"Do you mean to say you don't know?"
"I mean to say it's none of my business."
Andrew had begun the conversation in a decidedly hectoring manner. He now began to alter his key a little.
"Look here, Frank, things are pretty serious. We've got to stop this tomfoolery."
The other interrupted him.
"Making an exhibition of himself all over London, and wasting his money at a place like this. You know perfectly well what I mean."
"I only know that he's in the best form I've ever seen him in my life. He's just a devilish kind and sporting guv'nor, that's what he is."
"If you mean going about the most disreputable places in London in a half-intoxicated condition—"
"That's a lie, anyhow," said Frank calmly, yet with a glint in his eye.
His brother recoiled a pace, but his manner grew none the less uncompromising.
"I suppose you'll say he's moving in fine high-class society, do you?"
"It's a lot better than anything he ever found in his office."
"Thank you," replied the junior partner; "and now perhaps you'll tell me when he's expected back?"
"Day or two," said Frank shortly.
Andrew pondered for a moment.
"Oh?" he remarked at length, and without so much as a good-night he turned on his heel and walked out of the hotel.
Frank's conscience harassed him for a long time after this interview. He wished he could be quite certain that his manner towards his brother was entirely the result of Andrew's disagreeable references to their father. He would be the most ill-conditioned sweep unkicked, the most dishonorable sneaking blackguard, if by any chance he had allowed his luckless passion to prejudice him! He began to wish he were back in India again. Was this beastly furlough never coming to an end? And so he drove off in his hansom, alternately sighing and cursing himself, to watch what he had selected from the pictures in the illustrated papers as the most sentimental drama in town.
The advantage of living a well-regulated life was never better illustrated than in the person of his brother Andrew. No qualms of conscience annoyed him as he drove back economically in his bus. He knew that he was right, and that people who violated his standards, and disagreed with him impertinently were wrong; and secure in that knowledge, he was enabled to hug against his outraged feelings the warm consolation of a grievance. All through his life this form of moral hot-water bottle had kept Andrew snug during many a painful night. It is worth being consistently righteous for the mere privilege of possessing this invaluable perquisite.
He decided to wait in London for twenty-four hours longer on the chance of his father returning, and so it happened that he found himself in his club reading-room on the following afternoon at the hour when the Scotsman appeared to cheer the exiles from the north. He secured it at once, and with a consoling sense of homeliness proceeded to turn its familiar pages. All at once he was galvanized into the rigidity of a fire-iron—
"Writers to the Signets' Annual Dinner. Remarkable speech by Mr. Heriot Walkingshaw."
* * * * *
It was a few minutes before he summoned up his courage to read any further.
* * * * *
"Mr. Walkingshaw began by remarking that it was by the merest chance he was present among them to-night. He had been so engrossed by the attractions of London (laughter)—he did not mean what they meant (renewed laughter)—that he had positively forgotten all about his duty to his convivial fellow-practitioners till he was reminded by a telegram from a young lady (a laugh). He alluded to his daughter (cheers). Several morals might be drawn from this little incident. The advantages of the sixpenny telegram and the even greater advantages of getting on the right side of the fair sex (cheers and laughter); these were two morals, but what he proposed to bring more particularly under their notice to-night was this: that if a respectable old chap like himself could enjoy himself so thoroughly as to forget his duty, there was hope even for the oldest of them (slight applause). What satisfaction was it to become prosperous and respected if at the same time one became a bugbear to one's children and a bore to one's acquaintances? Supposing that one of the old and valued friends he saw before him could suddenly see himself with the eyes of a young man of forty, or better still of thirty, what would he think of himself?—He would desire to drive a pin through the old fossil's trousers and wake him up! (a laugh). He would realize he was out of touch with life; that he was neglecting a dozen opportunities a day for giving pleasure to people who were still young enough to enjoy themselves, and thereby bucking himself up too. Mr. Walkingshaw begged his audience, particularly that portion of it over fifty, to beware of the fatal habit of growing old. How was this to be avoided? Well, everybody could not hope to have his own good fortune, but he could give them a few tips. In the first place, they should make a point of falling in love at least twice a year (laughter). The old duffer who ceased to fall in love was doomed. Then, while leading a strictly abstemious life on six days of the week, they should let themselves go a bit on the seventh; and when in that condition (a laugh)—he did not mean 'blind fu',' but merely a little the happier for it—while in that condition they should unlock their cash boxes and distribute a substantial sum among the poor and deserving young. Furthermore, they should make a point of mixing at least twice a week in fresh society—Bohemians, sportsmen, and the like. Also, nothing should be allowed to degenerate into a habit, especially churchgoing—"
Andrew read no further. Half an hour later he was driving for King's Cross as fast as a cab could take him.
It was characteristic of Andrew's serviceable and soundly unimaginative intellect that it should decline to grasp such a phenomenon as a father who was rapidly approaching his own age. It accepted the fact, since the evidence was now becoming overwhelming, but it firmly refused to go an inch beyond this concession. If one were seriously to regard his conduct as the natural result of youth and high spirits, there would be in a kind of way an excuse for it; and once you started that line of reasoning, where were you? You would be pardoning beggars because they were hungry, and bankrupts because they had no money, and all kinds of things. Andrew's conceptions of justice were not to be tampered with like that. It therefore followed (since he was extremely logical) that his parent must be looked upon simply as an erring and impenitent man. His age did not matter. That was his business. His son's was to see that, whether Mr. Heriot Walkingshaw professed to be eighty or eighteen, he conducted himself in a manner befitting the head of so respectable a family and firm.
The only defect in this pre-eminently honest way of regarding the matter was that it handicapped the junior partner when it came to forecasting his parent's probable movements. If you persist in basing your calculations on the assumption that a bird ought to be too old to fly, when it actually isn't, you will probably be wrong in expecting to find it always in your garden.
Andrew let himself into the house about the hour of 8:30 a. m., and almost fell into the arms of the agitated widow.
"Have you found him? Where is he? What has happened?" she implored him.
It was another of Andrew's wholesome peculiarities that, having once distrusted a person, his suspicions could hardly be allayed, even by evidence that would have satisfied a hypochondriacal ex-detective. This safeguard against deception effectually preserved him from the dangerous extremes both of indigence and greatness. He looked upon his second cousin with a shocked and doubtful eye. She had come very close. Did she expect him to toy with her?
"Have I found who?" he inquired coldly.
"If you mean my father, I did not find him."
He looked at her sarcastically, and added, "He didn't mention that himself, of course?"
"I haven't seen him!" she almost shouted.
He looked thoroughly startled now.
"Hasn't he been here?"
"He was only in the house for an hour. That was the day before yesterday. He didn't let me know he was here—he didn't let his sister know—nobody knew but Jean!"
"Where was he staying?"
"At an hotel."
"An hotel!" exclaimed Andrew in horror. "Going to all that expense, with his house standing waiting for him? That beats everything I've heard yet! Is he there still?"
"No, no, he's not!" she cried, almost sobbing. "He's gone back to London."
"Gone back to London!"
"And Jean's gone with him!"
"Jean! Has he not got enough bills to pay at that infernal millionaire's hotel without hers?"
"I don't know," wailed the lady. "I don't understand him. I thought he cared for me—and he didn't even let me know he was here!"
In spite of his anger with his erring parent, he was sufficiently master of his emotions to feel a lively concern at all this speech suggested.
"I must get my breakfast," he observed icily, and was starting for the dining-room.
She collected herself instantly.
"Andrew!" she said, "you've got to go after him."
He stared at her, first in extreme surprise, then with an exceedingly sophisticated smile.
"Thank you, I've got my business to attend to."
"You can go to the office first. There's a train about two."
"I'll not be on it," he replied.
"Some one's got to go and fetch him back."
"It won't be me."
She looked at him for a moment with an expression which did not interest him. He neither professed to understand women nor to think it worth while trying.
"Very well," she answered.
They went in to breakfast, but throughout the meal she never referred to Heriot again. Andrew flattered himself he had choked her off that subject.
While Andrew was still patiently waiting in London, a south-bound express swung down the long slope from Shap; past Oxenholme, past Milnthorpe, past Carnforth, out into the green levels of Lancashire. In one corner of a first-class carriage sat Jean Walkingshaw, her eyes smiling approval at that very paper which was to disturb her brother's serenity a few hours later. Her father sat opposite watching her.
"Well, what do you think of it?" he inquired.
"I think it's most amusing and—and—"
"Oh, very spirited!" she laughed. "In fact, I think it's a splendid speech."
He seemed gratified.
"Some fellows didn't seem to care for it," he observed.
"They must have been very stupid, then!"
"Old buffers generally are," he replied. "Some of the young chaps thought it first-rate, even though they were a little startled for the moment. Though why people should feel startled by anything so self-evident as my remarks beats me. Be hanged to them for silly idiots! Eh, Jean?"
His momentary expression of chagrin made way for a merry smile, which set his daughter smiling gaily back.
"If they disagree with you, father, they must be!" she laughed.
They sat silent for a few minutes, Jean watching the green fields and trees and gates and walls rush past to join the jagged fells behind them, her father watching her.
