"My wife?" he repeated slowly. "Ah yes, my wife. Well, after a stormy scene with her, she became quiet and civil. She even seemed anxious to please me, and to set my mind at rest. But she was merely hatching her last plot against me, and I was as great a fool and dupe at this moment as I had ever been before."
And then, with averted face, he told the story of his last interview with her on the hills beyond Culoz. "I will not repeat anything she said," he went on—it was his sole reservation—"although some of her sentences are burned into my brain for ever. I suppose because they were so true."
"Oh, no!" Lettice murmured involuntarily, and looking at him with tear-dimmed eyes. She was intensely interested in his story, and Alan Walcott felt assured by her face that the sympathy he longed for was not withheld.
"My wound was soon healed," he said when the details of that terrible scene were told; "but I was not in a hurry to come back to England. When I did come back, I avoided as much as possible the few people who knew me; and I have never to this moment spoken of my deliverance, which I suppose they talk of as my loss."
"They think," said Lettice, slowly, for she was puzzled in her mind, and did not know what to say, "that you are a widower?"
"And what am I?" he cried, walking up and down the room in a restless way. "Am I not a widower? Has she not died completely out of my life? I shall never see her again—she is dead and buried, and I am free? Ah, do not look at me so doubtfully, do not take back the sympathy which you promised me! Are you going to turn me away, hungry and thirsty for kindness, because you imagine that my need is greater than you thought it five minutes ago? I will not believe you are so cruel!"
"We need not analyze my feelings, Mr. Walcott. I could not do that myself, until I have had time to think. But—is it right to leave other people under the conviction that your wife is actually dead, when you know that in all probability she is not?"
"I never said she was dead! I never suggested or acted a lie. May not a man keep silence about his own most sacred affairs?"
"Perhaps he may," said Lettice. "It is not for me to judge you—and at any rate, you have told me!"
She stood up and looked at him with her fearless grey eyes, whilst his own anxiously scanned her face.
"I am very, very sorry for you. If I can do anything to help you, I will. You must not doubt my sympathy, and I shall never withdraw my promise. But just now I cannot think what it would be best to do or say. Let me have time to think."
She held out her hand, and he took it, seeing that she wanted him to go.
"Good-bye!" he said. "God bless you for being what you are. It has done me good to talk. When we meet again—unless you write and give me your commands—I promise to do whatever you may tell me."
And with that, he went away.
THE POET SPEAKS.
As soon as her visitor was gone, Lettice fell into a deep study. She had two things especially to think about, and she began by wondering what Mrs. Hartley would say if she knew that Alan Walcott's wife was alive, and by repeating what he had said to her that morning: that a man was not bound to tell his private affairs to the world. No! she told herself, it was impossible for any man of self-respect to wear his heart on his sleeve, to assume beforehand that people would mistake his position, and to ticket himself as a deserted husband, lest forward girls should waste their wiles upon him.
The thought was odious; and yet she had suggested it to him! Had she not done more than that? Had she not implied that he had done a dishonorable thing in concealing what he was in no way bound to reveal? What would he think of her, or impute to her, for raising such a point at the very moment when he was displaying his confidence in her, and appealing for her sympathy? She blushed with shame at the idea.
He was already completely justified in her mind, for she did not go so far as to put the case which a third person might have put in her own interest. If Alan had been unfair or inconsiderate to anyone, it was surely to Lettice herself. He had spoken familiarly to her, sought her company, confessed his admiration in a more eloquent language than that of words, and asked for a return of sentiment by those subtle appeals which seem to enter the heart through none of the ordinary and ticketed senses. It is true that he had not produced in her mind the distinct impression that she was anything more to him than an agreeable talker and listener in his conversational moods; but that was due to her natural modesty rather than to his self-restraint. He had been impatient, at times, of her slowness to respond, and it was only when he saw whither this impatience was leading him that he resolved to tell her all that she ought to know. It was not his delay, however, that constituted the injustice of his conduct, but the fact of his appealing to her in any way for the response which he had no right to ask.
Lettice was just as incapable of thinking that she had been unjustly treated as she was of believing that Alan Walcott loved her. Thus she was spared the humiliation that might have fallen on her if she had understood that his visit was partly intended to guard her against the danger of giving her love before it had been asked.
Having tried and acquitted her friend, and having further made up her mind that she would write him a letter to assure him of his acquittal, she summoned herself before the court of her conscience; and this was a very different case from the one which had been so easily decided. Then the presumption was all in favor of the accused; now it was all against her. The guilt was as good as admitted beforehand, for as soon as Lettice began to examine and cross-examine herself, she became painfully aware of her transgressions.
What was this weight which oppressed her, and stifled her, and covered her with shame? It was not merely sorrow for the misfortunes of her friend. That would not have made her ashamed, for she knew well that compassion was a woman's privilege, for which she has no reason to blush. Something had befallen her this very morning which had caused her to blush, and it was the first time in all her life that Lettice's cheek had grown red for anything she had done, or thought, or said, or listened to, in respect of any man whatever. Putting her father and brother on one side, no man had had the power, for very few had had the opportunity, to quicken the pulses in her veins as they were quickened now. She had not lived to be six and twenty years old without knowing what love between a man and woman really meant, but she had never appropriated to herself the good things which she saw others enjoying. It was not for want of being invited to the feast, for several of her father's curates had been ready to grace their frugal boards by her presence, and to crown her with the fillets of their dignity and self-esteem. The prospect held up to her by these worthy men had not allured her in any way; she had not loved their wine and oil, and thus she had remained rich, according to the promise of the seer, with the bread and salt of her own imaginings.
It would be wrong to suppose that Lettice had no strong passions, because she had never loved, or even thought that she loved. The woman of cultivated mind is often the woman of deepest feeling; her mental strength implies her calmness, and the calm surface indicates the greatest depth. It is in the restless hearts which beat themselves against the shores of the vast ocean of womanhood that passion is so quick to display itself, so vehement in its shallow force, so broken in its rapid ebb. The real strength of humanity lies deep below the surface; but a weak woman often mistakes for strength her irresistible craving for happiness and satisfaction. It is precisely for this reason that a liberal education and a full mind are even more essential to the welfare of a woman than they are to the welfare of a man. The world has left its women, with this irresistible craving in their hearts, dependent, solitary, exposed to attack, and unarmed for defence; and as a punishment it has been stung almost to death by the scorpions which its cruelty generates. But a woman who has been thoroughly educated, a woman of strong mind and gentle heart, is not dependent for happiness on the caprice of others, or on the abandonment of half the privileges of her sex, but draws from an inexhaustible well to which she has constant access.
So Lettice, with the passions of her kind, and the cravings of her sex, had been as happy as the chequered circumstances of her outer life would permit; but now for the first time her peace of mind was disturbed, and she felt the heaving of the awakened sea beneath.
Why had her heart grown cold when she heard that Alan Walcott's wife was still alive? Why had her thought been so bitter when she told herself that she had no right to give the man her sympathy? Why had the light and warmth and color of life departed as soon as she knew that the woman whom he had married, however unworthy she might be, was the only one who could claim his fidelity? Alas, the answer to her questions was only too apparent. The pain which it cost her to awake from her brief summer's dream was her first admonition that she had dreamed at all. Not until she had lost the right to rejoice in his admiration and respond to his love, did she comprehend how much these things meant to her, and how far they had been allowed to go.
The anguish of a first love which cannot be cherished or requited is infinitely more grievous when a woman is approaching the age of thirty than it is at seventeen or twenty. The recoil is greater and the elasticity is less. But if Lettice suffered severely from the sudden blow which had fallen upon her, she still had the consolation of knowing that she could suffer in private, and that she had not betrayed the weakness of her heart—least of all to him who had tried to make her weak.
In the course of the evening she sat down and wrote to him—partly because he had asked her to write, and partly in order that she might say without delay what seemed necessary to be said.
"DEAR MR. WALCOTT,—After you were gone this morning I thought a great deal about all that you said to me, and as you asked me for my opinion, and I promised to give it, perhaps I had better tell you what I think at once. I cannot see that you are, or have been, under any moral compulsion to repeat the painful events of your past life, and I am sorry if I implied that I thought you were. Of course, you may yourself hold that these facts impose a certain duty upon you, or you may desire that your position should be known. In that case you will do what you think right, and no one else can properly decide for you.
"I was indeed grieved by your story. I wish it was in my power to lessen your pain; but, as it is not, I can only ask you to believe that if I could do so, I would.
"You will be hard at work, like myself (as you told me), during the next few months. Is not hard work, after all, the very best of anodynes? I have found it so in the past, and I trust you have done so too, and will continue to do so.
"Believe me, dear Mr. Walcott, yours very sincerely,
She hesitated for some time as to whether she had said too much, or too little, or whether what she had said was expressed in the right way. But in the end she sent it as it was written.
