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Prisoners - Fast Bound In Misery And Iron
by Mary Cholmondeley
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He had received extreme unction. The chanting choir had gone. The priest had closed his pale fingers upon the crucifix, when he desired to be left alone with his wife.

She drew near timidly and stood beside his bed.

He bent his tranquil, kindly eyes upon her.

"Good-bye, my Francesca," he said. "May God and his angels protect you, and give you peace."

A belated compunction seized her.

"I wish I had been a better wife to you, Andrea," she said brokenly, laying her hand on his.

He made the ghost of a courteous, deprecating gesture, and raised her hand to his lips. The effort exhausted him. He closed his eyes and his hand fell out of hers.

Through the open window came a sudden waft of hot carnations, a long drawn breath of the rapturous Italian spring.

It reached the duke. He stirred slightly, and opened his eyes once more. Once more they fell on Fay, and it seemed to her as if with the last touch of his cold lips upon her hand their relation of husband and wife had ceased. Even at that moment she realised with a sinking sense of impotence how slight her hold on him from first to last had been. Clearly he had already forgotten it, passed beyond it, would never remember it again.

"It is spring," he said, looking full at her with tender fixity, and for a moment she thought his mind was wandering. "Spring once more. The sun shines. He does not see them, the spring and the sunshine. Since a year he does not see them. Francesca, how much longer will you keep your cousin Michael in prison?"

And thereupon the duke closed his eyes on this world, and went upon his way.



CHAPTER VII

A bachelor's an unfinished thing ... He wants somebody to listen to his talk.—EDEN PHILLPOTTS.

Reader, do you know Barford, in Hampshire? If you don't, I can tell you how to get to it. You take train from Victoria, and you get out at Saundersfoot. There is nothing at Saundersfoot, except a wilderness of lodgings and a tin station and a high wind. It need not detain an active mind beyond the necessary moment of enquiring by which road it may be most quickly left. I cannot tell you who Saunders was, nor why the watering-place was called after his foot. But if you walk steadily away from it for five miles inland, along the white chalky road between the downs, you will arrive at the little village of Barford.

There is only one road, so you cannot miss your way. Little twisty lanes fretted with sheep-tracks drop down into it now and then from the broad-shouldered downs on either side, but take no notice of them. If you persevere, you will in due course see the village of Barford lying in front of you, which, at a little distance, looks as if it had been carelessly swept into a crease between the downs, while a few cottages and houses on the hillside seem to have adhered to the ground, and remained stuck where they were when the sweeping took place.

After you have passed the pond and the post office, and before you reach the school, you will see a lodge, and an old Italian iron gateway, flanked by a set of white wooden knobs planted in the ground on either side, held together by chains. The white knobs are apparently there in order to upset carriages as they drive in or out. But very few carriages have driven in or out during the last two years, except those of the owner of Barford Manor, Wentworth Maine. Wentworth, since he inherited the place from his uncle five years ago, had always led a somewhat secluded life. But during the last two years, ever since his half-brother, Michael, had been sentenced and imprisoned in Italy, Wentworth had withdrawn himself even more from the society of his neighbours. He continued to shoot and hunt, and to do his duties as a magistrate and as a supporter of the Conservative party, but his thin, refined face had a certain worn, pinched look, which spoke of long tracts of solitary unhappiness. And the habit of solitude was growing on him.

The old Manor House, standing in its high-walled gardens, its sunny low rooms looking out across the down, seemed wrapped in an atmosphere of ancient peace, which consorted as ill with the present impression of the place as does old Gobelin tapestry with a careful modern patch upon its surface. The patch, however, adroitly copied, is seen to be an innovation.

The old house, which had known so much, had sheltered so much, had kept counsel so long, seemed to resent the artificial peace that its present owner had somewhat laboriously constructed round himself, within its mellow, ivied walls.

There is a fictitious tranquillity which is always on the verge of being broken, which depends largely on uninterrupted hours, on confidential, velvet-shod servants, on a brooding dove in a cedar, on the absence of the inharmonious or jarring elements which pervade daily life.

Such an imitation peace, coy as a fickle mistress, Wentworth cherished. Was it worth all the trouble he took to preserve it, when the real thing lay at his very door?

On this February morning, as he sat looking out across the down, white in the pale sunshine, the current of his life ran low. He had returned the night before from one of his periodical journeys to Italy to visit Michael in his cell. He was tired with the clang and hurry of the long journey, depressed almost to despair by the renewed realisation of his brother's fate. Two years—close on two years, had Michael been in prison.

In Wentworth's faithful heart that wound never healed. To-day it bled afresh. He bit his lip, and his face quivered.

* * * * *

Wentworth was not as handsome as Michael, but, nevertheless, he was distinctly good to look at, and the half-brothers, in spite of the fifteen years' difference between their ages, bore a certain superficial resemblance to each other. Wentworth was of middle height, lightly and leanly built, with a high bridge on a rather thin nose, and with narrow, clean grey eyes under light eyelashes. He looked as if he had been made up of different shades of one colour. His light brown hair had a little grey in it, his delicately cut face and nervous hands were both tanned, by persistent exposure to all kinds of weather, to nearly the same shade of indeterminate brown as his hair.

You could not look at Wentworth without seeing that he was a man who had never even glanced at the ignoble side of life, for whose fastidious, sensitive nature sensual lures had no attraction, a man who could not lie, who could not stoop, whose mind was as clean as his hand, and, for an Englishman, that is saying a good deal. He was manly in a physical sense. He rode straight, he shot well. He could endure bodily strain with indifference, though he was not robustly built. He was sane, even-tempered, liable to petty resentments, mildly and resolutely selfish, except where Michael was concerned, a conscientious and just master—at least, just in intention—a patient and respectful son where patience and respect had not been easy.

The strain of scholar and student in him was about evenly mixed with that of the country gentleman. The result was a certain innate sense of superiority which he was not in the least aware that he showed. He had no idea that he was considered "fine," and "thinking a good deal of himself," by the more bucolic of his country neighbours. No one could say that Wentworth was childlike, but perhaps he was a little childish. He certainly had a naif and unshakable belief that the impressions he had formed as to his own character were shared by others. He supposed it was recognised by his neighbours that they had a thinker in their midst, and always tacitly occupied the ground which he imagined had been conceded to him on that account.

His mother, a beautiful, foolish, whimsical, hard-riding heiress, the last of a long line, had married the youngest son—the one brilliant, cultivated member—of a family as ancient, as uneducated, and as prosaic as her own. Wentworth was the result of that union. His father had died before his talents were fully recognised: that is to say, just when it was beginning to be perceived that he was a genius only in his own class, and that there were hordes of educated men in the middle classes who could beat him at every point on his own ground, except in carriage and appearance, and whom no one regarded as specially gifted. Still, in his own county, among his own friends, and in a society where education and culture eke out a precarious, interloping existence, and are regarded with distrustful curiosity, Lord Wilfrid Maine lived and died, and was mourned as a genius.

After many years of uneasy, imprudent widowhood, the widow of the great man had made a disastrous second marriage, and had died at Michael's birth.

No one had disputed with Wentworth over the possession of Michael. Wentworth, a sedate, self-centred young man of three-and-twenty, of independent means, mainly occupied in transcribing the nullity of his days in a voluminous diary, had taken charge of him virtually from his first holidays, during which Michael's father had achieved the somewhat tedious task of drinking himself to death. Michael's father had appointed Wentworth as his son's guardian. If it had been a jealous affection on Wentworth's part, it had also been a deep one. And it had been returned with a single-hearted devotion on Michael's part which had gradually knit together the hearts of the older and the younger man, as it seemed indissolubly. No one had come between them. Once or twice Wentworth had become uneasy, suspicious of Michael's affection for his tutor at Eton, distrustful of the intimacies Michael formed with boys, and, later on, with men of his own age. Wentworth had nipped a few of these incipient friendships in the bud. He vaguely felt that each case, judged by its own merits, was undesirable. Some of these friendships he had not been able to nip. These he ignored; among that number was Michael's affection for his godfather, the Bishop of Lostford. Michael's boyish passion for Fay, Wentworth had never divined. It had come about during the last year of his great uncle's life at Barford, which was within a few miles of Priesthope, Fay's home. Michael had spent many weeks at Barford with the old man, who was devoted to him. Everyone had expected that he would make Michael his heir, but when he died soon afterwards, it was found he had left the place, in a will dated many years back, to Wentworth. If Michael had never mentioned his first painful contact with life to Wentworth, it was perhaps partly because he instinctively felt that the confidence would be coldly received, partly also because Michael was a man of few words, to whom speech had never taken the shape of relief.

There had no doubt been wretched moments in Wentworth's devotion to Michael, but nevertheless it had been the best thing so far in his somewhat colourless existence, with its hesitating essays in other directions, its half-hearted withdrawals, its pigeon-holed emotions. He had not been half-hearted about Michael. It is perhaps natural that we should love very deeply those who have had the power to release us momentarily from the airless prison of our own egotism. How often it is a child's hand which first opens that iron door, and draws us forth into the sunshine! With Wentworth it had been so. The pure air of the moorland, the scent of the heather and the sea seem indissolubly mingled with the remembrance of those whom we have loved. For did we not in their company walk abroad into a new world, breathe a new air, while Self, the dingy turnkey, for once slept at his post?

