"If I can help, I am proud," she whispered.
"You help more than you will ever know, more than my lips can tell you. It is you who have lit the lamp again in my life, you from whom come the fire and strength which make me feel that I shall triumph, that I shall achieve the one thing I have set my heart upon."
"The one thing?" she murmured rashly.
"The one thing outside," he answered, "the desire of my brain. The desire of my heart is here."
She lay in his arms, her lips moved to his and the moments passed uncounted. Then, with a queer little cry, she stood up, covered her face for a moment with her hands and then held them both out to him.
"Dear man," she begged, "dearest of all men—will you go now? To-morrow—whenever you have time—let your servant ring up. I will free myself from any engagement—but please!"
He kissed her fingers and passed out with a murmured word. He knew so little of women and yet some wonderful instinct kept him always in the right path. Perhaps, too, he feared speech himself, lest the ecstasy of those few moments might be broken.
This is how a weekly paper of indifferent reputation but immense circulation brought Tallente's love affair to a crisis. In a column purporting to set out the editor's curiosity upon certain subjects, the following paragraphs appeared:
Whether a distinguished member of the Democratic Party is not considered just now the luckiest man in the world of politics and love.
Whether the young lady really enjoys playing the prodigal daughter at home and in the country, and what her noble relatives have to say about it.
Whether there are not some sinister rumours going about concerning the politician in question.
Jane's mother, who had arrived in London only the day before, was in Charles Street before her prodigal daughter had finished breakfast. She brandished a copy of the paper in her hand. Jane read the three paragraphs and let the paper slip from her fingers as though she had been handling an unclean thing. She rang the bell and pointed to where it lay upon the floor.
"Take that into the servants' hall and let it be destroyed, Parkins," she ordered.
The Duchess held her peace until the man had left the room. Then she turned resolutely to Jane.
"My dear," she said, "that's posing. Besides, it's indiscreet. Parkins will read it, of course, and it's what that sort of person reads, nowadays, that counts. We can't afford it. The aristocracy has had its fling. To-day we are on our good behaviour."
"I should have thought," Jane declared, "that in these democratic days the best thing we could do would be to prove ourselves human like other people."
"And people call you clever!" her mother scoffed. "Why, my dear child, any slight respect which we still receive from the lower orders is based upon their conviction that somehow or other we are, after all, made differently from them. Sometimes they hate us for it and sometimes they love us for it. The great thing, nowadays, however, is to cultivate and try and strengthen that belief of theirs."
"How did you come to see this rag?" Jane enquired mildly.
"Your Aunt Somerham brought it round this morning while I was in bed," her mother replied. "It was a great shock to me. Also to your father. He was anxious to come with me but is threatened with an attack of gout."
"And what do you want to say to me about it? Just why did you bring me that rag and show me those paragraphs?"
"My dear, I must know how much truth there is in them. Have you been going about with this man Tallente?"
"To a certain extent, yes," Jane admitted, after a moment's hesitation.
"Pooh! You know I finished with all that sort of rubbish years ago, mother."
"I am informed that Mr. Tallente is a married man."
Jane flinched a little for the first time.
"All the world knows that," she answered. "He married an American, one of William Hunter's daughters."
"Who has now, I understand, left him?" Lady Jane shrugged her shoulders.
"I do not discuss Mr. Tallente's matrimonial affairs with him."
"Surely," her mother remarked acidly, "in view of your growing intimacy they are of some interest to you both?"
Jane was silent for a moment.
"Just what have you come to say, mother?" she asked, looking up at her, clear-eyed and composed. "Better let's get it over."
The Duchess cleared her throat.
"Jane," she said, "we have become reconciled, your father and I, against our wills, to your strange political views and the isolation in which you choose to live, but when your eccentricities lead you to a course of action which makes you the target for scandal, your family protests. I have come to beg that this intimacy of yours with Mr. Tallente should cease."
"Mother," Jane replied, "for years after I left the schoolroom I subjected myself to your guidance in these matters. I went through three London seasons and made myself as agreeable as possible to whatever you brought along and called a man. At the end of that time I revolted. I am still in revolt. Mr. Tallente interests me more than any man I know and I shall not give up my friendship with him."
"Your aunt tells me that Colonel Fosbrook wants to marry you."
"He has mentioned the fact continually," Jane assented. "Colonel Fosbrook is a very pleasant person who does not appeal to me in the slightest as a husband."
"The Fosbrooks are one of our oldest families," the Duchess said severely. "Arnold Fosbrook is very wealthy and the connection would be most desirable. You are twenty-nine years old, Jane, and you ought to marry. You ought to have children and bring them up to defend the order in which you were born."
"Mother dear," Jane declared, smiling, "this conversation had better cease. Thanks to dear Aunt Jane, I have an independent fortune, Woolhanger, and my little house here. I have adopted an independent manner of life and I have not the least idea of changing it. You have three other daughters and they have all married to your complete satisfaction. I don't think that I shall ever be a very black sheep but you must look upon me as outside the fold.—I hope you will stay to lunch. Colonel Fosbrook is bringing his sister and the Princess is coming."
The Duchess rose to her feet. The family dignity justified itself in her cold withdrawal.
"Thank you, Jane," she said, "I am engaged. I am glad to know, however, that you still have one or two respectable friends."
The setting was the same only the atmosphere seemed somehow changed when Jane received her second visitor that day. She was waiting for him in the small sitting room into which no other visitor save members of the family were ever invited. There was a comfortable fire burning, the roses which had come from him a few hours before were everywhere displayed, and Jane herself, in a soft brown velvet gown, rose to her feet, comely and graceful, to welcome him.
"So we are immortalised!" she exclaimed, smiling.
"That wretched rag!" he replied. "I was hoping you wouldn't see it."
"Mother was here with a copy before eleven o'clock."
Tallente made a grimace.
"Have you sworn to abjure me and all my works?"
"So much so," she told him, "that I have been here waiting for you for at least half an hour and I have put on the gown you said you liked best. Some one said in a book I was reading last week that affection was proved only by trifles. I have certainly never before in my life altered my scheme of clothes to please any man."
He raised her fingers to his lips.
"You are exercising," he said, "the most wonderful gift of your sex. You are providing an oasis—more than that, a paradise—for a disheartened toiler. It seems that I have enemies whose very existence I never guessed at."
"Well, does that matter very much?" she asked cheerfully. "It was one of your late party, wasn't it, who said that the making of enemies was the only reward of political success?"
"A cheap enough saying," Tallente sighed, "yet with the germs of truth in it. I don't mind the allusion to a sinister rumour. The air will be thick with them before long. The other—well, it's beneath criticism but it hurts."
She laughed whole-heartedly.
"Andrew," she said, "for the first time in my life I am ashamed of you. Here am I, hidebound in conventions, and I could just summon indignation enough to send the paper down to the kitchen to be burnt. Since then I have not even thought of it. I was far more angry that any one should anticipate the troubles which you have to face. Come and sit down."
She led him to the couch and held his fingers in hers as she leaned back in a corner.
