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Lover or Friend
by Rosa Nouchette Carey
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'Then in that case you had better remain.'

Audrey tried to shield her face as she spoke, but he had seen a little tremulous smile flit over her features, and she could not hide her dimple. What could she mean? Was he fooling himself—dreaming? The next moment he had dropped on one knee beside her, and was begging her, with tears in his eyes, to look at him.

'This is a matter of life and death to me,' he implored, compelling her by the very strength of his will to turn her blushing face to him. 'Miss Ross—Audrey'—his tone almost amounting to awe—'you cannot mean that you really care for me?'

'I am afraid I do care too much to let you go,' she half whispered. But as he grasped her hands, and looked at her almost incredulously: 'Why is it so impossible? I think in a way I have long cared.'

But even then he did not seem satisfied.

'It is not pity—you are sure of that? It is nothing that my mother has said? Audrey, if I thought that, I would rather die than take advantage of you. Tell me, dear'—and the pleading of his eyes was almost more than she could bear—'you would not so humiliate me?'

'No, Cyril, I would not.'

His name came so naturally to her, she hardly knew she said it; but a gleam of joy passed over the young man's face as he heard it, and the next moment he drew her towards him.

Audrey took it all quite simply; she listened to her young lover's passionate protestation of gratitude, half shyly, half happily. The reverence with which he treated her touched her profoundly; he did not overpower her with the force of his affection. After the first few moments of agitated feeling he had quieted himself and her.

'I must not try you too much,' he said. 'If I were to talk for an hour I could never make you understand how happy I am. It is a new existence; it is wonderful. Yesterday I was so tired of my life, and to-day—to-day, Audrey——'

'I am happy, too,' she said, in a soft, contented voice. 'All these weeks have been so miserable; I seemed to miss you so—but you would have nothing to say to me. Do you remember that evening when you took my queen? Oh, how unhappy I was that night! And you saw it, and went away.'

'I did not go far,' he returned, taking possession of one hand—the soft white hand that lay so quietly in his. 'It was the only thing I could do for you—to keep out of your sight as much as possible. I walked up and down the road like a sentinel for hours; it did not seem possible to go home and sleep. I felt as though I never wanted to sleep again. I could only think of you in your white gown as you sat opposite to me, and how your hand trembled, and how cold it felt when I said good-night. I thought it was all your goodness, and because you were sorry for me. Were you beginning to care for me a little even then, my darling?'

'I do not know,' she answered gently. 'You must not question me too closely. I hardly understand myself how it has all come about.'

'No,' he returned, looking at her with a sort of worship in his eyes—the worship with which a good, true woman will sometimes inspire a man, and which makes their love a higher education; 'it is all a miracle. I am not worthy of you; but you shall see—you shall see how dearly I shall prize this precious gift.'

And then for a moment they were both silent.

'You will not now forbid me to speak to your father?' he said presently; and a shade of anxiety crept into his voice in spite of his intense happiness.

The thought of that interview somewhat daunted him. It was surely a daring thing for a junior classical master to tell his chief that he had won his daughter's affections; it was an ordeal that most men would have dreaded.

Audrey seemed to read his thoughts.

'I hope I shall never hinder you from doing your duty,' she said quietly, 'and, of course, you will have to speak to him; but'—looking at him with one of her radiant smiles—'you will find him quite prepared.'

'Do you mean that you will speak to him first? Oh no; it is surely my prerogative to spare you this.'

'But I do not wish to be spared,' she returned happily. 'Cyril, I do not think you have any idea of what my father is to me, and I to him. Do you suppose I should sleep until I have told him? There has never been any secret between us. Even when I was a little child, I would take him all my broken toys to mend, and if I fell down or cut my finger—and I was always in mischief—it was always father who must bind it up, and kiss and comfort me; and, with all his hard work, he was never too busy to attend to me.'

'I think in your place I would have gone to your mother. You must not be jealous, darling, if I tell you that I fell in love with her first.'

'I am so glad. Dear mother! everyone loves her. But when Gage and I were children, I was always the one most with father. I think there is no one in the world like him, and Michael says the same. I must write and tell Michael about this.'

'Oh yes; he is like your brother. I remember you told me so. But, dearest, I must confess I am a little anxious about Dr. Ross. I am only a poor man, you know; he may refuse his consent.'

Audrey shook her head.

'Father is not like that,' she said tranquilly. 'We think the same on these matters; we are both of us very impulsive. I have some money of my own, you know—not much'—as Cyril's brow contracted a little—'but enough to be a real help. But do not let us talk about that; I have never cared for such things. If you had not a penny in the world you would be still yourself—Cyril Blake.'

Audrey looked so charming as she said this, that the cloud on Cyril's brow cleared like magic.

'And you do not think your father will be angry?'

'Angry! Why should he be angry?' opening her eyes widely. 'He may be disappointed—very probably he will be so; he may think I might have done better for myself. He may even argue the point a little. The great blessing is that one is not obliged to consult one's sister in such cases; for'—looking at him with her old fun—'I am afraid Gage would refuse her consent.'

'Yes; I am afraid both Mr. and Mrs. Harcourt will send me to Coventry.'

'To be sure they will; but I suppose even Coventry will be bearable under some circumstances. Oh dear!' interrupting herself, 'do you see how dark it is growing? We have actually forgotten the time. I must really be going.'

'I ought not to have kept you so long,' he returned remorsefully. 'There, you shall go! I will not detain you another moment. I think it will be better for you to go alone. I will stay here another half-hour; I could not speak to anyone just now. I must be alone and think over this wonderful thing that has happened.'

'Very well,' she replied. But some minutes elapsed before the last good-bye was said. There were things he had forgotten to say. More than once, as she turned away, he detained her with some parting request. When she had really gone, and the last sound of her footsteps died away, he went back into the dusky room, and threw himself down on the chair where she had sat, and abandoned himself to a delicious retrospect.

'And it is true—it is not a dream!' he said to himself when, an hour later, he roused himself to go back to the Gray Cottage. 'Oh, thank God that He has given me this priceless gift! If I could only be worthy of her!' finished the young man with tender reverence, as he crossed the courtyard and let himself in at the green door.

Mrs. Ross looked at her daughter rather anxiously that evening; she thought Audrey was rather quiet and a trifle subdued. Geraldine and her husband were dining at Woodcote. Audrey, who had forgotten they were expected, was rather taken aback when she saw her sister, and made her excuses a little hurriedly. She had been detained—all sorts of things had detained her. She had been to the Gray Cottage and the library. She had not walked far enough to tire herself—this being the literal fact, as not a quarter of a mile lay between Woodcote and the Cottage. Oh no, she was not the least tired, and she hoped Geraldine felt better.

'Much better, thank you,' returned Geraldine, with one of her keen glances; and then she somewhat elaborately changed the subject. Audrey was not subjected to any cross-examination; indeed, there was something significant in Mrs. Harcourt's entire dearth of curiosity; but all the time she was saying to herself: 'Audrey has been crying; her eyes are quite swollen, and yet she looks cheerful. What can it mean? What has she been doing? She has hardly had time to smooth her hair, it looks so rough. I wonder if Percival notices anything! I am sure father does, for he keeps looking at her,' and so on.

It was Mr. Harcourt who was Audrey's bete noir that evening. He was in one of his argumentative moods, and could not be made to understand that his sister-in-law would have preferred silence. He was perpetually urging her to single combat, touching her up on some supposed tender point in the hope of getting a rally. 'I suppose Audrey, who goes in for women's rights so warmly, will differ from me if I say so and so?' or 'We must ask Audrey what she thinks of that, my dear; she is a great stickler for feminine prerogative;' and then he would point his chin, and a sort of sarcastic light would come into his eyes. It was positive enjoyment to him when Audrey rose to the bait and floundered hopelessly into an argument. But, on the whole, she acquitted herself ill. 'You are too clever for me to-night, Percival,' she said a little wearily, as he stood talking to her with his coffee cup in his hand; 'I cannot think what makes men so fond of debating and argument. If they can only persuade a person that black is white, they go home and sleep quite happily.'

'It is such a triumph to make people see with one's own eyes,' he returned, as though accepting a compliment. 'Have you ever read the Republic of Plato? No! I should recommend it for your perusal: it is an acknowledged masterpiece; the reasoning is superb, and it is rich in illustrations. The want of women is that, with all their intelligence, they are so illogical. Now, if women only had the education of men——'

'Harcourt, I think Geraldine is tired, and would like you to take her home,' observed Dr. Ross, interrupting the stream of eloquence; and Mr. Harcourt, without finishing his sentence, went at once in search of his wife. Women might be illogical, but they were to be considered, for all that. With all his satire and love of argument, Mr. Harcourt valued his wife's comfort before his own. 'I am quite ready, dear,' he said, as she looked up at him with a deprecating smile; 'and I know your mother will excuse us.'