"It's awfully good of you taking me back with you," she said presently.
"If it's a treat for you, you deserve it," he answered affectionately; "and if it's not—well, anyhow, it's pleasant for me having your company."
"It is a treat for me, though I don't quite see what I've done to deserve it."
"You have stood by your father, my dear; and one good turn deserves another. I'd have been most infernally sick if I'd forgotten that dinner. It gave me the very chance of saying a word or two in season I'd been longing for. I only hope it will do the old fogies good."
He took up the paper and glanced again at the report.
"'Remarkable speech,' they call it," he continued complacently. "Well, they are not very far wrong. It was a remarkable speech. Eh, Jean?"
The good gentleman seemed unable to obtain his daughter's approval often enough. The fact was he had been a trifle disappointed with the attitude of some of his old friends last night. There was no doubt about it, he must go to the young folks for the meed of sympathy he deserved.
Jean again looked out of the window, but she ceased to pay much attention to the backward-drifting landscape. Her heart was too full of hopes and questionings and restless wonder. In a little she turned to her father again and said, with an eye so candid and a smile so kind that many members even of her own sex would never have suspected a hint of ulterior design—
"Do you know, you are the very best of fathers!"
He replied in the same spirit of affection, and she continued—
"I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to being in London again! You couldn't have done anything I'd have liked better."
"Yes," he confessed, "London is an amusing place."
"And one always meets so many people one knows there. That is one of its attractions."
He agreed that it was.
"I wonder who I'll meet this time?"
She spoke with an air of the most innocent speculation, but the nature of her parent's smile changed subtly.
"Goodness knows who one will meet in London," he replied. "Not Andrew, we'll hope, eh? I wonder where he is now."
At this change of subject her breast gave a quick little heave that might have marked a stifled sigh, but she dutifully joined in what she could not but think an unnecessarily prolonged series of speculations regarding the movements of a quite uninteresting young man.
But her eyes were very bright indeed and her face distinct with suppressed excitement as they drove from Euston Station into the life of the streets. All the while she kept looking out of the cab window, as though amid the passing myriads she might happen already to recognize one of those acquaintances she hoped to meet. At last she was in London! And London in early spring; London with the smuts washed off by torrential showers and then flooded with glorious sunshine; London with the young leaves like a thin veil of green on the limes and elms, and the tassels hanging from the poplars, and the sycamores and horse chestnuts already casting grateful shade; London with the mowing machines whirling in the parks and the watering-carts swishing down the streets—is a fairy city for a young girl with a large hotel to live in, a generous father, and a lover somewhere hidden in those mysterious miles of crowds and houses. Jean half wished she could feel a little less impatient, so that she might relish every passing moment to its dregs.
Her father, Frank, and she dined sumptuously and went to the most entertaining play afterwards—a stimulating medley of waltz refrains and gorgeous clothes and a funny man and fifty pretty girls. She did not pose as a dramatic critic, and thought it splendid. Then they had supper at the Savoy, and—so to bed.
But though she had gone to her room, Jean lingered for long before her open window, looking wistfully over the humming, lamp-lit town. His name had not been mentioned.
Lucas painted, but not so fiercely as before; and again from the deck-chair Hillary watched him. He rented the studio next door, and having a comfortable private income of L80 a year, generally spent his afternoons encouraging his friend. Occasionally, however, he considered it advisable to supply chastening reflections.
"I don't like it," he observed.
"Don't like what?"
"If he really meant to buy those pictures, I can't help thinking you would have heard from him again."
The artist turned abruptly.
"It was only three days ago. I don't expect to hear yet."
"Dear old Lucas, I don't want to discourage you, but I call it fishy. Supposing he has met some one since who really knew something about pictures?"
His friend resumed work in silence.
"There is also another possibility," continued Hillary in his gentle voice. "He struck me as suspiciously extravagant—supposing he has gone bankrupt? I noticed, too, that his complexion was somewhat rubicund—supposing he has had an apoplectic fit? In that case, would his executors be bound by his verbal promise? Honestly, Lucas, I don't think so."
There came a sharp rap on the door.
"It will relax the strain on your intellect if you go and see who that is," suggested the painter.
"A telegram," said Hillary, strolling back from the door.
"Good heavens!" cried Lucas. "Read that."
"Come immediately. Unfortunate complication here. Require you to explain fully.—HERIOT WALKINGSHAW."
He looked considerably sobered.
"Of course I didn't really mean what I was saying—"
Lucas interrupted him brusquely.
"I'm off. Look after things here. What the devil—"
He strode down the lane, hailed a cab, and drove off to an accompaniment of the most anxious speculations.
"This way, sir," said the attendant at the Hotel Gigantique.
Lucas followed him, still racking his brains for some explanation not too disastrous to his hopes. The man opened the door of a sitting-room and closed it quietly behind him. In the room there was only one person, a girl with the sunniest hair and the straightest little nose and the most delightfully astonished face imaginable.
"Jean!" he cried.
He took a quick step towards her and then remembered the gravity of the summons.
"What's the matter?" he demanded.
"Then it was you!" she exclaimed.
"Father only told me that some one—a man—"
He held out the telegram abruptly.
"What do you make of that?"
She read it, and then read it again, and her bewilderment seemed to change into another emotion.
"What did your father tell you to do?" asked Lucas.
She gave him the queerest look.
"Get rid of the man if I could," she said.
He ran his fingers through his mop of brown hair.
"But I don't understand—what's the 'complication'?"
She began to smile shyly—
"Lucas, don't you think—don't you see—there's nothing else. I must be the complication here."
* * * * *
"Ahem!" coughed Mr. Walkingshaw.
The lovers endeavored to look as though the artist had been merely posing his patron's daughter.
"Well?" inquired that patron genially.
Lucas had not altogether lost his ready audacity.
"I came at once, sir," he replied, "and I have explained fully. The complication has been cleared up."
Laughing gleefully, chattering away much more like the prospective best man than the future father-in-law, he led them (an arm thrown about each) towards the sofa, where they sat together, crowded but happy.
"What would you put your income at now, Lucas?" he inquired mischievously.
Lucas looked a little rueful.
"The same fluctuating figures, I'm afraid," he confessed.
"My dear fellow, don't worry," said Heriot kindly. "Money isn't everything in this world. Youth and love and pluck are the main things. Hang it, what if you do get into debt occasionally? You've got a pretty oofy father-in-law. Of course, my dear chap, I don't encourage extravagance; far from it"—he glanced complacently at the chaste upholstery of the Hotel Gigantique. "I believe in paying your way, and laying by for a rainy day, and all that kind of thing, just as much as ever I did—in theory, anyhow. But in practice I may just as well tell you at once, to ease your mind, that Jean will have three hundred a year to keep the pot boiling."
He pooh-poohed their gratitude with the most genial air.
"Don't mention it, my dear young people, don't mention it. It comes out of Andrew's share, so it's all right."
"But I couldn't dream of robbing Andrew!" cried Jean warmly.
"He spends his days in robbing our clients," chuckled the senior partner, "so you needn't worry about him. Besides, he doesn't know how to spend money even when he has got it." He lowered his voice confidentially. "Andrew hasn't a spark of the sportsman in him; he's all very well as a partner—one wants 'em tough; but as a son—good Lord!"
And then the good gentleman tactfully retired to the billiard-room, leaving behind him the two happiest people in London.
Naturally, Lucas stayed to dinner, and naturally also he and Jean were left in uninterrupted occupation of the private sitting-room, while her father and Frank smoked and talked together in a quiet corner of the hall. Mr. Walkingshaw was radiant with the reflection of the happiness he had brought about. He could do nothing but make little plans for introducing Lucas to his picture-buying acquaintances, select eligible districts of London for their residence, and jot down various articles of furniture or ornament that he could spare them from his own mansion. Frank seemed equally delighted, though his good spirits were occasionally interrupted by fits of reverie.
"Somehow or other," said Mr. Walkingshaw, "I feel more and more like a friend of Jean and you, and less and less like your father. Odd thing, isn't it, Frank?"
"A jolly fine thing," said Frank warmly. "By Jove, sir, I can't tell you how much I prefer it!"
"Do you really? Well, then, I won't worry about the feeling any more."
Mr. Walkingshaw had not given the impression that he was worrying about that or any other feeling, but one was bound to take his word for it.
"I enjoy the sensation far more myself," he went on. "It produces a kind of mutual confidence and that sort of thing. I hardly feel inclined to explain the cause of this improvement yet, Frank; but you may take my word that there is nothing in the least discreditable about it. In fact, when one comes to think of it, there's nothing so very extraordinary either. It's a perfectly sound scientific idea, perfectly sound; so you can make your mind at ease too, Frank."
As a matter of fact, Frank's mind had already wandered far afield from these interesting but slightly obscure speculations.
"Oh, that's all right, I assure you," he answered vaguely.
"It's a grand thing to know that Jean's love affair has turned out so happily," his father continued. "I can't tell you what a satisfaction it is to me."
"Yes, isn't it?" Frank murmured from the clouds.
"I only wish I could feel as sure of Andrew falling on his feet."
Frank's wits were wide awake now.