Then, if she had been a thoroughly sensible and philosophical young woman, she would have forced herself to do some hard work, by way of applying the anodyne of which she had spoken. But that was too much to expect from her in the circumstances. What she actually did was to go to bed early and cry herself to sleep.
She had not considered whether her letter required, or was likely to receive an answer, and she was therefore a little surprised when the postman brought her one on the afternoon of the following day. Not without trepidation, she took it to her room and read it.
"DEAR MISS CAMPION"—so the letter began—"I thank you very much for your kindness. I have learned to find so much meaning in your words that I think I can tell better than anyone else how to interpret the spirit from the letter of what you say. So, when you tell me that no one can decide for me what it is my duty to do, I understand that, if you were in my position at this moment, you would rather desire that it should be known. Henceforth I desire it, and I shall tell Mrs. Hartley and Mrs. Graham as much as is necessary the next time I see them. This will be equivalent to telling the world—will it not?
"Two other things I understand from your letter. First, that you do not wish to meet me so often in future; and, second, that though you know my pain would be diminished by the frank expression of your sympathy, and though you might find it in your heart to be frankly sympathetic, yet you do not think it would be right, and you do not mean to be actively beneficent. Am I wrong? If I am, you must forgive me; but, if I am not, I cannot accept your decision without entering my protest.
"Think, my dear friend—you will allow me that word!—to what you condemn me if you take your stand upon the extreme dictates of conventionality. You cannot know what it would mean to me if you were to say, 'He is a married man, and we had better not meet so frequently in future.' To you, that would be no loss whatever. To me, it would be the loss of happiness, of consolation, of intellectual life. Listen and have pity upon me! I could not say it to your face, but I will say it now, though you may think it an unpardonable crime. You have become so necessary to me that I cannot contemplate existence without you. Have you not seen it already—or, if you have not, can you doubt when you look back on the past six months—that respect has grown into affection, and affection into love? Yes, I love you, Lettice!—in my own heart I call you Lettice every hour of the day—and I cannot live any longer without telling you of my love.
"When I began this letter I did not mean to tell you—at any rate not to-day. Think of the condition of my mind when I am driven by such a sudden impulse—think, and make allowance for me!
"I am not sure what I expected when I resolved to make my sad story known to you. Perhaps, in my madness, I thought, 'There is a right and a wrong above the right and wrong of society's judgments; and she is on the higher levels of humanity, and will take pity on my misfortunes.' I only say, perhaps I thought this. I don't know what I thought. But I knew I could not ask you to be my wife, and I determined that you should know why I could not.
"Oh, how I hate that woman! I believe that she is dead. I tell myself every day that she is dead, and that there is nothing to prevent me from throwing myself at your feet, and praying you to redeem me from misery. Is not my belief enough to produce conviction in you? No—you will not believe it; and, perhaps, if you did, you would not consent to redeem me. No! I must drag my lengthening chain until I die! I must live in pain and disgust, bound to a corpse, covered with a leprosy, because the angel whose mission it is to save me will not come down from her heaven and touch me with her finger.
"You shall not see these words, Lettice—my dear Lettice! They are the offspring of a disordered brain. I meant to write you such a calm and humble message, telling you that your counsel was wise—that I would follow it—that I knew I had your sympathy, and that I reverenced you as a saint. If I go on writing what I do not mean to send, it is only because the freedom of my words has brought me peace and comfort, and because it is good that I should allow myself to write the truth, though I am not allowed to write it to you!
"Not allowed to write the truth to you, Lettice? That, surely, is a blasphemy! If I may not write the truth to you, then I may not know you—I may not worship you—I may not give my soul into your keeping.
"I will test it. My letter shall go. You will not answer it—you will only sit still, and either hate or love me; and one day I shall know which it has been. ALAN."
Whilst Lettice read this wild and incoherent letter, she sank on her knees by her bedside, unable in any other attitude to bear the strain which it put upon her feelings.
"How dare he?" she murmured, at the first outbreak of his passionate complaint; but, as she went on reading, the glow of pity melted her woman's heart, and only once more she protested, in words, against the audacious candor of her lover.
"How could he?"
And as she finished, and her head was bowed upon her hands, and upon the letter which lay between them, her lips sought out the words which he had written last of all, as though they would carry a message of forgiveness—and consolation to the spirit which hovered beneath it.
SYDNEY GIVES ADVICE.
The day after Sydney Campion had heard Brooke Dalton's story of the disappearance of Alan Walcott's wife had been a very busy one for him. He had tried to get away from his work at an early hour, in order that he might pay one of his rare visits to Maple Cottage, and combine with his inquiries into the welfare of his mother certain necessary cautions to his sister Lettice. It was indispensable that she should be made to understand what sort of man this precious poet was known to be, and how impossible it had become that a sister of his should continue to treat him as a friend.
Why, the fellow might be—probably was—a murderer! And, if not that, at all events there was such a mystery surrounding him, and such an indelible stain upon his character, that he, Sydney Campion, could not suffer her to continue that most objectionable acquaintance.
But his duties conspired with his dinner to prevent the visit from being made before the evening, and it was nearly eight o'clock when he arrived at Hammersmith. He had dined with a friend in Holborn, and had taken a Metropolitan train at Farringdon Street, though, as a rule, he held himself aloof from the poison-traps of London, as he was pleased to call the underground railway, and travelled mostly in the two-wheeled gondolas which so lightly float on the surface of the stream above.
As he was about to leave the station, his eye encountered a face and figure which attracted him, and made him almost involuntarily come to a standstill. It was Milly Harrington, Lettice's maid, who, having posted her mistress' letter to Alan Walcott, had turned her listless steps in this direction.
Milly's life in London had proved something of a disappointment to her. The cottage on Brook Green was even quieter than the Rectory at Angleford, where she had at least the companionship of other servants, and a large acquaintance in the village. Lettice was a kind and considerate mistress, but a careful one: she did not let the young country-bred girl go out after dark, and exercised an unusual amount of supervision over her doings. Of late, these restrictions had begun to gall Milly, for she contrasted her lot with that of servants in neighboring houses, and felt that Miss Lettice was a tyrant compared with the easy-going mistresses of whom she heard. Certainly Miss Lettice gave good wages, and was always gentle in manner and ready to sympathize when the girl had bad news of her old grandmother's health; but she did not allow Milly as much liberty as London servants are accustomed to enjoy, and Milly, growing learned in her rights by continued comparison, fretted against the restraints imposed upon her.
She might have "kept company" with the milkman, with the policeman, with one of the porters at the station: for these, one and all, laid their hearts and fortunes at her feet; but Milly rejected their overtures with scorn. Her own prettiness of form and feature had been more than ever impressed upon her by the offers which she refused; and she was determined, as she phrased it, "not to throw herself away."
Her fancy that "Mr. Sydney" admired her had not been a mistaken one. Sydney had always been susceptible to the charms of a pretty face; and Nature had preordained a certain measure of excuse for any man who felt impelled to look twice at Milly, or even to speak to her on a flimsy pretext. And Milly was on Nature's side, for she did not resent being looked at or spoken to, although there was more innocence and ignorance of evil on her side than men were likely to give her credit for. Therefore Sydney had for some time been on speaking terms with her, over and above what might have been natural in an occasional visitor to the Rectory and Maple Cottage. He saw and meant no harm to her in his admiration, and had no idea at present that his occasional smile or idle jesting compliment made the girl's cheeks burn, her heart beat fast, made her nights restless and her days long. He took it for granted that gratified vanity alone made her receive his attentions with pleasure. His gifts—for he could be lavish when he liked—were all, he thought, that attracted her. She was a woman, and could, no doubt, play her own game and take care of herself. She had her weapons, as other women had. Sydney's opinion of women was, on the whole, a low one; and he had a supreme contempt for all women of the lower class—a contempt which causes a man to look on them only as toys—instruments for his pleasure—to be used and cast aside. He believed that they systematically preyed on men, and made profit out of their weakness. That Milly was at a disadvantage with him, because she was weak and young and unprotected, scarcely entered his head. He would have said that she had the best of it. She was pretty and young, and could make him pay for it if he did her any harm. She was one of a class—a class of harpies, in his opinion—and he did not attribute any particular individuality to her at all.
But Milly was a very real and individual woman, with a nature in which the wild spark of passion might some day be roused with disastrous results. It is unsafe to play with the emotions of a person who is simply labelled, often mistakenly and insufficiently, in your mind as belonging to a class, and possessing the characteristics of that class. There is always the chance that some old strain of tendency, some freak of heredity, may develop in the way which is most of all dangerous to you and to your career. For you cannot play with a woman's physical nature without touching, how remotely soever, her spiritual constitution as well; and, as Browning assures us, it is indeed "an awkward thing to play with souls, and matter enough to save one's own."