"I honestly believe," she went on gently, "that the world is not sufficiently grateful to those who toil for her. Criticism has become a habit of life. Nobody believes or wants to believe in the altruist any longer. I believe that if to-day a rich man stripped himself of all his possessions and obeyed the doctrines of the Bible by giving them to the poor, the Daily something or other would worry around until they found some interested motive, and the Daily something or other else would succeed in proving the man a hypocrite."
He smiled and in the lightening of his face she appreciated for the first time a certain strained look about his eyes and the drawn look about the mouth.
"You are worrying about all this!" she exclaimed.
"Yes, in a way I am worrying," he confessed simply. "Not about the storm itself. I am ready to face that and I think I shall be a stronger and a saner man when the battle has started. In the meantime, I think that what has happened to me is this. I have arrived just at that time of life when a man takes stock of himself and his doings, criticises his own past and wonders whether the things he has proposed doing in the future are worth while."
"You of all men in the world need never ask yourself that," she declared warmly. "Think of your lifelong devotion to your work. Think of the idlers by whom you are surrounded."
"I work," he admitted, "but I sometimes ask myself whether I work with the same motives as I did when I was young. I started life as an altruist. I am not sure now whether I am not working in self-defence, from habit, because I am afraid of falling behind."
"You mean that you have lost your ideals?"
"I wonder," he speculated, "whether any man can carry them through to my age and not be afflicted with doubts as to whether, after all, he has been on the right path, whether he may not have been worshipping false gods."
"Tell me exactly how you started life," she begged.
"Like any other third or fourth son of a bankrupt baronet," he replied. "I went to Eaton and Oxford with the knowledge that I had to carve out my own career and my ambitions when I left the University were entirely personal. I chose diplomacy. I did moderately well, I believe. I remember my first really confidential mission," he went on, with a faint smile, "brought me to Paris, where we met.—Then came Parliament—afterwards the war and a revolution in all my ideas. I suddenly saw the strength and power of England and realised whence it came. I realised that it was our democracy which was the backbone of the country. I realised the injustice of those centuries of class government. I plunged into my old socialistic studies, which I had taken up at Oxford more out of caprice than anything, and I began to have a vision of what I have always since looked upon as the truth. I began to realise that there was some super-divine truth in the equality of all humans, notwithstanding the cheap arguments against it; that by steady and broad-minded government for a generation or so, human beings would be born into the world under more level conditions; and with the fading away of class would be born or rather generated the real and wonderful spirit of freedom. My parliamentary career progressed by leaps and bounds, but when in '15 the war began to go against us, I turned soldier."
"You don't need to tell me anything about that part of your career," she interrupted, with a little smile almost of proprietory pride. "I never forget it."
"When I came back," he continued, "I was almost a fanatic. I worked not from the ranks of the Labour Party itself, because I flatter myself that I was clear-sighted enough to see that the Labour Party as it existed after the war, split up by factions, devoted to the selfish interests of the great trades unions and with the taint of Miller retarding all progress, had nothing in it of the real spirit of freedom. It was every man for his own betterment and the world in which he lived might go hang. I stayed with the Coalitionists, though I was often a thorn in their side, but because I was also useful to them I bent them often towards the light. Then they began to fear me, or rather my principles. It was out of my principles, although I was not nominally one of them, that Dartrey admits freely to-day he built up the Democratic Party. He had been working on the same lines for years, a little too much from the idealistic point of view. He needed the formula. I gave it to him. Horlock came into office again and I worked with him for a time. Gradually, however, my position became more and more difficult. In the end he offered me a post in the Cabinet, induced me to resign my own seat, which I admit was a doubtful one, and sent me to fight Hellesfield, which it was never intended that I should win. Then Miller dug his own grave. He opposed me there and I lost the seat. Horlock was politely regretful, scarcely saw what could be done for me at the moment, was disposed to join in a paltry little domestic plot to send me to the Lords. This was at the time I came down to Martinhoe, the time, except for those brief moments in Paris, when I first met you."
"Pruning roses in a shockingly bad suit of clothes," she murmured.
"And taken for my own gardener! Well, then came Dartrey's visit. He laid his programme before me, offered me a seat and I agreed to lead the Democrats in the House. There I think I have been useful. I knew the game, which Dartrey didn't. Whilst he has achieved almost the impossible, has, except so far as regards Miller's influence amongst the trades unions, brought the great army of the people into line, I accomplished the smaller task of giving them their due weight in the House."
"Very well, then," Jane declared, looking at him with glowing eyes, "there is your stocktaking, taken from your own, the most modest point of view. With your own lips you confess to what you have achieved, to where you stand. What doubts should any sane man have? How can you say that the lamp of your life has burned dull?"
"Insight," he answered promptly. "Don't think that I fear the big fight. I don't. With Dartrey on my side we shall wipe Miller into oblivion. It isn't true to-day to say that he represents the trades unions, for the very reason that the trades unions as solid bodies don't exist any longer. The men have learnt to think for themselves. Many of them are earnest members of the Democratic Party. They have learnt to look outside the interests of the little trade in which they earn their weekly wage. No, it isn't Miller that I am afraid of."
"Then what is it?" she demanded.
"How can I put it?" he went on thoughtfully. "Well, first of all, then, I feel that the Democrats, when they come into power, are going to develop as swiftly as may be all the fevers, the sore places, the jealousies and the pettiness of every other political party which has ever tried to rule the State. I see the symptoms already and that is what I think makes my heart grow faint. I have given the best years of my life to toiling for others. Who believes it? Who is grateful? Who would not say that because I lead a great party in the House of Commons, I have all that I have worked for, that my reward is at hand? And it isn't. If I am Prime Minister in three months' time, there will still be something left of the feeling of weariness I carry with me to-day."
It was a new phase of the man who unconsciously had grown so dominant in her life. She felt the pull at her heartstrings. Her eyes were soft with unshed tears as her arm stole through his.
"Please go on," she whispered.
"There is the ego," he confessed, his voice shaking. "Why it has come to me just at this period of life—but there it is. I have neglected human society, human intercourse, sport, pleasures, the joys of a man who was born to be a man. I am philosopher enough not to ask myself whether it has been worth while, but I do ask myself—what of the next ten years?"
"Who am I to give you counsel?" she asked, trembling.
"The only person who can."
"Then I advise you to go on. This is just a mood. There are muddy places through which one must pass, even in the paths that lead to the mountain tops, muddy and ugly and depressing places. As one climbs, one loses the memory of them."
"But I climb always alone," he answered, with a sudden fierceness. "I walk alone in life. I have been strong enough to do it and I am strong enough no longer.—Jane," he went on, his voice a little unsteady, his hands almost clutching hers, "it is only since I have known you that I have realised from what source upon this earth a man may draw his inspiration, his courage, the strength to face the moving of mountains, day by day. My heart has been as dry as a seed plot. You have brought new things to me, the soft, humanising stimulus of a new hope, a new joy. If I am to fight on to the end, I must have you and your love."
She was trembling and half afraid, but her hands yielded their pressure to his. Her lips and her eyes, the little quivering of her body, all spoke of yielding.