"Andrew!" he exclaimed. "Good heavens, do you mean to say you don't think he has fallen on his feet?"
His father shook his head dubiously.
"But, my dear father, I thought you agreed with me—agreed with all of us, I mean—that Ellen's just the—well, the—er—the—er—the nicest girl in the world."
"Oh, she's all that."
"Then what on earth do you mean?"
Mr. Walkingshaw leant confidentially over the arm of his easy-chair.
"Between ourselves, Frank, I'm rather doubtful whether she thinks Andrew the nicest man in the world."
"But—but—surely she—er—I mean, they are engaged."
"Frank, my boy, not a word of this to a soul—not even to Jean or Lucas. I may be wrong, and I don't want to make mischief; but I have a strong suspicion there's another fellow."
"What kind of fellow?"
"Good God!" cried Frank. "Who the devil is he?"
"Hush, hush—not so violently, my dear fellow. It's pretty sickening, of course; but till you know who he is, you can't knock him down."
"Well, then, tell me who he is."
"That's just what I'd like to know myself. It's some one in Perthshire."
"How do you know?" demanded Frank.
He controlled his voice, but in his eyes burned a light that boded ill for his brother's rival when he caught him.
"Well, you can judge for yourself how I know. Andrew noticed the change in Ellen's manner the first time he saw her after she'd been staying with us. The only fellow she met in Edinburgh was yourself, so it must be some one in Perthshire."
The militant Highlander fell back in his chair with a gasp, and the light of battle died out of his eyes.
"Don't you agree with me?" asked his father.
"I—er—I don't know," he stammered.
Mr. Walkingshaw had grown none the less shrewd as his weight of years was lightened.
"Eh?" he demanded quickly, "what do you know about it? Be perfectly frank with me."
"But why should you think that—er—I—"
"Tell me this—do you know of any one who's been paying attention to Ellen Berstoun?"
Poor Frank's color grew deeper and deeper.
"There—there was one fellow, I'm ashamed to say."
"Ashamed? Why should you be ash—" Mr. Walkingshaw broke off suddenly and gazed at his son with very wide-open eyes. "Frank—it was yourself!"
The treacherous brother hung his head. And then, in the depths of his penitence, he heard these extraordinary words—
"My dear, dear chap, this is almost too good to be true!"
"Too good!" gasped Frank.
"What did you do—kiss her?"
"No, no; not so bad as that!"
"You let her know, though? There's no mistake about that, eh?"
"I'm afraid I did."
His father took his hand.
"She is yours," said he.
"Mine? But, my dear father, she is Andrew's!"
"She was; but he's such a perfect sumph, I'm thankful she's got quit of him."
"What! Is it broken off?"
"It will be."
"What's an engagement? Speaking as a lawyer of many years' standing, I may tell you candidly that engagements, and agreements, and bargains are simply devices for keeping rascals from swindling one another. If honest men agree, they don't need a stamped bit of paper; and if they disagree, where's the point in leashing them together, like a couple of growling dogs? And the case is a thousand times stronger when it comes to a man and a girl. I was only afraid I should lose a charming daughter-in-law, and now you've taken that weight off my mind. I can't tell you how happy I feel!"
Frank's young face was grave and his candid eyes looked straight at his father.
"Look here," he replied, "I'm going to do the straight thing by Andrew. I don't know that I've ever loved him as much as I ought, but that's all the more reason why I shouldn't chisel him now."
"Oh, that's your military idea of discipline and all the rest of it; but let me tell you, falling in love is a different kind of thing from forming fours."
For the first time the young soldier clearly disapproved of his father's rejuvenation.
"Duty is duty," he persisted, "and I tell you honestly I'm not going to sneak in behind my brother's back."
"Is Ellen to have nothing to say in the matter? Do you propose to marry her to the man she doesn't love, instead of the man she does, without so much as giving her the choice?"
The soldier met this flank attack by a change of front.
"But Andrew has the means to marry her, and I've not."
"I'll give you the means," said his father.
Frank began to realize that Duty was in a very tight corner.
"But I haven't any grounds whatever for thinking that Ellen cares for me."
"You'll have to convince me."
"Is it not clearly your duty to settle that point first?"
"Well—perhaps it is."
The crafty strategist smiled.
"We'll settle it!"
"At once. Where's a time-table?"
"But look here, my dear father, there's the question of honor to be settled after that."
"After that—exactly; I'm with you all the way. But in the meanwhile, first get this into your head. An engagement is an affair of two hearts, not of two pockets or two heads. If the hearts are off, the bargain's off. That's the whole ethics of an engagement. And let me tell you I'm not without some experience."
"Heriot!" exclaimed a familiar voice.
The W.S. looked round with a start. There, through the middle of the hall, attired in a most becoming traveling coat of fur, advanced the sympathetic widow.
"My dear Madge!" cried her betrothed.
Almost in the same instant his off eye signaled to his son a hurried but expressive warning.
The hour was late, but in spite of Heriot's kindly suggestion that the rapture he anticipated from her conversation should be postponed till she had recovered from the fatigues of her journey, his fiancee unselfishly preferred to recompense him immediately for his prolonged deprivation of her society. He acceded at once to her wishes, with the most amiable air imaginable.
"And now, my dear Madge," said he, when they were seated in a secluded corner of the lounge, "tell me all your news. In the first place, how's my own precious?"
"I am very well, thank you," replied the lady, a little coolly.
"Delighted to hear it!"
"You could, of course, have discovered it sooner by simply writing to inquire," she pointed out, with the same air.
"But I did, my dear girl, I did."
"Only once, was it? Now, I could have sworn it was twice."
"And did you think twice was often enough?"
"Well, you see, Madge," he explained, "we got engaged in such a deuce of a hurry, and I had to rush off next morning, and so on. I didn't have time to ask you how often you wished me to write."
"Didn't my last two unanswered letters give you any idea on the subject?"
"Two letters, Madge? Now, do you know, I could have sworn it was only one."
She looked at him steadily.
"Heriot, what is the meaning of your conduct?"
"To what points in it do you refer, my dear?"
"I may tell you I have heard from Charlie Munro."
It was remarkable how quickly Mr. Walkingshaw had developed. That reputation he still clung to when he saw her last was no longer a brake upon his downward career.
"Poor old Charlie!" he laughed. "By Jove, Madge, I jolly well hoisted him with his own thingamajig!"
She regarded him stonily.
"And what of the business you went to see him about?"
"Did I say I was going to see him on business?"
"Oh, no, no, my dear girl; you must have misunderstood me. Of course, it was natural enough; we were both rather carried away by our feelings that night, weren't we, Madge?"
He took her hand and pressed it affectionately, but it made no response.
"Why didn't you come to see me when you were in Edinburgh?" she inquired.
"I ought to have," he answered, with an expression of the sincerest apology. "Yes, I suppose I ought to have."
"You suppose! Didn't it occur to you at the time?"
"Oh, yes, it occurred. In fact, my difficulty was to keep myself away from you."
"May I ask why it was necessary to make the effort?"
"Well, the fact is," he explained, "I had a little scheme for Jean which I wanted to keep a secret—"
"And you couldn't trust me!" she interrupted.
"A charming woman and a secret?" he smiled archly. "My dear girl, your rosy lips would have gone chatter, chatter, chatter all over the town!"
She snatched her hand away with some degree of violence.
"You talk like an idiot!" she replied.
"My dear Madge! This is your own Heriot?"
She took out a little handkerchief of lace and gently touched first one eye and then the other.
"I don't believe you love me!"
Heriot's kind heart was sincerely moved.
"I adore you!"
A faint smile at last appeared upon her face.
"How can you possibly when you go on like this?"
The smile died away and a quick frown took its place.
"Heriot! Do you mean to say you think your behavior has looked like loving me?"
"It's the heart that counts, Madge, not the behavior," he assured her.
She sat up in her chair with an air of decision.
"The behavior does count; so please don't talk as though you thought I was a fool. For your own sake, for the sake of your reputation and your family, you've got to come back with me to-morrow!"
He seized her hand.
"My dear Madge, that's just what I meant to do."
He rose and bent over her with every symptom of affection.
"And now you must really go to bed. You're looking tired; really you are. It quite distresses me."
She still kept her seat.
"You promise to come with me?"
"I assure you I've got to come."
"I must have your promise."
He looked hurt.
"Hang it, Madge, can't you trust me?"
"No, I cannot. Give me your promise."
His air of affection decidedly diminished, but he gave the pledge—
"I promise to go north to-morrow."
"I can really trust you?"
He began to frown.
She rose at last, and they went together towards the lift.
"When do you breakfast?" she asked.
He answered somewhat stiffly—
"There is no necessity of starting before two o'clock. Breakfast when you like."
"We shall say ten o'clock, then."
"That is fairly late, isn't it?"
"You forget that I have had a tiring day, and perhaps you hardly realize whose conduct has tired me. Good-night."
"Good-night," he replied in an unimpassioned voice.
As the widow ascended she told herself that she had adopted entirely the right attitude. She might relent to-morrow, but till then it was well he should be deprived of the sunshine of her smiles.
