A very venomous expression settled on Lord Lossiemouth's heavy face. He suddenly took up a Bradshaw and looked out the trains for Lostford.
Tard oublie qui bien aime.
On this momentous afternoon Magdalen was sitting alone in the morning-room at Priesthope somewhat oppressed by an oncoming cold. It had not yet reached the violent and weeping stage. That was for to-morrow. She, who was generally sympathetically dressed, was reluctantly enveloped in a wiry red crochet-work shawl which Bessie had made for her, and had laid resolutely upon her shoulders before she went out.
She tried to read, but her eyes ached, and after a time she laid down her book, and her mind went back, as it had a way of doing—to Fay.
Fay had told her as "a great secret" that she had accepted Wentworth. She was so transfigured by happiness, so radiant, so absolutely unlike her former listless, colourless, carping self that Magdalen could only suppose that two shocks of joy had come simultaneously, the discovery that she loved her prim suitor, and the overwhelming relief to her tortured conscience of Michael's release.
Wentworth and Michael were still at Venice. Michael, it seemed, had been prostrated by excitement, and had been too weak to travel immediately. But they would be at Barford in a few days' time.
When Magdalen saw Fay entirely absorbed in trying on a succession of new summer hats, sent for from London in preparation for Wentworth's return, she asked herself for the twentieth time whether Fay had entirely forgotten her previous attraction for Michael, or that there might be some awkwardness in meeting her faithful lover and servant again, especially as the future wife of his brother.
Two years had certainly elapsed since that sudden flare-up of disastrous passion, and in two years much can be forgotten. But after two years everything may still be remembered, as Magdalen knew well. And she feared that Michael was among those who remember.
Magdalen had that day told Fay of her father's intention of marrying again, but she took almost no notice of the announcement. To use one of Aunt Aggie's metaphors, the news "seemed to slide off her back like a duck."
She only said, "Really! How silly of him!"
As Magdalen thought of Fay the door opened and Bessie, who was supposed to have gone for a walk, came in.
She had a spray of crab-apple blossom in her hand. She held it towards Magdalen as if it were a bill demanding instant payment. These little amenities were a new departure on Bessie's part.
Magdalen's pleasure in the apple blossom seemed to her somewhat exaggerated, but she made allowances for her, as she had a cold.
"Are you going out again?" asked Magdalen.
"Then I should like to have a little talk with you. I have something to tell you."
Bessie sat down.
"I am prepared for the announcement you have to make. I have seen it coming. It is about Fay."
"No, it is about Father. He has asked me to tell you that he is engaged to be married."
"Yes, it is not given out yet."
"It is to a Miss Barnett. You may have seen her. The doctor's sister at Saundersfoot."
"I know her by sight, a tall, showy-looking woman of nearly forty, with amber hair and a powdered nose."
"Father has sunk very low," said Bessie, judicially. "He must have been refused by a lot of others, younger and better-looking, and ladies, to be reduced to taking her. And fancy anyone in their senses being willing to take Father, with his gout, and his tendency to drink, and his total disregard of hygiene. Well, she looks a vulgar pushing woman, but I am sorry for her. And I must own that I am disappointed that if there was to be an engagement in our family it should be Father. There is not likely to be more than one going for a home like ours. It is just like him to grab it."
Magdalen tried not to laugh.
"I've looked round," continued Bessie. "I don't say that at present I could entertain the thought of marriage myself. I can't just yet, but I mean to in the future. It's merely a question of time. Marriage is the higher life. Besides, if one remains unmarried people are apt to think it is because one can't help it. It would certainly be so in my case. And I have looked round. There is not a soul in the neighbourhood for any of us to marry that I can see except Wentworth, who is of course extremely elderly. Hampshire seems absolutely bare of young men. And if there are a few sons in some of the houses, they are never accessible. And the really superior ones like Lord Alresford's only son would never look at me. It would be waste of time to try. There is positively no opening in Hampshire unless I marry the curate."
"That reminds me that he is to call this afternoon about the boot-and-shoe club. I wish, my dear, in the intervals between your aspirations towards the higher life, you would go through the accounts with him. My head is so confused with this cold."
"I will. And where on earth are you going to live when Father marries again? Of course, I shall graduate at Cambridge. He won't oppose that now. Magdalen, why don't you marry, too?"
"I can't, dear Bessie. No one wants me."
"May I go on?"
"No. Please don't."
"I think I will all the same. Why not marry Lord Lossiemouth after all? Don't speak. I want to place the situation dispassionately before you. I have thought it carefully over. You are an extremely attractive woman, Magdalen. I don't know what it is about you, I fail to analyse it, but one becomes attached to you. You can make even a home pleasant. And if a man once cared for you it is improbable that he would cease to care just because you are no longer young. I take my stand on the basic fact that there certainly has been a mutual attachment. I then ask myself——"
At this moment the door opened and the footman announced "Lord Lossiemouth."
The shock to both women was for the moment overwhelming.
Magdalen recovered herself almost instantaneously and welcomed him with grave courtesy, but she was unable to articulate.
He had seen the amazement in the four eyes turned on him as he came in, and cursed Colonel Bellairs in his heart. Why had not the old idiot warned Magdalen of his coming?
He had felt doubtful of his reception. A simulated coldness on Magdalen's part was, perhaps, to be expected. But for her blank astonishment he was not prepared.
"This is Bessie," she said in a shaking voice.
Bessie! This tall, splendid young woman. Could this be the tiny child of three who used to sit on his knee, and blow his watch open.
"I cannot be expected to remember you," said Bessie, advancing a limp hand. She fixed a round dispassionate eye on his heavy, irritable face, and found him unpleasant looking.
He instantly thought her odious.
And they all three sat down simultaneously as if by a preconcerted signal.
"Are you staying in the neighbourhood?" asked Magdalen, as a paralysed silence became imminent. A faint hectic colour burnt in her cheeks.
Lord Lossiemouth pulled himself together, and came to her assistance. Together they held back the silence at arm's length.
Yes, he was staying in the neighbourhood—at Lostford in fact. House property near the river. Liable to floods.
Did he mention the word floods?
Yes. Floods at certain seasons of the year. Time to take measures now before the autumn, etc.
Magdalen was glad to hear of some measures being taken. Long needed.
Yes, culpable neglect.
Yes, a wall. Certainly a wall.
Bessie rose, marched to the door, opened it, hit her body against it, and went out.
A certain degree of constraint went with her.
"I had your Father's leave to come," he said after a moment. "I should not have ventured to do so otherwise."
"I wish Father had warned me," she said.
They looked away from each other. Here in this room fifteen years ago they had parted. Both shivered at the remembrance.
Then they looked long at each other.
Magdalen became very pale. She saw as in a glass what was passing through his mind; and for a moment her heart cried out against those treacherous deserters, her beauty and her youth, that they should have fled and left her thus, defenceless and unarmed to endure his cruel eyes. But she remembered that he had left her before they did. They had not availed to stay him. They had only slipped away from her in his wake. And at the time she had hardly noticed their departure, as he was no longer there to miss them.
Lord Lossiemouth had come determined to propose to Magdalen, his determination screwed "to the sticking point" by a deliberately recalled remembrance of the change the years had wrought in her. He had told himself he was prepared for that. Nevertheless, now that he was actually face to face with her, in spite of his regard and respect for her, a horrid chasm seemed to yawn between them, which only one primitive emotion can span, an emotion which, like a disused bridge, had fallen into the gulf years ago.
And yet how marvellously strong, how immortal it had seemed once—in this same room with this same woman. It had seemed then as if it could not break, or fall, or fade.
It had broken, it had fallen, it had faded.
As he looked earnestly at her he became aware that though she had been momentarily distressed a great serenity was habitual to her. The eyes which now met his had regained their calm. It seemed as if her life had been steeped in tranquil sunshine, as if the free air of heaven had penetrated her whole delicate being, and had left its clear fragrance with her.
Oh! if only they had been married fifteen years ago! What happiness they might have given each other. How perfect to have owed it all to each other. How fond he would still be of her. How tender their mutual regard would still be. Then his present feeling for her would not be amiss. They ought to be sitting peacefully together at this moment, not in this intolerably embarrassing personal relation towards each other, but at ease with each other, talking over their boy at Eton, and the new pony for their little daughters. He did not want to begin being married to her now.
She knew what he felt.
"Magdalen," he said, "I am distressed that I have taken you by surprise. I had hoped that you were prepared to see me. But my coming is not, I trust, painful to you."
A pulse fluttered in her cheek.
"I am glad to see you," she said. "If I did not seem so the first moment it was only because I was taken aback."
"A great change has come over my fortunes," he continued, anxious to give her time, and yet aware that no conversation except on the object of his visit was really possible. "I am at last in a position to marry."
"When I heard the news I thought that you would probably marry soon."
