'I shall not try to comfort him. I shall bid him do his duty. Comfort will come to him in no other way.'
'Shall you speak to him of me?'
'Yes, certainly. If I have any influence, I shall bring him to you before an hour is over.'
Then she caught his hand and the blood rushed to her face.
'God bless you for this!' she whispered. 'Go; do not keep me waiting. Go, for Heaven's sake!'
'You must promise me one thing first: that you will control yourself. Think of him, of the day and the night he has passed. He will not be fit for any scene. If you reproach him, you will only send him from you again.'
'I will promise anything—everything—if you will only bring him.' And now her eyes were wet; it seemed as though he had given her new life. She sat erect; she was no longer like a marble image of despair. 'If I can only see him, if he will let me speak to him! but it is this emptiness—this blank, this dreadful displeasure—that is shutting me out from him, that is killing me by inches.'
And here she put her hand to her throat, as though the words suffocated her.
'Be calm and quiet, and all may yet be well,' he returned in a soothing voice; 'I will do what I can for you and him too.' And with a reassuring look he left her.
What had become of his dislike? He felt he no longer disliked her. She was false—falser than he had thought any woman could be; she had qualities that he detested, faults that he, of all men, was most ready to condemn; but the one spark of goodness that redeemed her in his eyes was her love for her son.
He knocked somewhat lightly at Cyril's door, but there was no answer; but as he repeated it more loudly, Cyril's voice impatiently demanded his business.
'It is I—Burnett. Will you let me speak to you a moment, Blake?'
And then the door was unlocked, and Cyril stood aside to let him enter; but he uttered no greeting, neither did Michael at once offer his hand. He threw a hasty glance round the room as Cyril relocked the door; the bed had not been slept in that night—that was plainly evident—but the crushed pillow and the rug flung across the foot proved clearly that he had thrown himself down fully dressed when weariness compelled him.
He had evidently only just completed his toilet: the shirt he had thrown aside was still on the floor, in company with his bath towels; and something in his appearance made Michael say: 'You were just going out. I hope I am not keeping you?'
'There is no hurry,' returned Cyril indifferently; 'I was only going out because I could not stop indoors any longer; but there is plenty of time between this and night.' And then he offered Michael the only chair, and sat down on the bed. 'This place is not fit for you,' he continued apologetically; 'but there is nowhere else where one can be quiet.'
'You are looking ill, Blake. I am afraid you have not slept.'
For there was a sunken look in Cyril's eyes that told its own tale.
'I had some sleep towards morning,' he replied, as though the matter did not concern him; 'and I dreamt that I was in purgatory. It was not a pleasant place, but I believe I was rather sorry when I woke. It is very good of you to look me up, Burnett.' And here he paused, and then said in a changed voice: 'Will you tell me how she is?'
'You mean my cousin? She is as well as one can expect her to be; but, of course, all this has been a terrible upset. She is very good and brave. She knows I have come to you.'
'Did she send you?'
'I suppose I must say yes to that; but I had fully intended to come. Blake, I want you to look on me as a friend. You need someone to stand by you, and see you through this; and I think there is no one so suitable as myself at the present.'
'You are very good; but I can have no possible claim on you, Captain Burnett.'
Cyril spoke a little stiffly.
'If you put it in that way, perhaps not; in this sense, a shipwrecked sailor has no claim on the man who holds out a helping hand to him; but I doubt whether that reason would induce him to refuse it.'
Then a faint smile came to Cyril's dry lips.
'You are right to choose that illustration. I think no man in the world has ever suffered more complete shipwreck. I have been trying to face my position all night, and I cannot see a gleam of hope anywhere.'
'You must not lose heart, Blake.'
'Must I not? I think anyone would lose heart and faith, and hope, too, in my position. Two days ago no future could have been so bright; I had everything—everything that a man needs for his happiness; and at this moment no beggar could be poorer. I feel as though I had no bread to eat, and as though I should never have appetite for bread again.'
'I understand what you mean. I had the same sort of feeling as I lay in the hospital. I was covered with wounds; health was impossible; my work was gone. I could not face my life. Would you believe it, Blake?—I was the veriest coward, and could have trembled at my own shadow. It made a woman of me. I did not want to live such a crippled, meagre existence; but somehow I managed to struggle to the light.'
'Did anyone help you?'
'No, not consciously; I helped myself. At least'—in a lower voice—'the help that came to me was from a higher source. One day I will tell you about it, Blake; it was an awful crisis in a man's life, and I should not speak about it unless I thought my experience could benefit anyone. Now about yourself—have you formed any plans?'
'None; but I must get away from here.'
'I can understand that perfectly; and I must say that I think you are right. Dr. Ross and I were speaking about you yesterday; he is deeply grieved at the idea of parting with you so abruptly. He says, under any other circumstances (he was thinking of his daughter when he spoke) that it would have been well for you to go on with your work as usual—the change could have been made after the holidays—but he fears now that this is hardly possible. I am sure you will not misunderstand him.'
'No; he has decided quite rightly.'
'He will give you a testimonial of which any man may be proud. He told me with tears in his eyes that he never knew anyone so young with so great a moral influence; that your work was at all times excellent, and that he had never had so high a respect for any of his masters. And he begs me to say that you may command his purse or influence to any reasonable extent. He will be truly grateful to you if you will not refuse his help.'
'I fear I must refuse it.' And Cyril threw back his head with his old proud gesture. 'But do not tell him so, Captain Burnett. Give him my kindest, my most respectful regards. Say anything you like, but do not compromise me. I will take nothing but my salary from Dr. Ross.'
'Then we will say no more about it,' returned Michael with ready tact. 'Every man has a right to his own independence. Have you any place to go to when you leave here, Blake?'
Then Cyril shook his head.
'One can always take lodgings,' he replied. 'I must go up to town and look out for some situation. I suppose, after all, my testimonials will help me.'
'Without doubt they will. What do you say to a secretaryship? I have one in my mind that I think would suit you. It is a friend of my own who is wanting someone as a sort of general amanuensis and secretary. He is a literary man and extremely wealthy, an old bachelor and somewhat of an oddity; but in his own way I don't know a better fellow.'
Cyril listened to this description with languid interest.
'It sounds as though it would do,' he replied, after a moment's reflection. 'At least, I might try it for a time. Last night I thought of going to New Zealand. I could get a mastership there.'
'That is not a bad idea; but you might try the secretaryship first, if Unwin be willing to come to terms. The work would be novel and interesting, and your mother might not like the New Zealand scheme.'
Then, at the mention of his mother, Cyril's face seemed to harden.
Michael took no apparent notice of this.
'I tell you what we will do, Blake. We will go up to town together. When would you like to start—to-morrow?' Here Cyril nodded. 'I have diggings of my own, you know, in South Audley Street. They are very comfortable rooms, and I can always get a bed for a friend. The people of the house are most accommodating. Besides, I am a good tenant. I will put you up, Blake, for any length of time you like to name. I will not promise to bear you company after the first week or so; but by that time you will find yourself quite at home. And we will interview the old fellow as soon as possible.'
'You are too good! I have no right to burden you so;' but a ray of hope shone in Cyril's sunken eyes: he was not the outcast he had seemed to be, if this man stood by him.
'Nonsense! How can you burden me?' returned Michael briskly. 'I shall be delighted to have your company. And the rooms are always there, you know. They may as well be used.'
'And we can go to-morrow. You see, I am accepting your generous offer; but how can I help myself? I must find work, or I shall go mad.'
'Just so, and I will help you to find it. There is some good, after all, in being an idle man: one can do a good turn for a friend. Well, we will say to-morrow. I shall be quite at your service, then; but there are two things that must be done first. Blake, do you know how ill your mother is? I was quite shocked to see her just now.'
'Yes, Mollie told me so last night; she wanted me to come down to her, but I knew that it was far better for both of us that I should remain where I was; I was in no mood for a scene;' and Cyril knitted his brows as he spoke.
'You were the best judge of that, of course; but I should advise you to see her now.'
His grave tone somewhat startled Cyril.
'Do you mean that she is so very ill?'
'No, I do not mean that. As far as I can tell, I believe her illness is more mental than bodily; but she is evidently suffering acutely. If you leave her to herself much longer I would not answer for the consequences. Her nature is a peculiar one, as you must know for yourself. If you could say a word to her to soothe her, I think it would be as well to say it.'
'Very well, I will go to her; but she must not expect me to say much.'
'She will expect nothing; but all the same I hope you will not be too hard on her. If you cannot extenuate her fault, you can at least remember her provocations.'
A sigh of great bitterness rose to Cyril's lips.
'I think it is hardest of all to hear you defend my mother to me.'
'I know it—it is bitterly hard. Do you think I don't feel for you? But, Blake, before we leave Rutherford, there is another duty, and a still more painful one. Surely you intend to see your father?'
'I do not see the necessity, Captain Burnett; my father is nothing to me nor I to him.'
'You are wrong,' returned Michael warmly; 'you are altogether wrong. Will you let me tell you something?'
And then he repeated the substance of his conversation with Mat O'Brien. He thought Cyril seemed a little touched, but he merely said:
'I think I need hardly see him at present;' and he added in a low voice, 'Am I in a fit state to see anyone?'
'Perhaps not; but you may not soon have another opportunity, my dear fellow. Will you put aside your feelings and do this thing for my satisfaction? I have given my word to Mr. O'Brien that I will do my best to bring you together, and if you refuse I shall accuse myself of failure.'
'Oh, if you put it in that light, I do not see my way to refuse.'