"I have done foolish things in my life," he went on, drawing her nearer to him. "When I was young, I felt that I had the strength of a superman, and that all I needed in life was food for the brain. I placed woman in her wrong place. I sold myself and my chance of happiness that I might gain more power, a wider influence. It was a sin against life. It was a greater crime against myself. Now that the thunder is muttering and the time is coming for the last test, I see the truth as I have never seen it before. Nature has taken me by the hand—shows it me.—Tell me it isn't too late, Jane? Tell me you care? Help me. I have never pleaded for help before. I plead to you."
Her eyes were wet and beautiful with the shine of tears. It seemed to him in that moment of intense emotion that he could read there everything he desired in life. Her lips met his almost eagerly, met his and gave of their own free will.
"Andrew," she murmured, "you see, you are the only man except those of my family whom I have ever kissed, and I kiss you now—again—and again—because I love you."
Tallente, notwithstanding the glow of happiness which had taken him down to Westminster with the bearing of a young man, felt occasional little shivers of doubt as he leaned back in his seat during the intervals of a brief but portentous debate and let his mind wander back to that short hour when he seemed to have emptied out all the hidden yearnings which had been lurking in the dark corners of his heart and soul. His love for Jane had no longer the boyish characteristics of a vague worship. He made no further pretences to himself. It was Jane herself, and not the spirit of her sex dwelling in her body, which he desired. A tardy heritage of passion at times rejuvenated him and at others stretched him upon the rack.
He walked home later with Dartrey, clinging to the man with a new sympathy and drinking in with queer content some measure of his happiness. Dartrey himself seemed a little ashamed of its exuberance.
"If it weren't that Nora is so entirely a disciple of our cause, Tallente," he said, "I think I should feel a little like the man in the 'Pilgrim's Progress,' who stopped to pick flowers by the way. She is such a help, though. It was she who pointed out the flaw in that second amendment of Saunderson's, which I had very nearly passed. Did you read her article in the National, too?"
"Wonderful!" Tallente murmured. "There is no living woman who writes such vivid and convincing prose."
"And the amazing part of it all is," Dartrey went on, "that she seeks no reward except just to see the cause prosper. She hasn't the faintest ambition to fill any post in life which could be filled by a man. She would write anonymously if it were possible. She has insight which amounts to inspiration, yet whenever I am with her she makes me feel that her greatest gift is her femininity."
"It must be the most wonderful thing in life to have the help of any one like Nora," Tallente said dreamily.
"My friend," the other rejoined, "I wish I could make you believe this. There is room in the life of the busiest man in the world for an understanding woman. I'll go further. No man can do his best work without her."
"I believe you are right," Tallente assented.
His friend pressed his arm kindly.
"You've ploughed a lonely furrow for a good many years, Tallente," he said. "Nora talks of you so often and so wistfully. She is such an understanding creature.—No, don't go. Just one whisky and soda. It used to be chocolate, but Nora insists upon making a man of me."
Tallente was a little in the shadow of the hall and he witnessed the greeting between Nora and her husband: saw her come out of the study,—a soft, entrancing figure in the little circle of firelight gleaming through the open door. She threw her arms around Dartrey's neck and kissed him.
"Dear," she exclaimed, "how early you are! Come and have an easy-chair by the fire and tell me how every one's been behaving."
Dartrey, with his arm around her waist, turned to Tallente.
"An entirely unrehearsed exhibition, I can assure you, Tallente," he declared.
Nora pouted and passed her other arm through Tallente's.
"That's just like Stephen," she complained, "advertising his domestic bliss. Never mind, there is room for an easy-chair for you."
Tallente took a whisky and soda but declined to sit down.
"I walked home with Stephen," he said, "and then I felt I couldn't go away without seeing you just for a moment, Nora."
"Dear man," she answered, "I should have been terribly hurt if you had. Do make yourself comfortable by the fire. You will be able to check all that Stephen tells me about the debate to-night. He is so inexact."
Tallente shook his head. "I am restless to-night, Nora," he said simply. "I shall walk up to the club."
She let him out herself, holding his hand almost tenderly. "Oh, you poor dear thing!" she said. "I do wish I knew—"
"What to wish you—what to hope for you."
He walked away in silence. They both understood so well.—He found his way to the club and ate sandwiches with one or two other men, also just released from the House, but the more he tried to compose himself, the more he was conscious of a sort of fierce restlessness that drove the blood through his veins at feverish pace. He wandered from room to room, played a game of billiards, chafing all the time at the necessity of finishing the game. He hurried away, pleading an appointment. In the hall he met Greening, who led him at once to a secluded corner.
"Prepared with your apologia, Tallente?" he enquired.
"It's in your office at the present moment," Tallente replied, "finished this morning."
Greening stroked his beard. He was a lank, rather cadaverous man, with a face like granite and eyes like polished steel. Few men had anything to say against him. No one liked him.
"How are you regarding the appearance of these outpourings of yours, Tallente?" he asked.
"With equanimity," was the calm rejoinder. "I think I told you what I thought of you and your journalism for having any dealings with a thief and for making yourself a receiver of stolen property. I have nothing to add to that. I am ready to face the worst now and you may find the thunders recoil on your own head."
"No one will ever be able to blame us," Greening replied, "for publishing material of such deep interest to every one, even though it should incidentally be your political death warrant. As a matter of fact, Tallente, I was rather hoping that I might meet you here to-night. The chief and Horlock appear to have had a breeze."
"How does that concern me?" Tallente asked bluntly.
"It may concern you very much indeed. A few days ago I should have told you, as I did, that nothing in the world could stop the publication of that article. To-day I am not so sure. At any rate, I believe there is a chance. Would you care to see the chief?"
"I haven't the slightest desire to," Tallente replied. "I have made my protest. Nothing in the world can affect the morality of your action. At the same time, I have got over my first dread of it. I am prepared with my defence, and perhaps a little in the way of a counterattack. No, I am not going hat in hand to your chief, Greening. He must do as he thinks well."
"If that is your attitude," Greening observed, "things will probably take their course. On the other hand, if you were inclined to have a heart-to-heart talk with the chief and our other editors, I believe that something might come of it."
"In other words," Tallente said coldly, "your chief, who is one of the most magnificent opportunists I ever knew, has suddenly begun to wonder whether he is backing the right horse."
"Something like it, perhaps," Greening admitted. "Look here, Tallente," he went on, "you're a big man in your way and I know perfectly well that you wouldn't throw away a real advantage out of pique. Consider this matter. I can't pledge the paper or the chief. I simply say—see him and talk it over."
Tallente shook his head.
"I am much obliged, Greening," he said, "but I don't want to go through life with this thing hanging over me. Miller has a copy of the article, without a doubt. If you turn him down, he'll find some one else to publish it. I should never know when the thunderbolt was going to fail. I am prepared now and I would rather get it over."
"Is Dartrey going to back you?" Greening asked.
"I can't give away secrets."
Greening turned slowly away.
"I am off for a rubber of bridge," he said. "I am sorry, Tallente. Better dismiss this interview from your mind altogether. It very likely wouldn't have led to anything. All the same, I envy you your confidence. If I could only guess at its source, I'd have a leader for to-morrow morning."
Tallente walked down the stairs with a smile upon his lips. He put on his hat and coat and hesitated for a moment on the broad steps. Then a sudden wonderful thought came to him, an impulse entirely irresistible. He started off westward, walking with feverish haste.
