By this time Cora was in a rage, and she damaged herself with the jury by giving them a specimen of her ungovernable temper. The trial had to be suspended for a quarter of an hour, whilst she recovered from a fit of hysterics; but it said much for her crafty shrewdness that she was able to adhere, in the main, to the story which she had told. She was severely cross-examined about the scene in Surrey Street, and especially about the dagger. She feigned intense surprise at being asked and pressed as to her having brought the weapon with her; but Mr. Milton could not succeed in making her contradict herself.
Then the other witnesses were heard and counsel had an opportunity of enforcing the evidence on both sides. Mr. Milton was very severe on his learned friend for introducing matter in his opening speech, on which he did not intend to call witnesses; but in his own mind he had recognized the fact that there must be a verdict of guilty, and he brought out as strongly as he could the circumstances which he thought would weigh with the court in his client's favor. Sydney was well content with the result of the trial as far as it had gone. There had been no reference of any kind to his sister Lettice; and, as he knew that this was due in some measure to the reticence of the defence, it would have argued a want of generosity on his part to talk of the cruelty of the prisoner in stopping his wife's allowance because she had molested him in the street.
The judge summed up with great fairness. He picked out the facts which had been sworn to in regard to the actual receiving of the wound, which, he said, were compatible with the theory of self-infliction, with that of wilful infliction by the husband, and with that of accident. As for the first theory, it would imply that the dagger had passed from the prisoner's hands to those of his wife, and back again, and it seemed to be contradicted by the evidence of the landlady and the other lodger. Moreover, it was not even suggested by the defence, which relied upon the theory of accident. An accident of this kind would certainly be possible during a violent struggle for the possession of the dagger. Now the husband and wife virtually accused each other of producing this weapon and threatening to use it. It was for the jury to decide which of the two they would believe. There was a direct conflict of evidence, or allegation, and in such a case they must look at all the surrounding circumstances. It was not denied that the dagger belonged to the prisoner, but it was suggested in his behalf that the wife had purloined it some time before, and had suddenly produced it when she came to her husband's apartments in Surrey Street. If that could be proved, then the woman had been guilty of perjury, and her evidence would collapse altogether. Now there were some portions of her evidence which were most unsatisfactory. She had led a dissolute life, and was cursed with an ungovernable temper. But, on the other hand, she had told a consistent tale as to the occurrences of that fatal afternoon, and he could not go so far as to advise the jury to reject her testimony as worthless.
His lordship then went over the remaining evidence, and concluded as follows:—
"Gentlemen, I may now leave you to your difficult task. It is for you to say whether, in your judgment, the wound which this woman received was inflicted by herself or by her husband. If you find that it was inflicted by her husband, you must further decide, to the best of your ability, whether the prisoner wounded his wife in the course of a struggle, without intending it, or whether he did at the moment wittingly and purposely injure her. The rest you will leave to me. You have the evidence before you, and the constitution of your country imposes upon you the high responsibility of saying whether this man is innocent or guilty of the charge preferred against him."
The jury retired to consider their verdict, and after about three-quarters of an hour they returned into court.
"Gentlemen of the jury," said the clerk, "are you agreed upon your verdict?"
"We are," said the foreman.
"Do you find the prisoner guilty or not guilty?"
"We find him guilty of wounding, with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm."
Alan turned his face to the judge. The whole thing had been so precisely rehearsed in his mind that no mere detail would take him by surprise. He had expected the verdict, and it had come. Now he expected the sentence; let it come, too. It would hardly be worse than he was prepared for.
To say that Mr. Justice Perkins was dissatisfied with the verdict would be going a little too far; but he almost wished, when he heard it, that he had dwelt at greater length upon the untrustworthy character of Mrs. Walcott's evidence. However, he had told the jury that this was a matter for their careful consideration; and he had always been wont, even more than some of his brother judges, to leave full responsibility to his juries in matters of opinion and belief.
"Alan Walcott," he said to the convicted man, "you have had a fair trial before twelve of your peers, who have heard all the evidence brought before them, whether favorable to you or the reverse. In the exercise of their discretion, and actuated as they doubtless have been by the purest motives, they have found you guilty of the crime laid to your charge. No words of mine are necessary to make you appreciate this verdict. Whatever the provocation which you may have received from this miserable woman, however she may have forgotten her duty and tried you beyond endurance—and I think that the evidence was clear enough on these points—she was still your wife, and had a double claim upon your forbearance. You might well have been in a worse position. From the moment when you took that deadly weapon in your hands, everything was possible. You might have been charged with wilful murder, if she had died, or with intent to murder. You have been defended with great ability; and if the jury believed, as they manifestly did, that your defence, so fat as concerns the introduction of the dagger, could not be maintained then they had no alternative but to find as they actually did find. It only remains for me to pass upon you such a sentence, within the discretion left me by the law, as seems to be appropriate to your offence, and that is that you be imprisoned and kept to hard labor for the term of six calendar months."
Then the prisoner was removed; the court and the spectators dispersed to dine and amuse themselves; the reporters rushed off to carry their last copy to the evening newspapers; and the great tide of life swept by on its appointed course. No foundering, ship on its iron-bound coast, no broken heart that sinks beneath its waves, disturbs the law-abiding ebb and flow of the vast ocean of humanity.
"Let us be unashamed of soul, As earth lies bare to heaven above! How is it under our control To love or not to love?"
Busy as Sydney Campion was, at this juncture of his career, public affairs were, on the whole, less engrossing to him than usual; for a new element had entered into his private life, and bade fair to change many of its currents.
The rector's education of his son and daughter had produced effects which would have astonished him mightily could he have traced their secret workings, but which would have been matter of no surprise to a psychologist.
He himself had been in the main an unsuccessful man, for, although he had enjoyed many years of peace and quiet in his country parish, he had never attained the objects with which he set out in life. Like many another man who has failed, his failure led him to value nothing on earth so highly as success. It is your fortunate man who can afford to slight life's prizes. The rector of Angleford was never heard to utter soothing sentiments to the effect that "life may succeed in that it seems to fail," or that heaven was the place for those who had failed on earth. He did not believe it. Failure was terrible misfortune in his eyes: intellectual failure, greatest of all. Of course he wanted his children to be moral and religious; it was indeed important that they should be orthodox and respectable, if they wanted to get on in the world; but he had no such passion of longing for their spiritual as he had for their mental development. Neither was it money that he wished them to acquire, save as an adjunct; no man had more aristocratic prejudices against trade and pride of purse than Mr. Campion; but he wanted them—and especially he wanted Sydney—to show intellectual superiority to the rest of the world, and by that superiority to gain the good things of life. And of all these good things, the best was fame—the fame that means success.
Thus, from the very beginning of Sydney's life, his father sedulously cultivated ambition in his soul, and taught him that failure meant disgrace. The spur that he applied to the boy acted with equal force on the girl, but with different results. For with ambition the rector sowed the seeds of a deadly egotism, and it found a favorable soil—at least in Sydney's heart. That the boy should strive for himself and his own glory—that was the lesson the rector taught him; and he ought not to have been surprised when, in later years, his son's absorption in self gave him such bitter pain.
Lettice, with her ambition curbed by love and pity, accepted the discipline of patience and self-sacrifice, set before her by the selfishness of other people; but Sydney gave free rein to his ambition and his pride. He could not make shift to content himself, as his father had done, with academic distinction alone. He wanted to be a leader of men, to take a foremost place in the world of men. He sometimes told himself that his father had equipped him to the very best of his power for the battle of life, and he was grateful to him for his care; but he did not think very much about the sacrifices made for him by others. As a matter of fact, he thought himself worth them all. And for the prize he desired, he bartered away much that makes the completer man: for he extinguished many generous instincts and noble possibilities, and thought himself the gainer by their loss.
In Lettice, the love of fame was also strong, but in a modified form. Her tastes were more literary than those of Sydney, but success was as sweet to her as to him. The zest with which she worked was also in part due to the rector's teaching; but, by the strange workings-out of influence and tendency, it had chanced that the rector's carelessness and neglect had been the factors that disciplined a nature both strong and sweet into forgetfulness of self and absorption in work rather than its rewards.
But already Nature had begun with Sydney Campion her grand process of amelioration, which she applies (when we let her have her way) to all men and women, most systematically to those who need it most, securing an entrance to their souls by their very vices and weaknesses, and invariably supplying the human instrument or the effective circumstances which are best calculated to work her purpose. Such beneficent work of Nature may be called, as it was called by the older writers, the Hand of God.