Dr. Ross had walked with his daughter to the gate. Young Mrs. Harcourt was a woman who always exacted these little attentions from the menkind around her; without demanding them, she took them naturally as her right and prerogative. It would have seemed strange to her if her father had not offered her his arm. 'Good-bye, father dear,' she said, giving him her firm cool cheek to kiss; 'Percy and I have had such a nice evening.'

Dr. Ross walked back to the house; then he went to his study and lighted his reading-lamp. There was a certain interesting debate in the Times which he wished much to read—a Ministerial crisis was at hand, and Dr. Ross, who was Conservative to the backbone, was aware that his party was menaced. He had just taken the paper in his hand when Audrey came into the room. 'Good-night, my dear,' he said, without looking up; but Audrey did not take the hint.

'Daddy, I want to speak to you,' she said very quietly; 'will you please put that paper down for a moment?' And then she added, 'I want to speak to you very particularly.'

Dr. Ross heaved a sigh and lowered his paper somewhat reluctantly. 'Would not another time have done as well?' he grumbled good-humouredly; 'Harcourt has taken up all the evening. That is the worst of having an elderly son-in-law; one is bound to be civil to him; one could not tell him to hold his tongue, for example.'

'I think Percival would resent such a hint,' returned Audrey rather absently. She had drawn a low chair close to her father's knee, so that she could touch him, and now she looked up in his face a little pleadingly.

'Well, what is it, child?' he went on, still fingering his paper; 'I suppose you want help for some protegee or other—moderation in all things. I warn you that I have not got Fortunatus's purse.'

'It is not money I want,' she returned, so gravely that he began to feel uncomfortable. 'Daddy, it is something very, very different. This afternoon Cyril Blake spoke to me, and I—that is, we—are engaged.'

Dr. Ross gave a great start and dropped the Times as though it burnt him. For a moment he did not speak. With all his mildness and benevolence, he was a man of strong passions, though no one would have guessed it from his habitual self-control.

'We are engaged,' she repeated softly, and then she stroked her father's hand; but he drew it rather quickly away.

'Audrey,' he said, in a voice that she did not recognise, it was so stern, so full of displeasure; 'I would rather have heard anything than this, that a child of mine should so far forget herself as to engage herself to any man without her parents' consent.'

'Oh, daddy——' she began caressingly, but he stopped her.

'It was wrong; it was what I would not have believed of you, Audrey; but with regard to Mr. Blake, it was altogether dishonourable. How dared he,' here the Doctor's eyes flashed through his spectacles, 'how dared he win my daughter's affections in this clandestine way?'

'Father, you must not speak so of Cyril!' returned Audrey calmly, though she was a little pale—a little disturbed at this unexpected severity; 'it is not what you think: there was nothing clandestine or dishonourable. He did not mean to speak to me; it was more my fault than his. You shall hear all, every word from the beginning. Do you think I would hide anything from my father?' And here two large tears welled slowly from Audrey's eyes, but she wiped them away. Perhaps her gentleness and the sight of those tears mollified Dr. Ross, for when Audrey laid her clasped hands upon his knee he did not again repulse her. Nay, more, when she faltered once in telling her story, he put his hand on her head reassuringly.

'Is that all you have to tell me, my dear?' and now Dr. Ross spoke in his old kind voice.

'Yes, father dear; you have heard everything now, and—and—' beseechingly, 'you will not be hard on us!'

'Hard on him, I suppose you mean,' returned Dr. Ross, with rather a sad smile; 'a man is not likely to be hard to his own flesh and blood. I still think he has acted rather badly, but I can make allowance for him better now—he was sorely tempted. But now I want you to tell me something: are you sure that your happiness is involved in this—that it would really cost you too much to give him up?'

Audrey looked at her father with some astonishment—that wide, clear-eyed glance conveyed reproach.

'Do you think it necessary to ask me such a question?' she said, with a little dignity; 'should I have engaged myself to any man without loving him?'

'But he may have talked you into it; you may have mistaken your feelings,' suggested Dr. Ross; but Audrey shook her head.

'I am not a child,' she said, rather proudly. 'Father, you have always liked Mr. Blake. You can surely have no objection to him personally?'

'Yes, but my liking did not go to the extent of wishing him to be my son-in-law,' he replied, with a touch of grim humour; 'in my opinion, Audrey, Mr. Blake is far too young.'

'He is three-and-twenty,' she pleaded; 'he is two months older than I am. What does age matter, father? He will grow older every day. I know some men are boyish at that age; but I think Cyril's life has matured him.'

'Still, I would rather have entrusted you to an older man, and one who had in some measure made his position. Mr. Blake is only at the beginning of his career; it will be years before he achieves any sort of position. Audrey, you know me well enough by this time: I am not speaking of his poverty, though that alone should have deterred him from aspiring to my daughter. We think alike on these points, and I care nothing about a rich son-in-law; but Mr. Blake has only his talents and good character to recommend him. He is far too young; he is poor, and his family has no social standing.'

'But, father, surely a good character is everything. How often I have heard you say what a high opinion his Dean had of him, and what an excellent character he had borne at school and college; and then think what a son and a brother he is—how unselfish, how hard-working! How could any girl be afraid of entrusting her future to him?'

Dr. Ross sighed. Audrey's mind was evidently made up. Why had he brought this misfortune on them all by engaging this fascinating young master—for he certainly looked upon it as a misfortune. After all, was it any wonder that Cyril Blake, with his perfect face and lovable disposition, had found his way to his daughter's heart? 'Why could he not have fallen in love with someone else?' he groaned to himself; for Audrey was the very apple of his eye, and there was no one he thought good enough for her, unless it were Michael. Not that such an idea ever really occurred to him. Michael's ill-health put such a thing out of the question; but Michael was his adopted son, and far above the average of men, in his opinion.

'Father, you will remember that my happiness is involved in this,' Audrey said, after a little more talk had passed between them. 'You will be good to Cyril when he speaks to you to-morrow.'

'Oh yes; I will be good to him.'

And then Audrey laid her hot cheek against him, and thanked him as she bid him good-night; but when she had gone there were no debates read that night—Dr. Ross had too many thoughts to occupy him as he sat alone in his empty study.



CHAPTER XXIV

'I FELT SUCH A CULPRIT, YOU SEE'

'Still, it seems to me that love—true and profound love—should be a source of light and calm, a religion and a revelation, in which there is no place left for the lower victories of vanity.'—AMIEL.

It cannot be denied that Cyril Blake had rather a hard time of it in the Doctor's study. Dr. Ross received him kindly; but his kindness was a trifle iced as he shook hands with the young man, and then seated himself in his big easy-chair. He groaned inwardly: 'I am an old fool,' he thought, 'ever to have brought him here. How confoundedly handsome the fellow is! if one could only honestly dislike him!' and then he assumed a judicial aspect as he listened to the culprit.

On the whole, Cyril acquitted himself fairly; he was very pale, and hesitated a little over his words; but he stated his case with sufficient eloquence. His love for Audrey bore him triumphantly even through this ordeal.

'You have reason to be angry with me,' he said with ingenuous frankness. 'I had no right to speak to Miss Ross until I had gained your permission to do so.'

'It was certainly a grievous mistake, Mr. Blake.'

'You are very kind not to call it by another name; I will own frankly it was a mistake. I must beg you to make allowances for a very strong temptation. Under some circumstances a man is not always master of himself.'

Dr. Ross half smiled. After all, this braw wooer was bearing himself with manly dignity.

'I hope you will believe me,' continued Cyril earnestly, 'when I say that I acted with no preconceived intention. My first declaration was perfectly hopeless. I expected nothing, asked for nothing; on the second occasion'—here he paused, and, in spite of his nervousness, a light came in his eyes—'circumstances forced me to speak.'

'Circumstances can be controlled, Mr. Blake. If you had come to me, for example——'

'It had been my intention to come to you, Dr. Ross, and to tender my resignation. I had made up my mind that it was my duty to leave this place. I had even spoken to my mother on the subject. "I love your daughter, and therefore it will not be right for me to stay." These were the very words I should have spoken to you, only—she—she—asked me not to go;' and here the young man's voice trembled.

Dr. Ross's magisterial aspect relaxed a little; his good heart, yearning only for his child's happiness, began to relent.

'I am quite sure of your affection for Audrey, Mr. Blake.'

'You may be sure of it. There is no proof you could ask that would be refused by me. If I thought—that is, if you and she thought that this would not be for her happiness, I should be ready, even now, to go away.'

'Thank you! I can quite believe that you mean what you say; but I shall not put you to so severe a proof. My child told me last night that her mind was made up—indeed, I understand that you and she are already engaged.'

'Only with your permission, sir.'

'I do not see how I am to withhold it when the girl tells me that her happiness is involved. I will speak to you plainly, Mr. Blake. You are certainly not in the position in which I should wish to see my future son-in-law. A man of your age, at the very beginning of his career, has no right to think of marrying.'

Cyril flushed.

'I do not think of it. I must work my way before such a thing would be possible.'