Next morning at the hour of 10:15 she stepped out of the lift to find Jean waiting in the hall. She greeted Mrs. Dunbar with a markedly composed air.
"I hope you won't mind breakfasting alone?" she said.
It was evident that the widow did mind.
"Do you mean to say your father has actually breakfasted without me?"
"Unfortunately, he had to."
"He and Frank found they must catch the ten o'clock train."
Mrs. Dunbar gasped.
"But he promised to go with me!"
"I understood him to say," said Jean quietly, "that he had merely promised to go north."
"Oh, indeed! Then he has run away?"
"From whom?" asked Jean demurely.
The widow bit her lip.
"I consider his conduct simply disgraceful—"
Jean interrupted her quickly—
"I had rather not discuss my father's conduct. Don't let me keep you from breakfast."
Mrs. Dunbar remained standing in silence, a magnificent statue of displeasure. In a moment she inquired—
"And why are you waiting here?"
"Father thought you might like my company on the journey."
"How very thoughtful of him! Then you go at two?"
The widow gazed at her intently.
"I can hardly believe this of Heriot. Is all this his own idea?"
Jean flushed slightly, but answered as demurely as ever—
"It is his wish."
"Ah, I see!" exclaimed Mrs. Dunbar bitterly, "I thought there was a woman's hand in this affair."
"Do you mean another woman's hand?"
The injured lady began uneasily to realize that there was a fresh factor in the situation. But who would have dreamt of little Jean Walkingshaw being dangerous? As Madge traveled north that afternoon, uncompromisingly secluded behind a lady's journal, she could not get out of her head the uncomfortable fancy that her trim, fair-haired escort sat like a protecting deity (heathen and sinister) between Heriot and all who desired, even with the most loving purpose, to chasten his faults and moderate the exuberance of his too virile spirit.
Jean herself was warmly conscious that some such duty was surely laid upon her. With what less reward could she repay all he had done for her? It will be discovered, however, from the succeeding instalment of facts, that though the guardian angel of Heriot Walkingshaw might go the pace with him thus far, it would probably have been beyond the power even of a genuinely celestial spirit to keep at his shoulder when he spurted.
Archibald Berstoun of that ilk ("of y' ilk" was the form that most delicately tickled his palate) still dwelt in the fortalice built by his ancestors at a time when to the average Scot the national tartan suggested but an alien barbarian who stole his cattle; and the national bagpipe, the national heather, and the national whisky were merely the noise the brute made, the cover that preserved him from the gallows, and the stuff that gave you your one chance of catching him asleep.
(A few reflections on the whirligig of time were here inserted, but have since been omitted, as they were found to occur in a modified form elsewhere.)
The castle stood in the lowland part of Perthshire, and was erected by the second of that ilk as a tribute to the dexterity with which his highland neighbors had removed the effects and cut the throat of the first. It was a sober and simple building, steep-roofed and battlemented at the top, turreted at the angles, and pierced with a few narrow windows so irregularly scattered about its gray harled walls as to suggest that no two rooms could possibly be on the same level. Naturally, the architectural genius who illumines the quiet annals of every landed family had knocked out a number of French windows into the lawn and constructed the first story of a Chinese pagoda, in which he proposed to store Etruscan curios with an aviary above; but his descendants had fortunately lacked the funds to complete these improvements. In fact, the stump of the pagoda was now so entirely overgrown with ivy that it had become the traditional fortress of Agricola.
This ancient habitation of a hard-fighting race was framed on two sides by a garden that looked as old as the walls which towered above it, and was well-nigh as simple and sober. Dark clipped yews, and smooth green grass, and graceful old-world flowers were its chief and sufficient ingredients. The genius who designed the pagoda had not yet turned his attention to the garden when Providence checked his career.
A wood of black Scotch firs stretched for a long way beyond this pleasant garden, and struck a stern northern note befitting the gnarled battlements; while, nearer the house, gray beech stems towered out of the brown dead leaves below up to the brown live buds a hundred feet nearer the clouds.
On the remaining two sides of the castle you were not supposed to bestow attention, since after the old custom the home farm approached more closely than is fashionable nowadays; though to the curious they were the sides best worth attention, owing to the cultured pagoda-builder having deemed it beneath his dignity to molest them.
One afternoon in early spring Ellen Berstoun walked slowly down a sheltered garden path. She had been singularly moody of late—so distressed, indeed, and so little like a lucky girl whose wedding might be fixed for any day she chose to name, that her five unmarried sisters held many private debates on the causes of her conduct. The three next to her in years expressed grave apprehensions lest the very fairly creditable marriage arranged for her should after all fall through. Ellen was not treating Andrew well, they complained; while on the other hand, the two youngest, being as yet irresponsibly romantic, declared vigorously that they had sooner dear Ellen remained single to the end of her days than introduced such a long-lipped, fat-cheeked brother-in-law into the family.
It was a part of poor Ellen's burden that she was acutely conscious of the duty which her parents and all her aunts assured her she owed these sisters. But, on the other hand, to share the remainder of her existence with Andrew Walkingshaw—There rose vividly a picture of that most respectable of partners, and the emotion attendant on this vision drew from her a sigh that ought to have convinced the most skeptical she was very hard hit indeed.
It was at this moment that she spied a lad approaching from the house.
"Well, Jimmy?" she inquired.
With an appearance of some caution, he handed her a note.
"It was to be gi'en to yoursel' privately, miss," he said mysteriously, and turned to go.
"Is there no answer?" she asked.
"He said I wasna to bide for an answer."
He hurried off as though his directions had been peremptory, and Ellen opened the letter. It was written upon the notepaper of a local inn, and if she was surprised to discover the writer, she was still more astonished by the contents.
"MY DEAR ELLEN," it ran, "I should take it as a very great favor indeed if you would come immediately on receiving this and meet me at the farther end of the wood below your garden. Follow the path, and you will find me waiting for you. The matter is of such importance that I make no apologies for suggesting this romantic proceeding!—With love, yours affectionately,
"J. HERIOT WALKINGSHAW.
"P.S.—Don't say a word to one of your family. Secrecy is absolutely essential."
Ellen stood lost in perplexity. Rumors had reached her of Mr. Walkingshaw's recent eccentricity. The request was entirely out of keeping with all her previous acquaintance with him; that point of exclamation after "romantic proceeding" struck her as uncomfortably dissimilar to his usual methods of composition. Ought she not to consult one of her parents, or at least a sister? And yet the postscript was too explicit to be neglected.
For a few minutes she hesitated. Then she made up her mind; her warm heart could not bear to disappoint anybody; and besides, Mr. Heriot Walkingshaw, however odd his conduct might have been lately was such a pompously respectable—indeed venerable—old gentleman that a maiden might surely trust herself with him alone, even in a grove of trees. And so, in a furtive and backward-glancing manner, she stole into the wood. It was an unusual way of approaching one's father's man of business and one's finance's parent, but Ellen consoled herself by the reflection that an experienced Writer to the Signet should best know how these things were done.
She hurried down a narrow, winding glade, lined by countless slender columns supporting far overhead a roof of millions of dark green needles swaying and murmuring in the breeze. Suddenly sunshine and green fields filled the opening of the glade, and as suddenly a tall gentleman stepped from behind a tree and politely raised a fashionable felt hat. In all essential features he was the image of Mr. Heriot Walkingshaw, only that he was so very much younger.
"Well, my dear Ellen!" he exclaimed heartily.
She stared at him, too amazed for speech.
"Am I really so changed already?" he inquired with a smile. "That shows the beneficial effect of seeing you."
Even though his manner had altered as much as his appearance, she found the change so agreeable that she overlooked its strangeness. She smiled back at him.
"I am glad to see you looking so well," she said.
He beamed upon her in what he sincerely meant for a paternal manner.
"You, my dear child, look ripping! My hat, you are pretty! Ellen dear, my only wish is to make you as happy as you are bonny."
She looked at him searchingly, and her voice had a note of guarded alarm.
"What do you mean?"
His air became sympathy itself.
"My dear girl, I have been greatly distressed to hear that all has not been going smoothly with you and Andrew."
She gave him a quick glance and then looked away.
"Indeed!" she answered a little coldly. "Who told you that?"
"I can read it in my son's altered health."
She looked at him in surprise, but without anxiety.
"I didn't know there was anything the matter with him."
"He had to hasten up to London for a change of air."
"I hope it did him good," she said indifferently.
"My dear girl, have you no wish to hurry to his bedside?"
"I'm afraid I shouldn't be any good if I did."
"And you wouldn't find him in bed, either," smiled Mr. Walkingshaw, with a change of manner. "No, no, Ellen; you needn't pretend you're in love with Andrew if that's all the concern you feel. And I may tell you at once that he's as tough as ever, and as great a fool. The fellow is totally unworthy of you, so don't you worry your head about him any longer."
He bent over her confidentially.
"Supposing some one were to cut him out, eh?"
"Some one—" she stammered. "Who?"
"Guess!" he smiled.
She did guess; and it was a shocking surmise.
"I—I have no idea," she fibbed.
"Oh, come now, hang it, look me in the eye and repeat that!"
For an instant, she looked into that roguish eye, and her worst suspicions were confirmed.