The spirit of adventure sat in his heart as he passed through the crowded streets. The night was wonderfully clear, the stars were brilliant overhead and from behind the Colliseum dome a corner of the yellow moon was showing. He was conscious of a sudden new feeling of kinship with these pleasure-seeking crowds who jostled him here and there upon the pavement. He was glad to find himself amongst them and of them. He felt that he had come down from the chilly heights to walk the lighted highways of the world. The keen air with its touch of frost invigorated him. There was a new suppleness in his pulses, a queer excitement in his whole being, which he scarcely understood until his long walk came to an end and he found himself at a standstill in front of the house in Charles Street, his unadmitted destination.
He glanced at his watch and found that it was half an hour after midnight. There was a light in the lower room into which Jane had taken him on the night of her arrival in town. Above, the whole of the house seemed in darkness. He walked a little way down the street and back again. Jane was dining, he knew, with the Princess de Fenaples, her godmother, and had spoken of going on to a ball with her afterwards. In that case she could scarcely be home for hours. Yet somehow he had a joyful conviction that history would repeat itself, that he would find her, as he had once before, entering the house. His fortune was in the ascendant. Not even the emptiness of the street discouraged him. He strolled a little way along and back again. As he passed the door once more, something bright lying underneath the scraper attracted his notice. He paused and stooped down. Almost before he had realised what he was doing, he had picked up a small key, her latch-key, and was holding it in his hand.
He passed down the street again and there seemed something unreal in the broad pavement, the frowning houses, the glow of the gas lamps. The harmless little key burned his flesh. All the passionate acuteness of life seemed throbbing again in his veins. He retraced his steps, making no plans, obeying only an ungovernable instinct. The street was empty. He thrust the key into the lock, opened the door, replaced the key under the scraper, entered the house and made his way into the room on the right.
Tallente stood there for a few minutes with fast-beating heart. He had the feeling that he had burned his boats. He was face to face now with realities. There was no sound from anywhere. A bright fire was burning in the grate. An easy-chair was drawn up to the side of a small table, on which was placed a tumbler, some biscuits, a box of cigarettes and some matches. A copper saucepan full of milk stood in the hearth, side by side with some slippers,—dainty, fur-topped slippers. Even these slight evidences of her coming presence seemed to thrill him. Time dissolved away into a dream of anticipation. Minutes or hours might have passed before he heard the motor stop outside, her voice bidding some friend a cheerful good night, the turning of the key in the door, the drawing of a bolt, a light step in the hall, and then—Jane.
She was wrapped from head to foot in white furs, a small tiara of emeralds and diamonds on her head. She entered, humming a tune to herself, serene, desirable.
Her exclamation, the light in her eyes, the pleasure which swiftly took the place of her first amazement, intoxicated him. He drew her into his arms and his voice shook.
"Jane," he confessed, "I tried to keep away and I couldn't. I stole in here to wait for you. And you're glad—thank heavens you're glad!"
"But how long have you been here?" she asked wonderingly.
He shook his head.
"I don't know. I walked down the street, hoping for a miracle. Then I saw your key under the scraper. I let myself in and waited.—Jane, how wonderful you are!"
Unconsciously she had unfastened and thrown aside her furs. Her arms and neck shone like alabaster in the shaded light. She looked into his face and began to tremble a little.
"You ought not to have done this," she said.
"Why not?" he pleaded.
"If any one had seen you—if the servants knew!"
He laughed and stopped her mouth with a kiss.
"Dear, these things are trifles. The things that count lie between us two only. Do you know that you have been in my blood like a fever all day? You were there in the House this afternoon, you walked the streets with me, you drew me here.—Jane, I haven't felt like this since I was a boy. You have brought me back my youth. I adore you!"
Again she rested willingly enough in his arms, smiling at him, as he drew near to her, with wonderful kindness. The fire of his lips, however, seemed to disturb her. She felt the enveloping turmoil of his passion, now become almost ungovernable, and extricated herself gently from his arms.
"Put my saucepan on the fire, please," she begged. "You will find some whisky and soda on the sideboard there. Parkins evidently thinks that I ought to have a male escort when I come home late."
"I don't want whisky and soda, Jane," he cried passionately. "I want you!"
She rested her hand upon his shoulder.
"And am I not yours, dear," she asked,—"foolishly, unwisely perhaps, but certainly yours?—They were all talking about you to-night at dinner and I was so proud," she went on, a little feverishly. "Our host was almost eloquent. He said that Democracy led by you, instead of proving a curse, might be the salvation of the country, because you have political insight and imperialistic ideas. It is those terrible people who would make a parish council of Parliament from whom one has most to fear."
Tallente made no reply. He was standing on the hearth rug, a few feet away from her, watching as she stirred her milk, watching the curve of her body, the grace of her long, smoothly shining arms. And beyond these things he strove to read what was at the back of her mind.
"We must talk almost in whispers," she went on. "And do have your whisky and soda, Andrew, because you must go very soon."
"It would disturb you very much if your servants were to know of my presence here?" he asked, in a queer, even tone.
"Of course it would," she answered, without looking at him. "As you know, I have lived, from my standpoints, an extraordinarily unconventional life, but that was because I knew myself and was safe. But—I have never done anything like this before in my life."
"You have never been in the same position," he reminded her. "There has never been any one else to consider except yourself."
"True enough," she admitted, "but oughtn't that to make one all the more careful? I loved seeing you when I came in, and I have loved our few minutes together, but I am getting a little nervous. Do you see that it is past two o'clock?"
"There is no one to whom you are accountable for anything in life except to me," he told her passionately.
She laughed softly but a little uneasily.
"Dear Andrew," she said, "there is my own sense of what is seemly and—must I use the horrid word?—my reputation to be considered. As it is, you may be seen leaving the house in the small hours of the morning."
A little shiver passed through him. All the splendid warmth of living seemed to be fading away from his heart and thoughts. He was back again in that empty world of unreal persons. Jane had been a dream. This kindly faced, beautiful but anxious girl was not the Jane to whose arms he had come hotfoot through the streets.
"I ought not to have come," he muttered.
"Dear, I don't blame you in the least," she answered, "only be very careful as you go out. If there is any one passing in the street, wait for a moment."
"I understand," he promised. "I will take the greatest care."
He took up his hat and coat mechanically. She thrust her arm through his and led him to the door, looking furtively into his face as though afraid of what she might find there. Her own heart was beginning to beat faster. She was filled with a queer sense of failure.
"You are not angry with me, Andrew? You know that I have been happy to see you?"
"I am not angry," he answered.
There was a little choking in her throat. She felt the rush of strange things. Her eyes sought his, filled with almost terrified anticipation. It chanced that he was looking away. She clenched her hands. His moment had passed.
"There is something else on your mind, Andrew, I know, but to-night we cannot talk any longer," she said, in something resembling her old tone. "Be very careful, dear. To-morrow—you will come to-morrow."
