Wentworth felt that it was time Fay made more acquaintance with his mind, and he proceeded without haste, but without undue delay to indicate to her portions of his own attitude towards life, his point of view on various subjects. All the sentiments which must infallibly have lowered him in the eyes of a shrewder woman he spread before her with childish confidence. He gave her of his best. He expressed a hope that he did not abuse for his own selfish gratification his power of entering swiftly into intimacy with his fellow creatures. He alluded to his own freedom from ambition, his devotion—unlike other men—to the small things of life, love, friendship, etc.: we know the rest. Wentworth had been struck by that sentence when he first said it to the Bishop, and he repeated it now. Fay thought it very beautiful. She proved a more sympathetic listener than the Bishop.
I don't know whether like Mrs. Mouse she did not listen to all Mr. Mouse said. But at any rate she noticed for the first time how lightly Wentworth walked, how square his shoulders were, and the beauty of his brown thin hand upon the bridle; and through her mind a little streak of vanity came back to the surface, momentarily buried under the debris of last night's emotion. Wentworth was interested in her. He admired her. He did not know anything uncomfortable about her—as Magdalen did. He thought a great deal of her. It was nice to be with a person who thought highly of one. It had been a relief to meet him. How well he talked! What a wide-minded, generous man!
The gate into the gardens must have been hurrying towards them, it was reached so soon. Wentworth, after a momentary surprise at beholding it, stopped the cob, and helped Fay with extreme care to the ground. One of Fay's attractions was her appearance of great fragility. Men felt instinctively that with the least careless usage she might break in two. She must be protected, cheered, have everything made smooth for her. She was in reality much stronger than many of her taller, more robust-looking sisters, who, whether wives or spinsters, if they required assistance, had to look for it in quinine. An uneasy jealousy of Fay led Lady Blore frequently to point out that Fay was always well enough to do what she wanted. Aunt Mary's own Roman nose and stalwart figure warded off from her the sympathy to which her severe cramps undoubtedly entitled her.
"When shall I see you again?" said Wentworth, suddenly realising that the good hour was over.
Fay did not answer. She was confused. A very delicate colour flew to her cheek.
Wentworth, reddening under his tan, said: "Perhaps Pilgrim Road is a favourite walk of yours?"
"Yes. I often go there in the afternoon."
"I have to pass that way, too, most days," he said. "It is a short cut to Lostford."
He had forgotten that an hour before he had announced that he seldom used that particular path. It did not matter, for Fay had not noticed the contradiction any more than he did. Fay was easy to get on with because she never compared what anyone said one day with what they said the next. She never would feel the doubts, the perplexities that keener minds had had to fight against in dealing with him.
For the first time she looked at his receding figure with a sense of regret and loss.
Magdalen was in the house waiting to give her her tea, dear Magdalen who was so good, and so safe, such a comforter—but who knew. Fay shrank back instinctively as she neared the house, and then crept upstairs to her own room, and had tea there.
* * * * *
Wentworth rode home feeling younger that he had done for years. What is thirty-nine? No age for a thin man. (He was in reality nearly forty-one.) He was pleased with himself. How quaintly amusing he had been about the mouse. He regretted, not for the first time, that he did not write novels, for little incidents like that, which the conventional mind of the ordinary novelist was incapable of perceiving, would intertwine charmingly with a love scene. The small service he had rendered Fay linked itself to a wish to do something more for her—he did not know exactly what—but something larger than to-day. Any fool, any bucolic squireen, could have given her a lift home on a cob. He would like to do something which another person could not do, something which would cheer her, console her, and at the same time place him in a magnanimous light.
We all long for an opportunity to act with generosity and tenderness to the one we love. We need not trouble ourselves to seek for such an occasion, for though many things fail us in this life the opportunity so to act has never yet failed to arrive, and has never arrived alone, always hand in hand with some prosaic hideously difficult circumstance, which, if we are of an artistic temperament, may appear to us too ugly.
Wentworth had never wished to do anything for the gay little lady who, a few years ago, had crossed his path. The principal subject of his cogitations about her had been whether she would be able to adapt herself to him and his habits, to understand his many-sided wayward nature, and to add permanently to his happiness; or whether, on the contrary, she might not prove a bar to his love of solitude, a drag on his soaring spirit. So I think we may safely conclude that his feelings for her had not gone to breakneck length. But the germ in his mind of compassionate protection and instinctive desire to help Fay had in it the possibility of growth, of some expansion. And what other feeling in Wentworth's clean, well-regulated, sterilized mind had shown any power of growth?
The worst of growth is that a small acorn does not grow into a large acorn as logical persons expect. It ought to, but it does not. It grows instead into something quite unrecognisable from its small beginnings, something for which, perhaps, beyond a certain stage, there is no room,—not even a manger.
Those who love must discard much. Wentworth had not yet felt the need of discarding anything, and he had not the smallest intention of doing so. He intended instead to make a small ornamental addition, a sort of portico, to his life. His mind had got itself made up this afternoon, and he contemplated the proposed addition with some complacency as already made.
There is, I believe, a method of planting an acorn in a bottle, productive of the happiest results—for those who love small results. You only give the acorn a little water every day,—no soil of course. The poor thing will push up a thin twig of stem through the bottle neck, and in time will unfold a few real oak leaves. Men like Wentworth would always prefer the acorn to remain an acorn, but if it shews signs of growth, some of them are wise enough, take alarm early enough, to squeeze it quickly down a bottle neck before it has expanded too much to resist the passage.
Had Fate in store for Wentworth a kinder, sterner destiny than that, or would she allow him to stultify himself, to mutilate to his own convenience a great possibility?
Look through a keyhole, and your eye will be sore.
During the weeks which followed Fay's confession Magdalen became aware that she watched her, and aware also that she avoided her, was never alone with her if she could help it.
At this time Fay began to do many small kindnesses, and to talk much of the importance of work for others, of the duty of taking an interest in our fellow creatures. This was a new departure. She had not so far evinced the faintest interest in the dull routine of home duties which are of the nature of kindnesses, and had often reproached Magdalen for spending herself in them. To play halma with zest all the evening with a parent who must always win, to read the papers to him by the hour, not while he listened, but while he slept—Fay scorned these humble efforts of Magdalen's. She shewed no disposition to emulate them; but she did shew a feverish tendency towards isolated acts of benevolence outside the home life, which precluded any claim upon her by arousing a hope of their continuance, which tied her to nothing. Fay began to send boxes of primroses to hospitals, to knit stockings for orphans, to fatigue herself with enormous walks over the downs with illustrated papers for the Saundersfoot work-house.
It was inevitable at this juncture that she should feel some shocked surprise at the supineness of those around her. Her altruistic efforts were practically single-handed. She had hoped that when she inaugurated them, Magdalen at any rate would have followed suit, would have worked cheerfully under her direction. But Magdalen, whose serene cheerfulness had flagged of late, fell painfully below her sister's expectation. Fay came to the conclusion that it was more lack of imagination than callousness on her sister's part which held her back.
Many careworn souls besides Fay have discovered that the irritable exhaustion, the continual ache of egotism can be temporarily relieved by taking an inexpensive interest in others. The remedy is cheap and efficacious, and it is a patent. Like Elliman applied to a rheumatic shoulder it really does do good—I mean to the owner of the shoulder. And you can stop rubbing the moment you are relieved. Perhaps these external remedies are indispensable to the comfort of those who dwell by choice, like Fay, in low-lying swampy districts, and have no thought of moving to higher ground.
Magdalen knew these signs, and sometimes her heart sank.
Was Fay unconsciously turning aside to busy herself over little things that were not required of her, in order to shut her eyes to the one thing needful—a great act of reparation?
If Fay was watching Magdalen, someone else was watching Fay. Bessie's round, hard, staring eyes were upon her, and if Bessie did anything she did it to some purpose.
One afternoon in the middle of April Bessie came into Magdalen's sitting room and sat down with an air of concentration.
"I have reason to be deeply ashamed of myself," she said. "I am ashamed of myself. If I tell you about it it is not in order that you may weakly condone and gloss over my conduct."
Magdalen reflected that Bessie had inherited her father's graceful way of approaching a difficulty by finding a preliminary fault in his listener.
Bessie shut her handsome mouth firmly for a moment, and then opened it with determination.
"I thought that whatever faults I had I was at any rate a lady, but I find I am not. I discovered something by the merest chance a short time ago, and since then, for the last fortnight I have been acting in a dishonourable and vulgar manner, in short, spying upon another person."
"That must have made you miserable."
"It has. I am miserable. But I deserve that. I did not come to talk about that. The point is this——"
"Bessie, I don't want to hear what you evidently ought not to know."
"Yes, you must, because someone else needs your advice."
"We won't trouble our minds about the someone else."
Bessie had, however, inherited another characteristic trait of her father's. She could ignore when she chose. She chose now.
"I may as well put you in possession of the facts," she continued. "A few weeks ago I was coming home by Pilgrim Road. I was not hurrying because I was struck, as I always am struck—I don't suppose I am peculiar in this—by the first appearance of spring. Pilgrim Road is a sheltered place. Spring always comes early there."
"I will even add that I was recalling to myself verses of poetry connected with the time of year, when I saw a couple in front of me. They were walking very slowly with their backs towards me, taking earnestly together. They were Fay and Wentworth."
Magdalen made no movement, but her face, always pale, became suddenly ashen grey.