'Thanks—shall we go together, or would you prefer going alone?'
'I could not bring myself to go alone.'
'Very well, then, I will drive you over in the dogcart. I am no walker, as you know, and perhaps Kester had better go with us;' and to this Cyril made no demur. 'Now I have detained you long enough, and Mrs. Blake will be wearying for you. I will bring the trap round at half-past two.'
Cyril nodded, and they went downstairs together. Michael paused for an instant at the drawing-room door:
'Be gentle with her, Blake,' he said, as he grasped his hand. 'What is done cannot be undone;' and then he went down to Kester.
Mrs. Blake was still in the same position. The tension of that long waiting had been too much for her, and the old faintness had returned; but when she saw her son she struggled into a sitting posture and stretched out her hands to him as he came slowly, and almost reluctantly, towards her.
'Cyril! my darling Cyril!' Then he took her hand and held it for a moment. 'My boy,' she said a little piteously, 'have you nothing else for your mother?'
But he seemed as though he failed to understand her, and when she pointed mutely to the seat beside her, he did not at once seat himself.
'Mother,' he said, still speaking as though the words were difficult to him, 'I have come to tell you that there shall be peace between us.'
'Does that mean you have forgiven me, Cyril?'
'It means that I will do my best to forgive you your share in the ruin of my life—of all our lives.'
Then as he stood before her she threw her arms round him with a faint cry; but he gently, very gently, repulsed her.
'Do not let there be any scene; I could not bear it;' and the weariness in his voice made her heart ache still more. 'Mother, I think that we had better never speak of these things again. As far as I am concerned, I will willingly blot out the past from my memory. To-day we must begin afresh—you and I.'
His tone made her shiver, and as she looked up in his dark impassive face, and saw the deep-seated melancholy in his eyes, a sort of despair seized her.
'Oh!' she cried passionately, 'can it be my son who speaks? Blot out the past?—that happy past, when we were all in all to each other—when even poverty was delicious, because I had my boy to work for me!'
'I shall work for you still.'
'Yes, but will it be the same? What do I care for the gifts you may bring me when your heart has gone from me? How am I to bear my life when you treat me with such coldness? Cyril, you do not know what a mother's love is. If you had sinned, if you had come to me and said, "Will you take my hand, red as it is with the blood of a fellow-creature?" with all my horror I would still have taken it, for it is the hand of my son.'
She spoke with a wild fervour that would have touched any other man; but he only returned coldly:
'And yet you had no mercy for my father?'
Then a look of repugnance crossed her face.
'That was because I did not love him. Where there is no love there is no self-sacrifice; but, Cyril, with all my faults, I have been a good mother to you.'
'I know it,' he replied, 'and I hope I shall always do my duty by you; but, mother, you must be patient and give me time. Do you not see,' and here his voice became more agitated, 'that you have yourself destroyed my faith in my mother: the mother in whom I believed, who was truth itself to me, is only my own illusion. I know now that she never existed; that is why I say that you must give me time, that I may become used to my new mother.'
He spoke with the utmost gentleness; but his words were dreadful to her. And yet she hardly understood them. How could the pure rectitude, the scrupulous honour, of such a nature be comprehended by a woman like Olive O'Brien, a creature of wild impulses, whose notions of morality were as shifty as the quicksands, whose sense of right and wrong was so strangely warped? For the first time in her life the strong accusing light of conscience seemed to penetrate the murky recesses of her nature with an unearthly radiance that seemed to scorch her into nothingness. Her son had become her judge, and the penalty he imposed was worse than death to her. Of what use would her life be to her if the idol of her heart had turned against her? And yet, with all her remorse and misery, there was no repentance: if the time had come over again, she would still have freed herself from the husband she loathed, she would still have dressed herself in her widows' weeds, and carried out her life's deception.
Cyril was perfectly aware of this; he knew all her anguish was caused by his displeasure, and by the bitter consequences that he was reaping. Her plot had failed; it had only brought disaster on him and his. If he could have seen one spark of real repentance—if she had owned to him with tears that her sorrow was for her sin, and that she would fain undo it—his heart would have been softer to her as she sat and wept before him.
'I never thought you could have been so hard to me!' she sobbed.
'I do not mean to be hard,' was his answer; 'that is why I said there should be peace between us, and because I am going away.'
'You are going!—where?'
And then he told her briefly that Captain Burnett had offered him a temporary home.
'It is better for me to be alone a little,' he went on. 'When I have settled work, and you can get rid of the house, I will ask you to join me; but that will not be for some time.'
'And I must stop on here alone? Oh, Cyril, my own boy, let me come with you! I will slave, I will be content with a crust, if you will only take me!'
'It is impossible, mother; I shall have no home for you. You must stay here quietly with Mollie and Kester, until my plans are more settled.'
And then he rose, as though to put an end to the discussion.
'And you go to-morrow?'
'Yes, to-morrow. Will you ask Mollie to look after my things?'
Then, as she gazed at him with troubled eyes, he bent over her and kissed her forehead. 'We must begin afresh,' he said, half to himself, as he left the room.
'WILL YOU SHAKE HANDS WITH YOUR FATHER?'
'It is peculiar to man to love even those who do wrong. And this happens if, when they do wrong, it occurs to thee that they are kinsmen, and that they do wrong through ignorance and unintentionally, and that soon both of you will die; and above all, that the wrongdoer hath done thee no harm, for he hath not made thy ruling faculty worse than it was before.'—M. AURELIUS ANTONINUS.
'To err is human; to forgive, divine.'
The drive to Brail that afternoon was a silent one; grim care sat on the two young faces, and Michael, with his usual tact, devoted himself to his mare. Now and then her skittishness gave him an opportunity of saying a word or two, to which Cyril replied in monosyllables.
When they had left the inn, and were almost in sight of the cottage, Michael suddenly asked Cyril if he had ever seen Mr. O'Brien. 'Thomas O'Brien,' he added quickly.
'You mean my uncle?' returned Cyril curtly. 'No; I have never seen him.'
'Then I should like to tell you something about him. Of all the men I have ever known, Thomas O'Brien is the one I have most honoured. I have always had the greatest respect for him—for his honesty, integrity, and child-like simplicity. In spite of his want of culture, he is the gentleman his Creator intended him to be. Let me tell you, Blake, that you may be proud to call such a man your uncle.' And with these words Michael unlatched the little gate, and waited for them to follow him.
They were not unperceived. Long before they reached the porch the cottage door was open, and Thomas O'Brien's genial face and strong, thick-set figure blocked up the doorway.
Michael was about to speak, when, to his surprise, Cyril lifted his hat, and then extended his hand to the old man.
'I believe you are my uncle, sir,' he said quietly. 'There can be no need of an introduction: I am Cyril, and this is my brother Kester.'
A soft, misty look came into Thomas O'Brien's honest eyes.
'Ay, my lad, I am thinking I know you both, though I have never set eyes on you before. You are kindly welcome, young gentlemen, for your own and for your father's sake.' And here he gave them a hearty grasp of the hand. 'The Captain is always welcome, as he knows. He and me have been friends for half a score of years—eh, Captain?'
'Good God! are those my boys, Tom?'
The interruption was so sudden and unexpected that they all started, and Cyril turned pale. Something familiar in the voice seemed to thrill him, like an echo from a far-off time. He turned round quickly. A tall man, with closely-cropped hair and a gray moustache, was standing behind him, and regarding him with dark, melancholy eyes.
'Those two can never be my boys, Tom!' he repeated, in the same incredulous, awestruck voice.
'Ay, lad, they are your own, surely; and you had better be thanking God for His mercy in giving you such sons than be taking the holy name on your lips.'
But Mat did not seem to hear this mild rebuke.
'Will you shake hands with your father, Cyril?' he said, with an air of deep dejection. 'I wish it were a cleaner hand, for your sake; but I can give you no other.'
'Do you think I would refuse it, sir?' returned the young man, touched, in spite of himself.
And then it was Kester's turn. But as Mat's eyes fell on the boy's worn, sickly face his manner changed.
'Is that my little chap—the young monkey who used to ride on my shoulder and hold on by my hair? Dear! dear! who would have believed it?'
Kester's pale face flushed a little.
'You are looking at my crutch, sir,' he said nervously; 'but I shall soon throw it away. I am ever so much better now, am I not, Cyril?'
'And where's my little Mollie?' continued Mat—'"the baby," as we used to call her?'
'Let us come away,' whispered Michael in Mr. O'Brien's ear. 'They will get on better without us.'
The tears were running down the old man's face as they turned into the little parlour.
'It beats me, sir, it beats me utterly, to see my poor lad trying to make friends with his own children, and looking so shamed before them. That is a fine-looking chap, that eldest one,' he went on—'Miss Ross's sweetheart, as I used to call him. He is the sort any girl could fancy. And he has a look of Mat about him, too, only he is handsomer and better set up than Mat ever was. "I believe you are my uncle, sir." Few young chaps would have said that. A fine fellow, and she has lost him. Well, the Almighty sends trouble to the young as well as the old. May I light my pipe, Captain? For I am a bit shaky, and all this has overset me.'
Meanwhile Cyril was saying:
'We have not brought Mollie. If you wish to see her, she shall come another time.'
'Thank you, my lad; that is kindly spoken. And I have a sort of longing to set eyes on her again. But you need not think that I am going to trouble her, or you either. A man like me has no right to trouble anyone.'
How could they answer him? But Mat did not seem to notice their silence. His eyes were bent on the ground, and he twirled his gray moustache fiercely.