He walked down the hall with the footsteps of a cat, let himself out silently into the empty street and walked with leaden footsteps to his rooms. It was not until he had reached the seclusion of his study that the change came. A sudden dull fury burned in his heart. He poured himself out whisky and drank it neat. Then he seated himself before his desk and wrote. He did not once hesitate. He did not reread a single sentence. He dug up the anger and the bitterness from his heart and set them out in flaming phrases. A sort of lunacy drove him into the bitterest of extremes. His brain seemed fed with the inspiration of his suffering, fed with cruel epigrams and biting words. He dragged his idol down into the dust, scoffed at the piecemeal passion which measures its gifts, the complacency of an analysed virtue, the sense of well-living and self-contentment achieved in the rubric of a dry-as-dust morality. She had failed him, offered him stones instead of bread.—He signed the letter, blotted it with firm fingers, addressed the envelope, stamped it and dropped it himself into the pillar box at the corner of the street. Then he turned wearily homeward, filled with the strange, almost maniacal satisfaction of the man who has killed the thing he loves.
There followed days of sullen battle for Tallente, a battle with luck against him, with his back to the wall, with despair more than once yawning at his feet. The house in Charles Street was closed. There had come no word to him from Jane, no news even of her departure except the somewhat surprised reply of Parkins, when he had called on the following afternoon.
"Her ladyship left for Devonshire, sir, by the ten-fifty train."
Tallente went back to the fight with those words ringing in his ears. He had deliberately torn to pieces his house of refuge. Success or failure, what did it matter now? Yet with the dogged courage of one loathing failure for failure's own sake, he flung himself into the struggle.
On the fifth day after Jane's departure, the thunderbolt fell. Tallente's article was printed in full and the weaker members of the Democratic Party shouted at once for his resignation. At a question cunningly framed by Dartrey, Tallente rose in the House to defend his position, and acting on the soundest axiom of military tactics, that the best defence is attack, he turned upon Miller, and with caustic deliberation exposed the plot framed for his undoing. He threw caution to the winds, and though repeatedly and gravely called to order, he poured out his scorn upon his enemy till the latter, white as a sheet, rose to demand the protection of the Speaker. There were very few in the House that day who ever forgot the almost terrifying spectacle of Miller's collapse under his adversary's hurricane assault, or the proud and dignified manner in which Tallente concluded his own defence. But this was only the first step. The Labour Press throughout the country took serious alarm at an attack which, though out of date and influenced by conditions no longer predominant, yet struck a very lusty blow at the very existence of their great nervous centres. Miller, as Chairman of the Associated Trades Unions, issued a manifesto which, notwithstanding his declining influence, exercised considerable effect. It seemed clear that he could rely still upon a good ninety votes in the House of Commons. Horlock became more cheerful. He met Tallente leaving the House one windy March evening and the two men shared a taxi together, westwards.
"Looks to me like another year of office, thanks to you," the Prime Minister observed. "Lenton tells me that we shall have a majority of forty on Thursday week. It is Thursday week you're going for us again, isn't it?"
"Many things may happen before then," Tallente replied, with a little affirmative nod. "Dartrey may decide that I am too expensive a luxury and make friends with Miller."
"I don't think that's likely," Horlock pronounced. "Dartrey is a fine fellow, although he is not a great politician. He is out to make a radical and solid change in the government of this country and he knows very well that Miller's gang will only be a dead weight around his neck. He'd rather wait until he has weaned away a few more votes—even get rid of Miller if he can—and stick to you."
"I think you are right," Tallente said. "I am keeping the Democrats from a present triumph, but if through me they shake themselves free from what I call the little Labourites, I think things will pan out better for them in the long run."
"And in the meantime," Horlock went on, lighting a cigar and passing his case to Tallente, "I must give you the credit of playing a magnificent lone hand. I expected to see Miller fall down in a fit when you went for him in the House. If only his army of adherents could have heard that little duel, I think you'd have won straight through!"
"Unfortunately they couldn't," Tallente sighed, "and it's so hard to capture the attention, to reach the inner understanding, of a great mixed community."
"It's a curious thing about Englishmen," Horlock reflected, "especially the Englishman who has to vote. The most eloquent appeals on paper often leave him unmoved. A perfectly convincing pamphlet he lays down with the feeling that no doubt it's all right but there must be another side. It's the spoken words that tell, every time. What about Miller's election next week?"
"A great deal depends upon that," Tallente replied. "Miller himself says that it is a certainty. On the other hand, Saunderson is going to be proposed, and, with Dartrey's influence, should have a pretty good backing."
They travelled on in silence for a short time. Tallente looked idly through the rain-streaming window at the block of traffic, the hurrying passers-by, the cheerful warmth of the shops and restaurants.
"You take life too seriously, Tallente," his companion said, a little abruptly.
"Do I?" Tallente answered, with a thin smile.
"You do indeed. Look at me. I haven't a line on my face as compared with yours and I've held together a patchwork Government for five years. I don't know when I may be kicked out and I know perfectly well that the Government which succeeds mine is going to undo all I have done and is going to establish a state of things in this country which I consider nothing short of revolutionary. I am not worrying about it, Tallente. The fog of Downing Street stinks sometimes in my nostrils, but I have a little country house—you must come and see me there some day—down in Buckinghamshire, one of these long, low bungalow types, you know, with big gardens, two tennis courts, and a golf course just across the river. My wife spends most of her time there now and every week-end, when I go down, I think what a fool I am to waste my time trying to hold a reluctant nation to principles they are thoroughly sick of. Tallente, you can turn me out whenever you like. The day I settle down for two or three months' rest is going to be one of the happiest of my life."
"You have a wonderful temperament," Tallente remarked, a little sadly.
"Temperament be damned!" was the forcible reply. "I have done my best. When you've said those four words, Tallente, any man ought to have philosophy enough to add, 'Whatever the result may be, it isn't going to be my funeral.' Look at you—haggard, losing weight every day, poring over papers, scheming, planning, writing articles, pouring out the great gift of your life twice as fast as you need. No one will thank you for it. It's quite enough to give half your soul and the joy of living to work for others. Keep something up your sleeve for yourself, Tallente. Mark you, that's the soundest thing in twentieth century philosophy you'll ever hear of.—Corner of Clarges Street right for you, eh?"
Tallente held out his hand.
"Horlock," he said, "thank you. I know you're right but unfortunately I am not like you. I haven't an idyllic retreat, a charming companion waiting for me there, a life outside that's so wonderful. I am driven on because there's nothing else."
Horlock laid his hand upon his companion's shoulder. His tone was suddenly grave—amply sympathetic.
"My friend—and enemy," he said. "If that is so—I'm sorry for you."
There was a tense air of expectation amongst the little company of men who filed into one of the smaller lecture rooms attached to Demos House a few afternoons later. Two long tables were arranged with sixty or seventy chairs and a great ballot box was placed in front of the chairman. A little round of subdued cheers greeted the latter as he entered the room and took his place,—the Right Honourable John Weavel, a Privy Councillor, Member for Sheffield and Chairman of the Ironmaster's Union. Dartrey and Tallente appeared together at the tail end of the procession. Miller sprang at once to his feet and addressed the chairman.
"Mr. Chairman," he said, "I call attention to the fact that two honorary members of this company are present. I submit that as these honorary members have no vote and the present meeting is called with the sole object of voting a chairman for the year, honorary members be not admitted."