One of the reasons of his devotion to Michael was that Michael's character did not apparently or perceptibly alter. He was very much the same person in his striped convict's blouse as he had been in his Eton jacket. But it is doubtful whether Wentworth had ever realised of what materials that character consisted. Wentworth was of those who never get the best out of men and women, who never divine and meet, but only come into surprised uncomfortable contact with their deeper emotions. Michael's passion of service for Fay would have been a great shock to Wentworth had he suspected it. It remained for the duke to perceive the latent power in Michael, and to be taken instantly into his confidence on the matter, while Wentworth, unwitting, had remained for life outside his brother's mind.

Some men and women are half conscious that they are thus left out, are companions only of "the outer court" of the lives of others. But Wentworth never suspected this, partly because he regarded as friendship a degree of intimacy which most men and all women regard as acquaintanceship. He did not know there was anything more. Those from whom others need much, learn perforce, whether they will or no, to what heights, to what depths human nature can climb and—fall. But Wentworth was not a person on whom others made large demands. But if his love for Michael had been his one tangible happiness, it had become now his one real pain.

Contrary to all his habits, he sat on, hour after hour, motionless, inert, watching the cloud shadows pass across the down. He tried to rouse himself. He told himself that he must settle back into his old occupations. He must get forward with his history of Sussex, and write up his diary. He must come to some decision about the allotment scheme on his property in Saundersfoot. He must go over and help Colonel Bellairs not to make a fool of himself about the disputed right of way across his property where it joined Wentworth's own land. Colonel Bellairs always bungled into business matters of the simplest nature as a bumble bee bungles into a spider's web. For Colonel Bellairs to touch business of any kind was immediately to become hopelessly and inextricably involved in it, with much furious buzzing. His mere presence entangled the plainest matter into a confused cocoon, with himself struggling in the middle.

Wentworth must save the old autocrat from putting himself in the wrong, when he was so plainly in the right. Wentworth must at any rate, if he could do nothing else this morning, read his letters, which had accumulated during his short absence.

Without moving from his chair he turned over, with a groan, the pile of envelopes waiting for him at his elbow. Invitations, bills, tenants' complaints, an unexpected dividend. It was all one to him. The Bishop of Lostford—so his secretary wrote—accepted Wentworth's invitation to dine and sleep at Barford that night, after holding a confirmation at Saundersfoot. Wentworth had forgotten he had asked him. Very well, he must remember to order a room to be got ready. That was all. A subscription earnestly solicited by the daughter of a neighbouring clergyman for a parish library. Why could he not be left in peace? Oh! what was the use of anything—of life, health, money, intellect, if existence was always to be like this, if every day was to be like this, only like this? This weary, dry-as-dust grind, this making a handful of bricks out of a cartload of straw, this distaste and fatigue, and sense of being duped by satisfaction, which was only another form of dissatisfaction, after all. What was the use of living exactly as you liked, if you did not like it? Oh, Michael! Michael! Michael! He forgot that he had often been nearly as miserable as this when Michael had been free and happy. Not quite, but nearly. Now he attributed the whole of his recurrent wretchedness, which was largely temperamental, to his distress about his brother's fate.

That wound, never healed, bled afresh. Who felt for him in his trouble? Who, among all his friends, cared, or understood? No one. That was the way of the world.

Fay's sweet, forlorn face, snowdrop pale under its long black veil, rose suddenly before him, as he had seen it some weeks ago, when he had met her walking in the woods near her father's house. She had gone back to her old home after the duke's death. She, at least, had grieved for him and Michael with an intensity which he had never forgotten. Even in her widowed desolation she had remembered Michael, and always asked after him when Wentworth went over to Priesthope. And Wentworth was often there, for one reason or another. Michael, too, had asked after her, and had sent her a message by his brother. Should he go over to-day and deliver it in person? Among his letters was a scrawling, illegible note, already several days old, from Colonel Bellairs, Fay's father, about the right of way. The matter, it seemed, was more urgent than Wentworth had realised. Any matter pertaining to Colonel Bellairs was always, in the opinion of the latter, of momentous urgency.

Colonel Bellairs asked Wentworth to come over to luncheon the first day he could, and to walk over the debatable ground with him.

Wentworth looked at his watch, started up and rang the bell, and ordered his cob Conrad to be brought round at once.



CHAPTER VIII

Le plus grand element des mauvaises actions secretes, des lachetes inconnues, est peut-etre un honheur incomplet.

—BALZAC.

When Fay, in her panic-stricken widowhood, had fled back to her old home in Hampshire, she found all very much as she had left it, except that her father's hair was damply dyed, her sister Magdalen's frankly grey, and the pigtail of Bessie, the youngest daughter, was now an imposing bronze coil in the nape of her neck.

But if little else was radically changed in the old home except the hair of the family, nevertheless, the whole place had somehow declined and shrunk in Fay's eyes during the three years of her marriage. The dear old gabled Tudor house, with its twisted chimneys, looked much the same from the outside, but within, in spite of its wealth of old pictures and cabinets and china, it had contracted the dim, melancholy aspect which is the result of prolonged scarcity of money. Nothing had been spent on the place for years. Magdalen seemed to have faded together with the curtains, and the darned carpets, and the bleached chintzes.

Colonel Bellairs alone, a handsome man of sixty, had remained remarkably young for his age. The balance, however, was made even by the fact that those who lived with him grew old before their time. It had been so with his wife. It was obviously so with his eldest daughter. Many men as superficially affectionate as Colonel Bellairs, and at heart as callous, as exacting and as inconsiderate, have made endurable husbands. But Colonel Bellairs was not only irresolute and vacillating and incapable of even the most necessary decisions, but he was an inveterate enemy of all decision on the part of others, inimical to all suggested arrangements or plans for household convenience. The words "spring cleaning" could never be mentioned in his presence. The thing itself could only be achieved by stealth. A month at the seaside for the sake of the children was a subject that could not be approached. All small feminine social arrangements, dependent for their accomplishment on the use of the horses, were mown down like grass. Colonel Bellairs hated what he called "living by clockwork."

You may read, if you care to do so, in the faces of many gentle-tempered and apparently prosperous married women, an enormous fatigue. Wicked, blood-curdling husbands do not bring this look into women's faces. It is men like Colonel Bellairs who hold the recipe for calling it into existence.

Mrs. Bellairs, a beautiful woman, with high spirits, but not high-spirited, became more and more silent and apathetic year by year, yielded more and more and more, yielded at last without expostulation equally at every point, when she should have yielded and when she should have stood firm, yielded at last even where her children's health and well-being were concerned.

Apathy and health are seldom housemates for long together. Mrs. Bellairs gradually declined from her chair to her sofa. She made no effort to live after her youngest daughter was born. She could have done so if she had wished it, but she seemed to have no wish on the subject, or on any other subject. There is an Arabian proverb which seems to embody in it all the melancholy of the desert, and Mrs. Bellairs exemplified it. "It is better to sit than to stand. It is better to lie than to sit. It is better to sleep than to lie. It is better to die than to sleep."

Fay had been glad enough, as we have seen, to escape from home by marriage. No such way of escape had apparently presented itself for the elder sister. As Magdalen and Fay sat together on the terrace in front of the house, the contrast between the sisters was more marked than the ten years' difference of age seemed to warrant.

Magdalen was a tall, thin woman of thirty-five, who looked older than her age. She had evidently been extremely pretty once. Perhaps she might even have been young once. But it must have been a long time ago. She was a faded, distinguished-looking person, with a slight stoop, and a worn, delicately-featured face, and humorous, tranquil eyes. Her thick hair was grey. She looked as if she had borne for many years the brunt of continued ill health, or the ill health of others, as if she had been obliged to lift heavy weights too young. Perhaps she had. Everything about her personality seemed fragile except her peace of mind. You could not look at Magdalen without seeing that she was a happy creature.

But very few did look at her when Fay was beside her. Fay's beauty had increased in some ways and diminished in others during the year of her widowhood. She had become slightly thinner and paler, but not to the extent when beauty suffers wrong. A very young face can bear a worn look, and even have its charm enhanced thereby. The mark of suffering on Fay's childlike face and in her deep violet eyes had brought with it an expression which might easily be mistaken for spirituality, especially by those—and they are very many—to whom a pallid and attenuated aspect are the outward signs of spirituality.

That she was miserable was obvious. But why was she so restless? Magdalen had often silently asked herself that question during the past year. Even Bessie, the youngest sister, had noticed Fay's continual restlessness and had commented on it, had advised her sister to embark on a course of reading, and to endeavour to interest herself in work for others.

She had also, with the untempered candour of eighteen, suggested to Fay that she should cease to make a slave of Magdalen. It is hardly necessary to add that Fay and Bessie did not materially increase the sum of each other's happiness.

As Magdalen and Fay were sitting together in the sun the door into the garden opened, and Bessie stalked slowly towards them across the grass, in a short cycling skirt.

"It surely is not necessary to be quite so badly dressed as Bessie," said Fay with instant irritation. "If she must wear one of those hideous short skirts, it might at any rate be well cut. I have told her so often enough."

Since Bessie had been guilty of the enormity of suggesting a course of reading, Fay had made many sarcastic comments on Bessie's direful clothes.