'You mean because you are poor. Poverty is, of course, a serious obstacle; but just then I was thinking more of position. I should hardly be willing for my daughter to marry a junior classical master. Her sister is in a far better position.'

'I shall hope not always to be a junior master, Dr. Ross.'

'True; and, of course, interest can do a great deal. I must speak to Charrington, and see what is to be done in the future. Perhaps you know that Audrey has a little money of her own?'

'I am sorry to hear it.'

'Their grandfather left them each five thousand pounds—as Audrey is of age, she is, of course, her own mistress. It was my intention to give her a couple of thousands on her marriage—Geraldine had it—anything else will only come to them on my death.'

'I wish you had not told me all this.'

Dr. Ross smiled.

'You are young, Blake,' he said, in his old friendly manner, 'or you would not be so romantic as to wish Audrey were penniless. You will find a few thousands very serviceable by and by, when, in the course of time, a house falls vacant. I am speaking of the future, mind—for I do not mean you to have Audrey for at least a couple of years; we are in no hurry to lose her, and you must make your way a little first. Now I think we have talked enough for the present. I will just have a word with Audrey, and send her to you.' Then he held out his hand, and Cyril grasped it with a word or two of gratitude.

Meanwhile Audrey, seated close to her mother on the drawing-room couch, was pouring out the whole story. She told it very comfortably, with her face resting against her mother's shoulder, and only interrupted by a tearful inquiry at intervals.

'Oh, Audrey! Oh, my darling child!' exclaimed Mrs. Ross, in a sighing sort of voice, when the girl had finished her recital.

'Are you sorry, mother? Why do you speak in that tone? You know you have always liked Cyril.'

'Yes, my dear,' but here Mrs. Ross sighed again; 'how can one help liking him, when he is so lovable? But, Audrey, what will your sister say—and Percival?'

'Poor dear mother! So that was the reason of that dolorous voice? Well, do you know,' with an engaging air of frankness, 'I am afraid we shall have a bad time with Gage; she will want me put in a strait-waistcoat and fed on a cooling diet of bread and water. Father will have to assure her that there is no insanity in the family; and as to Percival—oh, Percival's face, when he hears the news, will be a joke!'

'I must say I don't see the joke, Audrey. I am really afraid they will both be dreadfully shocked. You must tell them yourself. I would not take the news to Hillside for the world—and just now, too, when dear Geraldine ought to be spared all agitation.'

Audrey did not dare laugh; her mother was far too much in earnest.

'You must go yourself, Audrey,' she repeated; 'and I hope you will be very, very careful.'

'Don't you think it would be better to write, mother? I am so sure that Gage will disapprove and say cutting things—and of course it will not be pleasant. If I were to write her a sisterly little note, just telling her the news, and saying I would go to her to-morrow?'

And, after a good deal of consideration, Mrs. Ross was brought to own that this plan would be the best.

Mrs. Ross was so oppressed by the fear of Geraldine's disapproval that she could hardly give her attention to Audrey; and yet her motherly heart was stirred to its foundations. Audrey pretended to be hurt at last.

'Oh, do not let us talk any more about Gage!' she said impatiently; 'we must give her time to come round. I want you to think about me and Cyril. "Cyril"—is it not a nice name? And you must be very fond of him, and treat him like your own son. He is to be a second Michael.'

'Dear me, Audrey! I wonder what Michael will say; he can never have guessed anything before he went away.'

'I don't know, mother. Michael is very sharp, you know. It struck me once or twice that he was watching Cyril; but he liked him—he always liked him;' and here Audrey's voice was full of gladness. Michael's approval was necessary to her happiness: whoever else might choose to cavil at her choice, it must not be Michael—dear old Michael!

'I wish he would come back,' she said softly; for she felt a strange sort of longing to see his kind face again. She must write to him; she must tell him everything, just as though he were her brother. 'Mother,' interrupting herself, 'I want to tell you something very pretty that Cyril said yesterday. I was talking of you and father, and he said I must not be hurt, but he had fallen in love with you first. He thinks you the sweetest woman he has ever seen.'

'Dear fellow!' murmured Mrs. Ross; for the little compliment pleased her.

With all her loyalty to Geraldine's husband, there were times when he was a little formidable to her. Perhaps, in her secret heart, she felt herself too young to be the mother-in-law of a man of forty; and, in spite of Mr. Harcourt's real liking and respect for his wife's mother, he had never been guided by her. It had not been with him, as with younger men, to say, 'Your mother thinks so-and-so should be done.' Indeed, if the truth be told, Geraldine very rarely quoted her mother's opinions—she was so certain that Percival would contradict them.

'We are surely able to make up our own minds without consulting your parents, my dear,' he would say, in rather a crushing tone; for prosperity had fed his self-confidence, and it needed the discipline of trouble to teach him humility.

At that moment Dr. Ross entered the room, and at the first sight of his face Audrey sprang up, and he opened his arms to receive her.

'Oh, daddy, is it all right?'

'Well, it is as far right as it can be,' he replied, in rather an inexplicable voice. 'Emmie, my dear, this girl of ours has taken the bit between her teeth. Geraldine never gave us this trouble. She fell in love with the right man at the right time, and everything was arranged properly.'

'And now the right man has fallen in love with me,' whispered Audrey in her father's ear.

'But you have given your consent, John?' returned his wife, in a pleading tone. In spite of her fears about Geraldine, her sympathies were by this time enlisted on the side of the lovers. 'Of course, Mr. Blake is a poor man; but I daresay Dr. Charrington will push him when he knows how things are; and he is so nice and pleasant and clever, and dear Audrey really loves him.'

'Are you sure of that?' trying to catch a glimpse of his daughter's face. 'Girls make mistakes sometimes.' And then, as a faint protest reached him: 'Well, you will find the fellow in my study, if you want to talk to him. Perhaps you had better bring him in to see your mother.'

And Audrey withdrew, blushing like a rose.

'She is very fond of him, John,' observed Mrs. Ross, with a trace of anxiety in her tone, as though her husband's manner did not quite satisfy her. 'She has been talking to me for the last hour. Audrey never cared for anyone before. You remember young Silverdale and Fred Langton—they were both in love with her, and would have spoken if she had given them the chance; but she was as distant as possible.'

'Yes; and Fred Langton has fifteen hundred a year, and his father is a Member of Parliament. He is a nice fellow, too—only a little too stout for so young a man; but he is not the sort Audrey would fancy. Blake is a good fellow, and I liked him from the first,' continued the Doctor, in a musing tone; 'but I never should have picked him out for Audrey.'

'Perhaps you think him too young?' hazarded his wife.

'Yes; I should have liked her to have married an older man. They are too much of an age, and Audrey, with all her good-nature, has a will of her own. Blake is by no means a weak man; on the contrary, I should say he is strong; but he will have to give in to her.'

'Oh, I hope not!' for Mrs. Ross held the old-fashioned doctrines of wifely submission and obedience.

'They will not find it out for a little; but, if I am not mistaken, Blake will discover in time that he is somewhat handicapped. The girl has too much on her side: there is her position, her little bit of money, and her equality as regards age. Blake will have to steer his way prudently, or he will find himself among shoals.'

Mrs. Ross looked distressed; her husband's opinion was infallible to her. It never occurred to her that he might be occasionally wrong in his premises.

'Percival and Geraldine will be dreadfully shocked,' she replied. 'I quite dread the effect on Geraldine.'

Then Dr. Ross's mood changed.

'It is no business of hers, or of Harcourt's either,' he said, rather sharply. 'If Audrey has her parents' consent, she need not trouble herself about other people's opinions.'

Then Mrs. Ross knew that, whatever stormy discussion might be in store for her, she must not expect her husband to come to her assistance. He had more than once hinted that his son-in-law took rather too much upon himself, and on one occasion he had gone so far as to say that it was a pity Geraldine had married a man so much older than herself.

'Harcourt is a clever fellow, but he plays the autocrat rather too much. A man has a right to be master in his own house, but Woodcote is not Hillside.' And this speech had alarmed Mrs. Ross dreadfully.

'I wish your father cared for Percival as much as he does for Michael,' she said once a little plaintively to Audrey. 'Nothing Michael says or does is ever wrong in his eyes.'

'But there could not be two Michaels, mother,' returned Audrey; 'and really, Percival does lay down the law far too much. I don't wonder father was a little put out, for of course he is the older man.'

Meanwhile, the lovers were enjoying themselves after their own fashion. When Audrey entered the study, Cyril was standing in the bay-window with his back towards the door; but at the sound of her footstep he turned round quickly and crossed the room. As he took her hands he looked at her for a moment without speaking, and she saw at once that he was deeply moved. Then he put his arm round her very gently and kissed her. Somehow that silent caress touched Audrey, it was so much more eloquent than words; and when he did speak, his speech was very grateful to her ears.

'Your father has been so good to me.'

'Yes, I know. I told you yesterday how good he would be.'