'My children belong to their mother, and not to me. I made you over to her years ago. She said I was not fit to have the charge of my own children; and maybe she was right. It was not a wifely speech, but I can't blame her. When you go home, tell her I'll keep my word—that I'll lay no sort of claim to any of you.'
He spoke in the slow, brooding tone that was natural to him, and the tears came into Kester's eyes as he listened.
Boy as he was, he understood the deep degradation of such words. This tall, hungry-eyed man, who stood aloof and talked so strangely, was his own father, who was voluntarily denuding himself of a father's rights—an outcast thrown over by his wife and children—an erring, and yet a deeply repentant man. Could anything be more unnatural and horrible? Kester's boyish sense of justice revolted against this painful condition of things; he longed to start up and take his father's hand.
'Do not be so miserable; whatever you have done, you are our father, and we will be good to you.' This is what he would have said; but he only looked at Cyril and held his peace.
Cyril had felt himself strangely attracted from the first. This was not the father whom he had dreaded to see, and on whose countenance he had feared to behold the stamp of the felon. Mat's worn, gentle face and deep-set, sorrowful eyes only inspired him with pity; the haggard weariness, the utter despondency of the man before him told their own story. True, there was weakness, moral weakness; but, at least, there was no glorying in his wrong-doing. The prodigal had come home weary of his husks, and craving for more wholesome food.
'If I have done wrong, I have suffered for it,' his looks seemed to say; and Cyril's generosity responded to the appeal.
'We are all in a difficult position,' he said; 'but there is no need to make things worse than they are. It is not for us to judge our parents, neither is it our fault that all these years we have believed that we had but one. Now I know all, I feel you have not been treated fairly.'
'I thought you would have taken your mother's part, my boy,' replied Mat humbly.
Cyril's words brought him some amount of consolation, only he could not quite bring himself to believe them.
'I hope that I shall always be on the side where the right lies,' was Cyril's answer. 'I do not wish to blame my mother. I think it is best and wisest to be silent. You are a stranger to us, and we have not even your memory to aid us. My own childish reminiscences are very vague: I can just remember a big man who used to play with us, and whom we called daddy; but I have no special recollection of him.'
'I hardly expected you to say as much as that,' and Mat's eyes brightened; 'but, after all, I doubt if I am better off in that respect than you. How am I to find my little chaps again when I look at you both—a fine grown man, and that poor sickly lad beside you? Why,' he continued in a tender, musing tone, 'the little chaps I remember had rosy cheeks and curly heads. I can feel their bare legs swarming up me now. "Give us a ride, dad!" It was always Kester who said that. He was never still a moment unless he was asleep, and then he used to look so pretty; but where shall I find him?—there is not a trace of the little rogue left in him; and when I see my girl Mollie, it will be the same.'
Kester could stand no more; he started up so hastily that his crutch slipped from under his arm, and he would have lost his balance if his father had not caught him and held him fast.
'Why did you do that, boy? You have given me quite a fright? There! there! I will pick up your stick for you, while you stop quietly in your chair.'
But, to his surprise, Kester held him tightly by the wrist.
'Never mind the crutch, father; I am not afraid of a tumble. Somehow, my leg gets stiff, but I don't mind it. I only wanted to say that, if you like, I will come and see you sometimes, when I can get a lift; and I will bring Mollie with me. I can't help what mother says,' continued the boy, his face working, 'and I don't mean to let her hinder us from coming. Cyril is going away, so he will not count; but I'll bring Mollie: and though she is not your baby now, she will take to you and cheer you up.'
Kester was quite out of breath with this long speech that he blurted out, but he was hardly prepared for the result; for before he had finished a low sob broke from Mat's lips, and he sat down shaking with emotion, and covered his face with his hands. Kester looked at him wistfully.
'Have I said anything to hurt him?' he whispered; but Mat's ears caught the words.
'No, no,' he returned vehemently; 'you have put fresh life into me by speaking so kindly. It was only the word "father" that I never thought to hear. God bless you, my boy, for saying that! I thought that she would have taught you to hate me—as she did herself.'
'I shall never hate you, father; I would not be so wicked. If you will let me come and see you sometimes I will try to be good to you, and I know Mollie will, too. I suppose,' continued Kester doubtfully, 'that I must not ask you to come and see us in return. It is mother's house, and——'
But Mat finished the speech:
'No, my lad, you are right. Your mother and I have parted for this life.' And now he spoke with a sort of mournful dignity. 'The time was when I worshipped the ground she walked upon; but there are limits to a man's love. When she forsook me in my shame and trouble, when she stood there taunting me in my prison cell, my heart seemed to die to her. Olive is nought to me now but a bitter memory, and if she prayed to me on her bended knees I would not enter her house.'
It was Cyril's turn to speak now.
'Yes, you are better apart,' he said in a low voice; 'and my mother has always been my charge. I shall tell her that she must not hinder Mollie or Kester from coming to see you. Shall you still remain here, father?'
He said the word with some little effort, but the same brightness came into Mat's eyes.
'I think so, my lad; I would as lief stay with Tom. All these years he has stuck to me, and I'll not forsake him now.'
'And you will be comfortable?'
Cyril asked the question with some degree of interest, and again Mat's eyes glistened with pleasure.
'I doubt if I was ever so comfortable in my life,' he returned, without any hesitation. 'You are young, my boy, and trouble is new to you, and Heaven forbid that you should ever be able to put yourself in my place. But if you only knew what it is to me to bid good-night to someone again!
'It is not much of a life, perhaps,' went on Mat, with his gentle, melancholy drawl; 'but to me it is heavenly in its peace and quiet. Prissy is sometimes a bit harassing: but, then, most women are; but she keeps things comfortable and ship-shape, and when she has gone off to bed there is Tom and his pipe in the chimney-corner, and it is "Come and have a chat, my lad, until it is time to turn in." Yes, yes, I'll bide with Tom and be thankful.'
'Then we will come and see you here sometimes,' returned Cyril, rising; 'for myself I cannot answer at present——' He paused, and then continued hurriedly: 'I shall not see you again for some time. I am leaving Rutherford.'
'Yes, lad, I know,' and Mat sighed heavily; 'and it is all through me that you are going. I wanted the Captain to hush it all up; but he would not hear of it. When I think of all I have brought on you, I wonder you can bring yourself to speak a kind word to me.'
'It is not all your fault; but I cannot talk of myself. Good-bye, father. If we do not meet again for some time, it will be because things are going badly with me; but I shall always be ready to help you, if you need my assistance.'
'Thank you, my boy,' returned Mat huskily.
And then it was Kester's turn.
'I shall come soon, very soon, and Mollie shall come with me.'
'Mollie!' Mat repeated the name in fond, lingering fashion as he moved to the window. 'My little girl! I wonder if she is like Olive? Cyril is; he has all her good looks, but he has something in his face that Olive never had. I almost felt shamed when he called me father; but the other one—he is not my little chap, and yet he is—but somehow when he spoke my whole heart seemed to go out to him.' And then Mat tried to light his pipe, only his hand trembled too much to do it. 'If I could only have my life back again!' he said to himself with a groan.
Cyril hardly broke the silence once during the drive back. It was not until several days had passed that Michael heard how that interview with his father had affected him. Cyril said very little even then, but Michael was relieved to find that, on the whole, he had been more attracted than repelled.
'Kester likes him, and in a way I like him too,' he remarked; 'we both think he has been hardly used. My mother could have kept him straight—there is no doubt of that—but she never tried to do so. One is sorry for that sort of weakness, even if one cannot understand it,' finished Cyril, with the feeling that there was nothing more to say.
Michael left them at the Cottage and drove on to Woodcote. His day's work had been somewhat arduous, and he felt fagged and weary. It was long past tea-time, he knew, but he wondered if he could ask Crauford to bring him some. Michael's long years of ill-health made him depend on this feminine panacea for all ills more than most men. That Michael hated to miss his tea was a well-known fact in the Ross household.
Another time Audrey would have cared for his comforts, he thought, as he dragged himself up the stairs in a spiritless manner. Tired Nature was avenging herself in her usual fashion, and Michael's head and limbs were aching. Perhaps something else ached too.
But his mood changed when he entered his room. After all, he had not been forgotten. A cheery little fire burnt and spluttered as though newly lighted, and a tiny kettle sang merrily on its trivet; the tea-tray was on the table, and, as Michael regarded these preparations with an expression of satisfaction, he heard Audrey's well-known knock at the door.
'Shall I make your tea, Michael,' she asked, 'or would you rather be alone? Gage and Percival are downstairs, and, as I was sure you would be tired, I told Crauford to bring up the kettle. Shall I stay or not?' she continued, a little surprised by his silence.
'Stay, by all means!' was his only reply, as he threw himself into his easy-chair.
He would have thanked her—and she evidently expected to be thanked—but he was afraid he should say too much. She had thought of him and his comfort in her own unhappiness, though her face was still pale with her inward trouble.
'You have had a trying day,' she continued, as she knelt down on the rug a moment to coax the fire to burn more brightly; 'and of course it has taken it out of you. I was quite sure that you would not be in the mood for Gage and Percival. Percival is very kind, but somehow he is not restful; he is so very bracing.' And she sighed as though she had found him so.
'People are not always in a condition for a tonic, are they, Audrey?'
'No,' she replied quietly; 'and then it is no use forcing it on them. But I must not be hard on Percival; he was very kind, only somehow his conversation was a little too bracing. He and Gage were full of plans; they meant it all for my good: but it was a little tiring.'
'Poor child!' and Michael's sympathising tone was very healing.