"I must advise her to take dress more seriously," said Magdalen absently. She was depressed by a faint misgiving about Bessie. Bessie was to have lunched to-day with congenial archaeological friends, intelligent owners of interesting fossils. Nevertheless, when Wentworth's cob Conrad was seen courteously allowing himself to be conducted to the stable she instantly decided to lunch at home, and to visit her friends when they were not expecting her, in the afternoon. It could make no difference to them, she had told Magdalen, who shook her head over that well-known phrase, which Colonel Bellairs had long since established as "a household word." Bessie was not to be moved by Magdalen's disapproval, however. She retired to her chamber, donned a certain enamel brooch which she only wore on Sundays, and appeared at luncheon.

It was not a particularly cheerful meal. Wentworth was silent and depressed. Colonel Bellairs did not for an instant cease to speak about the right of way during the whole of luncheon, even when his back was turned while he was bending over a ham on the sideboard. And the moment luncheon was over he had marched Wentworth off to the scene of the dispute.

Magdalen was vaguely uneasy at the tiny incident of Bessie's change of plan, and was glad it had escaped Fay's notice. Most things about Bessie did escape Fay's notice except her clothes. Bessie was not at eighteen an ingratiating person. No one had ever called her the sunbeam of the home. She had preserved throughout her solemn childhood and flinty youth a sort of resentful protest against the attitude of her family at her advent, namely, that she was not wanted. Her mother had died at her birth, and for several years afterwards her father had studiously ignored her presence in the house, not without a sense of melancholy satisfaction at this proof of his devotion to her mother.

"No, no. It may be unreasonable. It may be foolish," he was wont to say to friends who had not accused him of unreasonableness, "but don't ask me to be fond of that child. I can't look at her without remembering what her birth cost me."

Bessie was a fine, strong young woman, with a perfectly impassive handsome face—no Bellairs could achieve plainness—and the manner of one who moves among fellow creatures who do not come up to the standard of conduct which she has selected as the lowest permissible to herself and others. Bessie had not so far evinced a preference for anyone in her own family circle, or outside it. Her affections consisted so far of a distinct dislike of and contempt for her father. She had accorded to Fay a solemn compassion when first the latter returned to Priesthope. Indeed, the estrangement between the sisters, brought about by the suggested course of reading, had been the unfortunate result of a cogitating pity on Bessie's part for the lamentable want of regulation of Fay's mind.

Bessie liked Magdalen, though she disapproved of her manner of life as weak and illogical. You could not love Bessie any more than you could love an ironclad. She bore the same resemblance to a woman that an iron building does to a house. She was not in reality harder than tin or granite or asphalt, or her father; but it would not be an over-statement to suggest that she lacked softness.

She advanced with precision to the bench on which her sisters were sitting.

"I am now going to cycle to the Carters'," she said to Magdalen. "I forgot to mention till this moment that I met Aunt Mary this morning at the Wind Farm, and that she gave me a letter for father, and said that she and Aunt Aggie were lunching with the Copes."

"Poor Copes!" ejaculated Fay.

"And would both come on here afterwards to an early tea," continued Bessie, taking no notice of the interruption. "Aunt Mary desired that you would not have hot scones for tea, as Aunt Aggie is always depressed after them. She said there was no objection to them cold, and buttered, but not hot."

"I shall have tea in my own room then," once more broke in Fay. "I can't stand Aunt Mary. She is always preaching at me."

"It is a pity that Fay is disinclined to share the undoubted burden of entertaining our relatives," said Bessie, addressing herself exclusively to Magdalen, "as I do not feel able to defer my visit to the Carters any longer."

Magdalen struggled hard against a smile, and kept it under.

"Possibly the aunts are coming over to consult father about a private matter," she said. "The letter beforehand to prepare his mind looks like it. So it would be best if you and Fay were not there. The aunts' affairs generally require the deepest secrecy."

"And then father lets it all out at dinner before the servants," said Bessie over her shoulder as she departed.

When she was out of hearing Fay said with exasperation, "You are not wise to give way so much to Bessie, Magdalen. She is selfishness itself. Why did not you insist on her staying and helping with the aunts? She never considers you."

Magdalen was silent.

"I hate sitting here with the house staring at me," said Fay. "I can't think why you are so fond of this bench. Let us go into the beech avenue."

For a long time past Magdalen had noticed that Fay always wanted to be somewhere she was not.

They went in silence through the little wood that bounded the gardens, and passed into the great, bare, grey aisle of the beech avenue.

In a past generation a wide drive had led through this avenue to the house. It had been the south approach to Priesthope. But in these impoverished days, the road, with its sweep of turf on either side, had been neglected, and was now little more than a mossy cart-rut, with a fallen tree across it.

The two sisters sat down on a crooked arm of the fallen tree.

It was a soft, tranquil afternoon, flooded with meek February sunshine. Far away between the green-grey trunks of the trees, the sea glinted like a silver ribbon. Everything was very still, with the stillness set deep in peace of one who loves and awaits in awe love's next word. The earth lay in the sunshine, and listened for the whisper of spring. Faint birdnotes threaded the high windless spaces near the tree-tops.

"Look!" said Magdalen, "the first crocus."

What is there, what can there be in the first yellow crocus peering against the brown earth, that can reach with instant healing, like a child's "soft absolving touch," the inflamed, aching, unrest of the spirit? It does not seek to comfort us. Then how does comfort reach through with the crocus; as if the whole under-world were peace and joy, and were breaking through the thin sod to enfold us?

Fay looked at the flame-pure, upturned face of the little forerunner, absently at first, and then with growing absorption, until two large tears slowly welled up into her eyes and blotted it out. She shivered, and crept a little closer to her sister. She felt alienated from she knew not what, dreadfully cold and alone in the sunshine, with her cheek against her sister's shoulder. Though she did not realise it, something long frost-bound in her mind was yielding, shifting, breaking up. The first miserable shudder of the thaw was upon her.

She glanced up at Magdalen, who was looking into the heart of the crocus, and a sudden anger seized her at the still rapture of her sister's face. The contrast between her own gnawing misery and Magdalen's serenity cut her like a knife. What right had Magdalen to be so happy? Why should she have been exempted from all trouble? What had she done that anguish could never reach her? Fay's love for Magdalen, and at this time Magdalen was the only person for whom she had any affection—had all the violent recoils, the mutinous anger, the sudden desire to wound on the one side, all the tender patience and grieved understanding on the other which are the outcome of a real attachment between a bond woman and a free one.

The one craved, the other relinquished; the one was consumed with unrest, the other had reached some inner stronghold of peace. The one was imprisoned in self, the other was freed, released. The one made demands, the other was willing to serve. It seems as if only the free can serve.

"I am very miserable," said Fay suddenly. She was pushed once more by the same blind impulse that had taken her to her husband's room the night after Michael's arrest.

She used almost the same words. And as the duke had made no answer then, so Magdalen made none now. She had not lived in the same house with Fay for nearly a year for nothing.

Magdalen's silence acted as a goad.

"You think, and father thinks," continued Fay, her voice shaking, "you are all blinder one than the other, that it's Andrea I'm grieving for. It's not."

"I know that," said Magdalen. "You never cared much about him. I have often wondered what it could be that was distressing you so deeply."

Fay winced. Magdalen had noticed something, after all.

"I have sometimes feared,"—continued Magdalen with the deliberation of one who has long since made up her mind not to speak until the opening comes, and not to be silent when it does come—"I have sometimes feared that your heart was locked up in an Italian prison."

"My heart!" said Fay, and her visible astonishment at a not very astonishing inference was not lost on Magdalen. "My heart!" she laughed bitterly. "Do you really suppose after all I've suffered, all I've gone through, that I'm so silly as to be in love with anyone in prison or out of it? I suppose you mean poor dear Michael. I hate men, and their selfish, stupid, blundering ways."

Fay had often alluded to the larger sex en bloc as blunderers since the night she had told Michael to stand behind the screen.

"There are two blunderers coming towards us now," said Magdalen, as the distant figures of Colonel Bellairs and Wentworth appeared in the beech avenue.

Both women experienced a distinct sense of relief.

Colonel Bellairs had many qualities as a parent which made him a kind of forcing-house for the development of virtue in those of his own family. He was as guano spread over the roots of the patience of others; as a pruning hook to their selfishness. But he had one great compensating quality as a father. He never for one moment thought that any man, however young, visited the house except for the refreshment and solace of his own society. He never encouraged anyone to come with a view to becoming acquainted with his daughters. His own problematic re-marriage, often discussed in all its pros and cons with Magdalen, was the only possible alliance that ever occupied his thoughts. In this respect he was an ideal parent in his daughters' eyes, an inhumanly selfish one according to his two sisters, Lady Blore and Miss Bellairs, at this moment stepping out towards Priesthope from the north lodge.



Wentworth had almost given up hope of a word with Fay until he saw her sitting with Magdalen in the avenue. The world would be a much harder place than it already is for women to live in if men concealed their feelings. A reverent and assiduous study of the nobler sex leads the student to believe that they imagine they conceal them. But it is women who early in life are taught to acquire this art, at any rate when they are bored. Half the happy married women of our acquaintance would be the widows of determined suicides if women allowed it to appear when they were bored as quickly as men do.

Wentworth had no idea that he was not an impassable barrier of reserve. He often said of himself: "I am a very reserved man, I know. It is a fault of character. I regret it, but I can't help it. I have not the art of chatting about my deepest feelings at five o'clock tea as a man must do who lays himself out to be popular with women. What I feel it is my nature to conceal."