'Ah, but I had a rather bad time of it at first,' he replied, shaking his head. 'Do you see that chair?' pointing to the high-backed oaken chair that always occupied the corner by the writing-table. 'Dr. Ross sat there, and I stood leaning against the mantelpiece, just opposite to him.'

'Do you mean that father did not ask you to sit down?'

'Oh no; he more than once pressed me to take a seat; but I felt it would be unbecoming for a culprit not to stand before his judge. I felt such a culprit, you see. When a man steals another man's dearest possession without asking his leave, he must regard himself as a sort of traitor.'

Audrey smiled; but as Cyril drew her gently down beside him on the wide cushioned window-seat, she made a faint protest.

'I think mother will be looking for us,' she said a little shyly.

'But not just now,' he pleaded. 'You will stay with me for a few minutes, will you not, darling? I could not talk to you before your mother, and I want to tell you what Dr. Ross said. In spite of my presumption, he has treated me most generously; but, Audrey,' half whispering her name, as though it thrilled him to say it, 'he says that he will not spare you to me for at least two years.'

'Oh no, of course not; I could not leave father and mother for a long, long time,' returned Audrey, somewhat troubled by this allusion to her marriage. It was one thing to be engaged and to make Cyril happy, but to be married was a far more serious consideration. 'If I had been asked, I should have said at least three years,' she added quickly.

For one instant the young lover felt himself wounded, but his good sense enabled him to hide this from her.

'You are right, dearest,' he said quietly. 'It would be mere selfishness for me to wish to take you away from this beautiful home until I have made one that shall in some degree be fitting for you. You will not expect a grand one; you know you have linked your lot to a poor man.'

'Of course I know it,' she replied calmly; 'you need not trouble about that, Cyril. I think I am different from other girls: I have never cared for wealth or luxury in the least. Woodcote is my home, and I love every stone of it; but I could be just as happy in a cottage.'

'If it were like the Gray Cottage, for example?'

'Oh, I have always been fond of the Gray Cottage!' she returned, smiling at him; and the look of those sweet gray eyes made the young man's pulses beat faster. 'I should be perfectly satisfied with a home like that. Why,' as he interrupted her with a rapturous expression of gratitude, 'did you think I should be hard to please? I am not a fine lady, like Geraldine!'

'You are the finest lady in the world to me!' was Cyril's answer. It took all his self-control to sit there, just holding her hand and listening to her. He felt as though in his joy he could have been guilty of any extravagance—as though he ought to be kneeling before her, his lady of delight, pouring out his very soul in a tumultuous, incoherent stream of words. But it spoke well for his knowledge of Audrey's character that he restrained himself so utterly: any such passionate love-making would have disturbed her serenity and destroyed her ease in his society; her inborn love of freedom, and a certain coyness that was natural to her, would have revolted against such wooing. Cyril had his reward for his unselfish forbearance when he saw how quietly she rested against his arm, how willingly she left her hand in his, as she talked to him in her frank, guileless way.

'I suppose your mother is pleased about this?' she said presently.

'You would have said so if you had heard us talking last night, until one o'clock in the morning! You have made more than one person happy, dear; my mother will be your debtor for life.'

'I wonder she is not a little jealous of me,' returned Audrey. 'She has had you so long to herself, I should think she would find me a little in her way.'

'Oh no! she is too grateful to you for making me happy. My darling, it would cause me utter misery if you and my mother did not get on. I have been her one thought all these years; it is not right, of course,' as Audrey's eyes expressed disapproval at this. 'I have had more than my fair share; but I am only stating facts from her point of view. If you had refused me—if we had gone away—she would have broken her heart; as it is, she is ready to worship you for your goodness to me.'

'You must take me to her by and by,' returned Audrey gently; 'but now, Cyril, indeed we must go to my mother;' and this time he made no objection.

Mrs. Ross welcomed him very nicely.

'Audrey tells me that I am to have another son,' she said softly, as she held out her hand to him.

'If you will only let me be one,' he returned gratefully, as he carried the soft motherly hand to his lips.

Audrey might be forgiven if she regarded Cyril's behaviour as perfect. As for Mrs. Ross, the tears started to her eyes at that act of reverential homage. She told Audrey afterwards that she felt as though she could have kissed him.

'What a pity you did not! I think Cyril would have liked it,' was Audrey's quiet answer.

She heard her mother inviting him to dinner as she turned to the tea-table, for the afternoon was nearly over. 'We shall be just by ourselves, Mr. Blake.'

'Will you call me Cyril now?' he asked in almost a whisper, and a blush came to Mrs. Ross's comely face.

'I will try and remember,' she said, in the kindest possible voice; and then he joined Audrey at the tea-table, and made himself very busy in waiting on them both, and they were soon as easy and comfortable as possible.

'Would you like my mother to come and see you to-morrow?' he asked presently, when lamps had been brought in and the October twilight had been excluded; 'that will be the correct thing, will it not, Mrs. Ross?'

'I suppose so,' she assented; but Audrey, with her usual impulsiveness, interrupted her:

'Why should you not take me across now?' she said; 'I think it is so stupid thinking about etiquette. Your mother is older than I, and it is for me to go to her.' Audrey spoke with decision, and Cyril looked enchanted.

'I did not like to propose it,' he said delightedly; 'will you really come? May I take her, Mrs. Ross?'

But Audrey did not wait for her mother's permission. She left the room, and returned presently in her hat and jacket.

'I am quite ready,' she said, speaking from the threshold; but she smiled as she said the words. Was she interrupting an interesting conversation? Cyril was on the couch beside her mother, and he was talking eagerly. Perhaps, though Audrey did not know it, he was making up for his previous self-restraint by pouring out some of his pent-up feelings.

'You understand?' he said as he stood up, and Mrs. Ross beamed at him in answer.

'Are you two having confidences already?' observed Audrey happily, as she looked on at this little scene; and Cyril laughed as he followed her into the hall.

'She is the sweetest woman in the world but one,' he said, as they went out together into the soft damp air; and Audrey, perhaps in gratitude for these words, took his arm unasked as she walked with him through the dark village street.



CHAPTER XXV

MR. HARCOURT SPEAKS HIS MIND

'It is idle to talk a young woman in love out of her passion. Love does not lie in the ear.'—HORACE WALPOLE.

Mrs. Blake was expecting them—had been expecting them for hours; Audrey could see that in a moment. The October evenings were chilly, and most people in Rutherford lighted a fire at sundown; so a clear little fire burnt in the drawing-room grate, and Mrs. Blake's favourite lamp with the pink shade cast a rosy glow over the little tea-table. The cups were ranged in due order, and some hot cakes were on the brass trivet, but the little tea-maker was not at her usual post. Only Mrs. Blake was standing alone in the middle of the room, and as Cyril led Audrey to her she threw her arms round the girl with almost hysterical violence. 'Oh, my dear, dear, dearest girl!' she exclaimed, pressing her with convulsive force; and Audrey felt a little embarrassed.

'I thought you would be looking for us,' she said, releasing herself gently; 'I asked Cyril to bring me—it seemed the right thing.'

'No, dear, it was not the right thing,' returned Mrs. Blake, almost solemnly; 'it was for me to come to you. But all the same, I knew Cyril would bring you; my boy would remember his mother even in his happiness.'

'It was not my thought,' began Cyril; but a very sweet look from Audrey checked him.

'What does it matter whose thought it was?' she said, in her direct way; 'if I asked him to bring me, it was because I knew it was what he wished, though he did not like to ask me. Dear Mrs. Blake, was it likely that I should stay away when we have always been such friends?'

For a moment Mrs. Blake seemed unable to answer. Some curious emotion impeded her utterance. She turned very pale and trembled visibly.

'And we shall be better friends than ever now,' continued Audrey, taking her hand, for she felt very tender towards the beautiful woman who was Cyril's mother.

'I trust so,' returned Mrs. Blake in a low voice; but there was a melancholy gleam in her large dark eyes. Then, with an effort to recover her usual manner: 'Audrey, I hope you have forgiven me for troubling you so yesterday. You must not expect me to say I am sorry, or that I repent a word that I said then; but all the same, I was rather hard on you.'

'You certainly made me very wretched.'

'Yes, I felt I was very cruel; but one cannot measure one's words at such a moment. I felt as though my children and I were being driven out of our paradise.'

'And you thought it was my fault?' but Audrey blushed a little as she asked the question.

'Oh, hush!' and Mrs. Blake glanced at her son with pretended alarm; 'do you know that in spite of all I had done for him, that ungrateful boy actually presumed to lecture me. He would have it that I had been cruel to you, and that no one but a woman would have taken such a mean advantage; but all the time he looked so happy that I forgave him. "All's well that ends well." That is what I told him.'

Cyril shook his head. Even in his happiness he had been unable to refrain from uttering his disapproval of his mother's tactics. His nature was almost as simple and transparent as Audrey's. It hurt him to remember how his mother had appealed to this girl's sense of compassion.

