A TALE OF THREE DESTINIES
By H. Rider Haggard
First Published 1904.
"Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas, Atque metus omnes, et inexorabile fatum Subjecit pedibus; strepitumque Acherontis avari."
My Dear John Berwick,
When you read her history in MS. you thought well of "Stella Fregelius" and urged her introduction to the world. Therefore I ask you, my severe and accomplished critic, to accept the burden of a book for which you are to some extent responsible. Whatever its fate, at least it has pleased you and therefore has not been written quite in vain.
H. Rider Haggard.
25th August, 1903.
The author feels that he owes some apology to his readers for his boldness in offering to them a modest story which is in no sense a romance of the character that perhaps they expect from him; which has, moreover, few exciting incidents and no climax of the accustomed order, since the end of it only indicates its real beginning.
His excuse must be that, in the first instance, he wrote it purely to please himself and now publishes it in the hope that it may please some others. The problem of such a conflict, common enough mayhap did we but know it, between a departed and a present personality, of which the battle-ground is a bereaved human heart and the prize its complete possession; between earthly duty and spiritual desire also; was one that had long attracted him. Finding at length a few months of leisure, he treated the difficult theme, not indeed as he would have wished to do, but as best he could.
He may explain further that when he drafted this book, now some five years ago, instruments of the nature of the "aerophone" were not so much talked of as they are to-day. In fact this aerophone has little to do with his characters or their history, and the main motive of its introduction to his pages was to suggest how powerless are all such material means to bring within mortal reach the transcendental and unearthly ends which, with their aid, were attempted by Morris Monk.
These, as that dreamer learned, must be far otherwise obtained, whether in truth and spirit, or perchance, in visions only.
MORRIS, MARY, AND THE AEROPHONE
Above, the sky seemed one vast arc of solemn blue, set here and there with points of tremulous fire; below, to the shadowy horizon, stretched the plain of the soft grey sea, while from the fragrances of night and earth floated a breath of sleep and flowers.
A man leaned on the low wall that bordered the cliff edge, and looked at sea beneath and sky above. Then he contemplated the horizon, and murmured some line heard or learnt in childhood, ending "where earth and heaven meet."
"But they only seem to meet," he reflected to himself, idly. "If I sailed to that spot they would be as wide apart as ever. Yes, the stars would be as silent and as far away, and the sea quite as restless and as salt. Yet there must be a place where they do meet. No, Morris, my friend, there is no such place in this world, material or moral; so stick to facts, and leave fancies alone."
But that night this speculative man felt in the mood for fancies, for presently he was staring at one of the constellations, and saying to himself, "Why not? Well, why not? Granted force can travel through ether,—whatever ether is—why should it stop travelling? Give it time enough, a few seconds, or a few minutes or a few years, and why should it not reach that star? Very likely it does, only there it wastes itself. What would be needed to make it serviceable? Simply this—that on the star there should dwell an Intelligence armed with one of my instruments, when I have perfected them, or the secret of them. Then who knows what might happen?" and he laughed a little to himself at the vagary.
From all of which wandering speculations it may be gathered that Morris Monk was that rather common yet problematical person, an inventor who dreamed dreams.
An inventor, in truth, he was, although as yet he had never really invented anything. Brought up as an electrical engineer, after a very brief experience of his profession he had fallen victim to an idea and become a physicist. This was his idea, or the main point of it—for its details do not in the least concern our history: that by means of a certain machine which he had conceived, but not as yet perfected, it would be possible to complete all existing systems of aerial communication, and enormously to simplify their action and enlarge their scope. His instruments, which were wireless telephones—aerophones he called them—were to be made in pairs, twins that should talk only to each other. They required no high poles, or balloons, or any other cumbrous and expensive appliance; indeed, their size was no larger than that of a rather thick despatch box. And he had triumphed; the thing was done—in all but one or two details.
For two long years he had struggled with these, and still they eluded him. Once he had succeeded—that was the dreadful thing. Once for a while the instruments had worked, and with a space of several miles between them. But—this was the maddening part of it—he had never been able to repeat the exact conditions; or, rather, to discover precisely what they were. On that occasion he had entrusted one of his machines to his first cousin, Mary Porson, a big girl with her hair still down her back, rather idle in disposition, but very intelligent, when she chose. Mary, for the most part, had been brought up at her father's house, close by. Often, too, she stayed with her uncle for weeks at a stretch, so at that time Morris was as intimate with her as a man of eight and twenty usually is with a relative in her teens.
The arrangement on this particular occasion was that she should take the machine—or aerophone, as its inventor had named it—to her home. The next morning, at the appointed hour, as Morris had often done before, he tried to effect communication, but without result. On the following day, at the same hour, he tried again, when, to his astonishment, instantly the answer came back. Yes, as distinctly as though she were standing by his side, he heard his cousin Mary's voice.
"Are you there?" he said, quite hopelessly, merely as a matter of form—of very common form—and well-nigh fell to the ground when he received the reply:
"Yes, yes, but I have just been telegraphed for to go to Beaulieu; my mother is very ill."
"What is the matter with her?" he asked; and she replied:
"Inflammation of the lungs—but I must stop; I can't speak any more." Then came some sobs and silence.
That same afternoon, by Mary's direction, the aerophone was brought back to him in a dog-cart, and three days later he heard that her mother, Mrs. Porson, was dead.
Some months passed, and when they met again, on her return from the Riviera, Morris found his cousin changed. She had parted from him a child, and now, beneath the shadow of the wings of grief, suddenly she had become a woman. Moreover, the best and frankest part of their intimacy seemed to have vanished. There was a veil between them. Mary thought of little, and at this time seemed to care for no one except her mother, who was dead. And Morris, who had loved the child, recoiled somewhat from the new-born woman. It may be explained that he was afraid of women. Still, with an eye to business, he spoke to her about the aerophone; and, so far as her memory served her, she confirmed all the details of their short conversation across the gulf of empty space.
"You see," he said, trembling with excitement, "I have got it at last."
"It looks like it," she answered, wearily, her thoughts already far away. "Why shouldn't you? There are so many odd things of the sort. But one can never be sure; it mightn't work next time."
"Will you try again?" he asked.
"If you like," she answered; "but I don't believe I shall hear anything now. Somehow—since that last business—everything seems different to me."
"Don't be foolish," he said; "you have nothing to do with the hearing; it is my new receiver."
"I daresay," she replied; "but, then, why couldn't you make it work with other people?"
Morris answered nothing. He, too, wondered why.
Next morning they made the experiment. It failed. Other experiments followed at intervals, most of which were fiascos, although some were partially successful. Thus, at times Mary could hear what he said. But except for a word or two, and now and then a sentence, he could not hear her whom, when she was still a child and his playmate, once he had heard so clearly.
"Why is it?" he said, a year or two later, dashing his fist upon the table in impotent rage. "It has been; why can't it be?"
Mary turned her large blue eyes up to the ceiling, and reflectively rubbed her dimpled chin with a very pretty finger.
"Isn't that the kind of question they used to ask oracles?" she asked lazily—"Oh! no, it was the oracles themselves that were so vague. Well, I suppose because 'was' is as different from 'is' as 'as' is from 'shall be.' We are changed, Cousin; that's all."
He pointed to his patent receiver, and grew angry.
"Oh, it isn't the receiver," she said, smoothing her curling hair; "it's us. You don't understand me a bit—not now—and that's why you can't hear me. Take my advice, Morris"—and she looked at him sharply—"when you find a woman whom you can hear on your patent receiver, you had better marry her. It will be a good excuse for keeping her at a distance afterwards."
Then he lost his temper; indeed, he raved, and stormed, and nearly smashed the patent receiver in his fury. To a scientific man, let it be admitted, it was nothing short of maddening to be told that the successful working of his instrument, to the manufacture of which he had given eight years of toil and study, depended upon some pre-existent sympathy between the operators of its divided halves. If that were so, what was the use of his wonderful discovery, for who could ensure a sympathetic correspondent? And yet the fact remained that when, in their playmate days, he understood his cousin Mary, and when her quiet, indolent nature had been deeply moved by the shock of the news of her mother's peril, the aerophone had worked. Whereas now, when she had become a grown-up young lady, he did not understand her any longer—he, whose heart was wrapped up in his experiments, and who by nature feared the adult members of her sex, and shrank from them; when, too, her placid calm was no longer stirred, work it would not.
She laughed at his temper; then grew serious, and said:
"Don't get angry, Morris. After all, there are lots of things that you and I can't understand, and it isn't odd that you should have tumbled across one of them. If you think of it, nobody understands anything. They know that certain things happen, and how to make them happen; but they don't know why they happen, or why, as in your case, when they ought to happen, they won't."
"It is all very well for you to be philosophical," he answered, turning upon her; "but can't you see, Mary, that the thing there is my life's work? It is what I have given all my strength and all my brain to make, and if it fails in the end—why, then I fail too, once and forever. And I have made it talk. It talked perfectly between this place and Seaview, and now you stand there and tell me that it won't work any more because I don't understand you. Then what am I to do?"
