'That is both clear and simple.' She pressed back the thumb which he had left untouched. 'I reply in one: no.'
He looked at her with every sign of astonishment.
'I beg your pardon?' he said.
'You heard quite correctly,' she smiled. 'The reply is in the negative.'
She resisted a mad, but inconvenient, temptation to dance a breakdown on the floor of the hansom.
'You're joking,' said Dick calmly. 'You're certainly joking.'
'I will be a sister to you.'
Dick reflected for a moment, and he rubbed his chin.
'The chance will never recur, you know,' he remarked.
'I will bear the threat that is implied in that with fortitude.'
He turned round and taking her hand, raised it to his lips.
'I thank you from the bottom of my heart,' he said earnestly.
This puzzled her.
'The man's mad,' she murmured to a constable who stood on the curb as they passed. 'The man's nothing short of a raving lunatic.'
'It is one of my most cherished convictions that a really nice woman is never so cruel as to marry a man she cares for. You have given me proof of esteem which I promise I will never forget.'
Mrs. Crowley could not help laughing.
'You're much too flippant to marry anybody, and you're perfectly odious into the bargain.'
'I will be a brother to you, Mrs. Crowley.'
He opened the trap and told the cabman to drive back to Victoria Street, but at Hyde Park Corner he suggested that Mrs. Crowley might drop him so that he could take a stroll in the park. When he got out and closed the doors behind him, Julia leaned forward.
'Would you like some letters of introduction before you go?' she said.
'It is evident that unless your soul is dead to all the finer feelings, you will seek to assuage your sorrow by shooting grizzlies in the Rocky Mountains. I thought a few letters to my friends in New York might be useful to you.'
'I'm sure that's very considerate of you, but I fancy it's scarcely the proper season. I was thinking of a week in Paris.'
'Then pray send me a dozen pairs of black suede gloves,' she retorted coolly. 'Sixes.'
'Is that your last word?' he asked lightly.
'I thought you might mean six and a half.'
He lifted his hat and was gone.
A few days later, Lady Kelsey and Lucy having gone on the river, Julia Crowley went to Court Leys. When she came down to breakfast the day after her arrival, she found waiting for her six pairs of long suede gloves. She examined their size and their quality, smiled with amusement, and felt a little annoyed. She really had every intention of accepting Dick when he proposed to her, and she did not in the least know why she had refused him. The conversation had carried her away in her own despite. She loved a repartee and notwithstanding the consequences could never resist making any that occurred to her. It was very stupid of Dick to take her so seriously, and she was inclined to be cross with him. Of course he had only gone to Paris to tease, and in a week he would be back again. She knew that he was just as much in love with her as she was with him, and it was absurd of him to put on airs. She awaited the post each day impatiently, for she constantly expected a letter from him to say he was coming down to luncheon. She made up her mind about the menu of the pleasant little meal she would set before him, and in imagination rehearsed the scene in which she would at length succumb to his passionate entreaties. It was evidently discreet not to surrender with unbecoming eagerness. But no letter came. A week went by. She began to think that Dick had no sense of humour. A second week passed, and then a third. Perhaps it was because she had nothing to do that Master Dick absorbed a quite unmerited degree of her attention. It was very inconvenient and very absurd. She tormented herself with all sorts of reasons to explain his absence, and once or twice, like the spoiled child she was, she cried. But Mrs. Crowley was a sensible woman and soon made up her mind that if she could not live without the man—though heaven only knew why she wanted him—she had better take steps to secure his presence. It was the end of August now, and she was bored and lonely. She sent him a very untruthful telegram.
I have to be in town on Friday to see my lawyer. May I come to tea at five?
His answer did not arrive for twenty-four hours, and then it was addressed from Homburg.
Regret immensely, but shall be away.
Julia stamped her tiny foot with indignation and laughed with amusement at her own anger. It was monstrous that while she was leading the dullest existence imaginable, he should be enjoying the gaieties of a fashionable watering-place. She telegraphed once more.
Thanks very much. Shall expect to see you on Friday.
She travelled up to town on the appointed day and went to her house in Norfolk Street to see that the journey had left no traces on her appearance. Mayfair seemed quite deserted, and half the windows were covered with newspapers to keep out the dust. It was very hot, and the sun beat down from a cloudless sky. The pavements were white and dazzling. Julia realised with pleasure that she was the only cool person in London, and the lassitude she saw in the passers-by added to her own self-satisfaction. The month at the seaside had given an added freshness to her perfection, and her charming gown had a breezy lightness that must be very grateful to a gentleman of forty lately returned from foreign parts. As she looked at herself in the glass, Mrs. Crowley reflected that she did not know anyone who had a figure half so good as hers.
When she drove up to Dick's house, she noticed that there were fresh flowers in the window boxes, and when she was shown into his drawing-room, the first thing that struck her was the scent of red roses which were in masses everywhere. The blinds were down, and after the baking street the dark coolness of the room was very pleasant. The tea was on a little table, waiting to be poured out. Dick of course was there to receive her. As she shook hands with him, she smothered a little titter of wild excitement.
'So you've come back,' she said.
'I was just passing through town,' he answered, with an airy wave of the hand.
'From where to where?'
'From Homburg to the Italian Lakes.'
'Rather out of your way, isn't it?' she smiled.
'Not at all,' he replied. 'If I were going from Manchester to Liverpool, I should break the journey in London. That's one of my hobbies.'
Julia laughed gaily, and as they both made a capital tea, they talked of all manner of trivial things. They were absurdly glad to see one another again, and each was ready to be amused at everything the other said. But the conversation would have been unintelligible to a listener, since they mostly talked together, and every now and then made a little scene when one insisted that the other should listen to what he was saying.
Suddenly Mrs. Crowley threw up her hands with a gesture of dismay.