"Mr. Walkingshaw," she answered, with trembling candor, "I feel very much honored, but really I must ask you not to—not to say anything more. Our ages—oh, everything—I couldn't! I had better go back now."
The philanthropic father gasped.
"Ellen! stop! My dear child, I don't mean myself! Good heavens, I am far too old for a young girl like you!"
Yet it was at that moment that he suddenly realized he wasn't.
"Then—then what—" she began, and stopped, overwhelmed with confusion.
Hurriedly he endeavored to put things once more upon a paternal footing.
"My fault, my dear Ellen, my fault entirely. Naturally you thought—er—yes, yes, it was quite natural. I—I put it badly. I didn't think what I was saying. The fact is, I've been"—a brilliant inspiration suddenly illumined the chaos of his mind—"I've been so troubled about poor Frank!"
Her expression altogether changed.
"What's the matter?" she exclaimed.
His mind calmed down. Composing his countenance, he shook his head sadly.
"I don't think he'll get over it."
She laid her hand upon his arm with a quick, involuntary gesture.
"But what has happened? Tell me!"
The wisdom of age and the shrewdness of youth twinkled together in Mr. Walkingshaw's eye, but he managed to retain a decorously solemn air.
"You are really concerned this time?"
"Of course! I—I mean, naturally."
He drew her hand through his arm and led her along the fringe of the pine woods.
"Come and see," he said gently. "Poor boy he's had a bad fall."
"What! Is he here—with you?"
"Yes—yes," he answered, with an absent and melancholy air.
He led her a few paces into the trees, and there, seated on a fallen trunk, they saw the victim of fate smoking a cigarette with a meditative air. He sprang to his feet with a light in his eye that might have been the result of some acute disaster, but scarcely looked like it.
"Frank, my boy," said his father, "I have just been explaining to Ellen that you have fallen"—he turned to the girl with a merry air—"in love!" he chuckled, and the next moment they were listening to his flying footsteps and looking at one another.
High overhead the pines murmured gently, and Mr. Walkingshaw, strolling through the quiet colonnades below in solitude and shade, heard the strangest messages whispered down by those riotous tree-tops. He was no longer even middle-aged! Or at least his heart certainly was not. It seemed to keep a decade or so younger than his body, and Heaven knew that was growing younger fast enough! At this rate how much longer could he play the beneficent parent? Good Lord, he had jolly nearly fallen head over ears in love with sweet Ellen Berstoun in the course of five minutes' conversation! She wasn't a day too old for Heriot W. That's to say, he could do with a lassie of that age fine, and, by Gad, he shouldn't wonder but Ellen mightn't have rather cottoned to him if her heart had been free. She looked deuced coy when she thought he was proposing. Yes, a girl like Ellen was the ticket for him. But in that case, what about Madge?
For several minutes Mr. Walkingshaw stood very solemnly studying the bark on an entirely ordinary pine, concluding his scrutiny by hitting it a sharp smack with his walking-stick and turning away from the sight of it with apparent distaste. However, a minute or two later he seemed to find one he liked better, for he placed his back against it, removed his hat, and gazed upwards at the softly murmuring branches. Once more their whispers made him smile. Sufficient for the day were the difficulties thereof! That was the way to look at it. Meanwhile, the spring was young, and the little flowers in the wood were young, and the blue sky that showed in peeps through the swinging tree-tops looked as young as any of them, and certainly it was a young and lusty breeze that swayed them. By Jingo, what excellent company they all were for him!
And then he heard another murmuring sound, coming this time from behind him. He held his breath and caught the words—
"Ellen! I love you—I love you!"
He peeped round the tree, and for an instant saw them. A most gratifying tribute to his diplomacy—but devilish disturbing to a young fellow without a girl! Hurriedly he snapped a twig; he snapped another; he broke a branch; he whistled, he coughed, he shouted. And then they looked up, vaguely surprised to find there was another person in the world.
"Well, Frank," said his father, as they walked back together towards their inn, "are you not feeling happy now, my boy, eh?"
"Happy!" exclaimed Frank. "I'm stupefied with happiness!"
As Heriot Walkingshaw strode between the spring breeze and the murmuring pines, his son's arm through his, listening to his gratitude and Ellen's praises, he too felt happier than ever before in his life. What a lot of pleasure he had learned how to give. And the way to give it was so simple once you found it out. Apparently you had merely to get in sympathy with people, and then do the things which naturally, under those circumstances, you would both like to be done. There was really nothing in it at all; still, it was jolly well worth doing.
Only as they neared the inn did a qualm begin to trouble Frank.
"It's deuced rough luck on Andrew, losing that girl," he said suddenly. "Hang it, it would kill me!"
"It's only losing his money that'll ever hurt Andrew," replied his father cheerfully. "Don't you worry about what he'll say."
Unfortunately, Mr. Walkingshaw forgot that the provision for this happy marriage was, in fact, coming indirectly from Andrew's pocket. Even the youngest of us cannot foresee everything, or Heriot would not have been humming "Gin a laddie kiss a lassie," quite so lightheartedly.
"I must say I funk having it out with him," remarked Frank.
"Just you leave it all to me. I'm a match for Andrew any day."
It would have been well if Mr. Walkingshaw had "touched wood" as he made this vaunt; but at that moment his confidence was so serene that he felt master of any emergency conceivable by man.
"Andrew's not the mate for Ellen," he said presently. "The young are for each other, Frank; that's the law of nature."
He smiled to himself.
"I learnt that this afternoon. By Jove, what a pretty girl Ellen is!"
And then again his young heart remembered the sympathetic widow, and he stopped smiling.
The backbone of our country is that band of civic heroes who, when turmoil rages and disaster threatens, are the last men to desert the desk. In this glorious company Andrew Walkingshaw was numbered. His father might tear up and down the country like a disreputable whirlwind, his widowed relative fume and plot, his sister disgrace the family by an unsuitable engagement, his betrothed leave his affectionate letters unanswered, his own soul writhe in decorous anguish at these calamities, but Casabianca himself was not more faithful to his post than he. It is true, indeed, that he had once tried the alternative policy and chased that cyclone, but he had taken to heart the lesson, and thenceforth closed his ears to disquieting rumors, his eyes to distressing symptoms, and went about his work, if possible, more conscientiously than ever. That was the proper way to get through business—conscientiously. He was sickened with the people (clients of some eminence, but evidently with a screw loose) who kept deferring their more important concerns till the senior partner returned with his infernal headlong methods. Let them wait if they liked! Let them take their business elsewhere if they were such fools! Deliberately and calmly he had washed his hands of his senior partner. That was the end of him so far as he was concerned, said Andrew to himself. But alas! you may wash your hands of a tornado, but supposing it retorts by blowing down your house?
It was about nine in the evening, and he sat by himself, severely scrutinizing the pleadings drawn up by his clerk for a forthcoming case, connected with so large a sum of money that it was a pleasure merely to read the imposing figures. The ladies were upstairs in the drawing-room. So long as Mrs. Dunbar was among them, he was not likely to show his face there.
The door opened, and he turned, frowning at the interruption, and then sprang up with a troubled eye. It was his father certainly; but what a remarkable change since he had seen him last! For the first time Andrew realized the full enormity of his conduct in growing younger. His very appearance had become a crying scandal.
"Sweating away at your old papers?" inquired Heriot pleasantly.
Andrew stiffly resumed his seat.
"Yes, I am busy," he replied, and took up the pleadings again.
But his father ignored the hint. Straddling comfortably before the fire, he remarked—
"Frank and I have been up to Perthshire."
Andrew looked up quickly, but merely answered—
"We've been seeing Ellen."
Mr. Walkingshaw threw himself into a chair.
"My boy," said he, with the air of friendly commiseration which he felt that the occasion undoubtedly demanded, "I find I was right about your rival."
Andrew remained calm, though not quite so calm as before.
"Do you mean there's some one else after her?"
"He's got her."
The calm departed.
"Got! What the deuce d'ye mean?"
"She has chosen another, Andrew."
"Chosen! But she's no choice left her. She's engaged to me."
"She was engaged to you. She's now engaged to him."
"To him? Who the dev—er—what are you driving at? Who's the man?"
Andrew stared at his father incredulously.
"I don't believe a word of it."
"Well, you may ask Frank if you like; but I assure you you can take my word for it."
It was characteristic of Andrew's robust mind that, instead of wasting time in noisy vaporings and sentimental sorrow, it seized at once the weak point in the case.
"But he can't afford to marry."
"Oh, I'll see to that."
"You'll see!" shouted Andrew. "Do you mean to say you've had a finger in the pie?"
"Four fingers and a thumb," smiled his parent.
Once more Andrew, without waste of words in expostulation or commentary, summarized the situation in a sentence—
"This is fair damnable!"
"Come, come, my dear fellow," said Mr. Walkingshaw soothingly. "I owe you an explanation, of course, but when you've heard it, I know you'll agree I've done the right thing."
"An explanation!" exclaimed Andrew sardonically. "Go on, let's hear it."
"I can give you the gist of it in a sentence: she loves Frank, and she doesn't love you. Now, in that case, which of you ought she to marry?"