Mr. Weavel shook his head.
"Honorary members have the right to attend all meetings of our society," he pronounced. "They can even speak, if invited to do so by the chairman for the day. I am sure that we are all of us very pleased indeed to welcome Mr. Dartrey and Mr. Tallente."
There was a murmur of approval, in one or two cases a little dubious. Dartrey smiled a greeting at Weavel.
"I have asked Mr. Tallente to accompany me," he explained, "because, in face of the great issues by which the party to which we all belong is confronted, some question might arise on to-day's proceedings which would render his presence advisable. He does not wish to address you. I, however, with the chairman's permission, before you go to the vote would like to say a few words."
Miller again arose to his feet.
"I submit, Mr. Chairman," he said arrogantly, "that when I had the privilege of being elected last April, no honorary member was present or allowed to speak."
Mr. Weavel rose to his feet.
"Gentlemen," he said, "you know what this meeting is. It is a meeting of fifty-seven representatives of the various trades unions of the country, to elect a single representative to take the chair whenever meetings of this company shall be necessary. This gathering does not exist as a society in any shape or form and we have therefore neither rules nor usages. Mr. Dartrey and Mr. Tallente, although they are honorary members, are, I am sure, welcome guests, and whatever either of them wishes to say to us will, I am sure, be listened to. There is no business. All that we have to do is to vote, to choose our leader for the next twelve months. There are two names put forward—Saunderson and Miller. It is my business only to count the votes you may record. Presuming that no one else wishes to speak, I shall ask Mr. Dartrey to say those few words."
Miller sat frowning and biting his nails. Dartrey moved to the farther end of the room and looked down the long line of attentive faces.
"Weavel," he said, "and you, my friends, I am not here to say a word in favour of either of the two candidates between whom you have to choose to-day. I am here just because you are valued members of the great party which before very long will be carrying upon its shoulders the burden of this country's government, to tell you of one measure which some of you know of already, which may help you to realise how important your to-day's choice will be. You know quite as much about politics as I do. You know very well that the present Government is doomed. But for an unfortunate difference of opinion between two of our supporters who are present to-day, there is not the slightest doubt that the Government would lose their vote of confidence to-morrow, and that in that case, if I still remained your chief, I should be asked to form a Democratic Government, a task which, when the time comes, it is my intention to pass on to one more skilled in Parliamentary routine. I want to explain to you that we consider the representative you elect to-day to be one of the most important personages in that Government. We have not issued our programme yet. When we do, we are going to make the country a wonderful promise. We are going to promise that there shall be no more strikes. That sounds a large order, perhaps, but we shall keep our word and we are going to end for ever this bitter struggle between capital and labour by welding the two into one and by making the interests of one the interests of the other. Our scheme is that the person whom you elect to-day will be chairman of an inner conference of twelve. We shall ask you to elect a further three from amongst yourselves, which will give the trades unions four representatives upon this inner council. Four representative Cabinet Ministers will be chosen by ballot to add to their number. Four employers of labour, elected by the Employers' Association, will also join the council and the whole will be presided over by the person whom you elect to-day. There will be a select committee, or rather fifty-seven select committees, of each industry always at hand, and we consider that we shall frame in that manner a body of men competent to deal with the inner workings of every industry. They will decide what proportion of the earnings of each industry shall be allocated to labour and what to capital. In other words, they will fix or approve of or revise the wages of the country. They will settle every dispute and their decision will be final. The funds held by the various trades unions will form charitable funds or be returned as bonuses to the contributors. I have given you the barest outline of the scheme which has been drawn up to form a part of our programme when the time comes for us to present one. To-day you are only concerned to elect the one representative. I am here to beg, gentlemen, that you elect one whose theories, whose principles, whose antecedents and whose general attitude towards labour problems will fit him to take a very important place in the future government of the country."
There was a little murmur of applause. Miller was once more on his feet.
"I claim," he said, "that this is neither the time nor the place to spring upon us an utterly new method of dealing with Labour questions. What you propose seems to me a subtle attack upon the trades unions themselves. They have been the guardians of the people for the last fifteen years, and even though some strikes have been necessary and although all strikes may not have been successful, yet on the whole the trades unions have done their work well. I shall not accept, in the event of my election, the programme which Mr. Dartrey has laid down, unless I am elected with a special mandate to do so."
Saunderson rose to his feet, a man of different type, blunt of speech, rugged, the typical working-man's champion except for his voice, which was of unexpected tone and quality.
"Mr. Weavel and the rest of you," he said, "I differ from Miller. That's lucky, because you can vote now not only for the man but the principle. I have loathed strikes all my life, just because I am political economist enough to loathe waste and to hate to see production fettered,—that is, where the fruits of the production are shared fairly with Labour. I like Dartrey's scheme and I am prepared to stand by it."
Saunderson sat down. Dartrey and Tallente left the room while the business of voting went on. Dartrey had a private room of his own in the rear of the building and he and Tallente made their way there.
"Those men have a good deal to decide," Tallente reflected. "It's queer how the balance of things has changed. I don't suppose any Cabinet Council for years has had to tackle a more important problem."
"I wonder how they'll vote," Dartrey speculated. "Weavel's our man."
"You can't tell," Tallente replied. "You've given them something fresh to think about. They may even decide not to vote to-day at all. Miller has some strong supporters. He appeals tremendously to a certain class of labour—and that class exists, you know, Dartrey—which loves the excitement and the loafing of a strike, which feels somehow or other that benefits got in any other way than by force are less than they ought to have been."
There was a knock at the door. Northern put in his head. He was the Boot and Shoe representative.
"Thought I'd let you know how the thing's gone," he said. "There's an unholy row there. They've chucked Miller. Saunderson's in by five votes. I'm off back again. Miller's up speaking, tearing mad."
He nodded and disappeared. Dartrey held out his hand.
"Thank God!" he exclaimed. "Let's clear cut, Tallente. Nora must know about this at once. We'll call at the House and enter your amendment against the vote of confidence. And then—Nora. I am not sure, Tallente—the man's a subtle fellow—but I rather think we've driven the final nail into Miller's coffin."
The great night came and passed with fewer thrills than any one had imagined possible. Horlock himself undertook the defence of his once more bitterly assailed Government and from the first it was obvious what the end must be. He spoke with the resigned cynicism of one who knows that words are fruitless, that the die is already cast and that his little froth of words, valedictory in their tone from the first, was only a tribute to exacting convention. Tallente had never been more restrained, although his merciless logic reduced the issues upon which the vote was to be taken to the plainest and clearest elements. He remained studiously unemotional and nothing which he said indicated in any way his personal interest in the sweeping away of the Horlock regime. He was the impersonal but scathing critic, paving the way for his chief. It was Dartrey himself who overshadowed every one that night. He spoke so seldom in the House that many of the members had forgotten that he was an orator of rare quality. That night he lifted the debate from the level of ordinary politics to the idyllic realms where alone the lasting good of the world is fashioned. He pointed out what government might and should be, taking almost a Roman view of the care of the citizen, his early and late education, his shouldering of the responsibilities which belong to one of a great community. From the individual he passed to the nation, sketching in a few nervous but brilliant phrases the exact possibilities of socialistic legislation; and he wound up with a parodied epigram: Government, he declared, was philosophy teaching by failures. In the end, Miller led fourteen of his once numerous followers into the Government lobby to find himself by forty votes upon the losing side.