'Oh, how stupid of me!' she cried. 'I quite forgot to tell you why I telegraphed to you the other day.'
'I know,' he retorted.
'Do you? Why?'
'Because you're the most disgraceful flirt I ever saw in my life,' he answered promptly.
She opened her eyes wide with a very good imitation of complete amazement.
'My dear Mr. Lomas, have you never contemplated yourself in a looking-glass?'
'You're not a bit repentant of the havoc you have wrought,' he cried dramatically.
She did not answer, but looked at him with a smile so entirely delightful that he cried out irritably:
'I wish you wouldn't look like that.'
'How am I looking?' she smiled.
'To my innocent and inexperienced gaze very much as if you wanted to be kissed.'
'You brute!' she cried. 'I'll never speak to you again.'
'Why do you make such rash statements? You know you couldn't hold you tongue for two minutes together.'
'What a libel! I never can get a word in edgeways when I'm with you,' she returned. 'You're such a chatterbox.'
'I don't know why you put on that aggrieved air. You seem to forget that it's I who ought to be furious.'
'On the contrary, you behaved very unkindly to me a month ago, and I'm only here to-day because I have a Christian disposition.'
'You forget that for the last four weeks I've been laboriously piecing together the fragments of a broken heart,' he answered.
'It was entirely your fault,' she laughed. 'If you hadn't been so certain I was going to accept you, I should never have refused. I couldn't resist the temptation of saying no, just to see how you took it.'
'I flatter myself I took it very well.'
'You didn't,' she answered. 'You showed an entire lack of humour. You might have known that a nice woman doesn't accept a man the first time he asks her. It was very silly of you to go to Homburg as if you didn't care. How was I to know that you meant to wait a month before asking me again?'
He looked at her for a moment calmly.
'I haven't the least intention of asking you again.'
But it required much more than this to put Julia Crowley out of countenance.
'Then why on earth did you invite me to tea?'
'May I respectfully remind you that you invited yourself?' he protested.
'That's just like a man. He will go into irrelevant details,' she answered.
'Now, don't be cross,' he smiled.
'I shall be cross if I want to,' she exclaimed, with a little stamp of her foot. 'You're not being at all nice to me.'
He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, and his eyes twinkled.
'Do you know what I'd do if I were you?'
'Well, I can't suffer the humiliation of another refusal. Why don't you propose to me?'
'What cheek!' she cried.
Their eyes met, and she smiled.
'What will you say if I do?'
'That entirely depends on how you do it.'
'I don't know how,' she murmured plaintively.
'Yes, you do,' he insisted. 'You gave me an admirable lesson. First you go on your bended knees, and then you say you're quite unworthy of me.'
'You are the most spiteful creature I've ever known,' she laughed. 'You're just the sort of man who'd beat his wife.'
'Every Saturday night regularly,' he agreed.
She hesitated, looking at him.
'Well?' he said.
'I shan't,' she answered.
'Then I shall continue to be a brother to you.'
She got up and curtsied.
'Mr. Lomas, I am a widow, twenty-nine years of age, and extremely eligible. My maid is a treasure, and my dressmaker is charming. I'm clever enough to laugh at your jokes and not so learned as to know where they come from.'
'Really you're very long winded. I said it all in four words.'
'You evidently put it too briefly, since you were refused,' she smiled.
She stretched out her hands, and he took them.
'I think I'll do it by post,' she said. 'It'll sound so much more becoming.'
'You'd better get it over now.'
'You know, I don't really want to marry you a bit. I'm only doing it to please you.'
'I admire your unselfishness.'
'You will say yes if I ask you?'
'I refuse to commit myself.'
'Obstinate beast,' she cried.
She curtsied once more, as well as she could since he was firmly holding her hands.
'Sir, I have the honour to demand your hand in marriage.'
He bowed elaborately.
'Madam, I have much pleasure in acceding to your request.'
Then he drew her towards him and put his arms around her.
'I never saw anyone make such a fuss about so insignificant a detail as marriage,' she murmured.
'You have the softest lips I ever kissed,' he said.
'I wish to goodness you'd be serious,' she laughed. 'I've got something very important to say to you.'
'You're not going to tell me the story of your past life,' he cried.
'No, I was thinking of my engagement ring. I make a point of having a cabochon emerald: I collect them.'
'No sooner said than done,' he cried.
He took a ring from his pocket and slipped it on her finger. She looked from it to him.
'You see, I know that you made a specialty of emeralds.'
'Then you meant to ask me all the time?'
'I confess it to my shame: I did,' he laughed.
'Oh, I wish I'd known that before.'
'What would you have done?'
'I'd have refused you again, you silly.'
* * *
Dick Lomas and Mrs. Crowley said nothing about their engagement to anyone, since it seemed to both that the marriage of a middle-aged gentleman and a widow of uncertain years could concern no one but themselves. The ceremony was duly performed in a deserted church on a warm September day, when there was not a soul in London. Mrs. Crowley was given away by her solicitor, and the verger signed the book. The happy pair went to Court Leys for a fortnight's honeymoon and at the beginning of October returned to London; they made up their minds that they would go to America later in the autumn.
'I want to show you off to all my friends in New York,' said Julia, gaily.
'Do you think they'll like me?' asked Dick.
'Not at all. They'll say: That silly little fool Julia Crowley has married another beastly Britisher.'
'That is more alliterative than polite,' he retorted.
'On the other hand my friends and relations are already saying: What on earth has poor Dick Lomas married an American for? We always thought he was very well-to-do.'
They went into roars of laughter, for they were in that state of happiness when the whole world seemed the best of jokes, and they spent their days in laughing at one another and at things in general. Life was a pleasant thing, and they could not imagine why others should not take it as easily as themselves.