'Do not let us talk any more of it,' he said quickly. 'I think Audrey has a great deal to forgive; but you and I, mother, know her generosity.'

And the look that accompanied these words left Audrey silent for a moment.

'Where is Mollie?' she exclaimed presently, when, after a little more conversation, Mrs. Blake insisted that she must have just one cup of tea. In vain Audrey protested that they had had tea already at Woodcote, that in another hour or so they would have to dine. Mrs. Blake could not be induced to let them off.

'Where is Mollie?' she continued; 'may I go and look for her, Mrs. Blake?'

But before Mrs. Blake could answer, Audrey had exchanged a glance with Cyril and disappeared.

She found Mollie in the dining-room; she was pacing up and down the room with a small black kitten in her arms, but the moment Audrey appeared the kitten was discarded, and flung upon four trembling, sprawling legs, and Mollie sprang towards her, almost overwhelming her with her girlish vehemence.

'Oh, Miss Ross, my dear Miss Ross! is it really true? Cyril said so this morning, but I could not believe him; I must hear it from your own lips.'

'Do you mean, is it true that I hope one day to become your sister? Of course it is true, dear Mollie.'

'Oh, I am so glad! I am more than glad; I have been crying with joy half the day. But is he good enough for you, Miss Ross?' gazing at her idol with intense anxiety. 'I am very fond of Cyril—Kester and I think there is no one like him—but it does not seem as though anyone were quite good enough for you.'

'Oh, Mollie, what nonsense! but I am not going to believe you; and what do you mean by calling me Miss Ross, you silly child? Don't I tell you we are going to be sisters?'

Mollie, who had been rubbing her cheeks against her friend in a fondling, kittenish sort of way, started back in a moment.

'But I could not call you anything else,' she returned, becoming crimson with shyness. 'You will always be Miss Ross to me—my Miss Ross, you know; I could not think of you as anyone else. It would be such a liberty to call you by your Christian name.'

'Well, never mind; it will come naturally by and by,' returned Audrey tranquilly. 'I shall know you are fond of me, whatever you choose to call me; so you and Kester can do as you like.'

'May I write and tell him?' pleaded Mollie. 'Oh, dear Miss Ross, do let me!'

But Audrey was not inclined to give permission; she explained to Mollie that she meant to write herself to Captain Burnett, and that she thought Cyril would send Kester a note.

'Better leave it to him,' she suggested; 'you can write to him afterwards;' and as usual Mollie was docile.

They went upstairs after this, Mollie picking up the kitten on the way. Cyril sprang to the door as he heard their footsteps.

'Have we been long?' Audrey asked, turning to him with a smile.

Cyril hardly knew what he answered. For a moment a sense of giddiness came over him, as though he were suddenly dazzled. 'Could it be really true?' he asked himself more than once. Audrey did not seem to guess his feelings: she was perfectly tranquil and at her ease; she had laid aside her hat and jacket to please Mrs. Blake, and as she sat there sipping her tea and talking softly to them all, she looked so fair and girlish in her lover's sight, that the infatuated young man could not remove his eyes from her.

And yet Audrey was only in the old dark-red cashmere that was Geraldine's pet aversion; but her brown hair had golden gleams in it, and the gray eyes were very bright and soft, and perhaps with that changing colour Audrey did look pretty; for youth and love are great beautifiers even of homely features. Audrey was sorry when Cyril reminded her that it was time to go. She was loath to leave that little drawing-room, so bright with lamplight and firelight. She went home and dressed for dinner in her white gown, feeling as though she were in some placid dream.

The rest of the evening passed very tranquilly. Dr. Ross asked for some music; he was not in the mood for conversation, so Audrey sang to them all her favourite songs, while Cyril stood beside her and turned over the leaves. Now and then they could exchange a word or two.

And just at the last she must needs sing 'Widow Miller,' and as usual Dr. Ross softly beat time and crooned an accompaniment:

'The sang o' the lark finds the widow asteer, The birr o' her wheel starts the night's dreamy ear, The tears o'er the tow-tap will whiles fa' like rain, Yet there's naebody hears Widow Miller complain.'

'What a sad song, my darling! I should like to hear something more cheerful,' whispered Cyril, as she finished.

But she did not seem to hear him; she rose from her seat and crossed the room to the corner where Dr. Ross was sitting.

'That is your favourite song, daddy,' she said, leaning over him.

And as he smiled and nodded, she sat down on the low chair beside him and looked thoughtfully into the fire.

She roused herself presently to bid Cyril good-bye, and to linger a moment with him at the door in the starlight.

'I shall not see you until luncheon to-morrow, unless you pass the window,' he said, with the egotism common to lovers. 'You will think of me until then, will you not, dear?'

'Of course I shall think of you,' returned Audrey, with her usual gentleness.

But she seemed to wonder a little at the sudden passion with which Cyril clasped her to him.

'Good-night, Cyril dear. I shall be very busy all the morning writing letters; but we can have the walk you propose after four.'

And then she went back to her seat and leant her cheek against her father's arm, as she looked into the fire again.

'A penny for your thoughts, my child,' observed Dr. Ross, when they had both been silent for a long time; 'though I suppose I need not ask.'

'I was thinking of Michael,' she returned guiltily. 'Dear old Michael! how I wish he could be happy, too!' And then she bade them both good-night and went up to her room, and, strange to say, her last thought before she fell asleep was to wonder what Michael would say.

The boys marvelled more than once the following morning at their master's evident abstraction. In spite of his efforts to fix his attention on Greek verbs and exercises, Cyril's eyes would turn perpetually to the window; but no slight girlish figure in dark-red cashmere appeared on the terrace to gather the yellow and white and violet chrysanthemums that bloomed in the borders.

Audrey was in her own private sanctum, and had given orders that no one should disturb her. Even Mollie was to be sent away. She had very important business on her hands. There was her letter to Geraldine, and a very difficult one it was to write—so difficult, that more than once Audrey thought that she would put on her hat and go up to Hillside instead; but she remembered that Gage was expecting visitors to luncheon. They would probably come early, and drive away before dusk; her letter must not be delivered before then. So she addressed herself again to her task.

After all, it was a very sweet, womanly letter, and might have touched any sister's heart.

'If you cannot conscientiously approve, you can at least wish me joy in the life I have chosen for myself,' she wrote. 'I have accepted Mr. Blake of my own free will, because I think he is worthy of my affection. You do not know him yet; but he is so good—so good: sometimes I think even Michael is not more to be trusted.' And so on.

But, after all, it was far easier to write to Michael. Audrey had no need to pick her words or arrange her ideas with him. She could tell him everything as frankly as though he were her brother. There need be no limit to her confidence; Michael would never misunderstand her.

'The one drawback is that you are still away,' she finished affectionately. 'I shall not feel things are perfect until we have had one of our long talks on "Michael's bench." When are you coming home? It will soon be November, and the trees will be stripped of their leaves. Why do you trouble yourself about another man's business? No one wants you more than your devoted cousin and friend—AUDREY ROSS.'

And when this letter was in the post, and the note for Geraldine lying on the marble slab in the hall, she felt a sense of relief, and had leisure to think of Cyril.

They had their walk together after afternoon school, but it soon grew dusk, and Audrey suggested that, as her mother was alone, they should go back to Woodcote to tea. There was no invitation to dinner that night, but Cyril did not expect it—he had his dormitory work; and as Audrey promised to see him before he went away for the night, he was quite content.

'You must not think that I mean to bore Mrs. Ross with intruding myself on all occasions,' he said. 'I know you will tell me when I may come. I mean to be guided entirely by you. Under these circumstances a man is tempted to be selfish.'

'You will never be selfish,' she said, with one of her charming smiles. 'I could never have promised to marry a selfish man. But, Cyril, you will be guided by me in that other thing?' changing her tone, and looking at him very seriously; for they had had rather a hot argument.

Cyril was going to Peterborough the next day to buy the betrothal ring, and Audrey had petitioned for a gold one.

'But it will only look like a wedding-guard,' he had remonstrated; for he would rather have denied himself everything for six months, if only he could buy something fit for her acceptance—a pearl or sapphire ring, for example. Diamonds were beyond his means.

But Audrey could not be induced to say that she liked pearls; on the contrary, she manifested an extraordinary preference for the idea of a broad chased gold band, with her own and Cyril's initials inside.

'I am going to marry a poor man,' she said decidedly, 'and he must not waste his money on me. What does it matter if it look like a guard? It can serve that purpose afterwards. Please do not look so disappointed, Cyril. When you can afford it, you shall give me any ring you like—pearl or diamond; but I like diamonds best.' And she was so evidently in earnest that he had to yield to her; and Audrey wore her gold ring with immense satisfaction.

Audrey spent her evening quietly with her parents. She and Dr. Ross played chess together, and when he went off to his study she stayed and talked to her mother.

Mrs. Ross was not a lively companion that evening. The fear of Geraldine's disapproval was quickening her latent feelings of uneasiness into activity, and she could not keep these feelings to herself.