Sydney Campion, however, concerned himself very little with his own soul, or the soul of anybody else. He went up to Milly and greeted her with a smile that brought the color to her face.
"Well, Milly," he said, "are you taking your walks abroad to-night? Is your mistress pretty well? I was just going to Maple Cottage."
"Yes, sir, mistress is pretty well; but I don't think Miss Lettice is," said Milly, falling back into her old way of speaking of the rector's daughter. "She mentioned that she was going to bed early. You had better let me go back first and open the door for you."
"Perhaps it would be best. Not well, eh? What is the matter?"
"I don't know, but I think Miss Campion has a bad headache. I am sure she has been crying a great deal." Milly said this with some hesitation.
"I am sorry to hear that."
"I am afraid Mr. Walcott brought her bad news in the morning, for she has not been herself at all since he left."
"Do you say that Mr. Walcott was there this morning?"
Sydney spoke in a low tone, but with considerable eagerness, so that the girl knew she had not thrown her shaft in vain.
"Milly, this concerns me very much. I must have a little talk with you, but we cannot well manage it here. See! there is no one in the waiting-room; will you kindly come with me for a minute or two? It is for your mistress' good that I should know all about this. Come!"
So they went into the dreary room together, and they sat down in a corner behind the door, which by this time was almost dark. There Sydney questioned her about Alan Walcott, with a view to learning all that she might happen to know about him. Milly required little prompting, for she was quite ready to do all that he bade her, and she told him at least one piece of news which he was not prepared to hear.
Five minutes would have sufficed for all that Milly had to say; but the same story may be very long or very short according to the circumstances in which it is told. Half-an-hour was not sufficient to-night: at any rate, it took these two more than half-an-hour to finish what they had to say. And even then it was found that further elucidations would be necessary in the future, and an appointment was made for another meeting. But the talk had turned on Milly herself, and Milly's hopes and prospects, before that short half-hour had sped.
"Good-night, Milly," said Sydney, as they left the station. "You are a dear little girl to tell me so much. Perhaps you had better not say to your mistress that you saw me to-night. I shall call to-morrow afternoon. Good-night, dear."
He kissed her lightly, in a shadowy corner of the platform, before he turned away; and thought rather admiringly for a minute or two of the half-frightened, half-adoring eyes that were riveted upon his face. "Poor little fool!" he said to himself, as he signalled a cab. For even in that one short interview he had mastered the fact that Milly was rather fool than knave.
The girl went home with a light heart, believing that she had done a service to the mistress whom she really loved, and shyly, timorously joyous at the thought that she had met at last with an admirer—a lover, perhaps!—such as her heart desired. Of course, Miss Lettice would be angry if she knew; but there was nothing wrong in Mr. Sydney's admiration, said Milly, lifting high her little round white chin; and if he told her to keep silence she was bound to hold her tongue.
This was a mean thing that Sydney had done, and he was not so hardened as to have done it without a blush. Yet so admirably does our veneer of civilization conceal the knots and flaws beneath it that he went to sleep in the genuine belief that he had saved his sister from a terrible danger, and the name of Campion from the degradation which threatened it.
On the next day he reached Maple Cottage between four and five o'clock.
"How is your mistress?" he said to Milly.
She had opened the door and let him in with a vivid blush and smile, which made him for a moment, and in the broad light of day, feel somewhat ashamed of himself.
"Oh, sir, she is no better. She has locked herself in, and I heard her sobbing, fit to break her heart," said Milly, in real concern for her mistress' untold grief.
"Let her know that I am here. I will go to Mrs. Campion's room."
"Well, mother!" he said, in the hearty, jovial voice in which he knew that she liked best to be accosted, "here is your absentee boy again. How are you by this time?"
"Not very bright to-day, Sydney," said his mother. "I never am very bright now-a-days. But what are you doing, my dear? Are you getting on well? Have they——"
"No, mother, they have not made me Lord Chancellor yet. We must wait a while for that. But I must not complain; I have plenty of work, and my name is in the papers every day, and I have applied for silk, and—have you found your spectacles yet, mother?"
Details of his life and work were, as he knew, absolutely unmeaning to Mrs. Campion.
"Oh, the rogue! He always teased me about my spectacles," said Mrs. Campion, vaguely appealing to an unseen audience. "It is a remarkable thing, Sydney, but I put them down half an hour ago, and now I cannot find them anywhere."
"Well, now, that is strange, Mrs. Campion; but not very unusual. If I remember right, you had lost your spectacles when I was here last; and as I happened to pass a good shop this morning, it occurred to me that you would not object to another pair of pebbles. So here they are; and I have bought you something to test them with."
He produced a cabinet portrait of himself, such as the stationers were beginning to hang on the line in their shop windows. The fact marked a distinct advance in his conquest of popularity; and Sydney was not mistaken in supposing that the old lady would appreciate this portrait of her handsome and distinguished son. So, with her spectacles and her picture, Mrs. Campion was happy.
When Sydney's knock came to the door, Lettice was still crouching by her bedside over the letter which had reached her an hour before. She sprang up in nervous agitation, not having recognized the knock, and began to bathe her face and brush her hair. She was relieved when Milly came and told her who the caller was; but even Sydney's visit at that moment was a misfortune. She was inclined to send him an excuse, and not come down; but in the end she made up her mind to see him.
"My dear child," Sydney said, kissing her on the cheek, "how ill you look! Is anything the matter?"
"No, nothing. Don't take any notice of me," Lettice said, with a significant look at her mother.
They conversed for a time on indifferent matters, and then Sydney asked her to show him the garden. It was evident that he wanted to speak to her privately, so she took him into her study; and there, without any beating about the bush, he began to discharge his mind of its burden.
"I want to talk to you seriously, Lettice, and on what I'm afraid will be a painful subject; but it is my manifest duty to do so, as I think you will admit before I go. You are, I believe, on friendly terms—tolerably familiar terms—with Mr. Walcott?"
This was in true forensic style; but of course Sydney could not have made a greater mistake than by entering solemnly, yet abruptly, on so delicate a matter. Lettice was in arms at once.
"Stay a moment, Sydney. You said this was to be a painful subject to me, and then you mention the name of Mr. Walcott. I do not understand."
"Well!" said Sydney, somewhat disconcerted; "I don't know what made me conclude that it would be painful. I did not mean to say that. I am very glad it is not so."
He stopped to cough, then looked out of the window, and softly whistled to himself. Lettice, meanwhile, cast about hastily in her mind for the possible bearing of what her brother might have to say. She was about to take advantage of his blunder, and decline to hear anything further; but for more than one reason which immediately occurred to her, she thought that it would be better to let him speak.
"I do not think you could have any ground for supposing that such a subject would be specially painful to me; but never mind that. What were you going to say?"
Now it was Sydney's turn to be up in arms, for he felt sure that Lettice was acting a part.
"What I know for a fact," he said, "is that you have seen a good deal of Mr. Walcott during the past six months, and that people have gone so far as to remark on your—on his manifest preference for your company. I want to say that there are grave reasons why this should not be permitted to go on."
Lettice bit her lip sharply, but said nothing.
"Do you know," Sydney continued, becoming solemn again as he prepared to hurl his thunderbolts, "that Mr. Walcott is a married man?"
"Whether I know it or not, I do not acknowledge your right to ask me the question."
"I ask it by the right of a brother. Do you know that if he is not a married man, he is something infinitely worse? That the last time his wife was seen in his company, they went on a lonely walk together, and he came back again without her?"
"How do you know this?" Lettice asked him faintly. He set down her agitation to the wrong cause, and thought that his design was succeeding.
"I know it from the man who was most intimately connected with Walcott at the time. And I heard it at my club—in the course of the same conversation in which your name was mentioned. Think what that means to me! However, it may not have gone too far if we are careful to avoid this man in future. He does not visit here, of course?"
"He has been here."
"You surely don't correspond?"
"We have corresponded."
"Good heavens! it is worse than I thought. But you will promise me not to continue the acquaintance?"
"No, I cannot promise that!"
"Not after all I have told you of him?"
"You have told me nothing to Mr. Walcott's discredit. I have answered your questions because you are, as you reminded me, my brother. Does it not strike you that you have rather exceeded your privilege?"
Sydney was amazed at her quiet indifference.
"I really cannot understand you, Lettice. Do you mean to say that you will maintain your friendship with this man, although you know him to be a——"
"At any rate, a possible murderer?"
"The important point," said Lettice coldly, "seems to be what Mr. Walcott is actually, not what he is possibly. Your 'possible' is a matter of opinion, and I am very distinctly of opinion that Mr. Walcott is an innocent and honorable man."
"If you believe him innocent, then you believe that his wife is living?"