Sydney's great and overweening fault was that form of "moral stupidity" which we term selfishness. Something of it may have come with the faculties which he had inherited—in tendencies and inclinations mysteriously associated with his physical conformation; much had been added thereto by the indulgence of his parents, by the pride of his university triumphs, and by the misfortune of his association in London with men who aggravated instead of modifying the faults of his natural disposition. The death of his father had produced a good effect for the time, and made him permanently more considerate of his mother's and sister's welfare. But a greater and still more permanent effect seemed likely to be produced on him now, for he had opened his heart to the influences of a pure and elevating affection; and for almost the first time there entered into his mind a gradually increasing feeling of contrition and remorse for certain past phases of his life which he knew to be both unworthy in themselves and disloyal (if persisted in) to the woman whom he hoped to make his wife. By a determined effort of will, he cut one knot which he could not untie, but, his thoughts being still centred upon himself, he considered his own rights and needs almost entirely in the matter, and did not trouble himself much about the rights or needs of the other person concerned. He had broken free, and was disposed to congratulate himself upon his freedom; vowing, meanwhile, that he would never put himself into any bonds again except the safe and honorable bonds of marriage.
Thus freed, he went down with Dalton to Angleford for the Easter recess, which fell late that year. He seemed particularly cheery and confident, although Dalton noticed a slight shade of gloom or anxiety upon his brow from time to time, and put it down to his uncertainty as to the Pynsents' acceptance of his attentions to Miss Anna Pynsent, which were already noticed and talked about in society. Sydney was a rising man, but it was thought that Sir John might look higher for his beautiful young sister.
The Parliamentary success of the new member for Vanebury had been as great as his most reasonable friends anticipated for him, if not quite as meteoric as one or two flatterers had predicted. Meteoric success in the House of Commons is not, indeed, so rare as it was twenty years ago, for the studied rhetoric which served our great-grandfathers in their ambitious pursuit of notoriety has given place to the arts of audacity, innovation, and the sublime courage of youthful insolence, which have occasionally worked wonders in our own day.
Sydney had long been a close observer of the methods by which men gained the ear of the House, and he had learned one or two things that were very useful to him now that he was able to turn them to account.
"We have put the golden age behind us," he said one day to Dalton, with the assured and confident air which gave him so much of his power amongst men, "and also the silver age, and the age of brass. We are living in the great newspaper age, and, if a public man wants to get into a foremost place before he has begun to lose his teeth, he must play steadily to the readers of the daily journals. In my small way I have done this already, and now I am in the House, I shall make it my business to study and humor, to some extent, the many-faced monster who reads and reflects himself in the press. In other times a man had to work himself up in Hansard and the Standing Orders, to watch and imitate the old Parliamentary hands, to listen for the whip and follow close at heel; but, as I have often heard you say, we have changed all that. Whatever else a man may do or leave undone, he must keep himself in evidence; it is more important to be talked and written about constantly than to be highly praised once in six months. I don't know any other way of working the oracle than by doing or saying something every day, clever or foolish, which will have a chance of getting into print."
He spoke half in jest, yet he evidently more than half meant what he said.
"At any rate, you have some recent instances to support your theory," Dalton said, with a smile. They were lighting their cigars, preparatory to playing a fresh game of billiards, but Sydney was so much interested in the conversation, that, instead of taking up his cue, he stood with his back to the fire and continued it.
"Precisely so—there can be no doubt about it. Look at Flumley, and Warrington, and Middlemist—three of our own fellows, without going any further. What is there in them to command success, except not deserving it, and knowing that they don't? The modest merit and perseverance business is quite played out for any man of spirit. The only line to take in these days is that of cheek, pluck, and devil-may-care."
"Do you know, Campion, you have grown very cynical of late?" said Brooke Dalton, rather more gravely than usual. "I have been rather disposed to take some blame to myself for my share in the heartless kind of talk that used to go on at the Oligarchy. I and Pynsent were your sponsors there, I remember. You may think this an odd thing to say, but the fact is I am becoming something of a fogy, I suppose, in my ideas, and I daresay you'll tell me that the change is not for the better."
"I don't know about that," said Sydney, lightly. "Perhaps it is for the better, after all. You see, you are now laying yourself out to persuade your fellowmen that you can cure them of all the ills that flesh is heir to! But I'll tell you what I have noticed, old man, and what others beside me have noticed. We miss you up in town. You never come to the Club now. The men say you must be ill, or married, or breaking up, or under petticoat government—all stuff and nonsense, you know; but that is what they say."
"They can't be all right," said Brooke, with a rather embarrassed laugh, "but some of them may be." He made a perfectly needless excursion across the room to fetch a cue from the rack that he did not want, while Sydney smoked on and watched him with amused and rather curious eyes. "I suppose I am a little under petticoat government," said Dalton, examining his cue with interest, and then laying it down on the table, "as you may see for yourself. But my sister manages everything so cleverly that I don't mind answering to the reins and letting her get me well in hand."
"No one ever had a better excuse for submitting to petticoat government. But you know what is always thought of a man when he begins to give up his club."
"I am afraid it can't be helped. Then again—perhaps there is another reason. Edith, you know, has a little place of her own, about a mile from here, and she tells me that she will not keep house for me much longer—even to rescue me from club life. The fact is, she wants me to marry."
"Oh, now I see it all; you have let the cat out the bag! And you are going to humor her in that, too?"
"Well, I hardly think I should marry just to humor my sister. But—who knows? She is always at me, and a continual dropping——"
"Wears away the stony heart of Brooke Dalton. Why, what a converted clubbist you will be!"
"There was always a corner of my heart, Campion, in which I rebelled against our bachelor's paradise at the Oligarchy—and you would have opened your eyes if you could have seen into that corner through the smoke and gossip of the old days in Pall Mall."
"The old days of six months ago!" said Sydney, good-humoredly.
"Do you know that Edith and I are going abroad next week?"
The question sounded abrupt, but Dalton had not the air of a man who wants to turn the conversation.
"No," said Sydney, in some surprise. "Where are you going?"
"Well, Edith wants to go to Italy, and I should not wonder if we were to come across a cousin of mine, Mrs. Hartley, who is now at Florence. You know her, I believe?"
"I hardly know her, but I have heard a good deal about her. She has been very kind to my sister—nursed her through a long illness, and looked after her in the most generous manner possible. I am under great obligations to Mrs. Hartley. I hope you will say so to her if you meet."
"All right. Anything else I can do for you? No doubt we shall see your sister. We are old friends, you know. And I have met her several times at my cousin's this winter."
"At those wonderful Sunday gatherings of hers?"
"I dropped in casually one day, and found Miss Campion there—and I admit that I went pretty regularly afterwards, in the hope of improving the acquaintance. If I were to tell you that I am going to Florence now for precisely the same reason, would you, as her brother, wish me good speed, or advise me to keep away?"
"Wish you good speed?"
"Why, yes! Is not my meaning clear?"
"My dear Dalton, you have taken me absolutely by surprise," said Sydney, laying down his cigar. "But, if I understand you aright, I do wish you good speed, and with all my heart."
"Mind," said Dalton hurriedly, "I have not the least idea what my reception is likely to be. I'm afraid I have not the ghost of a chance."
"I hope you will be treated as you deserve," said Sydney, rather resenting this constructive imputation on his sister's taste. Privately, he thought there was no doubt about the matter, and was delighted with the prospect of so effectually crushing the gossip that still hung about Lettice's name. The memory of Alan Walcott's affairs was strong in the minds of both men as they paused in their conversation, but neither chose to allude to him in words.
"I could settle down here with the greatest pleasure imaginable, under some circumstances," said Brooke Dalton, with a faint smile irradiating his fair, placid, well-featured countenance. "Do you think your sister would like to be so near her old home?"
"I think she would consider it an advantage. She was always fond of Angleford. Your wife will be a happy woman, Dalton, whoever she may be—sua si bona norit!"
"Well, I'm glad I spoke to you," said Brooke, with an air of visible relief. "Edith knows all about it, and is delighted. How the time flies! We can't have a game before dinner, I'm afraid. Must you go to-morrow, Campion?"
"It is necessary. The House meets at four; and besides, I have arranged to meet Sir John Pynsent earlier in the day. I want to have a little talk with him."
"To put his fate to the touch, I suppose," meditated Brooke, glancing at Sydney's face, which had suddenly grown a little grave. "I suppose it would be premature to say anything—I think," he said aloud, "that we almost ought to be dressing now."
"Yes, we've only left ourselves ten minutes. I say, Dalton, now I think of it, I'll give you a letter to my sister, if you'll be kind enough to deliver it."
"There will be no hurry about it. Give it to her whenever you like. I think it would be serviceable, and I suppose you can trust my discretion; but, understand me—you can deliver the letter or not, as seems good to you when you are with her. I'll write it to-night, and let you have it to-morrow morning before I go."
It would not have occurred to Brooke Dalton to ask for a letter of recommendation when he went a-courting, but Sydney's words did not strike him as incongruous at the time, and he was simple enough to believe that a brother's influence would weigh with a woman of Lettice's calibre in the choice of a partner for life.
Sydney delivered the letter into his keeping next day, and then went up to town, where he was to meet Sir John Pynsent at the Club.
Dalton had been mistaken when he conjectured that Sydney's intentions were to consult Sir John about his pretension to Miss Pynsent's hand. Sydney had not yet got so far. He had made up his mind that he wanted Anna Pynsent for a wife more than he had ever wanted any woman in the world; and the encouragement that he had received from Sir John and Lady Pynsent made him conscious that they were not very likely to deny his suit. And yet he paused. It seemed to him that he would like a longer interval to pass before he asked Nan Pynsent to marry him—a longer space in which to put away certain memories and fears which became more bitter to him every time that they recurred.