If Fay were seriously attracted by Wentworth would she ever confess, ever release Michael!
"There was no harm in their walking together," she said tremulously.
"There was one harm in it," retorted Bessie. "It made me so angry that I did not know how to live. They did not see me, and I struck up into the wood, and I had to stay an hour by myself holding on to a little tree, before I could trust myself to come home."
"It does not help matters to be angry, Bessie. I was angry once for two years. I said at the time like Jonah that I did well, but I see now that I might have done better."
"I don't particularly care what helps matters and what does not. I now come to my own disgraceful conduct. I have spied upon Fay steadily for the last fortnight. She is so silly she never even thinks she is watched. And she meets Wentworth in Pilgrim Road nearly every afternoon. I once waylaid her as if by accident, on her way home, and asked her where she had been, and she said she had been on her way to Arleigh wood, but had not got so far, as she was too tired. Too tired! She had been walking up and down with Wentworth for over an hour. I timed them. She never meant to go to Arleigh wood. And when they said Good-bye, he—he kissed her hand. Since Fay has come back to live here I have gradually formed the meanest opinion of her. She is not truthful. She is not sincere. She is absolutely selfish. I was inclined to be sorry for her at first, but I soon saw through her. She did not really care for Andrea. She only pretended. Everything she does is a kind of pretty pretence. She does not really care for Wentworth. She is only leading him on for her own amusement."
"I think it is much more likely that she is drifting towards marriage with him without being fully aware of what she is doing. But women like you and me are not in the same position towards men as Fay is. Consequently it is very difficult for us to judge her fairly."
"I don't know what you mean."
"You and I are not attractive to men. Fay is. You saw Wentworth kiss her hand. You naturally infer, but you are probably wrong, that Fay had been leading him on, as you call it."
"It will take a good deal to disabuse me of that at any rate. I believe my own eyes."
"I should not if I were you. If anyone kissed your hand or mine it would not only be an epoch in our lives, but also the sign manual of some ponderous attachment which you, my dear, would carefully weigh, and approximately value. But do you suppose for one moment that Fay attaches any importance to such an everyday occurrence!"
"I see what you are driving at, that Fay is not responsible for her actions. But she is. She must know when she does things or lets them be done, that will make others suffer."
"If you could look into Fay's heart, Bessie, you would find that Fay is suffering herself and attributing her pain to others. As long as we do that, as long as we hold the stick by the wrong end, we must inflict pain in some form or other. Fay is not happy. You cannot look at her without seeing it."
"I would not mind so much if it were not for Wentworth," said Bessie with dreadful courage. "I know it is partly jealousy, but it is not only jealousy. There are a few crumbs of unselfishness in it. I thought at first—I reasoned it out with myself and it appeared a logical conclusion—that father was the ostensible but not the real object of Wentworth's frequent visits. I took a great interest in his conversation; it is so lucid, so well informed, so illuminative. I do not read novels as a rule, but I dipped into a few, studying the love scenes, and the preliminary approaches to love scenes in order to aid my inexperience at this juncture. I am sorry to say I fell into the error that he might possibly reciprocate the growing interest I felt in him, in spite of the great disparity in age. It was a mistake. I have suffered for it."
The two roses of Bessie's cheeks bloomed on as unflinchingly as ever.
Magdalen's eyes were fixed on her own hands.
"You would not have suited each other if he had cared for you," she said after a moment, "for you would not have done him justice when you got to know him better, any more than you do Fay justice now that you do know her better. Wentworth is made of words, just as other men are made of flesh and blood. How would you have kept any respect for him when you had become tired of words? You are too straightforward, too sledge-hammer to understand a character like his."
"In that case Fay ought to suit him," said Bessie grimly. "No one, not even you, can call her straightforward. But I begin to think, Magdalen, that you actually wish for the marriage."
"I had never thought of it as possible on her side until a few minutes ago, when what you said took me by surprise. Of course I had noticed the attraction on his side, but it appeared to me he was irresolute and timid, and it is better to ignore the faint emotions of half-hearted people. They come to no good. If you repel them they are mortally offended and withdraw, and if you welcome them they are terrified and withdraw."
"I don't think Wentworth intends withdrawing."
"No. These meetings look as if he had unconsciously drifted with the current till the rowing back would be somewhat arduous." There was a moment's silence, in which Magdalen recalled certain lofty sentiments which Wentworth had aired with suspicious frequency of late. She knew that when he talked of his consciousness of guidance by a Higher Power in the important decisions of his life he always meant following the line of least resistance. In this case the line of least resistance might tend towards marriage.
"It never struck me as possible till now," she said aloud, "that Fay would think seriously of him."
"I don't suppose she is. She is only keeping her hand in. Don't you remember how cruel she was to that poor Mr. Bell."
"I am convinced that she is not keeping her hand in."
"Then you actually favour the idea of a marriage." Bessie got up and stalked slowly to the door. "You will help it on?" she said over her shoulder.
"No." Magdalen's voice shook a little. "I will do nothing to help it, or to hinder it."
The dawn broke dim on Rose Mary's soul— No hill-crown's heavenly aureole, But a wild gleam on a shaken shoal.
—D. G. ROSSETTI.
If Fay's progress through life could have been drawn with a pencil it would have resembled the ups and downs, like the teeth of a saw, of a fever chart.
To Magdalen it appeared as if Fay could undergo the same feelings with the same impotent results of remorse or depression a hundred times. They seemed to find her the same and leave her the same. But nevertheless she did move, imperceptibly, unconsciously—no, not quite unconsciously. The sense—common to all weak natures—not of being guided, but of being pushed was upon her.
Once again she tried to extricate herself from the pressure of some mysterious current. There seemed no refuge left in Magdalen. There seemed very few comfortable people left in the world, to whom a miserable woman might turn. Only Wentworth. He did not know.
Perhaps Fay would never have turned to him if she had not first confided in and then shrunk from Magdalen. For the second time in her life she longed feverishly to get away from home, the home to which only a year ago she had been so glad to hurry back, when she had been so restlessly anxious to get away from Italy. Wentworth was beginning to look like a means of escape. The duke had at one time worn that aspect. Later on Michael had looked extremely like it for a moment. Now Wentworth was assuming that aspect in a more solid manner than either of his predecessors. She was slipping into love with him, half unconsciously, half with malice prepense. She told herself continually that she did not want to marry him or anyone, that she hated the very idea of marriage.
But her manner to Wentworth seemed hardly to be the outward reflection of these inward communings. And why did she conceal from Magdalen her now constant meetings with him?
Wentworth had by this time tested and found correct all his intimate knowledge of Woman, that knowledge which at first had not seemed to work out quite smoothly.
Nothing could be more flattering, more essentially womanly than Fay's demeanour to him had become since he had set her mind at rest as to his intentions on that idyllic afternoon after the storm. (How he had set her mind at rest on that occasion he knew best.) It seemed this exquisite nature only needed the sunshine of his unspoken assurance to respond with delighted tenderness to his refined, his cultured advances. He was already beginning to write imaginary letters to his friends, on the theme of his engagement: semi-humourous academic effusions as to how he, who had so long remained immune, had succumbed at last to feminine charm; how he, the determined celibate—Wentworth always called himself a celibate—had been taken captive after all. To judge by the letters which Wentworth conned over in his after-dinner mind, and especially one to Grenfell, the conclusion was irresistible to the meanest intellect that he had long waged a frightful struggle with the opposite sex to have remained a bachelor—a celibate, I mean—so long.
We have all different ways of enjoying ourselves. In the composition of these imaginary letters Wentworth tasted joy.
* * * * *
In these days Fay's boxes of primroses jostled each other in the postman's cart, on their way to cheer patients on their beds of pain in London hospitals.
Fay read the hurried, grateful notes of busy matrons, over and over again. They were a kind of anodyne.
On a blowing afternoon in the middle of April she made her way across the down with her basket to a distant hazel coppice to which she had not been as yet.
A fever of unrest possessed her. She had thought when she confessed to Magdalen that her misery had reached its lowest depths. But it had not been so. Her wretchedness, momentarily relieved, had since gone a step deeper, that was all. She had endeavoured to allay her thirst with a cup of salt water, which had only increased it to the point of agony.
As she walked a bare tree stretched out its naked arms to waylay her. It was the very tree under which Michael and she had kissed each other, six spring-tides ago. She recognised it suddenly, and turned her eyes away, as if a corpse were hanging in chains from one of its branches. Her averted eyes fell upon a seagull wheeling against the blue, the incarnation of freedom and the joy of life. She turned away her eyes again and hurried on, looking neither to right nor left.
A light wind went with her, drawing her like a "kind constraining hand."
She stumbled across the bare shoulder of the down to the wood below.
Magdalen came by the same way soon afterwards, but not to gather primroses. Magdalen usually so serene was becoming daily more troubled. The thought of Michael in prison ground her to the earth. Fay's obvious wayward misery, which yet seemed to bring her no nearer to repentance, preyed upon her. She was crushed beneath her own promise of secrecy. Every day as it passed seemed to cast yet another stone on the heap under which she lay.
Could she dare to keep that promise? How much longer could she dare to keep it? And yet if she broke it, what would breaking it avail? Certainly not Michael's release. No creature would believe her unsupported word. She had not even been in Italy at the time. She would only appear to be mad. The utmost she might achieve would be to cast a malignant shadow over her sister. Even if Fay herself confessed the difficulties of obtaining Michael's release after this lapse of time would be very great. Unless the confession came from her they would be insuperable.