"Our engagement was broken off solely for lack of means," he continued. Her eyes dropped. "Now that that obstacle is removed I have come to ask you, to beg you most earnestly to renew it."
"It is very good of you," she said almost inaudibly. "I appreciate your—kindness."
He saw that she was going to refuse him. But he was prepared for that contingency. It was a natural feminine method of readjusting the balance between them. He would certainly give her the opportunity. He owed it to her. Besides, the refusal would not be final. He knew from her relations that she still loved him.
"If your feeling towards me is unchanged will you marry me?"
The door opened, and the footman announced "Mr. Thomson."
The new curate came slowly into the room, his short-sighted eyes peering about him, a little faggot of papers girdled by an elastic band, clasped in his careful hand against his breast.
Magdalen started violently, and Lord Lossiemouth experienced a furious exasperation.
Magdalen mechanically introduced the two men to each other, and they all three sat down, with the same sudden automatic precision as when Bessie had been present.
"The days are beginning to lengthen already," said Mr. Thomson. "I have noticed it, especially the last few days, and the rooks are clamourous—very clamourous."
"It was to be expected," faltered Magdalen.
"The accounts are, I am glad to say, in perfect order. I am proud to add, though I fear a statement so unusual may lay me open to a charge of romancing, that we have a small balance in hand."
How he had looked forward to saying these words. With what a flash of surprised delight he had expected this astounding, this gratifying announcement would be received.
He paused a moment to let his words sink in—evidently Miss Bellairs had not heard.
"Three pounds five and nine," he said.
"It is wonderful," said Magdalen emphatically.
"Quite wonderful. I never heard of a boot-and-shoe club which was not in debt. Have you?" And she turned to Lord Lossiemouth.
But Lord Lossiemouth's temper was absent. He found the situation intolerable. He only answered, "Never."
"Bessie is waiting to hear all about it in the schoolroom," continued Magdalen. "I have asked her to go over the papers with you. She will be as surprised and delighted as I am. Shall we go and tell her?"
And without waiting for an answer she rose and led the way to the schoolroom, followed by Mr. Thomson. Bessie was sitting alone there, staring in front of her, paralysed by Lord Lossiemouth's arrival, and indignant at the possibility that Magdalen might marry that "horrid old thing," who was not the least like the charming photograph of him in her sister's album. However, she grasped the situation, and after an imploring glance from Magdalen, grappled with all her might with the boot-and-shoe club.
Magdalen hurriedly tore off the little red shawl and returned to the morning-room, and closed the door. It was a considerable effort to her to close it, and by doing so to invite a renewal of Lord Lossiemouth's offer. But it could not be left open.
"It was not poor Mr. Thomson's fault," she said, "but I wish I could have saved you this annoyance."
He struggled to recover his temper. Her quivering face shewed him that she was suffering from the miserable accident of the interruption even more than he was.
"I was asking you to marry me," he said with courage, but with visible irritation. "Will you?"
"I am afraid I cannot."
"I knew you would say that. I expected it. But I beg you to reconsider it, that is if—if your feeling for me is still unchanged."
"It is unchanged."
"Then why not marry me?"
"Because you do not care for me."
"I felt certain you would say that. But I do care for you. Should I be here if I did not? We are two middle-aged people, Magdalen. The old raptures and roses would be out of place, but I have always cared for you. Surely you know that. Have you forgotten the old days?"
"Neither have I. All we have to do is to forget the years between." As he spoke he felt that the thing could hardly have been better put.
"I have no wish to forget them."
He had made a great effort to control his temper, but he found her unreasonable. His anger got the upper hand.
"It is one of two things that makes you refuse me. Either you can't forgive me, and I daresay I don't deserve that you should, I am not posing as a faultless character—or you have ceased to love me. Which is it?"
"I have not ceased to love you," she replied. "Have I not just told you so? But you would find yourself miserable in the—lop-sided kind of marriage which you are contemplating. It is unwise to try to make bricks without straw."
"Then if your mind was so absolutely made up beforehand to refuse me, why was I sent for?" he stammered, white with anger. He struck the table with his hand. "What was the use of urging me to come back, if I was to meet with a frigid, elegantly expressed, deliberately planned rebuff directly I set foot in the house!"
"Why were you sent for?" she said aghast. "Surely you came of your own accord. Sent for! Who sent for you?"
She sat down feebly. A horrible suspicion turned her faint.
"Who sent for me?" he said venomously. "Why am I here?"
He tore some letters out of his pocket, and thrust them into her hands. Always sensitive to a slight, he was infuriated by the low cunning, the desire to humiliate him, with which he imagined he had been treated. Others could be humiliated as well as himself.
"Read them," he said savagely, and he walked away from her, and stood by the window with his back to her.
Magdalen read them slowly, the three letters, her father's, Aunt Mary's, Aunt Aggie's. Then she put them back into their envelopes and wiped the sweat from her forehead.
Humiliation, shame, despair, the anguish of wounded love, she saw them creep towards her. She saw them crouch like wild beasts ready to spring, their cruel eyes upon her. She had known their fangs once. Were they to rend her again?
She sat motionless and saw them pass, as behind bars, pass quite away. They could not reach her. They could not touch her.
She looked at the lover of her youth, standing as she had so often seen him stand at that window in years gone by, with his hands behind his back, looking out to the sea.
She went softly to him, and stood beside him.
"I am more grieved that I can say about these," she said, touching the letters. "I did not know the poor dears had written. It was good of you to come back at the call of these unhappy letters. Will you not burn them, Everard, and forget them? There is a fire waiting for them."
She put them into his hand. She had not spoken to him by his Christian name before. His anger sank suddenly. He took them in a shamed silence, and dropped them into the fire. Magdalen sat down by the hearth, and he sat down near her. Together they watched them burn.
"I ought to have burnt them yesterday," he said remorsefully.
"I am glad you did not. I am so thankful to see you again, and that these foolish letters brought you. I have often longed to have a talk with you.
"It seems unreasonable," continued Magdalen, her clear eyes meeting his, "but the fact of your asking me to marry you makes it possible for me to tell you what I have long wished to tell you. I have often thought of writing it. I did write it once, but I tore it up. It seems as if a woman can't say certain things to a man till he has said, 'Will you marry me?' Then it is easy, because then nothing she may say can rouse a suspicion in his mind that she wants to make him say it."
"I have proposed to you twice, Magdalen. Is not that enough?" His voice was very bitter. "I venture to prophesy that you will be safe from my pestering you with a third offer."
"I am sure of it. I never dreamed that you would ask me this second time. I never thought we should meet again except by chance, as we did a year ago. But I have had you in my mind, and I have often feared—often—that I was a painful remembrance to you; that when you thought of me it was with regret that you had perhaps—it is not so easy to say after all—that you had spoilt my life."
"I did reproach myself bitterly with having made love to you when you were so very young and inexperienced, and when I ought to have remembered that I was not in a position to marry. Your father did rub that in. As if I could help my poverty."
"Father is not a reasonable person. You were nearly as young as I was. Looking back now it seems as if we had both been almost children."
"It was a great misfortune for both of us," he said, colouring. He had not felt it great after the first.
"Not for me," she said. "That is what I have long wished to tell you. It has been my great good fortune. Not at first—but after a time. I should never have known love—of that I am sure—unless it had been for you. You were the only person who could waken it in me. The power to love is the great gift; to be permitted to know that marvel, to be allowed once in one's life to touch the infinite. Love opens all the doors. Some opened in pain, but they did open. I never knew, I never guessed until long after you had come into my life, and gone away again, how much I owed to you. Then I began to see, first in gleams, and then plainly. Your momentary attraction towards me was a tiny spark of the Divine love, a sort of little lantern leading me home through the dark."
He stared at her amazed. Her transparency transfixed him. What is superficial is also often deep in clear natures such as Magdalen's, like a water lily whose stem goes down a long way.
"Love releases us from ourselves, our hard proud selves, and makes everything possible to flow in to us, happiness, peace, joy, gratitude. I thank God for having let me know you, for having made me love you. I might have missed it. I see others miss it. I might have gone through life not knowing. I might have had to bear the burden of life, without the one thing that makes it easy. I see other people toiling and moiling, and getting hopeless and miserable and exhausted till my heart aches for them. After the first I have never toiled, never grieved, never despaired. I have been sustained always. For there are not two kinds of love, Everard, but only one. The love of you is the cup of water, and the love of God is the well it is taken from.... You had better go now before anyone else comes in, but I want you to remember when you think of me that I bless and thank you, and am grateful to you. I have been grateful for years."
She took his leaden hand in both of hers, and held it for a moment to her lips.
Lord Lossiemouth's face was pinched and aged. His hand fell out of hers.
Then his face became suddenly convulsed, frightful to behold, like that of a man being squeezed to death.
"I never loved you," he said in a fierce, suffocated voice. "I was a little in love with you, that was all, and that was not much. I soon got over it."
"I know," she said.
