's taste for music was matched by Ernest's taste for painting. In his leisure hours he cultivated the art, and delighted in it. The picture-galleries of Munich were almost the only galleries in Europe which he had not seen. True to the engagements to which she had pledged herself, his wife was willing to go wherever it might please him to take her. The one suggestion she made was, that they should hire furnished apartments. If they lived at an hotel, friends of the husband or the wife (visitors like themselves to the famous city) might see their names in the book, or might meet them at the door.
They were soon established in a house large enough to provide them with every accommodation which they required.
Ernest's days were passed in the galleries; Mrs. Lismore remaining at home, devoted to her music, until it was time to go out with her husband for a drive. Living together in perfect amity and concord, they were nevertheless not living happily. Without any visible reason for the change, Mrs. Lismore's spirits were depressed. On the one occasion when Ernest noticed it she made an effort to be cheerful, which it distressed him to see. He allowed her to think that she had relieved him of any further anxiety. Whatever doubts he might feel were doubts delicately concealed from that time forth.
But when two people are living together in a state of artificial tranquillity, it seems to be a law of Nature that the element of disturbance gathers unseen, and that the outburst comes inevitably with the lapse of time.
In ten days from the date of their arrival at Munich, the crisis came. Ernest returned later than usual from the picture-gallery, and—for the first time in his wife's experience—shut himself up in his own room.
He appeared at the dinner-hour with a futile excuse. Mrs. Lismore waited until the servant had withdrawn. "Now, Ernest," she said, "it's time to tell me the truth."
Her manner, when she said those few words, took him by surprise. She was unquestionably confused; and, instead of lookin g at him, she trifled with the fruit on her plate. Embarrassed on his side, he could only answer:
"I have nothing to tell."
"Were there many visitors at the gallery?" she asked.
"About the same as usual."
"Any that you particularly noticed?" she went on. "I mean, among the ladies."
He laughed uneasily. "You forget how interested I am in the pictures," he said.
There was a pause. She looked up at him—and suddenly looked away again. But he saw it plainly: there were tears in her eyes.
"Do you mind turning down the gas?" she said. "My eyes have been weak all day."
He complied with her request—the more readily, having his own reasons for being glad to escape the glaring scrutiny of the light.
"I think I will rest a little on the sofa," she resumed. In the position which he occupied, his back would have been now turned on her. She stopped him when he tried to move his chair. "I would rather not look at you, Ernest," she said, "when you have lost confidence in me."
Not the words, but the tone, touched all that was generous and noble in his nature. He left his place, and knelt beside her—and opened to her his whole heart.
"Am I not unworthy of you?" he asked, when it was over.
She pressed his hand in silence.
"I should be the most ungrateful wretch living," he said, "if I did not think of you, and you only, now that my confession is made. We will leave Munich to-morrow—and, if resolution can help me, I will only remember the sweetest woman my eyes ever looked on as the creature of a dream."
She hid her face on his breast, and reminded him of that letter of her writing, which had decided the course of their lives.
"When I thought you might meet the happy woman in my life-time, I said to you, 'Tell me of it—and I promise to tell her that she has only to wait.' Time must pass, Ernest, before it can be needful to perform my promise. But you might let me see her. If you find her in the gallery to-morrow, you might bring her here."
Mrs. Lismore's request met with no refusal. Ernest was only at a loss to know how to grant it.
"You tell me she is a copyist of pictures," his wife reminded him. "She will be interested in hearing of the portfolio of drawings by the great French artists which I bought for you in Paris. Ask her to come and see them, and to tell you if she can make some copies. And say, if you like, that I shall be glad to become acquainted with her."
He felt her breath beating fast on his bosom. In the fear that she might lose all control over herself, he tried to relieve her by speaking lightly. "What an invention yours is!" he said. "If my wife ever tries to deceive me, I shall be a mere child in her hands."
She rose abruptly from the sofa—kissed him on the forehead—and said wildly, "I shall be better in bed!" Before he could move or speak, she had left him.
THE next morning he knocked at the door of his wife's room and asked how she had passed the night.