"I know nothing about his wife. That is a question which does not concern me."
"Your obstinacy passes my comprehension." When Sydney said this, he rose from the chair in which he had been sitting and stood on the hearth-rug before the grate, with his hands behind him and his handsome brows knitted in a very unmistakable frown. It was in a lower and more regretful voice that he continued, after a few minutes' silence: "I must say that the independent line you have been taking for some time past is not very pleasing to me. You seem to have a perfect indifference to our name and standing in the world. You like to fly in the face of convention, to——"
"Oh, Sydney, why should we quarrel?" said Lettice, sadly. Hitherto she had been standing by the window, but she now came up to him and looked entreatingly into his face. "Indeed, I will do all that I can to satisfy you. I am not careless about your prospects and standing in the world; indeed, I am not. But they could not be injured by the fact that I am earning my own living as an author. I am sure they could not!"
"You say that you will do all you can to satisfy me," said Sydney, who was not much mollified by her tenderness. "Will you give up the acquaintance of that man?"
"I am not certain that I shall ever see Mr. Walcott again; but if you ask me whether I will promise to insult him if I do see him, or to cut him because he has been accused of dishonorable acts, then I certainly say, No!"
"How you harp upon his honor! The honor of a married man who has introduced himself to you under a false name!"
"What do you mean?" said Lettice, starting and coloring. "Are there any more charges against him?"
"You seem to be so well prepared to defend him that perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that his name is not Walcott at all, but Bundlecombe, and that his mother kept a small sweet-stuff shop, or something of that kind, at Thorley. Bundlecombe! No wonder he was ashamed of it!"
This shaft took better than either of the others. Lettice was fairly taken aback. The last story did not sound as if it had been invented, and Sydney had evidently been making inquiries. Moreover, there flashed across her mind the remembrance of the book which Alan Walcott had given her—only yesterday morning. How long ago it seemed already! Alan Bundlecombe! What did the name signify, and why should any man care to change the name that he was born with? She recollected Mrs. Bundlecombe very well—the old woman who came and took her first twenty pounds of savings; the widow of the bookseller who had bought part of her father's library. If he was her son, he might not have much to be proud of, but why need he have changed his name?
Decidedly this was a blow to her. She had no defence ready, and Sydney saw that she was uncomfortable.
"Well," he said, "I must not keep you any longer. I suppose, even now"—with a smile—"you will not give me your promise; but you will think over what I have told you, and I dare say it will all come right."
Her eyes were full of wistful yearning as she put her hand on his shoulder and kissed him.
"You believe that I mean to do right, don't you, Sydney?" she asked.
He laughed a little. "We all mean to do right, my dear. But we don't all go the same way to work, I suppose. Yes, yes; I believe you mean well; but do, for heaven's sake, try to act with common-sense. Then, as I said, everything will come right in the end."
He went back to his mother's room, and Lettice stood for some minutes looking out of the window, and sighing for the weariness and disillusion which hung like a cloud upon her life.
"All will come right?" she murmured, re-echoing Sydney's words with another meaning. "No. Trouble and sorrow, and pain may be lived down and forgotten; but without sincerity nothing can come right!"
"I count life just a stuff To try the soul's strength on, educe the man, Who keeps one end in view makes all things serve."
Alan Walcott knew perfectly well that he had done a mad, if not an unaccountable thing in writing his letter to Miss Campion. He knew it, that is to say, after the letter was gone, for when he was writing it, and his heart was breaking through the bonds of common-sense which generally restrained him, he did not feel the difficulty of accounting either for his emotions or for his action. The wild words, as he wrote them, had for him not only the impress of paramount truth, but also the sanction of his convictions and impulse at the moment. No stronger excuse has been forthcoming for heroic deeds which have shaken the world and lived in history.
Who amongst us all, when young and ardent, with the fire of generosity and imagination in the soul, has not written at least one such letter, casting reserve and prudence to the winds, and placing the writer absolutely at the mercy of the man or woman who received it?
This man was a poet by nature and by cultivation; but what is the culture of a poet save the fostering of a distempered imagination? I do not mean the culture of a prize poet, or a poet on a newspaper staff, or a gentleman who writes verses for society, or a professor of poetry, or an authority who knows the history and laws of prosody in every tongue, and can play the bard or the critic with equal facility. Alan Walcott had never ceased to work in distemper, because his nature was distempered to begin with, and his taste had not been modified to suit the conventional canons of his critics. Therefore it was not much to be wondered at if his prose poem to the woman he loved was a distempered composition.
The exaltation of the mood in which he had betrayed himself to Lettice was followed by a mood of terrible depression, and almost before it would have been possible for an answer to reach him, even if she had sat down and written to him without an hour's delay, he began to assure himself that she intended to treat him with silent contempt—that his folly had cost him not only her sympathy but her consideration, and that there was no hope left for him.
He had indeed told her that he did not expect a reply; but now he tortured himself with the belief that silence on her part could have only one explanation. Either she pitied him, and would write to prevent his despair, or she was indignant, and would tell him so, or else she held him in such contempt that she would not trouble herself to take the slightest notice of his effusion. He craved for her indignation now as he had craved for her sympathy before; but he could not endure her indifference.
A man of five-and-thirty whose youth has been spent amongst the prodigal sons and daughters of the world's great family, who has wasted his moral patrimony, and served masters and mistresses whom he despised, is not easily brought to believe that he can be happy again in the love of a pure woman. He has lost confidence in his own romantic feelings, and in his power to satisfy the higher needs of a woman's delicate and exacting heart. Usually, as was once the case with Walcott, he is a cynic and a professed despiser of women, affecting to judge them all by the few whom he has met, in spite of the fact that he has put himself in the way of knowing only the weakest and giddiest of the sex. But when such a man, gradually and with difficulty, has found a pearl among women, gentle and true, intellectual yet tenderly human, with whom his instinct tells him he might spend the rest of his life in honor and peace, he is ready in the truest sense to go and sell all that he has in order to secure the prize. Nothing has any further value for him in comparison with her, and all the roots of his nature lay firm hold upon her. Alas for this man if his mature love is given in vain, or if, like Alan Walcott, he is debarred from happiness by self-imposed fetters which no effort can shake off!
For four-and-twenty hours he struggled with his misery. Then, to his indescribable joy, there came a message from Lettice.
It was very short, and it brought him bad news; but at any rate it proved that she took an interest in his welfare, and made him comparatively happy.
"I think you should hear"—so it began, without any introductory phrase—'that the story you told me of what happened at Aix-les-Bains is known to men in this country who cannot be your friends, since they relate it in their own fashion at their clubs, and add their own ill-natured comments. Perhaps if you are forewarned you will be fore-armed.
Not a word as to his letter; but he was not much troubled on this score. That she had written to him at all, and written evidently because she felt some concern for his safety, was enough to console him at the moment.
When he began to consider the contents of her note it disturbed him more than a little. He had not imagined that his secret, such as it was, had passed into the keeping of any other man, still less that it had become club-talk in London. He saw at once what evil construction might be put upon it by malicious gossip-mongers, and he knew that henceforth he was face to face with a danger which he could do little or nothing to avert.
What should he attempt in his defence? How should he use the weapon which Lettice had put into his hand by forewarning him? One reasonable idea suggested itself, and this was that he should tell the true story to those who knew him best, in order that they might at any rate have the power to meet inventions and exaggerations by his own version of the facts. He busied himself during the next few days in this melancholy task, calling at the house of his friends, and making the best pretext he could for introducing his chapter of autobiography.
He called on the Grahams, amongst others, and was astonished to find that they knew the story already.
"I have told the facts to one or two," he said, "for the reason that I have just mentioned to you, but I think they understood that it would do me no good to talk about it, except in contradiction of unfriendly versions. How did you hear it?"
Graham took out of his pocket a copy of The Gadabout and said,
"I'm afraid you have made enemies, Walcott, and if you have not seen this precious concoction it would be no kindness to you to conceal it. Here—you will see at a glance how much they have embellished it."
Walcott took the paper, and read as follows:—
"It is probable that before long the public may be startled by a judicial inquiry into the truth of a story which has been told with much circumstantiality concerning the remarkable disappearance of the wife of a well-known poet some three or four years ago."
Then came the details, without any mention of persons or places, and the paragraph concluded in this fashion. "It is not certain how the matter will come into court, but rumor states that there is another lady in the case, that the buried secret came to light in a most dramatic way, and that evidence is forthcoming from very unexpected quarters."
The victim of this sorry piece of scandal gazed at the paper in a state of stupefaction.
"Of course," said Graham, "it is not worth while to notice that rag. Half of what it says is clearly a downright invention. If only you could get hold of the writer and thrash him, it might do some good; but these liars are very hard to catch. As to the 'other lady,' there is nothing in that, is there?"