"I felt pain for a time. You were very beautiful, and you were the first. I was the same as you then. But I found other beautiful women. I took what I could get out of life, and out of women. I rubbed out my pain that way. It was not your father who parted us, it was myself. I would not own it, I was always bitter against him, but it was my fault. I did not mean to work, and tie myself to an office stool: I had the chance, but I wanted to travel and see the world. It was not lack of means that parted us. I said a few minutes ago that it had been the only obstacle to our marriage, and your eyes dropped. You have known better all the time, but you wouldn't say. All these years I have put it down to that. But it was not. We were parted by lack of love."
"I know," she said again.
"On my side."
"It was not your fault. We can't love to order, or by our own will. It is a gift."
"Some of us can't love at all," he said fiercely. "That is about it. We have not got any room for it if—if it is given us. It could not get a foothold. It was crowded out. I was often glad afterwards that I did not tie myself to you. Glad! Do you hear, Magdalen? It left me free to—it did give me pain when I thought of you. I knew what I had done to you. I used to tell myself that you gave me up very easily, that you did not really want me. But I knew in my heart that you did. But it only made me bitter, and I put the thought away. That time, it is ten years ago; good God! it is all so long ago, when you nearly died of scarlet fever in London, I heard of it by chance when you were at your worst, I was shocked, but I did not really care, for I had long ceased to want you. I used to visit a certain woman every day in that street, and I once asked her who the straw was down for, and she said it was for a 'Miss Magdalen Bellairs.' I was in love with her at the moment, if you can call it love. I have dragged myself through all kinds of sordid passions since—we parted."
Tears of rage stood in his eyes. He looked at her through them. It seemed as if no wounding word under heaven would be left to say by the time he had finished.
"And I did not come back in order to make amends," he went on. "You know me very little if you think that. I came back solely out of pique. It was not those absurd letters which brought me, or held me back. It was another woman. I wanted to pay her out."
"I thought perhaps it was something like that," said Magdalen.
"It was a virtuous attachment this time. I am nearly forty. I am getting grey and stout. Young women have a difficulty in perceiving my existence. It was high time to settle, and to live on some attractive woman's money. There are thousands of women who must marry someone. So why not me? I found the attractive woman. I walked into love with her," he stammered with anger. "I regarded it as a constitutional. But the attractive woman, though she liked me a little, weighed the pros and cons exactly as I had done, and decided not to take her constitutional in my impecunious company. She refused me when I was poor, and now—now that I am rich—she is willing."
The harsh voice ceased suddenly. Magdalen looked for a moment at the savage, self-tortured face, and her heart bled.
"That is how I have treated you," he said, choking with passion. "Now you know the truth of me—for the first time. That is the kind of man I am, hard and vindictive and selfish to the core: the man whom you have idealised, whom you have put on a pedestal all these years."
"I have known always the kind of man you were," she said steadily. "I never idealised you, as you call it. I loved you knowing the worst of you. Otherwise my love could not have endured through. A foolish idealism would have perished long ago."
"And then I come down here, on a sudden despicable impulse, intending to use you as a weapon to strike her with, not that she is worth striking, poor feeble pretty toy. And I encouraged myself in a thin streak of patronising sentiment for you. I wrote a little cursed sonnet in the train how old affection outlasts youthful passion, like violets blooming in autumn. How loathsome! How incredibly base! And then, when my temper is aroused by your opposition, I am dastardly enough, heartless enough to try to humiliate you by shewing you those letters, to try to revenge myself on you. On you, Magdalen! On you! On you!"
She did not speak nor move. Her face was awed, as the face of one who watches beside the pangs of death or—birth.
Outside in the amber sunset a thrush piped.
"Magdalen," he said almost inarticulately, "you have never repulsed me. Don't repulse me now, for I am very miserable. Don't pour your love into the sand any more. Give it me instead. I am dying of thirst. Give me to drink. You can live without me, but I can't live without you. I have tried—I have tried everything. I am not thinking of you, only of myself. I am only asking for myself, only impelled towards you by my own needs. Does not that prove to you that I am at last speaking the truth? Does not that force you to believe me when I tell you that I want you more than anything in the world. I have wanted you all my life without knowing it. I don't want to make amends to you for the past. I want you yourself, for myself, as my wife. I swear to God if you won't marry me I will marry no one. You are the only woman I can speak to, the only one who does not fail, who holds on through thick and thin, the only one who has ever really wanted me. I daresay I shan't make you happy. I daresay I shall break your heart. God help me, I daresay I shall put my convenience before your happiness, my selfish whims before your health. I have always put myself first. But risk it. Risk it, Magdalen. Take me back. Love me. For God's sake marry me."
Each looked into the other's bared soul.
Something in his desperate face which she had always sought for, which had always been missing from it—she found.
"I will," she said.
They made no movement towards each other. They had reached a spiritual nearness, a passion of surrender each to each, which touch of hand or lip could only at that moment have served to lessen.
"You are not taking me out of pity? You are sure you can still love me a little?"
"More than in the early days," she said. "For you have not only come to me, Everard. You have come to yourself."
Me, too, with mastering charm From husks of dead days freeing, The sun draws up to be warm And to bloom in this sweet hour. The stem of all my being Waited to bear this flower.
It would be hardly possible to describe the unholy, the unmeasured rejoicing to which Magdalen's engagement gave rise in her family. It is, perhaps, enough to say that the twenty years of her cheerful, selfless devotion to the domestic hearth had never won from her father and her two aunts anything like the admiring approval which her engagement at once elicited. The neighbourhood was interested. Lord Lossiemouth was a brilliant match for anyone (if you left out the man himself). The announcement read impressively in the Morning Post. The neighbours remembered that there had been a youthful attachment, an early engagement broken off owing to lack of means. And now it seemed the moment he was rich he had come flying back to cast his faithful heart once more at her feet. It was a real romance. Magdalen was considered an extraordinarily fortunate woman by the whole countryside, but Lord Lossiemouth was placed on a pedestal. What touching constancy. What beautiful fidelity. What a contrast to "most men." "Not one man in a hundred would have acted in that chivalrous manner," was the feminine verdict of Hampshire.
A wave of cheap sentiment overflowed the Bellairs family, in which Colonel Bellairs floated complacently like a piece of loose seaweed, and in which even Aunt Mary underwent a dignified undulation.
Bessie alone was unmoved.
"You said, 'Yes' too soon," she remarked to Magdalen in private. "I should never have thought you would be so lacking in true dignity. He goes away for fifteen years and I should not wonder a bit if he had thought of someone else in the interim for all you know to the contrary—men are like that—and then he just lounges in and says 'Marry me,' and you agree in a second. You might at any rate have made him wait for his answer till after tea. In my opinion you have made yourself cheap by such precipitate action. He thinks he has only got to ask, and he can have."
Magdalen did not answer.
"I don't understand you," continued the pained monitor. "I have always had a certain respect for you, Magdalen, and when he came back I supposed you would give in to him in time if he pressed you without intermission, and was constant for a considerable period—say a couple of years; but I never thought it possible you would collapse like this. I fear you have not taken his character sufficiently into consideration. If I were in your place I should be afraid that Everard would not allow my nature free scope, or take an interest in my mental development, and that the sacrifices which make domestic life tolerable might have to be all on my side. He is absolutely unworthy of you, and his nose is quite thick. I daresay you have not remarked it, but I did at once. And in my opinion he ought for his own good to have been made to realise it. Even Aunt Mary, though she says she entirely approves of the marriage, admits that you have shown too much eagerness."
Fortunately for Magdalen the interest of the neighbours, and even of her own family, was speedily diverted to another channel by the return of Wentworth and Michael to Barford. The enthusiastic welcome which Michael received from all classes, and from distant families who had never evinced much cordiality to his elder brother, astonished Wentworth, touched him to the quick.
"I had no idea we had so many friends," he said repeatedly.
Michael smiled vaguely and took everything for granted. Wentworth was so anxious to shield him from fatigue and excitement that at first he was only too thankful that Michael took everything so quietly. But after a few days he became uneasy at his brother's inertness of mind and body. A great doctor, however, explained Michael's state very much as the Italian doctor had done. He was in an exhausted condition. What was essential to him was rest. He must not be made to see anyone or do anything he did not like.
"Your brother will regain his health entirely," the great man had said, "if he is left in peace, and nothing happens to overexcite him. He is worn to a shadow by that accursed prison. Many men in his condition can't rest. Then they die. He can. He has the temperament that acquiesces. He will cure himself if he is left alone. Let him lie in the sun, and give nature a chance."
In spite of his anxiety Wentworth saw that Michael's bodily strength was slowly returning. Every afternoon he left him half asleep in the sun, and rode over to see Fay. Since she had accepted him it had become a necessity to him to see her every day.
Wentworth had long been bent to the dust under the pain of Michael's imprisonment. Fay had been bent with anguish to the dust by the weight of her own silence which had kept him there.