"I have slept badly," she answered, "and I must beg you to excuse my absence at breakfast-time." She called him back as he was about to withdraw. "Remember," she said, "when you return from the gallery to-day, I expect that you will not return alone."
* * * * *
Three hours later he was at home again. The young lady's services as a copyist were at his disposal; she had returned with him to look at the drawings.
The sitting-room was empty when they entered it. He rang for his wife's maid—and was informed that Mrs. Lismore had gone out. Refusing to believe the woman, he went to his wife's apartments. She was not to be found.
When he returned to the sitting-room, the young lady was not unnaturally offended. He could make allowances for her being a little out of temper at the slight that had been put on her; but he was inexpressibly disconcerted by the manner—almost the coarse manner—in which she expressed herself.
"I have been talking to your wife's maid, while you have been away," she said. "I find you have married an old lady for her money. She is jealous of me, of course?"
"Let me beg you to alter your opinion," he answered. "You are wronging my wife; she is incapable of any such feeling as you attribute to her."
The young lady laughed. "At any rate you are a good husband," she said satirically. "Suppose you own the truth? Wouldn't you like her better if she was young and pretty like me?"
He was not merely surprised—he was disgusted. Her beauty had so completely fascinated him, when he first saw her, that the idea of associating any want of refinement and good breeding with such a charming creature never entered his mind. The disenchantment to him was already so complete that he was even disagreeably affected by the tone of her voice: it was almost as repellent to him as the exhibition of unrestrained bad temper which she seemed perfectly careless to conceal.
"I confess you surprise me," he said, coldly.
The reply produced no effect on her. On the contrary, she became more insolent than ever.
"I have a fertile fancy," she went on, "and your absurd way of taking a joke only encourages me! Suppose you could transform this sour old wife of yours, who has insulted me, into the sweetest young creature that ever lived, by only holding up your finger—wouldn't you do it?"
This passed the limits of his endurance. "I have no wish," he said, "to forget the consideration which is due to a woman. You leave me but one alternative." He rose to go out of the room.
She ran to the door as he spoke, and placed herself in the way of his going out.
He signed to her to let him pass.
She suddenly threw her arms round his neck, kissed him passionately, and whispered, with her lips at his ear: "Oh, Ernest, forgive me! Could I have asked you to marry me for my money if I had not taken refuge in a disguise?"
WHEN he had sufficiently recovered to think, he put her back from him. "Is there an end of the deception now?" he asked, sternly. "Am I to trust you in your new character?"
"You are not to be harder on me than I deserve," she answered, gently. "Did you ever hear of an actress named Miss Max?"
He began to understand her. "Forgive me if I spoke harshly," he said. "You have put me to a severe trial."
She burst into tears. "Love," she murmured, "is my only excuse."
From that moment she had won her pardon. He took her hand, and made her sit by him.
"Yes," he said, "I have heard of Miss Max and of her wonderful powers of personation—and I have always regretted not having seen her while she was on the stage."
"Did you hear anything more of her, Ernest?"
"Yes, I heard that she was a pattern of modesty and good conduct, and that she gave up her profession, at the height of her success, to marry an old man."
"Will you come with me to my room?" she asked. "I have something there which I wish to show you."
It was the copy of her husband's will.
"Read the lines, Ernest, which begin at the top of the page. Let my dead husband speak for me."
The lines ran thus:
"My motive in marrying Miss Max must be stated in this place, in justice to her—and, I will venture to add, in justice to myself. I felt the sincerest sympathy for her position. She was without father, mother, or friends; one of the poor forsaken children, whom the mercy of the Foundling Hospital provides with a home. Her after life on the stage was the life of a virtuous woman: persecuted by profligates; insulted by some of the baser creatures associated with her, to whom she was an object of envy. I offered her a home, and the protection of a father—on the only terms which the world would recognize as worthy of us. My experience of her since our marriage has been the experience of unvarying goodness, sweetness, and sound sense. She has behaved so nobly, in a trying position, that I wish her (even in this life) to have her reward. I entreat her to make a second choice in marriage, which shall not be a mere form. I firmly believe that she will choose well and wisely—that she will make the happiness of a man who is worthy of her—and that, as wife and mother, she will set an example of inestimable value in the social sphere that she occupies. In proof of the heartfelt sincerity with which I pay my tribute to her virtues, I add to this my will the clause that follows."