Horlock found Tallente once more slipping quietly away from the House and bundled him into his car. They drove off rapidly. "So it's Buckinghamshire for me," the former observed, not without jubilation. "After all, it has been rather a tame finale. We were beaten before we opened our mouths."
"Even your new adherent," Tallente said, smiling, "could not save you."
Horlock made a grimace.
"You can have Miller and his faithful fourteen," he declared. "We don't want him. The man was a Little Englander, he has become a Little Labourite. Heaven knows where he'll end! Are you going to be Prime Minister, Tallente?"
"I don't know," was the quiet reply. "Just for the moment I am weary of it all. Day after day, fighting and scheming, speaking and writing, just to get you fellows out. And now we've got you out, well, I don't know that we are going to do any better. We've got the principles, we've got some of the men, but is the country ready for our programme!"
"If you ask me, I think the country's ready for anything in the way of a change," Horlock replied. "I am sure I am. I have been Prime Minister before, but I've never in my life had such an army of incompetents at the back of me. Take my tip, Tallente. Don't you have a Chancellor of the Exchequer who refuses to take a bit off the income tax every year."
"We shall abolish the income tax before long," Tallente declared.
"I shall invest my money in America," Horlock observed, "my savings, that is. Where shall I put you down?"
"In Chelsea, if you would," Tallente begged. "We are only just turning off the Embankment. I want to see Mrs. Dartrey."
Horlock gave an order through the tube.
"I am going down to Belgrave Square," he said, "then I am going back to Downing Street for to-night. To-morrow a dutiful journey to Buckingham Palace, Saturday a long week-end. I shall take out a season ticket to Buckinghamshire now. You're not going to nationalise the railways—or are you, Tallente; what about season tickets then?"
"Nationalisation is badly defined," Tallente replied. "The Government will certainly aim at regulating the profits of all public companies and applying a portion of them to the reduction of taxation."
"Well, good luck to you!" Horlock said heartily, as the car pulled up outside Dartrey's little house. "Here's just a word of advice from an old campaigner. You're going to tap the people's pockets, that's what you are going to do, Tallente, and I tell you this, and you'll find it's the truth—principles or no principles, your own party or any one else's—the moment you touch the pockets of any class of the community, from the aristocrat to the stone-breaker, they'll be up against you like a hurricane. Every one in the world hugs their principles, but there isn't any one who'd hold on to them if they found it was costing them money.—So long, and the best of luck to you, Tallente. We may meet in high circles before long."
Horlock drove away, a discomfited man, jubilant in his thoughts of freedom. Tallente was met by Nora in the little hall—Nora, who had kept away from the house at Stephen's earnest request.
"Stephen has done it," Tallente announced triumphantly. "He made the only speech worth listening to. Horlock crumbled to pieces. Miller only got fourteen of the ragtail end of his lot to vote with him. We won by forty votes. Horlock brought me here. He is to have a formal meeting of the party. He'll offer his resignation on Thursday."
"It's wonderful!" Nora exclaimed.
"Stephen will be sent for," Tallente went on. "That, of course, is a foregone conclusion. Nora, I wish you'd make him see that it's his duty to form a Government. There isn't any reason why he should pass it on to me. I can lead in the Commons if he wants me to, so far as the debates are concerned. We are altering the procedure, as I dare say you know. Half the government of the country will be done by committees."
"It's no use," Nora replied. "Stephen simply wouldn't do it. You must remember what you yourself said—procedure will be altered. So much of the government of the country will be done outside the House. Stephen has everything mapped out. You are going to be Prime Minister."
Tallente left early and walked homeward by the least frequented ways. A soft rain was falling, but the night was warm and a misty moon made fitful appearances. The rain fell like little drops of silver around the lampposts. There was scarcely a breath of wind and in Curzon Street the air was almost faint with the odour of spring bulbs from the window boxes. Tallente yielded to an uncontrollable impulse. He walked rather abruptly up Clarges Street, past his rooms, and paid a curious little visit, almost a pilgrimage, to the closed house in Charles Street. It seemed to him that those drawn blinds, the dead-looking windows, the smokeless chimneys typified in melancholy fashion the empty chambers in his own heart. Weeks had passed now and no word had come from Jane. He pictured her still smarting under the sting of his brutal words. Some of his phrases came back to his mind and he shivered with remorse. If only—He started. It seemed for a moment as though history were about to repeat itself. A great limousine had stolen up to the kerbstone and a woman in evening dress was leaning out.
"Mr. Tallente," she called out, "do come and speak to me, please."
Tallente approached at once. In the dim light his heart gave a little throb. He peered forward. The woman laughed musically. "I do believe that you have forgotten me," she said, "I am Alice Mountgarron—Jane's sister. I saw you there and I couldn't help stopping for a moment. Can I drop you anywhere?"
"Thank you so much," he answered. "My rooms are quite close by here in Clarges Street."
"Get in, please, and I will take you there," she ordered. "Tell the man the number. I want just one word with you."
The car started off. Lady Alice looked at her companion and shook her head.
"Mr. Tallente," she said, "I am very much a woman of the world and Jane is a very much stronger person than I am, in some things, and a great baby in others. You and she were such friends and I have an idea that there was a misunderstanding."
"There was," he groaned. "It was my fault."
"Never mind whose fault it was," she went on. "You two were made for each other. You have so much in common. Don't drift apart altogether, just because one has expected too much, or the other been content to give too little. Jane has a great soul and a great heart. She wants to give but she doesn't quite know how. And perhaps there isn't any way. But two people whose lives seem to radiate towards each other, as yours and hers, shouldn't remain wholly apart. Take a day or two's holiday soon, even from this great work of yours, and go down to Devonshire. It would be very dangerous advice," she went on, smiling, "to a different sort of man, but I have a fancy that to you it may mean something, and I happen to know—that Jane is miserable."
The car stopped. Tallente held Lady Alice's hand as he had seldom held the hand of a woman in his life. A curious incapacity for speech checked the words even upon his lips.
"Thank you," he faltered.
Upon the moor above Martinhoe and the farm lands adjoining, spring had fallen that year as gently as the warm rain of April. Tallente, conscious of an unexpected lassitude, paused as he reached the top of the zigzag climb from the Manor and rested for a moment upon a block of stone. Below him, the forests of dwarf oaks which stretched down to the sea were tipped with delicate green. The meadows were like deep soft patches of emerald verdure; the fruit trees in his small walled garden were pink and white with blossoms. The sea was peaceful as an azure lake into which the hulls of the passing steamers cut like knives, leaving behind a long line of lazy foam. Little fleecy balls of cloud were dotted across the sky, puffs of soft wind cooled his cheeks when he rose to his feet and faced inland.