'But we will not talk about my silly self,' rousing herself; 'there is something else I want to know. I guess where you have been this afternoon. You have taken Cyril to see his father.'
'Yes; and Kester too.'
'I am very glad,' forcing a smile. 'It was right—quite right. He will be the happier for not shirking his duty.'
Then she looked at Michael a little pleadingly, as though to beg for some account of the interview.
'I am afraid I cannot tell you much,' he returned, feeling sorry that he had so little to communicate. 'As far as I could see, Blake behaved uncommonly well; he shook hands with O'Brien at once. But, of course, after that I only thought it right to efface myself.'
'But surely Cyril has spoken of his father?'
'No, he has not said a word; but I daresay he will open out more by and by, I am going up to town with him to-morrow, and we shall have plenty of opportunity if he feels disposed to talk.'
'Are you going to stay?'
'Well, yes—he is hardly fit to be left just now. I shall put him up at South Audley Street, and then he can look about him for a bit. I daresay I shall be back in a week or two.'
'Oh, Michael, I never thought of this. Are you sure it will not trouble you?'
'Not a bit,' he returned cheerfully. 'I want to see my lawyer, and do one or two things; so it comes quite handy.'
But this plausible pretext did not in the least deceive her.
'It is no use saying what I think,' she said hurriedly, and he saw the gleam of a tear on her eyelash. 'No one but yourself would ever do such things. I shall miss you—I think I shall miss you more than ever—but it will be such a comfort to feel you are with him.'
'Oh, as to that, he will not need me long. When I see him fairly settled I shall come home. I want to speak to Unwin about him. You have often heard me speak of Unwin: he is nearly old enough to be my father; but we are great chums, and I mean to tell him the whole story about Blake. If I could only get Unwin to stand his friend, there will be some hope for him.'
'Yes, I understand; but it is you who will be his benefactor. Don't frown, Michael, I am not going to thank you; I cannot. Now please tell me one other thing before I go: will you write to me?'
'If you wish it,' he replied without hesitation. 'Oh yes, I will certainly write and let you know how we are getting on; but I think it might be as well for you not to answer my letters.'
A flush came to Audrey's face, but she perfectly understood the delicacy that induced Michael to make this stipulation; he would deprive himself of one of his greatest pleasures rather than Cyril should be pained by the sight of her handwriting.
'I will not write,' she said in a low voice. 'Now I must go down to Gage.'
But he detained her.
'Wait a moment; there is no hurry, is there? And it is my turn to ask questions. I want to know what you are going to do with yourself during my absence?'
And there was no mistaking his anxiety, though he strove to hide it.
'I shall do as usual,' she returned tranquilly. 'Mollie will come to me every morning, and we shall work hard at our lessons, and——'
But he interrupted her.
'Are you sure that your father will approve of Mollie's visits?' he asked.
'There is no reason why he should disapprove,' she replied quickly; 'but of course I shall speak to him. There can be no possible reason why my poor Mollie should be punished. Father would not wish me to go to the Gray Cottage, and, indeed, I should not wish it myself; but there can be no objection to Mollie coming here.'
'Perhaps not; and, after all, it will not be for long.'
'No, it will not be for long; so I must do my best for her. Do not trouble about me, Michael; I shall be as busy as possible. I am not going away with Gage, as she wishes. I tell her I would rather stay quietly with father and mother—perhaps next holidays—but we need not talk of that.'
'But you will be very dull.'
'No, indeed, I shall have too much to do—at least, I do not mean to think whether I am dull or not; but, Michael, I shall depend for a great deal of my comfort on your letters.'
Then he knew that the burden of her lover's unhappiness was very heavy upon her, but that she would not willingly speak of it even to him.
'I will tell you all that there is to tell. If you do not hear from me, it will be because there is nothing to say;' and with these words he let her go.
He did not speak to her again that evening; for though Mr. Harcourt had taken his departure, Geraldine had remained, with the amiable intention of cheering her sister. If she did not quite succeed in her mission, it was for no want of effort on Audrey's part, who, as usual, did her best for everyone. But more than once Michael detected a weary look in her eyes, that told him that she would fain have been left alone. 'But that is the last thing that Gage and Harcourt would ever do,' he said to himself, with a shade of bitterness, as he saw the gentleness and patience with which Audrey received her sister's attentions.
'Be not ashamed to be helped; for it is thy business to do thy duty, like a soldier in the assault on a town. How then, if being lame, thou canst not mount up on the battlements alone, but with the help of another it is possible.'—M. AURELIUS ANTONINUS.
About a week afterwards, Michael was writing in his sitting-room in South Audley Street when Cyril Blake entered the room. He put down his hat and began taking off his gloves as he stood by the table.
'Well,' asked Michael, looking up from his cheque-book; 'have you hit it off, old man?'
'Yes; we have settled it,' returned Cyril, dropping into a chair as though he were tired. 'And I am to enter on my duties next week.'
'Next week! That is uncommonly short notice. Unwin must be in a precious hurry to close with the bargain.'
'He is in a hurry. He says his work is all in arrears, and that his publishers want his book on Cyprus as soon as he can let them have it; and the papers are all in confusion. Of course I let him know that I was in no need of a holiday, and that I would far rather commence work at once. Mr. Unwin was most kind and considerate. My hours are to be from ten to six; so I shall be able to give a lesson or two in the evening.'
'You know my opinion on that subject; but I fancy I have exhausted all my arguments for no purpose.'
'I am afraid so too,' returned Cyril quietly. 'Mr. Unwin thinks he can find me a pupil—a young fellow who is behind-hand with his classics, and has got plucked in his examination. Really, Burnett, I am extremely indebted to you for this introduction to Mr. Unwin. In spite of his peculiarities, he seems to have an excellent heart.'
'Oh yes; he is an out-and-out good fellow. I can tell you some anecdotes that are very much to his credit, only I know he would never forgive me. Unwin likes his kind actions to blush unseen. Shall you think me impertinent, Blake, if I ask what amount of salary he means to give you?'
'Not in the least; you have every right to know. I am to have a hundred and twenty pounds a year—that is only thirty pounds less than I had at Rutherford. I never expected such good pay.'
'Ah! Unwin can afford it.'
'He seemed to say so. One thing—he thought I was older than I am. He seemed quite surprised when I told him I was only three-and-twenty.'
Michael looked up a little sharply. There was no denying that Cyril looked older—even these few days had worked some indefinable change in him. He was not ill, though he could not be said to be well; but there had come to him a certain settled look that one sees on the faces of middle-aged men who have a large amount of care. And there were dark circles round his eyes, as though sleep had to be wooed with some degree of difficulty.
'You are tolerably youthful still, Blake,' he said, not liking to admit that he saw this change in him.
'Am I? I should not have said so from my own feelings. I fancy youth is rather a relative term; but I must acknowledge that Mr. Unwin treated me with a great deal of consideration. I know what you have told him; but he scarcely alluded to it, except in the most distant way: indeed, I am very grateful to him for his delicacy.'
'I told you from the first that he was a good fellow. Unwin is what I call an all-round man. He is a bit fussy over his hobbies, but as long as you keep Charles the First out of your conversation I fancy it will be plain sailing. I hope you are not bursting with the subject, as the immortal Mr. Dick was, when he found himself compelled to fly his kites; but it is a fact that Unwin is a bit cranky about him.'
'Thank you for warning me,' returned Cyril, with a grave smile; 'now, my next business will be to look out for some lodgings within an easy distance of Cromwell Road. I have trespassed on your kind hospitality long enough.'
'Nonsense!' returned Michael bluntly. 'I expected you to stop on here for at least another month. I shall go back to Rutherford in a fortnight or so; but that would not make any difference to you: my old woman would be delighted to cook for you, and make you comfortable. You know, her husband was an old corporal in our regiment; but an amputated leg, and a little bit of money coming to his wife, made him fall out of the ranks. I have lodged with them for about ten years, and I have been in no hurry to change my quarters.'
'No—they are very comfortable; but the fact is, Burnett, my mother gives me no peace. She writes every day to beg me to take her away from Rutherford. She says she will never go outside the gate as long as she remains there. I imagine she has a nervous dread of meeting my father; besides, she says everyone will be talking about her.'
'I do not believe a single person in Rutherford has begun to talk.'
'So I tell her; but she will not believe me. You know my mother; it is not always easy to manage her. She will be quieter when she has once got away; so, with many thanks for all your kindness, Burnett, I will just look out for these lodgings.'
'Well, if your mind is made up, I will not try to change your determination; but, if you will excuse my plainness of speech, I think it would be better for you to be without your mother for another week or two.'
'I daresay you are right,' replied Cyril wearily; 'and my quiet life here has been a great boon. But it does not do to think only of one's self. And, after all, nothing matters much. Perhaps Mrs. Johnson may know of some good rooms; they must be furnished, for of course it would never do to move our furniture under the present unsettled state of things. Besides, ours is too old to bear another journey. My mother can bring away the books, and her bits of china, and any little thing she fancies, and Biddy can mount guard over the rest until we can dispose of it. I daresay I can soon get the house off my hands.'
'There will be no difficulty about that,' returned Michael, inwardly wondering at Cyril's cool, business-like tone; in his heart he admired him all the more for his pluck. 'Paget is looking out for a house—you know he expects to be married shortly—shall I write to him and give him a hint that you want to find a tenant for the Gray Cottage? I daresay the landlord will be glad for him to take it.'
'If you will be so good. I forgot all about Paget. But he would turn up his nose at our old carpets; his bride-elect is rather a grand lady.'