"Try to understand me, if you think it worth while, which I don't; or go on experimenting," she answered. "Try to find some substance which is less exquisitely sensitive, something a little grosser, more in key with the material world; or to discover someone whom you do understand. Don't lose heart; don't be beaten after all these years."
"No," he answered, "I don't unless I die," and he turned to go.
"Morris," she said, in a softer voice, "I am lazy, I know. Perhaps that is why I adore people who can work. So, although you don't think anything of me, I will do my honest best to get into sympathy with you again; yes, and to help in any way I can. No; it's not a joke. I would give a great deal to see the thing a success."
"Why do you say I don't think anything of you, Mary? Of course, it isn't true. Besides, you are my cousin, and we have always been good friends since you were a little thing."
She laughed. "Yes, and I suppose that as you had no brothers or sisters they taught you to pray for your cousin, didn't they? Oh, I know all about it. It is my unfortunate sex that is to blame; while I was a mere tom-boy it was different. No one can serve two masters, can they? You have chosen to serve a machine that won't go, and I daresay that you are wise. Yes, I think that it is the better part—until you find someone that will make it go—and then you would adore her—by aerophone!"
THE COLONEL AND SOME REFLECTIONS
Presently Morris heard a step upon the lawn, and turned to see his father sauntering towards him. Colonel Monk, C.B., was an elderly man, over sixty indeed, but still of an upright and soldierly bearing. His record was rather distinguished. In his youth he had served in the Crimea, and in due course was promoted to the command of a regiment of Guards. After this, certain diplomatic abilities caused him to be sent to one of the foreign capitals as military attache, and in reward of this service, on retiring, he was created a Companion of the Bath. In appearance he was handsome also; in fact, much better looking than his son, with his iron-grey hair, his clear-cut features, somewhat marred in effect by a certain shiftiness of the mouth, and his large dark eyes. Morris had those dark eyes also—they redeemed his face from plainness, for otherwise it showed no beauty, the features being too irregular, the brow too prominent, and the mouth too large. Yet it could boast what, in the case of a man at any rate, is better than beauty—spirituality, and a certain sympathetic charm. It was not the face which was so attractive, but rather the intelligence, the personality that shone through it, as the light shines through the horn panes of some homely, massive lantern. Speculative eyes of the sort that seem to search horizons and gather knowledge there, but shrink from the faces of women; a head of brown hair, short cut but untidy, an athletic, manlike form to which, bizarrely enough, a slight stoop, the stoop of a student, seemed to give distinction, and hands slender and shapely as those of an Eastern—such were the characteristics of Morris Monk, or at least those of them that the observer was apt to notice.
"Hullo! Morris, are you star-gazing there?" said Colonel Monk, with a yawn. "I suppose that I must have fallen asleep after dinner—that comes of stopping too long at once in the country and drinking port. I notice you never touch it, and a good thing, too. There, my cigar is out. Now's the time for that new electric lighter of yours which I can never make work."
Morris fumbled in his pocket and produced the lighter. Then he said:
"I am sorry, father; but I believe I forgot to charge it."
"Ah! that's just like you, if you will forgive my saying so. You take any amount of trouble to invent and perfect a thing, but when it comes to making use of it, then you forget," and with a little gesture of impatience the Colonel turned aside to light a match from a box which he had found in the pocket of his cape.
"I am sorry," said Morris, with a sigh, "but I am afraid it is true. When one's mind is very fully occupied with one thing——" and he broke off.
"Ah! that's it, Morris, that's it," said the Colonel, seating himself upon a garden chair; "this hobby-horse of yours is carrying you—to the devil, and your family with you. I don't want to be rough, but it is time that I spoke plain. Let's see, how long is it since you left the London firm?"
"Nine years this autumn," answered Morris, setting his mouth a little, for he knew what was coming. The port drunk after claret had upset his father's digestion and ruffled his temper. This meant that to him—Morris—Fate had appointed a lecture.
"Nine years, nine wasted years, idled and dreamt away in a village upon the eastern coast. It is a large slice out of a man's life, my boy. By the time that I was your age I had done a good deal," said his father, meditatively. When he meant to be disagreeable it was the Colonel's custom to become reflective.
"I can't admit that," answered Morris, in his light, quick voice—"I mean I can't admit that my time has either been idled away or wasted. On the contrary, father, I have worked very hard, as I did at college, and as I have always done, with results which, without boasting, I may fairly call glorious—yes, glorious—for when they are perfected they will change the methods of communication throughout the whole world." As he spoke, forgetting the sharp vexation of the moment, his face was irradiated with light—like some evening cloud on which the sun strikes suddenly.
Watching him out of the corner of his eye, even in that low moonlight, his father saw those fires of enthusiasm shine and die upon his son's face, and the sight vexed him. Enthusiasm, as he conceived, perhaps with justice, had been the ruin of Morris. Ceasing to be reflective, his tone became cruel.
"Do you really think, Morris, that the world wishes to have its methods of communication revolutionised? Aren't there enough telephones and phonograms and aerial telegraphs already? It seems to me that you merely wish to add a new terror to existence. However, there is no need to pursue an academical discussion, since this wretched machine of yours, on which you have wasted so much time, appears to be a miserable failure."
Now, to throw the non-success of his invention into the teeth of the inventor, especially when that inventor knows that it is successful really, although just at present it does not happen to work, is a very deadly insult. Few indeed could be deadlier, except, perhaps, that of the cruelty which can suggest to a woman that no man will ever look at her because of her plainness and lack of attraction; or the coarse taunt which, by shameless implication, unjustly accuses the soldier of cowardice, the diplomat of having betrayed the secrets of his country, or the lawyer of having sold his brief. All the more, therefore, was it to Morris's credit that he felt the lash sting without a show of temper.
"I have tried to explain to you, father," he began, struggling to free his clear voice from the note of indignation.
"Of course you have, Morris; don't trouble yourself to repeat that long story. But even if you were successful—which you are not—er—I cannot see the commercial use of this invention. As a scientific toy it may be very well, though, personally, I should prefer to leave it alone, since, if you go firing off your thoughts and words into space, how do you know who will answer them, or who will hear them?"
"Well, father, as you understand all about it, it is no use my explaining any further. It is pretty late; I think I will be turning in."
"I had hoped," replied the Colonel, in an aggrieved voice, "that you might have been able to spare me a few minutes' conversation. For some weeks I have been seeking an opportunity to talk to you; but somehow your arduous occupations never seem to leave you free for ordinary social intercourse."
"Certainly," replied Morris, "though I don't quite know why you should say that. I am always about the place if you want me." But in his heart he groaned, guessing what was coming.
"Yes; but you are ever working at your chemicals and machinery in the old chapel; or reading those eternal books; or wandering about rapt in contemplation of the heavens; so that, in short, I seldom like to trouble you with my mundane but necessary affairs."
Morris made no answer; he was a very dutiful son and humble-spirited. Those who pit their intelligences against the forces of Nature, and try to search out her secrets, become humble. He could not altogether respect his father; the gulf between them was too wide and deep. But even at his present age of three and thirty he considered it a duty to submit himself to him and his vagaries. Outside of other reasons, his mother had prayed him to do so almost with her last breath, and, living or dead, Morris loved his mother.
"Perhaps you are not aware," went on Colonel Monk, after a solemn pause, "that the affairs of this property are approaching a crisis."
"I know something, but no details," answered Morris. "I have not liked to interfere," he added apologetically.
"And I have not not liked to trouble you with such sordid matters," rejoined his parent, with sarcasm. "I presume, however, that you are acquainted with the main facts. I succeeded to this estate encumbered with a mortgage, created by your grandfather, an extravagant and unbusiness-like man. That mortgage I looked to your mother's fortune to pay off, but other calls made this impossible. For instance, the sea-wall here had to be built if the Abbey was to be saved, and half a mile of sea-walling costs something. Also very extensive repairs to the house were necessary, and I was forced to take three farms in hand when I retired from the army fifteen years ago. This has involved a net loss of about ten thousand pounds, while all the time the interest had to be paid and the place kept up in a humble fashion."
"I thought that my uncle Porson took over the mortgage after my mother's death," interrupted Morris.
"That is so," answered his father, wincing a little; "but a creditor remains a creditor, even if he happens to be a relative by marriage. I have nothing to say against your uncle John, who is an excellent person in his way, and well-meaning. Of course, he has been justified, perfectly justified, in using his business abilities—or perhaps I should say instincts, for they are hereditary—to his own advantage. In fact, however, directly or indirectly, he has done well out of this property and his connection with our family—exceedingly well, both financially and socially. In a time of stress I was forced to sell him the two miles of sea-frontage building-land between here and Northwold for a mere song. During the last ten years, as you know, he has cut this up into over five hundred villa sites, which he has sold upon long lease at ground-rents that to-day bring in annually as much as he paid for the whole property."
"Yes, father; but you might have done the same. He advised you to before he bought the land."