With the clause that followed, Ernest was already acquainted.
"Will you now believe that I never loved till I saw your face for the first time?" said his wife. "I had no experience to place me on my guard against the fascination—the madness some people might call it—which possesses a woman when all her heart is given to a man. Don't despise me, my dear! Remember that I had to save you from disgrace and ruin. Besides, my old stage remembrances tempted me. I had acted in a play in which the heroine did—what I have done! It didn't end with me, as it did with her in the story. She was represented as rejoicing in the success of her disguise. I have known some miserable hours of doubt and shame since our marriage. When I went to meet you in my own person at the picture-gallery—oh, what relief, what joy I felt, when I saw how you admired me—it was not because I could no longer carry on the disguise. I was able to get hours of rest from the effort; not only at night, but in the daytime, when I was shut up in my retirement in the music-room; and when my maid kept watch against discovery. No, my love! I hurried on the disclosure, because I could no longer endure the hateful triumph of my own deception. Ah, look at that witness against me! I can't bear even to see it!"
She abruptly left him. The drawer that she had opened to take out the copy of the will also contained the false gray hair which she had discarded. It had only that moment attracted her notice. She snatched it up, and turned to the fireplace.
Ernest took it from her, before she could destroy it. "Give it to me," he said.
He drew her gently to his bosom, and answered: "I must not forget my old wife."
MISS JEROMETTE AND THE CLERGYMAN.
MY brother, the clergyman, looked over my shoulder before I was aware of him, and discovered that the volume which completely absorbed my attention was a collection of famous Trials, published in a new edition and in a popular form.
He laid his finger on the Trial which I happened to be reading at the moment. I looked up at him; his face startled me. He had turned pale. His eyes were fixed on the open page of the book with an expression which puzzled and alarmed me.
"My dear fellow," I said, "what in the world is the matter with you?"
He answered in an odd absent manner, still keeping his finger on the open page.
"I had almost forgotten," he said. "And this reminds me."
"Reminds you of what?" I asked. "You don't mean to say you know anything about the Trial?"
"I know this," he said. "The prisoner was guilty."
"Guilty?" I repeated. "Why, the man was acquitted by the jury, with the full approval of the judge! What call you possibly mean?"
"There are circumstances connected with that Trial," my brother answered, "which were never communicated to the judge or the jury—which were never so much as hinted or whispered in court. I know them—of my own knowledge, by my own personal experience. They are very sad, very strange, very terrible. I have mentioned them to no mortal creature. I have done my best to forget them. You—quite innocently—have brought them back to my mind. They oppress, they distress me. I wish I had found you reading any book in your library, except that book!"
My curiosity was now strongly excited. I spoke out plainly.
"Surely," I suggested, "you might tell your brother what you are unwilling to mention to persons less nearly related to you. We have followed different professions, and have lived in different countries, since we were boys at school. But you know you can trust me."
He considered a little with himself.
"Yes," he said. "I know I can trust you." He waited a moment, and then he surprised me by a strange question.
"Do you believe," he asked, "that the spirits of the dead can return to earth, and show themselves to the living?"
I answered cautiously—adopting as my own the words of a great English writer, touching the subject of ghosts.
"You ask me a question," I said, "which, after five thousand years, is yet undecided. On that account alone, it is a question not to be trifled with."
My reply seemed to satisfy him.
"Promise me," he resumed, "that you will keep what I tell you a secret as long as I live. After my death I care little what happens. Let the story of my strange experience be added to the published experience of those other men who have seen what I have seen, and who believe what I believe. The world will not be the worse, and may be the better, for knowing one day what I am now about to trust to your ear alone."
My brother never again alluded to the narrative which he had confided to me, until the later time when I was sitting by his deathbed. He asked if I still remembered the story of Jeromette. "Tell it to others," he said, "as I have told it to you."
I repeat it after his death—as nearly as I can in his own words.
ON a fine summer evening, many years since, I left my chambers in the Temple, to meet a fellow-student, who had proposed to me a night's amusement in the public gardens at Cremorne.