"That's nothing to do with it—"
"What! love's nothing to do with marriage?"
"When a woman's once engaged, she's got to implement her promise."
"Whether it makes her happy or miserable?"
"Who was miserable, I'd like to know?"
"It's the first I've heard of it."
"Do you mean to say you couldn't see it for yourself?"
"No, I could not; and even if she was, there's not the shadow of an excuse for your conduct. You're just making a mess of everything you meddle with. Getting me jilted like this! What do you suppose people will say? What'll they be thinking of me? Oh, good Lord!"
The unhappy young man brooded somberly. Mr. Walkingshaw lit a cigar, and then settled himself down to remove by gentle argument the cloud that temporarily obscured his son's serenity.
"Just look at the thing for a moment in a quiet and reasonable light, Andrew. Happiness, as you are well aware, is the chief aim of humanity. Damn it, our religion teaches us that—or practically that. A kind of warm and amiable gleefulness—that's the ideal. Now, how can a young girl like Ellen be happy or gleeful married to a sober old codger like you, eh? Man, the thing's clean impossible. She's no more suited to you than a lace cover to a coal-scuttle. Well, then what's the obvious thing to do? Hand her over to a brisk young fellow who can do her justice, of course. Besides, just think of your own brother pining away in the—what do they call it?—torrid zone, all for love of a girl who's pining away for love of him. The thing's totally illogical. A society of hedgehogs would have more sense than to allow an arrangement like that. You see my point now, don't you?"
"I've heard you say with your own lips," retorted Andrew, "that all a girl required was a comfortable home and a husband who knew his own mind."
"But you must remember," explained his father, "I was an old fool then."
Andrew sprang to his feet with a wry and bitter face.
"You certainly haven't the qualities of age now. I never heard such daft-like rubbish in my life. For Heaven's sake, just try to use any common sense you've got left. Frank will never have enough money to keep her properly."
"Ah, but naturally I mean to alter my arrangements."
Gradually the full possibilities of the situation were revealing themselves to the well-regulated mind of the junior partner.
"You mean to change your will?"
Yet another horrid possibility showed its head.
"And are you going to alter Jean's share too, so that this precious Vernon fellow may have something to squander?"
"Something respectable to live on," corrected his parent. "You mustn't starve art, you know."
Andrew stared at him in silence, and when he spoke, it was with the air of a much-wronged worm which has deliberately resolved to turn at last.
"I'm not wanting any of your Ellen Berstouns. If she's played this trick on me, that's enough of her. But I tell you plainly I'm not going to let you rob me to keep a pack of worthless painters and people out of the gutter, without taking some steps. I warn you of that."
"My dear Andrew," said his father reproachfully, "that's hardly the attitude of a professing Christian. Just think, now; is it? You'll easily find a decent, quiet woman with a bit of money and no objection to hearing every day for an hour or two how you've been worried by your clients and swindled by your father, and I do honestly believe you'll get as near happiness as you're capable of. That's common sense, now; isn't it?"
The slamming of the door answered him.
"What a sulky fellow he is!" said Heriot to himself.
Yet so conscious was he of the rectitude of his intentions, and so confiding had his disposition grown, that it never crossed his mind to beware of an infuriated lawyer. Besides, when Andrew had slept over it, he would surely realize how unanswerable were his father's arguments.
"We'll see the old stick-in-the-mud dancing at Frank's wedding!" thought he. "There's no vice in Andrew; only a bit of obstinacy. It's all bark and no bite with him."
With these amiable reflections he speedily consoled himself for the discomfort of any little temporary friction. And then the door opened gently.
"I heard you had come back again," said Mrs. Dunbar.
She closed the door as gently as she had opened it. The action pathetically expressed the quiet sorrow of a much-wronged woman's heart.
"Yes," said Heriot gallantly, "I'm back again to Scotland, home and beauty. Ha, ha! Now that was quite pretty, wasn't it?"
But her black eyes declined to sparkle, as she glided silently to a chair. Out of the corner of his own eye her lover looked at her critically.
"I'm delighted to see you again, Madge," he went on; but his words had a hollow ring, and his eye continued to express more doubt than passion.
"Have you no apology to offer me?" she inquired, with the same ominous calm.
"For what, my dear lady?"
She started a little and glanced at him apprehensively. "My dear lady" hardly indicated love's divinest frenzy.
"For treating me shamefully!"
"This is strong language," he smiled indulgently. "Tell me now, I say, just tell me what I've done."
Thus invited, the lady described his conduct in leaving her alone and unprotected in a London hotel, to the neglect of his affectionate assurances and the shame and confusion of herself, in language which did no more than justice to the theme.
"But I left Jean to look after you," he protested.
"When I want your daughter to look after me I shall ask you for her assistance," she replied tartly. "You broke your word to me, and you can't deny it."
"I do deny it," he replied, with dignity. "I told you I should travel north—"
"Oh!" she interrupted, with scathing contempt, "you were very straightforward and gentlemanly, I know!"
He looked at her ever more critically. A recollection of Ellen and the pine-wood returned forcibly.
"Put it as you will," he replied philosophically, and turned towards the fire.
She watched him jealously.
"But why did you run away?" she persisted. "Where have you been since? Heriot, I insist upon knowing that—I insist!"
She rose and came towards him. He took her hand and pressed it gently.
"I shall tell you all," he said, as he led her back to her chair and drew another towards it. When they were about three feet apart he sat down himself and bent confidentially towards her. Yet he did not attempt to bridge entirely the intervening space.
"I have been up to Perthshire," he began, "assisting dear Ellen Berstoun to break off her engagement with Andrew."
Mrs. Dunbar sat up with a much more alert expression.
"I am glad to hear it," she said, with decision.
"I discovered that Frank and she loved one another. I am very glad to say he is now engaged to her instead."
She smiled at last.
"Do tell me what Andrew said!"
He shook his head.
"I'm afraid he is somewhat unreasonably annoyed."
She smiled more brightly still.
"How very good for him! Really, Heriot, you have done a very sensible thing indeed."
Heriot smiled back.
"It seemed to me," said he, "that there was really too much disparity in years. The young should marry the young, Madge."
"I agree with you entirely."
It was his smile that now seemed to indicate an increasing satisfaction.
"You agree also that under those circumstances it is no longer the duty of two people to marry, even if they have unfortunately become engaged?"
"I think it would only lead to wretchedness if they did. Honestly, I don't feel in the least sorry for Andrew. In fact, I thoroughly agree that people ought to have their engagements broken off for them if they haven't the sense to see they are unsuitable for themselves."
Heriot received this assurance with evident pleasure. His manner grew more confidential still.
"Madge," he said, "I think it is time I made you a very serious confession."
Her smile departed.
"You may have noticed," he continued, "a certain bloom, so to speak, upon me, a sort of freshness, and so on. Madge, it is the bloom of youth."
She grew uneasy.
"It is a literal, physical fact. I am rapidly approaching thirty."
She moved into the farthest corner of her chair, but made no other comment.
"You will thus see that it is merely a question of time before there will be an even greater disparity of years between you and me than between Ellen and Andrew."
Her expression changed entirely.
"Heriot!" she exclaimed indignantly.
"Yes, Madge, I grieve deeply to resign the hopes of happiness I had formed on a life spent in your society, but alas! I must. Your adult charms cannot be thrown away upon an unappreciative youth; it would be a tragedy."
"You are many years older than I!"
"I was a short time ago, but to-day we are roughly speaking, twins—though with this difference, that as I am looking forward to a strenuous youth, and you to a handsome old age, naturally I feel a chicken compared with you. But then think of the next year or two, when I shall perhaps be playing football, and you will find it no longer possible to keep your gray hairs so artistically brushed beneath your black tresses: think of that, Madge!"
"Are you out of your mind?" she gasped.
"On the contrary, I have never been clearer-headed in my life."
"Then," she exclaimed wrathfully, "you are merely inventing a ridiculous fable to excuse your shuffling out of your engagement!"
"My dear lady," he replied pacifically, "shall I jump over this chair to convince you?"
"Nothing would convince me."
"Ah," he said, with a friendly smile, "I see that you want to have me whether I'm a suitable mate or not, whether my feelings have changed—"
"I certainly do not!" she interrupted.
"Then in that case shall we call it off?"
He rose and picked up an evening paper.
She tried the resource of tears. The spectacle of a handsome woman weeping had brought him temporarily to his senses once before. But this time, though his manner was as kind as any widow could desire, his words brought the unfortunate lady no more consolation than his conduct.
"My dear Madge, just look at the thing sensibly. Surely you are old enough by this time to take a practical view of what after all is a very simple situation. You laid down the law yourself not five minutes ago, and laid it down very justly. If two people are unsuitably mated, the engagement should be broken off. Very well; just try to realize for a moment what it means to marry a man who is getting fuller and fuller of beans all the time—at your age, mark you. The fact is, we are just like two trains rushing in opposite directions. For a moment we may be side by side, and then—whit!—we have passed each other and are getting a couple of miles farther apart every minute."
Even this graphic allegory failed to dry her tears.