Cyril's tone was a trifle cynical; but Michael would have forgiven him if his speech had been flavoured with the gall of bitterness.
'Very well, then; I will write to him before country post, and we will have up Mrs. Johnson and talk to her.'
And Cyril at once rang the bell.
Two days afterwards Audrey received her first long letter from Michael. A brief note was all that had yet reached her.
'MY DEAR AUDREY,' it began,
'I hope that you will not think that I have forgotten you; but when there is literally nothing to say, I am rather a bad hand at cooking up a letter; and I had not a single fact to go upon, except to tell you that, on the whole, we were pretty fit, and were jogging along somehow. Well, I have a whole budget of facts now, and my pen has become a valuable implement.
'First, then, Blake has come to terms with Unwin; and he is to begin work on Monday. I believe in his heart he would still prefer the New Zealand scheme; and if we could only get rid of his mother—not an easy task that—I should be inclined to give him a helping hand in that direction; but as Blake does not see his way clear to leave her, he may as well take the berth offered to him. Privately, I believe Unwin is hugging himself under the idea that he has got a treasure. He spoke of him to me as a highly intelligent fellow and a first-rate Greek scholar, which we know are facts. His hours are pretty light—from ten to six—so he will have his evenings to himself; but I am sorry to say he means to look out for pupils. I have talked myself hoarse on the subject; but he will not listen to reason. Of course his health will suffer: he has always been accustomed to so much fresh air and exercise. If I could only induce him to join a cricket or tennis club! But it would never do to propose it just now; he has no heart for play.
'One thing, he has given in to me about Kester, though I had some difficulty with him at first. We had a long talk last night, and I employed all my eloquence to bring him to see the thing in its right light; and at last he consented that I should have my way.
'Do you remember my telling you about George Moore—that nice fellow who got into trouble with his rector? Well, he has married lately, and his wife is a very good woman. Moore has taken a capital house at Brighton. He has a curacy at Kemp Town, and he is looking out for a few pupils to prepare for the university.
'I am going to send Kester to him for a year or two, until he is old enough to go to Oxford. Abercrombie tells me the sea air will do him a world of good. I have just written to him to come up at once, as he must have a proper outfit. And now I must tell you that Blake has found some very good rooms, Kensington way. I went down with him yesterday, and I think they will do very well.
'There is a good-sized drawing-room—a sunny, cheerful room, with a smaller one behind, where Blake can work with his pupils—and two good bedrooms. Biddy (how I wish she were not to be of the menage!) will have to content herself with a dull slip of a room on the basement. Of course the furniture is shabby, and there is very little of it; but I mean to introduce a few improvements by degrees. I like the appearance of the woman of the house. She is a widow, and is evidently very respectable. Her daughter, a very tidy sort of person, waits on the lodgers.
'I think I have told you about all now. Blake has thawed lately, and we have long talks together, though perhaps they are not cheerful ones. On the whole, I think he shows a great deal of pluck. I doubt whether any other young man of his age would behave as well. If the Victoria Cross were ever given for moral heroism, I am sure Blake would get it.
'Good-bye until we meet. I suppose I shall be back in another week or ten days. Take care of yourself, my dear, for the sake of your affectionate friend and cousin,
'There is no one like Michael!' was Audrey's inward comment as she put down the letter.
How simply he had told her his intentions with regard to Kester! as though his generosity were a matter of course. How few men of Michael's age would have cared to saddle themselves with such a responsibility! for one, too, who was not their own kith and kin.
'It will cost him at least two hundred a year,' she thought; 'no wonder my poor Cyril found it difficult to accept such an offer. He would take nothing from Michael for himself, but he could hardly refuse for Kester. Michael has virtually adopted him, just as I should like to adopt Mollie. I suppose he thinks he will have no son of his own, and there is all that money——'
And she sighed a little as she thought of Michael's loneliness.
But if she had only known it, Michael's real generosity was shown in those lines he had written at the end of his letter. His munificence to Kester cost him far less than those few words which he wrote so ungrudgingly of his rival; but he knew how they would gladden her heart. The old beautiful smile would come to her lips, he thought, as she read them.
'They will please her more than all the rest of the letter,' he said to himself.
Two or three evenings after this letter had reached her, Audrey went into her father's study, as usual, to bid him good-night; but when he had kissed her with that special tenderness which he had shown to her ever since her trouble, she looked at him very seriously.
'Father,' she said, as he kept his arm still round her, 'I wish you to know that I am going to the Gray Cottage to-morrow to bid Mrs. Blake good-bye.'
Then Dr. Ross's arm dropped from her waist, and she saw at once that the news was not palatable to him.
'Is that necessary, Audrey?'
'Yes, father; I think I may say that it is necessary. I have kept away from the Gray Cottage all this time because I knew that it was your wish that I should do so, and I have ever been guided by your wishes; but now Mrs. Blake is going away, and it would trouble me greatly if she were to leave without my bidding her good-bye.'
'I think it would be far better, for her sake as well as yours, that there should be no special leave-taking.'
'There I must differ from you, father dear,' returned Audrey gently. 'I could not bring myself to put such an affront on Cyril's mother. You know, I am still engaged to Cyril, and his mother can never be a stranger to me.'
Then Dr. Ross regarded his daughter with a grieved expression.
'My own child, if you would only be guided by me in this!—if you would give up this young man entirely——'
Then she shook her head, and a grave, sweet smile came to her lips.
'Would you have me break my word, father, because Cyril has broken his? But I do not blame him—he was obliged to do it; but no power on earth could compel me. Dear, why should we speak of this thing—you and I? When one's mind is made up, there is nothing more to be said. In everything else I will obey you as a child ought to obey her father. If you tell me that I must not go to the Gray Cottage to-morrow, you shall be obeyed, no matter what it may cost me; but'—pressing her lips to his forehead as she leant against him—'I do not think my father will be such a tyrant.'
'I have no wish to tyrannise, Audrey,' returned Dr. Ross sadly. 'In all I have said, I have only considered your happiness. If you feel that there is this need to bid Mrs. Blake good-bye, I shall certainly not prevent you. I know I can trust my daughter. I have wished that the break should be final and conclusive, but it seems that you think otherwise.'
'After to-morrow the separation will be as complete as you desire it to be.'
'I am thankful to hear it. Of all women, I believe Mrs. Blake to be the most unsatisfactory. Audrey, my child, at the risk of paining you, I must say one word. There must be no written communication between her and you.'
'No, father; I should not wish it. Any such letters would be impossible—at least, to me. Mollie will write to me sometimes, and I suppose I shall answer her letters; but she will not write often.'
'I think I should tell her to write as seldom as possible. Mollie is a nice little girl, and we are all fond of her; but I should be inclined to doubt her discretion.'
Then Audrey smiled faintly, and promised that Mollie's correspondence should be enclosed within strict limits. She knew well what her father meant. Mollie's letters would be overflowing with allusions to her brother; her simplicity would know no reticence.
'I think you may trust me,' she said, after a moment's silence. 'Of course I understand what you mean.'
'Then in that case we will not say any more about it,' replied her father. Trust her!—he knew that he could absolutely rely on her. When had she ever disappointed him? Of all girls, he had never known one so free from guile, so utterly transparent; there could be no shadow of doubt in his mind concerning her. And as he kissed her, and again wished her good-night, he blessed her in his heart for being such a daughter to him.
Audrey had carried her point. Her visit to Mrs. Blake had appeared to her in the light of an imperative duty; but it may be doubted whether she looked forward to it with any feeling of pleasure.
Up to the present time she had spoken as little as possible of Mrs. Blake. She had only said a word or two to Cyril, begging him to make peace with his mother; she had asked him to soften his heart to her. 'With all her faults, I think no mother ever loved her son so well,' she had told him. 'It is not the highest love,' she had continued, 'since she has stooped to deceit and wrong for your sake. But it is not for you to judge her.' And she knew instinctively that her pleading had had weight with him.
But though she had found words to defend her, she knew that Mrs. Blake could never be to her the friend she had been; and the shock of this discovery had been dreadful to her. She might still love and pity Cyril's mother; she might even be desirous of serving her; but the charm was broken, and, as far as Audrey's happiness was concerned, it might be well that the distance was widened between them.
When she rose the next morning, she felt as though some difficult and painful duty lay before her; and as she walked towards the Cottage in the sunshine of an April afternoon, she told herself that her visit must not be a long one.
A rush of bitter-sweet memories came over her as she pushed open the green gate for the last time, and Zack bounded to meet her. As she stooped to caress him, and he rested his glossy head against her with a dog's unreasoning adoration, she said in a low voice: 'Zack, old fellow, you will be glad to be with your master again.' And he whined, as though in joyful assent.
There were no signs of either Mollie or Biddy, so she went up as usual—unannounced. The drawing-room door was open, and as her footsteps sounded in the passage Mrs. Blake came quietly out. She stepped back as she saw Audrey, and a slight colour came to her face.
'It is you—at last!' she said abruptly; but there was no other greeting.
'Yes, it is I,' returned Audrey, kissing her, and speaking in her usual tranquil manner. 'Do you think I should have let you leave Rutherford without bidding you good-bye!'
Then Mrs. Blake's eyes had a dangerous gleam in them.
'How could I know that they would let you come?' she said almost harshly. 'Am I not a pariah, an outcast from all respectable society? Does not Dr. Ross think so, as well as that excellent sister of yours? Do you know what my life has been during the last fortnight, since my boy left me? I have not dared to leave my own gate; if I were stifled for air, I would not venture to stir out, for fear of seeing a face I know.'