They had engaged rooms at the Carlton while they were furnishing a new house. Each had one already, but neither would live in the other's, and so it had seemed necessary to look out for a third. Julia vowed that there was an air of bachelordom about Dick's house which made it impossible for a married woman to inhabit; and Dick, on his side, refused to move into Julia's establishment in Norfolk Street, since it gave him the sensation of being a fortune-hunter living on his wife's income. Besides, a new house gave an opportunity for extravagance which delighted both of them since they realised perfectly that the only advantage of having plenty of money was to spend it in unnecessary ways. They were a pair of light-hearted children, who refused firmly to consider the fact that they were more than twenty-five.
Lady Kelsey and Lucy had gone from the River to Spa, for the elder woman's health, and on their return Julia went to see them in order to receive their congratulations and display her extreme happiness. She came back thoughtfully. When she sat down to luncheon with Dick in their sitting-room at the hotel, he saw that she was disturbed. He asked her what was the matter.
'Lucy has broken off her engagement with Robert Boulger,' she said.
'That young woman seems to make a speciality of breaking her engagements,' he answered drily.
'I'm afraid she's still in love with Alec MacKenzie.'
'Then why on earth did she accept Bobbie?'
'My dear boy, she only took him in a fit of temper. When that had cooled down she very wisely thought better of it.'
'I can never sufficiently admire the reasonableness of your sex,' said Dick, ironically.
Julia shrugged her pretty shoulders.
'Half the women I know merely married their husbands to spite somebody else. I assure you it's one of the commonest causes of matrimony.'
'Then heaven save me from matrimony,' cried Dick.
'It hasn't,' she laughed.
But immediately she grew serious once more.
'Mr. MacKenzie was in Brussels while they were in Spa.'
'I had a letter from him this morning.'
'Lady Kelsey says that according to the papers he's going to Africa again. I think it's that which has upset Lucy. They made a great fuss about him in Brussels.'
'Yes, he tells me that everything is fixed up, and he proposes to start quite shortly. He's going to do some work in the Congo Free State. They want to find a new waterway, and the King of the Belgians has given him a free hand.'
'I suppose the King of the Belgians looks upon one atrocity more or less with equanimity,' said Julia.
They were silent for a minute or two, while each was occupied with his own thoughts.
'You saw him after Lucy broke off the engagement,' said Julia, presently. 'Was he very wretched?'
'He never said a word. I wanted to comfort him, but he never gave me a chance. He never even mentioned Lucy's name.'
'Did he seem unhappy?'
'No. He was just the same as ever, impassive and collected.'
'Really, he's inhuman,' exclaimed Julia impatiently.
'He's an anomaly in this juvenile century,' Dick agreed. 'He's an ancient Roman who buys his clothes in Savile Row.'
'Then he's very much in the way in England, and it's much better that he should go back to Africa.'
'I suppose it is. Here he reminds one of an eagle caged with a colony of canaries.'
Julia looked at her husband reflectively.
'I think you're the only friend who has stuck to him,' she said.
'I wouldn't put it in that way. After all, I'm the only friend he ever had. It was not unnatural that a number of acquaintances should drop him when he got into hot water.'
'It must have been a great help to find someone who believed in him notwithstanding everything.'
'I'm afraid it sounds very immoral, but whatever his crimes were, I should never like Alec less. You see, he's been so awfully good and kind to me, I can look on with fortitude while he plays football with the Ten Commandments.'
Julia's emotions were always sudden, and the tears came to her eyes as she answered.
'I'm really beginning to think you a perfect angel, Dick.'
'Don't say that,' he retorted quickly. 'It makes me feel so middle-aged. I'd much sooner be a young sinner than an elderly cherub.'
Smiling, she stretched out her hand, and he held it for a moment.
'You know, though I can't help liking you, I don't in the least approve of you.'
'Good heavens, why not?' he cried.
'Well, I was brought up to believe that a man should work, and you're disgracefully idle.'
'Good heavens, to marry an American wife is the most arduous profession in the world,' he cried. 'One has to combine the energy of the Universal Provider with the patience of an ambassador at the Sublime Porte.'
'You foolish creature,' she laughed.
But her thoughts immediately reverted to Lucy. Her pallid, melancholy face still lingered in Julia's memory, and her heart was touched by the hopeless woe that dwelt in her beautiful eyes.
'I suppose there's no doubt that those stories about Alec MacKenzie were true?' she said, thoughtfully.
Dick gave her a quick glance. He wondered what was in her mind.
'I'll tell you what I think,' he said. 'Anyone who knows Alec as well as I do must be convinced that he did nothing from motives that were mean and paltry. To accuse him of cowardice is absurd—he's the bravest man I've ever known—and it's equally absurd to accuse him of weakness. But what I do think is this: Alec is not the man to stick at half measures, and he's taken desperately to heart the maxim which says that he who desires an end desires the means also. I think he might be very ruthless, and on occasion he might be stern to the verge of brutality. Reading between the lines of those letters that Macinnery sent to the Daily Mail, I have wondered if Alec, finding that someone must be sacrificed, didn't deliberately choose George Allerton because he was the least useful to him and could be best spared. Even in small undertakings like that there must be some men who are only food for powder. If Alec had found George worthless to him, no consideration for Lucy would have prevented him from sacrificing him.'
'If that were so why didn't he say it outright?'
'Do you think it would have made things any better? The British public is sentimental; they will not understand that in warfare it is necessary sometimes to be inhuman. And how would it have served him with Lucy if he had confessed that he had used George callously as a pawn in his game that must be sacrificed to win some greater advantage?'
'It's all very horrible,' shuddered Julia.
'And so far as the public goes, events have shown that he was right to keep silence. The agitation against him died down for want of matter, and though he is vaguely discredited, nothing is proved definitely against him. Public opinion is very fickle, and already people are beginning to forget, and as they forget they will think they have misjudged him. When it is announced that he has given his services to the King of the Belgians, ten to one there will be a reaction in his favour.'