'I wonder if Geraldine will answer your letter this evening, Audrey?'

'I don't think so, mother dear. I am to go there to-morrow, you see, so there will be no need for her to write.'

'I am afraid that she will be hurt because you have not gone to her to-day; she will think it rather odd for you to write.'

'Why, mother,' opening her eyes rather widely at this, 'don't you remember Mr. and Mrs. Bland were to lunch there? How could Gage have given me her attention? And then, with guests to entertain, it would never have done to run the risk of upsetting her. Percival would have glared at us all through luncheon if he had noticed her eyes were red. You know how easily Gage cries.'

'Did you tell her this in your letter?'

'I think I implied it, but I am not sure.'

'Ah, well, we must wait until to-morrow,' with a sigh; 'but I cannot deny I am very anxious. You will go up to Hillside directly after breakfast, will you not, my dear? And do beg Geraldine to come back with you. I feel I shall not have a moment's peace until I have seen her.'

'Poor dear mother!' observed Audrey caressingly; for there was a look of care on Mrs. Ross's brow.

But though Audrey cheered up her mother, and made her little jokes, she was quite aware of the ordeal that was before her, and it was with some undefined idea of propitiating her sister that she laid aside the red cashmere the next morning and put on a certain gray gown which Gage especially admired. It had a hat to match, with a gray wing, and Geraldine always looked at her approvingly when she came to Hillside in the gray gown. She was on the terrace, picking two or three yellow chrysanthemums, when she saw her brother-in-law coming towards her. A visit from him at this hour was a most unusual proceeding, and Audrey at once guessed that his business was with her. The idea of any interference from her brother-in-law was decidedly unpalatable; nevertheless, she awaited him smilingly. Mr. Harcourt was a man who walked well. He had a fine carriage of the head, though some people said he held himself a little too erect, and too much with the air of a man who recognises his own superiority; but, as Audrey watched him as he walked up the terrace, she thought he had never held his head so proudly before.

'You are a very early visitor this morning, Percival,' she observed, as she arranged the chrysanthemums in her gray dress; and she looked up at him pleasantly as she shook hands with him.

But there was no answering smile on Mr. Harcourt's face.

'It is a very unusual business that brings me,' he replied rather solemnly. 'Is there anyone in the drawing-room, Audrey? I should like to speak to you quietly.'

'Susan is in there, dusting the ornaments, but I can easily send her away,' rejoined Audrey cheerfully. 'Mother is in the study.' And then she led the way to the drawing-room, and gave Susan a hint to withdraw.

Mr. Harcourt waited until the door was shut, then he put down his hat and faced round on his sister-in-law.

'This is a very sad business,' he said, still with the same portentous air of solemnity. 'I am sorry to say your sister is dreadfully upset.'

'Oh, I hope not,' returned Audrey quickly.

'I have never seen her more upset about anything. She hardly slept at all last night, and I was half afraid I should have to send for Dr. Musgrave this morning: she was not quite strong enough to bear such a shock.'

'Gage is so sensitive, you see.'

'She is not more sensitive than other people,' feeling himself bound to defend his wife's nerves. 'I am not in the least surprised to find how much she has taken it to heart. I think she feels very properly about it. We are both as disappointed as possible—we hoped better things of you, Audrey.'

'Is not that a little severe?'

'I think not. I am bound to tell you the truth plainly, that Geraldine and I strongly disapprove of this engagement.'

'I am so sorry,' returned Audrey, with provoking good-humour; 'but you see, Percival, one must be guided by one's own feelings in such a personal matter; and I hope when you and Gage know Mr. Blake a little better that you will alter your opinion.'

'I am afraid I must differ from you there, even at the risk of displeasing you. I must say that I think Mr. Blake is the last man to make you happy.'

'Now, what reason can you have for making such a sweeping assertion?' asked Audrey, waxing a little warm at this. Percival had no right to stand there lecturing her after this fashion; it was not in a brother-in-law's province to interfere with her choice of a lover. If her parents had given their sanction to her engagement, and allowed her to throw herself away on a poor man, it was surely no one else's business to say a dissenting word. Percival might go home and lecture his own wife if he liked. 'It is a pity you and Gage are so worldly,' she said, in what was meant to be a withering tone. Audrey had never been so near quarrelling with her brother-in-law.

'Worldly?' he repeated, in rather a perplexed tone. 'My dear girl, I confess I do not understand you.'

'It is very easy to understand,' she returned coldly. 'You and Gage object to Mr. Blake because he is poor and has not made his position; you think I am throwing myself away, because I have engaged myself to a junior classical master who has to work his way up.'

'Just so,' observed Mr. Harcourt; 'that is exactly what we do think.'

'And yet you are surprised because I call you worldly. If you only knew how differently father and I think! Perhaps he is disappointed too—indeed, I know that he is; he wanted me to marry an older man—but, all the same, he agrees with me, that a man so honourable and clever, one who has borne so high a character, who is so good a son and brother, would be likely to make a woman happy.'

Mr. Harcourt shrugged his shoulders. They were arguing from different points. Audrey was not likely to convince him: he had started with a preconceived dislike to the whole business. He now proceeded to pull Audrey's impulsive speech to pieces.

'I do not deny that Blake is a good fellow, and he is clever, too; but in marrying him you will be descending in the social scale. Who are the Blakes? No one knows anything about them—Edith always declared the father was a City man—but we do know that his mother is distinctly objectionable!'

'Excuse me, Percival, but you are speaking of a close friend. Even if she were not Cyril's mother, my friendship for her should prevent you from speaking against her in my presence.'

Mr. Harcourt groaned as he heard the word 'Cyril,' but he felt at the same time that he had gone too far: his quick temper had carried him away. He hastened to apologise.

'You must forgive me, Audrey, if I speak a little too plainly. But this is such a bitter disappointment to me, my very affection for you makes me object all the more strongly to this engagement. As Geraldine said to me last night, she has only one sister—and this makes it all the harder for her.'

'Yes, I understand; and I am very sorry to disappoint you both. But, Percival, the thing is done now, and I want you and Gage to make the best of it.'

'Will you not reconsider your decision?' he asked, and there was softness and real affection in his look. 'Perhaps, after all, you may have mistaken your feelings; a girl is sometimes talked into a thing.'

But she shook her head.

'I have not mistaken them,' she said quietly. 'Don't say any more, Percival; I have no wish to quarrel; and, of course, I am a little sore about this.'

Then Mr. Harcourt felt that his mission had been unsuccessful; the girl was contumacious, and would listen to no one.

'It's all Dr. Ross's fault,' he said to himself, as he took up his hat and prepared to walk with her to Hillside. 'If he had refused his consent she would have given the thing up; but in worldly matters my respected father-in-law is a mere child.'



CHAPTER XXVI

HOW GERALDINE TOOK IT TO HEART

'This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.'—HORACE WALPOLE.

It may be doubted if either Audrey or her brother-in-law enjoyed their walk to Hillside. Mr. Harcourt felt that he had failed signally in his brotherly mission, and any sort of failure was intolerable to him. To do him justice, he was thinking only of Audrey's future welfare. As he took up the wide clerical-looking hat that he affected, and walked with her down the terrace, he told himself sorrowfully that he might as well have held his tongue; but, all the same, he could not refrain from speaking another word or two.

'I do so wish I could make you see this thing as your friends will see it!' he said, no longer laying down the law, but speaking in a tone of mild insistence, as became a man who knew himself to be right. 'They may not be so closely interested in the matter, but perhaps their view may be less prejudiced. Think, my dear girl, what a serious, what a terrible thing it would be if you were to discover too late that you had made a mistake!'

'I should never own it to be one,' she said, trying to smile; but it could not be denied that she found her brother-in-law a little depressing; 'and you may be quite sure that I should abide by it. There is a fund of obstinacy in my nature that no one seems to have discovered but myself.'

Then Mr. Harcourt gave vent to an impatient sigh. He must leave her to Geraldine, he thought; but even then he could not forbear from one Parthian thrust.

'You will live to repent it,' he said very seriously, 'and then you will remember my warning. You must not look to me to help you out of your difficulties then, Audrey; I would have done anything for you now.'

'I will promise you that I will not ask for your help,' she returned, so promptly that he looked quite hurt. And she hastened to soften her words. 'If one makes a mistake of that kind, one must only look to one's self.'

'I have always regarded your interests as identical with Edith's,' he returned a little stiffly. 'I mean, I have always treated you as though you were my own sister; but, of course, if you cannot rely on me as your brother——'

But Audrey would not let him finish his sentence.

'Why, Percival,' she said gently, 'I do believe you are quarrelling with me, just because I am taking you at your word. Are you not just a little illogical for once? In one breath you tell me not to look to you for help, and then you reproach me with unsisterly feelings. How are we to understand each other at this rate?'

Then a faint smile played round Mr. Harcourt's mouth. It was true that, in the heat of argument, he did not always measure his words; even Geraldine had ventured to tell him so once.