His reserve on this occasion was concentrated in his face, which remained unmoved. But the lofty impassiveness on which he prided himself did not reach down to his legs. Those members, which had been dragging themselves in a sort of feeble semi-paralysis in the wake of the ruthless Colonel Bellairs, now straightened themselves, and gave signs of returning energy. Magdalen from a distance noted the change. Wentworth for the first time was interested in what Colonel Bellairs was saying. His own voice, which had become almost extinct, revived. There was also a hint of spring in the air. Not being a person of much self-knowledge, he mentioned that fact to Colonel Bellairs.

Colonel Bellairs looked at him with the suspicion which appears to be the one light shadow that lies across the sunny life of the bore.

"I said so half an hour ago," he remarked severely, "when we were inspecting my new manure tanks, and you said you did not notice it."

"You were right all the same," said the younger man.

What an interest would be added to life if it were possible to ascertain how many thousands of times people like Colonel Bellairs are limply assured that they are in the right! The mistake of statistics is that they are always compiled on such dull subjects. Who cares to know how many infants are born, and how many deaf mutes exist? But we should devour statistics, we should read nothing else if only they dealt with matters of real interest: if they recorded how often Mr. Simpson, the decadent poet, had said he was "a child of nature," how often, if ever, the Duchess of Inveraven and Mr. Brown, the junior curate at Salvage-on-Sea, had owned they had been in the wrong; whether it was true that an Archbishop had ever really said "I am sorry" without an "if" after it, and, if so, on what occasion; and whether any novelist exists who has not affirmed at least five hundred times that criticism is a lost art.

"Is the right-of-way dispute progressing?" said Magdalen to her father as the two men came up and stopped in front of them.

Colonel Bellairs implied that it would shortly be arranged, as his intellect was being applied to the subject.

Wentworth said emphatically, for about the thirtieth time, that the right of a footpath, or church path across the domain was well established and could not be set aside; but that whether it was also a bridle path was the moot point; and whether Colonel Bellairs was justified in his recent erection of a five-barred stile.

(I may as well add here, for fear the subject should escape my mind later on, that at the time of these pages going to press the dispute, often on the verge of a settlement, had reached a further and acuter stage, being complicated by Colonel Bellairs' sudden denial even of a church path, to the legal existence of which he had previously agreed in writing.)

Wentworth trod upon the crocus and said he must be going home.

"We will walk back to the house with you," said Magdalen, and she led the way with her father.

"I wish you would tell your Aunt Mary," he said to Magdalen as they walked on, "that I will not have her servants wandering in Lindley wood. Jones tells me they were there again last Sunday with a dog, that accursed little yapping wool mat of Aunt Aggie's! I simply won't stand it. I would rather you told her. It would come better from you."

"I will tell her."

Colonel Bellairs was beginning late in life to lean on Magdalen. She was fond of him in a way, and never yielded to him. On ne peut s'appuyer que contre ce qui resiste. Though Colonel Bellairs did not know it, he was always wanting to s'appuyer. He had found in his daughter something solid to lean against, which he had never found in his wife, who had not resisted him.

"Oh! and look here, Magdalen. I had a letter from your Aunt Mary this morning, a long rigmarole. She says she is following her letter, and is coming to have a serious talk with me. Hang it all! Can't a man have a moment's peace?"

Colonel Bellairs tore out of an inner pocket a bulky letter in a bold, upright hand, marked Private, at the top.

"I wish to the devil she would mind her own business, and let me manage mine," he said pettishly, thrusting the letter at Magdalen.

"I don't like to read it, as it is marked 'Private.'"

"Read it. Read it," said Colonel Bellairs irritably.

Magdalen read the voluminous epistle tranquilly from beginning to end as she and her father walked slowly back to the house.

It was an able production, built up on a solid foundation. It dealt with Colonel Bellairs' "obvious duty" with regard to the man to whom Magdalen had been momentarily engaged fifteen years before, and who, owing to two deaths in the Boer war, had unexpectedly succeeded to an earldom.

"Well! well!" said Colonel Bellairs at intervals, more interested than he wished to appear. "What do you think of it? We noticed in the papers a week ago that he had succeeded his cousin."

"Wait a minute, father. I have only come to my lacerated affections."

"How slow you are! Your Aunt Mary does pound away. She has a touch as light as a coal-sack. The wonder to me is how she ever captured poor old Blore."

"Perhaps she did it by letter. She writes uncommonly well. 'Magdalen's joyless homelife of incessant, unselfish service.' That is very well put, isn't it? And so is this: 'It is your duty now to inform him that you withdraw all opposition to the renewal of the engagement, and to invite him to Priesthope.' Really, Aunt Mary sticks at nothing. I warn you solemnly, father, this is only the thin end of the wedge. Unless you stand firm now, she'll want to choose our new stair carpet for us next. Really, I think at her age she might take a little holiday, and leave the Almighty in charge."

"Is that all you've got to say?" said Colonel Bellairs, somewhat surprised. "Do you wish me to ask him to the house or do you not? I don't object to him. I never did, except as a son-in-law, when he had no visible means of subsistence."

"And no intention of making any."

"Just so. But I always rather liked him, and, and—time slips by"—(it had indeed), "and I can't make much provision for you, in fact, almost none, and I may marry again; in fact, it is more than likely I shall shortly marry again." Colonel Bellairs was for a moment plunged in introspection. "So perhaps, on the whole, it would be more generous on my part to ignore the past and ask him to the house."

"After forbidding him to come to it?"

Colonel Bellairs began to lose his temper.

"I shall ask whom I think fit if I choose to do so. I am master in this house. If he does not care to come, he can stay away."

"Ask him, in that case."

"You agree that on the whole that would be best."

"Not at all. I think it extremely undignified on your part, and that it is a pity that you should be so swayed by Aunt Mary as to go by her judgment instead of your own. You never thought of asking him till she tried to coerce you into it."

"I am not going to be coerced by any woman, much less by that man in petticoats," said Colonel Bellairs wrathfully. "But she will be here directly. H'm! What on earth am I to say to her if I don't ask him?... She will be here directly."

They had reached Colonel Bellairs' study by now, and he sat down heavily in his old leather arm-chair. Magdalen was standing on the hearthrug near him with the letter in her hand. She held it over the fire, he nodded, and she dropped it in.

"Perhaps, Magdalen," said her father with dignity, "it would be just as well if I kept clear of the whole affair. Women manage these little things best among themselves. I would rather not be dragged in. Anything on that subject, any discussion, or interchange of opinion would come best from you, eh?"

"I think so, father."

Colonel Bellairs watched his sister's letter burn, with the fixed eye of one about to drop off into an habitual nap.

The asphyxiating atmosphere of a man's room, where a window is never opened except to let in a dog, or to shout at a gardener, and where years of stale tobacco brood in every nook and curtain, enveloped its occupant with a delicious sense of snug repose, and exerted its usual soporific charm.

"Took Mary a long time to write," he said, with a sleepy chuckle, as the last vestige disappeared of the laboriously constructed missive which Lady Blore had sat up half the previous night, with gold-rimmed pince-nez on Roman nose to copy out by her bedroom candle, and had sent to pave the way before her strong destructive feet.

The footman came in.

"Lady Blore and Miss Bellairs are in the drawing-room."

"Just pull the blinds half-way down before you go," said Colonel Bellairs to Magdalen, "and remember other people have got letters to write as well as her, and I'm not to be disturbed on any account."



CHAPTER IX

On garde longtemps son premier amant quand on n'en prend point de second.—LA ROCHEFOUCAULD.

The two aunts meanwhile were sitting waiting in the drawing-room.

When Mrs. Bellairs died, which event, according to Aunt Aggie, had been brought about by a persistent refusal to wear on her chest a small square of flannel, (quite a small square) sprinkled with camphorated oil, and according to Aunt Mary by a total misconception of the Bellairs' character; when this event happened, the two aunts became what they called supports to their brother's motherless children.

They were far from being broken reeds which pierce the hands of those who lean on them.

No one had ever leaned on Aunt Mary or Aunt Aggie. Aunt Mary might perhaps be likened to one of those stout beams which have a tendency to push ruthlessly through the tottering outer wall which they are supposed to prop, into the inner chamber of the tenement which has the misfortune to be the object of their good offices.

She had contracted, not in her first youth, a matrimonial alliance—it could hardly be called a marriage—with a general, distinguished in India and obscure everywhere else, who had built a villa called "The Towers" a few miles from Priesthope. The marriage had taken place after years of half-gratified reluctance on his part and indomitable crude persistence on hers. In short it was what is generally called "a long attachment," and proves beyond dispute, what is already proven to the hilt, that the sterner sex prefer to have their affairs of the heart arranged for them; that once lost sight of they are mislaid, once let loose on parole they never return, once captured they endeavour to escape; that even when finally married nothing short of the amputation of all external interests will detain them within the sacred precincts of THE HOME.

Aunt Mary had had trouble with her general, but though she was no tactician, she was herself a general. His engagement to her had only been the first of the crushing defeats which she had inflicted upon him. Now at last at The Towers a deathlike peace reigned. Sir John, severely tried by rheumatism and advancing years, had, so to speak, given up his sword.

His wife's magnanimity had provided him with what she considered suitable amusements and occupations. He was told that he took an interest in breeding pigs, and he, who had once ruled a province rather larger than England, might now be seen on fine mornings tottering out, tilted forward on his stick, making the tour of the farmyard, and hanging over the low wall of his model pigstyes.