"Perhaps I might, but I am not a tradesman; I do not understand these affairs. And, Morris, I must remind you that in such matters I have had no assistance. I do not blame you any more than I blame myself—it is not in your line either—but I repeat that I have had no assistance."
Morris did not argue the point. "Well, father," he asked, "what is the upshot? Are we ruined?"
"Ruined? That is a large word, and an ugly one. No, we are no more ruined than we have been for the last half-dozen years, for, thank Heaven, I still have resources and—friends. But, of course, this place is in a way expensive, and you yourself would be the last to pretend that our burdens have been lessened by—your having abandoned the very strange profession which you selected, and devoted yourself to researches which, if interesting, must be called abstract——"
"Forgive me, father," interrupted Morris with a ring of indignation in his voice; "but you must remember that I put you to no expense. In addition to what I inherited from my mother, which, of course, under the circumstances I do not ask for, I have my fellowship, out of which I contribute something towards the cost of my living and experiments, that, by the way, I keep as low as possible."
"Of course, of course," said the Colonel, who did not wish to pursue this branch of the subject, but his son went on:
"You know also that it was at your express wish that I came to live here at Monksland, as for the purposes of my work it would have suited me much better to take rooms in London or some other scientific centre."
"Really, my dear boy, you should control yourself," broke in his father. "That is always the way with recluses; they cannot bear the slightest criticism. Of course, as you were going to devote yourself to this line of research it was right and proper that we should live together. Surely you would not wish at my age that I should be deprived of the comfort of the society of an only child, especially now that your mother has left us?"
"Certainly not, father," answered Morris, softening, as was his fashion at the thought of his dead mother.
Then came a pause, and he hoped that the conversation was at end; a vain hope, as it proved.
"My real object in troubling you, Morris," continued his father, presently, "was very different to the unnecessary discussions into which we have drifted."
His son looked up, but said nothing. Again he knew what was coming, and it was worse than anything that had gone before.
"This place seems very solitary with the two of us living in its great rooms. I, who am getting an old fellow, and you a student and a recluse—no, don't deny it, for nowadays I can barely persuade you to attend even the Bench or a lawn-tennis party. Well, fortunately, we have power to add to our numbers; or at least you have. I wish you would marry, Morris."
His son turned sharply, and answered:
"Thank you, father, but I have no fancy that way."
"Now, there's Jane Rose, or that handsome Eliza Layard," went on the Colonel, taking no notice. "I have reason to know that you might have either of them for the asking, and they are both good women without a breath against them, and, what in the state of this property is not without importance, very well to do. Jane gets fifty thousand pounds down on the day of her marriage, and as much more, together with the place, upon old Lady Rose's death; while Miss Layard—if she is not quite to the manner born—has the interest in that great colliery and a rather sickly brother. Lastly—and this is strange enough, considering how you treat them—they admire you, or at least Eliza does, for she told me she thought you the most interesting man she had ever met."
"Did she indeed!" ejaculated Morris. "Why, I have only spoken three times to her during the last year."
"No doubt, my dear boy, that is why she thinks you interesting. To her you are a mine of splendid possibilities. But I understand that you don't like either of them."
"No, not particularly—especially Eliza Layard, who isn't a lady, and has a vicious temper—nor any young woman whom I have ever met."
"Do you mean to tell me candidly, Morris, that at your age you detest women?"
"I don't say that; I only say that I never met one to whom I felt much attracted, and that I have met a great many by whom I was repelled."
"Decidedly, Morris, in you the strain of the ancestral fish is too predominant. It isn't natural; it really isn't. You ought to have been born three centuries ago, when the old monks lived here. You would have made a first-class abbot, and might have been canonised by now. Am I to understand, then, that you absolutely decline to marry?"
"No, father; I don't want you to understand anything of the sort. If I could meet a lady whom I liked, and who wouldn't expect too much, and who was foolish enough to wish to take me, of course I should marry her, as you are so bent upon it."
"Well, Morris, and what sort of a woman would fulfil the conditions, to your notion?"
His son looked about him vaguely, as though he expected to find his ideal in some nook of the dim garden.
"What sort of a woman? Well, somebody like my cousin Mary, I suppose—an easy-going person of that kind, who always looks pleasant and cool."
Morris did not see him, for he had turned his head away; but at the mention of Mary Porson's name his father started, as though someone had pricked him with a pin. But Colonel Monk had not commanded a regiment with some success and been a military attache for nothing; having filled diplomatic positions, public and private, in his time, he could keep his countenance, and play his part when he chose. Indeed, did his simpler-minded son but know it, all that evening he had been playing a part.
"Oh! that's your style, is it?" he said. "Well, at your age I should have preferred something a little different. But there is no accounting for tastes; and after all, Mary is a beautiful woman, and clever in her own way. By Jove! there's one o'clock striking, and I promised old Charters that I would always be in bed by half-past eleven. Good night, my boy. By the way, you remember that your uncle Porson is coming to Seaview to-morrow from London, and that we are engaged to dine with him at eight. Fancy a man who could build that pretentious monstrosity and call it Seaview! Well, it will condemn him to the seventh generation; but in this world one must take people as one finds them, and their houses, too. Mind you lock the garden door when you come in. Good night."
"Really," thought Colonel Monk to himself as he took off his dress-shoes and, with military precision, set them side by side beneath a chair, "it does seem a little hard on me that I should be responsible for a son who is in love with a damned, unworkable electrical machine. And with his chances—with his chances! Why he might have been a second secretary in the Diplomatic Service by now, or anything else to which interest could help him. And there he sits hour after hour gabbling down a little trumpet and listening for an answer which never comes—hour after hour, and month after month, and year after year. Is he a genius, or is he an idiot, or a moral curiosity, or simply useless? I'm hanged if I know, but that's a good idea about Mary; though, of course, there are things against it. Curious that I should never have considered the matter seriously before—because of the cousinship, I suppose. Would she have him? It doesn't seem likely, but you can never know what a woman will or will not do, and as a child she was very fond of Morris. At any rate the situation is desperate, and if I can, I mean to save the old place, for his sake and our family's, as well as my own."
He went to the window, and, lifting a corner of the blind, looked out. "There he is, still staring at the sea and the sky, and there I daresay he will be till dawn. I bet he has forgotten all about Mary now, and is thinking of his electrical machine. What a curiosity! Good heavens; what a curiosity! Ah, I wonder what they would have made of him in my old mess five and thirty years ago?" And quite overcome by this reflection, the Colonel shook his grizzled head, put out the candle, and retired to rest.
His father was right. The beautiful September dawn was breaking over the placid sea before Morris brushed the night dew from his hair and cloak, and went in by the abbot's door.
What was he thinking of all the time? He scarcely knew. One by one, like little clouds in the summer sky, fancies arose in his mind to sail slowly across its depth and vanish upon an inconclusive and shadowy horizon. Of course, he thought about his instruments; these were never absent from his heart. His instinct flew back to them as an oasis, as an island of rest in the wilderness of this father's thorny and depressing conversation. The instruments were disappointing, it is true, at present; but, at any rate, they did not dwell gloomily upon impending ruin or suggest that it was his duty to get married. They remained silent, distressingly silent indeed.
Well, as the question of marriage had been started, he might as well face it out; that is, argue it in his mind, reduce it to its principles, follow it to its issues in a reasonable and scientific manner. What were the facts? His family, which, by tradition, was reported to be Danish in its origin, had owned this property for several hundred years, though how they came to own it remained a matter of dispute. Some said the Abbey and its lands were granted to a man of the name of Monk by Henry VIII., of course for a consideration. Others held, and evidence existed in favour of this view, that on the dissolution of the monastery the abbot of the day, a shrewd man of easy principles, managed to possess himself of the Chapter House and further extensive hereditaments, of course with the connivance of the Commissioners, and, providing himself with a wife, to exchange a spiritual for a temporal dignity. At least this remained certain, that from the time of Elizabeth onwards Morris's forefathers had been settled in the old Abbey house at Monksland; that the first of them about whom they really knew anything was named Monk, and that Monk was still the family name.
Now they were all dead and gone, and their history, which was undistinguished, does not matter. To come to the present day. His father succeeded to a diminished and encumbered estate; indeed, had it not been for the fortune of his mother, a Miss Porson and one of a middle class and business, but rather wealthy family, the property must have been sold years before. That fortune, however, had long ago been absorbed—or so he gathered—for his father, a brilliant and fashionable army officer, was not the man to stint himself or to nurse a crippled property. Indeed, it was wonderful to Morris how, without any particular change in their style of living, which, if unpretentious, was not cheap, in these bad times they had managed to keep afloat at all.
Unworldly as Morris might be, he could easily guess why his father wished that he should marry, and marry well. It was that he might bolster up the fortunes of a shattered family. Also—and this touched him, this commanded his sympathy—he was the last of his race. If he died without issue the ancient name of Monk became extinct, a consummation from which his father shrank with something like horror.