'You need not have been afraid; no one in Rutherford has heard your story.'
'But they may have heard it by this time. You forget that Dr. Charrington and Mr. Harcourt have been told. A man would never keep such a secret from his wife. Mrs. Charrington may have told it to half the masters' wives by this time; this is why I have begged Cyril to take me away, because my life is unendurable.'
'You are going to him now,' observed Audrey soothingly, for she saw at once that Mrs. Blake was in one of her unhappy moods.
She was thin and pale, and there was a sharpened look about her features, as though her inward excitement had worn her.
'Yes, I am going to him; but what good will my life be to me? He has forgiven me—at least, he says so—but every hour of the day his sadness will be a reproach to me. When I see his unhappiness, how am I to bear it, when I know it is all my fault? Audrey, tell me one thing: you are still engaged to him?'
'Yes,' returned Audrey very softly, 'I am still engaged to him.'
'Captain Burnett told me so; he said you had refused to give him up. Oh, my darling, how I loved you when he said that! It was brave of you to say such words, but my boy deserves them. If ever a girl was worshipped, he worshipped you.'
'Dear Mrs. Blake, I think we will not speak of that.'
'Why should we not speak of it? It is the only thing that will comfort me, and him too. Ah, if you only loved him as he loves you, there would be no difficulty. Many a girl has given up more for her lover than you will ever be asked to give up, and has found her reward in a happy life.'
'I will not pretend to misunderstand you,' returned Audrey simply; but she felt as she spoke that her father had been right to dread this interview. 'I know what you would insinuate—you would have me marry Cyril without my parents' consent.'
'I would,' was Mrs. Blake's unabashed reply; 'and where would be the harm, Audrey? You are of age; you have your own money. No one has a right to prevent your marriage. Of course, your people would be angry at first, but after a time they would relent. My darling girl, think of it: would it not be a noble act of self-sacrifice? And it would save Cyril!'
'He would not wish to save himself at the risk of my happiness and peace of mind,' she replied calmly. 'Dear Mrs. Blake, how strange that you should not know your own son better than that! Cyril would never marry me without my father's consent, neither would I marry him. Under such circumstances we should both be wretched.'
'And you call that love?' returned Mrs. Blake with a sneer. 'I am different from you, Audrey. I would have given up home, country, everything, for the sake of the man I loved; that is why I hated Mat, because I was bound to him, and the other man was free. It just maddened me! What!' interrupting herself, 'are you going to leave me?'
'It is useless to stay,' returned Audrey, in a pained voice. 'If you talk like this, it is far better for me to go.'
Then Mrs. Blake burst into passionate tears, and clasped her in her arms.
'Going! when I have never thanked you for your goodness to my boy; when I have never told you how dearly I have loved you for it! Audrey, forgive me, and stay with me a little, and I will try not to talk so wildly. It makes me feel better only to look at you—and you used to love me a little.'
Then very reluctantly Audrey suffered herself to be persuaded, and to remain for another half-hour.
MOLLIE GOES INTO EXILE
'There are some natures that cannot unfold under pressure, or in the presence of unregarding power. Hers was one. They require a clear space round them, the removal of everything which may overmaster them, and constant delicate attention.'—MARK RUTHERFORD.
Audrey had no cause to regret her concession. Mrs. Blake quieted down the moment she resumed her seat; and though the remainder of her conversation concerned herself and Cyril, she did not venture again on any dangerous allusion.
It was only when Audrey said that she must really go, as she had promised her mother to be back by tea-time, that she made an attempt to coax her into sending Cyril a message; but Audrey's strong sense of honour made her proof against this temptation. She would send him no message at all. Even if she thought it right to do so, how could she rely on Mrs. Blake's veracity? how could she be sure that it might not be delivered with annotations from her own fertile brain?
'But you will at least send him your love?' pleaded Mrs. Blake.
'There is no need for me to send him that,' returned Audrey with rising colour. 'Indeed, there is no need of any message at all: Cyril and I understand each other.'
And then Mrs. Blake cried a little and called her a hard-hearted girl, but relented the next minute, and kissed her affectionately.
'You will tell Mollie to come to me as usual to-morrow?' were Audrey's parting words, and Mrs. Blake nodded assent.
As Audrey opened the green gate some impulse made her look back. Mrs. Blake was still on the threshold, watching her, and her large dark eyes were full of tears. There was something pathetic in her appearance. With a sudden impulse, for which she was unable to account, Audrey went back and gave her another kiss.
'We do not know when we shall meet again,' she said in a low voice. 'Try to be as happy as you can, and to make him happy too.'
She was glad that it was over, she told herself, as she walked back to Woodcote; nevertheless, she could not shake off a certain sense of depression. That dear Gray Cottage—how she had grown to love it, and what happy hours she had passed there, sitting by that window and watching the pigeons fluttering among the arches! Her heart was soft towards the woman she had left. Could she help it, she thought, if her moral sense were blunted and distorted? There was something defective and warped in her nature—something that seemed to make her less accountable than other people. Truth was not dear to her, or her marriage-vows sacred in her eyes. How came it that she and Matthew O'Brien should have a son like Cyril? Audrey's girlish brains grew confused over questions that might well baffle a psychologist; she could make nothing of them.
Mollie came to her the next morning with her eyes swollen with crying.
'Oh, dear Miss Ross!' she exclaimed, the moment she entered the room, 'do you know mamma says that we are going away to-morrow? I thought it was to be next week, and Biddy thought so too; but mamma says that Cyril is all alone in the lodgings, and that we ought to go to him at once. Biddy and she are packing up the books and things, and mamma seemed to think that I ought to have remained to help her; but I told her that I must—I must say-good-bye to my dear, dear Miss Ross;' and here Mollie gave her a low-spirited hug.
'My dear Mollie,' returned Audrey kindly, 'I have arranged that already with your mother, and you are to spend the whole morning with me. We will not do any lessons; I can see you are not fit for them. And it is such a lovely morning. We will go in the garden, and sit on that nice sunny seat overlooking Deep-water Chine. Do you remember our voyage there, and how contemptuous you were about the scenery?' but this allusion to one of the happiest days she had ever spent in her young life only brought on a fresh burst of grief.
Poor Mollie was broken-hearted at the idea of leaving her friend, and it was a long time before Audrey could induce her to look at things in a less lugubrious light. Michael, prowling about with his cigarette, and followed closely by his short-legged favourite, came upon them sitting hand-in-hand on a bench near the pond; but he was careful not to betray his presence, and he called off Booty rather sternly when the affectionate little animal showed some disposition to join his friends. Neither of them saw him. Audrey was talking earnestly, but he only heard a fragment of what she was saying.
'So you see, dear Mollie,' she went on, in a soft, persuasive voice, 'that you will be as great a comfort to me when you are away as you have been here. When I think of you all, I shall say to myself: "Mollie is taking care of them."'
'Yes, I see; and indeed, indeed I will try to do my best for Cyril and mamma,' replied Mollie, with a sob. 'I know how unhappy poor Cyril is; and mamma will not be the comfort to him that she used to be. Is it not sad to think of it, Miss Ross? Mamma sometimes shows me his letters—she always did, you know—but somehow they seem so different. I wonder sometimes if she notices the change in them; but she never says so. He does not want her to come up to London—one can see that so plainly—he keeps begging her to be patient, and give him time to settle things. But you know mamma: she is always in such a hurry—she never can wait for anything,' finished Mollie, in her artless way.
Audrey suppressed a smile. Mrs. Blake's children certainly read her truly; but with all her faults they loved her well. Perhaps Kester had stood aloof from her most; but Mollie had always been devoted to her mother.
'You will miss the country, of course,' went on Audrey cheerfully; 'but London has its charms. You must get your brother to take you in the parks and Kensington Gardens; you must tell him that you and Zack want exercise, and then he will not refuse.'
'Mamma will walk with me,' returned Mollie disconsolately. 'She is very fond of crowded streets and shops; she will want me to go with her, and then we shall be obliged to leave Zack at home, for fear he should be lost. Oh, I know all about it!' continued Mollie, with a sigh. 'I shall be far too tired to walk with Cyril, even if he asked me; but he would not, because he knows mamma would be hurt: she always likes him to ask her.'
'Never mind,' replied Audrey, changing the subject abruptly. 'Remember, Mollie, we can only do our best for people, and leave all the rest. I am sure that in a thousand ways you will be a comfort to them. You have always been their thoughtful little housekeeper, and you can be that still. You can keep the place bright and cheery, and make it look as home-like as possible. And, Mollie, I want you to do something; but it is to be a secret between you and me, and no one—no one'—repeating the word emphatically—'is to know about it.'
And Mollie promised faithfully to hold her tongue.
'Your mother is passionately fond of flowers.' (But Audrey, in her heart, knew someone else loved them too.) 'I want you to lay out this prudently and by degrees;' and she slipped a sovereign into Mollie's hand. 'Flowers are so plentiful in London, and you can always have a nice fresh bunch for the breakfast-table. I remember your mother once saying she would go without food to buy flowers. When I think you have come to an end of the money, I shall send you some more.'
'But if anyone asks me who bought them,' asked Mollie, with one of her wide-open glances, 'what can I say then, Miss Ross?'
'Say that you have bought them with your own money—for it is your money, Mollie; and if you would rather buy gloves with it, you are welcome to do so.'
But Mollie protested eagerly that she would far rather buy flowers.