In Magdalen's recollections, Aunt Mary had always looked exactly the same, the same strong, tall, robust, large-featured, handsome woman, with black hair, and round, black, unwinking eyes, who invariably dressed in black and wore a bonnet. Even under the cedar at The Towers Aunt Mary wore a bonnet. When she employed herself in a majestic gardening the sun was shaded from her Roman nose by a black satin parasol.

There are some men and women whom it is monstrous to suppose ever were children, ever young, ever different from what they are now. Whatever laws of human nature may rule the birth of others, they, at any rate, like the phoenix, sprang full grown, middle aged, in a frock coat, or a bugled silk gown, from some charred heap of unconsenting parental ashes.

Aunt Mary was no doubt one of these.

Near her, on the edge of her chair, perhaps not so entirely on the edge of it as at first appeared, sat Aunt Aggie. Aunt Aggie looked as if she had been coloured by some mistake from a palette prepared to depict a London fog.

Her eyes were greyish yellow, like her eyelashes, like her hair,—at least her front hair,—like her eyebrows, and her complexion. She was short and stout. She called slender people skeletons. Her gown, which was invariably of some greyish, drabbish, neutral-tinted material, always cocked up a little in front to show two large, flat, soft-looking feet.

Aunt Aggie began quite narrow at the top. Her forehead was the thin edge of the wedge, and she widened slowly as she neared the ground; the first indication of a settlement showing in the lobes of her ears, then in her cheeks, and then in her drab-apparelled person. Her whole aspect gave the impression of a great self-importance, early realised and made part of life, but kept in abeyance by the society of Aunt Mary and by a religious conviction that others also had their place, a sort of back seat, in the Divine consciousness.

It would not be fair to Aunt Aggie to omit to mention, especially as she continually made veiled allusions to the subject herself, that she also had known the tender passion. There had been an entanglement in her youth with a High Church archdeacon. But we all know how indefinite, how inconclusive, how meagre in practical results archidiaconal conferences are apt to be! After one of them it was discovered that the entanglement was all on Aunt Aggie's side. The archdeacon remained unenmeshed. Under severe pressure from Lady Blore, then an indomitable bride of forty, flushed by recent victory, he even went so far as to say that his only bride was the Church. It was after this disheartening statement that Aunt Aggie found herself drawn towards an evangelical and purer form of religion. The Archdeacon subsequently married, or rather became guilty of ecclesiastical bigamy. But Aunt Aggie throughout life retained pessimistic views respecting the celibacy of the clergy.

* * * * *

Aunt Mary bestowed a strong businesslike peck, emphasized by contact with the point of a stone-cold nose, on Magdalen's cheek. Aunt Aggie greeted her niece with small inarticulate cluckings of affection. Have you ever kissed a tepid poached egg? Then you know what it is to salute Aunt Aggie's cheek.

"Where are Fay and Bessie?" enquired Aunt Mary instantly. When the aunts announced their coming, which was invariably at an hour's notice, they always expected to find the whole family, including Colonel Bellairs, waiting indoors to receive them. This expectation was never realised, but the annoyance that invariably followed had retained through many years the dew of its youth.

"Bessie and Fay are out. I am expecting them back every moment."

"They will probably be later than usual to-day," said Aunt Mary grimly, with the half-conscious intuition of those whom others avoid. Did she know that with the exception of Sir John, whose vanity had led him to take refuge in a cul-de-sac, her fellow creatures rushed out by back doors, threw themselves out of windows, hid behind haystacks, had letters to write, were ordered by their doctors to rest, whenever she appeared? Did she know? One thing was certain. Magdalen was one of the very few persons who had never avoided her, who at times openly sought her society. And Aunt Mary, though she would have been ashamed to own it, loved Magdalen. She intended that Magdalen should live with her some day at the Towers, as an unpaid companion, when Sir John and Aunt Aggie had entered into peace.

"And your father," continued Aunt Mary. "Did he get my letter? I intend to have a serious conversation with him after tea."

"Father has this moment come in, and he asked me to tell you that he had business letters which he is obliged to write."

"I know what that means."

"Oh! Mary!" interpolated Aunt Aggie eagerly. "You forget that Algernon always, from the time he was a young man, left his letters to the last moment. All the Bellairs do."

The Bellairs had other unique family characteristics, as peculiar to themselves as their choice of time for grappling with their correspondence, which Aunt Aggie was never tired of quoting. "Bellairs are always late for breakfast. It is no kind of use finding fault with Bessie about it. I was just the same at her age."

Aunt Aggie went through life under the belief that she was a peacemaker, which delicate task she fulfilled by making in an impassioned manner small statements which seldom contained a new or healing view of existing difficulties. She often spoke of herself as a "buffer" between contending forces. Sir John Blore had been known to remark that he could not fathom what Aggie meant by that expression, as it certainly was not appropriate to the domestic circle at The Towers, consisting, as it did, of one rheumatic Anglo-Indian worm, and one able-bodied blackbird.

"I intend to see your father after tea," repeated Aunt Mary, taking no notice of her sister's remark.

"Father is much worried about the right of way," continued Magdalen. "He showed me your most kind letter about myself, and——"

"Showed it to you!" said Aunt Mary, becoming purple. "It was not intended for any eye except your father's."

"Confidence between a father and his child," began Aunt Aggie, clasping her stout little hands, and looking eagerly from her sister to her niece.

Magdalen went on tranquilly. "It only told me what I knew before, Aunt Mary, that you have my welfare at heart. Father said that he thought it would be best if you and I talked the matter over. I agreed with him. It would be easier for me to discuss it with you. It would not be for the first time."

It would not indeed!

"Aggie," said Aunt Mary instantly, "you expressed a wish on your way here to see Bessie's fossils. You will go to the schoolroom and investigate them."

"I think they are kept locked," said Aunt Aggie faintly. She longed to stay. She had guessed the subject of the letter. She took in a love affair the fevered interest with which the unmarried approach the subject.

"They are unlocked," said Aunt Mary with decision.

Aunt Aggie swallowed the remains of her tea, and holding a little bitten bun in her hand slid out of the room. She never openly opposed her sister, with whom she lived part of the year when she let her cottage at Saundersfoot to relations in need of sea air.

An unmistakable aspect of concentration deepened in Aunt Mary's fine countenance.

"Magdalen," she said at once, "in the presence of that weak sentimentalist my lips are closed. But now that we are alone, and as it is your wish to reopen the subject, it is my duty to inform myself whether anything has transpired about Everard Constable—Lord Lossiemouth, as I suppose he now is."

"Nothing," said Magdalen with a calmness that was almost cheerful. If she was as sensitive as she looked she had a marvellous power of concealing it. She never shrank. She was apparently never wounded. She seldom showed that any subject jarred on her. It is affirmed that animals develop certain organs to meet the exigencies of their environment. A sole's eye (or is it a sand-dab's?) travels up round its head regardless of appearances when it finds it is more wanted there than on the lower side. We often see a similar distortion in the mental features of the wives of literary men. So perhaps also Magdalen had adapted herself to the Bellairs' environment, with which it was obvious that she had almost nothing in common except her name.

Aunt Mary loved Magdalen in a way, yet she never spared her the discussion of that long-ago attachment of her youth, violently mismanaged by Colonel Bellairs. The rose of Aunt Mary's real affection had a little scent, but it was set round with thorns.

"He has behaved disgracefully," she said, looking with anger and disappointment at her niece's faded face.

"We have discussed that before," said Magdalen tranquilly. "I, as you know, do not blame him. But it is all a hundred years ago, and better forgotten."

"He was poor then. No one ever thought he would succeed with two lives between. But it is different now that he is wealthy and in a position to marry."

"He has never been in a position to marry me," said Magdalen, "because he never cared enough for me to make an effort on my behalf. That was not his fault. He mistook a romantic admiration for love, and naturally found it would not work. How could it? It was not necessary to turn heaven and earth to gain me. But it was necessary to turn a few small stones. He could not turn them."

"Well, at any rate, he asked you, and you accepted him."

"A hundred years ago."

"And you have waited for him ever since."

"Not at all. I am not waiting for him or for anyone."

"You would have married Mr. Grenfell if it had not been for Everard."

"Perhaps I should have married Everard if it had not been for Everard," said Magdalen.

It seemed as if nothing could shake her dispassionate view of the matter.

"Your feelings were certainly engaged, Magdalen. There is no use in denying that."

"Have I ever denied it?"

Aunt Mary was silent for a moment, but her under lip was ominously thrust out. She was not thinking of what Magdalen had said. If she had ever listened to the remarks of others when they differed from her, she would not have become Lady Blore. She was only silent because she was rallying her forces.

"A woman's hands become talons when they try to hold on to a man when he wants to get away," said Magdalen gently.

Aunt Mary turned on her niece an opaque eye that saw nothing beyond the owner's views.

"Something ought to be done," she said with emphasis. "After all, your father dismissed him. I shall advise your father to write to him, and if he does not—I shall write to him myself."

"I hope you will not do that," said Magdalen. "Do you remember what a subject for gossip it was at the time? When father became angry with Everard he told everyone, and it became a sort of loud turmoil. The servants knew, the parish knew, the whole county knew that I had had a disappointment. I have remained ever since in the eyes of the neighbours a sort of blighted creature, a victim of the heartlessness of man. A new edition of that old story now that my hair is grey would be, I think, a little out of place. I had hoped——"

The door was suddenly thrown open, and Bessie marched into the room with Aunt Aggie hanging nervously at her heels.