The Colonel was a selfish man—Morris could not conceal it, even from himself—one who had always thought of his own comfort and convenience first. Yet, either from idleness or pride, to advance these he had never stooped to scheme. Where the welfare of his family was concerned, however, as his son knew, he was a schemer. That desire was the one real and substantial thing in a somewhat superficial, egotistic, and finessing character.
Morris saw it all as he leaned there upon the railing, staring at the mist-draped sea, more clearly, indeed, than he had ever seen it before. He understood, moreover, what an unsatisfactory son he must be to a man like his father—if it had tried, Providence could hardly have furnished him with offspring more unsuitable. The Colonel had wished him to enter the Diplomatic Service, or the Army, or at least to get himself called to the Bar; but although a really brilliant University career and his family influence would have given him advantages in any of these professions, he had declined them all. So, following his natural bent, he became an electrician, and now, abandoning the practical side of that modest calling, he was an experimental physicist, full of deep but unremunerative lore, and—an unsuccessful inventor. Certainly he owed something to his family, and if his father wished that he should marry, well, marry he must, as a matter of duty, if for no other reason. After all, the thing was not pressing; for it it came to the point, what woman was likely to accept him? All he had done to-night was to settle the general principles in his own mind. When it became necessary—if ever—he could deal with the details.
And yet this sort of marriage which was proposed to him, was it not an unholy business? He cared little for women, having no weakness that way, probably because of the energy which other young men gave to the pursuit of them was in his case absorbed by intense and brain-exhausting study. Therefore he was not a man who if left to himself, would marry, as so many do, merely in order to be married; indeed, the idea to him was almost repulsive. Had he been a woman-hater, he might have accepted it more easily, for then to him one would have been as the other. But the trouble was that he knew and felt that a time might come when in his eyes one woman would be different from all others, a being who spoke not to his physical nature only, if at all, but to the core within him. And if that happened, what then?
Look, the sun was rising. On the eastern sky of a sudden two golden doors had opened in the canopy of night, and in and out of them seemed to pass glittering, swift-winged things, as souls might tread the Gate of Heaven. Look, too, at the little clouds that in an unending stream floated out of the gloom—travellers pressed onwards by a breath of destiny. They were leaden-hued, all of them, black, indeed, at times, until they caught the radiance, and for a while became like the pennons of an angel's wings. Then one by one the glory overtook and embraced them, and they melted into it to be seen no more.
What did the sight suggest to him? That it was worth while, perhaps, to be a mere drift of cloud, storm-driven and rain-laden in the bitter Night of Life, if the Morning of Deliverance brought such transformation on its wings. That beyond some such gates as these, gates that at times, greatly daring, he longed to tread, lay the answer to many a mystery. Amongst other things, perhaps, there he would learn the meaning of true marriage, and why it is denied to most dwellers of the earth. Without a union of the spirit was there indeed any marriage as it should be understood? And who in this world could hope to find his fellow spirit?
See, the sun had risen, the golden gates were shut. He had been dreaming, and was chilled to the bone. Wretchedness, mental and bodily, took hold of him. Well, often enough such is the fate of those who dream; those who turn from their needful, daily tasks to shape an angel out of this world's clay, trusting to some unknown god to give it life and spirit.
Upon the morning following his conversation with Morris, Colonel Monk spent two hours or more in the library. Painfully did he wrestle there with balance-sheets, adding up bank books; also other financial documents.
"Phew!" he said, when at length the job was done. "It is worse than I thought, a good deal worse. My credit must be excellent, or somebody would have been down upon us before now. Well, I must talk things over with Porson. He understands figures, and so he ought, considering that he kept the books in his grandfather's shop."
Then the Colonel went to lunch less downcast than might have been expected, since he anticipated a not unamusing half-hour with his son. As he knew well, Morris detested business matters and money calculations. Still, reflected his parent, it was only right that he should take his share of the family responsibilities—a fact which he fully intended to explain to him.
But "in vain is the net spread," etc. As Morris passed the door of the library on his way to the old chapel of the Abbey, which now served him as a laboratory, he had seen his father bending over the desk and guessed his occupation. Knowing, therefore, what he must expect at lunch, Morris determined to dispense with that meal, and went out, much to the Colonel's disappointment and indignation. "I hate," he explained to his brother-in-law Porson afterwards, "yes, I hate a fellow who won't face disagreeables and shirks his responsibilities."
Between Monksland and the town of Northwold lay some four miles of cliff, most of which had been portioned off in building lots, for Northwold was what is called a "rising watering-place." About half-way between the Abbey and this town stood Mr. Porson's mansion. In fact, it was nothing but a dwelling like those about it, presenting the familiar seaside gabled roofs of red tiles, and stucco walls decorated with sham woodwork, with the difference that the house was exceedingly well built and about four times as large as the average villa.
"Great heavens! what a place!" said the Colonel to himself as he halted at the private gateway which opened on to the cliff and surveyed it affronting sea and sky in all its naked horror. "Show me the house and I will show you the man," he went on to himself; "but, after all, one mustn't judge him too hardly. Poor Porson, he did not arrange his own up-bringing or his ancestors. Hello! there he is.
"John, John, John!" he shouted at a stout little person clad in a black alpaca coat, a straw hat, and a pair of spectacles, who was engaged in sad contemplation of a bed of dying evergreens.
At the sound of that well-known voice the little man jumped as though he had trodden on a pin, and turned round slowly, muttering to himself,
"Gracious! It's him!" an ungrammatical sentence which indicated sufficiently how wide a niche in the temple of his mind was filled with the image of his brother-in-law, Colonel Monk.
John Porson was a man of about six or eight and fifty, round-faced, bald, with large blue eyes not unlike those of a china doll, and clean-shaven except for a pair of sandy-coloured mutton-chop whiskers. In expression he was gentle, even timid, and in figure short and stout. At this very moment behind a hundred counters stand a hundred replicas of that good-hearted man and worthy citizen, John Porson. Can he be described better or more briefly?
"How are you Colonel?" he said, hurrying forward. He had never yet dared to call his brother-in-law "Monk," and much less by his Christian name, so he compromised on "Colonel."
"Pretty well, thank you, considering my years and botherations. And how are you, John?"
"Not very grand, not very grand," said the little man; "my heart has been troubling me, and it was so dreadfully hot in London."
"Then why didn't you come away?"
"Really I don't know. I understood that it had something to do with a party, but I think the fact is that Mary was too lazy to look after the servants while they packed up."
"Perhaps she had some attraction there," suggested the Colonel, with an anxiety which might have been obvious to a more skilled observer.
"Attraction! What do you mean?" asked Porson.
"Mean, you old goose? Why, what should I mean? A young man, of course."
"Oh! I see. No, I am sure it was nothing of that sort. Mary won't be bothered with young men. She is too lazy; she just looks over their heads till they get tired and go away. I am sure it was the packing, or, perhaps, the party. But what are you staring at, Colonel? Is there anything wrong?"
"No, no; only that wonderful window of yours—the one filled with bottle-glass—which always reminds me of a bull's-eye lantern standing on a preserved-beef tin, or the top of a toy lighthouse."
Porson peered at the offending window through his spectacles.
"Certainly, now you mention it, it does look a little odd from here," he said; "naked, rather. You said so before, you remember, and I told them to plant the shrubs; but while I was away they let every one of the poor things die. I will ask my architect, Jenkins, if he can't do anything; it might be pulled down, perhaps."
"Better leave it alone," said the Colonel, with a sniff. "If I know anything of Jenkins he'd only put up something worse. I tell you, John, that where bricks and mortar are concerned that man's a moral monster."
"I know you don't like his style," murmured Porson; "but won't you come in, it is so hot out here in the sun?"
"Thank you, yes, but let us go to that place you call your den, not to the drawing-room. If you can spare it, I want half-an-hour with you. That's why I came over in the afternoon, before dinner."
"Certainly, certainly," murmured Porson again, as he led the way to the "den," but to himself he added: "It's those mortgages, I'll bet. Oh dear! oh dear! when shall I see the last of them?"
Presently they were established in the den, the Colonel very cool and comfortable in Mr. Porson's armchair, and Porson himself perched upon the edge of a new-looking leather sofa in an attitude of pained expectancy.
"Now I am at your service, Colonel," he said.
"Oh! yes; well, it is just this. I want you, if you will, to look through these figures for me," and he produced and handed to him a portentous document headed "List of Obligations."
Mr. Porson glanced at it, and instantly his round, simple face became clever and alert. Here he was on his own ground. In five minutes he had mastered the thing.
"Yes," he said, in a quick voice, "this is quite clear, but there is some mistake in the addition making a difference of 87 pounds 3s. 10d. in your favour. Well, where is the schedule of assets?"
"The schedule of assets, my dear John? I wish I knew. I have my pension, and there are the Abbey and estates, which, as things are, seem to be mortgaged to their full value. That's about all, I think. Unless—unless"—and he laughed, "we throw in Morris's patent electrical machine, which won't work."