As Magdalen walked her strong heart quailed within her. Long ago in her passionate youth she had met anguish and had vanquished it alone. But how to bear the burden of another's sin without sharing the sin? How to help Fay and Michael? Fay had indeed cast her burden upon her. She knew not how to endure it, she who had endured so much.
She reached the wood, and entered one of the many aimless paths that wandered through it. The uneven ground sloped downwards to the south, and through the manifold branches of the undergrowth of budding hazels the sea lay deeply blue, far away. The primroses were everywhere among the trees. A winding side path beckoned to her. She walked a few steps along it, and came suddenly upon a clearing in the coppice.
She stood still, dazed.
The primroses had taken it for their own, had laid tender hold upon that little space, cleared and forgotten in the heart of the wood.
Young shoots of hazel and ash pricked up here and there from ivy-grown stumps, moss gleamed where it could, through the flood of primroses. The wild green of the mercury, holding its strong shield to the sun, the violets, and the virgin white of the anemones were drowned in the uneven waves and billows and shallows of that sea of primroses. They who come in meekness year by year to roadside hedgerow and homely meadow had come in power. The meek had inherited the earth.
The light wind impotently came, and vainly went. Overhead a lark sang and sang in the blue. But none heeded them. The wind and the song were but a shadow and an echo. They that are the very core of spring hung forgotten on her garments' fringe. All the passion of the world was gathered into the still, upturned faces of the primroses, glowing with a pale light from within. All the love that ever had been, or could be, all rapture of aspiration and service and self-surrender were mirrored there.
* * * * *
Magdalen wept for Fay, as once in bygone years she had wept for Everard: as perhaps some woman of Palestine may have wept when Jesus of Nazareth passed by, speaking as never man spake, and her lover went with him a little way and then turned back.
* * * * *
"There is no sorrow," said the primroses. "There is neither sorrow nor sin. You are of one blood with us. You have come through into light, as we have done, and those others are coming, too. There is no sorrow, only a little pressure through the brown earth. There is no sin, only a little waking and stirring in the dark. Why then grieve, oh little faith! They are all waking and coming. For the Hand that made us made them. The Whisper that waked us, wakes them. The Sun that draws us, draws them. The Sun will have us come."
* * * * *
Fay had already passed by that way, had picked a few primroses, and had gone on. Was she never to be at peace again? Was she never to know what it is to lie down in peace at night, never to know what it is to be without fear. Her whole soul yearned for peace, as the sick man yearns for sleep. Andrea had prayed that she might find peace. Magdalen had told her where peace lay. But all that she had found was despair.
On her way homewards she came again upon the clearing and stopped short. The place seemed to have undergone some subtle change. A tall figure was standing motionless in it. The face was turned away, but Fay recognised it instantly. As she came close Magdalen turned. For a moment Fay saw that she did not recognise her, that she was withdrawn into a great peace and light.
Then recognition dawned in Magdalen's eyes and with it came a look of tenderness unspeakable.
"Fay," she said in a great compassion. "How much longer will you torture yourself and Michael? How much longer will you keep him in prison?"
Fay was transfixed.
Those were the same words that Andrea had said on his deathbed. Those words were alive, though he was dead. Never to any living creature, not even to Magdalen, had she repeated them. Yet Magdalen was saying them. She could not withstand them any longer. The very stones would shriek them out next.
She fell at Magdalen's feet with a cry.
"I will speak," she gasped in mortal terror. "I will speak." And she clung for very life to her sister's knees, and hid her face in her gown.
To-day unbind the captive, So only are ye unbound.
The following afternoon saw Magdalen and Fay driving together to Lostford, to consult the Bishop as to what steps it would be advisable to take in the matter of Michael's release. Magdalen felt it would be well-nigh impossible to go direct to Wentworth, even if he had been at Barford. But he had been summoned to London the day before on urgent business. And with Fay even a day's delay might mean a change of mind. It was essential to act at once.
But to Magdalen's surprise Fay did not try to draw back. When the carriage came to the door she got into it. She assented to everything, was ready to do anything Magdalen told her. She was like one stunned. She had at last closed with the inevitable. She had found it too strong for her.
Did Fay realise how frightfully she had complicated her position by her own folly? She lay back in her corner of the brougham with her eyes shut, pallid, silent. Magdalen held her hand, and spoke encouragingly from time to time.
You had to be constantly holding Fay's hand, or kissing her, or taking her in your arms if you were to make her feel that you loved her. The one light austere touch, the long grave look, that between reserved and sympathetic natures goes deeper than any caress, were nothing to Fay.
It was a long drive to Lostford, and to-day it seemed interminable.
The lonely chalk road seemed to stretch forever across the down. Now and then a few heavily-matted, fatigued-looking sheep, hustled by able-bodied lambs, got in the way. The postman, horn on shoulder, passed them on his way to Priesthope with the papers.
Once a man on a horse cantered past across the grass at some distance. Magdalen recognised Wentworth on Conrad. She saw him turn into the bridle path that led to Priesthope. He had then just returned from London.
"He is on his way to see Fay," said Magdalen to herself, "and he is actually in a hurry. How interested he must be in the ardour of his own emotions at this moment. He will have a delightful ride, and he can analyse his feelings of disappointment at not seeing her, on his way home to tea."
Magdalen glanced at Fay, but she still lay back with closed eyes. She had not seen that passing figure.
Magdalen's mind followed Wentworth.
"Does she realise the complications that must almost certainly ensue with Wentworth directly her confession is made?
"Will her first step towards a truer life, her first action of reparation estrange him from her?"
* * * * *
The Bishop was pacing up and down in the library at Lostford, waiting for Magdalen and Fay, when the servant brought in the day's papers. He took them up instantly with the alertness of a man who can only make time for necessary things by seizing every spare moment.
"Oh! you two wicked women," he said as he opened the Times. "Why are you late? Why are you late?"
They were only five minutes late.
His swift eye travelled from column to column. Suddenly his attention was arrested. He became absorbed. Then he laid down the paper, and said below his breath "Thank God."
At that moment Magdalen and Fay were announced.
For a second it seemed as if the Bishop had forgotten them. Then he recollected and went forward to meet them. He knew that only a matter of supreme urgency could have made Magdalen word her telegram as she had worded it, and when he caught sight of Fay's face he realised that she was in jeopardy.
All other preoccupations fell from him instantly. He welcomed them gravely, almost in silence.
The sisters sat down close together on a sofa. Fay's trembling hand put up her long black veil, and then sought Magdalen's hand, which was ready for it.
There was a short silence. Magdalen looked earnestly at her sister.
Fay's face became suddenly convulsed.
"Fay is in great trouble," said Magdalen. "She has come to tell you about it. She has suffered very much."
"I can see that," said the Bishop.
"I wish to confess," said Fay in a smothered voice.
"That is a true instinct," said the Bishop. "God puts it into our hearts to confess when we are unhappy so that we may be comforted. When we come to see that we have done less well than we might have done—then we need comfort."
Fay looked from him to Magdalen with wide, hardly human eyes, like some tiny trapped animal between two executioners.
The Bishop's heart contracted.
Poor, poor little thing!
"Would you like to see me alone, my child?" he said, seeing a faint trembling like that of a butterfly beginning in her. "All you say to me will be under the seal of confession. It will never pass my lips."
It was Magdalen's turn to become pale.
"Shall I go?" she said, looking fixedly at her sister.
"Yes," said Fay, her eyes on the floor.
Magdalen went slowly to the door, feeling her way as if half blind.
"Come back," shrieked Fay suddenly. "Magdalen, come back. I shall never say it all, I shall keep back part unless you are there to hold me to it. Come back. Come back."
Magdalen returned and sat down. The Bishop watched them both in silence.
"I have confessed once, already," said Fay in a low hurried voice, "under the promise of silence. Magdalen promised not to say, and I told her everything, weeks ago. I thought I should feel better then, but it wasn't any good. It only made it worse."
"It is often like that," said the Bishop. "We try to do something right but not in the best way, and just the fact of trying shows us there is a better way—only harder, so hard we don't know how to bring ourselves to it. Isn't that what you feel?"
"But there is no rest, no peace till we come to it."
"No," whispered Fay. "Never any rest."
"That is God's Hand drawing you," said the Bishop, his mind seeming to embrace and support Fay's tottering soul. "There are things He wants done, which He needs us to do for Him, which perhaps only we can do for Him. At first we don't understand that, and we are so ignorant and foolish that we resist the pressure of His Hand. Then we suffer."
"That resistance is what some people call sin. It is unendurable, the only real anguish in the world. You see we are not meant to bear it. And it is no manner of use to resist Him, for God is stronger than we are, and He loves us too much ever to lose heart with us, ever to blame us, ever to leave us to ourselves. He sees we don't understand that He can't do without us, and that we can't do without Him. And at last, when we feel God's need of us, then it becomes possible"—the Bishop paused—"to say the difficult word, to do the difficult deed."
Did she understand? Who shall say! Sometimes it seems as if no actual word reaches us that Love would fain say to our unrest and misery. But our troubled hearts are nevertheless conscious by some other channel, some medium more subtle than thought and speech, that Love and Peace have drawn very near to us. It is only reflected dimly through dear human faces that some of us can catch a glimpse of "the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world."