"I came back as quickly as I could from the Carters' in order not to miss you," said Bessie to Aunt Mary in her stentorian voice, and she presented a glowing rose cheek to be kissed.

Magdalen shot a grateful glance at her sister, and the conversation became general.

After the aunts had departed, Bessie said to Magdalen on their way upstairs to dress, "I found when I reached the Carters' that they had gone out with Professor Ridgway to see the Roman camp. Only old Mrs. Carter was at home, and she was rather chilly, and said they had expected me to luncheon. They had had a little party to meet the Professor. I saw that my conduct called for an apology. I made one."

"I am glad of that."

"I see now that it would have been wiser to have gone over for luncheon as arranged. I also thought how selfish it was of Fay not to help you with the aunts. And then I perceived that there were not two pins to choose between us, as I had been just as bad myself, so I hurried back as quickly as I could."

"I was most grateful to you when I saw you come in. And Aunt Mary was pleased too. She never shows it much; but she was."

"It is of secondary importance whether she was pleased or not. My object in returning was twofold: to help you, and also for the sake of my own character. I begin to see that unless I am careful I shall become as selfish as father."

Magdalen did not answer.

"The aunts never do things like other people," continued Bessie. "I found Aunt Aggie standing, eating a bun, just outside the drawing-room door. She was quite flurried when I came up, and said she wanted to see my fossils, but would rather look at them another day."



CHAPTER X

La vie est un instrument dont on commence toujours par jouer faux.

Wentworth and Fay did not follow Colonel Bellairs and Magdalen back to the house. When they reached the end of the avenue they turned back silently by mutual consent, and retraced their steps down it.

Presently they reached the trunk of the tree where Fay had been sitting with Magdalen.

Fay sank down upon it once more, white and exhausted. He sat down at a little distance from her.

"How is Michael?" she said at last, twisting her ungloved hands together.

"I came to tell you about him; I only got back last night. I knew you would wish to hear."

"How is he?"

"He has been ill. He has had double pneumonia. It started with haemorrhage, and some of the blood got into the lungs, and caused pneumonia. He is better now, nearly well, in fact. The prison doctor seemed a sensible man, and he spoke as if he were interested in Michael. From what he said I gathered that he did not think Michael would survive another winter there. The prison[1] stands in a sort of marsh. It is a very good place to prevent prisoners escaping, but not a good place for them to keep alive in. The doctor is pressing to have Michael moved. He thinks he might do better at the 'colonia agricola,' where the labour is more agricultural; or that even work in the iron mines of Portoferriao would try his constitution less than the swamp where he now is."

[Footnote 1: The prison described has no counterpart in real life.]

"Was he still in chains?"

"No. And the doctor said there was some talk of abolishing them altogether. If not, he will be obliged to go back to them now he is better. He is looking forward to the sea lavender coming out. He says the place is beautiful beyond words when it is in flower: whole tracts and tracts of grey lilac blossom in the shallows, and hordes of wild birds. He asked me to tell you that you were to think of him as living in fairyland."

Fay winced as if struck.

"You gave him my message?" she stammered.

"Of course I did. And he said I was to tell you not to grieve for him, for he was well and happy."

"Happy!" echoed Fay.

"Yes, happy. He said he had committed a great sin, but that he hoped and believed that he was now expiating it, and that it would be forgiven."

"I am absolutely certain," said Fay in a suffocated voice, "that Michael did not murder the Marchese di Maltagliala."

"That is impossible," said Wentworth.

"Then what great sin can he be expiating?"

Even as Fay asked the question she knew the answer. Michael believed he was expiating the sin of loving another man's wife. In his mind that was probably on a par with the murder he had not committed.

"I asked him that," said Wentworth, "but he would not say. He would only repeat that his punishment was just."

Two large tears ran down Fay's cheeks.

"It is unjust, unjust, unjust!" she gasped. "Why does God allow these dreadful things?"

There was a long silence.

For a time Wentworth had forgotten Fay. He saw again the great yellow building standing in a waste of waters. He saw again the thin, prematurely aged face of his brother, the shaved head, the coarse, striped convict dress, the arid light from the narrow barred window. He saw again Michael's grave smile, and heard the tranquil voice, "This place is beautiful in autumn. Mind you come next when the sea lavender is out."

The remembrance of that meeting cut sharper than the actual pain of it at the moment. He had gone through with it with a sort of stolid endurance, letting Michael see but a tithe of what he felt. But the remembrance was anguish unalloyed. For a time he could neither speak nor see.

A yellow butterfly that had waked too soon floated towards them on a wavering trial trip. Close at hand a snowdrop drooped "its serious head." The butterfly knew its own, and lit on the meek, nunlike flower, opening and shutting its new wings in the pallid sunshine. It had perhaps dreamed, as it lay in its chrysalis, "that life had been more sweet." Was this chill sunshine that could not quicken his wings, was this grim desert that held no goal for butterfly feet, was this one snowdrop—all? Was this indeed the summer of his dreams, in the sure and certain hope of which he had spun his cocoon, and laid him down in faith?

Fay looked at it in anguish not less than Wentworth's, whose dimmed eyes saw it not at all. She never watched a poised butterfly open and shut its wings without thinking of Michael. The flight of a seagull across the down cut her like a lash. He had been free once. He who so loved the down, the sea, the floating cloud, had been free once.

When Wentworth had winked his steady grey eyes back to their normal state, he looked furtively at Fay. She was weeping silently. He had seen Fay in tears before, but never without emotion. With a somewhat halting utterance he told her of certain small alleviations of Michael's lot. The permission, urgently asked, had at last been granted that English books might be sent him from time to time. The lonely, aching smart of Wentworth's morning hours was vaguely soothed and comforted by Fay's gentle presence.

She appeared to listen to him, but in reality she heard nothing. She sat looking straight in front of her, a tear slipping from time to time down her white cheek. Except on one or two occasions Fay had that rarest charm of looking beautiful in tears. She became paler than ever, never red and disfigured and convulsed, with the prosaic cold in the head that accompanies the emotions of less fortunate women.

"How old is Michael?" she asked suddenly in the midst of a painstaking account of certain leniencies as to diet, certain macaronis and soups which the doctor had insisted on for Michael.

"He is twenty-seven."

"And how long has he been in prison?"

"Nearly two years."

"And he has thirteen more," said Fay, looking at Wentworth with wide eyes blank with horror.

"No," said Wentworth, his voice shaking a little. "No, Michael will not live long in that swamp, not many years, I think."

"But they will move him to a better climate."

"He does not want to be moved. I should not, either, in his case."

Fay's hands fell to her sides.

"When my mother died," said Wentworth, "I promised her to be good to Michael. There was no need for me to promise to be good to him. I always liked him better than anyone else. I taught him to ride and to shoot. He got his gun up sharp from the first. It's easy to do things for anyone you like. But what is hard is when the time comes"—Wentworth stopped, and then went on—"when the time comes that you can't do anything more for the person you care for most."

Silence.

The yellow butterfly was still feebly trying to open and shut his wings. The low sun had abandoned him to the encroaching frost, and was touching the bare overarching branches to palest gold, "so subtly fair, so gorgeous dim"; so far beyond the reach of tiny wings.

"I don't think," said Wentworth, "I would stick at anything. I don't know of anything I would not do, anything I would not give up, to get him back his freedom. But it's no use, I can do nothing for him."

"Oh! Why does not the real murderer confess?" said Fay with a sob, wringing her hands. "How can he go on, year after year, letting an innocent man wear out his life in prison, bearing the punishment of his horrible crime?"

That mysterious murderer occupied a large place in Fay's thoughts. She hated him with a deadly hatred. He was responsible for everything. That one crooked channel of thought that persistently turned aside all blame onto an unknown offender, had at last given a certain crookedness, a sort of twist, to the whole subject in Fay's mind.

"I begged Michael again for the twentieth time to tell me anything that could act as a clue to discovering the real criminal," said Wentworth. "I told him I would spend my last shilling in bringing him to justice, but he only shook his head. I told him that some of his friends felt certain that he knew who the murderer was, and was shielding him. He shook his head again. He would not tell me anything the first day I went to him after he was arrested. And still, after two years in prison, he will not speak. Michael will never say anything."

The despair in Wentworth's voice met the advancing chill of the waning afternoon. The sun had gone. The gold had faded into grey. A frosty breath was stirring the dead leaves. The butterfly had closed his wings for the last time, and clung feebly, half reversed, to his snowdrop. A tiny trembling had laid hold upon him. He was tasting death.

Fay shivered involuntarily, and drew her fur cloak around her.

"I must go in," she said.

They walked slowly to the wooden, ivied gate which separated the woods from the gardens. A thin, white moon was already up, peering at them above the gathering sea mist.

They stood a moment together by the gate, each vaguely conscious of the consolation of the other's presence in the face of the great grief which had drawn them together.

"I will come again soon, if I may," he said diffidently, "unless seeing me reminds you of painful things." His voice had lowered itself involuntarily.

"I like to see you," said Fay in a whisper, and she slipped away from him like a shadow among the shadows.

The entire dejection of her voice and manner sheared from her words any possible reassurance which Wentworth might otherwise have found in them, which he suddenly felt anxious to find in them.

He pondered over them as he rode home.