"It ought to be reckoned, perhaps," replied Mr. Porson gravely; adding in a kind of burst, with an air of complete conviction: "I believe in Morris's machine, or, at least, I believe in Morris. He has the makings of a great man—no, of a great inventor about him."
"Do you really?" replied the Colonel, much interested. "That is curious—and encouraging; for, my dear John, where business matters are concerned, I trust your judgment."
"But I doubt whether he will make any money out of it," went on Porson. "One day the world will benefit; probably he will not benefit."
The Colonel's interest faded. "Possibly, John; but, if so, perhaps for present purposes we may leave this mysterious discovery out of the question."
"I think so, I think so; but what is the point?"
"The point is that I seem to be about at the end of my tether, although, as yet, I am glad to say, nobody has actually pressed me, and I have come to you, as a friend and a relative, for advice. What is to be done? I have sold you all the valuable land, and I am glad to think that you have made a very good thing of it. Some years ago, also, you took over the two heaviest mortgages on the Abbey estate, and I am sorry to say that the interest is considerably in arrear. There remain the floating debts and other charges, amounting in all to about 7,000 pounds, which I have no means of meeting, and meanwhile, of course, the place must be kept up. Under these circumstances, John, I ask you as a business man, what is to be done?"
"And, as a business man, I say I'm hanged if I know," said Porson, with unwonted energy. "All debts, no assets—the position is impossible. Unless, indeed, something happens."
"Quite so. That's it. My only comfort is—that something might happen," and he paused.
Porson fidgeted about on the edge of the leather sofa and turned red. In his heart he was wondering whether he dared offer to pay off the debts. This he was quite able to do; more, he was willing to do, since to him, good simple man, the welfare of the ancient house of Monk, of which his only sister had married the head, was a far more important thing than parting with a certain number of thousands of pounds. For birth and station, in his plebeian humility, John Porson had a reverence which was almost superstitious. Moreover, he had loved his dead sister dearly, and, in his way, he loved her son also. Also he revered his brother-in-law, the polished and splendid-looking Colonel, although it was true that sometimes he writhed beneath his military and aristocratic heel. Particularly, indeed, did he resent, in his secret heart, those continual sarcasms about his taste in architecture.
Now, although the monetary transactions between them had been many, as luck would have it—entirely without his own design—they chanced in the main to have turned to his, Porson's, advantage. Thus, owing chiefly to his intelligent development of its possibilities, the land which he bought from the Monk estate had increased enormously in value; so much so, indeed, that, even if he lost all the other sums advanced upon mortgage, he would still be considerably to the good. Therefore, as it happened, the Colonel was really under no obligations to him. In these circumstances, Mr. Porson did not quite know how a cold-blooded offer of an advance of cash without security—in practice a gift—would be received.
"Have you anything definite in your mind?" he hesitated, timidly.
The Colonel reflected. On his part he was wondering how Porson would receive the suggestion of a substantial loan. It seemed too much to risk. He was proud, and did not like to lay himself open to the possibility of rebuff.
"I think not, John. Unless Morris should chance to make a good marriage, which is unlikely, for, as you know, he is an odd fish, I can see nothing before us except ruin. Indeed, at my age, it does not greatly matter, but it seems a pity that the old house should come to an end in such a melancholy and discreditable fashion."
"A pity! It is more than a pity," jerked out Porson, with a sudden wriggle which caused him to rock up and down upon the stiff springs of the new sofa.
As he spoke there came a knock at the door, and from the further side of it a slow, rich voice was heard, saying: "May I come in?"
"That's Mary," said Mr. Porson. "Yes, come in, dear; it's only your uncle."
The door opened, Mary came in, and, in some curious quiet way, at once her personality seemed to take possession of and dominate that shaded room. To begin with, her stature gave an idea of dominion, for, without being at all coarse, she was tall and full in frame. The face also was somewhat massive, with a rounded chin and large, blue eyes that had a trick of looking half asleep, and above a low, broad forehead grew her waving, golden hair, parted simply in the middle after the old Greek fashion. She wore a white dress, with a silver girdle that set off the beautiful outlines of her figure to great advantage, and with her a perfume seemed to pass, perhaps from the roses on her bosom.
"A beautiful woman," thought the Colonel to himself, as she came in, and he was no mean or inexperienced judge. "A beautiful woman, but a regular lotus-eater."
"How do you do, Uncle Richard?" said Mary, pausing about six feet away and holding out her hand. "I heard you scolding my poor dad about his bow-window. In fact, you woke me up; and, do you know, you used exactly the same words as you did at your visit after we came down from London last year."
"Bless me, my dear," said the Colonel, struggling to his feet, and kissing his niece upon the forehead, "what a memory you have got! It will get you into trouble some day."
"I daresay—me, or somebody else. But history repeated itself, uncle, that is all. The same sleepy Me in a lounge-chair, the same hot day, the same blue-bottle, and the same You scolding the same Daddy about the same window. Though what on earth dad's window can matter to anyone except himself, I can't understand."
"I daresay not, my dear; I daresay not. We can none of us know everything—not even latter day young ladies—but I suggest that a few hours with Fergussen's 'Handbook of Architecture' might enlighten you on the point."
Mary reflected, but the only repartee that she could conjure at the moment was something about ancient lights which did not seem appropriate. Therefore, as she thought that she had done enough for honour, and to remind her awe-inspiring relative that he could not suppress her, suddenly she changed the subject.
"You are looking very well, uncle," she said, surveying him calmly; "and younger than you did last year. How is my cousin Morris? Will the aerophone talk yet?"
"Be careful," said the Colonel, gallantly. "If even my grey hairs can provoke a compliment, what homage is sufficient for a Sleeping Beauty? As for Morris, he is, I believe, much as usual; at least he stood this morning till daybreak staring at the sea. I understand, however—if he doesn't forget to come—that you are to have the pleasure of seeing him this evening, when you will be able to judge for yourself."
"Now, don't be sarcastic about Morris, uncle; I'd rather you went on abusing dad's window."
"Certainly not, my dear, if it displeases you. But may I ask why he is to be considered sacred?"
"Why?" she answered, and a genuine note crept into her bantering voice. "Because he is one of the few men worth anything whom I ever chanced to meet—except dad there and——"
"Spare me," cut in the Colonel, with admirable skill, for well he knew that his name was not upon the lady's lips. "But would it be impertinent to inquire what it is that constitutes Morris's preeminent excellence in your eyes?"
"Of course not; only it is three things, not one. First, he works harder than any man I know, and I think men who work adorable, because I am so lazy myself. Secondly, he thinks a great deal, and very few people do that to any purpose. Thirdly, I never feel inclined to go to sleep when he takes me in to dinner. Oh! you may laugh if you like, but ask dad what happened to me last month with that wretched old member of the Government, and before the sweets, too!"
"Please, please," put in Mr. Porson, turning pink under pressure of some painful recollection. "If you have finished sparring with your uncle, isn't there any tea, Mary?"
"I believe so," she said, relapsing into a state of bland indifference. "I'll go and see. If I don't come back, you'll know it is there," and Mary passed through the door with that indolent, graceful walk which no one could mistake who once had seen her.
Both her father and her uncle looked after her with admiration. Mr. Porson admired her because the man or woman who dared to meet that domestic tyrant his brother-in-law in single combat, and could issue unconquered from the doubtful fray, was indeed worthy to be honoured. Colonel Monk for his part hastened to do homage to a very pretty and charming young lady, one, moreover, who was not in the least afraid of him.
Mary had gone, and the air from the offending window, which was so constructed as to let in a maximum of draught, banged the door behind her. The two men looked at each other. A thought was in the mind of each; but the Colonel, trained by long experience, and wise in his generation, waited for Mr. Porson to speak. Many and many a time in the after days did he find reason to congratulate himself upon this superb reticence—for there are occasions when discretion can amount almost to the height of genius. Under their relative circumstances, if it had been he who first suggested this alliance, he and his family must have remained at the gravest disadvantage, and as for stipulations, well, he could have made none. But as it chanced it was from poor Porson's lips that the suggestion came.
Mr. Porson cleared this throat—once, twice, thrice. At the third rasp, the Colonel became very attentive. He remembered that his brother-in-law had done exactly the same thing at the very apex of a long-departed crisis; indeed, just before he offered spontaneously to take over the mortgages on the Abbey estate.
"You were talking, Colonel," he began, "when Mary came in," and he paused.
"I daresay," replied the Colonel indifferently, fixing a contemptuous glance upon some stone mullions of atrocious design.
"About Morris marrying?"
"Oh, yes, so I was! Well?"
"Well—she seems to like him. I know she does indeed. She never talks of any other young man."
"My daughter, Mary; and—so—why shouldn't they—you know?"
"Really, John, I must ask you to be a little more explicit. It's no good your addressing me in your business ciphers."
"Well—I mean—why shouldn't he marry her? Morris marry Mary? Is that plain enough?" he asked in desperation.
For a moment a mist gathered before the Colonel's eyes. Here was salvation indeed, if only it could be brought about. Oh! if only it could be brought about.