And now in the twinkling of an eye they both stood erect, freed. Life was transfigured for both at the same instant.
This marvellous moment found them both just when they were deciding mildly to love each other. It took them and flung them together in a common overwhelming joy. It almost seemed as if the shock might make a man of Wentworth.
Did he half know (he was certainly always tacitly guarding himself against the assumption of such an idea in the minds of others) that he had so far been left out, not only from the whirl of life—he had deliberately withdrawn from that—but from the weft of life itself. The great loom had not swept him in. It had not appeared to need him. Some of us seem to hang on the fringe of life, of thought, of love, of everything. We are not for good or ill interwoven into the stuff, part of the pattern.
Wentworth felt young for the first time in his life, happy for the first time in his life, really energetic for the first time. A certain languid fatigue which had been with him from boyhood, which had always lain mournfully on its back waving its legs in the air like a reversed Battle, had now been jolted right side upper-most, and was using those legs, not as proofs of the emptiness of the world, but as a means of locomotion.
He had at first been enormously raised in his own self-esteem by his engagement to a young and beautiful woman. He was permanently relieved from the necessity of accounting to his friends for the fact that he was still unmarried, reminding them that it was his own fault. Perhaps at the bottom of his heart a fear lurked, implanted by the brutal Grenfell, that he was going to be an old maid. That fear was now dispelled. It was mercifully hidden from Wentworth that Grenfell and the Bishop and most of his so-called friends would still so regard him even if he were married.
But gradually and insensibly the many petty reasons for satisfaction which his engagement to Fay had given him, and even the delight in being loved, were overshadowed by a greater presence.
At first they had never been silent together. Wentworth liked to hear his own voice, and prosed stolidly on for hours with exquisite enjoyment and an eye to Fay's education at the same time, about his plans, his aspirations, his past life (not that he had had one), the hollowness of society (not that he knew anything about it), a man's need of solitude, and the solace of a woman's devotion, its softening effect on a life devoted hitherto, perhaps, too entirely to intellectual pursuits.
Fay did not listen to him very closely. She felt that his mind soared beyond her ken. But she was greatly impressed, and repeated little bits of what he had said to Magdalen afterwards. And she looked at him with rapt adoration.
"Wentworth says that consideration in little things is what makes the happiness of married life," she would announce pontifically.
"And he says social life ought to be simplified."
"Indeed! Does he happen to mention how it is to be done?"
"He says it ought to be regulated, and that everyone ought to be at liberty to lead their own life, and not to be expected to attend cricket matches and garden parties, if you are so constituted that you don't find pleasure in them. I used to think I liked garden parties, Magdalen, but I see I don't now. I care more for the big things of life now. Does Everard ever talk to you like that when you and he are alone?"
"And Andrea never did, either. Wentworth is simply wonderful. You should hear him speak about fame being shallow, and how the quiet mind looking at things truly is everything, and peace not being to be found in the market place, but in a walk by a stream, and how in his eyes a woman's love outweighs the idle glitter of a social success. Oh! Magdalen, I'm beginning to feel I'm not worthy of Wentworth. I've always liked being admired, so different from him. I did not know there were men so high-minded as he. He makes me feel very petty beside him. And he is so humble. He says I must not idealise him, that he does not wish it, for though he may not be worse or better than I think he is only too conscious of his many deficiencies. But I can't help it. Who could?"
And Fay let fall a tear.
"We needs must love the highest when we see it."
But the highest some of us can see is the nearest molehill.
What Michael and the Duke had failed to do for Fay Wentworth was accomplishing.
"You are made for each other," said Magdalen, with conviction. "Every day shows me that you and Wentworth bring out the best in each other. Perhaps, gradually, you will keep nothing back from each other, tell each other everything."
"He tells me everything now," said Fay. "He trusts me entirely."
"And you?" said Magdalen. "Do you tell him everything?"
* * * * *
Wentworth, too, had reached the conviction that he and Fay were made for each other. He might have starved out the deeper love, the truth and tenderness of a sincerer nature, if it had been drawn towards him. He had often imagined himself as being the recipient of the lavished devotion of a woman beautiful, humble, exquisite and noble, whose truth was truth itself, and had vaguely wondered why she had not come into his life. But perhaps if he had met such a woman, and if she had loved him as he pined to be loved, he would have become suspicious of her, and would have left her after many vacillations. He did not instinctively recognise humility and nobility when he met them, because they bore but slight resemblance to the stiff lay figures which represented those qualities in his mind. To meet them in reality would have been to him bewilderment, disappointment, disillusion.
Fay was not only what he seemed to want, what he had feebly longed for. She was more than this. Her nature was the complement of his. A lack of shrewdness, of mental grasp, a certain silliness were absolutely essential to the maintenance of a lifelong devotion to him. Wentworth had found the right woman to give him what he wanted. Fay had found the right man.
Love, which had been knocking urgently at their doors for so many futile years, heard at last a movement as of someone stirring within, and a hand upon the disused latch.
O Yanna, Adrianna, They buried me away In the blue fathoms of the deep, Beyond the outer bay.
But in the Yule, O Yanna, Up from the round dim sea And reeling dungeons of the fog I am come back to thee!
Wentworth stood at the open window of the library watching Michael.
Michael was lying on a deck chair on the terrace playing with a puppy. His face was losing a certain grey drawn look which it had worn since he had left prison. He looked more like himself since his hair had time to grow. Wentworth felt that he ought to be reassured about him, but a vague anxiety harassed him.
Suddenly, without a moment's warning, the puppy fell asleep. Michael made a movement to reach it, but it was just beyond his grasp.
In an instant Wentworth was beside him, lifting the sleeping mass of sleek fat on to Michael's knee. Michael's long hands made a little crib for it.
"He will sleep now for a bit," he said contentedly.
"Do you sleep better?" said Wentworth. He had not forgotten those first nights at Venice when Michael's feeble step had dragged itself to and fro in the next room half the night.
"I sleep like a top. I'm asleep half the time."
"You are much better the last few days."
"Oh! I'm all right."
"All Hampshire has been to call. I knew you would be bored, so I did not let them disturb you."
"Is there anyone you would like to see?"
"No one that I know of."
"No one at all?"
Michael made a mental effort which did not escape Wentworth.
"I should like very much to see—presently—if it could be done——"
"Yes," said Wentworth eagerly. "Of course it can be done, my dear boy. You would like to see?"
"Doctor Filippi," said Michael, looking deprecatingly at Wentworth. "He was so good to me. And I am accustomed to seeing him. I miss him all the time. I wonder whether you would let him come and stay here for his holiday. He generally takes it in June. And—let me see—it's May now, isn't it?"
Wentworth's heart swelled with jealousy and disappointment. The jealousy was of the doctor, the disappointment was about Fay. The larger of the two emotions was jealousy.
"You have sent Doctor Filippi a very handsome present," he said coldly. "I chose it for you, a silver salver. I went up to London on purpose at your wish a week ago."
"And I don't think he would care to come here. No doubt he has his own friends. You must remember a man like that is poor. It would be putting him to expense."
Michael looked down at the sleeping puppy. He did not answer.
Wentworth was beginning to fear that his brother had an ungrateful, callous nature. Was Michael so self-absorbed—egotism revolted Wentworth—that he would never ask to see Wentworth's future wife, the woman who had shown such unceasing, such tender interest in Michael himself.
"I hoped there was someone else, someone very dear to me, and a devoted friend of yours, whom you might like to see again."
Wentworth spoke with deliberation.
"I could send him a cheque. He need not be at any expense," said Michael in a low voice. His exhausted mind, slower to move than ever, had not left the subject of Doctor Filippi. His brother's last remark had not penetrated to it.
Wentworth became scarlet. He made an impatient movement. Then part of the sense of his brother's last words tardily reached Michael's blurred faculties.
"An old friend of mine," he said, vaguely flurried. "What old friend?"
"Fay," said Wentworth, biting his lip. "Have you forgotten Fay entirely? How she tried to save you, how she grieved for you? Her great goodness to you? And what she is to me!"
"No," said Michael. "No. I don't forget. Her goodness to me. How she tried to save me. Just so. Just so. I don't forget."
"Won't you see her? She and Magdalen are driving over here this morning. You need not see Magdalen unless you like."
"I should like. She is going to be married, too, isn't she? I feel as if I had heard someone say so."
"Yes, to Lossiemouth. You remember him as Everard Constable, a touchy, ill-conditioned, cantankerous brute if ever there was one, who does not care a straw for anyone but himself. I can't think what she sees in him. But an Earl's an Earl. I always forget that. I have lived so much apart from the world and its sordid motives and love of wealth and rank that it is always a shock and a surprise when I come in contact with its way of looking at things. I never liked Magdalen. I always considered her superficial. But I never thought her mercenary—till now. But Fay——"
"I will see her, too," said Michael. "Yes, of course. I somehow thought of Fay as—as—but my mind gets so confused—as at a great distance, quite removed all this time. Hundreds and hundreds of miles away in England. Left Italy for good."