How she had loved her husband! People had hinted that they had not been a happily assorted couple, but it was obvious that her grief at his loss was still overwhelming. And what courageous affection she had shown towards Michael, whom she had known from a boy; first in trying to shield him when he had taken refuge in her room, and afterwards in her sorrowing compassion for his fate. And what a steadfast belief she had shown from first to last in his innocence, against overwhelming odds!

Wentworth did not know till he met Fay that such women existed. Women he was aware were an enigma. Men could not fathom them. They were fickle, mysterious creatures, on whom no sane man could rely, whom the wisest owned they could not understand, capable alternately of devotion and treachery, acting from instincts that men did not share, moved by sudden, amazing impulses that men could not follow.

But could a woman like Fay, who towered head and shoulders above the ordinary run of women, removed to a height apart from their low level of pettiness and vanity, by her simplicity and nobility and capacity for devotion—could such a woman love a second time?

The thirst to be loved, to be the object of an exquisite tenderness, what man has not, consciously or unconsciously longed for that? What woman has not had her dream of giving that and more, full measure, running over?

To find favour in a woman's eyes a man need only do his stupid bungling best. But it is doubtful whether Wentworth had a best of any kind in him to do.

At twenty-five he would not have risked as much for love as even cautious men of robuster fibre will still ruefully but determinedly risk in the forties. And now at forty he would risk almost nothing.

Where Michael was concerned Wentworth's love had reached the strength where it could act, indefatigably, if need be. Michael had been so far the only creature who could move his brother's egotism beyond the refinements of bedridden sentiment.

It was as well for Fay that she did not realise, and absolutely essential for Wentworth that he did not realise either, that in spite of an undoubted natural attraction towards her he would have seen no more of her unless she had come within easy reach.

A common trouble had drawn them towards each other. A common interest, a common joy or sorrow, a house within easy distance—these are some of the match makers between the invalids of life, who are not strong enough to want anything very much, or to work for what they want. For them favourable circumstance is everything.

Wentworth could ride four and a half miles down a picturesque lane to see Fay. But he could not have taken a journey by rail.

A few years before Wentworth met Fay he had been tepidly interested in the youthful sister of one of his college friends and contemporaries, an Oxford Don at whose house he stayed every year. The sister kept house for her brother. It was the usual easy commonplace combination of circumstances that has towed lazy men into marriage since the institution was first formed. He saw her without any effort on his part. He arrived at a kind of knowledge of her. He found her to be what he liked. She was sympathetic, refined, shy, cultivated, unselfish, and of a wild rose prettiness. After a time he kept up, mainly on her account, a regular intercourse with the brother, who was becoming rather prosy, as was Wentworth himself. Presently the brother married, and the sister ceased to live with him.

Wentworth's visits to Oxford gradually ceased to give him pleasure. He found his friend's wife middle-class, self-absorbed, and artificial, the friend himself donnish, cut and dried, and liable to anecdotic seizures of increasing frequency. The intimacy dwindled and was now moribund. But it never entered his mind to enquire into the whereabouts of the sister, and to continue his acquaintance with her independently. If he had continued to meet her regularly he would almost certainly have married her. She on her side seemed well disposed towards him. As it was he never saw her again. He gradually ceased to think of her, except on summer evenings, as a charming possibility which Fate had sternly removed, as one lost to him for ever. He wrote a little poem about her, beginning, "Where are you now?" (She was at Kensington all the time.) Wentworth never published his verses. He said there was no room for a new poet who did not advertise himself. There had been room for one of his college friends, but that had been a case of log rolling.

I do not know whether it was a fortunate or an unfortunate fate that had prevented the gay little lady of the pink cheeks from being at that moment installed at Barford as the wife of a poet who scorned publicity.

If Wentworth had been riding home to his wife on that February evening he would not have taken unconsciously another of the many steps which entailed so many more, by saying to himself, thinking of Fay:

"Could a woman like that love a second time?"

Then he hastened his speed as he remembered that his old friend the Bishop of Lostford had by this time arrived at Barford.



CHAPTER XI

If you feel no love, sit still; occupy yourself with things, with yourself, with anything you like, only not with men.

—TOLSTOY.

In Wentworth's youth he had been attracted towards many, besides the Bishop, among the bolder and less conventional of his contemporaries. Their fire, their energies, their enthusiasm, warmed his somewhat under-vitalized nature. He regarded himself as one of them, and his refinement and distinction drew the robuster spirits towards himself. But gradually, as time went on, these energies and enthusiasm took form, and, alas! took forms which he had not expected—he never expected anything—and from which his mind instinctively recoiled. He had supposed that energy was energy. He had not realised that it was life in embryo, that might develop, not always on lines of beauty, into a new policy, or a great discovery, or a passion, or a vocation. He hated transformations, new births, all change. His friends at first rallied him unmercifully, then lost patience, and finally fell from him, one by one. Some openly left him, the more good-natured among them forgot him, and if by chance they found themselves in his society, hurried back with affectionate cordiality to reminiscences of school and college life, long-passed milestones before the parting of the ways.

The Bishop when he plunged into his work also for a time lost sight of Wentworth, but when he was appointed to the See of Lostford, within five miles of Barford, the two men resumed, at first with alacrity, something of the old intercourse.

Wentworth had an element of faithfulness in him which enabled him to take up a friendship after a long interval, but it was on one condition, namely that the friend had remained plante la where he had been left. If in the meanwhile the friend had moved, the friendship flagged.

It was soon apparent that the Bishop had not by any means remained plante la, and the friendship quickly drooped. It would long since have died a natural death if it had not been kept alive by the Bishop himself, a man of robust affections and strong compassions, without a moment to spend on small resentments. After Michael's imprisonment he had redoubled his efforts to keep in touch with Wentworth, and the great grief of the latter, silently and nobly endured, had been a bond between the two men which even a miserable incident which must have severed most friendships had served to loosen, not to break.

The Bishop had in truth arrived at Barford, and was now sitting apparently unoccupied by the library fire. To be unoccupied even for an instant except during recuperative sleep was so unusual with the Bishop, so unprecedented, that his daughter would have been terrified could she have seen him at that moment. He had only parted from her and her husband at mid-day, yet it was a sudden thought suggested by his visit to them which was now holding him motionless by the fire, his lean person bulging with unanswered letters.

The Bishop was a small ugly man of fifty, unconventional to the core, the younger son of a duke, and a clergyman by personal conviction. He had been born in a hurry, and had remained in a hurry ever since. He had neither great administrative capacities, nor profound scholarship, but what powers he had were eked out by a stupendous energy. His Archbishop said that he believed that the Bishop's chaplains died like flies, and that he merely threw their dead bodies into the Loss, which flowed beneath his palace windows, without even a burial service. His chaplains and secretaries certainly worked themselves to the bone for him. They could have told tales against him, but they never did. For it was a strain to serve the Bishop, to get his robes thrown over him at the right—I mean the last—second, to thrust him ruthlessly into his carriage just in time to catch the tail ends of departing trains—he generally travelled with the guard. His admirable life had been spent in a ceaseless whirl. He had never had time to marry. He had hurried to the altar when he was an eager curate with a pretty young bride who was a stranger to him, whom his mother had chosen for him. During the years that followed what little he saw of her at odd moments he liked. After ten years of what he believed to be married life she died, leaving one child; tactful to the last, pretty to the last, having made no claim from first to last, kissing his hand, and thanking him for his love, and for the beautiful years they had spent together.

His friends said that he bore her loss with heroism, but in reality he missed her but little. Her death occurred just after he had become an ardent suffragan. His daughter grew up in a few minutes, and quickly took her mother's place. She was her mother over again in character and appearance. His wife had lived in his house for ten years, his daughter for twenty. By dint of time he learned to know her as he had never known her mother. At twenty she married his chaplain.

The chaplain was a tall, stooping, fleckless, flawless, mannerless, joyless personage, middle-aged at twenty-eight, with a voice like a gong, with a metallic mind constructed of thought-tight compartments, devoted body and soul to the Church, an able and indefatigable worker, smelted from the choice ore of that great middle class from which, as we know, all good things come. That he was a future ornament, or at any rate an iron girder of the Church was sufficiently obvious.

The Bishop saw his worth, and ruefully endured him until the chaplain, in the most suitable language, desired to become his son-in-law, and that at the most inconceivably awkward moment, namely, just when the Bishop had presented him with a living. The marriage had to be. The daughter wished it with an intensity that amazed her father. And gradually the Bishop discovered that he detested his paragon of a son-in-law. But why? It was not jealousy. He really was a paragon, not a sham. To the Bishop it seemed, and with truth, that any other woman would have done as well as his daughter, that her husband neither understood her nor wished to understand her, that he accepted ruthlessly without knowing that he accepted it, her selfless devotion, that he used her as a cushion to make his rare moments of leisure more restful, that her love was not even a source of happiness to him, only a solace. And she, extraordinary to behold, was radiantly content.

"Just like her mother over again," the Bishop had wrathfully said to himself as he drove away from his daughter's door. And at that moment a slide was drawn back from his mind, and he saw that the marriage was a replica of his own, except in so far that his son-in-law, greatly assisted by circumstances, had actually taken a little trouble to arrange his marriage for himself, while the Bishop's—what there was of it—had been done for him by his mother.