But the dark eyes never changed, nor did a muscle move upon that pale, commanding countenance.
"Morris marry Mary," he repeated, dwelling on the alliterative words as though to convince himself that he had heard them aright. "That is a very strange proposition, my dear John, and sudden, too. Why, they are first cousins, and for that reason, I suppose, the thing never occurred to me—till last night," he added to himself.
"Yes, I know, Colonel; but I am not certain that this first cousin business isn't a bit exaggerated. The returns of the asylums seem to show it, and I know my doctor, Sir Henry Andrews, says it's nonsense. You'll admit that he is an authority. Also, it happened in my own family, my father and mother were cousins, and we are none the worse."
On another occasion the Colonel might have been inclined to comment on this statement—of course, most politely. Now, however, he let it pass.
"Well, John," he said, "putting aside the cousinship, let me hear what your idea is of the advantages of such a union, should the parties concerned change to consider it suitable."
"Quite so, quite so, that's business," said Mr. Porson, brightening up at once. "From my point of view, these would be the advantages. As you know, Colonel, so far as I am concerned my origin, for the time I have been able to trace it—that's four generations from old John Porson, the Quaker sugar merchant, who came from nobody knows where—although honest, is humble, and until my father's day all in the line of retail trade. But then my dear wife came in. She was a governess when I married her, as you may have heard, and of a very good Scotch family, one of the Camerons, so Mary isn't all of our cut—any more," he added with a smile, "than Morris is all of yours. Still for her to marry a Monk would be a lift up—a considerable lift up, and looked at from a business point of view, worth a deal of money.
"Also, I like my nephew Morris, and I am sure that Mary likes him, and I'd wish the two of them to inherit what I have got. They wouldn't have very long to wait for it, Colonel, for those doctors may say what they will, but I tell you," he added, pathetically, tapping himself over the heart—"though you don't mention it to Mary—I know better. Oh! yes, I know better. That's about all, except, of course, that I should wish to see her settled before I'm gone. A man dies happier, you understand, if he is certain whom his only child is going to marry; for when he is dead I suppose that he will know nothing of what happens to her. Or, perhaps," he added, as though by an afterthought, "he may know too much, and not be able to help; which would be painful, very painful."
"Don't get into those speculations, John," said the Colonel, waving his hand. "They are unpleasant, and lead nowhere—sufficient to the day is the evil thereof."
"Quite so, quite so. Life is a queer game of blind-man's buff, isn't it; played in a mist on a mountain top, and the players keep dropping over the precipices. But nobody heeds, because there are always plenty more, and the game goes on forever. Well, that's my side of the case. Do you wish me to put yours?"
"I should like to hear your view of it."
"Very good, it is this. Here's a nice girl, no one can deny that, and a nice man, although he's odd—you will admit as much. He's got name, and he will have fame, or I am much mistaken. But, as it chances, through no fault of his, he wants money, or will want it, for without money the old place can't go on, and without a wife the old race can't go on. Now, Mary will have lots of money, for, to tell the truth, it keeps piling up until I am sick of it. I've been lucky in that way, Colonel, because I don't care much about it, I suppose. I don't think that I ever yet made a really bad investment. Just look. Two years ago, to oblige an old friend who was in the shop with me when I was young, I put 5,000 pounds into an Australian mine, never thinking to see it again. Yesterday I sold that stock for 50,000 pounds."
"Fifty thousand pounds!" ejaculated the Colonel, astonished into admiration.
"Yes, or to be accurate, 49,375 pounds, 3s., 10d., and—that's where the jar comes in—I don't care. I never thought of it again since I got the broker's note till this minute. I have been thinking all day about my heart, which is uneasy, and about what will happen to Mary when I am gone. What's the good of this dirty money to a dying man? I'd give it all to have my wife and the boy I lost back for a year or two; yes, I would go into a shop again and sell sugar like my grandfather, and live on the profits from the till and the counter. There's Mary calling. We must tell a fib, we must say that we thought she was to come to fetch us; don't you forget. Well, there it is, perhaps you'll think it over at your leisure."
"Yes, John," replied the Colonel, solemnly; "certainly I will think it over. Of course, there are pros and cons, but, on the whole, speaking offhand, I don't see why the young people should not make a match. Also you have always been a good relative, and, what is better, a good friend to me, so, of course, if possible I should like to fall in with your wishes."
Mr. Porson, who was advancing towards the door, wheeled round quickly.
"Thank you, Colonel," he said, "I appreciate your sentiments; but don't you make any mistake. It isn't my wishes that have to be fallen in with—or your wishes. It's the wishes of your son, Morris, and my daughter, Mary. If they are agreeable I'd like it well; if not, all the money in the world, nor all the families in the world, wouldn't make me have anything to do with the job, or you either. Whatever our failings, we are honest men—both of us, who would not sell our flesh and blood for such trash as that."
MARY PREACHES AND THE COLONEL PREVAILS
A fortnight had gone by, and during this time Morris was a frequent visitor at Seaview. Also his Cousin Mary had come over twice or thrice to lunch, with her father or without him. Once, indeed, she had stopped all the afternoon, spending most of it in the workshop with Morris. This workshop, it may be remembered, was the old chapel of the Abbey, a very beautiful and still perfect building, finished in early Tudor times, in which, by good fortune, the rich stained glass of the east window still remained. It made a noble and spacious laboratory, with its wide nave and lovely roof of chestnut wood, whereof the corbels were seraphs, white-robed and golden-winged.
"Are you not afraid to desecrate such a place with your horrid vices—I mean the iron things—and furnace and litter?" asked Mary. She had sunk down upon an anvil, on which lay a newspaper, the first seat that she could find, and thence surveyed the strange, incongruous scene.
"Well, if you ask, I don't like it," answered Morris. "But there is no other place that I can have, for my father is afraid of the forge in the house, and I can't afford to build a workshop outside."
"It ought to be restored," said Mary, "with a beautiful organ in a carved case and a lovely alabaster altar and one of those perpetual lamps of silver—the French call them 'veilleuses', don't they?—and the Stations of the Cross in carved oak, and all the rest of it."
Mary, it may be explained, had a tendency to admire the outward adornments of ritualism if not its doctrines.
"Quite so," answered Morris, smiling. "When I have from five to seven thousand to spare I will set about the job, and hire a high-church chaplain with a fine voice to come and say Mass for your benefit. By the way, would you like a confessional also? You omitted it from the list."
"I think not. Besides, what on earth should I confess, except being always late for prayers through oversleeping myself in the morning, and general uselessness?"
"Oh, I daresay you might find something if you tried," suggested Morris.
"Speak for yourself, please, Morris. To begin with your own account, there is the crime of sacrilege in using a chapel as a workshop. Look, those are all tombstones of abbots and other holy people, and under each tombstone one of them is asleep. Yet there you are, using strong language and whistling and making a horrible noise with hammers just above their heads. I wonder they don't haunt you; I would if I were they."
"Perhaps they do," said Morris, "only I don't see them."
"Then they can't be there."
"Why not? Because things are invisible and intangible it does not follow that they don't exist, as I ought to know as much as anyone."
"Of course; but I am sure that if there were anything of that sort about you would soon be in touch with it. With me it is different; I could sleep sweetly with ghosts sitting on my bed in rows."
"Why do you say that—about me, I mean?" asked Morris, in a more earnest voice.
"Oh, I don't know. Go and look at your own eyes in the glass—but I daresay you do often enough. Look here, Morris, you think me very silly—almost foolish—don't you?"
"I never thought anything of the sort. As a matter of fact, if you want to know, I think you a young woman rather more idle than most, and with a perfect passion for burying your talent in very white napkins."
"Well, it all comes to the same thing, for there isn't much difference between fool-born and fool-manufactured. Sometimes I wake up, however, and have moments of wisdom—as when I made you hear that thing, you know, thereby proving that it is all right, only useless—haven't I?"
"I daresay; but come to the point."
"Don't be in a hurry. It is rather hard to express myself. What I mean is that you had better give up staring."
"Staring? I never stared at you or anyone else, in my life!"
"Stupid Morris! By staring I mean star-gazing, and by star-gazing I mean trying to get away from the earth—in your mind, you know."
Morris ran his fingers through his untidy hair and opened his lips to answer.
"Don't contradict me," she interrupted in a full steady voice. "That's what you are thinking of half the day, and dreaming about all the night."
"What's that?" he ejaculated.
"I don't know," she answered, with a sudden access of indifference. "Do you know yourself?"
"I am waiting for instruction," said Morris, sarcastically.
"All right, then, I'll try. I mean that you are not satisfied with this world and those of us who live here. You keep trying to fashion another—oh! yes, you have been at it from a boy, you see I have got a good memory, I remember all your 'vision stories'—and then you try to imagine its inhabitants."
"Well," said Morris, with the sullen air of a convicted criminal, "without admitting one word of this nonsense, what if I do?"