They got up from luncheon, and coffee was served to them. They lit their cigarettes. For some time they were silent.
'Lucy wants to see him before he goes,' said Julia suddenly.
Dick looked at her and gave an impatient shrug of the shoulders.
'I suppose she wants to indulge a truly feminine passion for making scenes. She's made Alec quite wretched enough already.'
'Don't be unkind to her, Dick,' said Julia, tears welling up in her bright eyes. 'You don't know how desperately unhappy she is. My heart bled to see her this morning.'
'Darling, I'll do whatever you want me to,' he said, leaning over her.
Julia's sense of the ridiculous was always next door to her sense of the pathetic.
'I don't know why you should kiss me because Lucy's utterly miserable,' she said, with a little laugh.
And then, gravely, as she nestled in his encircling arm:
'Will you try and manage it? She hesitates to write to him.'
'I'm not sure if I had not better leave you to impart the pleasing information yourself,' he replied. 'I've asked Alec to come here this afternoon.'
'You're a selfish beast,' she answered. 'But in that case you must leave me alone with him, because I shall probably weep gallons of tears, and you'll only snigger at me.'
'Bless your little heart! Let us put handkerchiefs in every conceivable place.'
'On occasions like this I carry a bagful about with me.'
In the afternoon Alec arrived. Julia's tender heart was touched by the change wrought in him during the three months of his absence from town. At the first glance there was little difference in him. He was still cool and collected, with that air of expecting people to do his bidding which had always impressed her; and there was still about him a sensation of strength, which was very comfortable to weaker vessels. But her sharp eyes saw that he held himself together by an effort of will, and it was singularly painful to the onlooker. The strain had told on him, and there was in his haggard eyes, in the deliberate firmness of his mouth, a tension which suggested that he was almost at the end of his tether. He was sterner than before and more silent. Julia could see how deeply he had suffered, and his suffering had been greater because of his determination to conquer it at all costs. She longed to go to him and beg him not to be too hard upon himself. Things would have gone more easily with him, if he had allowed himself a little weakness. But he was softer too, and she no longer felt the slight awe which to her till then had often made intercourse difficult. His first words were full of an unexpected kindness.
'I'm so glad to be able to congratulate you,' he said, holding her hand and smiling with that rare, sweet smile of his. 'I was a little unhappy at leaving Dick; but now I leave him in your hands I'm perfectly content. He's the dearest, kindest old chap I've ever known.'
'Shut up, Alec,' cried Dick promptly. 'Don't play the heavy father, or Julia will burst into tears. She loves having a good cry.'
But Alec ignored the interruption.
'He'll be an admirable husband because he's been an admirable friend.'
For the first time Julia thought Alec altogether wise and charming.
'I know he will,' she answered happily. 'And I'm only prevented from saying all I think of him by the fear that he'll become perfectly unmanageable.'
'Spare me the chaste blushes which mantle my youthful brow, and pour out the tea, Julia,' said Dick.
She laughed and proceeded to do as he requested.
'And are you really starting for Africa so soon?' Julia asked, when they were settled around the tea-table.
Alec threw back his head, and his face lit up.
'I am. Everything is fixed up; the bother of collecting supplies and getting porters has been taken off my shoulders, and all I have to do is to get along as quickly as possible.'
'I wish to goodness you'd give up these horrible explorations,' cried Dick. 'They make the rest of us feel so abominably unadventurous.'
'But they're the very breath of my nostrils,' answered Alec. 'You don't know the exhilaration of the daily dangers, the joy of treading where only the wild beasts have trodden before.'
'I freely confess that I don't want to,' said Dick.
Alec sprang up and stretched his legs. As he spoke all signs of lassitude disappeared, and he was seized with an excitement that was rarely seen in him.
'Already I can hardly bear my impatience when I think of the boundless country and the enchanting freedom. Here one grows so small, so mean; but in Africa everything is built to a nobler standard. There the man is really a man. There one knows what are will and strength and courage. You don't know what it is to stand on the edge of some great plain and breathe the pure keen air after the terrors of the forest.'
'The boundless plain of Hyde Park is enough for me,' said Dick. 'And the aspect of Piccadilly on a fine day in June gives me quite as many emotions as I want.'
But Julia was moved by Alec's unaccustomed rhetoric, and she looked at him earnestly.
'But what will you gain by it now that your work is over—by all the danger and all the hardships?'
He turned his dark, solemn eyes upon her.
'Nothing. I want to gain nothing. Perhaps I shall discover some new species of antelope or some unknown plant. I may be fortunate enough to find a new waterway. That is all the reward I want. I love the sense of power and the mastery. What do you think I care for the tinsel rewards of kings and peoples!'
'I always said you were melodramatic,' said Dick. 'I never heard anything so transpontine.'
'And the end of it?' asked Julia, almost in a whisper. 'What will be the end?'
A faint smile played for an instant upon Alec's lips. He shrugged his shoulders.
'The end is death. But I shall die standing up. I shall go the last journey as I have gone every other.'
He stopped, for he would not add the last two words. Julia said them for him.
'For all the world like the wicked baronet,' cried the mocking Dick. 'Once aboard the lugger, and the gurl is mine.'
Julia reflected for a little while. She did not want to resist the admiration with which Alec filled her. But she shuddered. He did not seem to fit in with the generality of men.
'Don't you want people to remember you?' she asked.
'Perhaps they will,' he answered slowly. 'Perhaps in a hundred years, in some flourishing town where I discovered nothing but wilderness, they will commission a second-rate sculptor to make a fancy statue of me. And I shall stand in front of the Stock Exchange, a convenient perch for birds, to look eternally upon the shabby deeds of human kind.'