'Cyril is so fond of them,' she added innocently, 'and I shall always take care to have a good-sized bunch on his writing-table. But what shall I do about lessons, Miss Ross?' she continued, when this point was settled. 'I am getting on so beautifully with French and music, and it will be such a pity to lose it all. I asked mamma the other evening, and she said she was sure she did not know; she might help me with my French, but she was afraid Cyril could not afford music-lessons. Besides, there would be the piano to hire; for of course I must practise. Oh dear! I don't see how I am to get on!' with another big sigh.
'I think we must leave all that for the present, dear Mollie,' replied Audrey, rather sorrowfully. 'One needs a great deal of faith when things go crooked. Keep up by yourself as well as you can, and leave the music alone for a little. By and by, when you think he can bear it, you might speak to your brother; but if he cannot afford it——'
Audrey stopped. Michael's generosity must not be taxed any further; but she had money of her own, and nothing would please her more than to spend a little on Mollie's education. Would her father allow it? she wondered.
'I think we must leave this question for the present, Mollie,' she said, in her decided way. 'Make up your mind not to trouble about it for a month or two.'
And Mollie, with her usual sweet unselfishness, agreed to this.
Audrey sent her away cheered, and a good deal comforted, at receiving her dear Miss Ross's permission to write long letters.
'I don't mind how long they are,' Audrey had observed, with an indulgent smile; 'but you must not write too often, neither must you expect to hear from me always in return. My letters will be very few, dear Mollie, and they are only for your own eyes—remember that.' And when Mollie had promised this with some reluctance, the gong sounded for luncheon, and Audrey was obliged to dismiss her a little hurriedly.
Audrey was surprised to find how much she missed her favourite. Mollie's lessons had occupied the greater part of her mornings, and lately this occupation had been a boon to her.
Audrey had never loved idleness, but now she loathed it; her girlish employments no longer satisfied her. She made wider margins for her activity, and schemed with an anxiety that looked like restlessness how she might fill up the day.
Perhaps her happiest hours, after Mollie left her, were spent in the Hillside nursery, playing with her baby-nephew. Geraldine noticed with secret satisfaction that her boy was becoming an engrossing interest to his young aunt.
'I am sure he knows you, Audrey,' she would say. 'Look how he stretches out his dear little arms and coos to you to take him! Go to Aunt Audrey, my precious!' and Geraldine would place him in her sister's arms as though she loved to see them together.
Geraldine had certain fine instincts of her own. Her womanly intuition told her that nothing could be more healing than the touch of those baby fingers. When Audrey sat down opposite to her, with her nephew sprawling on her lap, and kicking up his pink toes in a baby's aimless fashion, her face always looked happier, and a more contented look came into her eyes.
'You are very like your mother, Leonard,' she would say to him: 'but I do not believe that you will ever be as handsome.'
Baby's gurgling answer was no doubt rich with infantile wisdom, if he could only have couched it in mortal language. But, all the same, he was fulfilling his mission. Audrey felt somehow as though things must come right some day when baby gripped her finger and held it fast, or else tangled her hair. 'You are a happy woman, Gage,' she said one day; but she was a little sorry that she made the remark when Geraldine got up quickly and kissed her, with tears in her eyes.
'You will be happy, too, some day, my darling,' she said very tenderly. But to this Audrey made no reply.
Mollie was faithful to her compact, and did not write for three whole weeks. The school had reassembled by that time, and a tall, pale young man with spectacles filled Cyril's place at table. Audrey took very little notice of him. When Michael was there, she talked to him; but she found any conversation with the new-comer almost impossible.
'It hurts me to see him there,' she said once to her mother, and her lip quivered as she spoke. And of course her mother understood her.
'Yes, dear, it is very hard; your father was only saying so last night. I think he notices how silent you are at luncheon. Mr. Gisbourne is certainly not prepossessing—not like our dear Cyril; but your father says he is an excellent fellow.'
'I think I shall change my place at table, mother. I shall sit between you and father. That is, if you do not mind,' she added, with ready courtesy.
'My love, as though I should mind! And I am sure your father will be delighted to have you. He was only speaking of you an hour ago. He thinks you are behaving so well, Audrey, and so does Percival. Percival declared that he was quite proud of you at the Charringtons' "at home"; that it must have been such an ordeal for you to meet all those people. A girl in your position is generally so sensitive; but he told me that even Geraldine could not have been more dignified and at her ease.'
'That is high praise from Percival,' returned Audrey, smiling. 'He thinks Gage's manners are perfection—and so they are; but, mother, he need not have praised me so much. The people were nothing to me—I hardly thought of them at all. I was only remembering the last time I was there, and how Cyril was with me; it was the saddest evening I have spent yet.'
And then she sighed and disengaged herself from her mother's embrace.
'Don't let us talk of it, mother dear; one can bear things better if one does not speak of them. I am going to drive with Gage now, and perhaps she will keep me to dinner;' and then she went quickly away.
After all, it was better to do something than to waste her time in complaining: it was seldom that she allowed herself to speak of her feelings even to her mother, and if she suffered a word or two to escape her, she always reproached herself afterwards for her weakness.
When Mollie's letter arrived the next day she left it unopened until she was in her own room. Michael was up in town, as usual. He rarely spent more than a few days together at Woodcote now. Audrey did not regret his absence as she would otherwise have done, because she knew he would be with Cyril.
When her father glanced at her letter she said quietly that it was from Mollie, and then he made no further observation.
But when she was in her own room she opened it somewhat eagerly. 'Dear little Mollie! I never thought I should miss her quite so much,' she thought.
Evidently Mollie had taken a long time to write that letter; it had been commenced two days after her arrival in London, and it had not been completed until now.
The first two or three pages, written in Mollie's girlish angular handwriting, were filled with plaintive lamentations over her enforced exile and separation from her dear Miss Ross; and here and there a bleared word showed touchingly where a great tear had rolled down and blotted the page; but the next entry, written a few days afterwards, showed some signs that the prospect had brightened a little. One passage gave great pleasure to Audrey:
'Mamma likes our lodgings excessively, and though I shall never love any place like our dear Gray Cottage, they are really very nice; indeed, they are better than any lodgings we have been in yet. Mamma says she never saw rooms so well furnished; the carpets and papers are rather ugly, and I cannot say much for the curtains; but there is a delicious couch—one of those soft, springy ones that are so comfortable, rather like the one in the Woodcote drawing-room, and two delightfully easy chairs.
'Then, in the little room we call Cyril's study, there is really a very handsome writing-table, with one of those green reading-lamps that Dr. Ross always uses, and a nice little secretaire for papers. Mamma was so charmed when she saw that; she told Cyril that he only wanted a few stained shelves to hold his books, and that then he would be as snug as possible. I thought Cyril looked a little queer when she said that, and when she exclaimed at the softness of the couch I saw such an odd smile on his face. I fancy he must have bought it himself, and that he does not wish mamma to know it.' ('Oh, you little goose!' observed Audrey, when she came to this; but her eyes were very bright as she went on with the letter.)
'There were such quantities of flowers and plants about the room when we arrived, and the most beautiful tea set out on the big round table. Mamma laughed, and said Cyril was very extravagant to provide such luxuries; but he told her he had had nothing to do with it, and he did not seem to enjoy anything.
'I am afraid he works too hard. Mamma is beginning to say that she might as well have remained in Rutherford, for all she sees of him; but I know she does not mean it, for she is as happy as possible.
'Cyril never gets home until half-past six, and then we have tea. His pupil comes to him at eight for two hours. I think Zack has the best of it. Cyril always takes him out for a long walk before breakfast. I should like to go with them, but I think Cyril prefers going alone. He only walks with mamma on Sunday afternoon, and then he comes in looking so tired. He often falls asleep when he sits down. I never remember his ever doing such a thing before; but mamma says she is sure that he sleeps badly, though he will never own to it. Cyril never did like to be questioned about himself.
'We see Captain Burnett sometimes, and Cyril says he often meets him on his way home. One day Captain Burnett asked me if I should like to see some pictures, and of course I said yes. We drove such a long way in a hansom, and I did so enjoy seeing all those beautiful pictures. Captain Burnett was kind; he explained everything to me, and when he thought I was tired he took me to a grand place, where we had ices and coffee.
'He asked me a great many questions, and when I told him that I had no one to teach me now I had left my dear Miss Ross, he looked very grave. He wanted to know if mamma did not help me at all, and I was obliged to confess that the French books were still unopened; and then he looked grave again and said, "Poor little thing!" as though he were sorry for me.
'Well, was it not strange?—the very next night Cyril began talking to mamma about it. He told her that now Kester was away they ought to be able to afford to give me a good education, that they were not poorer than they had been at Rutherford, and that something must be done at once.
'Cyril spoke as though he thought mamma was to blame, and then mamma cried, as she always does if Cyril finds fault with her; but the very next day she went out alone, and in the evening she told Cyril that she had found a very good school close by our lodgings, where they had excellent masters, and that she had arranged that I was to go there four times a week to take French, German, and music lessons. I could see Cyril was pleased, though he said very little, but by and by he asked me what I should do about a piano, and mamma suggested that we should hire one. Is this not nice, my dear Miss Ross, and is not Cyril a darling for thinking of everything so nicely?'
'Ah, Mollie, I am afraid you are a sad goose!' was Audrey's inward ejaculation at this point, and there was a smile on her lips as she finished the letter.