"Only that you had better look out that you don't find whatever it is you seek. It's a horrible mistake to be so spiritual, at least in that kind of way. You should eat and drink, and sleep ten hours as I do, and not go craving for vision till you can see, and praying for power until you can create."
"See! Create! Who? What?"
"The inhabitant, or inhabitants. Just think, you may have been building her up all this time, imagination by imagination, and thought by thought. Then her day might come, and all that you have put out piecemeal will return at once. Yes, she may appear, and take you, and possess you, and lead you——"
"She? Why she? and where?"
"To the devil, I imagine," answered Mary composedly, "and as you are a man one can guess the guide's sex. It's getting dark, let us go out. This is such a creepy place in the dark that it actually makes me understand what people mean by nerves. And, Morris, of course you understand that I have only been talking rubbish. I always liked inventing fairy tales; you taught me; only this one is too grown up—disagreeable. What I really mean is that I do think it might be a good thing if you wouldn't live quite so much alone, and would go out a bit more. You are getting quite an odd look on your face; you are indeed, not like other men at all. I believe that it comes from your worrying about this wretched invention until you are half crazy over the thing. Any change there?"
He shook his head. "No, I can't find the right alloy—not one that can be relied upon. I begin to doubt whether it exists."
"Why don't you give it up—for a while at any rate?"
"I have. I made a novel kind of electrical hand-saw this spring, and sold the patent for 100 pounds and a royalty. There's commercial success for you, and now I am at work on a new lamp of which I have the idea."
"I am uncommonly glad to hear it," said Mary with energy. "And, I say, Morris, you are not offended at my silly parables, are you? You know what I mean."
"Not a bit. I think it is very kind of you to worry your head about an impossible fellow like me. And look here, Mary, I have done some dreaming in my time, it is true, for so far the world has been a place of tribulation to me, and it is sick hearts that dream. But I mean to give it up, for I know as well as you do that there is only one end to all these systems of mysticism." Mary looked up.
"I mean," he went on, correcting himself, "to the mad attempt unduly and prematurely to cultivate our spiritual natures that we may live to and for them, and not to and for our natural bodies."
"Exactly my argument, put into long words," said Mary. "There will be plenty of time for that when we get down among those old gentlemen yonder—a year or two hence, you know. Meanwhile, let us take the world as we find it. It isn't a bad place, after all, at times, and there are several things worth doing for those who are not too lazy.
"Good-bye, I must be off; my bicycle is there against the railings. Oh, how I hate that machine! Now, listen, Morris; do you want to do something really useful, and earn the blessings of an affectionate relative? Then invent a really reliable electrical bike, that would look nice and do all the work, so that I could sit on it comfortably and get to a place without my legs aching as though I had broken them, and a red face, and no breath left in my body."
"I will think about it," he said; "indeed, I have thought of it already but the accumulators are the trouble."
"Then go on thinking, there's an angel; think hard and continually until you evolve that blessed instrument of progression. I say, I haven't a lamp."
"I'll lend you mine," suggested Morris.
"No; other people's lamps always go out with me, and so do my own, for that matter. I'll risk it; I know the policeman, and if we meet I will argue with him. Good-bye; don't forget we are coming to dinner to-morrow night. It's a party, isn't it?"
"I believe so."
"What a bore, I must unpack my London dresses. Well, good-bye again."
"Good-bye, dear," answered Morris, and she was gone.
"'Dear,'" thought Mary to herself; "he hasn't called me that since I was sixteen. I wonder why he does it now? Because I have been scolding him, I suppose; that generally makes men affectionate."
For a while she glided forward through the grey twilight, and then began to think again, muttering to herself:
"You idiot, Mary, why should you be pleased because he called you 'dear'? He doesn't really care two-pence about you; his blood goes no quicker when you pass by and no slower when you stay away. Why do you bother about him? and what made you talk all that stuff this afternoon? Because you think he is in a queer way, and that if he goes on giving himself up to his fancies he will become mad—yes, mad—because—Oh! what's the use of making excuses—because you are fond of him, and always have been fond of him from a child, and can't help it. What a fate! To be fond of a man who hasn't the heart to care for you or for any other woman. Perhaps, however, that's only because he hasn't found the right one, as he might do at any time, and then——"
"Where are you going to, and where's your light?" shouted a hoarse voice from the pathway on which she was unlawfully riding.
"My good man, I wish I knew," answered Mary, blandly.
Morris, for whom the day never seemed long enough, was a person who breakfasted punctually at half-past eight, whereas Colonel Monk, to whom—at any rate at Monksland—the day was often too long, generally breakfasted at ten. To his astonishment, however, on entering the dining-room upon the morrow of his interview in the workshop with Mary, he found his father seated at the head of the table.
"This means a 'few words' with me about something disagreeable," thought Morris to himself as he dabbed viciously at an evasive sausage. He was not fond of these domestic conversations. Nor was he in the least reassured by his father's airy and informed comments upon the contents of the "Globe," which always arrived by post, and the marvel of its daily "turnover" article, whereof the perpetual variety throughout the decades constituted, the Colonel was wont to say, the eighth wonder of the world. Instinct, instructed by experience, assured him that these were but the first moves in the game.
Towards the end of the meal he attempted retreat, pretending that he wanted to fetch something, but the Colonel, who was watching him over the top of the pink page of the "Globe," intervened promptly.
"If you have a few minutes to spare, my dear boy, I should like to have a chat with you," he said.
"Certainly, father," answered the dutiful Morris; "I am at your service."
"Very good; then I will light my cigar, and we might take a stroll on the beach, that is, after I have seen the cook about the dinner to-night. Perhaps I shall find you presently by the steps."
"I will wait for you there," answered Morris. And wait he did, for a considerable while, for the interview with the cook proved lengthy. Moreover, the Colonel was not a punctual person, or one who set an undue value upon his own or other people's time. At length, just as Morris was growing weary of the pristine but enticing occupation of making ducks and drakes with flat pebbles, his father appeared. After "salutations," as they say in the East, he wasted ten more minutes in abusing the cook, ending up with a direct appeal for his son's estimate of her capacities.
"She might be better and she might be worse," answered Morris, judicially.
"Quite so," replied the Colonel, drily; "the remark is sound and applies to most things. At present, however, I think that she is worse; also I hate the sight of her fat red face. But bother the cook, why do you think so much about her; I have something else to say."
"I don't think," said Morris. "She doesn't excite me one way or the other, except when she is late with my breakfast."
Then, as he expected, after the cook came the crisis.
"You will remember, my dear boy," began the Colonel, affectionately, "a little talk we had a while ago."
"Which one, father?"
"The last of any importance, I believe. I refer to the occasion when you stopped out all night contemplating the sea; an incident which impressed it upon my memory."
Morris looked at him. Why was the old gentleman so inconveniently observant?
"And doubtless you remember the subject?"
"There were a good many subjects, father; they ranged from mortgages to matrimony."
"Quite so, to matrimony. Well, have you thought any more about it?"
"Not particularly, father. Why should I?"
"Confound it, Morris," exclaimed the Colonel, losing patience; "don't chop logic like a petty sessions lawyer. Let's come to the point."
"That is my desire," answered Morris; and quite clearly there rose up before him an inconsequent picture of his mother teaching him the Catechism many, many years ago. Thereat, as was customary with his mind when any memory of her touched it, his temper softened like iron beneath the influence of fire.
"Very good, then what do you think of Mary as a wife?"
"How should I know under the circumstances?"
The Colonel fumed, and Morris added, "I beg your pardon, I understand what you mean."
Then his father came to the charge.
"To be brief, will you marry her?"
"Will she marry me?" asked Morris. "Isn't she too sensible?"
His father's eye twinkled, but he restrained himself. This, he felt, was not an occasion upon which to indulge his powers of sarcasm.
"Upon my word, if you want my opinion, I believe she will; but you have to ask her first. Look here, my boy, be advised by me, and do it as soon as possible. The notion is rather new to me, I admit; but, taking her all round, where would you find a better woman? You and I don't always agree about things; we are of a different generation, and look at the world from different standpoints. But I think that at the bottom we respect each other, and I am sure," he added with a touch of restrained dignity, "that we are naturally and properly attached to each other. Under these circumstances, and taking everything else into consideration, I am convinced also that you will give weight to my advice. I assure you that I do not offer it lightly. It is that you should marry your cousin Mary."
"There is her side of the case to be considered," suggested Morris.
"Doubtless, and she is a very shrewd and sensible young woman under all her 'dolce far niente' air, who is quite capable of consideration."
"I am not worthy of her," his son broke in passionately.
"That is for her to decide. I ask you to give her an opportunity of expressing an opinion."
Morris looked at the sea and sky, then he looked at his father standing before him in an attitude that was almost suppliant, with head bowed, hands clasped, and on his clear-cut face an air of real sincerity. What right had he to resist this appeal? He was heart-whole, without any kind of complication, and for his cousin Mary he had true affection and respect. Moreover, they had been brought up together. She understood him, and in the midst of so much that was uncertain and bewildering she seemed something genuine and solid, something to which a man could cling. It may not have been a right spirit in which to approach this question of marriage, but in the case of a young man like Morris, who was driven forward by no passion, by no scheme even of personal advancement, this substitution of reason for impulse and instinct was perhaps natural.