"My dear boy, she is living at Priesthope, four miles off. I've told you so over and over again. I go and see her every day."
"Yes, at Priesthope, of course. Four miles. I know the way. You can go by Wind Farm, or Pilgrim Road. You did tell me. More cheerful as time passes on."
Wentworth looked with perplexity at Michael's thin profile. The doctor had most solemnly assured him that his mind was only muffled and deadened by his physical weakness. But it sometimes seemed to Wentworth as if his brother's brain were softening.
He felt a sudden return of the blind despairing rage which was wont to grip him after his visits to Michael in prison. This inert, cold-blooded shadow; was this all that was left of his brother?
A great tenderness welled up in his heart, the old, old protective tenderness of many years. He put his strong brown hand on his brother's emaciated, once beautiful hand, now disfigured by coarse labour, and scarred and discoloured at the wrist.
"Get well, Michael," he said huskily.
Michael's hand trembled a little, seemed to shrink involuntarily.
Then a servant appeared suddenly, coming towards them across the grass, and Wentworth took back his hand instantly.
"The Duchess of Colle Alto and Miss Bellairs are in the library."
"Are you quite sure that you really wish to see them—that it will not tire you?" said Wentworth.
"I will bring them out."
"No. Send one at a time. Fay first."
Michael lay back and closed his eyes.
* * * * *
On this May morning as Fay and Magdalen drove together to Barford, Magdalen looked at her sister's radiant face, not with astonishment, she had got over that, but with something more like fear.
The happiness of some natures terrifies those who love them by its appearance of brittleness. To Magdalen Fay's present joy seemed like a bit of Venetian glass on the extreme edge of a cabinet at a child's elbow.
It is difficult for those who have imagination to understand the insouciance which looks so like heartlessness of the unimaginative. The inevitable meeting with Michael seemed to cast no shadow on Fay's spirits; Wentworth's ignorance of certain sinister facts did not seem to disturb her growing love for him.
Their way lay through a pine wood under the shoulder of the down. The whortleberry with its tiny foliage made a miniature forest of pale golden green at the feet of the dark serried trunks of the pines.
Small yellow butterflies hovered amid the topmost branches of this underfoot forest.
Fay leaned out of the pony carriage and picked from the high bank a spray of whortleberry with a butterfly poised on it.
"I thought for one minute I might find a tiny, tiny butterfly nest with eggs in it," she said. "I do wish butterflies had nests like birds, Magdalen, don't you? But this is a new butterfly, not ready to fly. I shall hurt it unless I'm careful."
She made her sister stop the pony, and knelt down amid the shimmering whortleberry, and tenderly placed the sprig with the butterfly still clinging to it in a little pool of sunshine. But as she did it the butterfly walked from its twig on to her white hand and rested on it, opening and shutting its wings.
It was a pretty sight to watch Fay coax it to a leaf. But Magdalen's heart ached for her sister as she knelt in the sunshine. Words rose to her lips for the twentieth time, but she choked them down again. What use, what use to warn those who cannot be warned, to appeal to deaf ears, to point out to holden eyes the things that belong to their peace?
The vision is the claim, but it must be our own eyes that see it. We may not look at our spiritual life through another man's eyes.
As Magdalen waited her eyes wandered to the blue haze between the tree trunks which was the sea, and marked a white band like a ribbon between the blue and the fields. That was a piece of land newly reclaimed from the sea. When a tract of land is thus captured, the first year that it is laid open to the ministry of sun and air and rain it bears an overflowing crop of white clover. The clover seed has lain dormant, perhaps a thousand years under the wash of the wave. The first spring tide after the sea is withdrawn it wakes and rushes up. It was so now in that little walled-in tract by the shore, where she had walked but yesterday. Surely it was to be so in Fay's heart, now that the bitter tides of remorse and selfishness were ceasing to submerge it, now that at last joy and tenderness were reaching it. Surely, love itself, the seeds of which lie dormant in every heart, love like a marvellous tide of white clover, was finding its chance at last, and would presently inundate her heart.
Then, unharassed, undelayed by vain words and futile appeals from without—all would go well.
* * * * *
At the last moment when the meeting with Michael was really imminent Fay's insouciance began, as Magdalen feared it might, to show signs of collapse. It deserted her entirely as they drove up to Barford.
"Come out with me," she whispered in sudden panic, plucking at her sister's gown, when Wentworth asked her to go and speak to Michael for a few minutes in the garden. But Magdalen had drawn back gravely and resolutely, and had engaged Wentworth's attention, and Fay had been obliged to go alone across the lawn, in the direction of the deck chair.
Her step, lagging and irresolute, was hardly audible on the grass, but Michael heard it, recognised it. We never forget the footfall, however light, that has trodden on our heart.
The footfall stopped and he opened his eyes.
Fay was standing before him.
And so they met again at last, those two who had been lovers once. She looked long at the man she had broken. He was worn down to the last verge of exhaustion, barely more than a shadow in the suave sunshine. She would hardly have recognised him if it had not been for the tranquil steady eyes, and the grave smile. They were all that was left of him, of the Michael she had known. The rest was unfamiliar, repellant. And his hands! His hands were dreadful. Oh! if only she had known he was going to look like that she would never have come. Never, never! Fay experienced the same unspeakable horror and repugnance as if, walking in long, daisy-starred grass, she had suddenly stumbled against and nearly fallen over a dead body.
The colour ebbed out of her face and lips. She stood before him without a word, shrinking, transfixed.
He looked long at her, the woman for whom he had been content to suffer, that he might keep suffering from her. Fay's self torture, her protracted anguish, her coward misery, these were written as it were anew in her pallid face. They had been partially effaced during the heedless happiness of the last few weeks, but the sudden shock of Michael's presence drew in again afresh with a cruel pencil the haggard lines of remorse and despair.
He had not been able to shield her from pain after all.
"Oh, Fay!" he said below his breath. "How you have suffered."
"No one knows what it has been," she said hoarsely, sinking into a chair, trembling too much to stand. "I could not live through it again. I couldn't bear it, and I had to bear it."
"You will never have to bear it again," he said with compassion. "It is over and done with. You are going to be happy now."
"You have suffered too," she said, reddening.
"Not like you. It has been worst for you. I never guessed that you had felt my imprisonment so much as I see now by your face you have."
"Not have felt it! Not have suffered from it!" said Fay, amazed. "Michael, how could I help grieving day and night over it?"
The question almost rose to his lips, "Why then did you not release me?" But the words were not spoken. There is one pain which we need not bear, but which some of us never rest till we have drawn it upon ourselves, that of extorting from the one we love vain excuses, unconscious lies, feeble, inadequate explanations that explain nothing. Let be. The excuses, the lies, these shadows of the mind will vanish the moment Love lights his lamp. Till then their ghost-like presence, their semblance of reality but show that the chamber of the Beloved is dark.
Michael was silent. Though his body and mind were half dead, his spirit was alive and clear, moving swiftly where the spent mind could not follow.
"How could I help breaking my heart over the thought of you in prison?" said Fay again, wounded to the quick.
She stared at him, indignant tears smarting in her eyes. Another long look passed between them, on her side bewildered, pained, aghast at being so misunderstood, on his penetrating, melancholy, full of compassionate insight, that look which seems to herald the parting between two unequal natures, but which is in reality a perception that they have never met.
"I knew you would rejoice when I was set free," he said tranquilly, smiling at her. "Ah! Here are Magdalen and Wentworth. How radiant she looks!"
When Magdalen and Fay had departed, and Wentworth had seen them to the carriage, he came back and sat down by Michael.
"Not over-tired?" he said, smiling self-consciously, and poking holes in the turf with his stick.
"Not in the least."
"She was looking a little pale to-day." It was obvious that he wished to talk about Fay.
"She is more beautiful than ever," said Michael, willing to give his brother a leg-up.
"Isn't she!" said the affianced lover expansively. "But it isn't her beauty I love most, it is her character. She is so feminine, so receptive, so appreciative of the deeper side of life, so absolutely devoted. Her heart has been awakened for the first time, Michael. She has, I feel sure, never been loved before as I loved her."
"I imagine not."
"I can't believe she ever cared for the Duke. I saw him once, and he gave me the impression of a very cold-blooded individual."
"I don't think he was cold-blooded."
"Evidently not the kind of man capable of drawing the best out of a woman like Fay."
The man who felt himself capable of this feat prodded a daisy and then went on:
"You used to see a good deal of them in Rome before—while you were attache there. Did you gather that it was a happy marriage, a true union?"
"Not very happy."
"I daresay he was selfish and inconsiderate. That is generally the crux in married life. Fay has had an overshadowed life so far, but I shall find my chief happiness in changing all that. It will be my object to guard her from the slightest touch of pain in future. The masculine impulse to shield and protect is very strongly developed in me."