Till this morning he had believed his marriage to have been an ideally happy one, that he had felt all that man can feel; and he had been inclined to treat as womanish the desperate desolation of men who had after all only suffered the same bereavement as he had himself, and which he had quickly overcome. He saw now that he had missed happiness exactly as his son-in-law was missing it. The same thing had befallen them both. Love could do there no mighty works because of their unbelief. When he remembered his wife's face he realised that her joy had been something beyond his ken. He had not shared it. He had not known love, even when it had drawn very nigh unto him.

As he waited motionless for Wentworth to come in, his strong, intrepid mind worked. The Bishop at fifty went to school to a new thought. It was that power of going to school at fifty to a new thought which had made his Archbishop, who loved him, give him the See of Lostford, to the amazement of the demurer clergy who were scandalised by his unconventionality, and his fearful baldness of speech. They could only account for the appointment by the fact that he was the son of a duke. It was that power which made the Bishop seem a much younger man than Wentworth, who was in reality ten years his junior. The Bishop was still a learner. He still moved with vigour mentally. Wentworth, on the contrary, had arrived—not at any place in particular, but at the spot where he intended to remain. His ideas, and some of them had been rather good ones at twenty-five, had suffered from their sedentary existence. They had become rather stout. He called them progressive because in the course of years he had perceived in them a slight glacier-like movement. To others they appeared fixed.

Wentworth's attitude towards life, of which he was so fond of speaking, was perhaps rather like that of a shrimper who, in ankle-deep water, watches the heavily freighted whale boats come towering in. He does not quite know why he, of all men, with his special equipment for the purpose, and his expert handling of the net, does not also catch whales. That they seldom swim in two-inch water does not occur to him. At last he does not think there are any whales. He has exploded that fallacy. For, in a moment of adventurous enthusiasm, counting not the cost, did he not once wade recklessly up to his very shoulders in deep water: and there were no whales,—only pinching crabs. Crabs were the one real danger, the largest denizens of the boundless main, whatever his former playmates the whalers might affirm.

When the shrimper and the whaler had dined together, and the Bishop had heard with affectionate sympathy the little there was to hear respecting Michael, and the conversation tended towards more general topics, the radical antagonism between the two friends' minds threatened every moment to make itself felt.

The Bishop tried politics somewhat tentatively, on which they had sympathised in college days, but it seemed they had widely diverged since. Wentworth, though he frequently asserted that no one enjoyed more than he "the clashing of opposite opinions," seemed nevertheless only able to welcome with cordiality a mild disagreement, just sufficiently defined to prove stimulating to the expression of his own views. A wide divergence from them he met with a chilly silence. He did so now. The Bishop looked at his neat ankle, and changed the subject.

"Have you seen or heard anything of Everard Constable since he came into his kingdom, such a very unexpected kingdom, too?"

"No. I fancy he is still abroad. But I can't say that for some time past I have found Constable's aims in life very sympathetic. His unceasing struggle after literary fame appears to me somewhat undignified."

"Oh! come. Give the devil his due. Constable can write."

"Of course, of course. That is just what I am saying. But he and I differ too widely in our outlook on life to remain really intimate. He cares for the big things, ambition, popularity, a prominent position, luxury. He will enjoy being a personage, and having wealth at his command. For my part, I am afraid I care infinitely more for the small things of life, love, friendship, sympathy."

"The small things! Good Lord!" said the Bishop, and his jaw dropped. He also dropped the subject.

"I ran up against Grenfell last week," he continued immediately. "Do you see him now? You and he used to be inseparable at Cambridge."

Wentworth became frigid.

Grenfell had accused him at their last meeting of being an old maid, an accusation which had wounded Wentworth to the quick, and which he had never forgotten or forgiven. He had not in the least realised that Grenfell was not alluding to the fact that he happened to be unmarried.

"I can't say I care to see him now," he said. "He has become entirely engrossed in his career. A simple life like mine, the life of thought, no longer interests him. He is naturally drawn to people who are playing big parts."

"What nonsense! He is just the same as ever. A little vehement and fiery, but not as much as he was. They say he will be the next Chancellor of the Exchequer to a certainty."

"I daresay he will. He has the art of keeping himself before the public eye. Being myself so constituted—it is not any virtue in me, only a constitutional defect—that I cannot elbow for a place, it is difficult for me to understand how another, especially a man like Grenfell, can bring himself to do so. I had always thought he was miles above that kind of thing."

"So he is. So he is. A blind man can see Grenfell's unworldliness. It sticks a yard out of him. My dear Wentworth, if energetic elbows were, as you imply, the key to success, how do you account for the fact that hundreds of painful persons have triumphantly passed that preliminary examination who never achieve anything beyond a diploma in the art of pushing?"

Wentworth did not answer.

He firmly believed that in order to attain the things he had not attained, had never striven for, of which he invariably spoke disparagingly, but which he secretly and impotently desired, the co-operation of certain ignoble qualities was essential, sordid allies whom he would have disdained to use.

"I don't blame Grenfell," he said at last. "He had his way to make. I know how blinding the glamour of ambition is, how insidious and insistent the claims of the world may become. I don't pretend to be superior to certain temptations if they came in my way. But I happen to have kept out of their way. That is all."

"You have certainly kept out of the way of—nearly everything."

"For my part, I daresay I am hopelessly out of date, but I value beauty and peace and simplicity higher than a noisy success. But a noisy success is the one thing that counts nowadays."

"Does it?"

"And Grenfell has taken the right steps to gain it. If a man craves for popularity, if he really thinks the bubble worth striving for, he must lay himself out for it. If he wants a place he must jostle for it. If he wants power he must discard scruples. If he wants social success it can be got—we see it every day—by pandering to the susceptibilities and seeking the favour of influential persons. Everything has its price. I don't say that everyone obtains these things who is ready to bid for them. But some do. Grenfell is among those who have. I don't blame him. I am not sure that I don't rather envy him."

The Bishop could respect a conviction.

"Are you not forgetting Grenfell's character?" he said gently, as one speaks to a sick man. "Think of him, his nobility, his integrity, his enthusiasm, his transparent unworldliness which so often in the old days put us all to shame!"

"That is just what makes it all so painful to me," said Wentworth, and there was no possibility of doubting his sincerity. "That contact with the world can taint even beautiful natures like his. He was my ideal at one time. I almost worshipped him at Cambridge."

"I love him still," said the Bishop. "A cat may look at a king, so I suppose a poor crawler of a bishop may look at a man like Grenfell. Don't you think, Wentworth, that sometimes a man who succeeds may have worked as nobly as a man who fails—you always speak so feelingly of failure, it is one of the many things I like about you. Don't you think that perhaps sometimes success may be—I don't say it always is—as high-minded as failure, that a hard-won victory may be as honourable as defeat, that achievement may sometimes be the result not of chance or interest, but of unremitting toil? Don't you think you may be unconsciously cutting yourself adrift from Grenfell's friendship by attributing his success to unworthy means which a man like him could never have stooped to?"

"It is he who has cut himself adrift from me," said Wentworth icily. "I have not changed."

"That is just it. A slight change, shall we say expansion on your part, might have enabled you to"—the Bishop chose his words as carefully as a doctor counts drops into a medicine glass—"to keep pace with him?"

"I do not regard friendship as a race or a combat of wits," said Wentworth. "Friendship is to my mind something sacred. I hope I can remain Grenfell's friend without believing him to be absolutely faultless. If he is so unreasonable as to expect that of me, which I should not for a moment expect of him, why then——" Wentworth shrugged his shoulders.

One of the few friends who had not drifted from him looked at him with somewhat pained affection.

Why does a life dwelt apart from others tend to destroy first generosity and then tenderness in man and woman? Why does one so often find a certain hardness and inhumanity encrusting those who have withdrawn themselves behind the shutters of their own convenience, or is it, after all, their own impotence?

"Has he always been hard and cold by nature?" said the Bishop to himself, "and is the real man showing himself in middle age, or is his meagre life starving him?"

He tried again.

"You nearly lost my friendship a year ago by attributing a sordid motive to me, Wentworth."

Wentworth understood instantly.

"That is all past and forgotten," he said quickly. "I never think of it. Have I ever allowed it to make the slightest difference?"

"No," said the Bishop, looking hard at him, "and for that matter neither have I. We have never talked the matter out. Let us do so now. I don't suppose you have forgotten the odium I incurred over the living of Rambury. It had been held for generations by old men. It had become a kind of clerical almshouse. When it fell vacant there was of course yet another elderly cleric——"

"My uncle," said Wentworth, "a most excellent man."

"Just so, but in failing health. Rightly or wrongly I was convinced that it was my duty to give the place a chance by putting there a younger man, of energy and capacity for hard work. I gave it to my future son-in-law as you know."

Wentworth nodded. "Everyone said at the time he was an excellent man," he said with evident desire to be fair.

"I daresay, but that is not the point. The point is that I had no idea that iron traction engine wanted to marry my daughter or anybody's daughter. The tactless beast got up steam and proposed for her the day after I had offered him the living. He had never given so much as a preliminary screech on the subject, never blown a horn to show what his horrid intentions were—I only hope that if I had known I should still have had the moral courage to appoint him. The Archbishop assures me I should—but I doubt it. I was loudly accused of nepotism, of course. Your uncle, who died soon afterwards, forgave me in the worst of taste on his deathbed. I had no means of justifying myself. The Archbishop and Grenfell and a few other old friends believed. Why were you not among those old friends, Wentworth?"

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