"Very well, I will," he answered; "but if she is wise, she won't."
His father turned his head away and sighed softly, and that sigh seemed to lift a ton's weight off his heart.
"I am glad to hear it," he answered simply, "the rest must settle itself. By the way, if you are going up to the house, tell the cook that I have changed my mind, we will have the soles fried with lemon; she always makes a mess of them 'au maitre d'hotel.'"
A PROPOSAL AND A PROMISE
Although it consisted of but a dozen people, the dinner-party at the Abbey that night was something of a function. To begin with, the old refectory, with its stone columns and arches still standing as they were in the pre-Reformation days, lit with cunningly-arranged and shaded electric lights designed and set up by Morris, was an absolutely ideal place in which to dine. Then, although the Monk family were impoverished, they still retained the store of plate accumulated by past generations. Much of this silver was old and very beautiful, and when set out upon the great side-boards produced an affect well suited to that chamber and its accessories. The company also was pleasant and presentable. There were the local baronet and his wife; the two beauties of the neighbourhood, Miss Jane Rose and Miss Eliza Layard, with their respective belongings; the clergyman of the parish, a Mr. Tomley, who was leaving the county for the north of England on account of his wife's health; and a clever and rising young doctor from the county town. These, with Mr. Porson and his daughter, made up the number who upon this particular night with every intention of enjoying themselves, sat down to that rather rare entertainment in Monksland, a dinner-party.
Colonel Monk had himself very carefully placed the guests. As a result, Morris, to whose lot it had fallen to take in the wealthy Miss Layard, a young lady of handsome but somewhat ill-tempered countenance, found himself at the foot of the oblong table with his partner on one side and his cousin on the other. Mary, who was conducted to her seat by Mr. Layard, the delicate brother, an insignificant, pallid-looking specimen of humanity, for reasons of her own, not unconnected perhaps with the expected presence of the Misses Layard and Rose, had determined to look and dress her best that night. She wore a robe of some rich white silk, tight fitting and cut rather low, and upon her neck a single row of magnificent diamonds. The general effect of her sheeny dress, snow-like skin, and golden, waving hair, as she glided into the shaded room, suggested to Morris's mind a great white lily floating down the quiet water of some dark stream, and, when presently the light fell on her, a vision of a silver, mist-laden star lying low upon the ocean at the break of dawn. Later, after she became acquainted with these poetical imaginings, Mary congratulated herself and her maid very warmly on the fact that she had actually summoned sufficient energy to telegraph to town for this particular dress.
Of the other ladies present, Miss Layard was arrayed in a hot-looking red garment, which she imagined would suit her dark eyes and complexion. Miss Rose, on the contrary, had come out in the virginal style of muslin and blue bows, whereof the effect, unhappily, was somewhat marred by a fiery complexion, acquired as the result of three days' violent play at a tennis tournament. To this unfortunate circumstance Miss Layard, who had her own views of Miss Rose, was not slow in calling attention.
"What has happened to poor Jane?" she said, addressing Mary. "She looks as though she had been red-ochred down to her shoulders."
"Who is poor Jane?" asked that young lady languidly. "Oh! you mean Miss Rose. I know, she has been playing in that tennis tournament at—what's the name of the place? Dad would drive me there this afternoon, and it made me quite hot to look at her, jumping and running and hitting for hour after hour. But she's awfully good at it; she won the prize. Don't you envy anybody who can win a prize at a tennis tournament, Miss Layard?"
"No," she answered sharply, for Miss Layard did not shine at Tennis. "I dislike women who go about what my brother calls 'pot-hunting' just as if they were professionals."
"Oh, do you? I admire them. It must be so nice to be able to do anything well, even if it's only lawn tennis. It's the poor failures like myself for whom I am so sorry."
"I don't admire anybody who can come to out to a dinner party with a head and neck like that," retorted Eliza.
"Why not? You can't burn, and that should make you more charitable. And I tie myself up in veils and umbrellas, which is absurd. Besides, what does it matter? You see, it is different with most of us; Miss Rose is so good-looking that she can afford herself these little luxuries."
"That is a matter of opinion," replied Miss Layard.
"Oh! I don't think so; at least, the opinion is all one way. Don't you think Miss Rose beautiful, Mr. Layard?" she said, turning to her companion.
"Ripping," said that gentleman, with emphasis. "But I wish she wouldn't beat one at tennis; it is an insult to the stronger sex."
Mary looked at him reflectively. His sister looked at him also.
"And I am sure that you think her beautiful, don't you, Morris?" went on the imperturbable Mary.
"Certainly, of course; lovely," he replied, with a vacuous stare at the elderly wife of the baronet.
"There, Miss Layard, now you collect the opinions of the gentlemen all along your side." And Mary turned away, ostensibly to talk to her cavalier; but really to find out what could possibly interest Morris so deeply in the person or conversation of Lady Jones.
Lady Jones was talking across the table to Mr. Tomley, the departing rector, a benevolent-looking person, with a broad forehead adorned like that of Father Time by a single lock of snowy hair.
"And so you are really going to the far coast of Northumberland, Mr. Tomley, to exchange livings with the gentleman with the odd name? How brave of you!"
Mr. Tomley smiled assent, adding: "You can imagine what a blow it is to me, Lady Jones, to separate myself from my dear parishioners and friends"—here he eyed the Colonel, with whom he had waged a continual war during his five years of residence in the parish, and added: "But we must all give way to the cause of duty and the necessities of health. Mrs. Tomley says that this part of the country does not agree with her, and is quite convinced that unless she is taken back to her native Northumberland air the worst may be expected."
"I fancy that it has arrived in that poor man's case," thought Mary to herself. Lady Jones, who also knew Mrs. Tomley and the power of her tongue, nodded her head sympathetically and said:
"Of course, of course. A wife's health must be the first consideration of every good man. But isn't it rather lonely up there, Mr. Tomley?"
"Lonely, Lady Jones?" the clergyman replied with energy, and shaking his white lock. "I assure you that the place is a howling desert; a great moor behind, and the great sea in front, and some rocks and the church between the two. That's about all, but my wife likes it because she used to stay at the rectory when she was a little girl. Her uncle was the incumbent there. She declares that she has never been well since she left the parish."
"And what did you say is the name of the present inhabitant of this earthly paradise, the man with whom you have exchanged?" interrupted the Colonel.
"Fregelius—the Reverend Peter Fregelius."
"What an exceedingly odd name! Is he an Englishman?"
"Yes; but I think that his father was a Dane, and he married a Danish lady."
"Indeed! Is she living?"
"Oh, no. She died a great many years ago. The old gentleman has only one child left—a girl."
"What is her name?" asked someone idly, in a break of the general conversation, so that everybody paused to listen to his reply.
"Stella—Stella Fregelius; a very unusual girl."
Then the conversation broke out again with renewed vigour, and all that those at Morris's end of the table could catch were snatches such as: "Wonderful eyes"; "Independent young person"; "Well read and musical"; "Oh, yes! poor as church mice, that's why he accepted my offer."
At this point the Doctor began a rather vehement argument with Mr. Porson as to the advisability of countervailing duties to force foreign nations to abandon the sugar bounties, and no more was heard of Mr. Tomley and his plans.
On the whole, Mary enjoyed that dinner-party. Miss Layard, somewhat sore after her first encounter, attempted to retaliate later.
But by this time Mary's argumentative energy had evaporated. Therefore, adroitly appealing to Mr. Layard to take her part, she retired from the fray till, seeing that it grew acrimonious, for this brother and sister did not love each other, she pretended to hear no more.
"Have you been stopping out all night again and staring at the sea, Morris?" she inquired; "because I understand it is a habit of yours. You seem so sleepy. I know that I must have looked just like you when that old political gentleman took me in to dinner, and I made an exhibition of myself."
"What was that?" asked Morris.
So she told him the story of her unlawful slumbers, and so amusingly that he burst out laughing and remained in an excellent mood for the rest of the feast, or at any rate until the ladies had departed. After this event once more he became somewhat silent and distant.
It was not wonderful. To most men, except the very experienced, proposals are terrifying ordeals, and Morris had made up his mind, if he could find a chance, to propose to Mary that night. The thing was to be done, so the sooner he did it the better.
Then it would be over, one way or the other. Besides, and this was strange and opportune enough, never had he felt so deeply and truly attracted to Mary. Whether it was because her soft, indolent beauty showed at its best this evening in that gown and setting, or because her conversation, with its sub-acid tinge of kindly humour amused him, or—and this seemed more probable—because her whole attitude towards himself was so gentle and so full of sweet benevolence, he could not say. At any rate, this remained true, she attracted him more than any woman he had ever met, and sincerely he hoped and prayed that when he asked her to be his wife she might find it in her heart to say Yes.