It was simply a few words on political matters that he wanted with Sir John; but they had the room to themselves, and Sydney was hardly surprised to find that the conversation had speedily drifted round to personal topics, and that the baronet was detailing his plans for the autumn, and asking Sydney to form one of his house-party in September. Sydney hesitated in replying. He thought to himself that he should not care to go unless he was sure that Miss Pynsent meant to accept him. Perhaps Sir John attributed his hesitation to its real cause, for he said, more heartily than ever.
"We all want you, you know. Nan is dying to talk over your constituents with you. She has got some Workmen's Club on hand that she wants the member to open, with an appropriate speech, so you had better prepare yourself."
"Miss Pynsent is interested in the Vanebury workmen. I shall be delighted to help at any time."
"Too much interested," said Sir John, bluntly. "I'll tell her she'll be an out and out Radical by and by. You know she has a nice little place of her own just outside Vanebury, and she vows she'll go and live there when she is twenty-one, and work for the good of the people. My authority over her will cease entirely when she is of age."
"But not your influence," said Sydney.
"Well—I don't know that I have very much. The proper person to influence Nan will be her husband, when she has one."
"If I were not a poor man——" Sydney began impulsively, and then stopped short. But a good-humored curl of Sir John's mouth, an inquiring twinkle in his eye, told him that he must proceed. So, in five minutes, his proposal was made, and a good deal earlier than he had expected it to be. It must be confessed that Sir John had led him on. And Sir John was unfeignedly delighted, though he tried to pretend doubt and indifference.
"Of course I can't answer for my sister, and she is full young to make her choice. But I can assure you, Campion, there's no man living to whom I would sooner see her married than to yourself," he said at the conclusion of the interview. And then he asked Sydney to dinner, and went home to pour the story into the ears of his wife.
Lady Pynsent was not so much pleased as was he. She had had visions of a title for her sister-in-law, and thought that Nan would be throwing herself away if she married Sydney Campion, although he was a rising man, and would certainly be solicitor-general before long.
"Well, Nan will have to decide for herself," said Sir John, evading his wife's remonstrances. "After all, I couldn't refuse the man for her, could I?" He did not say that he had tried to lead the backward lover on.
"Yes, you could," said Lady Pynsent. "You could have told him it was out of the question. But the fact is, you want it. You have literally thrown Nan at his head ever since he stayed with us last summer. You are so devoted to your friend, Mr. Campion!"
"You will see that he is a friend to be proud of," said Sir John, with conviction. "He is one of the cleverest men of the day, he will be one of the most distinguished. Any woman may envy Nan——"
"If she accepts him," said Lady Pynsent.
"Don't you think she will?"
"I have no idea. In some ways, Nan is so childish; in others, she is a woman grown. I can never answer for Nan. She takes such idealistic views of things."
"She's a dear, good girl," said Sir John, rather objecting to this view of Nan's character.
"My dear John, of course she is! She's a darling. But she is quite impracticable sometimes, as you know."
Yes, Sir John knew. And for that very reason, he wanted Nan to marry Sydney Campion.
He warned his wife against speaking to the girl on the subject: he had promised Campion a fair field, and he was to speak as soon as he got the opportunity. "He's coming to dinner next Wednesday; he may get his chance then."
But Sydney got it before Wednesday. He found that the Pynsents were invited to a garden party—a social function which he usually avoided with care—for which he also had received a card. The hostess lived at Fulham, and he knew that her garden was large and shady, sloping to the river, and full of artfully contrived sequestered nooks, where many a flirtation was carried on.
"She won't like it so well as Culverley," said Sydney to himself, with a half smile, "but it will be better than a drawing-room."
He did not like to confess to himself how nervous he felt. His theory had always been that a man should not propose to a woman unless he is sure that he will be accepted. He was not at all sure about Nan's feelings towards him, and yet he was going to propose. He told himself again that he had not meant to speak so soon—that if he saw any signs of distaste he should cut short his declaration altogether and defer it to a more convenient season; but all the same, he knew in his own heart that he would be horribly disappointed if fate deprived him of the chance of a decisive interview with Anna Pynsent.
Those who saw him at Lady Maliphant's party that afternoon, smiling, handsome, debonnair, as usual faultlessly attired, with a pleasant word for everyone he met and an eye that was perfectly cool and careless, would have been amazed could they have known the leap that his heart gave when he caught sight of Lady Pynsent's great scarlet parasol and trailing black laces, side by side with Nan's dainty white costume. The girl wore an embroidered muslin, with a yellow sash tied loosely round her slender waist; the graceful curve of her broad-brimmed hat, fastened high over one ear like a cavalier's, was softened by drooping white ostrich feathers; her lace parasol had a knot of yellow ribbon at one side, to match the tint of her sash. Her long tan gloves and the Marechal Niel roses at her neck were finishing touches of the picture which Sydney was incompetent to grasp in detail, although he felt its charm on a whole. The sweet, delicate face, with its refined features and great dark eyes, was one which might well cause a man to barter all the world for love; and, in Sydney's case, it happened that to gain its owner meant to gain the world as well. It spoke well for Sydney's genuine affection that he had ceased of late to think of the worldly fortune that Nan might bring him, and remembered only that he wanted Nan Pynsent for herself.
She greeted him with a smile. She had grown a little quieter, a little more conventional in manner of late: he did not like her any the worse for that. But, although she did not utter any word of welcome, he fancied from her face that she was glad to see him; and it was not long before he found some pretext for strolling off with her to a shadowy and secluded portion of the grounds. Even then he was not sure whether he would ask her to be his wife that day, or whether he would postpone the decisive moment a little longer. Nan's bright, unconscious face was very charming, undisturbed by fear or doubt: what if he brought a shadow to it, a cloud that he could not dispel? For one of the very few times in his life, Sydney did not feel sure of himself.
"Where are you going this summer?" she asked him, as they stood beside the shining water, and watched the eddies and ripples of the stream.
"I usually go abroad. But Sir John has been asking me to Culverley again."
"You do not mean to go to Switzerland, then? You spoke of it the other day."
"No, I think not. I do not want to be so far away from—from London."
"You are so fond of your work: you do not like to be parted from it," she said smiling.
"I am fond of it, certainly. I have a good deal to do."
"Oh!" said Nan, innocently, "I thought people who were in Parliament did nothing but Parliamentary business-like John."
"I have other things to do as well, Miss Pynsent. And in Parliament even there is a good deal to study and prepare for, if one means to take up a strong position from the beginning."
"Which, I am sure, you mean to do," she said quickly.
"Thank you. You understand me perfectly—you understand my ambitions, my hopes and fears——"
She did not look as if she understood him at all.
"Are you ambitious, Mr. Campion? But what do you wish for more than you have already?"
"Many things. Everything."
"Power, I suppose," said Nan doubtfully; then, with a slightly interrogative intonation—"and riches?"
"But one's happiness does not depend on either."
"It rarely exists without one or the other."
"I don't know. I should like to live in a cottage and be quite poor and bake the bread, and work hard all day, and sleep soundly all night——"
"Yes, if it were for the sake of those you loved," said Sydney, venturing to look at her significantly.
Nan nodded, and a faint smile curved her lips: her eyes grew tender and soft.
"Can you not imagine another kind of life? where you spent yourself equally for those whom you loved and who loved you, but in happier circumstances? a life where two congenial souls met and worked together? Could you not be happy almost anywhere with the one—the man—you loved?"
Sydney's voice had sunk low, but his eyes expressed more passion than his voice, which was kept sedulously steady. Nan was more aware of the look in his eyes than of the words he actually used. She cast a half-frightened look at him, and then turned rosy-red.
"Could you be happy with me?" he asked her, still speaking very gently. "Nan, I love you—I love you with all my heart. Will you be my wife?"
And as she surrendered her hands to his close clasp, and looked half smilingly, half timidly into his face, he knew that his cause was won.
But, alas, for Sydney, that at the height of his love-triumph, a bitter drop of memory should suddenly poison his pleasure at the fount!
A SLUMBERING HEART.
Time had hung heavily on Lettice's hands during the first month or two of her stay on the Continent. No one could have been kinder to her than Mrs. Hartley, more considerate of her needs and tastes, more anxious to please and distract her. But the recovery of her nerves from the shock and strain to which they had been subjected was a slow process, and her mind began to chafe against the restraint which the weakness of the body imposed upon it.
The early spring brought relief. Nature repairs her own losses as she punishes her own excess. Lettice had suffered by the abuse of her energy and power of endurance, but three months of idleness restored the balance. The two women lived in a small villa on the outskirts of Florence, and when they were not away from home, in quest of art or music, scenery or society, they read and talked to each other, or recorded their impressions on paper. Mrs. Hartley had many friends in England, with whom she was wont to exchange many thousand words; and these had the benefit of the ideas which a winter in Florence had excited in her mind. Lettice's confidant was her diary, and she sighed now and then to think that there was no one in the world to whom she could write the inmost thoughts of her heart, and from whom she could expect an intelligent and sympathetic response.