He gave a short, abrupt laugh, and his words were followed by silence. Julia gave Dick a glance which he took to be a signal that she wished to be alone with Alec.
'Forgive me if I leave you for one minute,' he said.
He got up and left the room. The silence still continued, and Alec seemed immersed in thought. At last Julia answered him.
'And is that really all? I can't help thinking that at the bottom of your heart there is something that you've never told to a living soul.'
He looked at her, and their eyes met. He felt suddenly her extraordinary sympathy and her passionate desire to help him. And as though the bonds of the flesh were loosened, it seemed to him that their very souls faced one another. The reserve which was his dearest habit fell away from him, and he felt an urgent desire to say that which a curious delicacy had prevented him from every betraying to callous ears.
'I daresay I shall never see you again, and perhaps it doesn't much matter what I say to you. You'll think me very silly, but I'm afraid I'm rather—patriotic. It's only we who live away from England who really love it. I'm so proud of my country, and I wanted so much to do something for it. Often in Africa I've thought of this dear England and longed not to die till I had done my work.'
His voice shook a little, and he paused. It seemed to Julia that she saw the man for the first time, and she wished passionately that Lucy could hear those words of his which he spoke so shyly, and yet with such a passionate earnestness.
'Behind all the soldiers and the statesmen whose fame is imperishable there is a long line of men who've built up the empire piece by piece. Their names are forgotten, and only students know their history, but each one of them gave a province to his country. And I too have my place among them. Year after year I toiled, night and day, and at last I was able to hand over to the commissioner a broad tract of land, rich and fertile. After my death England will forget my faults and my mistakes; and I care nothing for the flouts and gibes with which she has repaid all my pain, for I have added another fair jewel to her crown. I don't want rewards; I only want the honour of serving this dear land of ours.'
Julia went up to him and laid her hand gently on his arm.
'Why is it, when you're so nice really, that you do all you can to make people think you utterly horrid?'
'Don't laugh at me because you've found out that at bottom I'm nothing more than a sentimental old woman.'
'I don't want to laugh at you. But if I didn't think it would embarrass you so dreadfully, I should certainly kiss you.'
He smiled and lifting her hand to his lips, lightly kissed it.
'I shall begin to think I'm a very wonderful woman if I've taught you to do such pretty things as that.'
She made him sit down, and then she sat by his side.
'I'm very glad you came to-day. I wanted to talk to you. Will you be very angry if I say something to you?'
'I don't think so,' he smiled.
'I want to speak to you about Lucy.'
He drew himself suddenly together, and the expansion of his mood disappeared. He was once more the cold, reserved man of their habitual intercourse.
'I'd rather you didn't,' he said briefly.
But Julia was not to be so easily put off.
'What would you do if she came here to-day?' she asked.
He turned round and looked at her sharply, then answered with great deliberation.
'I have always lived in polite society. I should never dream of outraging its conventions. If Lucy happened to come, you may be sure that I should be scrupulously polite.'
'Is that all?' she cried.
He did not answer, and into his face came a wild fierceness that appalled her. She saw the effort he was making at self-control. She wished with all her heart that he would be less brave.
'I think you might not be so hard if you knew how desperately Lucy has suffered.'
He looked at her again, and his eyes were filled with bitterness, with angry passion at the injustice of fate. Did she think that he had not suffered? Because he did not whine his misery to all and sundry, did she think he did not care? He sprang up and walked to the other end of the room. He did not want that woman, for all her kindness, to see his face. He was not the man to fall in and out of love with every pretty girl he met. All his life he had kept an ideal before his eyes. He turned to Julia savagely.
'You don't know what it meant to me to fall in love. I felt that I had lived all my life in a prison, and at last Lucy came and took me by the hand, and led me out. And for the first time I breathed the free air of heaven.'
He stopped abruptly, clenching his jaws. He would not tell her how bitterly he had suffered for it, he would not tell her of his angry rebelliousness because all that pain should have come to him. He wanted nobody to know the depths of his agony and of his despair. But he would not give way. He felt that, if he did not keep a tight hold on himself, he would break down and shake with passionate sobbing. He felt a sudden flash of hatred for Julia because she sat there and watched his weakness. But as though she saw at what a crisis of emotion he was, Julia turned her eyes from him and looked down at the ground. She did not speak. She felt the effort he was making to master himself, and she was infinitely disturbed. She wanted to go to him and comfort him, but she knew he would repel her. He wanted to fight his battle unaided.
At last he conquered, but when he spoke again, his voice was singularly broken. It was hoarse and low.
'My love was the last human weakness I had. It was right that I should drink that bitter cup. And I've drunk its very dregs. I should have known that I wasn't meant for happiness and a life of ease. I have other work to do in the world.'
He paused for a moment, and his calmness was restored to him.
'And now that I've overcome this last temptation I am ready to do it.'
'But haven't you any pity for yourself? Haven't you any thought for Lucy?'
'Must I tell you, too, that everything I did was for Lucy's sake? And still I love her with all my heart and soul.'
There was no bitterness in his tone now; it was gentle and resigned. He had, indeed, won the battle. Julia's eyes were filled with tears, and she could not answer. He came forward and shook hands with her.
'You mustn't cry,' he said, smiling. 'You're one of those persons whose part it is to bring sunshine into the lives of those with less fortunate dispositions. You must always be happy and childlike.'
'I've got lots of handkerchiefs, thanks,' she sobbed, laughing the while.
'You must forget all the nonsense I've talked to you,' he said.
He smiled once more and was gone.
Dick was sitting in his bedroom, reading an evening paper, and she flung herself sobbing into his arms.
'Oh, Dick, I've had such a lovely cry, and I'm so happy and so utterly wretched. And I'm sure I shall have a red nose.'
'Darling, I've long discovered that you only weep because you're the only person in the world to whom it's thoroughly becoming.'