Both Graham and his wife looked anxiously at Walcott. They knew of his attentions to Lettice, and were jealous of him on that account; and they had been discussing with each other the possibility of their friend's name being dragged into a scandal.
Walcott was livid with rage.
"The cur!" he cried; "the lying hound! He has entirely fabricated the beginning and the end of this paragraph. There is no ground whatever for saying that a case may come into court. There is no 'lady in the case' at all. He has simply put on that tag to make his scrap of gossip worth another half-crown. Is it not abominable, Graham?"
"It is something more than abominable. To my mind this sort of thing is one of the worst scandals of the present day. But I felt sure there was nothing in it, and the few who guess that it refers to you will draw the same conclusion. Don't think any more about it!"
"A lie sticks when it is well told," said Walcott, gloomily. "There are plenty of men who would rather believe it than the uninteresting truth."
But the Grahams, relieved on the point that mainly concerned them, could not see much gravity in the rest of the concoction, and Walcott had scant pity from them. He went home disconsolate, little dreaming of the reception which awaited him there.
He occupied a floor in Montagu Place, Bloomsbury, consisting of three rooms: a drawing-room, a bed-room, and a small study; and, latterly, Mrs. Bundlecombe, whose acquaintance the reader has already made, had used a bed-room at the top of the house.
Alan's mother and Mrs. Bundlecombe had been sisters. They were the daughters of a well-to-do farmer in Essex, and, as will often happen with sisters of the same family, brought up and cared for in a precisely similar way, they had exhibited a marked contrast in intellect, habits of thought, and outward bearing. The one had absorbed the natural refinement of her mother, who had come of an old Huguenot family long ago settled on English soil; the other was moulded in the robust and coarse type of her father. Bessy was by preference the household factotum not to say the drudge of the family, with a turn for puddings, poultry, and the management of servants. Lucy clung to her mother, and books (though both were constant students of The Family Herald), and was nothing if not romantic. Both found some one to love them, and both, as it happened, were married on the same day. Their parents had died within a year of each other, and then the orphaned girls had come to terms with their lovers, and accepted a yoke of which they had previously fought shy. Bessy's husband was a middle-aged bookseller in the neighboring town of Thorley, who had admired her thrifty and homely ways, and had not been deterred by her want of intelligence. Lucy, though her dreams had soared higher, was fairly happy with a schoolmaster from Southampton, whose acquaintance she had made on a holiday at the seaside.
Alan, who was the only offspring of this latter union, had been well brought up, for his father's careful teaching and his mother's gentleness and imagination supplied the complementary touches which are necessary to form the basis of culture. The sisters had not drifted apart after their marriage so much as might have been expected. They had visited each other, and Alan, as he grew up, conceived a strong affection for his uncle at Thorley, who—a childless man himself—gave him delightful books, and showed him others still more delightful, who talked to him on the subjects which chiefly attracted him, and was the first to fire his brain with an ambition to write and be famous. Aunt Bessy was tolerated for her husband's sake, but it was Uncle Samuel who drew the lad to Thorley. In due time Alan began to teach in his father's school, and before he was twenty-one had taken his degree at London University. Then his mother died, and shortly afterwards he was left comparatively alone in the world.
Now, school-keeping had never been a congenial occupation to Alan, whose poetic temperament was chafed by the strict and ungrateful routine of the business. His father had been to the manner born, and things had prospered with him, but Alan by himself would not have been able to achieve a like success. He knew this, and was proud of his incapacity; and he took the first opportunity of handing over the establishment to a successor. The money which he received for the transfer, added to that which his father had left, secured him an income on which it was possible to live, and to travel, and to print a volume of poems. For a short time, at least, he lived as seemed best in his own eyes, and was happy.
When he was in England he still occasionally visited Thorley; and it was thus that Milly Harrington came to know him by sight. Her grandmother did not know the Bundlecombes, but Milly came to the conclusion that Alan was their son, and this was the tale which she had told to Sydney Campion, and which Sydney had repeated to his sister.
The last visit paid by Alan to Thorley was some time after his uncle's death, and he had then confided to his aunt the story of his marriage, and of its unfortunate sequel. He happened to have learned that the man with whom he had fought at Aix-les-Bains was back in London, and it seemed not improbable at that moment that he would soon hear news of his fugitive wife. When he mentioned this to the widow—who was already taking steps to sell her stock-in-trade—she immediately conceived the idea that her boy, as she called Alan, was in imminent danger, that the wife would undoubtedly turn up again, and that it was absolutely necessary for his personal safety that he should have an intrepid and watchful woman living in the same house with him. So she proposed the arrangement which now existed, and Alan had equably fallen in with her plan. He did not see much of her when she came to London, and there was very little in their tastes which was congenial or compatible; but she kept him straight in the matter of his weekly bills and his laundress, and he had no desire to quarrel with the way in which she managed these affairs for him.
When Alan came home after his call at the Grahams', weary and disconsolate, with a weight on his mind of which he could not rid himself, the door was opened by his aunt. Her white face startled him, and still more the gesture with which she pointed upstairs, in the direction of their rooms. His heart sank at once, for he knew that the worst had befallen him.
"Hush!" said his aunt in a hoarse whisper, "do not go up. She is there. She came in the morning and would not go away."
"How is she? I mean what does she look like?"
He was very quiet; but he had leaned both hands upon the hall table, and was gazing at his aunt with despairing eyes.
"Bad, my boy, bad! The worst that a woman can look, Oh, Alan, go away, and do not come near her. Fly, immediately, anywhere out of her reach! Let me tell her that you have gone to the other end of the world rather than touch her again. Oh, Alan, my sister's child!—go, go, and grace abounding be with you."
"No, Aunt Bessy, that will never do. I cannot run away. Why, don't you see for one thing that this will prove what lies they have been telling about me? They said I was a murderer—" he laughed somewhat wildly as he spoke—"and here is the murdered woman. And they said there was evidence coming to prove it. Perhaps she will tell them how it happened, and how she came to life again. There, you see, there is good in everything—even in ghosts that come to life again!"
Then his voice dropped, and the color went out of his face.
"What is she doing?" he asked, in a sombre tone.
"She went to sleep on the sofa in the drawing-room. She made me send out for brandy, and began to rave at me in such a way that I was bound to do it, just to keep her quiet. And now she is in her drunken sleep!"
Alan shuddered. He knew what that meant.
"Come," he said: "let us go up. We cannot stand here any longer."
They went into his study, which was on the same floor as the drawing-room, and here Alan sank upon a chair, looking doggedly at the closed door which separated him from the curse of his existence. After a while he got up, walked across the landing, and quietly opened the door.
There she lay, a repulsive looking woman, with the beauty of her youth corrupted into a hateful mask of vice. She had thrown her arms above her head and seemed to be fast asleep.
He returned to the study, shut the door again, and sat down at the table, leaning his head upon his hands. Aunt Bessy came and sat beside him—not to speak, but only that he might know he was not alone.
"That," he muttered to himself at last, "is my wife!"
The old woman at his side trembled, and laid her hand upon his arm.
"I am beginning to know her," he said, after another long pause. "Some men discover the charms of their wives before marriage; others—the fools—find them out after. In the first year she was unfaithful to me. Then she shot me like a dog. What will the end be?"
"It can be nothing worse, my boy. She has ruined you already; she cannot do it twice. Oh, why did you ever meet her! Why did not Heaven grant that a good woman, like Lettice Campion——"
"Do not name her here!" he cried sharply. "Let there be something sacred in the world!"
He looked at his aunt as he spoke; but she did not return his gaze. She was sitting rigid in her chair, staring over his shoulder with affrighted eyes. Alan turned round quickly, and started to his feet.
The woman in the other room had stealthily opened the door, and stood there, disheveled and half-dressed, with a cunning smile on her face.
"Alan, my husband!" she said, in French, holding out both hands to him, and reeling a step nearer, "here we are at last. I have longed for this day, my friend—let us be happy. After so many misfortunes, to be reunited once again! Is it not charming?"
She spoke incoherently, running her words into one another, and yet doing her best to be understood.
Alan looked at her steadily. "What do you want?" he asked. "Why have you sought me out?"
"My faith, what should I want? Money, to begin with."
"And then—justice! Bah! Am I not the daughter of Testard, who dispensed with his own hand the justice of Heaven against his persecutors?"
"I have heard that before," Alan said. "It was at Aix-les-Bains. And you still want justice!"
"Justice, my child. Was it not at Aix-les-Bains that you tried to kill Henri de Hauteville? Was it not in the park hard by that you shot at me, and almost assassinated me? But, have no fear! All I ask is money—the half of your income will satisfy me. Pay me that, and you are safe—unless my rage should transport me one of these fine days! Refuse, and I denounce you through the town, and play the game of scandal—as I know how to play it! Which shall it be?"