The small tortured face relaxed between the two calm ones. The sunny room was quite still. Fear shrank to a shadow.
Suddenly the fire drew itself together with a little encouraging sound.
Fay started slightly, looked at it, and began to speak rapidly in a low clear voice.
As Magdalen listened she prayed with intensity that Fay might really tell the Bishop the whole story, as she had told it to herself, that stormy night in March, half a life-time ago.
The little voice went on and on. It faltered, sank, and then struggled up again. One point after another was reached in safety, was passed. Nothing that Fay had already admitted was left out. Gradually, as Magdalen listened, a faint shame laid hold of her. Her whole life had for the time centred in one passionate overwhelming desire that Fay should make to the Bishop as full a confession as she had made to herself. Now she realised that Fay was saying even more than she had done on that occasion, was excusing herself less, was blaming others less.
Fay herself saw no discrepancy between her first and second account of the tragedy. But then she never did see discrepancies. Her mind had shifted a little towards the subject, that was all. This mysterious unconscious shifting of the mind had been hidden from Magdalen, who had felt with anguish that all she had said on that night of the storm had had no effect on Fay's mind. She had never seen till now a vestige of an effect. Fay had shrunk from her persistently afterwards, that was all.
Strong and ardent souls often wonder why an appeal which they know, if made to themselves, would clinch them forever into a regenerating repentance is entirely powerless with a different class of mind. But although an irresistible truth spoken in love will renovate our being, and will fail absolutely to reach the mind of another, nevertheless the weaker, vainer nature will sometimes pick out of the uncomfortable appeal, to which it turns its deaf ear, a few phrases less distressing to its amour propre than the rest. To these it will listen. Fay had retained in her mind Magdalen's vivid description of the love her husband and Michael had borne her. She had often dwelt upon the remembrance that she had been greatly loved. During the miserable weeks when she had virtually made up her mind not to speak, that remembrance had worked within her like leaven, unconsciously softening her towards her husband, drawing her towards compassion on Michael.
Now that she did speak again she did not reproach them. She who had blamed them both so bitterly a few short weeks ago blamed them no longer. Nor did she say anything about the culpable silence of the real murderer. That mysterious criminal, that scapegoat who had so far aroused her bitterest animosity had ceased to darken her mind.
Fay had passed unconsciously far beyond the limitations of Magdalen's anxious prayer on her behalf. The love of Andrea and Michael, tardily seen, only partially realised, had helped her at last.
The Bishop listened and listened, a little bent forward, his eyes on the floor, his chin in his hand. Once he made a slight movement when Fay reached Michael's arrest, but he quickly recovered himself.
The faint voice faltered itself out at last. The story was at an end. The Duke was dead and Michael was in prison.
"I have kept him there two years," said Fay, and was silent.
How she had raged against the cruelty of her husband's dying words. What passionate, vindictive tears she had shed at the remembrance of them. Now, unconsciously, she adopted them herself. She had ceased to resist them, and the sting had gone clean out of them.
"Two years," said the Bishop. "Two years. Fast bound in misery and iron. You in misery and he only in iron. You two poor children."
His strong face worked, and for a moment he shaded it with his hand.
Then he looked keenly at Fay.
"And you have come to me to ask me to advise you how to set Michael and yourself free?"
"Yes," whispered Fay.
"It was time to come."
There was a short silence.
"And you understand, my dear, dear child, that you can only rescue Michael by taking heavy blame upon yourself, blame first of all for having a clandestine meeting with him, and then blame for letting him sacrifice himself for your good name, and lastly blame for keeping an innocent man in prison so long."
Fay shook like a leaf.
The Bishop took her lifeless hands in his, and held them. He made her meet his eyes. Stern, tender, unflinching eyes they were, with a glint of tears in them.
"You are willing to bear the cross, and endure the shame?" he said.
Two large tears gathered in Fay's wide eyes, and rolled down her bloodless cheeks.
You could not look at her, and think that the poor thing was willing to endure anything, capable of enduring anything.
The Bishop looked at her, through her.
"Or would you rather go home and wait in misery a little longer, and keep him in his cell a little longer: another week—another month—another year! You know best how much longer you can wait."
"And Michael can wait, too."
"Michael must come out," said Fay, with a sob. "He was always good to me."
"Thank God," said the Bishop, and he rose abruptly and went to the window.
Magdalen and Fay did not move. They leaned a little closer together. Fay's timid eyes sought her sister's like those of a child which has repeated its lesson, and looks to its teacher to see if it has done well.
Magdalen kissed her on the eyes.
"I have said everything, haven't I?"
"I wish I was dead."
Magdalen had no voice to answer with.
The Bishop came back, and sat down opposite them.
"Fay," he said, "as long as you live you will be thankful that you came to me to-day, that you were willing to make atonement by this great act of reparation. The comfort of that remembrance will sink deep into your troubled heart, and will heal its wounds. But the sacrifice is not to be exacted of you. I had to ask if you were willing to make it. But there is no longer any necessity for you to make it. Do you understand?"
The Bishop spoke slowly. The two women looked at him with dilated eyes.
"Is Michael dead?" said Magdalen.
"No. Michael is, I believe, well. The murderer of the Marchese di Maltagliala has confessed. It is in to-day's papers. The Marchese was murdered by his wife. It was quite sudden and unpremeditated, the work of an instant of terror. She has made a full confession on her deathbed. It exonerates Michael entirely. She implores his forgiveness for her long silence."
The Bishop's last words reached Fay from a great distance. The room with its many books, and the tall mullioned window with the bare elm branches across it, were all turning gently together in a spreading dimness. The only thing that remained fixed was Magdalen's shoulder, and even that shook a little. Fay leaned her face against it, and let all the rest go. The window with its tree quivered for a moment across the dark and then flickered out. The consciousness of tender hands and voices lingered a moment longer and then vanished too.
All the heavy days are over.—W. B. YEATS.
It was very late when Magdalen and Fay reached home.
Bessie was on the lookout for them, and met them in the hall.
"Wentworth has been here," she said. "He arrived about an hour after you had started. As you were both out he asked to see me. He was greatly excited. He had come to tell us that Michael's innocence has suddenly been proved. He goes to Italy to-morrow. He said he would call here on his way to the station a little before eleven, to tell you both about it."
And punctually at a few minutes to eleven Wentworth appeared, and was ushered into the little white morning-room where Fay was waiting for him.
The room was full of sunshine. The soft air came gently in, bringing with it a breath of primroses.
Delight was in the room, tremulous, shining in Fay's eyes. Delight was in the whole atmosphere. An enormous boundless relief overflowed everything.
Wentworth was excited, softened, swept out of himself.
He held her soft hand in his. He tried to speak, but he could not. His eyes filled with tears. He was ashamed.
And when he looked up he saw Fay's eyes were wet, too. His heart went out to her. She was rejoicing with him. He pulled himself together, and told her what little he knew; not much more than the bare facts contained in the papers. It was now known by the Marchesa's confession that the murder took place inside the Colle Alto gardens. Everyone, including the police, had believed that the murder took place in the road, and that the assassin took advantage of the accident of the garden door being unlocked to drag the body into the garden, and hide it there. But the Marchesa stated that she stabbed her husband in the garden suddenly without premeditation, but with intent to kill him, because of his determination to marry their seventeen year old daughter to a friend of his, a roue, the old Duke of Castelfranco, who drank himself to death soon afterwards.
The Marchesa stated that she dragged the body behind a shrub, walked back through the garden to the house with the front of her gown covered with blood without being noticed, found no attendant in the cloak room, wrapped herself in a long cloak not belonging to her, told her servants that the Marchese would follow later, and drove home, partially burned her gown and the cloak as if by accident, and then awaited events. The first news she received of her husband's death next morning was accompanied by the amazing information that Michael had confessed to the murder.
The Marchesa in her tardy confession stated that she believed Michael, who had always shown her great sympathy, must have actually witnessed the crime, and out of a chivalrous impulse towards her, had immediately taken the guilt of it upon himself.
"That accounts for his extraordinary silence," said Wentworth, "not only to others, but to myself. He never would say a word pro or con, even when I told him it was no use trying to persuade me he was guilty. The mystery is cleared up at last. I shall reach Milan to-night, and I shall see him to-morrow. And I suppose we may be able to start home the following day. I say these things, but I don't believe them. I can't believe them. It all seems to me like some wonderful dream. And you are like a person in a dream, too, as if a fairy wand had passed over you?"
As he spoke Wentworth suddenly realised that this marvellous, radiant transformation which he beheld in Fay, which seemed to flow even to the edges of her lilac gown, was happiness, and that he had never seen her happy till this moment. She had always looked pathetic, mournful, listless. Now for the first time he saw her, as it were, released from some great oppression, and the change was almost that of identity. Her beauty had taken on a new magic.
There is no joy so rapturous, so perfect as the moment of relief from pain. There was, perhaps, no creature in the world on this particular April morning whose happiness approached Fay's. She raised her white eyelids and smiled at Wentworth.
His well-conducted heart nudged him suddenly like a vulgar, jocular friend.
"Is all your gladness for Michael?" he said boldly. "Have you none to spare for me?"
He was in for it.
"You must forgive me if I am too impetuous, too precipitate," he said, "but won't you make me doubly happy, Fay, before I go." He rose and came towards her. She looked down, half frightened, and he suddenly felt himself colossal, irresistible, a man not to be trifled with. "You have known for a long time that I love you," he said. "Won't you tell me that you love me a little, too?"