'Don't be horrid and unsympathetic. I think Alec MacKenzie's a perfect dear. I wanted to kiss him, only I was afraid it would frighten him to death.'
'I'm glad you didn't. He would have thought you a forward hussy.'
'I wish I could have married him, too,' cried Julia, 'I'm sure he'd make a nice husband.'
The days went by, spent by Alec in making necessary preparations for his journey, spent by Lucy in sickening anxiety. The last two months had been passed by her in a conflict of emotions. Love had planted itself in her heart like a great forest tree, and none of the storms that had assailed it seemed to have power to shake its stubborn roots. Season, common decency, shame, had lost their power. She had prayed God that a merciful death might free her from the dreadful uncertainty. She was spiritless and cowed. She despised herself for her weakness. And sometimes she rebelled against the fate that crushed her with such misfortunes; she had tried to do her duty always, acting humbly according to her lights, and yet everything she was concerned in crumbled away to powder at her touch. She, too, began to think that she was not meant for happiness. She knew that she ought to hate Alec, but she could not. She knew that his action should fill her with nameless horror, but against her will she could not believe that he was false and wicked. One thing she was determined on, and that was to keep her word to Robert Boulger; but he himself gave her back her freedom.
He came to her one day, and after a little casual conversation broke suddenly into the middle of things.
'Lucy, I want to ask you to release me from my engagement to you,' he said.
Her heart gave a great leap against her breast, and she began to tremble. He went on.
'I'm ashamed to have to say it; I find that I don't love you enough to marry you.'
She looked at him silently, and her eyes filled with tears. The brutality with which he spoke was so unnatural that it betrayed the mercifulness of his intention.
'If you think that, there is nothing more to be said,' she answered.
He gave her a look of such bitterness that she felt it impossible to continue a pretence which deceived neither of them.
'I'm unworthy of your love,' she cried. 'I've made you desperately wretched.'
'It doesn't matter about me,' he said. 'But there's no reason for you to be wretched, too.'
'I'm willing to do whatever you wish, Bobbie.'
'I can't marry you simply because you're sorry for me. I thought I could, but—it's asking too much of you. We had better say no more about it.'
'I'm very sorry,' she whispered.
'You see, you're still in love with Alec MacKenzie.'
He said it, vainly longing for a denial; but he knew in his heart that no denial would come.
'I always shall be, notwithstanding everything. I can't help myself.'
'No, it's fate.'
She sprang to her feet with vehement passion.
'Oh, Bobbie, don't you think there's some chance that everything may be explained?'
He hesitated for a moment. It was very difficult to answer.
'It's only fair to tell you that now things have calmed down, there are a great many people who don't believe Macinnery's story. It appears that the man's a thorough blackguard, whom MacKenzie loaded with benefits.'
'Do you still believe that Alec caused George's death?'
Lucy leaned back in her chair, resting her face on her hand. She seemed to reflect deeply.
'And you?' said Bobbie.
She gave him a long, earnest look. The colour came to her cheeks.
'No,' she said firmly.
'Why not?' he asked.
'I have no reason except that I love him.'
'What are you going to do?'
'I don't know.'
Bobbie got up, kissed her gently, and went out. She did not see him again, and in a day or two she heard that he had gone away.
* * *
Lucy made up her mind that she must see Alec before he went, but a secret bashfulness prevented her from writing to him. She was afraid that he would refuse, and she could not force herself upon him if she knew definitely that he did not want to see her. But with all her heart she wanted to ask his pardon. It would not be so hard to continue with the dreary burden which was her life if she knew that he had a little pity for her. He could not fail to forgive her when he saw how broken she was.
But the days followed one another, and the date which Julia, radiant with her own happiness, had given her as that of his departure, was approaching.
Julia, too, was exercised in mind. After her conversation with Alec she could not ask him to see Lucy, for she knew what his answer would be. No arguments, would move him. He did not want to give either Lucy or himself the pain which he foresaw an interview would cause, and his wounds were too newly-healed for him to run any risks. Julia resolved to take the matter into her own hands. Alec was starting next day, and he had promised to look in towards the evening to bid them good-bye. Julia wrote a note to Lucy, asking her to come also.
When she told Dick, he was aghast.
'But it's a monstrous thing to do,' he cried. 'You can't entrap the man in that way.'
'I know it's monstrous,' she answered. 'But that's the only advantage of being an American in England, that one can do monstrous things. You look upon us as first cousins to the red Indians, and you expect anything from us. In America I have to mind my p's and q's. I mayn't smoke in public, I shouldn't dream of lunching in a restaurant alone with a man, and I'm the most conventional person in the most conventional society in the world; but here, because the English are under the delusion that New York society is free and easy, and that American women have no restraint, I can kick over the traces, and no one will think it even odd.'
'But, my dear, it's a mere matter of common decency.'
'There are times when common decency is out of place,' she replied.
'Alec will never forgive you.'
'I don't care. I think he ought to see Lucy, and since he'd refuse if I asked him, I'm not going to give him the chance.'
'What will you do if he just bows and walks off?'
'I have his assurance that he'll behave like a civilised man,' she answered.
'I wash my hands of it,' said Dick. 'I think it's perfectly indefensible.'
'I never said it wasn't,' she agreed. 'But you see, I'm only a poor, weak woman, and I'm not supposed to have any sense of honour or propriety. You must let me take what advantage I can of the disabilities of the weaker sex.'
Dick smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
'Your blood be upon your own head,' he answered.
'If I perish, I perish.'
And so it came about that when Alec had been ten minutes in Julia's cosy sitting-room, Lucy was announced. Julia went up to her, greeting her effusively to cover the awkwardness of the moment. Alec grew very pale, but made no sign that he was disconcerted. Only Dick was troubled. He was obviously at a loss for words, and it was plain to see that he was out of temper.