"You are my wife. Perhaps there is a remedy for that—now that you are here, we shall see! But, meanwhile, you have a claim. To-morrow morning I Will settle it as you wish. You shall not be left to want."
"It is reasonable. Good-night, my friend! I am going to sleep again."
She went back into the drawing-room, laughing aloud, whilst Alan, after doing his best to console Mrs. Bundlecombe, departed in search of a night's lodging under another roof.
SIR JOHN PYNSENT PROPHESIES.
On a sultry evening in the middle of August, a few choice spirits were gathered together in one of the smoking-rooms of the Oligarchy.
All but one were members of the Upper or Lower House, and they were lazily enjoying the unusual chance (for such busy men, and at such a critical period of the session) which enabled them to smoke their cigars in Pall Mall before midnight on a Tuesday. Either there had been a count-out, or there was obstruction in the House, which was no immediate concern of theirs, or they had made an arrangement with their Whip, and were awaiting a telegram which did not come; but, whatever the reason, here they were, lazy and contented.
There was our old friend, Sir John Pynsent; and Charles Milton, Q.C., certain to be a law officer or a judge, as soon as the Conservatives had their chance; and Lord Ambermere; and the Honorable Tom Willoughby, who had been trained at Harrow, Oxford, and Lord's Cricket Ground, and who was once assured by his Balliol tutor that his wit would never make him a friend, nor his face an enemy. The last of the circle was Brooke Dalton, of whom this narrative has already had something to record.
"So Tourmaline has thrown up the sponge, Pynsent?" Charles Milton began, after a short pause in the conversation. "Had enough of the Radical crew by this time!"
"Yes. Of course, he has been out of sympathy with them for a long while. So have twenty or thirty more, if the truth were known."
"As you know it!" Dalton interjected.
"Well, I know some things. The line of cleavage in the Liberal party is tolerably well marked, if you have eyes to see."
"Why does Tourmaline leave the House? I hear he would stand an excellent chance if he went to Vanebury and started as an Independent."
"No doubt he would; but in a weak moment he pledged himself down there not to do it."
"What hard lines!" said Tom Willoughby. "Just one pledge too many!"
"And so," continued Pynsent, without noticing the interruption, "we have had to look out for another candidate. I settled the matter this afternoon, and I am glad to say that Campion has promised to go down."
"Just the man for the job," said Milton, who looked upon Sydney as sure to be a formidable rival in Parliament, and more likely than any other young Conservative to cut him out of the Solicitorship. "He has tongue, and he has tact—and he has something else, Sir John, which is worth the two put together—good friends!"
"We think very highly of Campion," said Sir John Pynsent, "and I am very glad you confirm our opinion."
"I certainly think he will make his mark," said Dalton. "He comes of a very able family."
Dalton found himself recalling the appearance and words of Miss Lettice Campion, whom he had met so often of late at the house of his cousin, Mrs. Hartley, and who had made a deeper impression than ever on his mind. Impressions were somewhat fugitive, as a rule, on Brooke Dalton's mind; but he had come to admire Lettice with a fervor unusual with him.
"From all I can learn," said the baronet, "we ought to win the seat; and every two new votes won in that way are worth half-a-dozen such as Tom Willoughby's, for instance, whose loyalty is a stale and discounted fact."
"Oh, yes, I know that is how you regard us buttresses from the counties! I declare I will be a fifth party, and play for my own hand."
"It isn't in you, my boy," said Lord Ambermere; "I never knew you play for your own hand yet."
"Then what am I in Parliament for, I should like to know?"
"For that very thing, of course; to learn how to do it." Willoughby laughed good-naturedly. He did not object to be made a butt of by his intimate friends.
"Seriously, Tom, there is plenty of work for a fellow like you to do."
It was Pynsent who spoke, and the others were always ready to lend him their ears when he evidently wanted to be listened to.
"The main thing is to get hold of the Whigs, and work at them quietly and steadily until the time comes to strike our blow. The great Houses are safe, almost to a man. When it comes to choosing between Democracy rampant, with Gladstone at its head, assailing the most sacred elements of the Constitution, and a great National Party, or Union of Parties, guarding Property and the Empire against attack, there is no question as to how they will make their choice. But if every Whig by birth or family ties came over to us at once, that would not suffice for our purpose. What we have to do is get at the—the Decent Men of the Liberal Party, such as the aldermen, the shipowners, the great contractors and directors of companies, and, of course, the men with a stake in the land. No use mentioning names—we all know pretty well who they are."
"And when you have got at them?" asked Willoughby.
"Why, lay yourself out to please them. Flatter them—show them all the attention in your power; take care that they see and hear what is thought in the highest quarters about the present tendency of things—about Ireland, about the Empire, about the G. O. M. Let them understand how they are counted on to decide the issue, and what they would have to look for if we were once in power. Above all, ride them easy! It is impossible that they should become Tories—don't dream of such a thing. They are to be Liberals to the end of their days, but Liberals with an Epithet."
"No, no, no, no, my dear boy! Any number of noes. You must not live so much in the past. The great idea to harp upon is Union. Union against a common enemy. Union against Irish rebels. Union against Gladstone and the Democracy; but draw this very mild until you feel that you are on safe ground. Union is the word, and Unionist is the Epithet. Liberal Unionists. That is the inevitable phrase, and it will fit any crisis that may arise."
"But suppose they dish us with the County franchise?"
"We must make a fight over that; but for my part I am not afraid of franchises. There is a Tory majority to be picked out of manhood suffrage, as England will surely discover some day. Possibly the County franchise must be cleared out of the way before we get our chance. What will that mean? Why, simply that Gladstone will think it necessary to use his first majority in order to carry some great Act of Confiscation; to make Hodge your master; or to filch a bit of your land for him; or to join hands with Parnell and cut Ireland adrift. Then we shall have our opportunity; and that is what we have to prepare for."
Lord Ambermere, and Dalton, and Milton, Q.C., nodded their heads. They had heard all this before; but to Willoughby it was new, for he had only just begun to put himself into the harness of political life.
"How can we help ourselves," he said, "if the laborers have returned a lot of new men, and there is a big Liberal majority?"
"That is the point, of course. Well, put it at the worst. Say that Gladstone has a majority of eighty, without Parnell, and say that Parnell can dispose of eighty. Say, again, that the Irishmen are ready to support Gladstone, in the expectation of favors to come. Now let the Old Man adopt either a Nationalist policy or an out-and-out Democratic policy, and assume that the Union for which we have been working takes effect. In order to destroy Gladstone's majority of one hundred and sixty, at least eighty of his nominal followers must come over. Of these, the pure Whigs will count for upwards of forty, and another forty must be forthcoming from the men I have just described. That is putting it at the worst—and it is safer to do so. Now the question is, Tom Willoughby, what can you do, and whom can you tackle? I don't want you to give me an answer, but only to think it over."
"Oh, if you only want thinking, I'm the beggar to think. But—suppose you land your alderman, and he don't get re-elected in 1885 or thereabouts? That would be a frightful sell, don't you know!"
"Why, that is just where the beauty of the plan comes in! A seat in the House of Commons will always be more or less of a vested interest, however low the franchise may descend; and the men we are speaking of are precisely those most likely to continue in the House. It is especially so in the case of very wealthy men, who have made their own money; for they look out for comfortable seats to begin with, and then nurse their constituencies by large charitable donations, so that the chances are all in their favor. At any rate this is the best way of setting to work—and who can tell whether the struggle may not come to a crisis in the present Parliament?"
"And you feel as confident as ever, Sir John, that this Union will be effected?"
"My dear Lord Ambermere, I assure you I am more confident than ever, and if I were at liberty to say all I know, and to show my private memoranda, you would be astonished at the progress which has been made in this Confederation of Society against the Destructive Elements."
It was a great comfort in listening to Sir John Pynsent, that one could always tell where he wanted to bring in his capital letters. And there was no doubt at all about the uncial emphasis with which he spoke of the Confederation of Society against the Destructive Elements.
At this moment Sydney Campion came in and the conclave was broken up.
Sydney was full of excitement about his contest at Vanebury, and he received the congratulations and good wishes of his friends with much complacency. He was already the accepted Conservative candidate, being nominated from the Oligarchy Club in response to an appeal from the local leaders. He had even been recommended by name in a letter from Mr. Tourmaline, the retiring member, whose secession to the Conservative party had demoralized his former friends in the constituency, and filled his old opponents with joy. He was going down the next day to begin his canvass, and to make his first speech; and he had come to the Club to-night for a final consultation with Sir John Pynsent.