A delightful sense of liberty and newness of life were flowing in regenerating waves over Fay's spirit.
Wentworth seemed a part of this all-pervading joyousness and freedom. She made a little half unconscious movement towards him, and in a moment, that intrepid man, that dauntless athlete of the emotions had taken her in his arms.
He who gives up the smallest part of a secret has the rest no longer in his power.—JEAN PAUL.
The Marchesa's confession made a great and immediate sensation throughout Italy. Everyone who had known Michael, and a great many who had not, proclaimed with one consent that his innocence was no news to them. The possibility that he might be shielding someone had been discussed at the time of the trial, but had found no shred of confirmation.
And now the mystery was solved at last, and in the most romantic manner. Michael had come out with flying colours.
To many minds the romance was enhanced by the fact that the Marchesa was a gentle, middle-aged, grey-haired woman in no way attractive, whose whole interest in life centred in her daughter. Michael's transcendent act of chivalry towards the Marchesa, dramatically acknowledged by her at last upon her deathbed, appealed even to the most unimaginative natures. He became the hero of the hour. Telegrams of congratulation poured in from every quarter. Letters snowed in on him. Even before Wentworth could reach him enthusiastic strangers had tried to force their way into his cell. Determined young reporters came out in gondolas, and it was all the warders and the doctor could do to protect Michael from invasion.
He sat apparently stunned in his cell, the only person unmoved. Every servant and warder in that dreary establishment had come to offer him their congratulations. The other convicts had sent messages. The man in the next cell, slowly dying of gangrene, had crawled from his pallet to beat a tattoo on the wall. The doctor was beside himself with joy.
"You must keep calm," he kept saying in wild excitement. "Your brother will be here to-morrow morning. I implore you to be calm."
And he brought Michael his best pipe, and some of his most cherished tobacco, and a weird suit of black clothes, and urged him to spend the evening with him in his own sitting-room.
But Michael shook his head. He had no hatred of his striped blouse. He was accustomed to it. He said he would prefer to await his brother's arrival in his cell. He was accustomed to that, too. He felt as if he could not bear to have everything torn from him at once, as if he should be lost if all his landmarks were changed. He sat hour by hour, smoking, and every now and then reading Wentworth's telegram.
He tried to realise it. He said to himself over and over again: "I am free. I am going away. Wentworth is coming to take me home." But it was no good. His mind would not take hold.
He looked for the twentieth time at Wentworth's telegram. Wentworth was hurrying towards him at this moment, would be travelling all night, would reach him in the morning. Dear, dear Wenty, he would be happy again now.
"It's no kind of use. I can't believe it."
He tried to think of Fay. He should see her soon, touch her hand, hear her voice. Poor little darling! She had not the courage of a mouse. Perhaps she was a little glad at his release. Yes. No doubt she had been pleased to hear it. He hoped she would not feel shy of him at seeing him again. He hoped she would not thank him.
The door, no longer locked, was suddenly opened, and the head warder deferentially ushered in a visitor.
A tall, dark man in a tri-coloured sash came in, and the warder withdrew.
The man bowed and looked with fixity at Michael, who stared back at him, dazed and confused. Where had he seen that face before?
Ah! He remembered!
"I perceive that you have not forgotten me," said the Delegato. "It was I who arrested you. It was to me that you confessed to the murder of the Marchese di Maltagliala."
"I never was able to reach any certainty that you were really guilty," continued the Delegato. "I was not even convinced that you had had a quarrel with the Marchese."
"I had no quarrel with him."
"I knew that. That you might be shielding someone occurred forcibly to my mind. But who?"
Michael looked steadily at the official.
"And there was blood upon your hand and sleeve when you confessed."
"It was not the Marchese's blood," said the Delegato, drawing a sallow finger across a blue chin. "It remained a mystery. I will own that it had not crossed my mind that that fragile and timid lady had killed her husband, and that as she at last confesses you were shielding her." The Delegato looked piercingly at Michael.
Michael was silent.
"You have always been silent. Is not the moment come to speak?"
Michael shook his head.
The Delegato bowed.
"I came to ask you to discuss the affair openly," he said, "to relieve my perplexity as a matter of courtesy. But you will not speak. Then I will speak instead. When first I read the Marchesa's confession it came into my mind that the Marchesa, who I believe was your friend, might for some reason, possibly the sentimental devotion of an older woman for a young man—such things have been—that she might have confessed on her deathbed to a crime which she had not committed in order to save you from—this"—he touched the wall of the cell. "I doubted that she really murdered her husband. But she did. I sought out the maid who had been with her when the Marchese died, and she, before the confession was published, informed me that she had not undressed the Marchesa on her return from the Colle Alto party. And that next morning part of the cloak which was not hers, and part of her gown were found to be burnt as stated in her confession. It was indeed necessary to burn them. The Marchesa murdered the Marchese."
There was a long silence.
"I cannot tell whether you witnessed the crime or not. At first I thought the blood on your hands and clothes might have come from helping her to drag the body into the garden. But it was not so. At the time I attached a great importance to the garden door being unlocked. Too great. It led me astray. The gardener, in spite of his oath that he had locked it, had probably left it unlocked. We now know from the Marchesa that the murder took place within the garden, and the locking and unlocking of the door was an accident which looked like a clue.... But, if you witnessed the murder, and wished to retire without raising an alarm, or denouncing that unhappy lady, I ask myself why did you not open the garden door from within—the key was in the lock, I saw it—and pass out on to the high road. Why did you, instead, try so hard to escape over the wall behind the ilexes that you tore your hands on the cut glass on the top? I found the place next day. There was blood on it. When you were struggling to escape over that wall you were not anxious to take the Marchesa's guilt upon yourself. When you were hiding behind the screen in the Duchess' apartment you were not—at that moment—very determined to shield the Marchesa from the consequences of her deed. All Italy is ringing with your quixotic, your chivalrous, your superb action. Nevertheless, if I had quitted the Duchess' apartment, if my natural and trained acuteness had not made one last effort respecting the screen, I do not think you would have followed me into the garden to denounce yourself."
The Delegato paused.
Michael was quite unmoved. Everything reached him dimly as through a mist. He partly saw the difficulty in the official's mind, but it did not interest him. He was cleared. That was enough.
"In two years much is forgotten," said the Delegato, sententiously, "and it is, perhaps, I alone who recall the more minute details of the case, because I was present and my interest was overwhelming. I have not spoken of this to anyone but yourself. I shall not speak of it again. I have taken a journey to discuss it with you because I had hoped you would understand my professional interest in unravelling that which remains still obscure, a mystery, which is daily becoming to me a greater mystery than before the Marchesa's confession. You have it in your power to gratify my natural desire for elucidation by an explanation which can no longer injure you in any way. You are innocent. It is proved. But even now you will not speak. You prefer to preserve your attitude of silence to the end. Good! I will intrude on you no longer. I offer you my congratulations. I deplore your inevitable imprisonment. I withdraw."
The Delegato bowed yet again and went to the door.
"That of which you will not speak was known to your friend the Duke of Colle Alto," he said. "The Duke knew."
"The Duke is dead," said Michael.
"I am aware of that," said the Delegato, frigidly. He bowed for the last time, and left the cell, gently closing the door.
Est-ce donc une monnaie que votre amour, pour qu'il puisse passer ainsi de main en main jusqu'a la mort? Non, ce n'est pas meme une monnaie; car la plus mince piece d'or vaut mieux que vous, et dans quelques mains qu'elle passe elle garde son effigee.—A. DE MUSSET.
Wentworth came in the morning, tremulous, eager, holding Michael by the shoulders, as he used to do when Michael was a small boy, as he had never done since.
The brothers looked long at each other with locked hands, water in their eyes.
"Wenty," said Michael at last, with his grave smile.
And that was all.
They sat down together in silence on the little bed. Wentworth tried to speak once or twice, but it was no use.
"Fay cried with joy at the news," he said at last, looking with shy hungry love at his brother. "If you could have seen her radiant face. I never saw any creature so changed, so transfigured."
A faint flush rose to Michael's face.
"I know how she grieved over your imprisonment. She is the most tender-hearted woman in the world. I never knew anyone so sympathetic." Wentworth hesitated. Then he added tremulously. "My great grief has been her grief, too. She helped me to bear it."
"I did not know she had—minded so much," said Michael, almost inaudibly.
"You might have guessed it," said Wentworth, "knowing her to be what she is. She has always been so pale and sad, as if bowed down by trouble. But directly the news came that you were cleared—I went to see her at once—if you could only have seen her face, her tears of joy, her delight."
"Did she send a message, or a note? Just a line. Perhaps you have a letter with you."
"No, she did not write," said Wentworth, self conscious, but beaming. "There was not time. There was time for nothing. It was all such a rush. I only saw her on my way to the station. But I know she won't mind my telling you, Michael—you ought to know first of anyone—it all seems so wonderful. But I daresay—no, I see you have guessed it—I daresay I have said things in my letters that showed you it was coming—it was the grief about you that first drew us together. Fay and I are going to be married."
Michael put his hand to his head.
"Everything has come at once," said Wentworth. "I have you again. And I have her. I've nothing left to wish for."