"It is sometimes difficult to guard people," said Michael half to himself.
"I hope some day," Wentworth went on shyly, colouring under his tan, "your turn may come, that you may meet the right woman, and feel as I do now. It will be a revelation to you. I am afraid it may seem exaggerated in a person like myself, who am essentially a man's man. (This was a favourite illusion of Wentworth's.) But some day you will understand, and you will find as I have done that love is not just slothfully accepting a woman's slavish devotion."
"No, Michael, believe me, it is something far greater. It is living not only for self, but as for her sake. To take trouble to win the smile of one we love, to gladly forego one's momentary pleasures, one's convenience, in order to serve her. That is the best reward of life."
Michael's eyes filled with tears. He felt a hundred years older than Wentworth at that moment. A tender pained compassion welled up within him. And with it came a new protective comprehension of the man beside him who had cherished him from his childhood onwards.
He put out his hand and gripped Wentworth's.
"God bless you, Wenty," he said.
And for a moment they who were so far apart seemed very near together.
She sees no tears, Or any tone Of thy deep groan She hears: Nor does she mind Or think on't now That ever thou Wast kind.
It quickly became plain to Magdalen that Fay's peace of mind had been shaken by her interview with Michael. She had vouchsafed no word concerning it on her way home. But in the days that followed she appeared ill at ease, and a vague and increasing unrest seemed to possess her. Magdalen doubted whether she had as yet asked herself what it was that was disturbing her tranquillity. But it was at any rate obvious that she shrank from seeing Michael again, and that she was at times dejected in Wentworth's presence.
Wentworth perceived the change in her, and attributed it to a most natural and pardonable jealousy of Michael to which, while he made the fullest allowance for it, he had no inclination to yield.
Michael had for a moment seemed to take more interest in life after Fay's visit, and although he had quickly relapsed into apathy Wentworth told himself that he was anxious to foster this nascent interest by another meeting between him and Fay. At the same time he desired to rehearse the part of central figure poised between two great devotions which was to be his agreeable role in the future. For Michael would of course live with them after his marriage with Fay. And if there were any ebullitions of jealousy between Fay and Michael—Wentworth dwelt with complacency on the possibility—he felt competent to deal with them with tact and magnanimity, reassuring each in turn as to their equal share in his affections.
Michael at any rate showed no disinclination to meet Fay again, and even evinced something verging on a desire to see Magdalen. And presently Wentworth arranged to drive him over to luncheon at Priesthope. Throughout life he had always liked to settle, even in the most trivial matters, what Michael should do, with whom he should associate. The situation was not new, nor was there any novelty in Michael's pliability.
But when the day came Wentworth arrived without his brother, and evidently out of temper. Magdalen asked if Michael were less well, and was curtly assured that he was steadily improving. The luncheon dragged through somehow as under a cloud. Colonel Bellairs was fortunately absent on a visit to Miss Barnett at Saundersfoot. His absence was the only silver lining to the cloud. Fay hardly spoke. Magdalen was thankful that her prickly Lord Lossiemouth had departed the day before.
After luncheon, when they were sitting on the terrace over their coffee, Bessie left them, and Magdalen was about to do the same, when Wentworth said suddenly:
"I left Michael with the Bishop of Lostford. That is why he is not here now. The Bishop is inducting the new Rector of Wrigley this afternoon, and he sent a wire this morning—he is always doing things at the last moment—he never considers others—to say that he would call at Barford on his way to see Michael. Michael is his godson, and he has always been fond of him. I left them together."
Magdalen and Fay sipped their coffee in silence.
"Michael had been as inert and apathetic as usual," continued Wentworth sullenly, "until the Bishop appeared. The Bishop took him off into the garden, though I said I did not like his going out so soon after dressing—he was only just up—and it was perfectly plain they did not want me. I believe that was why they went out. I was of no account. The Bishop has always been like that, your friend one day, and oblivious of you the next. But he and Michael seemed to have a great deal to say to each other. I watched them from the library walking up and down. Michael can walk quite well when he wants to. Then when the victoria came round—I thought he would find that less fatiguing than the dogcart—I went to tell him that it was time to start, but he only stared vaguely at me, and the Bishop took his arm and said that you must excuse him for this once, as he did not mean to let him go at that moment. So I came away without him."
"There will be many more opportunities of seeing us, and one must clutch what few chances one can of seeing the Bishop," said Magdalen.
"When I went to warn Michael that the carriage was there," continued Wentworth, "he did not see me till I was quite near—there was a bush between—and I could not help hearing him say, 'That was half an hour before I was arrested.'"
There was an uneasy silence.
"It seems," said Wentworth with exceeding bitterness, "that I have not Michael's confidence. The Bishop has it, but I, his only brother. Oh, no. He can talk to the Bishop about his imprisonment, but to me—not a word, not a single word. At first when we were together at Venice I asked him quietly about it once or twice. I asked him why he had never said a word to me about it at the time, why he had not confided to me at any rate that he was shielding the Marchesa, but I soon saw that the subject distressed him. He always became confused, and he never would reply. Once, since we were back at Barford, when he seemed clearer, I asked him most earnestly to tell me one thing, whether he actually witnessed the murder of the Marchese by his wife, as she supposed, and what had first put it into his head to take the blame on himself. But it seemed that any allusion to the subject exhausted and worried him. I said to him at last: 'Do you still hate talking of it as much as ever?' And he said 'yes.' I could understand that, and from that day to this I never alluded to it again. But though he won't say a word to me, it seems he can to others."
The miserable jealousy in Wentworth's face touched Magdalen.
"He knew you had strained every nerve to save him," said Wentworth, turning to Fay. "Has he ever shown his gratitude for what you tried to do for him?"
"N-no," stammered Fay.
"His imprisonment has changed his nature, that is what it is. He went in alive, and he has come out dead. He has ceased to care for anything or anyone. He has been killed by inches. He was so affectionate as a boy. I was father and mother to him. He used to trot after me like a little dog. And if anyone had his whole confidence I had. I was everything to him. My one fear of marrying has always been that he might feel pained at seeing another person first with me." (Wentworth had never had this altruistic misgiving, but he stated it with conviction.) "But now he is not the same. I suppose he still has some affection for me. He shows it sometimes by a kind of effort. He seemed to wake up a bit after you came over, Fay. I think he had a sort of glimpse from things I said to him of what love can be, and just for a moment he was more like his old self, and appeared to enter into my feelings. But he soon sank back again. As often as not he seems to shrink from any real conversation. We sometimes sit whole evenings together without speaking. He does not really want me any more, or anyone. He talked at first a little about the Italian doctor, but he never mentions him now. And as for my marriage, as for being distressed by my caring for someone else," resentfully, "he is absolutely indifferent. You would think that Fay and I, the two people of all others who have done most for him, who have grieved most over him, who have shown him most affection, were nothing to him."
There was a ghastly silence.
"I don't blame him," said Wentworth with something nearer passion than he had ever experienced before, in which even his petty jealousy was momentarily extinguished. "At least, I can't look at him and remain angry with him. It breaks my heart to see him like this, so callous, so regardless of all I have suffered on his account. I don't blame him. He is not himself. His brain is weakened by his poor body. No. The person I do blame is that accursed woman who allowed him to suffer for her, who skulked behind him for two endless years, who let him sacrifice his life for hers, who never had the courage to say the word, and take her crime upon herself, and get him out of his living grave."
Fay became cold as death in the May sunshine. What ghost was this which was taking form before her? What voice was this, how could it be Wentworth's voice, which was saying at last aloud with passion what that other accusing voice within had so hoarsely, so persistently whispered from its cell, during the long years? Her brain reeled.
"The Marchesa did repent," said Magdalen.
Wentworth laughed harshly.
"Oh, yes. On her deathbed, in order to save her soul. She wanted to be right with the next world. But how could she go on, year in year out, letting him burn and freeze alternately in that vile cell? She must have known, someone must have told her, what his life was like. How well I remember, Fay, your saying: 'Why does not the real murderer confess? How can he go on letting an innocent man wear out his life in prison, bearing the punishment of his horrible crime?' How little we both knew. I always supposed the assassin was a man, a common criminal of the lowest order. Yet it seems there are women in the world, educated, refined women, who can remorselessly pinch a man's life out of him with their white hands. The Marchesa has murdered two people, first her husband, and then my boy, my foolish, quixotic, generous Michael. May God forgive her! I never will!"
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.
—W. B. YEATS.
Je veux aimer, mais je ne veux pas souffrir.
—A. DE MUSSET.
In the days that followed the Bishop's visit Michael's mind showed signs of reasserting itself. He was as quickly exhausted as ever, and with fatigue came the old apathy and helpless confusion of ideas. But his languid intelligence had intervals of increasing clearness. His face took on at these times a strained expression, as if he dimly saw something with which he felt powerless to cope. We see such a look sometimes, very piteous in its impotence, in the faces of the old, when an echo reaches them of the anguish of the world in which they once lived, which they have well nigh forgotten.