This Vanebury election would not, there was reason to think, be so much affected by money-bags as the election at Dormer was supposed to be, sixteen or eighteen months before. Yet money was necessary, and Sydney did not on this occasion refuse the aid which was pressed upon him. He was responding to the call of his party, at a moment which might be (though it was not) very inconvenient for him; and, having put down the foot of dignity last year, he could now hold out the hand of expediency with a very good grace.
So he took his money, and went down, and before he had been in Vanebury six hours the Conservatives there understood that they had a very strong candidate, who would give a good account of himself, and who deserved to be worked for.
His personal presence was imposing, Sydney was above the middle height, erect and broad-shouldered, with a keen and handsome, rather florid, face, a firm mouth, and penetrating steel-blue eyes. He was careful of his appearance, too, and from his well-cut clothes and his well-trimmed brown hair, beard, and whiskers, it was easy to see that there was nothing of the slipshod about this ambitious young emissary from the Oligarchy Club.
In manner he was very persuasive. He had a frank and easy way of addressing an audience, which he had picked up from a popular tribune—leaning one shoulder towards them at an angle of about eighty degrees, and rounding his periods with a confidential smile, which seemed to assure his hearers that they were as far above the average audience as he was above the average candidate. He did not feel the slightest difficulty in talking for an hour at a stretch, and two or three times on the same day; and, indeed, it would have been strange if he had, considering his Union experience at Cambridge and his practice at the Bar.
Sydney won upon all classes at Vanebury, and the sporting gentlemen in that thriving borough were soon giving odds upon his chance of success. The Liberals were for the most part careless and over-confident. Their man had won every election for twenty years past, and they could not believe that this Tory lawyer was destined to accomplish what all the local magnates had failed in attempting. But a few of the wisest amongst them shook their heads, for they knew too well that "Tourmaline the Traitor and Turncoat" (as the posters described him) was by no means alone in his discontent with the tendencies of the party.
The attention of the country was fixed upon the Vanebury election, and Sydney Campion had become at once the observed of all observers. He knew it, and made the most of the situation, insisting in his speeches that this was a test-election, which would show what the country thought of the government, of its bribes to ignorance and its capitulation to rebellion, of its sacrifice of our honor abroad and our interests at home. He well knew what the effect of this would be on his friends in London, and how he would have earned their gratitude if he could carry the seat on these lines.
On the day before the poll, Sir John Pynsent came to Vanebury, to attend the last of the public meetings.
"Admirably done, so far!" he said, as he grasped Sydney's hand at the station. "How are things looking?"
"It is a certain win!" said Sydney. "No question about it."
And a win it was, such as any old campaigner might have been proud of. The numbers as declared by the returning officer were:
Campion (C.) 4765 Hawkins (L.) 4564 —— Majority 201
At the last election Tourmaline had had a majority of six hundred over his Conservative opponent, so that there had been a turnover of about four hundred voters. And no one doubted that a large number of these had made up their minds to turn since Campion had begun his canvass.
This was a complete success for Sydney. He was now Mr. Campion, M.P., with both feet on the ladder of ambition. Congratulations poured in upon him from all sides, and from that moment he was recognized by everybody as one of the coming men of the Conservative party.
SYDNEY MAKES A MISTAKE.
There was a social side to Sydney's success which he was not slow to appreciate. A poor and ambitious man, bent on climbing the ladder of promotion, he was willing to avail himself of every help which came in his way. And Sir John Pynsent was good-naturedly ready to give him a helping hand.
During the past season he had found himself welcome in houses where the best society of the day was wont to congregate. He had several invitations for the autumn to places where it was considered a distinction to be invited; and, being a man of much worldly wisdom, he was disposed to be sorry that he had made arrangements to go abroad for two or three months. He was vague in detailing his plans to his friends; but in his own mind he was never vague, and he knew what he meant to do and where he was going to spend the vacation well enough, although he did not choose to take club acquaintances into his confidence.
But one invitation, given by Sir John Pynsent, for the Sunday subsequent to his election—or rather, from Saturday to Monday—he thought it expedient as well as pleasant to accept. Vanebury was a very few miles distant from St. John's country-house, and when the baronet, in capital spirits over his friend's success, urged him to run over to Culverley for a day or two, he could not well refuse.
"I am going for the Sunday," Sir John said confidentially, "but my wife doesn't expect me to stay longer until the session is over. I run down every week, you know, except when she's in town; but she always leaves London in June. My sister is under her wing, and she declares that late hours and the heat of London in July are very bad for girls. Of course, I'm glad that she looks after my sister so well."
Sydney recognized the fact that he had never before been taken into Sir John's confidence with respect to his domestic affairs.
"Lady Pynsent asked me the other day whether I could not get you to come down to us," Sir John continued. "I am always forgetting her messages; but if you can spare a couple of days now, we shall be very glad to have you. Indeed, you must not refuse," he said, hospitably. "And you ought to see something of the county."
Sydney had met Lady Pynsent in town. She was a large, showy-looking woman, with fair hair and a very aquiline nose; a woman who liked to entertain, and who did it well. He had dined at the Wentworths' house more than once, and he began to search in his memory for any face or figure which should recall Sir John's sister to his mind. But he could not remember her, and concluded, therefore, that she was in no way remarkable.
"I think I have not met Miss Pynsent," he took an opportunity of saying, by way of an attempt to refresh his memory.
"No? I think you must have seen her somewhere. But she did not go out much this spring: she is rather delicate, and not very fond of society. She's my half-sister, you know, considerably younger than I am—came out the season before last."
Another acquaintance of Sydney's privately volunteered the information later in the day that Miss Pynsent had sixty thousand pounds of her own, and was reputed to be clever.
"I hate clever women," Sydney said, with an inward growl at his sister Lettice, whose conduct had lately given him much uneasiness. "A clever woman and an heiress! Ye gods, how very ugly she must be."
His friend laughed in a meaning manner, and wagged his head mysteriously. But what he would have said remained unspoken, because at that moment Sir John rejoined them.
Sydney flattered himself that he was not impressible, or at least that the outward trappings of wealth and rank did not impress him. But he was distinctly pleased to find that Sir John's carriage and pair, which met them at the station, was irreproachable, and that Culverley was a very fine old house, situated in the midst of a lovely park and approached by an avenue of lime-trees, which, Sir John informed him, was one of the oldest in the country. Sydney had an almost unduly keen sense of the advantage which riches can bestow, and he coveted social almost as much as professional standing for himself. It was, perhaps, natural that the son of a poor man, who had been poor all his life, and owed his success to his own brains and his power of continued work, should look a little enviously on the position so readily attained by men of inferior mental calibre, but of inherited and ever-increasing influence, like Sir John Pynsent and his friends. Sydney never truckled: he was perfectly independent in manner and in thought; but the good things of the world were so desirable to him that for some of them—as he confessed to himself with a half-laugh at his own weakness—he would almost have sold his soul.
They arrived at Culverley shortly before dinner, and Sydney had time for very few introductions before going to the dining-room. He was surprised to find a rather large party present. There were several London men and women whom he knew already, and who were staying in the house, and there was a contingent of county people, who had only come to dinner. The new member for Vanebury was made much of, especially by the county folk; and as Sydney was young, handsome, and a good talker, he soon made himself popular amongst them. For himself, he did not find the occasion interesting, save as a means of social success. Most of the men were dull, and the women prim and proper: there were not more than two pretty girls in the whole party.
"That's the heiress, I suppose," thought Sydney, hearing a spectacled, sandy-haired young woman who looked about five-and-twenty addressed as Miss Pynsent. "Plain, as I thought. There's not a woman here worth looking at, except Mrs. George Murray. I'll talk to her after dinner. Not one of them is a patch on little Milly. I wonder how she would look, dressed up in silks and satins. Pynsent knows how to choose his wine and his cook better than his company, I fancy."
But his supercilious contempt for the county was well veiled, and the people who entered into conversation with Sydney Campion, the new M.P. for Vanebury, put him down as a very agreeable man, as well as a rising politician.
His own position was pleasant enough. He was treated with manifest distinction—flattered, complimented, well-nigh caressed. In the drawing-room after dinner, Sydney, surrounded by complacent and adulating friends, really experienced some of the most agreeable sensations of his life. He was almost sorry when the group gradually melted away, and conversation was succeeded by music. He had never cultivated his taste for music; but he had a naturally fine ear, upon which ordinary drawing-room performances jarred sadly. But, standing with his arms folded and his back against the wall, in the neighborhood of Mrs. George Murray, the prettiest woman in the room, he became gradually aware that Lady Pynsent's musicians were as admirable in their way as her cook. She would no more put up with bad singing than bad songs; and she probably put both on the same level. She did not ask amateurs to sing or play; but she had one or two professionals staying in the house, who were "charmed" to perform for her; and she had secured a well-known "local man" to play accompaniments. In the case of one at least of the professionals, Lady Pynsent paid a very handsome fee for his services; but this fact was not supposed to transpire to the general public.