* * * * *
Michael did not leave the prison in the gondola which had brought Wentworth, and which was waiting to take them both away. The excitement of his brother's arrival had proved too great, and he fell from one fainting fit into another. Wentworth was greatly alarmed, but the doctor was reassuring and cheerful. He said that Michael had borne the news with almost unnatural calmness, but that the shock must have been great, and a breakdown was to be expected. He laughed at Wentworth's anxiety even while he ministered to Michael, and assured him that no one in his experience had died of joy.
But later in the evening when Wentworth, somewhat pacified, had returned to Venice for the night, the doctor felt yet again for the twentieth time that the young Englishman baffled him.
It seemed to him that he was actually relieved when the kind, awkward, tender elder brother had reluctantly taken his departure, promising to come back early in the morning.
"Do not distress yourself, you will be quite well enough to leave to-morrow," the doctor said to him many times. "I expected this momentary collapse. It is nothing."
Michael's eyes dwelt on the kind face and then closed. There was that in them which the doctor could not fathom.
He took the food that was pressed on him, and then turned his face to the wall, and made as if he slept.
And the walls bent over him, and whispered to him, "Stay with us. We are not so cruel as the world outside."
And that night the dying convict in the next cell, nearly as close on freedom as Michael, heard all through the night a low sound of strangled anguish that ever stifled itself into silence, and ever broke forth anew, from dark to dawn.
The next morning Michael went feebly down the prison steps, calm and wan, leaning on Wentworth's careful arm, and smiling affectionately at him.
Les caracteres faibles ne montrent de la decision que quand il s'agit de faire un sottise.—DANIEL DARC.
A week or two after the news of Michael's proved innocence had convulsed Hampshire, and before Michael and Wentworth had returned to Barford, Aunt Aggie might have been seen on a fine May afternoon walking slowly towards "The Towers." She had let her cottage at Saundersfoot for an unusually long period, and was marking time with the Blores. Whatever Aunt Mary's faults might be she was always ready to help her sister in this practical manner, when Aunt Aggie was anxious to add to the small, feebly frittered away income, on which her muddled, impecunious existence depended.
In spite of the most pertinent remarks to the contrary from her sister, Aunt Aggie believed herself to be an unsurpassed manager of restricted means. She constantly advised young married couples as to the judicious expenditure of money, and pressed on Magdalen the necessity of retrenching in exasperating directions, namely, where a minute economy entailed a colossal inconvenience.
In her imagination she saw herself continually consulted, depended on, strenuously implored to give her opinion on matters of the utmost delicacy, fervently blessed for her powerful spiritual assistance of souls in jeopardy, and always gracefully attributing the marvellous results of her intervention to a Higher Power of which she was but the unworthy channel.
These imaginary scenes were the unfailing solace of Aunt Aggie's somewhat colourless life, and the consciousness of them in the background gave her a certain meek and even patient self-importance, the basis of which was hidden from Lady Blore.
Aunt Aggie had also another perennial source of chastened happiness in recalling the romance of her youth, those halcyon days before the Archdeacon had been unsuccessfully harpooned and put to flight by Lady Blore.
Her clerical love affair perfumed her conversation, as a knife which has once associated with an onion inevitably reveals, even in estrangement, that bygone intimacy.
No one could breathe the word Margate without Aunt Aggie remarking that she had had a dear friend who had evinced a great partiality for Margate. Were the clergy mentioned in her presence with the scant respect with which the ministry and other secular bodies have to put up, Aunt Aggie vibrated with indignation. She had known men of the highest talents holding preferment in the Church.
But in her imagination her affair of the heart had passed beyond reminiscence. Far from being buried in the past it remained the chief factor in her life, colouring and shaping the whole of her future.
Aunt Aggie could at any moment dip into a kind of sequel to that early history. In the sequel the Archdeacon's wife was, of course, to die; but, owing to circumstances which Aunt Aggie had not yet thoroughly worked out, that unhappy lady was first to undergo tortures in some remote locality, nursed devotedly—poor thing—by Aunt Aggie. The result of her ministrations was never in doubt from the first. The Archdeacon's wife was, of course, to succumb, calling down blessings on the devoted stranger at her bedside, with the enigmatical smile which spoke of some sacred sorrow.
Aunt Aggie had shed many delicious tears over that deathbed scene, and the chastened grief of the saintly Archdeacon, quite overshadowed by his boundless gratitude to herself. At this crisis his overwhelming desolation wrung from him—with gross disloyalty to the newly dead—a few disjointed sentences which revealed only too clearly how unsuited to him his wife had been, how little she had understood him, how lonely his wedded life had been. She had evidently been one of those tall thin maypoles of women who have but little tenderness in them.
Aunt Aggie, after giving the children a sample of what a real mother could be, was to retire to her little home at Saundersfoot. Here the real joy of the situation was to begin.
After a decent interval the Archdeacon was to be constantly visiting Saundersfoot, was to be observed visiting Aunt Aggie at Saundersfoot, singling her out from among the numerous spinsters of that watering-place to make her the object of reverent attentions. Others younger and better looking than Aunt Aggie—especially Miss Barnett, the doctor's sister, who, it was whispered, wore an artificial cushion from Douglas's under her hair—were to set their caps or cushions at the dignified Archdeacon, seen pacing the sands. But it was all of no avail. He had eyes for no one but the gentle, retiring Miss Bellairs. Aunt Aggie was to become the object of burning jealousy and detraction on the part of the female—that is to say almost the whole—population of Saundersfoot. But she herself, while envious calumny raged round her, went on her way calm and grave as ever.
But the proposal long warded off could not be parried forever. The frenzied passion of the Archdeacon was at last not to be restrained. Aunt Aggie had in her mind a set of proposals, all good, out of which it became harder and harder as time went on to select one. But her answer was ever the same, a pained but firm refusal. She was happy in her lot. She was greatly needed where she was. She did not wish to marry. She was no longer young. This last reason was an enormous concession to realism on Aunt Aggie's part.
Then came the cream of the whole story. The Archdeacon was to pine secretly. His work was to be neglected. He was to be threatened with a nervous breakdown. He was to confide his sorrow to the paternal bosom of his Bishop. When Aunt Aggie was in her normal state it was the Bishop in whom the Archdeacon was to confide. But sometimes in the evenings after a glass of cowslip wine, her imagination took a bolder flight. The Archbishop himself was to be the confidant of the distracted cleric. This presented no real difficulty after the first moment, for the Archbishop was in the flower of his age—the Archdeacon's age—and might easily have been at school with him. Aunt Aggie had once seen Lambeth from a cab window as she passed over Westminster Bridge. Under that historic tower she heard the first subject of the King urge his brother prelate to take heart, promising assistance.
We will pass over Aunt Aggie's amazed reception of a cordial invitation to stay at Lambeth, her hesitating acceptance, her arrival, the magnificent banquet, crowded with ministers and bishops, the fact that the Archbishop himself singled her out as the object of courtly though somewhat anxious attentions. And then after dinner Aunt Aggie, in her plum-coloured satin, was to be unconsciously but skilfully withdrawn from the glittering throng by the Archbishop. And in his study he was to make a great, a fervent appeal to her. Aunt Aggie had bought a photograph of him in order to deaden the shock of this moment. But nevertheless whenever she reached this point she was always really frightened. Her hands really trembled. The Archbishop was to ask her with tempered indignation how much longer she intended to nullify the labours of his ablest colleague, how much longer her selfish predilection for celibacy was to wreck the life and paralyse the powers of a broken-hearted man. Her cruelty was placed before her in glowing colours. She was observed to waver, to falter. A tear was seen in spite of her marvellous self-control to course down her cheek. The eye of an Archbishop misses nothing. With an ejaculation of profound relief he beckons to a distant figure which appears in a doorway. The Archdeacon in his evening gaiters rushes in. Aunt Aggie gives way!
After this final feat of the imagination Aunt Aggie generally felt so worn out by emotion that food was absolutely necessary to her.
On this occasion she sat down quivering on a heap of stones by the roadside, and drew forth a biscuit which she had secreted at luncheon at the Vicarage an hour before. It must be owned that she was fond of food, though not in the same way that most of us are addicted to it. She liked eating buns out of paper bags at odd moments in the open air, and nibbling a sponge cake half forgotten and suddenly found in a drawer with her handkerchiefs. But in justice to her it ought to be added that she seemed only to care for the kind of provender which yielded the largest increment in the way of crumbs.
As she sat and nibbled an uneasy recollection stole across her mind.
This recollection was becoming more disconcerting day by day. And yet she had acted for the best. That fact did not insure to her immunity from blame on the part of that awful personage, her sister Mary. Good intentions had never yet received their due as extenuating circumstances in Lady Blore's sweeping judgments.
If a certain secret chivalrous action of Aunt Aggie's "turned out wrong," she knew well the intonation in which Lady Blore would ask her why she had been such a fool. Nevertheless she, Aunt Aggie, had only done with consummate tact what Mary herself had contemplated doing in her rough way, and had been persuaded not to do.
Some weeks ago Aunt Aggie had concocted in secret, recopied about twenty times, and had finally despatched a letter to Lord Lossiemouth anent Magdalen. It had been the boldest action of her life. At first, even after she had seen that she was the only person able to deal adequately with so delicate a matter, she had feared that she would not have the strength to perform her mission. But strength had apparently been lent to her for the occasion. The letter had actually been posted.