"You are deserting me—you are breaking my heart!" she wailed.
"Hush, hush," he answered soothingly; "on the contrary, I am sparing you—sparing you no end of anxiety."
She looked at him like a tragedy queen.
"Have you no thought of how my reputation will suffer, Heriot?"
"How can it suffer? Nobody knows we've been engaged."
"Do you suppose they haven't guessed?"
"Not from anything I've said or done, I can assure you."
She sprang up indignantly.
"Have you no sense of honor?"
"Look here," he answered, with his most ingratiating manner, "I'll be a son to you, Madge—an affectionate, dutiful—"
"You coward!" she cried.
Heriot found himself alone in his library with his engagement satisfactorily ended.
Andrew had retired to the dining-room. Once the day's eating was over, this apartment, with its vast space of dignified gloom, its black marble mantelpiece, and the cloth of indigo plushette which now covered the table, made the most congenial refuge conceivable. His thoughts were in exact harmony with everything there, from the Venetian blinds to the portrait of his great-grandmother. The only discordant element was the presence of a few errant bread-crumbs, and happily they were under the table.
It was to this lair that he was tracked by Madge Dunbar. She never paused to ask if she disturbed him, or gave him any chance of protest, but advancing straight up to him, exclaimed—
"Your father is off his head!"
The junior partner eyed her warily, divided between suspicion and a glow of sympathy with her opinion.
"What has he done now?" he inquired gloomily.
"He has treated me exactly as he has treated you!"
The sympathy deepened; the suspicion began to ooze away; but all he remarked was, "Oh?"
He was indeed a magnificently cautious man.
"What can we do?" she cried.
Andrew scrutinized her carefully. She might be fibbing; she might be up to some of her tricks again; this might even be a move arranged with his father. One could not be too prudent.
"What do you propose to do?" he asked.
"Bring him to his senses if it's possible: if not—Oh, Andrew, his conduct is infamous! I don't care what we do to punish—I mean to restrain him."
At last, after many days' abstinence, the junior partner smiled. It was not a very wide, nor in the least a merry smile; his cheeks bulged only slightly under its gentle pressure, and the satisfaction which smiles traditionally notify seemed savored with a squeeze or two of lemon. But it marked the beginning of a new coalition, an ominous disturbance of the balance of power.
"That is exactly the point I have under consideration myself," he said. "The difficulty is, how is it to be managed?"
She seated herself within twelve feet of him, and yet he did not shrink from her now with modest mistrust.
"It seems to me perfectly obvious what we should do. Just offer him an alternative."
"What alternative?" asked Andrew.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, Mr. Walkingshaw was spending one of the happiest evenings he remembered. There was indeed some slight constraint in the drawing-room so long as his sister remained there, but when, after a series of sighs which punctuated some twenty minutes' pointed silence, she at last bade them a depressed good-night, the three happy lovers gave rein to their hearts. Heriot gave the loosest rein of all. It almost seemed as if a lover set at liberty was even happier than a lover just engaged. He had that air of animated relief noticeable in the escaped victims of a conscientious dentist. As for his children, they adored him little less than they adored two other people who were not there.
Yet once or twice Jean fell thoughtful. At last she said—
"I wonder whether we ought to go out to the Comyns' to-morrow after all?"
"My dear girl, why not? You'll have a very pleasant time there; and anyhow, it's too late to write and tell them you aren't coming."
"We could wire in the morning," she said. "Frank, do you think we ought to go?"
He looked a little surprised, but answered readily, "Not if you don't want to."
"But why not go?" their father repeated.
She hesitated. "Are you quite sure Andrew and Madge won't—won't try to be unpleasant?"
"Let them try if they like!" laughed Heriot. "But I assure you, my dear girl, I was so reasonable—so unanswerable, in fact—that they simply can't feel annoyed for more than a few hours. Hang it, they are very nice good people at heart. Just give 'em time to let the proper point of view sink in, and they'll be chirpy as sparrows again. Besides, what good could you do by staying at home? The Comyns have a nice place; you'll have a capital time. I insist on your going."
"Very well, then," said Jean.
Yet she could hardly picture Andrew and her cousin quite as chirpy as sparrows.
And all this time, beneath the very floor of the room where they laughed, the plans of the coalition ripened.
In the course of breakfast upon the following morning, Heriot startled his junior partner by announcing his intention of putting in a strenuous day's work at the office. Andrew exchanged a curious glance with Mrs. Dunbar, and then merely inquired—
"When will you be back?"
"Four o'clock," said Heriot cheerfully. "Quite long enough hours for a man of my age" (he smiled humorously at his son). "Of course there's sure to be a lot of things to put right, and so on" (Andrew raised a startled eye), "but I'll polish 'em off by four."
He ate a remarkably hearty breakfast and strode off blithely, this time a few minutes ahead of his partner. It was an even more singular thing that Andrew should linger to confer once more with the lady he had so lately regarded as the impersonation of everything suspicious.
Another curious incident happened later in the day. At lunch-time the junior partner left the office, and, without giving an explanation, remained absent through the afternoon. Not that Heriot missed him. He smoked and wrote and rallied Mr. Thomieson, and dictated letters which left his confidential clerk divided between the extremes of admiration for their shrewdness and horror at the terse and lively style in which they were couched; in short, he got through a day's work that sent him home at four o'clock in the best of spirits.
Andrew met him in the hall.
"Hullo," said Heriot, "where have you been all this time?"
"I want to speak to you for a minute," his son replied, and then, as his father turned naturally towards the library door, stayed him. "There's some one in there. Just come into the dining-room for a moment."
"Who's in there?"
Andrew waited till he had got him behind the closed door, and then said very gravely—
"It's Mrs. Dunbar and a friend of hers."
"What friend?—Not old Charlie Munro?"
"A Mr. Brown. Possibly you've not heard of him before, but I understand he's a connection of her late husband's family. She's asked him to come and meet you."
The exceeding solemnity of his manner obviously affected Heriot's high spirits.
"What's up?" he inquired.
"I should hardly think you would need to ask that, considering what has passed between you. In fact, I gather that they want to be satisfied there's some reasonable explanation of your conduct."
Mr. Walkingshaw gently whistled.
"Oh, that's the game, is it? Well, I suppose I'll just have to tell him the simple truth, in justice to myself."
His son heartily agreed.
"It's the only thing to be done," said he, "the only honest course left, so far as I can see. Just make a clean breast of everything, and you may trust me to confirm all you say."
"My dear boy, you're devilish good. I'm afraid I really haven't been as appreciative lately as I ought. You're talking like a sportsman now. Come on, we'll go in and tackle 'em together."
He took his son's arm and gave him a friendly smile as they crossed the hall; but the seriousness of the situation seemed to prevent Andrew from returning these evidences of comradeship.
The injured lady met her betrayer with marked constraint. She seemed to anticipate little pleasure from the interview, but had evidently made up her mind to go through with it as a duty she owed her reputation and her friend Mr. Brown. This gentleman was grave, elderly, and of an unmistakably professional aspect. In a vague way Heriot fancied he had seen his face before, though he could not recollect where.
"Well," said Mr. Walkingshaw genially, "here we all are; and now what's the business before the meeting?"
"I understand," replied Mr. Brown, in a calm and gentle voice, "that you have broken off your engagement with this lady. Now, as a—well, I may say, as an interested friend of Mrs. Dunbar, I should very much like to have your reasons."
"Will you undertake to believe them?"
"I undertake to give them my closest professional consideration, whatever they are."
"May I ask if you are a lawyer?"
Mr. Brown coughed once or twice before replying.
"He is," said Andrew decisively, and Mr. Brown seemed content to let this reply pass as his own.
"You can talk to me with the utmost frankness," he said; "in fact, I infinitely prefer it."
"Well," began Heriot, "the simple fact of the matter is that I am growing rapidly younger."
"Ah?" commented Mr. Brown.
It was curious that he should exchange a quick glance, not with the lady whose interests he was representing, but with her errant lover's faithful son.
"Yes," said Mr. Walkingshaw, warming to his narrative, "I am literally racing backwards. It is like a drive over a road one has passed along before, only in the opposite direction and much faster. I simply whizz past the old milestones. Now, a man who is behaving like that has no business to marry an already mature lady, who is growing older at the rate of, say one, while he is growing younger at the rate of, say ten; has he, Mr. Brown?"
"No," replied Mr. Brown emphatically, "I honestly don't think he has."
Heriot was delighted with this confirmation of his judgment. He threw a glance at the widow to see how she took it, but her eyes were cast down, and she displayed no emotion whatever.
"That's the long and the short of the matter, Mr. Brown. I make the profoundest apologies to my charming relative; but if you agree that I acted for the best, I suppose we might as well adjourn and have a cup of tea."
"Just one moment," said Mr. Brown gently. "I should like to have a few more particulars regarding this very interesting phenomenon, if you don't mind."
"Not a bit, my dear sir. It's a very natural curiosity."
"You feel, of course, a considerable exhilaration of spirits in consequence of this change?"
"I'm simply bursting with them."
"Naturally, naturally. And you propose, no doubt, to exercise your activities in some beneficial way?"