You were then on your way to India; and I had taken my degree at Oxford. I had sadly disappointed my father by choosing the Law as my profession, in preference to the Church. At that time, to own the truth, I had no serious intention of following any special vocation. I simply wanted an excuse for enjoying the pleasures of a London life. The study of the Law supplied me with that excuse. And I chose the Law as my profession accordingly.
On reaching the place at which we had arranged to meet, I found that my friend had not kept his appointment. After waiting vainly for ten minutes, my patience gave way and I went into the Gardens by myself.
I took two or three turns round the platform devoted to the dancers without discovering my fellow-student, and without seeing any other person with whom I happened to be acquainted at that time.
For some reason which I cannot now remember, I was not in my usual good spirits that evening. The noisy music jarred on my nerves, the sight of the gaping crowd round the platform irritated me, the blandishments of the painted ladies of the profession of pleasure saddened and disgusted me. I opened my cigar-case, and turned aside into one of the quiet by-walks of the Gardens.
A man who is habitually careful in choosing his cigar has this advantage over a man who is habitually careless. He can always count on smoking the best cigar in his case, down to the last. I was still absorbed in choosing my cigar, when I heard these words behind me—spoken in a foreign accent and in a woman's voice:
"Leave me directly, sir! I wish to have nothing to say to you."
I turned round and discovered a little lady very simply and tastefully dressed, who looked both angry and alarmed as she rapidly passed me on her way to the more frequented part of the Gardens. A man (evidently the worse for the wine he had drunk in the course of the evening) was following her, and was pressing his tipsy attentions on her with the coarsest insolence of speech and manner. She was young and pretty, and she cast one entreating look at me as she went by, which it was not in manhood—perhaps I ought to say, in young-manhood—to resist.
I instantly stepped forward to protect her, careless whether I involved myself in a discreditable quarrel with a blackguard or not. As a matter of course, the fellow resented my interference, and my temper gave way. Fortunately for me, just as I lifted my hand to knock him down, at policeman appeared who had noticed that he was drunk, and who settled the dispute officially by turning him out of the Gardens.
I led her away from the crowd that had collected. She was evidently frightened—I felt her hand trembling on my arm—but she had one great merit; she made no fuss about it.
"If I can sit down for a few minutes," she said in her pretty foreign accent, "I shall soon be myself again, and I shall not trespass any further on your kindness. I thank you very much, sir, for taking care of me."
We sat down on a bench in a retired par t of the Gardens, near a little fountain. A row of lighted lamps ran round the outer rim of the basin. I could see her plainly.
I have said that she was "a little lady." I could not have described her more correctly in three words.
Her figure was slight and small: she was a well-made miniature of a woman from head to foot. Her hair and her eyes were both dark. The hair curled naturally; the expression of the eyes was quiet, and rather sad; the complexion, as I then saw it, very pale; the little mouth perfectly charming. I was especially attracted, I remembered, by the carriage of her head; it was strikingly graceful and spirited; it distinguished her, little as she was and quiet as she was, among the thousands of other women in the Gardens, as a creature apart. Even the one marked defect in her—a slight "cast" in the left eye—seemed to add, in some strange way, to the quaint attractiveness of her face. I have already spoken of the tasteful simplicity of her dress. I ought now to add that it was not made of any costly material, and that she wore no jewels or ornaments of any sort. My little lady was not rich; even a man's eye could see that.
She was perfectly unembarrassed and unaffected. We fell as easily into talk as if we had been friends instead of strangers.
I asked how it was that she had no companion to take care of her. "You are too young and too pretty," I said in my blunt English way, "to trust yourself alone in such a place as this."
She took no notice of the compliment. She calmly put it away from her as if it had not reached her ears.
"I have no friend to take care of me," she said simply. "I was sad and sorry this evening, all by myself, and I thought I would go to the Gardens and hear the music, just to amuse me. It is not much to pay at the gate; only a shilling."
"No friend to take care of you?" I repeated. "Surely there must be one happy man who might have been here with you to-night?"
"What man do you mean?" she asked.
"The man," I answered thoughtlessly, "whom we call, in England, a Sweetheart."