No doubt she wrote to Clara, and gave her long accounts of what she saw and did in Italy; but Clara was absorbed in the cares of matrimony and motherhood. She had nothing but actualities to offer in return for the idealities which were Lettice's mental food and drink. This had always been the basis of their friendship; and it is a basis on which many a firm friendship has been built.
Lettice had already felt the elasticity of returning health in every limb and vein when the news reached her of the success of her novel; and that instantly completed the cure. Her publisher wrote to her in high spirits, at each demand for a new edition, and he forwarded to her a handsome cheque "on account," which gave more eloquent testimony of his satisfaction than anything else. Graham sent her, through Clara, a bundle of reviews which he had been at the pains of cutting out of the papers, and Clara added many criticisms, mostly favorable, which she had heard from her husband and his friends. Lettice had a keen appetite for praise, as for pleasure of every kind, and she was intoxicated by the good things which were spoken of her.
"There, dear," she said to Mrs. Hartley one morning, spreading out before her friend the cheque which she had just received from Mr. MacAlpine, "you told me that my stupid book had given me nothing more than a nervous fever, but this has come also to pay the doctor's bill. Is it not a great deal of money? What a lucky thing that I went in for half profits, and did not take the paltry fifty pounds which they offered me?"
"Ah, you need not twit me with what I said before I knew what your book was made of," said Mrs. Hartley affectionately. "How was I to know that you could write a novel, when you had only told me that you could translate a German philosopher? The two things do not sound particularly harmonious, do they?"
"I suppose I must have made a happy hit with my subject, though I never thought I had whilst I was writing. I only went straight on, and had not the least idea that people would find much to like in it. Nor had Mr. MacAlpine either, for he did not seem at all anxious to publish it."
"It was in you, my darling, and would come out. You have discovered a mine, and I daresay you can dig as much gold out of it as will suffice to make you happy."
"Now, what shall we do with this money? We must have a big treat; and I am going to manage and pay for everything myself starting from to-day. Shall it be Rome, or the Riviera, or the Engadine; or what do you say to returning by way of Germany? I do so long to see the Germans at home."
Mrs. Hartley was downcast at once.
"The first thing you want to do with your wealth," she said, "is to make me feel uncomfortable! Have we not been happy together these six months, and can you not leave well alone? You know that I am a rich woman, through no credit of my own—for everything I have came from my husband. If you talk of spending your money on anyone but yourself, I shall think that you are pining for independence again, and we may as well pack up our things and get home."
"Oh dear, what have I said? I did not mean it, my dearest friend—my best friend in the world! I won't say anything like it again: but I must go out and spend some money, or I shall not believe in my good fortune. Can you lend me ten pounds?"
"Yes, that I can!"
"Then let us put our things on, and go into paradise."
"What very dissolute idea, to be sure! But come along. If you will be so impulsive, I may as well go to take care of you."
So they went out together—the woman of twenty-six and the woman of sixty, and roamed about the streets of Florence like a couple of school-girls. And Lettice bought her friend a brooch, and herself a ring in memory of the day; and as the ten pounds would not cover it she borrowed fifteen; and then they had a delightful drive through the noble squares, past many a venerable palace and lofty church, through richly storied streets, and across a bridge of marble to the other side of the Arno; so onward till they came to the wood-enshrouded valley, where the trees were breaking into tender leafage, every shade of green commingling with the blue screen of the Apennines beyond. Back again they came into the city of palaces, which they had learned to love, and alighting near the Duomo sought out a pasticceria in a street hard by, and ate a genuine school-girl's meal.
"It has been the pleasantest day of my life here!" said Lettice as they reached home in the evening. "I have not had a cloud upon my conscience."
"And it has made the old woman young," said Mrs. Hartley, kissing her friend upon the cheek. "Oh, why are you not my daughter!"
"You would soon have too much of me if I were your daughter. But tell me what a daughter would have done for you, and let me do it while I can."
"It is not to do, but to be. Be just what you are and never desert me, and then I will forget that I was once a childless woman."
So the spring advanced, and drew towards summer. And on the first of May Mrs. Hartley, writing to her cousin, Edith Dalton, the most intimate of all her confidants, gave a glowing account of Lettice.
"My sweetheart here (she wrote) is cured at last. Three months have gone since she spoke about returning to England, and I believe she is thoroughly contented. She has taken to writing again, and seems to be fairly absorbed in her work, but you may be sure that I shall not let her overdo it. The death of her mother, and the break-up of their home, probably severed all the ties that bound her to London; and, so far as I can see, not one of them remains. I laughed to read that you were jealous of her. When you and Brooke come here I am certain you will like her every bit as much as I do. What you tell me of Brooke is rather a surprise, but I know you must be very happy about it. To have had him with you for six months at a time, during which he has never once been up to his club, is a great triumph, and speaks volumes for your clever management, as well as for your care and tenderness. We shall see him married and domesticated before a year has passed! I am impatient for you both to come. Do not let anything prevent you."
It was quite true that Lettice had set to work again, and that she appeared to have overcome the home-sickness which at one time made her long to get back to London. Restored health made her feel more satisfied with her surroundings, and a commission for a new story had found her just in the humor to sit down and begin. She was penetrated by the beauty of the Tuscan city which had been her kindly nurse, which was now her fount of inspiration and inexhaustible source of new ideas. A plot, characters, scenery, stage, impressed themselves on her imagination as she wandered amongst the stones and canvasses of Florence; and they grew upon her more and more distinctly every day, as she steeped herself in the spirit of the place and time. She would not go back to the picturesque records of other centuries but took her portraits from men and women of the time, and tried to recognize in them the descendants of the artists, scholars, philosophers, and patriots, who have shed undying fame on the queen-city of northern Italy.
Entirely buried in her work, and putting away from her all that might interfere with its performance, she forgot for a time both herself and others. If she was selfish in her isolation it was with the selfishness of one who for art's sake is prepared to abandon her ease and pleasure in the laborious pursuit of an ideal. Mrs. Hartley was content to leave her for a quarter of the day in the solitude of her own room on condition of sharing her idleness or recreation during the rest of their waking hours.
Had Lettice forgotten Alan Walcott at this crisis in the lives of both? When Mrs. Hartley was assuring her cousin that all the ties which had bound the girl to London were severed, Alan was expiating in prison the crime of which he had been convicted, which, in his morbid abasement and despair he was almost ready to confess that he had committed. Was he, indeed, as he had not very sincerely prayed to be, forgotten by the woman he loved?
It is no simple question for her biographer to answer off-hand. Lettice, as we know, had admitted into her heart a feeling of sympathetic tenderness for Alan, which, under other circumstances, she would have accepted as worthy to dominate her life and dictate its moods and duties. But the man for whom this sympathy had been aroused was so situated that he could not ask her for her love, whilst she could not in any case have given it if she had been asked. Instinctively she had shut her eyes to that which she might have read in her own soul, or in his, if she had cared or dared to look. She had the book before her, but it was closed and sealed. Where another woman might, have said, "I must forget him—there is a barrier between us which neither can cross," she said nothing; but all her training, her instinct, her delicate feeling, even her timidity and self-distrust, led her insensibly to shun the paths of memory which would have brought her back to the prospect that had allured and alarmed her.
Be it remembered that she knew nothing of his later troubles. She had heard nothing about him since she left England; and Mrs. Hartley, who honestly believed that Alan had practically effaced himself from their lives by his own rash act, was sufficiently unscrupulous to keep her friend in ignorance of what had happened.
So Lettice did not mention Alan, did not keep him in her mind or try to recall him by any active exercise of her memory; and in this sense she had forgotten him. Time would show if the impression, so deep and vivid in its origin, was gradually wearing away, or merely hidden out of sight. No wonder if Mrs. Hartley thought that she was cured.
Lettice heard of the arrival of the Daltons without any other feeling than half-selfish misgiving that her work was to be interrupted at a critical moment, when her mind was full of the ideas on which her story depended for its success. She had created by her imagination a little world of human beings, instinct with life and endowed with vivid character; she had dwelt among her creatures, guided their steps and inspired their souls, loved them and walked with them from day to day, until they were no mere puppets dancing to the pull of a string, but real and veritable men and women. She could not have deserted them by any spontaneous act of her own, and if she was to be torn away from the world, which hung upon her fiat, she could not submit to the banishment without at least an inward lamentation. Art spoils her votaries for the service of society, and society, as a rule, takes its revenge by despising or patronizing the artist whilst competing for the possession of his works.
Brooke Dalton and his sister were lodged in an old palace not far from Mrs. Hartley's smaller and newer residence; and frequent visits between the two couples soon put them all on terms of friendly intimacy. Lettice had always thought well of Mr. Dalton. He reminded her of Angleford, and the happy days of her early youth. In London he had been genial with her, and attentive, and considerate in every sense, so that she had been quite at her ease with him. They met again without constraint, and under circumstances which enabled Dalton to put forth his best efforts to please her, without exciting any alarm in her mind, to begin with.