The moment it was irrevocably gone Aunt Aggie fell into a panic. Supposing it failed in its object, and that Algernon or Mary discovered what she had done. She could not even face such a possibility. But then, supposing on the other hand that her missive united two loving, estranged hearts, and that dear Magdalen owed her happiness—and a titled happiness—to her. Then Algernon and Mary would be forced to admit that she had shown a courage and devotion greater than theirs. "We only talked, you acted," they would both say, and she would thenceforth be recognised in her true light, as an incomparable counsellor, and a judicious, far-seeing friend.
But three weeks had elapsed since Aunt Aggie, stealing out alone, had dropped that momentous letter into the village post-box. Nothing had happened. She had not even received an answer. She was becoming frightened and anxious. Was he secretly married? She wished she had thought of that possibility before she posted the letter.
Many simple-minded men of disengaged affections, cheerfully pursuing their virtuous avocations, would be thunderstruck if they knew the dark suspicions harboured against them in spinster bosoms, that they are concealing some discreditable matrimonial secret, which alone can account for their—well—their extraordinary behaviour in not coming forward!
It has actually been said that real life is not always like a novel. This feebly false assertion was disproved forever in Aunt Aggie's mind by the sight of a dog-cart coming rapidly toward her from the direction of Lostford. She glanced indifferently at it as it approached, and then her pale eyes became glued to it. In the dog-cart sat Everard Constable, now Lord Lossiemouth. She had not seen him for fifteen years, but nevertheless she recognised him instantly. There was no doubt it was he: thickened and coarsened, but still he. He whirled past leaning back in his seat, looking neither to right nor left.
Aunt Aggie's heart gave a thump that nearly upset her equilibrium. The biscuit dropped onto the road, with a general upheaval of crumbs from all parts of her agitated person.
Going in the direction of Priesthope!
She nearly swooned with joy and pride.
Now Mary and Algernon, now everyone would believe in her.
She raised herself from the heap of stones and with trembling legs hurried towards "The Towers." She must tell Mary at once.
She found Lady Blore seated at her writing-table in the drawing-room, which was choked by the eastern and Japanese impedimenta, the draperies, the krises, the metal bowls, the ivory boxes, which an Indian career seems so inevitably to entail. Sir John had brought back crates of the kind of foreign bric-a-brac cheap imitations of which throng London shop windows. The little entrance hall was stuffy with skins. Horned skulls garnished the walls, pleading silently for decent burial. Even the rugs had once been bears.
Aunt Mary was bored with her drawing-room, which looked like a stall at a bazaar, but, to her credit be it said, that she had never made any change in it, except to remove a brass idol from the writing-table, at which she was at this moment sitting.
By one of those sudden instincts which make people like Aunt Aggie the despair of those with whom they live, she instantaneously conceived the idea (for no reason except that she was thinking of her own letter) that her sister was at that moment writing to Lord Lossiemouth.
She "had a feeling" that this was the case. The feeling became in a second a rooted conviction. The butler came in, arranged an uncomfortable Indian table, placed a brass tray with tea things on it before Lady Blore, and asked if there were any more letters for the post. Aunt Mary was in the act of giving him one when Aunt Aggie intervened.
"Don't," she said in wild agitation, clasping her hands. "Mary, I beg of you, I conjure you not to post that letter."
"Why not? I have resolved to give him another chance."
"Keep it back one post, I implore you. I have a reason."
Aunt Mary looked attentively at her sister, and took back the letter. It was not like her to give way. She seemed less overbearing than usual.
"Well? Why not employ him again?" she said wearily. "The Irish butter is the cheapest after all. Why do you make such a point of my leaving him."
Aunt Aggie was entirely nonplussed. A thousand similar experiences had never lessened the shock of the discrepancy between what she expected her sister to say, and what she actually said.
"I thought, I thought," she stammered, "I felt sure that, I see now I was wrong, but I had a conviction that that letter—you see I knew you were thinking of writing—was to, was in short to Lord Lossiemouth."
Aunt Mary's face became magenta colour.
"To Lord Lossiemouth! Why should you think I was writing to him?"
"Well, I could not help knowing—don't you remember how you discussed the subject with me and dear Magdalen some weeks ago?—that the subject of a judicious and dignified letter was in your mind."
"I was careful not to mention the subject to Magdalen in your presence. I see now that you must have listened outside the door."
Aunt Aggie experienced a second shock. How did Mary always spy out these things?
"I can't think," continued Lady Blore, "how you can lower yourself to eavesdrop in the way you do; and if you must do these underhand actions, why you don't conceal them better. When you read a private letter of mine the other day, because I inadvertently left it for a moment on my writing-table——"
"You always say you lock up your private letters, you do, indeed, Mary. Be fair. I could not tell it was private."
"You would have been wiser not to have alluded next day to its contents. If you had not done so I might not have known you had read it."
Aunt Aggie burst into tears.
"The truth is I am not secretive like you, Mary," she said between her sobs. "It is as natural to me to be open and trustful with those I love as it is for you to be the reverse. Whatever I do you think wrong. But perhaps some day—and that before long—you will be forced to admit——"
At this moment the drawing-room door opened and Colonel Bellairs came in. He often came to tea at "The Towers," though the meeting seldom passed off without a sharp brush with Lady Blore.
"Draw up that chair, Algernon," said that lady, with grim but instant cordiality. "The tea will be ready in a moment."
Colonel Bellairs looked more floridly handsome than usual. He was evidently in a state of supreme self-satisfaction.
"Fine day," he said, "for the time of year."
At this moment a small parchment face, and bent figure leaning on a stick, might have been seen peering in through the closed windows. Sir John looked dispassionately at the family group, and shook his head. Then he hobbled back to his chair under the cedar. Tea was evidently a meal to be dispensed with this afternoon.
"I have news for you," said Colonel Bellairs, expanding his chest.
Lady Blore held the tea-pot suspended.
"Everard Constable—Lossiemouth, I should say—is at this moment sitting in the drawing-room at Priesthope, alone with Magdalen."
Colonel Bellairs was not disappointed in the effect of his words on his audience.
Aunt Aggie trembled and looked proudly guilty. Lady Blore put down the tea-pot suddenly, and said, "Thank God!"
Aunt Aggie, her mouth open to speak, began to choke. She looked piteously from her brother to her sister, struggling in vain to articulate. It was too cruel that she should be bereft of speech at this supreme moment.
Lady Blore turned putty pale and magenta colour alternately. A great relief softened her hard face. There were actually tears in her eyes. Then she said majestically, but with a tremor in her metallic voice:
"I am not surprised."
"It is my doing," shrieked Aunt Aggie, in the strangled squeak in which we always explain that it is "only a crumb" gone wrong. And she relapsed into a fresh spasm.
Lady Blore sternly bade her be silent. Colonel Bellairs was slightly annoyed.
"It is no use, Mary, your saying you are not surprised, for you are," he said judicially, "and really," relapsing into complacency, "so am I in a way. It is fifteen years since I forbade Everard the house. I fear that I was unduly harsh. I dismissed him, so it was for me to recall him. Now that the cat is out of the bag I don't mind telling you that I wrote to him a few weeks ago."
"You—wrote—to—him!" said Aunt Mary in great agitation. "Algernon, you sent me word by Magdalen that you refused to meddle in the matter."
"I daresay I did. I may not have liked the tone you took about it, Mary. You are so devilish high-handed. In short, I don't mind telling you that I was annoyed by your interference in the matter. But after mature consideration—I turned the matter over in my mind—I was not the least influenced by your long-winded epistle—that in fact rather put me off than otherwise—still after a time I wrote a manly, straightforward letter to Everard, not blinking the facts, and I told him that if his feelings were unchanged—mark that—as I had reason to believe Magdalen's were—he was at liberty to come to Priesthope and resume cordial relations with us all. You observe that I only asked him to come if his feelings were unchanged. He is there now."
It would be impossible to describe the varying emotions which devastated Lady Blore, as her brother made his announcement. Her hands trembled so much that she was obliged to give up any pretence of holding her cup. It chattered against its saucer.
"When did you write?" she asked at last.
"About three weeks ago."
Aunt Mary seemed to make a mental calculation.
"It is my doing. I wrote a month ago," gasped Aunt Aggie. "Algernon, you must not take the credit of it. I waited till you and Mary had decided not to write—you know, Mary, you told Magdalen you would not—and then—and then—I could not stand by and see that dear child's happiness slip away for want of one bold word, one brave friend to say for her what she could not say for herself,—I have seen so many lives wrecked for want of a sympathetic hand to draw two severed hearts together,—that I wrote. I wrote a month ago. A week before you did."
"I might have known you would do some folly," said Colonel Bellairs with contempt. "I am glad this did not come to my ears earlier, or I should have been very angry. It was most unsuitable, most undignified, that you and I should both write. But," it was evidently impossible for him to be seriously annoyed by anything on this particular afternoon, "all's well that ends well. We will say no more about it, Aggie. Don't cry. You can't help being a fool. But don't do anything of that kind, or of any kind again. I might not be so easy going next time."
Lady Blore drank down a large cup of tea. Her black silk bosom heaved. Contrary to all precedent she did not turn on her quaking sister.
"Where are Fay and Bessie?" she asked.
"Fay is spending the afternoon with the Carters, and Bessie is out somewhere, I don't know where. But I saw her start after luncheon."
"How fortunate! Then you knew he was coming?"
"Yes. I had a telegram from him this morning saying he was in the neighbourhood, and would come over this afternoon."