When the professionals had done their work there was a little pause, succeeded by the slight buzz that spoke of expectation. "Miss Pynsent is going to play," Mrs. Murray said to Sydney, putting up her long-handled eyeglass and looking expectantly towards the grand piano. "Oh, now, we shall have a treat."
"Sixty thousand pounds," Sydney said to himself with a smile; but he would not for the world have said it aloud. "We must put up with bad playing from its fortunate possessor, I suppose." And he turned his head with resignation in the direction of the little inner drawing-room, in which the piano stood. This room should, perhaps, be described as an alcove, rather than a separate apartment: it was divided from the great drawing-room by a couple of shallow steps that ran across its whole width, so that a sort of natural stage was formed, framed above and on either side by artistically festooned curtains of yellow brocade.
"Isn't it effective?" Mrs. Murray murmured to him, with a wave of her eyeglass to the alcove. "So useful for tableaux and plays, you know. Awfully clever of Lady Pynsent to use the room in that way. There used once to be folding doors, you know—barbarous, wasn't it? Who would use doors when curtains could be had?"
"Doors are useful sometimes," said Sydney. But he was not in the least attentive either to her words or to his own: he was looking towards the alcove.
Miss Pynsent—the young woman with sandy locks and freckled face, on which a broad, good-humored smile was beaming—was already seated at the piano and turning over her music. Presently she began to play, and Sydney, little as was his technical knowledge of the art, acknowledged at once that he had been mistaken, and that Miss Pynsent, in spite of being an heiress, played remarkably well. But the notes were apparently those of an accompaniment only—was she going to sing? Evidently not, for at that moment another figure slipped forward from the shadows of the inner drawing-room, and faced the audience.
This was a girl who did not look more than eighteen or nineteen: a slight fragile creature in white, with masses of dusky hair piled high above a delicate, pallid, yet unmistakably beautiful, face. The large dark eyes, the curved, sensitive mouth, the exquisite modelling of the features, the graceful lines of the slightly undeveloped figure, the charming pose of head and neck, the slender wrist bent round the violin which she held, formed a picture of almost ideal loveliness. Sydney could hardly refrain from an exclamation of surprise and admiration. He piqued himself on knowing a little about everything that was worth knowing, and he had a considerable acquaintance with art, so that the first thing which occurred to him was to seek for a parallel to the figure before him in the pictures with which he was acquainted. She was not unlike a Sir Joshua, he decided; and yet—in the refinement of every feature, and a certain sweetness and tranquillity of expression—she reminded him of a Donatello that he had seen in one of his later visits to Florence or Sienna. He had always thought that if he were ever rich he would buy pictures; and he wondered idly whether money would buy the Donatello of which the white-robed violin-player reminded him.
One or two preliminary tuning notes were sounded, and then the violinist began to play. Her skill was undoubted, but the feeling and pathos which she threw into the long-drawn sighing notes were more remarkable even than her skill. There was a touch of genius in her performance which held the listeners enthralled. When she had finished, she disappeared behind the curtains as rapidly as she had emerged from the shadows of the dimly-lighted inner room; and in the pause that followed, the opening and shutting of a door was heard.
"Who is she?" said Sydney to his neighbor.
"Oh, Miss Pynsent, of course," said Mrs. Murray. "Delightful, isn't she?"
"I don't mean Miss Pynsent," said Sydney, in some confusion of mind; "I mean——"
But Mrs. Murray had turned to somebody else, and scraps of conversation floated up to Sydney's ears, and gave him, as he thought, the information that he was seeking.
"So devoted to Lady Pynsent's children! Now that little Frankie has a cold, they say she won't leave him night or day. They had the greatest trouble to get her down to play to-night. Awfully lucky for Lady Pynsent," and then the voices were lowered, but Sydney heard something about "the last governess," and "a perfect treasure," which seemed to reveal the truth.
"The governess! A violin-playing governess," he thought, with a mixture of scorn and relief, which he did not altogether understand in himself. "Ah! that's the reason she did not come down to dinner. She is a very pretty girl, and no doubt Lady Pynsent keeps her in the nursery or schoolroom as much as possible. I should like to see her again. Perhaps, as to-morrow is Sunday, she may come down with the children."
It will be evident to the meanest capacity that Sydney was making an absurd mistake as to the identity of the violinist. The most unsophisticated novel-reader in the world would cast contempt and ridicule on the present writers if they, in their joint capacity, introduced the young lady in white as actually Lady Pynsent's governess. To avoid misunderstanding on the point, therefore, it may as well be premised that she was in fact Miss Anna Pynsent, Sir John's half sister, and that Mr. Campion's conclusions respecting her position were altogether without foundation.
Having, however, made up his mind about her, Sydney took little further interest in the matter. One or two complimentary remarks were made in his hearing about Miss Pynsent's playing; but he took them to apply to the sandy-haired Miss Pynsent whom he had seen at dinner, and only made a silent cynical note of the difference with which the violinist and the accompanist were treated. He never flew in the face of the world himself, and therefore he did not try to readjust the balance of compliment: he simply acquiesced in the judgment of the critics, and thought of the Donatello.
A long conference in the smoking-room on political matters put music and musicians out of his head; and when he went to sleep, about two o'clock in the morning, it was to dream, if he dreamt at all, of his maiden speech in Parliament, and that elevation to the woolsack which his mother was so fond of prophesying.
Sydney was an early riser, and breakfast on Sundays at Culverley was always late. He was tempted by the beauty of the morning to go for a stroll in the gardens; and thence he wandered into the park, where he breathed the fresh cool air with pleasure, and abandoned himself, as usual, to a contemplation of the future. The park was quickly crossed, for Sydney scarcely knew how to loiter in his walking, more than in any other of his actions; and he then plunged into a fir plantation which fringed a stretch of meadow-land, now grey and drenched with dew and shining in the morning sun. Even to Sydney's unimaginative mind the scene had its charm, after the smoke of London and the turmoil of the last few days: he came to the edge of the plantation, leaned his elbows on the topmost rail of a light fence, and looked away to the blue distance, where the sheen of water and mixture of light and shade were, even in his eyes, worth looking at. A cock crowed in a neighboring farmyard, and a far-away clock struck seven. It was earlier than he had thought.
Two or three figures crossing the meadow attracted his attention. First came a laboring man with a pail. Sydney watched him aimlessly until he was out of sight. Then a child—a gentleman's child, judging from his dress and general appearance—a boy of six or seven, who seemed to be flying tumultuously down the sloping meadow to escape from his governess or nurse. The field ran down to a wide stream, which was crossed at one point by a plank, at another by stepping-stones; and it was towards these stepping-stones that the boy directed his career. Behind him, but at considerable distance, came the slender figure of a young woman, who seemed to be pursuing him. The child reached the stream, and there stood laughing, his fair curls floating in the wind, his feet firmly planted on one of the stones that had been thrown into the water.
Sydney was by no means inclined to play knight-errant to children and attendant damsels, and he would probably have continued to watch the little scene without advancing, had not the girl, halting distressfully to call the truant, chanced to turn her face so that the strong morning light fell full upon it. Why, it was the violinist! Or was he deceived by some chance resemblance? Sydney did not think so, but it behoved him instantly to go and see.
Indeed, before he reached the stream, his help seemed to be needed. The boy, shouting and dancing, had missed his footing and fallen headlong in the stream, which, fortunately, was very shallow and not very swift. Sydney quickened his pace to a run, and the girl did the same; but before either of them reached its bank the boy had scrambled out again, and was sitting on the further side with a sobered countenance and in a very drenched condition.
"Oh, Jack!" said the girl reproachfully, "how could you?"
"I want some mushrooms. I said I would get them," Jack answered, sturdily.
"You must come back at once. But—how are you to get over?" she said, contemplating the slippery stones with some dismay. For Jack's fall had displaced more than one of them, and there was now a great gap between the stones in the deepest part of the little stream.
"Can I be of any assistance?" said Sydney, availing himself of his opportunity to come forward.
She turned and looked at him inquiringly, the color deepening a little in her pale face.
"I am staying at Culverley," he said, in an explanatory tone. "I had the pleasure of hearing you play last night."
"You are Mr. Campion, I think?" she said. "Yes, I shall be very glad of your help. I need not introduce myself, I see. Jack has been very naughty: he ran away from his nurse this morning, and I said that I would bring him back. And now he has fallen into the brook."
"We must get him back," said Sydney, rather amused at her matter-of-fact tone. "I will go over for him."
"No, I am afraid you must not do that," she answered. "There is a plank a little further down the stream; we will go there."
But Sydney was across the water by this time. He lifted the child lightly in his arms and strode back across the stones, scarcely wetting himself at all. Then he set the boy down at her side.