Michael was fulfilling his promise nobly. Audrey knew him well enough to be sure that those meetings with Cyril were by no means accidental. 'Whatsoever thou doest, do it with thy might,' was a precept literally obeyed by Michael Burnett. When he held out that right hand of fellowship to his rival, there was no sense of grudging in his mind. If a cheery word or two would brighten Cyril's day, and make his hard life a little less unendurable, Michael would speak that word at the cost of any inconvenience to himself. Audrey may be forgiven if she cherished the notion that Michael's frequent visits to London were undertaken more for Cyril's benefit than his own; and if Michael could have given a somewhat different version of his motives, he kept all such interpretation to himself.
AUDREY RECEIVES A TELEGRAM
'One fourth of life is intelligible, the other three-fourths is unintelligible darkness; and our earliest duty is to cultivate the habit of not looking round the corner.'—MARK RUTHERFORD.
'Thou shalt lose thy life, and find it; thou shalt boldly cast it forth; And then back again receiving, know it in its endless worth.'
Audrey thought it was the longest summer term that she had ever known; never in her life had weeks or months passed so slowly.
To all outward appearance she was well and cheerful, and spent her time much as usual—helping her mother and visiting her poor people in the morning, and in the afternoon attending cricket matches or playing tennis at the various garden-parties of the season. The nine days' wonder about the Blakes' sudden disappearance was over, and the Rutherford ladies no longer whispered strange tales into each other's ears—each more marvellous than the last. It was said and believed by more than one person that Audrey's engagement had been broken off because Dr. Ross had discovered that there was hereditary insanity in the Blake family; indeed, one lady—a notorious gossip, and who was somewhat deaf—was understood to say that she had heard Mrs. Blake was at that moment in a private lunatic asylum.
That Audrey Ross did not take her broken engagement much to heart was the general opinion in Rutherford. Would a girl play tennis, dance, or organise picnics, they said, if she were languishing in heart-sickness?—and there was certainly no appearance of effort in the readiness with which Audrey responded to any plan that her young friends proposed. As they remarked, 'Audrey Ross was always up to fun.' But Michael Burnett could have told them a different story if they had asked him. Audrey's sweet, sound disposition made her peculiarly alive to a sense of duty.
'One must think of other people, always and under all circumstances,' she had said to him when her trouble was fresh upon her, and he knew that she was only acting up to her words.
She would play because other people wished to play, not because her heart was in it. During his brief visits to Woodcote they were always together, and more than once he told himself that he could see a great change in her. She had at times a tired, burdened look, as though weary thoughts were habitual to her. But she never spoke to him of Cyril, or questioned him in any way. He would tell her unasked about Mollie, and now and then he would drop a word casually about Cyril.
'I met Blake the other day,' he would say. 'I think he looks better, though he says the hot weather tries him; he is getting on with his work, and appears to like it.' Or another time: 'I dined with Unwin last week; he and Blake seem to hit it off famously. Unwin says he has far more discrimination and intelligence than other young men of his age, and that for steadiness and application he might be fifty. But he thinks he ought to take more exercise; his hard work and the heat together are making him thin.'
Audrey remembered this speech of Michael's, as, a month later on, she sat on the Whitby sands. She had yielded to Geraldine's persuasion to accompany them to the seaside. Dr. Ross and his wife were paying visits in Cumberland, Michael was in North Wales with an artist friend, and Audrey had accepted her sister's invitation very willingly.
Both Percival and Geraldine were very kind to her, she thought. They let her wander about alone and do as she liked, and they were always ready to plan something for her enjoyment—a drive or a sail, or a day on the moors. Audrey liked being with them, and baby Leonard was more fascinating than ever; yet it may be doubted if she would not have been happier at Rutherford. The absence of all duties, of any settled employment, tried her. A holiday, to be thoroughly enjoyed, must be attended with a disengaged mind, and with a certain freedom from worry; and this was not possible with Audrey. She would talk to her sister cheerfully, or play with Leonard, and she was an intelligent companion for Mr. Harcourt when they took long walks together; but in her moments of solitude, when she roamed alone over the yellow sands with the fresh salt wind blowing in her face, her thoughts would be sad enough as she thought of Cyril in his hot London lodgings.
'Oh, my darling, if you could only be with me and feel this wind!' she would think, with a great rush of pity and tenderness; 'if I could only take your place a little and bear things for you!' and the sense that she could do nothing for him would lie like a load on her heart.
'I think Audrey is getting over her trouble,' Geraldine said one day to her husband. 'Baby is doing her good; and really, when she is playing with him she seems just like her dear old self.'
'Of course she will get over it,' returned Mr. Harcourt impatiently; 'all girls do. I tell you what, Jerry: when we get back to Hillside we will have Graham down to stop with us.'
'Oh, did you mean Lionel Graham all the time?' returned Geraldine, opening her eyes very widely. 'Is he the man you always wanted for Audrey? He is nice, of course—all the Grahams are nice—but he is dreadfully ugly.'
'Nonsense, my love! Graham ugly, with that fine head of his! I tell you the girl is lucky who gets such a clever fellow. I recollect he was rather struck with her last spring. We will have him down and see if they can take to each other.'
'But, Percy dear, you forget Audrey declares she is still engaged to Cyril Blake.'
'Stuff and nonsense!' replied her husband, waxing exceedingly irate at this remark. 'I wonder at you—I do indeed!—repeating anything so ridiculous! Has not Blake given her up?—and very proper of him, too—and has not your father forbidden her to have anything more to do with him? My love, with all my respect for your judgment, I must differ from you. Audrey is not the girl to propose anything so indelicate—so altogether wanting in propriety—as to thrust herself upon a man who very properly declines to marry her. No, no; we will have Graham down. He is a first-rate fellow, and when he makes up his mind to a thing, he sticks at nothing. That's the way to win a girl—eh, Jerry?' And Geraldine blushed beautifully as she recalled Percival's bold wooing.
'Well, do as you like,' she said tranquilly; 'but I don't believe Audrey will look at him.' And then she made signs to the nurse to bring her the baby; and Mr. Harcourt forgot his match-making schemes as he played with his son and heir.
Audrey was the only one who was glad when the time came for them to return to Rutherford: her mother's face was a delicious sight to her; and as she presided again at her little tea-table she gave vent to a fervent 'Oh, how glad I am to be at home again!'
'That sounds as though you have not enjoyed your holiday, Audrey; and yet Geraldine was so pleased to have you.'
'But I have enjoyed myself, mother dear. Whitby is beautiful, and I did just what I liked, and Gage and Percival could not have been kinder or more thoughtful; and then Leonard is such a darling!'
'You look all the better for your change; but you are still a little thin, love,' returned her mother, scrutinising her daughter rather narrowly. But Audrey disclaimed this charge: if she were thin, it was because Percival had taken her such long walks, she declared. But she was not thin—she was very well; only she was tired of her idleness, and meant to work hard.
'I wish Michael were at home,' she went on. 'He has returned from Wales, but he means to stay for a week or two in South Audley Street. Kester is with him. Home is never quite the same without Michael,' she finished, looking round her as though she missed something.
Michael had really stayed up in London for Kester's sake; but he was glad of any excuse that kept him away from Woodcote. When Kester's visit was over, he went with him to Victoria, and saw him off. He had some business in Aldersgate Street, and he thought he might as well take a Circle train, and go on. Michael always hated business in the City—the noise of the crowded thoroughfares jarred on him—and he thought he might as well get it over. He had finished his business, and was walking down Cheapside, when, to his surprise, he saw Cyril Blake coming out of a shop. Cyril seemed equally surprised at this unexpected rencontre.
'I know you haunt Cromwell and Exhibition Roads,' he said, in rather an amused tone; 'but I always understood you shunned the City.'
'So I do; but one may have business there sometimes,' returned Michael, linking his arm in Cyril's; for the two had grown fast friends, in spite of the disparity in their ages. 'I suppose it would be inquisitive on my part to ask what brings you here at this time in the afternoon?'
'Not at all. I have only been to my tailor's,' replied Cyril, smiling. 'I am not a swell like you, and City prices suit my pocket better than West-End ones. I was feeling rather dilapidated, so, as Unwin dismissed me early this afternoon, I thought I would attend to my outer man.'
'You would have been wiser to have run down to Teddington and had a pull up the river. You look as though you want fresh air, Blake. I don't know about your outer man, as you call it; but I must say you look uncommonly seedy.'
'Do I? Oh, I am all right,' he added hastily. 'I have not been used to spend a summer in town. How did you get on in Worth Wales, Burnett? I was never there, but I hear the scenery is beautiful.'
'So it is. You should see some of Jack Cooper's sketches; they would give an idea of the place;' and Michael launched into an enthusiastic description of a thunderstorm he had witnessed under Snowdon. 'I took Booty to pay his devoirs at the tomb of Bethgelert. On the whole, I think Booty enjoyed his trip as much as we did.'
Michael had so much to say about his trip, that they found themselves on the platform before he had half finished. It was half-past five by this time, and a good many business men were returning home. The station was somewhat crowded, but as they piloted their way through the knots of passengers Michael still talked on. Cyril had listened at first with interest; he was becoming much attached to his new friend, and though his masculine undemonstrativeness forbade him to say much about his feelings, his gratitude to Michael was deep and intense, and amid his own troubles he had an unselfish satisfaction in thinking that, whatever his own future might be, Kester's was safe. By and by his attention began to flag; he was watching an old man who stood at a little distance from them at the edge of the platform. He was a very dirty old man, and at any other time his appearance would certainly not have inspired Cyril with the wish to look at him a second time; but he was attracted by his swaying, lurching movements, which would have conveyed to any practised eye that the old reprobate was in an advanced stage of intoxication. What if he were to lose his balance and fall over the edge of the platform? The down train was momentarily expected. Cyril could bear it no longer.