"Of course you warned Magdalen?"
"Not I. I knew better than that. She has a cold, so I knew she could not go out. So directly I had seen him drive up I came off here. I did not think I was particularly wanted at home. Two is company and three's none."
"Oh, Algernon, what tact! Most men would never have thought of that," said Aunt Aggie.
"Have another cup, Algernon," said Lady Blore graciously.
Colonel Bellairs stroked his moustache. He had another cause, a secret one, for self-complacency. At last, after many rebuffs from charming women, thirty years his junior, he was engaged to be married. Should he mention it? Was not this a most propitious moment? Yes? No. Perhaps better not. Another time! The lady had accepted him some weeks ago, but had expressed altruistic doubts as to whether she could play a mother's part to daughters as old as herself, whether in short, much as she craved for their society, they might not feel happier, more independent in a separate establishment, however modest. It was on a sudden impulse of what he called "providing for the girls," that Colonel Bellairs had written to Lord Lossiemouth.
The renewal of his engagement to Magdalen would pave the way to Colonel Bellairs's marriage. He had already decided that Bessie would live with Magdalen, who would take her out. Fay had her jointure. But he had a not unfounded fear that his second nuptials would be regarded with profound disapproval, even with execration, by his sisters.
Magdalen alone knew about it as yet. She had taken the news, which her father had feared would crush her to the earth, very tranquilly. She was a person of more frigid affections than he had supposed. He had already asked her to break the news to Fay and Bessie. Perhaps it would be better to let her break it to his sisters too. If he did it himself they might, at the first moment, say things they might afterwards regret. Yes, he would leave the announcement to Magdalen.
Our chain on silence clanks. Time leers between, above his twiddling thumbs.
Lord Lossiemouth had come into his kingdom. He was rich, but not vulgarly so. He had a great position, and what his artistic nature valued even more, the possession of one of the most beautiful places in England. The Lossiemouth pictures and heirlooms, the historic house with its wonderful gardens—all these were his.
He had at first been quite dazed by the magnitude of his good fortune. When it came to him it found him somewhat sore and angry at a recent rebuff which had wounded his vanity not a little. But the excitement of his great change of fortune soon healed what little smart remained.
A few months before he succeeded, he had fallen in love, not for the first time by many times, with a woman who seemed to meet his requirements. She was gentle, submissive, pretty, easily led, refined, not an heiress, but by no means penniless.
To his surprise and indignation she had refused him, evidently not without a certain tepid regret. He discovered that the mother had other views for her daughter, and that the daughter, though she inclined towards him, was quite incapable or even desirous of opposing her mother. She was gentleness and pliability itself. These qualities, so admirable in domestic life, have a tendency of which he had not thought before to make their charming owner, if a hitch occurs, subside into becoming another man's wife. If only women could be adamant until they reach the altar, and like wax afterwards.
When everything bitter that could be said at the expense of women had been ably expressed, Lord Lossiemouth withdrew. A month later, when he was making an angry walking tour in Hungary, he learned from an English paper, already many days old, of the two deaths which effected his great change of fortune. He communicated with his lawyer, arranged to return by a certain date, and continued his tour for another month.
On his return he had gone at once to Lossiemouth, which he had visited occasionally as a poor and peppery and not greatly respected relation. Business of all kinds instantly engulfed him. He was impatient, difficult, distrait, slightly pleased with himself at showing so little gratification at his magnificent inheritance.
On the third day he sorted out the letters which looked like personal ones, from among a heap of correspondence, the accumulation of many weeks.
Quantities of envelopes were torn open, and the contents thrown aside, begging letters, decently veiled congratulations from "old friends" who had not so far shown any particular desire to make their friendship a joy to him.
Presently he came upon a long, closely written letter of several sheets, in a slanting hand, which he was about to dismiss as another begging letter when his eye fell on the signature. Bellows? Bulteel? Buller? Bellairs?
Aunt Aggie's signature was quite illegible. It was an arranged squiggle painfully acquired in youth, which through life had resulted in all kinds of difficulties with tradespeople, and in continual annoyance and inconvenience to herself. Letters and parcels were frequently directed to her as A. Buller, Esq. She could only account for this mistake by the business-like nature of her style and handwriting. She often told her friends that, unless people knew her personally, her letters were generally believed to be a man's.
It had never struck Aunt Aggie that Lord Lossiemouth might possibly, in an interval of fifteen years, have forgotten who A. Bellows might be.
But the words "my beloved niece Magdalen" strongly underlined, and the postmark on the envelope, showed him who A. Bellairs was. He thought he remembered an old aunt who lived near Priesthope.
He read the long sentimental effusion and bit his lip.
Ah, me! Was that half-forgotten, dim-in-the-distance boyish love of his to be raked up again now!
He sighed impatiently. Why had Fate parted him and Magdalen? He still regretted her in a way, when he was depressed or harassed, or disgusted with the world in general; and he was often depressed and harassed and disgusted.
More letters. What business had people to give him the trouble of reading them? The floor was becoming strewn with his correspondence. The empty fireplace had become a target for crumpled balls of paper.
A short one in a large, scrambling, illiterate hand with a signature that might mean anything. That tall capital, shaped like a ham, was perhaps a B.
The letter was written on Priesthope notepaper. "My daughter Magdalen."
This, then, was from Colonel Bellairs.
It was not such a very bad letter, but it was a deplorably unwise one. When had Colonel Bellairs ever indited a wise one! But he made his precarious position even less tenable by ignoring the fact that Lord Lossiemouth's fortunes had altered, by asserting that he had had it in his mind to write to this effect the previous Christmas but had not had time. When Colonel Bellairs concocted that sentence he had felt, not without pride, that it covered the ground of his fifteen years' silence, and also showed that Lord Lossiemouth's wealth had nothing to do with his recall. For the letter was a recall.
"Blundering old idiot," said Lord Lossiemouth, but he had become very red.
All kinds of memories were surging up in him; Magdalen's crystal love for him, her indefinable charm, her gaiety, her humility, her shyness, her exquisite beauty.
Life had never brought him anything so marvellous, so enchanting, as that first draught of April passion. And he had quenched his thirst at many other cups since then. His lips had been blistered and stained at poisoned brims. Why had that furious old turkey-cock parted him and Magdalen! His heart sank for a moment at the remembrance of his first love.
But what was the use! The Magdalen he had loved had ceased to exist. The wand-like figure with its apple-blossom face faded, faded, and in its place rose up the image of the thin, distinguished-looking grey-haired woman who had supplanted that marvel. He had met Magdalen accidentally once or twice in London of late years, and had felt dismayed anger at the change in her, an offended anger not wholly unlike that with which he surveyed himself at his tailors', and inspected at unbecoming angles, through painfully frank mirrors, a thick back and a stout neck and jaw which cruelly misrepresented his fastidious artistic personality.
He returned to his letters.
Three sheets in a firm, upright hand.
"I do not suppose you remember me," it began, "but I intend to recall myself to your memory, which I believe to be none of the best. I am the wife of Sir John Blore, and aunt to Magdalen Bellairs."
He flung the letter down. But this was intolerable, a persecution. And what fools they were all to write. Had Magdalen set them on?
He groaned with sudden self-disgust. What unworthy thought would come to him next? Of course she knew nothing of this.
He looked at the date of each letter carefully. Aunt Aggie's according to her wont had only the day of the week on it, just Tuesday, or it might be Thursday—but Colonel Bellairs's and Lady Blore's were fully dated, and about a fortnight apart. Colonel Bellairs had written last.
Lord Lossiemouth divined that each of the three believed him or herself to be the only one to tackle the subject.
How ghastly! What a cruelly good short story it would make for a magazine!
Then he read Lady Blore's letter. Apparently it was not pleasant reading. It seemed to prick somewhat sharply. He winced once or twice, and spoke angrily to it.
"My good woman, as if I did not know that! Men are always behaving heartlessly to women in their opinion. It is the normal male state. It is an established fact that we are all brutes. Why do you want me to marry your paragon if you have such a low opinion of me?"
Still he could not put the letter down.
"It is possible though improbable," wrote that dauntless woman, "that your vacillating and selfish character may have improved sufficiently in the course of years for you to have become aware that you have behaved disgracefully to a woman, who, if she had had any sense, ought never to have given you a second thought, who was and still is deeply attached to you; probably the only person on this earth who has the misfortune to care two pins about you."
Lord Lossiemouth tried to feel sarcastic. He tried to laugh. But it was no use. Lady Blore's arrow had penetrated a joint in his harness.
After all he need take no notice of any of these monstrous effusions.
He was disgusted with opening letters. Nevertheless he hurried on. Perhaps he should find others less intolerable.
A somewhat formal letter from his cousin the Bishop of Lostford, who had never been cordial to him since his engagement to Magdalen had been broken off. The Bishop pointed out certain grave abuses connected with house property at Lostford, at which the late Lord Lossiemouth had persistently connived, but which he hoped his successor might enquire into personally and redress.
Quantities of other letters were torn open and aimed in balls at the empty grate. But at last he came to a long one which he read breathlessly.
It was from the mother of the girl who had so recently refused him, an involved tortuous epistle, which implied that the daughter was seriously attached to him, and hinted that if he were to come forward again he would not be refused a second time. There was also a short, wavering, nondescript note with nothing in particular in it from the girl herself. The mother had evidently made her write.