Edith Dalton captivated Lettice at once. She was a handsome woman of aristocratic type and breeding, tall, slender, and endowed with the graceful manners of one who has received all the polish of refined society without losing the simplicity of nature. A year or two younger than her brother, she had reached an age when most women have given up the thought of marriage; and in her case there was a sad and sufficient reason for turning her back upon such joys and consolations as a woman may reasonably expect to find in wedded life. She had been won in her girlhood by a man thoroughly fitted to make her happy—a man of wealth and talent, and honorable service in the State; who, within a week of their marriage day, had been thrown from his horse and killed. Edith had not in so many words devoted herself to perpetual maidenhood; but that was the outcome of the great sorrow of her youth. She had remained single without growing morose, and her sweet and gentle moods endeared her to all who came to know her.
With such a companion Lettice was sure to become intimate; or at any rate, she was sure to respond with warmth to the kindly feeling displayed for her. Yet there were many points of unlikeness between her and Edith Dalton. She too was refined, but it was the refinement of mental culture rather than the moulding of social influences. She too retained the simplicity of nature, but it was combined with an outspoken candor which Edith had been taught to shun. Where Lettice would be ready to assert herself, and claim the rights of independence, Edith would shrink back with fastidious alarm; where the one was fitted to wage the warfare of life, and, if need be, to stand out as a champion or pioneer of her sex, the other would have suffered acutely if she had been forced into any kind of aggressive combat.
When Brooke told his sister that he had met a woman whom he could love, she was unfeignedly glad, and never thought of inquiring whether the woman in question was rich, or well-connected, or moving in good society. Perhaps she took the last two points for granted, and no doubt she would have been greatly disappointed if she had found that Brooke's choice had been otherwise than gentle and refined. But when she saw Lettice she was satisfied, and set herself by every means in her power to please and charm her new friend.
As Mrs. Hartley knew and backed the designs of the Daltons, Lettice was not very fairly matched against the wiles and blandishments of the three. Brooke Dalton, indeed, felt himself in a rather ridiculous position, as though he were proceeding to the siege of Lettice's heart relying upon the active co-operation of his sister and cousin, to say nothing of her brother's letter which he carried in his pocket. But, after all, this combination was quite fortuitous. He had not asked for assistance, and he knew very well that if such assistance were too openly given it would do his cause more harm than good.
Dalton was one of those good-tempered men who are apt to get too much help in spite of themselves from the womenfolk of their family and household, who are supposed to need help when they do not, and who have only themselves to thank for their occasional embarrassment of wealth in this particular form. Nature intends such men to be wife-ridden and happy. If is not alien to their disposition that they should spend their earlier manhood, as Dalton had done, amongst men who take life too easily and lightly; but they generally settle down before the whole of their manhood is wasted, and then a woman can lead them with a thread of silk.
It was for Lettice, if she would, to lead this gentle-hearted English squire, to be the mistress of his house and fair estate, to ensure the happiness of this converted bachelor of Pall Mall, and to bid good-bye to the cares and struggles of the laborious life on which she had entered.
The temptation was put before her. Would she dally with it, and succumb to it? And could anyone blame her if she did?
"IT WAS A LIE!"
Up the right-hand slopes of the Val d'Arno, between Florence and Fiesole, the carriage-road runs for some distance comparatively broad and direct between stone walls and cypress-hedges, behind which the passer-by gets glimpses of lovely terraced gardens, of the winding river far below his feet, of the purple peaks of the Carrara mountains far away. But when the road reaches the base of the steep hill on which the old Etruscans built their crow's-nest of a city—where Catiline gathered his host of desperadoes, and under whose shadow, more than three centuries later, the last of the Roman deliverers, himself a barbarian, hurled back the hordes of Radegast—it winds a narrow and tortuous way from valley to crest, from terrace to terrace, until the crowning stage is reached.
Here in the shadow of the old Etruscan fortifications, the wayfarer might take his stand and look down upon the wondrous scene beneath him. "Never," as Hallam says, "could the sympathies of the soul with outward nature be more finely touched; never could more striking suggestions be presented to the philosopher and the statesman" than in this Tuscan cradle of so much of our modern civilization, which even the untraveled islander of the northern seas can picture in his mind and cherish with lively affection. For was it not on this fertile soil of Etruria that the art and letters of Italy had birth? and was it not in fair Florence, rather than in any other modern city, that they were born again in the fulness of time? Almost on the very spot where Stilicho vainly stemmed the advancing tide which was to reduce Rome to a city of ruins, the new light dawned after a millennium of darkness. And there, from the sacred walls of Florence, Dante taught our earlier and later poets to sing; Galileo reawoke slumbering science with a trumpet-call which frightened the Inquisition out of its senses; Michael Angelo, Raffaelle, Da Vinci, Del Sarto created models of art for all succeeding time. Never was there in any region of the world such a focus of illuminating fire. Never will there live a race that does not own its debt to the great seers and creators of Tuscany.
Late on an autumn afternoon, towards the close of the September of 1882, four English friends have driven out from Florence to Fiesole, and, after lingering for a time in the strange old city, examining the Cathedral in the Piazza and the remains of the Roman Theatre in the garden behind it, they came slowly down the hill to the beautiful old villa which was once the abode of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The carriage waited for them in the road, but here, on the terrace outside the villa gates, they rested awhile, feasting their eyes upon the lovely scene which lay below.
They had visited the place before, but not for some months, for they had been forced away from Florence by the fierce summer heat, and had spent some time in Siena and Pistoja, finally taking up their residence in a cool and secluded nook of the Pistojese Apennines. But when autumn came, and the colder, mountain breezes began to blow, Mrs. Hartley hastened her friends back to her comfortable little Florentine villa, proposing to sojourn there for the autumn, and then to go with Lettice and perhaps with the Daltons also, on to Rome.
"We have seen nothing so beautiful as this in all our wanderings," Lettice said at last in softened tones.
She was looking at the clustering towers of the city, at Brunelleschi's magnificent dome, and the slender grace of Giotto's Campanile, and thence, from those storied trophies of transcendant art, her gaze wandered to the rich valley of the Arno, with its slopes of green and grey, and its distant line of purple peaks against an opalescent sky.
"It is more beautiful in spring. I miss the glow and scent of the flowers—the scarlet tulips, the sweet violets," said Mrs. Hartley.
"I cannot imagine anything more beautiful," Edith Dalton rejoined. "One feels oppressed with so much loveliness. It is beyond expression."
"Silence is most eloquent, perhaps, in a place like this," said Lettice. "What can one say that is worth saying, or that has not been said before?"
She was sitting on a fragment of fallen stone, her hands loosely clasped round her knees, her eyes fixed wistfully and dreamily upon the faint amethystine tints of the distant hills. Brooke Dalton looked down at her with an anxious eye. He did not altogether like this pensive mood of hers; there was something melancholy in the drooping curves of her lips, in the pathos of her wide gaze, which he did not understand. He tried to speak lightly, in hopes of recalling her to the festive mood in which they had all begun the day.
"You remind me of two friends of mine who are just home from Egypt. They say that when they first saw the Sphinx they sat down and looked at it for two hours without uttering a word."
"You would not have done that, Brooke," said Mrs. Hartley, a little maliciously.
"But why not? I think it was the right spirit," said Lettice, and again lapsed into silence.
"Look at the Duomo, how well it stands out in the evening light!" exclaimed Edith. "Do you remember what Michael Angelo said when he turned and looked at it before riding away to Rome to build St. Peter's? 'Come te non voglio: meglio di te non posso.'"
"I am always struck by his generosity of feeling towards other artists," remarked Mrs. Hartley. "Except towards Raffaelle, perhaps. But think of what he said of Santa Maria Novella, that it was beautiful as a bride, and that the Baptistery gates were worthy of Paradise. It is only the great who can afford to praise so magnificently."
Again there was a silence. Then Mrs. Hartley and Edith professed to be attracted by a group of peasant children who were offering flowers and fruit for sale; and they strolled to some little distance, talking to them and to a black-eyed cantadina, whose costume struck them as unusually gay. They even walked a little in the shade of the cypresses, with which the palazzo seemed to be guarded, as with black and ancient sentinels; but all this was more for the sake of leaving Brooke alone with Lettice than because they had any very great interest in the Italian woman and her children, or the terraced gardens of the Villa Mozzi. For the time of separation was at hand. The Daltons were returning very shortly to England, and Brooke had not yet carried out his intention of asking Lettice Campion to be his wife. He had asked Mrs. Hartley that day to give him a chance, if possible, of half an hour's conversation with Lettice alone; but their excursion had not hitherto afforded him the coveted opportunity. Now, however, it had come; but while Lettice sat looking towards the towers of Florence with that pensive and abstracted air, Brooke Dalton shrank from breaking in upon her reverie.