Michael's body, which had so far profited by the inertness of his faculties, resented the change, and gave unmistakable signs of relinquishing the slight degree of strength it had regained.
Wentworth became suddenly frantically anxious once more, and in a moment the wrongs on which he was brooding were forgotten. He decided to go to London the same day under the guise of business, and to consult the great doctor privately about Michael, perhaps arrange to bring him back with him.
"I wish you would drive oftener," he said to Michael before he left. "It's much better for you than walking up and down. Why not, if you feel inclined, as you will be alone all day, drive over to Priesthope this afternoon. I said you would come the first day you could. It's only four miles, just an easy little drive."
An indefinable change passed over Michael's vacant face at the mention of Priesthope. His eyes became fixed. He looked gravely at his brother, as if the latter had solved some difficult problem.
"It's a good idea," he said slowly. "I ought to have gone before, but——"
"The Bishop stopped you most inconsiderately last time."
"Did he? I don't remember being stopped. Oh! yes, yes, I do. But if I had gone that day—— But anyhow I will go to-day."
* * * * *
Fay was sitting alone in the morning-room at Priesthope, pretending to read, when Michael was announced.
When he had been conveyed to a chair and had overcome the breathlessness and semi-blindness that any exertion caused him he saw that she looked ill, and as if she had not slept.
"I ought to have come before," he said mechanically, making a great mental effort and putting his hand to his head. "I meant to come, but——" he looked hopelessly at her. He had evidently forgotten what he intended to say.
"The day you were coming with Wentworth the Bishop stopped you," said Fay drearily. Every word that Wentworth had said that afternoon was still echoing discordantly in her brain.
"That's it. The Bishop," said Michael with relief. "He told me, we had a long talk"—his mind was clearing rapidly—"how you meant to save me."
"Yes, I meant to do it," said Fay, looking at him with miserable eyes. "But the Marchesa, the same day—it was in the papers."
"I know, I know. The Bishop told me. He said I ought to know that you had been willing to make the sacrifice. I have come to thank you, Fay, and to ask you to forgive me for misjudging you. You see I was not aware you—had thought of it."
"It's for you to forgive me, Michael, not me you. And you don't bear me a grudge, do you? I somehow don't feel as if you did. And—oh, Michael, you never, never will say anything or do anything, will you—you could, you know—to stop my marrying Wentworth?"
Michael's eyes turned on her almost with scorn.
"When first we met again, that second time in Italy," he said gently, "do you remember it by the tomb in the gardens? There were roses all over it. I never saw such roses. Perhaps there were none like them. Then I had no faintest thought or hope of marrying you, though I had not forgotten you, Fay. I had put it all away, buried it. You were another man's wife. Now that we meet again—the position is the same."
Fay looked at Michael.
The impersonal detached look which she had set herself to extinguish that day amid the roses, which had been in his face when she saw him first as a lad, which she had twice extinguished, was in his eyes again. There was no pain in them now, any more than there had been when they leaned together beside the tomb: only the shadow of something exceeding sharp, endured, accepted, outlived. Michael looked through her, beyond her.
"And yet the position is not quite the same," he said tranquilly, "for then you were married to a man you did not love, and now you are to marry a man you—Oh! Fay, you do care for Wentworth, don't you?"
"I would not have kept him in prison for a day," she said, and hid her face in her hands.
If only it might have been Wentworth who had sacrificed himself for her with what desperate rapidity she would have rescued him. How calm her agonised heart would be now. Fay was beginning to learn that it is ill to take a service save from the hand we love. And perhaps, too, in her heart she knew that Wentworth would never have sacrificed himself for her, for Michael possibly, but not for her.
"Wentworth is worth caring for," said Michael. "Not worth caring for in part, a bit here and a bit there, who is? but worth caring for altogether. I have loved him all my life. I love him more than anyone in the world. You asked me just now not to say anything to stop his marrying you. But that is just what I've come about. I am so afraid of his marriage with you being stopped."
Fay raised her face out of her hands, and stared at him.
"It's the only thing I've ever known him really wish for, almost keen about. He can't care much about things, not as other men care. He has always waited to see whether things will come to him of themselves, and then if they didn't he thought it was a wise Providence taking them away, showing him the vanity of setting his heart on anything, while all the time it's his own nature really that makes things somehow slip away from him. People slip away from him. I've seen it happen over and over again. He can't take hold like other men. He does not put himself out for any one, you know, and he doesn't realise that other people do; he has no idea how men like the Bishop and Grenfell and the Archbishop stand by each other, and hold together through thick and thin. Wentworth has no friends, but he doesn't know it. He has only you and me. The Bishop said we must remember that, and that if—anything happened to shake his—his feeling for either of us, his belief in either of us, it would be cruelly hard on him."
"Why should anything happen," said Fay faintly, "if you don't tell him?"
"I shan't tell him on purpose, you may be sure of that, but since—since the Bishop came over I'm certain he suspects something, I don't know what, and I have to be careful all the time. Fay, I've grown so stupid and muddle-headed since I've been in—in Italy that I can't remember what I may say and what I mayn't about that time. My only safety is in absolute silence, and lately that has begun to vex him. And he asks such odd questions, which I don't see the meaning of at first, like traps. He often tells me he never asks any questions, but he does, indirect ones, all the time. I'm getting afraid of being alone with him. Sometimes I think if I stay much longer at Barford I'm so idiotic he'll get it out of me. Has he asked you any leading questions?"
"No. Once he asked if you showed any gratitude for what I had done for you in the past. And I said no. It was the first time I had told him a lie, for it was a lie except in the actual words."
"Aren't you afraid," said Michael gently, "that it may not be the only one, that perhaps there may be some more?"
There was a long pause.
"I think Wentworth will find out some day," he went on. "I'm sure he will. Then, Fay, it might be too late for you and me to save him from a great pain. He might feel that we had both betrayed him."
Fay turned her quivering face towards him.
"Oh, no. I haven't done that. It's you I betrayed, Michael. I'm so thankful it was you, and not him."
"I was yours to keep or to throw away. You could do what you liked with your own. But it is not the same for Wentworth. Wentworth belongs—to himself."
In her heart she knew it. Love had shown even her certain things about the man she loved.
"And I am afraid he might feel it if he found out that you had let me stay—in Italy."
"I'd give anything I have," she said with a sob; "I'd give both my hands, I'd give my being pretty, which I think so much of, and he thinks so much of, I'd give anything if only I had not—done that, if I could only undo that. Sometimes I wake in the morning and think I haven't done it, that it's only a dream. And it's like Heaven! I cry for joy. And then the knowledge comes. I did not know, Michael, what I was doing. But since you came back I've seen; since I loved Wentworth I've seen—what I've done to you; just brushed you aside when you got in the way, and left you to die."
He looked at her in silence. It had come, the moment of anguished realisation that he had foreseen for her, but it had come to her through love for another. That to which his great love would fain have drawn her, she had reached at last by a lesser love than his.
"I have been cruel to Wentworth. I might have tried to get you out for his sake if not for yours. He never had a moment's happiness while you were shut up. But I didn't. I didn't really care for him then. I only tried at last to get you out, because I could not bear the misery of it any longer. I have never cared for anyone but myself—till now. I see now that I have been hard and cruel. I have always thought myself gentle and loving and tender-hearted, like you thought me, poor, poor Michael. You have paid for that. Like Wentworth thinks me now. Oh, Michael, must Wentworth pay too?"
Michael looked at her with compassion. "I am afraid he must. But do not let him pay a penny more than is necessary. You still have it in your power to save him part of the—the expense. Let him pay the lesser price instead of the greater. Tell him, instead of letting him find out."
"It is the only thing to do, Fay."
"I am afraid you do not love him after all," said the inexorable voice.
Michael dragged himself feebly from his chair, and took her clenched hands between both of his.
"Love him a little more," he said. "Take the risk and tell him everything—while there is still time. Listen, Fay, and try to forgive me if I seem cruel. You thought you loved me once. But it was not enough to risk anything for me. You threw me away by your silence because you found the truth too difficult. Don't, don't throw Wentworth away too, because the truth is difficult. Fay, believe me," Michael's voice shook, "it's hard to find out you've been deceived. It's hard to be betrayed." His voice had sunk to a broken whisper. "Don't put him through it. You wouldn't if you—if you knew what it was like."
* * * * *
Magdalen, coming in half an hour later found Fay lying on her face on the sofa alone. She looked, poor little creature, with her outstretched arms, not unlike a cross on which Love might very well be crucified anew. It does not matter much whether it is on a cross of wood, or of fear, or of egotism, that we nail Love to his slow death.
Fay loved for the first time. Was she going to crucify that love, to pierce its upholding hands, to betray that benign saviour, come so late but come at last, to help her in her sore need?