'Well, well, we will say no more about it,' he returned somewhat magnanimously; and though he could not pluck up spirit to turn the conversation into another channel, he refrained from any more depressing remarks. He gave her a friendly nod and smile as they parted in the hall.

'You will find Geraldine in the morning-room,' he said; and Audrey was much relieved that he did not offer to accompany her.

Mrs. Harcourt evidently regarded herself as an invalid that morning. She was sitting in the corner of the big couch, in her pale-pink tea-gown. She rose at her sister's entrance, however, and crossed the room with languid steps.

'Did Percival bring you?' she asked, as she kissed her.

Audrey felt as though she were to blame when she saw Geraldine's heavy eyes.

'I am afraid you are far from well, Gage,' she said a little anxiously, for, after all, Geraldine was her only sister, and if things should go wrong with her——. She felt a momentary compunction—one of those keen, pin-like pricks of conscience—as she remembered how often she had been vexed with her little ways.

Mrs. Harcourt looked at her mournfully.

'How can I be well?' she said, with reproachful sweetness in her voice. 'I do not think I had three hours' sleep last night. Percival got quite concerned about me at last. Oh, Audrey, you have made me so very unhappy!' and her eyes filled with tears.

'My dear Gage, I would not willingly make you unhappy for worlds!'

'But, all the same, it has been such a shock—such a cruel disappointment to us both! Percival was nearly as upset about it as I was. If you could have seen him walking up and down the room last night! "She must be mad to throw herself away in this fashion!"—he would say nothing else for a long time.'

'I am quite aware of Percival's sentiments,' returned Audrey coldly.

Her manner alarmed Geraldine. 'But you have not quarrelled with him for telling you the truth?' she asked with unmistakable anxiety. 'Oh, Audrey, you do not know how fond Percival is of you! He is as proud of you as though you were his own sister. He has always looked forward to your marriage. He used to say none of the men he knew were half good enough for you; that you ought to have someone who would be in every way your superior, and to whom you could look up.'

'Yes, and it is such a blessing that I can look up to Cyril.'

'But he is so young; and though he is nice—yes, of course, he is very nice and good-looking and clever—still one wants more in a husband. Somehow I never realised these things until I was actually standing at the altar with Percival and said those solemn words for myself: "For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death us do part." I felt then that if I had not been so sure of Percival I would rather have died than have said those words.'

A faint shiver passed over Audrey as Geraldine spoke. She had never heard her talk in this way before. 'Dear, dear Audrey,' she continued, taking her sister's hand; 'can you wonder that I am anxious that you should be as happy as I am, that it nearly breaks my heart to know that you are taking this false step?'

A painful flush crossed Audrey's face. This was a worse ordeal than she had expected. She had been prepared for reproaches, even for bitter words; but this softness, this tearful and caressing gentleness, seemed to deprive her of all strength, to cut away the ground from under her feet. She was at once touched and grateful for her sister's forbearance.

'You are very good to me, Gage,' she said in a low voice; 'I know how utterly I have disappointed you and Percival—and from a worldly point of view I daresay you are both right. Cyril is poor, he has to work his way up, he is not what people would call a good match; but then, you know, I have always been terribly unpractical.'

'It is not only that,' sighed Geraldine; 'as far as Mr. Blake is concerned, one cannot say much against him; he is very gentlemanly. I suppose one would get used to him, though I shall never, never think him good enough for you. But there are other objections: the idea that Mrs. Blake will be your mother-in-law makes me utterly wretched.'

'Poor woman! she is so nice, and I am so fond of her. I often wonder why you are so prejudiced against her, Gage; but of course it is all that tiresome Mrs. Bryce.'

'No, indeed, it is not,' returned Mrs. Harcourt quickly. 'I do not want to vex you, Audrey; things are miserable enough without our quarrelling, and however unhappy you make me, I will never quarrel with my only sister. But you must let me say this for once, that I cannot like Mrs. Blake. From the first moment I have distrusted her, and I know Percival feels the same.'

'But, Gage, do be reasonable. I am going to marry Cyril, not Mrs. Blake!'

'When a woman marries she enters her husband's family,' returned Geraldine in her old decided manner; 'you will belong to them, not to us—at least,' correcting herself, as the thought of her daily visits to Woodcote occurred to her, 'you will have to share your husband's interests and responsibilities with regard to his family. You cannot divide yourself from him without failing in your wifely duty.'

'I am quite of your opinion,' returned Audrey happily; 'Cyril's mother and Kester and Mollie will be very dear to me. I never dreamt for one moment of separating my interests from his.'

'If I thought you really loved him——' observed Geraldine, but here she stopped, warned by an indignant flash in Audrey's gray eyes.

'You might have spared me that, Gage,' she said, rather sadly; 'I think I have had enough to bear already from you and Percival. You have done your best to depress and dishearten me; you have not even wished me happiness.' Then Geraldine burst into tears.

'I don't want to be unkind,' she sobbed, in such distress that Audrey repented her quick words; 'but you must give me time to get over this. It is the first real trouble I have ever had.' And then, as Audrey kissed her and coaxed her, she allowed herself to be somewhat consoled.

'You know you must think of yourself, Gage; you must not make yourself ill about me. I am not worth it.' Then Geraldine did summon up a smile.

'And you will be good to Cyril? The poor fellow could not help falling in love with me, you know.'

'Of course we shall behave properly to him,' returned Geraldine, drawing herself up a little stiffly; 'you must not expect us to receive him with open arms. Mr. Blake must know how entirely we disapprove of the engagement; but, of course, as my father has given his consent, we have no right to make ourselves disagreeable. You must give me a little time, Audrey, just to recover myself, and then he shall be asked to dinner.'

'I hope you will not ask me at the same time!' exclaimed Audrey in genuine alarm; and Geraldine looked rather shocked.

'Of course you must come with him! that is understood. You will be asked everywhere if—if——' looking at her suggestively, 'you mean your engagement to be known.'

'Most certainly! I object very strongly to secrecy under any circumstances.'

'Then in that case you must be prepared for congratulations and a round of dinners.'

'I prefer congratulations to condolences,' returned Audrey a little wickedly; and then, as though to atone for her joke, she suddenly knelt down before her sister and put her arms round her. 'Dear Gage, I do feel such a wretch for having upset you like this. No wonder Percival owes me a grudge. Now, do say something nice to me before I go—there's a darling!' and, of course, Geraldine melted in a moment.

'I do pray, with all my heart, that you may be happy,' she sighed, and then they kissed each other very affectionately. 'Give my love to mother, and tell her I am not well enough to come to her to-day,' were Geraldine's parting words as Audrey left her.

Mr. Harcourt came out of his study the moment he heard the door close.

'Well,' he asked, with a shade of anxiety in his tone, 'have you made any impression, my dear?'

'No, Percy,' returned his wife sadly. 'She is bent on taking her own way—the Blake influence is far too strong.'

'Ah, well,' in a tone of strong disgust, 'she is making her own bed, and must lie on it. It was an evil day for all of us when your father engaged Blake for his junior classical master. I wanted him to have Sowerby—Sowerby is the better man, and all his people are gentlefolks—but there is no turning the Doctor when he has got an idea in his head: no one but Blake would do. And now mischief has come of it. But, all the same, I won't have you making yourself ill about it—remember that, my love. You have got me to think about, and I don't choose to have my wife spoiling her eyes after this fashion. It is too damp for you to go out, for there has been a sharp shower or two; but I have half an hour to spare, and can read to you if you like.' And to this Geraldine gratefully assented.

It may be doubted whether she heard much of the brilliant essay that Mr. Harcourt had selected for her delectation, but it was very soothing to lie there and listen to her husband's voice. The sentences grew involved presently, and there was a humming, as though of bees, in the quiet room. Mr. Harcourt smiled to himself as he went on reading—the sleep would do her more good than the essay, he thought; and in this he was right.

When Mrs. Ross received her daughter's message she at once prepared to go up to Hillside, and spent the remainder of the afternoon there.

Geraldine had awakened from her nap much refreshed, and was disposed to take a less lugubrious view of things. She was certainly somewhat depressing at first, and her mother found her implied reproaches somewhat hard to bear; but she was still too languid and subdued to speak with her usual decision.

'I suppose that we shall have to make the best of it,' she observed presently, in a resigned tone of voice. 'It will always be a great trouble to me—but one must expect trouble in this world, as I said to Percy just now. I am afraid we have been too happy.'

'Oh, my dear! you must not say such things.'

'It is better to say them than to think them. Percy never minds how much I complain to him, if I will only not brood over worries by myself. He says that it is so bad for me.'

'Percival is quite right, my love;' and Mrs. Ross looked anxiously at her daughter's pale face. 'But you know your one duty is to keep yourself cheerful. Try and put all this away from your mind, and leave Audrey to be happy in her own way. Mr. Blake is really a very nice lovable fellow, and I am quite fond of him already, and so is your father—and I am sure your father is a good judge of character.'