In truth, Lettice was in no talkative mood. She had been troubled in her mind all day, and for some days previously, and it was easier for her to keep silence than for any of the rest. If she had noticed the absence of Mrs. Hartley and Edith, she would probably have risen from her seat and insisted on joining them; but strong in the faith that they were but a few steps away from her, she had thrown the reins of restraint upon the necks of her wild horses of imagination, and had been borne away by them to fields where Brooke's fancy was hardly likely to carry him—fields of purely imaginative joy and ideal beauty, in which he had no mental share. It was rest and refreshment to her to do this, after the growing perplexity of the last few days. Absorbed in her enjoyment of the lucent air, the golden and violet and emerald tints of the landscape; conscious also of the passionate joy which often thrills the nerves of Italy's lovers when they find them selves, after long years of waiting, upon that classic ground, she had for the time put away the thoughts that caused her perplexity, and abandoned herself to the sweet influences of the time and place.
The Daltons had been in Italy since May, and she had seen a great deal of Edith. Brooke Dalton had sometimes gone off on an expedition by himself, but more frequently he danced attendance on the women; and Lettice had found out that when he was absent she had a great deal more of him than when he was present. So much had Edith and Mrs. Hartley to say about him, so warmly did they praise his manners, his appearance, his manly and domestic virtues, and his enviable position in the world, that in course of time she knew all his good points by heart. She had actually found herself the day before, more as a humorous exercise of memory than for any other reason, jotting them down in her diary.
"B. D.—testibus E. D. et M. H.
"He is handsome, has a manly figure, a noble head, blue eyes, chestnut hair (it is turning grey—L. C.), a dignified presence, a look that shows he respects others as much as himself.
"He is truthful, simple in tastes, easily contented, lavishly generous (that I know—L. C.), knows his own mind (that I doubt—L. C.), is fond of reading (?), a scholar (??), with a keen appreciation of literature (???).
"He has one of the most delightful mansions in England (as I know—L. C.), with gardens, conservatories, a park, eight thousand a year.
"He is altogether an enviable man, and the woman who marries him will be an enviable woman (a matter of opinion—L. C.), and he is on the look-out for a wife (how would he like to have that said of him?—L. C.)."
Lettice had sportively written this in her diary, and had scribbled it out again; but it represented fairly enough the kind of ideas which Brooke Dalton's sister and cousin had busily instilled into her mind. The natural consequence was that she had grown somewhat weary of listening to the praises of their hero, and felt disposed to consider him as either much too superior to be thoroughly nice, or much too nice to be all that his womenfolk described him.
Of some of his estimable qualities, however, she had had personal experience; and, notably of his lavish generosity. A few days ago he had taken them all to the shop of a dealer of old-fashioned works of art and rare curiosities, declaring that he had brought them there for the express purpose of giving them a memento of Florence before they left the city.
Then he bade them choose, and, leaving Edith and Mrs. Hartley to make their own selection, which they did modestly enough, letting him off at about a sovereign a-piece, he insisted on prompting and practically dictating the choice of Lettice, who, by constraint and cajolery together, was made to carry away a set of intaglios that must have cost him fifty pounds at least.
She had no idea of their value, but she was uneasy at having taken the gift. What would he conclude from her acceptance of such a valuable present? It was true that she was covered to some extent by the fact that Edith and Mrs. Hartley were with her at the time, but she could not feel satisfied about the propriety of her conduct, and she had a subtle argument with herself as to the necessity of returning the gems sooner or later, unless she was prepared to be compromised in the opinion of her three friends.
She had for the present, however, banished these unpleasant doubts from her mind, and the guilty author of her previous discomfort stood idly by her side, smoking his cigar, and watching the people as they passed along the road. The other ladies were out of sight, and thus Brooke and Lettice were left alone.
After a time she noticed the absence of her friends, and turned round quickly to look for them. Brooke saw the action, and felt that if he did not speak now he might never get such a good opportunity. So, with nothing but instinct for his guide, he plunged into the business without further hesitation.
"I hope you will allow, Miss Campion, that I know how to be silent when the occasion requires it! I did not break in upon your reverie, and should not have done so, however long it might have lasted."
"I am sorry you have had to stand sentinel," said Lettice; "but you told me once that a woman never need pity a man for being kept waiting so long as he had a cigar to smoke."
"That is quite true; and I have not been an object for pity at all. Unless you will pity me for having to bring my holiday to an end. You know that Edith and I are leaving Florence on Monday?"
"Yes, Edith told me; but she did not speak as though it would end your holiday. She said that you might go on to Rome—that you had not made up your mind what to do."
"That is so—it depends upon circumstances, and the decision does not altogether rest with us. Indeed, Miss Campion, my future movements are quite uncertain until I have obtained your answer to a question which I want to put to you. May I put it now?"
"If there is anything I can tell you—" said Lettice, not without difficulty. Her breath came quick, and her bosom heaved beneath her light dress with nervous rapidity. What could he have to say to her? She had refused all these weeks to face the idea which had been forcing itself upon her; and he had been so quiet, so unemotional, that until now she had never felt uneasy in his presence.
"You can tell me a great deal," said Brooke, looking down at her with increased earnestness and tenderness in his eyes and voice. Her face was half averted from him, but he perceived her emotion, and grew more hopeful at the sign. "You can tell me all I want to know; but, unless you have a good message for me, I shall wish I had not asked you my question, and broken through the friendly terms of intercourse from which I have derived so much pleasure, and which have lasted so long between us."
Why did he pause? What could she say that he would care to hear?
"Listen to me!" he said, sinking down on the seat beside her, and pleading in a low tone. "I am not a very young man. I am ten or twelve years older than yourself. But if I spoke with twice as much passion in my voice, and if I had paid you ten times as much attention and court as I have done, it would not prove me more sincere in my love, or more eager to call you my wife. You cannot think how I have been looking forward to this moment—hoping and fearing from day to day, afraid to put my fate to the test, and yet impatient to know if I had any chance of happiness. I loved you in London—I believe I loved you as soon as I knew you; and it was simply and solely in order to try and win your love that I followed you to Italy. Is there no hope for me?"
She did not answer. She could not speak a word, for a storm of conflicting feelings was raging in her breast. Feelings only—she had not begun to think.
"If you will try to love me," he went on, "it will be as much as I have dared to hope. If you will only begin by liking me, I think I can succeed in gaining what will perfectly satisfy me. All my life shall be devoted to giving you the happiness which you deserve. Lettice, have you not a word to say to me?"
"I cannot—" she whispered at length, so faintly that he could scarcely hear.
"Cannot even like me!"
"Oh, do not ask me that! I cannot answer you. If liking were all—but you would not be content with that."
"Say that you like me. Lettice, have a little pity on the heart that loves you!"
"What answer can I give? An hour ago I liked you. Do you not see that what you have said makes the old liking impossible?"
"Yes—I know it. And I have thrown away all because I wanted more! I spoke too suddenly. But do not, at any rate, forbid me still to nurse my hope. I will try and be patient. I will come to you again for my answer—when? In a month—in six months? Tell me only one thing—there is no one who has forestalled me? You are not pledged to another?"
Lettice stood up—the effort was necessary in order to control her beating heart and trembling nerves. She did not reply. She only looked out to the sunlit landscape with wide, unseeing eyes, in which lurked a secret, unspoken dread.
"Tell me before we part," he said, in a voice which was hoarse with suppressed passion. "Say there is no one to whom you have given your love!"
"There is no one!"—But the answer ended in a gasp that was almost a sob.
"Thank God!" said Brooke Dalton, as a look of infinite relief came into his face. "Then a month to-day I will return to you, wherever you may be, and ask for my answer again."
Mrs. Hartley and Edith came back from the garden terraces. With kindly mischief in their hearts, they had left these two together, watching them with half an eye, until they saw that the matter had come to a climax. When Lettice stood up, they divined that the moment had come for their reappearance.
Lettice advanced to meet them, and when they were near enough Edith passed her hand through her friend's still trembling arm.
"Those dear little Italian children!" said Mrs. Hartley. "They are so beautiful—so full of life and spirits, I could have looked at them for another hour. Now, good people, what is going to be done? We must be getting home. Brooke, can you see the carriage? You might find it, and tell the driver to come back for us."
Brooke started off with alacrity, and the women were left alone. Then Edith began to chatter about nothing, in the most resolute fashion, in order that Lettice might have time to pull herself together.
She was glad of their consideration, for indeed she needed all her fortitude. What meant this suffocation of the heart, which almost prevented her from breathing? It ached in her bosom as though someone had grasped it with a hand of ice; she shuddered as though a ghost had been sitting by her and pleading with her, instead of a lover. Her own name echoed in her ears, and she remembered that Brooke Dalton had called her "Lettice." But it was not his voice which was calling to her now.
Dalton presently reappeared with the news that the carriage was waiting for them in the road below.
So in an hour from that time they were at home again, and Lettice was able to get to her own room, and to think of what had happened.