'I'm so glad you were able to come,' said Julia, in order to show Alec that she had been expecting Lucy.
Lucy gave him a rapid glance, and the colour flew to her cheeks. He was standing up and came forward with outstretched hand.
'How do you do?' he said. 'How is Lady Kelsey?'
'She's much better, thanks. We've been to Spa, you know, for her health.'
Julia's heart beat quickly. She was much excited at this meeting; and it seemed to her strangely romantic, a sign of the civilisation of the times, that these two people with raging passions afire in their hearts, should exchange the commonplaces of polite society, Alec, having recovered from his momentary confusion was extremely urbane.
'Somebody told me you'd gone abroad,' he said. 'Was it you, Dick? Dick is an admirable person, a sort of gazetteer for the world of fashion.'
Dick fussily brought forward a chair for Lucy to sit in, and offered to disembarrass her of the jacket she was wearing.
'You must make my excuses for not leaving a card on Lady Kelsey before going away,' said Alec. 'I've been excessively busy.'
'It doesn't matter at all,' Lucy answered.
Julia glanced at him. She saw that he was determined to keep the conversation on the indifferent level which it might have occupied if Lucy had been nothing more than an acquaintance. There was a bantering tone in his voice which was an effective barrier to all feeling. For a moment she was nonplussed.
'London is an excellent place for showing one of how little importance one is in the world. One makes a certain figure, and perhaps is tempted to think oneself of some consequence. Then one goes away, and on returning is surprised to discover that nobody has ever noticed one's absence.'
Lucy smiled faintly. Dick, recovering his good-humour, came at once to the rescue.
'You're overmodest, Alec. If you weren't, you might be a great man. Now, I make a point of telling my friends that I'm indispensable, and they take me at my word.'
'You are a leaven of flippancy in the heavy dough of British righteousness,' smiled Alec.
'It is true that the wise man only takes the unimportant quite seriously.'
'For it is obvious that one needs more brains to do nothing with elegance than to be a cabinet minister,' said Alec.
'You pay me a great compliment, Alec,' cried Dick. 'You repeat to my very face one of my favourite observations.'
Julia looked at him steadily.
'Haven't I heard you say that only the impossible is worth doing?'
'Good heavens,' he cried. 'I must have been quoting the headings of a copy-book.'
Lucy felt that she must say something. She had been watching Alec, and her heart was nearly breaking. She turned to Dick.
'Are you going down to Southampton?' she asked.
'I am, indeed,' he answered. 'I shall hide my face on Alec's shoulder and weep salt tears. It will be most affecting, because in moments of emotion I always burst into epigram.'
Alec sprang to his feet. There was a bitterness in his face which was in odd contrast with Dick's light words.
'I loathe all solemn leave-takings,' he said. 'I prefer to part from people with a nod or a smile, whether I'm going for ever or for a day to Brighton.'
'I've always assured you that you're a monster of inhumanity,' said Mrs. Lomas, laughing difficultly.
He turned to her with a grim smile.
'Dick has been imploring me for twenty years to take life flippantly. I have learnt at last that things are only grave if you take them gravely, and that is desperately stupid. It's so hard to be serious without being absurd. That is the chief power of women, that life and death for them are merely occasions for a change of costume, marriage a creation in white, and the worship of God an opportunity for a Paris bonnet.'
Julia saw that he was determined to keep the conversation on a level of amiable persiflage, and with her lively sense of the ridiculous she could hardly repress a smile at the heaviness of his hand. Through all that he said pierced the bitterness of his heart, and his every word was contradicted by the vehemence of his tortured voice. She was determined, too, that the interview which she had brought about, uncomfortable as it had been to all of them, should not be brought to nothing; characteristically she went straight to the point. She stood up.
'I'm sure you two have things to say to one another that you would like to say alone.'
She saw Alec's eyes grow darker as he saw himself cornered, but she was implacable.
'I have some letters to send off by the American mail, and I want Dick to look over them to see that I've spelt honour with a u and traveller with a double l.'
Neither Alec nor Lucy answered, and the determined little woman took her husband firmly away. When they were left alone, neither spoke for a while.
'I've just realised that you didn't know I was coming to-day,' said Lucy at last. 'I had no idea that you were being entrapped. I would never have consented to that.'
'I'm very glad to have an opportunity of saying good-bye to you,' he answered.
He preserved the conversational manner of polite society, and it seemed to Lucy that she would never have the strength to get beyond.
'I'm so glad that Dick and Julia are happily married. They're very much in love with one another.'
'I should have thought love was the worst possible foundation for marriage,' he answered. 'Love creates illusions, and marriage destroys them. True lovers should never marry.'
Again silence fell upon them, and again Lucy broke it.
'You're going away to-morrow?'
She looked at him, but he would not meet her eyes. He went over to the window and looked out upon the busy street.
'Are you very glad to go?'
'You can't think what a joy it is to look upon London for the last time. I long for the infinite surface of the clean and comfortable sea.'
Lucy gave a stifled sob. Alec started a little, but he did not move. He still looked down upon the stream of cabs and 'buses, lit by the misty autumn sun.
'Is there no one you regret to leave, Alec?'
It tore his heart that she should use his name. To hear her say it had always been like a caress, and the word on her lips brought back once more the whole agony of his distress; but he would not allow his emotion to be seen. He turned round and faced her gravely. Now, for the first time, he did not hesitate to look at her. And while he spoke the words he set himself to speak, he noticed the exquisite oval of her face, her charming, soft hair, and her unhappy eyes.
'You see, Dick is married, and so I'm much best out of the way. When a man takes a wife, his bachelor friends are wise to depart from his life, gracefully, before he shows them that he needs their company no longer.'
'And besides Dick?'
'I have few friends and no relations. I can't flatter myself that anyone will be much distressed at my departure.'