'Yes, mother dear; and you must not think Percy and I mean to be tiresome and disagreeable. It is not the young man so much that we mind—though we shall always think Audrey is lowering herself in marrying him—but it is that odious Mrs. Blake.'

Then, for the moment, Mrs. Ross felt herself uncomfortable. Mrs. Blake had called on her that very morning, while Audrey was at Hillside, and in spite of her mildness and toleration she had been obliged to confess to herself that Mrs. Blake's manners had not quite pleased her. Geraldine managed to extract the whole account of the interview, though Mrs. Ross gave it rather reluctantly.

'And I suppose she was absurdly impulsive, as usual, mother?' she asked, when Mrs. Ross had finished a somewhat brief narrative.

'Well, yes. She is always rather effusive; people have their own style, you see.'

'Only Mrs. Blake's is, unfortunately, a very bad style.'

'I daresay you are right, my dear, and I certainly prefer a quieter manner; and it was not quite good taste lauding your father and me to the skies for our goodness in allowing the match. Poor woman! I daresay she was a little excited; only it was a pity to let her feelings carry her away—still, she was very nice about Audrey.'

'She will be her daughter-in-law, you know.'

Then Mrs. Ross winced slightly. She was glad that Mrs. Charrington was that moment announced—she was a pleasant chatty woman, and always paid long visits: Geraldine was her special favourite. As the news of the engagement had not yet reached her, the talk was confined to certain local interests: a new grant of books to the library, the difficulty of finding a butler, and the lameness of one of Dr. Ross's carriage-horses; and Mrs. Ross was in this manner relieved from any more awkward questions.

Her husband was her only confidant, and to him she did disburden herself.

'I do wish that Mrs. Blake were a different sort of woman, John,' she observed that night. 'She is very handsome and amusing; but she is certainly too unrestrained in her talk.'

'We must take folk as we find them, Emmie,' returned Dr. Ross quietly. 'Mrs. Blake is not your sort. In spite of having a grown-up son, she is not quite grown-up herself: middle-aged people ought not to talk out all their feelings as though they were children. But she is a very pleasing person for all that.'

'So I always thought; but she tires one. Not that I would let Audrey know that.'

'Oh, Audrey would keep a dozen Mrs. Blakes in order,' was her husband's response; and then Mrs. Ross said no more.

Geraldine kept her word, and about a week later Cyril Blake received a civil little note, asking him to dine at Hillside on the following evening.

'We shall be quite by ourselves. It will be only a family party—just my husband's brother, Mr. Walter Harcourt, and his wife;' for the Walter Harcourts had come on a visit.

Cyril looked a little grave as he showed the note to Audrey.

'I suppose I must go; but it will be very terrible. I don't mind telling you, Audrey, that I am awfully afraid of your sister.'

'Poor fellow!' returned Audrey, with one of her charming smiles; 'I wish I could spare you this ordeal. But I can give you one bit of comfort: Gage will behave very nicely to you.' And though Cyril still felt a little dubious on this point, he was obliged to own afterwards that she was right.

The evening was a far pleasanter one than he expected. Mr. Harcourt was thawed by his brother's presence, and though there was a slight stiffness and reserve in his manner to Cyril, there was no aggressiveness; and Geraldine was too much of a gentlewoman to behave ungraciously to any guest. Both of them were quite civil to Cyril, though they could not be said to be demonstrative, and there was no attempt to treat him as one of themselves.

Mr. Walter Harcourt was a barrister, and was rapidly rising in his profession. He was considerably younger than his brother, and had recently married a wealthy young widow. He was a clever talker, and his stock of legal anecdotes kept them all well amused. He and Audrey were old friends, and at one time Geraldine and her husband had privately hoped that their acquaintance might ripen into a tenderer feeling.

As soon as the ladies reached the drawing-room, Mrs. Walter Harcourt, who was a pretty, vivacious little woman, observed confidentially to Geraldine:

'My dear, I must congratulate you. That future brother-in-law of yours is one of the handsomest men I have ever seen. I always thought Walter a good-looking fellow, and I daresay you thought much the same of Percival; but both our husbands looked very ordinary people beside him. In fact, Walter was quite clumsy.'

'Nonsense, Maggie!' returned Geraldine, glancing behind her to see if Audrey were within earshot. 'How can you make such absurd comparisons? Of course Mr. Blake is good-looking; but, for my own part, I always distrust handsome men.'

'They are generally such fools, you see. I hate talking to a man who is too self-engrossed to pay me attention. But Mr. Blake is thoroughly nice. I must go to Audrey and tell her how much I admire her fiance.'

'Thank goodness, that is over!' exclaimed Cyril fervently, as Audrey joined him in the porch. 'I have not had a word with you yet.'

Audrey smiled as she gathered up her long dress and stepped out into the dark shrubberies.

'It was very pleasant,' she observed tranquilly. 'The Walter Harcourts are clever, amusing people. You got on capitally with both of them; and, Cyril, I am sure Gage was as nice as possible.'

'Oh yes!' he returned quickly; 'and I admire her excessively; but, all the same, I shall never feel at my ease with her.' And, as Audrey uttered a protest at this, he continued seriously: 'Of course, I know what Mrs. Harcourt thinks of my presumption; her manner told me that at once. "You are not one of us"—that is what her tone said to me; and yet she was quite kind and civil. Oh, Audrey'—interrupting himself, and speaking almost passionately—'if I were only more worthy of you! But have patience with me, and your people shall respect me yet.'

'Dear Cyril, please do not talk so!' and Audrey stole closer to him in the October darkness. 'You have behaved so beautifully to-night, and I felt, oh! so proud of my sweetheart. And if I am content, what does it matter what other people think?'

'Forgive me, darling,' he returned remorsefully; 'I am only sometimes a little sore because I can give you so little.'

And then his mood changed, for the subtle comfort of her sweet words was thrilling through him; for he was young, and the girl he worshipped from the depths of his honest heart was alone with him under the dim, cloudy skies. Was it any wonder that the world was forgotten, and only the golden haze of the future seemed before them, as they walked together through the quiet streets to Woodcote?



CHAPTER XXVII

WHAT MICHAEL THOUGHT OF IT

'Not to be solitary one must possess, entirely to one's self, a human creature, and belong exclusively to her (or him).'—GUIZOT.

'How, then, is one to recover courage enough for action?

* * * * *

By extracting a richer experience out of our losses and lessons.'—AMIEL.

Captain Burnett had finished his troublesome piece of business, and was thinking of his return home. His friend was, metaphorically speaking, on his feet again, and Michael was now free to leave London. He had waited, however, for another day or two on Kester's account; the friendly doctor who had undertaken to look into his case had already done wonders. Kester was making rapid progress under his care, and his bright looks and evident enjoyment of his town life reconciled Michael to their long, protracted stay.

'We must certainly go back to Rutherford next week,' he observed one morning, as they sat at breakfast together.

Kester had some appointment with Fred Somers that called him out early, and Captain Burnett good-naturedly left his letters unread, that he might pour out the coffee and attend to his wants.

'They will keep, and I have nothing to do this morning,' he remarked carelessly, as he took them up and laid them down again.

After all, he would not be sorry to read them alone. There was an Indian letter, and one from Audrey, and several notes that were evidently invitations.

When Kester had left him, he sat down in an easy-chair by the window. There was a little table beside him, with a red jar full of brown leaves and chrysanthemums. He picked out one and played with it for a moment, and then Booty jumped up uninvited and curled himself up on his knee.

He read the invitations first, and then threw them aside.

'I shall be at Rutherford,' he thought; and then he opened his Indian letter.

It was from a fellow-officer, and contained an amusing account of a visit he had lately paid to Calcutta. Just at the end it said: 'By the bye, somebody told me the other day that your uncle, Mr. Carlisle, was ill. He has got a nasty attack, and the doctors are shaking their heads over him. The fellow who told me—it was Donarton—mentioned that you were likely to take a lively interest in the news. Is that true, old man, or has Mr. Carlisle any nearer relative than yourself? From what I hear, he is a sort of nabob in these parts.'

Captain Burnett put down this letter, and looked dreamily out of the window. Was it really so, he wondered? Major Glenyow was not the sort of fellow to mention a mere report. His uncle was by no means an old man, and once or twice a rumour of his intended marriage had reached his ears, but it had never been verified. If it were true that his uncle were in a bad way, that he should not recover, then, indeed, there was a possibility. And here, in spite of himself, Michael fell into a day-dream.

If he were rich, if he had sufficient to offer a comfortable home and some of the luxuries of life to the woman he wished to make his wife, would it be right for him to speak? For years his poverty and ill-health had kept him silent; he had made no sign: he had been her faithful friend and cousin—that was all!

But now, if the pressure of narrow means were removed, if, after all, he were his uncle's heir—as he verily believed himself to be—might he not venture to plead his cause at last? His health was better, and his doctor had often told him, half seriously and half in joke, that all he needed was a good wife to take care of him.

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