If amongst those who read the story of her life Lettice Campion has made for herself a few discriminating friends, they will not need to be reminded that she was not by any means a perfect character. She was, in her way, quite as ambitious as her brother Sydney, although not quite so eager in pursuit of her own ends, her own pleasure and satisfaction. She was also more scrupulous than Sydney to the means which she would adopt for the attainment of her objects, and she desired that others should share with her the good things which fell to her lot; but she had never been taught, or had never adopted the rule, that mere self-denial, for self-denial's sake, was the soundest basis of morality and conduct. She was thoroughly and keenly human, and she did but follow her natural bent, without distortion and without selfishness, in seeking to give happiness to herself as well as to others.
Brooke Dalton's offer of marriage placed a great temptation before her. All the happiness that money, and position, and affection, and a luxurious home could afford was hers if she would have it; and these were things which she valued very highly. Edith Dalton had done her best to make her friend realize what it would mean to be the mistress of Brooke's house; and poor Lettice, with all her magnanimity, was dazzled in spite of herself, and did not quite see why she should say No, when Brooke made her his offer. And yet her heart cried out against accepting it.
She had needed time to think, and now the process was already beginning. He had given her a month to decide whether she could love him—or even like him well enough to become his wife. Nothing could be more generous, and indeed she knew that he was the soul of generosity and consideration. A month to make up her mind whether she would accept from him all that makes life pleasant, and joyful, and easy, and comfortable; or whether she would turn her back upon the temptation, and shun delights, and live laborious days.
Could she hesitate? What woman with nothing to depend upon except her own exertions, and urged to assent (as she would be) by her only intimate friends, would have hesitated in her place? Yet she did hesitate, and it was necessary to weigh the reasons against accepting, as she had dwelt upon the reasons in favor of it.
If it was easy to imagine that life at Angleford Manor might be very peaceful and luxurious, there could be no doubt that she would have to purchase her pleasure at the cost of a great deal of her independence. She might be able to write, in casual and ornamental fashion; but she felt that there would be little real sympathy with her literary occupations, and the zest of effort and ambition which she now felt would be gone. Moreover, independence of action counted for very little in comparison with independence of thought—and how could she nurse her somewhat heretical ideas in the drawing-room of a Tory High Church squire, a member of the Oligarchy, whose friends would nearly all be like-minded with himself? She had no right to introduce so great a discord into his life. If she married him, she would at any rate try (consciously, or unconsciously) to adopt his views, as the proper basis of the partnership; and therefore to marry him unquestionably meant the sacrifice of her independent judgment.
So much for the intellectual and material sides of the question. But, Lettice asked herself, was that all?
No, there was something else. She had been steadily and obstinately, yet almost unconsciously, trying to push it away from her all the time—ever since Brooke Dalton began to betray his affection, and even before that when Mrs. Hartley, unknown to her, kept her in ignorance of things which she ought to have known. She had refused to face it, pressed it out of her heart, made believe to herself that the chapter of her life which had been written in London was closed and forgotten—and how nearly she had succeeded! But she had not quite succeeded. It was there still—the memory, the hope, the pity, the sacrifice.
She must not cheat herself any longer, if she would be an honest and honorable woman. She would face the truth and not palter with it, now that the crisis had really come. What was Alan Walcott to her? Could she forget him, and dismiss him from her thoughts, and go to the altar with another man? She went over the scenes which they had enacted together, she recalled his words and his letters, she thought of his sorrows and trials, and remembered how he had appealed to her for sympathy. There was good reason, she thought, why he had not written to her, for he was barred by something more than worldly conventionality. When she, strong-minded as she thought herself, had shrunk from the display of his love because he still had duties to his lawful wife, she had imposed upon him her demand for conventional and punctilious respect, and had rather despised herself, she now remembered, for doing it. He had obeyed her, he had observed her slightest wishes—it was for her, not for him, to break through the silence. How had she been able to remain so long in ignorance of his condition, to live contentedly so many miles away from him?
As she thought of all these things in the light of her new experience, her heart was touched again by the old sympathy, and throbbed once more with the music which it had not known since her illness began. It was a harp which had been laid aside and forgotten, till the owner, coming by chance into the disused room, strung it anew, and bade it discourse the symphonies of the olden time.
Not until Lettice had reached this point in her retrospect did she perceive how near she had gone to the dividing line which separates honor from faithlessness and truth from falsehood. She had said, "There is no one to whom my love is pledged." Was that true? Which is stronger or more sacred—the pledge of words or the pledge of feeling? She had tried to drown the feeling, but it would not die. It was there, it had never been absent; and she had profaned it by listening to the temptations of Brooke Dalton, and by telling him that her heart was free.
"It was a lie!"
She sank on the sofa as she made the confession to herself. Alan's letters were in her hand; she clasped them to her breast, and murmured,
"It was a lie—for I love you!"
If the poor wretch in his prison cell, who, worn out at last by daily self-consuming doubts, lay tossing with fever on a restless bed, could have heard her words and seen her action, he might have been called back to life from the borderland of the grave.
"What is it, darling?" Mrs. Hartley said to her friend when they met the next morning at the late breakfast which, out of deference to foreign customs, they had adopted. She looked observantly at the restless movements of the girl, and the changing color in her cheeks. "You have not eaten anything, and you do nothing but shiver and sigh."
Mrs. Hartley was quite convinced in her own mind that Lettice had received an offer of marriage from her cousin Brooke Dalton. Possibly she had already accepted it. She should hear all about it that morning. The symptoms overnight had not been too favorable but she put down the disturbance which Lettice had shown to an excess of nervous excitement. Women do not all receive a sentence of happiness for life in precisely the same manner, she reflected: some cry and some laugh, some dance and sing, others collapse and are miserable. Lettice was one of the latter kind, and it was for Mrs. Hartley to give her a mother's sympathy and comfort. So she awaited the word which should enable her to cut the dykes of her affection.
Lettice turned white and cold, and her grey eyes were fixed with a stony look on the basket of flowers which decorated the breakfast table.
"I am not well," she said, "but it is worse with the mind than the body. I have done a wicked thing, and to atone for it I am going to do a cruel thing; so how could you expect me to have an appetite?"
"My dear pet!" said Mrs. Hartley, putting out her hand to touch the fingers of her friend, which she found as cold as ice, "you need not tell me that you have done anything wicked, for I don't believe it. And I am sure you would not do anything cruel, knowing beforehand that it was cruel."
"Is it not wicked to tell a lie?—for I have done that."
"And will it not be cruel to you and to Edith that I should cause pain to your cousin, and make him think me insincere and mercenary?"
"He could not possibly think so," said Mrs. Hartley with decision.
"What are you going to do, Lettice?"
"I am going to tell him that I was not honest when I allowed him to say that he would come for my answer in a month, and to think it possible that the answer might be favorable—when God knows that it cannot."
"Brooke has asked you to be his wife?"
"And you told him to come for his answer in a month?"
"I agreed to it."
"Well, darling, I think that was very natural—if you could not say 'yes' at once to my cousin."
There was a touch of resentment in the words "my cousin," which Lettice felt. Mrs. Hartley could not understand that Brooke Dalton should have to offer himself twice over—even to her Lettice.
"Wait this month," she went on, "and we shall see what you think at the end of it. You are evidently upset now—taken by surprise, little innocent as you are. The fact is, you have never really recovered from your illness, and I believe you set to work again too soon. A hard-working life would not have suited you; but, thank Heaven, there is an end of that. You will never have to make yourself a slave again!"
"Dear, you do not understand. I did a wicked thing yesterday, and now I must tell Mr. Dalton, and ask him to forgive me."
"Ah!" said Lettice, sadly, "it is the first time you have ever spoken sharply to me, and that is part of my punishment!"
Mrs. Hartley sank back in her chair, and looked as though she was about to take refuge in a quiet fit of weeping.
"I can't comprehend it," she said; "I thought we were going to be so happy; and I am sure you and Brooke would suit each other exactly."
"Oh no, indeed; there are thousands of women who will make him a better wife than I could ever have done."
"Now, do listen to me, and give yourself at least a week to think it over, before you say all this to Brooke! That cannot make things worse, either for him or for yourself. Why should you be so rash about it?"
"I wish I could see any other way out of it—but I cannot; and I have been thinking and thinking all the night long. It is a case of conscience with me now."
"You cannot expect me to see it, dear," said Mrs. Hartley, rising from her chair. "It is simply incomprehensible, that you should first agree to wait a month, and then, after a few hours, insist on giving such a pointed refusal. Think, think, my darling!" she went on, laying a caressing hand on Lettice's shoulder. "Suppose that Brooke should feel himself insulted by such treatment. Could you be surprised if he did?"
Lettice buried her face in her hands, mutely despairing. Her punishment was very hard to bear, and the tears which trickled through her fingers showed how much she felt it. With an effort she controlled herself, and looked up again.
"I will tell him all," she said. "He shall be the judge. If he still wishes to renew his question in a month, I will hold myself to that arrangement. I shall claim nothing and refuse nothing; but if he voluntarily withdraws his offer, then, dear, you will see that there could be no alternative."
Mrs. Hartley bent to kiss her.
"I suppose that is all that can be done, Lettice. I am very sorry that my darling is in trouble; but if I could help you, you would tell me more."