'You must have no heart at all,' she said, in a low, hoarse voice.
He clenched his teeth. He was bitterly angry with Julia because she had exposed him to this unspeakable torture.
'If I had I certainly should not bring it to the Carlton Hotel. That sentimental organ would be surely out of place in such a neighbourhood.'
Lucy sprang to her feet.
'Oh, why do you treat me as if we were strangers? How can you be so cruel?'
'Flippancy is often the only refuge from an uncomfortable position,' he answered gravely. 'We should really be much wiser merely to discuss the weather.'
'Are you angry because I came?'
'That would be very ungracious on my part. Perhaps it wasn't quite necessary that we should meet again.'
'You've been acting all the time I've been here. Do you think I didn't see it was unreal, when you talked with such cynical indifference? I know you well enough to tell when you're hiding your real self behind a mask.'
'If that is so, the inference is obvious that I wish my real self to be hidden.'
'I would rather you cursed me than treat me with such cold politeness.'
'I'm afraid you're rather difficult to please,' he said.
Lucy went up to him passionately, but he drew back so that she might not touch him. Her outstretched hands dropped powerless to her side.
'Oh, you're of iron,' she cried pitifully. 'Alec, Alec, I couldn't let you go without seeing you once more. Even you would be satisfied if you knew what bitter anguish I've suffered. Even you would pity me. I don't want you to think too badly of me.'
'Does it much matter what I think? We shall be five thousand miles apart.'
'You must utterly despise me.'
He shook his head. And now his manner lost that affected calmness which had been so cruelly wounding. He could not now attempt to hide the pain that he was suffering. His voice trembled a little with his great emotion.
'I loved you far too much to do that. Believe me, with all my heart I wish you well. Now that the first bitterness is past I see that you did the only possible thing. I hope that you'll be very happy. Robert Boulger is an excellent fellow, and I'm sure he'll make you a much better husband than I should ever have done.'
Lucy blushed to the roots of her hair. Her heart sank, and she did not seek to conceal her agitation.
'Did they tell you I was going to marry Robert Boulger?'
'Isn't it true?'
'Oh, how cruel of them, how frightfully cruel! I became engaged to him, but he gave me my release. He knew that notwithstanding everything, I loved you better than my life.'
Alec looked down, but he did not say anything. He did not move.
'Oh, Alec, don't be utterly pitiless,' she wailed. 'Don't leave me without a single word of kindness.'
'Nothing is changed, Lucy. You sent me away because I caused your brother's death.'
She stood before him, her hands behind her back, and they looked into one another's eyes. Her words were steady and quiet. It seemed to give her an infinite relief to say them.
'I hated you then, and yet I couldn't crush the love that was in my heart. And it's because I was frightened of myself that I told Bobbie I'd marry him. But I couldn't. I was horrified because I cared for you still. It seemed such odious treachery to George, and yet love burnt up my heart. I used to try and drive you away from my thoughts, but every word you had ever said came back to me. Don't you remember, you told me that everything you did was for my sake? Those words hammered away on my heart as though it were an anvil. I struggled not to believe them, I said to myself that you had sacrificed George, coldly, callously, prudently, but my love told me it wasn't true. Your whole life stood on one side and only this hateful story on the other. You couldn't have grown into a different man in one single instant. I've learnt to know you better during these three months of utter misery, and I'm ashamed of what I did.'
'I came here to-day to tell you that I don't understand the reason of what you did; but I don't want to understand. I believe in you now with all my strength. I believe in you as better women than I believe in God. I know that whatever you did was right and just—because you did it.'
Alec looked at her for a moment Then he held out his hand.
'Thank God,' he said. 'I'm so grateful to you.'
'Have you nothing more to say to me than that?'
'You see, its come too late. Nothing much matters now, for to-morrow I go away for ever.'
'But you'll come back.'
He gave a short, scornful laugh.
'They were so glad to give me that job on the Congo because no one else would take it. I'm going to a part of Africa from which Europeans seldom return.'
'Oh, that's too horrible,' she cried. 'Don't go, dearest; I can't bear it.'
'I must now. Everything is settled, and there can be no drawing back.'
She let go hopelessly of his hand.
'Don't you care for me any more?' she whispered.
He looked at her, but he did not answer. She turned away, and sinking into a chair, began to cry.
'Don't, Lucy,' he said, his voice breaking suddenly. 'Don't make it harder.'
'Oh, Alec, Alec, don't you see how much I love you.'
He leaned over her and gently stroked her hair.
'Be brave, darling,' he whispered.
She looked up passionately, seizing both his hands.
'I can't live without you. I've suffered too much. If you cared for me at all, you'd stay.'
'Though I love you with all my soul, I can't do otherwise now than go.'
'Then take me with you,' she cried eagerly. 'Let me come too.'
'You don't know what I can do. With you to help me I can be very brave. Let me come, Alec.'
'It's impossible. You don't know what you ask.'
'Then let me wait for you. Let me wait till you come back.'
'And if I never come back?'
'I will wait for you still.'
He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes, as though he were striving to see into the depths of her soul. She felt very weak. She could scarcely see him through her tears, but she tried to smile. Then without a word he slipped his arms around her. Sobbing in the ecstasy of her happiness, she let her head fall on his shoulder.
'You will have the courage to wait?' he said.
'I know you love me, and I trust you.'
'Then have no fear; I will come back. My journey was only dangerous because I wanted to die. I want to live now, and I shall live.'
'Oh, Alec, Alec, I'm so glad you love me.'
Outside in the street the bells of the motor 'buses tinkled noisily, and there was an incessant roar of the traffic that rumbled heavily over the wooden pavements. There was a clatter of horses' hoofs, and the blowing of horns; the electric broughams whizzed past with an odd, metallic whirr.