I would have given worlds to have recalled those foolish words the moment they passed my lips. I felt that I had taken a vulgar liberty with her. Her face saddened; her eyes dropped to the ground. I begged her pardon.
"There is no need to beg my pardon," she said. "If you wish to know, sir—yes, I had once a sweetheart, as you call it in England. He has gone away and left me. No more of him, if you please. I am rested now. I will thank you again, and go home."
She rose to leave me.
I was determined not to part with her in that way. I begged to be allowed to see her safely back to her own door. She hesitated. I took a man's unfair advantage of her, by appealing to her fears. I said, "Suppose the blackguard who annoyed you should be waiting outside the gates?" That decided her. She took my arm. We went away together by the bank of the Thames, in the balmy summer night.
A walk of half an hour brought us to the house in which she lodged—a shabby little house in a by-street, inhabited evidently by very poor people.
She held out her hand at the door, and wished me good-night. I was too much interested in her to consent to leave my little foreign lady without the hope of seeing her again. I asked permission to call on her the next day. We were standing under the light of the street-lamp. She studied my face with a grave and steady attention before she made any reply.
"Yes," she said at last. "I think I do know a gentleman when I see him. You may come, sir, if you please, and call upon me to-morrow."
So we parted. So I entered—doubting nothing, foreboding nothing—on a scene in my life which I now look back on with unfeigned repentance and regret.
I AM speaking at this later time in the position of a clergyman, and in the character of a man of mature age. Remember that; and you will understand why I pass as rapidly as possible over the events of the next year of my life—why I say as little as I can of the errors and the delusions of my youth.
I called on her the next day. I repeated my visits during the days and weeks that followed, until the shabby little house in the by-street had become a second and (I say it with shame and self-reproach) a dearer home to me.
All of herself and her story which she thought fit to confide to me under these circumstances may be repeated to you in few words.
The name by which letters were addressed to her was "Mademoiselle Jeromette." Among the ignorant people of the house and the small tradesmen of the neighborhood—who found her name not easy of pronunciation by the average English tongue—she was known by the friendly nickname of "The French Miss." When I knew her, she was resigned to her lonely life among strangers. Some years had elapsed since she had lost her parents, and had left France. Possessing a small, very small, income of her own, she added to it by coloring miniatures for the photographers. She had relatives still living in France; but she had long since ceased to correspond with them. "Ask me nothing more about my family," she used to say. "I am as good as dead in my own country and among my own people."
This was all—literally all—that she told me of herself. I have never discovered more of her sad story from that day to this.
She never mentioned her family name—never even told me what part of France she came from or how long she had lived in England. That she was by birth and breeding a lady, I could entertain no doubt; her manners, her accomplishments, her ways of thinking and speaking, all proved it. Looking below the surface, her character showed itself in aspects not common among young women in these days. In her quiet way she was an incurable fatalist, and a firm believer in the ghostly reality of apparitions from the dead. Then again in the matter of money, she had strange views of her own. Whenever my purse was in my hand, she held me resolutely at a distance from first to last. She refused to move into better apartments; the shabby little house was clean inside, and the poor people who lived in it were kind to her—and that was enough. The most expensive present that she ever permitted me to offer her was a little enameled ring, the plainest and cheapest thing of the kind in the jeweler's shop. In all relations with me she was sincerity itself. On all occasions, and under all circumstances, she spoke her mind (as the phrase is) with the same uncompromising plainness.
"I like you," she said to me; "I respect you; I shall always be faithful to you while you are faithful to me. But my love has gone from me. There is another man who has taken it away with him, I know not where."
Who was the other man?
She refused to tell me. She kept his rank and his name strict secrets from me. I never discovered how he had met with her, or why he had left her, or whether the guilt was his of making of her an exile from her country and her friends. She despised herself for still loving him; but the passion was too strong for her—she owned it and lamented it with the frankness which was so preeminently a part of her character. More than this, she plainly told me, in the early days of our acquaintance, that she believed he would return to her. It might be to-morrow, or it might be years hence. Even if he failed to repent of his own cruel conduct, the man would still miss her, as something lost out of his life; and, sooner or later, he would come back.