His own thought drove him like a goad.—TENNYSON.
"Now," said the great doctor to Michael next day, "I have been hustled down here against my will by Mr. Maine. I'm wanted elsewhere. I calculate my time at a pound a minute. Out with it. What is it that's worrying you?"
Michael did not answer.
The great man groaned. But his eyes were kindly.
"You want something you have not got, eh? like the rest of us. We are all in the same steam launch."
"I don't want anything, thanks."
"Quite sure? I have always observed that people who are in love are desperately offended at the bare supposition that such a thing is possible. Things might be arranged, you know. Young women aren't intended by nature to live single any more than you are. Would a few weeks in London meet the case? The season's just beginning. No theatres, of course, and no late hours. Your brother here seems made of money, though he will soon be ruined if he goes on sending for me. For I always charge double if I'm sent for unnecessarily. Come, sir, what do you want?"
"I don't know," said Michael, half amused. He was still exhausted by his expedition to Priesthope of the previous day. "I don't want anything, thanks. I'm—all right."
"What do you say to a change?"
"I had not thought of that," said Michael with a flicker of interest. "Now you mention it—yes. That's the very thing. I should like—a change."
Wentworth came forward at once.
"Norway?" he said eagerly, "or Switzerland. We must be guided by you, doctor. Or a yacht? You used to be fond of yachting, Michael. We will go anywhere you like."
Michael's face fell.
The doctor leaned back and examined his finger tips. He had seen what he wanted.
"The yacht won't do," he said with decision. "And Norway's out of the question. Much too far. In fact, there's only one place that will do."
"Where is that?" said Wentworth.
"I don't know yet. Where is it, Mr. Carstairs?"
"I should like," said Michael, colouring painfully, for he knew he was going to hurt Wentworth, "I should like to go to Lostford; not for long, just for a little bit."
"Lostford!" exclaimed Wentworth, amazed. "Lostford, down in that hole. Oh! no."
"Well, and why not Lostford?" said the doctor with asperity. "Mr. Carstairs shows his sense. He is not up to a long journey. Quite near. Interesting cathedral. Cultivated society. I should have suggested Lostford myself if he had not."
"I will ride over and take rooms at the 'Prince Consort' to-day," said Wentworth meekly.
"You will do no such thing. Are you taking leave of your senses. Your brother is not fit to stay in a rackety hotel."
"The Bishop has asked me," said Michael faintly, "to spend a week or two with him whenever I like. I believe—it's very quiet there."
"The Bishop!" said Wentworth. "It would be far from quiet at the Palace. Worse than an hotel. The Bishop lives in a perpetual turmoil."
Then he suddenly stopped short, and became very red. Michael preferred the Bishop to himself.
"It's a good idea," said the doctor. "I know the Bishop. Splendid man. The best of company." He got up with decision. "My orders are, Mr. Carstairs, that you proceed to Lostford without delay. How far is it? Six miles. Go to-morrow." Then he turned to Wentworth. "You will go over and see him in a week's time, and report to me."
"You think him worse," said Wentworth nervously to the doctor in the hall.
"No," said the doctor emphatically, watching his motor sliding to the door, "but he is not better. He is anxious about something, and he can't afford to be anxious. He is not in a fit state to have a finger ache with impunity."
"He has nothing to be anxious about," said Wentworth. "And if he had a trouble I should be the first to hear of it. I have his entire confidence—at least, I had till lately. I must own he has become very changed of late. Of course, I never appear to notice it, but——"
"Quite right. Quite right. I wish others were as sagacious as you are. Let him go to Lostford for a week or two—and get you off his nerves," the doctor added to himself as the motor shot down the beech avenue.
* * * * *
A few days later Wentworth was sitting idly watching the stream of Piccadilly from the windows of his club. The same day that Michael had gone to Lostford he had discovered that he had business in London. He would have found it difficult to say what his business there was. But one of Wentworth's many theories about himself was that he was a very busy man. He had so constantly given "urgent business" as a reason for evading uncongenial social engagements that he had finished by believing himself to be overwhelmed with arduous affairs. So he went to London, and visited a publisher anent his forthcoming history of Sussex, and dined with a man whom he met at Lord's, whom he had not seen for years, and wrote daily to Fay, expressing ardent but vague hopes that he might be able to "get away" from London by the end of the week.
He was in no hurry to return.
A vague fear of something grievously amiss with Michael, he knew not what; an unformulated anxiety weighed upon him. And he was jealous. Jealousy had brought him up to London. He was not going to remain deserted at Barford. Jealousy was keeping him there now. He had seen that Michael was glad to get away from him, that he had caught at the doctor's suggestion of a change. His sullen heart was very sore about Michael. Why did he want to leave him? Where would he meet anyone more devoted to him than himself? What could any man do for another that he had not done for Michael? Was it true then, after all, what he had so often heard was the fate of men of deep affections like himself, that they give all, and are given nothing in return.
A sudden exclamation made him look up.
"Why, Maine, is it you?"
A tall, bald man was holding out his hand to him. For a moment Wentworth did not recognise him. Then he remembered him. Lord John Alington.
He shook hands with tepid civility, but Lord John always mistook a pained recognition for an enthusiastic welcome. He drew up a chair at once.
"Now this is what I call luck," he said, his red face beaming. "And so your brother is freed at last. Only heard the news when I landed from Norway a week ago. I congratulate you with my whole heart. I never was so glad about anything before." And Lord John sawed Wentworth's limp hand up and down.
"I was present, you know," he went on. "Made a great impression on me. Sobered me for a long time I can tell you. I saw Carstairs come forward and give himself up. Never had such a shock in my life."
"I remember now you were there."
"Rather. And I was dead certain from the first that he had never done it. I always said so. And now at last the mystery is cleared up. And I was proved right. He hadn't. But fancy shielding that old Marchesa with her long teeth. Why, she was forty if she was a day. Who would ever have thought of it!"
"No one did," said Wentworth.
"I didn't. I may tell you frankly that I did not. The Marchesa! I knew her. But it never so much as crossed my mind that she had massacred her old hubby. 'Good God! The Marchesa!' Those were my exact words when I heard a week ago. Is Carstairs in London? I should like just to shake him by the hand."
"He is not in town. He is still feeling the effects of his imprisonment."
"I should like to have seen him. It was my fault he was found you know. I said 'Perhaps he's behind the screen.' Dreadfully sorry. Wish I hadn't. Only my fun. Never thought he was there, or anyone. I've never forgotten his coming out from behind the screen. But what I want to know is," Lord John tapped Wentworth on the arm with his eyeglass, and lowered his voice confidentially, "why he ever went behind it. That's what has been puzzling me ever since I read the Marchesa's confession. If he wanted to shield her, why the deuce did he hide at all? Why not strike a noble attitude bang in the middle of the room—from the first?"
Wentworth looked at him astonished. The vague suspicion of the last weeks that Michael was concealing something from him was taking shape at last.
There was no doubt that Lord John had got hold of a listener.
"No, no, Maine. When Carstairs was hiding behind the screen he was not dying with anxiety to take the Marchesa's crime on his white shoulders—not at that moment. That explanation don't wash. I believe I know a better one."
Wentworth became very red.
"The Duchess's maid! Did you ever see her? No, evidently not. You've no time for looking at young maids. Taken up with contemplating an old maid in the glass. You miss a lot, I can tell you. She was the prettiest little baggage I've set eyes on for years. And she was not of an iron virtue. But she wouldn't look at a little thing like me. Can't think why. Come, now, don't look so demure. We aren't all plaister saints like you. I'm not, in spite of my Madonna face. Wasn't that the truth? The Marchesa story is for the gallery. But you and I are behind the scenes. Mum's the word. But wasn't that why Carstairs was hanging about the house after everyone else had gone just for the same reason that I was—to get a word with that little hussy?"
At that moment a tall, middle-aged man came into the room, and Lord John's roving eye fell upon him. He sprang to his feet.
"Lossiemouth," he said, seizing the latter's unwilling hand. "Why, you're the very man I wanted to see. Congratulations, my dear chap. All my heart. Ship come in, and ancestral halls, and going to be married too, all in one fell swoop. Know Miss Bellairs a little. Jumped with her in the same skipping rope in childhood's happy hours, danced with her at her first ball. Madly in love with her. Never seen her since."
The chamber of his soul had been long in readiness, swept and garnished for the restless spirit that had returned to it—not alone.
Est-il indispensable, qu'on s'eleve a un point d'ou le devoir n'apparaisse plus comme un choix de nos sentiments les plus nobles, mais comme une silencieuse necessite de toute notre nature.
The following afternoon Fay was sitting in the little morning-room at Priesthope, trying to write a letter, a long, long letter. Wentworth's last note to her, just arrived by the second post, was open before her, telling her that he could not return for two days. And then the door opened gently and he was before her.