Soon he left the stony road and walked upon the springy turf bordering the moorland. Little curled-up shoots of light green were springing from the bracken. Here and there, a flame of gorse filled the air with its faint, almond-like blossom. And the birds! Farmlands stretched away on his left-hand side, and above the tender growth of corn, larks invisible but multifarious filled the air with little quiverings of melody. Bleatng lambs, ridiculously young, tottered around on this new-found, wonderful earth. A pair of partridges scurried away from his feet; the end of a drooping cloud splashed his face with a few warm raindrops.
Tallente, as he swung onwards, carrying his cap in his hand, felt a great glow of thankfulness for the impulse which had brought him here. Already he was finding himself. The tangled emotions of the last week were loosening their grip upon his brain and consciousness. Behind him London was in an uproar, his name and future the theme of every journal. Journalists were besieging his rooms. Embryo statesmen were telephoning for appointments. Great men sent their secretaries to suggest a meeting. And in the midst of it all he had disappeared. The truth as to his sudden absence from town was unknown even to Dartrey. At the very moment when his figure loomed large and triumphant upon one of the great canvasses in history, he had simply slipped away, a disappearance as dramatic as it was opportune. And all because he had a fancy to see how spring sat upon the moors,—and because he had walked back to his rooms by way of Charles Street and because he had met Lady Alice.
The last ascent was finished and below him lay the house and climbing woods,—woods that crept into the bosom of the hills, the closely growing trees tipped with tender greens melting into the softest of indeterminate greys as the breeze rippled through their tops like fingers across a harp. The darker line of moorland in the background, scant as ever of herbiage, had yet lost its menacing bareness and seemed touched with the faint colour of the earth beneath, almost pink in the generous sunshine. The avenue into which he presently turned was starred on either side with a riot of primroses, running wild into the brambles, with here and there a belt of bluebells. The atmosphere beneath the closely growing trees—limes, with great waxy buds—became enervating with spring odours and a momentary breathlessness came to Tallente, fresh from his crowded days and nights of battle. The sun-warmed wave of perfume from the trim beds of hyacinths in the suddenly disclosed garden was almost overpowering and he passed like a man in a dream through their sweetness to the front door. The butler who admitted him conducted him at once to Jane's sanctum. Without any warning he was ushered in.
"Mr. Tallente, your ladyship."
He had a strange impression of her as she rose from a very sea of newspapers. She was thinner—he was sure of that—dressed in indoor clothes although it was the middle of the morning, a suggestion of the invalid about her easy-chair and her tired eyes. It seemed to him that for a moment they were lit with a gleam of fear which passed almost instantaneously. She had recovered herself even before the door was closed behind the departing servant.
"Mr. Tallente!" she repeated. "You! But how is this possible?"
"Everything is possible," he answered. "I have come to see you, Jane."
She was glad but amazed. Even when he had obeyed her involuntary gesture and seated himself by her side, there was something incredulous about her expression.
"But what does it mean that you are here just now?" she persisted. "According to the newspapers you should be at Buckingham Palace to-day."
"To-morrow," he corrected her. "I hired a very powerful car and motored down yesterday afternoon. I am starting back when the moon rises to-night. For these few hours I am better out of London."
"But why—" she faltered.
He was slowly finding himself.
"I came for you, Jane," he said, "on any terms—anyhow. I came to beg for your sympathy, for some measure of your affection, to beg you to come back to Charles Street. Is it too late for me to abase myself?"
Her eyes glowed across at him. She suddenly rose, came over and knelt by the side of his chair. Her arms went around his neck.
"Andrew," she whispered, "I have been ashamed. I was wrong. That night—the thought of my pettiness—my foolish, selfish fears.—Oh, I was wrong! I have prayed that the time might come when I could tell you. And if you hadn't come, I never could have told you. I couldn't have written. I couldn't have come to London. But I wanted you to know."
She drew his head down and kissed him upon the lips. Tallente knew then why he had come. The whole orchestra of life was playing again. He was strong enough to overcome mountains.
"Andrew," she faltered, "you really—"
He stopped her.
"Jane," he said, "I have some stupid news. It seems to me incredibly stupid. Let me pass it on to you quickly. You knew, didn't you, that I was married in America? Well, my wife has divorced me there. We married in a State where such things are possible."
"Divorced you?" she exclaimed.
"Quite legally," he went on. "I saw a lawyer before I started yesterday morning. But listen to the rest of it. Stella is married—married to the man I thought I had thrown over the cliff. She is married to Anthony Palliser."
"Then you are free?" Jane murmured, drawing a little away. "Not in the least," he replied. "I am engaged to marry you."
At luncheon, with Parkins in attendance, it became possible for them to converse coherently.
"When I found you at home in the middle of the morning," he said, "I was afraid that you were Ill."
"I haven't been well," she admitted. "I rode some distance yesterday and it fatigued me. Somehow or other, I think I have had the feeling, the last few weeks, that my work here is over. All my farms are sold. I have really now no means of occupying my time."
"It is fortunate," he told her, with a smile, "that I am able to point out to you a new sphere of usefulness."
She made a little grimace at him behind Parkins' august back.
"Tell me," she asked, "how did you ever make your peace with the trades unions after that terrible article of yours?"
"Because," he replied, "except for Miller, their late chief, there are a great many highly intelligent men connected with the administration of the trades unions. They realised the spirit in which I wrote that article and the condition of the country at the time I wrote it. My apologia was accepted by every one who counted. The publication of that article," he went on, "was Miller's scheme to drive me out of politics. It has turned out to be the greatest godsend ever vouchsafed to our cause, for it is going to put Mr. Miller out of the power of doing mischief for a—many years to come."
"How I hated him when he called here that day! Jane murmured reminiscently."
"Miller is the type of man," Tallente declared, "who was always putting the Labour Party in a false position. He was born and he has lived and he has thought parochially. He is all the time lashing himself into a fury over imagined wrongs and wanting to play the little tin god on Olympus with his threatened strikes. Now there will be no more strikes."
"I was reading about that," she reflected. "How wonderful it sounds!"
"The greatest power in the country," Tallente explained, "is that wielded by these trades unions. There will be no more fights between the Government and them, because they are coaling into the Government. I am afraid you will think our programme revolutionary. On the other hand, it is going to be a Government of justice. We want to give the people their due, each man according to his worth. By that means we wipe out all fear forever of the scourge of eastern and mid-Europe, the bolshevism and anarchy which have laid great empires bare. We are not going to make the poor add to the riches of the rich, but on the other hand we are not going to take from the rich to give to the poor. The sociological scheme upon which our plan of government will be based is to open every avenue to success equally to rich and poor. The human being must sink or swim, according to his capacity. Ours will never be a State-aided socialism."
Parkins had left the room. She held out her hand.
"How horrid of you!" she murmured. "You are gibing at me because I lent my farmers a little money." He laughed softly.
"You dear!" he exclaimed. "On my honour, it never entered into my head. Only I want to bring you gradually into the new way of thinking, because I want so much from you so much help and sympathy."
"And?" she pleaded.
He looked around to be sure that Parkins was gone and, leaning from his place, kissed her.
"If you care for moonlight motoring," he whispered, "I think I can give you quite a clear outline of all that I expect from you."
She drew a little sigh of relief.
"If you had left me behind," she murmured, "I should have sat here and imagined that it was all a dream. And I am just a little weary of dreams."