Then she left the room, and Lettice went to her desk and wrote her letter.
"DEAR MR. DALTON,—When you asked me yesterday if there was any one to whom I had given my love, I said there was no one. I ought to have thought at the time that this was a question which I could not fairly answer. I am obliged now to confess that my answer was not sincere. You cannot think worse of me than I think of myself; but I should be still more to blame if I allowed the mistake to continue after I have realized how impossible it is for me to give you the answer that you desire. I can only hope that you will forgive me for apparently deceiving you, and believe that I could not have done it if I had not deceived myself. Sincerely yours,
It was written; and without waiting to criticize her own phrases, she sent it to the Palazzo Serafini by a special messenger.
Brooke Dalton knew that he did not excel in letter writing. He could indite a good, clear, sensible business epistle easily enough; but to express love or sorrow or any of the more subtle emotions on paper would have been impossible to him. Therefore he did not attempt the task. He at once walked over to Mrs. Hartley's villa and asked to see Miss Campion.
He was almost sorry that he had done so when Lettice came down to him in the little shaded salon where Mrs. Hartley generally received visitors, and he saw her face. It was white, and her eyes were red with weeping. Evidently that letter had cost her dear, and Brooke Dalton gathered a little courage from the sight.
She came up to him and tried to speak, but the words would not come. Brooke was not a man of very quick intuitions, as a rule; but in this case love gave him sharpness of sight. He took her hand in both his own and held it tenderly while he spoke.
"There is no need for you to say anything," he said; "no need for you to distress yourself in this way. I have only come to say one thing to you, because I felt that I could say it better than I could write it. Of course, I was grieved by your note this morning—terribly grieved and—and—disappointed; but I don't think that it leaves me quite without hope, after all."
"Oh," Lettice was beginning in protest; but he hushed her with a pressure of his hand.
"Listen to me one moment. My last question yesterday was unwarrantable. I never ought to have asked it; and I beg you to consider it and your answer unspoken. Of course, I should be filled with despair if I believed—but I don't believe—I don't conclude anything from the little you have said. I shall still come to you at the end of the month and ask for my answer then."
"It will be of no use," she said, sadly, with averted face and downcast eyes.
"Don't say so. Don't deprive me of every hope. Let me beg of you to say nothing more just now. In a month's time I will come to you, wherever you are, and ask for your final decision."
He saw that Lettice was about to speak, and so he went on hastily, "I don't know if I am doing right, or wrong in handing you this letter from your brother. He gave it me before I left England, and bade me deliver it or hold it back as I saw fit."
"He knew?" said Lettice, trembling a little as the thought of her brother's general attitude towards her wishes for independence and her friendship for Alan Walcott. "You had told him?"
"Yes, he knew when he wrote it that I meant to ask you to be my wife. I do not know what is in it; but I should imagine from the circumstances that it might convey his good wishes for our joint happiness, if such a thing could ever be! I did not make up my mind to give it to you until I had spoken for myself."
Lettice took the letter and looked at it helplessly, the color flushing high in her cheeks. Dalton saw her embarrassment, and divined that she would not like to open the letter when he was there.
"I am going now," he said. "Edith and I leave Florence this afternoon. We are going to Rome—I shall not go back to England until I have your answer. For the present, good-bye."
Lettice gave him her hand again. He pressed it warmly, and left her without another word. She was fain to acknowledge that he could not have behaved with more delicacy or more generosity. But what should she say to him when the month was at an end?
She sat for some time with Sydney's letter in her lap, wishing it were possible for her to give Brooke Dalton the answer that he desired. But she knew that she could not do it. It was reserved for some other woman to make Brooke Dalton happy. She, probably, could not have done it if she had tried; and she consoled herself by thinking that he would live to see this himself.
Sydney's handwriting on the sealed envelope (she noticed that it was Dalton's seal) caught her eye. What could he have to say to her in his friend's behalf? What was there that might be said or left unsaid at Mr. Dalton's pleasure? She had not much in common with Sydney now-a-days; but she knew that he was just married, and that he loved his wife, and she thought that he might perhaps have only kindly words in store for her—words written perhaps when his heart was soft with a new sort of tenderness. Lettice was hungering for a word of love and sympathy. She opened, the letter and read:
"ANGLEFORD, Easter Tuesday.
"MY DEAR LETTICE,
"I am writing this at the close of a short country holiday at Brooke Dalton's place. You know that Brooke has always been a good friend to me, and I owe him a debt of gratitude which I cannot easily repay.
"It would be impossible to express the pleasure with which I heard from him that he had become attached to my only sister, and that he was about to make her an offer of marriage. You would properly resent anything I might say to you in the way of recommendation (and I am sure that he would resent it also), on the ground of his wealth, his excellent worldly position, and his ability to surround his wife with all the luxuries which a woman can desire. I will not suggest any considerations of that kind, but it is only right that I should speak of my friend as I know him. The woman who secures Brooke Dalton for a husband will have the love and care of one of the best men in the world, as well as the consideration of society.
"I look forward, therefore, to a very happy time when you will be settled down in a home of your own, where I can visit you from time to time, and where you will be free from the harass and anxieties of your present existence. My own anxieties of late have been heavy enough, for the wear and tear of Parliamentary life, in addition to the ordinary labors of my profession, are by no means inconsiderable. And I have recently had some worrying cases. In one of these I was called upon to prosecute a man with whom you were at one time unfortunately brought into contact—Walcott by name. He was accused of wounding his wife with intent to do her grievous bodily harm, and it was proved that he almost murdered her by a savage blow with a dagger. There could not be a doubt of his guilt, and he was sentenced (very mercifully) to six months' hard labor. That illustrates the strange vicissitudes of life, for, of course, he is absolutely ruined in the eyes of all right-minded persons.
"Brooke Dalton will probably give you this when you meet, and I shall no doubt hear from you before long. Meanwhile I need not do any more than wish you every possible happiness.
"Believe me, your affectionate brother,
Mrs. Hartley was busy in the next room, arranging and numbering a large collection of pictures which she had bought since she came to Florence, and thinking how very useful they would be at her Sunday afternoon and evening receptions, when she went back to London in October. That was the uppermost thought in her mind when she began her work, but Brooke's visit had excited her curiosity, and she was longing to know whether it would succeed in removing her friend's incomprehensible scruples.
Suddenly she was startled by a cry from the other room. It was like a cry of pain, sharp at the beginning, but stifled immediately. Mrs. Hartley ran to the door and looked in. Lettice, with an open letter in her hand, was lying back in her chair, half unconscious, and as white in the face as the letter itself. A glance showed Mrs. Hartley that this letter was not from Brooke; but her only concern at the moment was for her friend.
Poor Lettice had been stunned by Sydney's blundering missive; and yet it was not altogether Sydney's fault that the statement of facts came upon her with crushing force. It was Mrs. Hartley herself who was mainly responsible for the concealment of what had happened to Alan; and she no doubt, had done her part with the best intentions. But the result was disastrous so far as her intrigue and wishes were concerned.
With a little care and soothing, Lettice presently recovered from the shock, at any rate sufficiently to stand up and speak.
"Read this," she said faintly to Mrs. Hartley, steadying herself against the table. "Is it true? Is Alan Walcott in prison? Did you know it?"
"Yes, my darling, I knew it!"
"And never told me? When was it?"
Lettice looked at her friend reproachfully, yet without a trace of anger.
"My dearest Lettice, would it have been wise for me to tell you at the time—the trial was in April—when you were still dangerously weak and excitable? It was not as if I had known that it would be—what shall I say?—a matter of such great concern to you. Remember that we had never mentioned his name since we left England, and I could not assume that the old friendly interest in him survived."
"I do not blame you, dear," said Lettice faintly. "I do not blame Sydney—unless it is for prosecuting him. I cannot think or reason about it—I can only feel; and I suppose that what I feel amounts to my own condemnation."
"Don't talk of condemnation! Your kind heart makes you loyal to everyone whom you have called a friend—and what can be more natural? I was terribly grieved for the unfortunate man when I heard of the trouble he had brought on himself. But we cannot bear each other's sorrows in this world. Each one must reap as he has sown."
"And do you think that Alan has sown what he is reaping? Do you believe that he stabbed his wife?"
"My dear, I must believe it. Everyone believes it."
"Alan!" said Lettice, half raising her hand, and gazing out through the open window, over the banks of the yellow-flowing Arno, with a look of ineffable trust and tenderness in her face, "Alan, did you try to kill the woman who has cursed and degraded you? Did you strike her once in return for her thousand malicious blows? Did you so much as wish her ill to gratify your anger and revenge? No!—there is one, at least, who does not believe you guilty of this crime!"
"I hear no voice but that of Alan, calling to me from his prison cell." She sprang to her feet and stood as if listening to a far-off call.
"Lettice, for Heaven's sake, do not give way to delusions. Think of those who love you best, who will be in despair if ill should befall you."
"Yes, I will think of those who love me best! I must go to him. Dear Mrs. Hartley, I am not losing my senses, but the feeling is so strong upon me that I have no power to resist it. I must go to Alan."