"In a dozen ways. I've already been the means of securing two happy engagements for my youngest children."
"And breaking off two," said Andrew.
His father turned to him with a frown. This was hardly the support he expected. To his great pleasure, the sympathetic Mr. Brown also disapproved of the interruption.
"One thing at a time, please," said he, and resumed his intelligent inquiries. "These young persons to whom your children have become engaged—they are hardly the matches you would have made at one time, are they?"
"I'm afraid I was a bit of an ass at one time," Mr. Walkingshaw confessed.
"I see, I see. And now, as to the engagements you have broken off—you felt yourself inspired, prompted from within, as it were, to bring them to an end, I take it?"
"You've put it deuced well," said Heriot.
"Did you feel in any way inspired from without—any visions or voices, so to speak, any manifestations or appearances—anything of that kind?"
Mr. Walkingshaw looked a little puzzled.
"The voices of romance and love, and that sort of thing, I certainly heard."
"Quite so, quite so, Mr. Walkingshaw. You heard them, did you? Well, it's not every one who hears these things."
He smiled pleasantly, and Mr. Walkingshaw became confirmed in his opinion that this was quite one of the most agreeable men he had met for a long time.
"May I ask whether you propose to take any more steps to put this poor world of ours to rights?" inquired Mr. Brown.
"He is taking control of the business again," said Andrew.
"Again?" retorted Heriot. "When did I ever lose control of the business, I'd like to know? I've had my holiday, and now I'm going to make things hum in the office."
"You are going to make them hum?" asked Mr. Brown. "Do you mean you are going to override your partner's decisions, and so on?"
"My dear Mr. Brown, if I waited for his decisions, I'd be kicking up my heels in the office half the day. Metaphorically speaking, my son is somewhat like a man who fills his bath from a teacup instead of turning on the tap. I don't override his decisions, I simply anticipate them."
"That is his account of it," said Andrew darkly.
"Well, well," smiled Mr. Brown, "I think I understand. And now, Mr. Walkingshaw, may I ask if there is anything else you propose to do?"
This time he glanced at Andrew, as if courting information.
"He is altering his will," said the junior partner.
"Ah!" remarked his visitor again.
Mr. Walkingshaw drew himself up.
"That is my own affair," he said, with dignity.
"Quite so—quite so," replied Mr. Brown in that peculiarly soothing voice he had at his command. "We would wish to make no inquiries into that. Only, there's just one thing I'd like to know—you don't mean to let the grass grow under your feet, I take it?"
"No fears," said Heriot. "What I mean to do, I'm going to do at once. By Jingo, I'll be under age in a few years! I've got to do things promptly."
"Thank you," replied Mr. Brown suavely, "I think that is all I want to know. We needn't detain you any longer, Mr. Walkingshaw."
It struck Heriot that this was a funny way for the agreeable Mr. Brown to treat him in his own house. He assumed the air of a host at once.
"Then we'll go up and have some tea. Come along, Mr. Brown."
"I think," said his visitor politely, "that possibly your son and I had better have just a word or two with this lady first, if you'll permit us."
"Certainly, my dear sir; just come up when you're ready."
As he went upstairs, it suddenly struck him as rather odd that her connection by marriage and legal adviser should refer to Madge as "this lady"; and also that she should have sat so silently through a conversation which primarily concerned herself. But then such rum things did happen in this amusing world that it was never worth while worrying.
Stroking the cat and sipping his tea, Mr. Walkingshaw conversed pleasantly with his sister. Jean and Frank had gone into the country, and the two sat alone together in the drawing-room.
"Brown?" said Miss Walkingshaw. "I never knew the Dunbars had a relative of that name. Who will he be?"
"I seem to mind seeing his face somewhere," replied her brother, "but more about him I can't tell you, except that he's a very pleasant fellow. Hullo, Andrew, where's Brown?"
The junior partner had entered alone.
"He had to go," said he.
"Dash it, he might have said good-by."
Andrew made no answer. He was looking at his aunt in a way that he had borrowed from his father's bygone manner. Though he had only quite recently begun to practise it seriously, he was sufficiently expert to convey unmistakably the fact that he desired her to withdraw. She rose obediently.
"Hullo, where are you off to?" asked her brother.
"I have things to do, Heriot," she answered nervously, "just a few things to do."
As she passed Andrew she paused, and her lips framed a question. There was something in his manner that frightened her; strange things were happening, she felt sure. But his glowering eye silenced her, and she faded noiselessly out of the room. Then Andrew advanced upon his father.
"Just run your eye through that," he said quietly.
He handed his father a large double sheet of blue foolscap containing a great deal of printed matter. The particular portion of it to which Mr. Walkingshaw's attention was directed ran thus—
"CERTIFICATE OF EMERGENCY
"(This certificate authorizes the detention of a Patient in an Asylum for a period not exceeding three days, without any order by the Sheriff.)
"I, the undersigned George William Downie, being M.D., Glasgow, hereby certify on soul and conscience, that I have this day at 15, Roray Place, in the County of Edinburgh, seen and personally examined James Heriot Walkingshaw, and that the said person is of unsound mind, and a proper Patient to be placed in an Asylum, and is in a sufficiently good state of bodily health at this date to be removed to the Asylum.
"And I hereby certify that the case of the said Person is one of emergency."
It was then dated, and signed, "George W. Downie."
"Asylum—Dr. Downie!" gasped Heriot. "But—what is this?"
"It says on the paper. Just look—can't you read?"
Heriot gave a convulsive start.
"Was—was that Dr. Downie?"
His son nodded.
Again Heriot's startled eyes ran over the certificate, and then they turned upon his son. It is regrettable that his next words were not more worthy of his reputation.
"You d——d young skunk!"
"It's no use swearing," his son replied coldly.
Mr. Walkingshaw fell back in his chair and seemed to meditate.
"You wired to Glasgow for him?" he inquired in a moment.
"So that I shouldn't recognize him, I suppose?"
"What a sell if I'd spotted him and talked what the silly fool would have thought sense!"
"You didn't," said Andrew.
Mr. Walkingshaw shook his head.
"Man, I'd never have given you credit for the brains to do the like of this."
Then he started.
"I see it all now! It was Madge put you up to the idea! Eh? Oh, you needn't trouble to deny it; I know you haven't the imagination yourself."
With a calmer air he studied the paper afresh.
"It's only for three days," he observed in a cheerier tone.
"Do you actually imagine you're likely to get out at the end of three days?"
Mr. Walkingshaw looked at his son steadily.
"You know perfectly well that every word I said was true."
Andrew remained coldly immovable.
"I am no judge myself. I'd sooner depend on Dr. Downie's opinion."
"Hypocrite to the last!" scoffed Heriot. "Can you look me in the face, Andrew, and tell me that you honestly thought it was insanity to make friends of my children and help them to marry the people they loved, and divide my money fairly among you all? Can you?"
"Permit me to remind you that it was not I who signed the certificate."
There was a moment's very dead silence, and then Heriot asked—
"Then do you actually mean to shut me up in a lunatic asylum for the rest of my days?"
Andrew had some of the finer points of the legal mind. He noted the trace of emotion in his father's voice, and knew he was fairly on top at last. To let this fact sink still further into Heriot's mind, he eyed him in austere silence for a few moments before he answered—
"If I have to, I shall."
"If you have to? What d'ye mean?"
"I mean that I am not going to have my business ruined—"
"Ruined! Can you not stick to the truth on a single point? I am putting new life into it!"
"I don't care for your kind of life, thanks," said Andrew primly, "and I repeat that I am not going to have my business—enlivened, if that's how you choose to put it, and my family disgraced, and my reputation lost; and if I let you go on another day as you've been going, it'll be too late to save any of them. But I don't want to be harder than I can help." He paused for a moment, and his lip grew longer and straighter. "So I'll offer you an alternative."
"If you'll guarantee to clear out of the country and not come back again, I'll take no further proceedings on the strength of this certificate. I don't want to put you in an asylum any more than you want to go, but I've got to protect myself."
Mr. Walkingshaw mused.
"When do you want me to start?"
"Yes, at once, before you see anybody else."
"I'm not even to say good-by?"
"You've got some game on," said Heriot.
"I've got to protect myself and my family."
His father looked at him searchingly; but his face remained a solemn medallion of virtue. Then Mr. Walkingshaw again fell back in his chair and mused. Gradually the flicker of a smile appeared in his eye. It spread to his lips, and he sprang up cheerfully.
"It's not half a bad idea!" he exclaimed. "I'm just getting to the age when a young man ought to go about a bit and see something of the world. New Zealand now—that's a fine country—or Japan—or Texas. By Gad, you know I've several times wanted to do a bit of roughing it and big game shooting lately."
His son looked at him suspiciously. This cheerfulness was unusual in people he had worsted, and the unusual was always to be distrusted. But to the less vigilant, ordinary mind Mr. Walkingshaw merely presented the spectacle of a man of young middle-age with a heart some ten years younger still.
"Of course it will be a wrench," he added, with a sobered air. "I'll miss 'em all: Frank—Ellen—Jean. By Gad, I shall miss Jean. However, it need only be for a year or two. Meanwhile—by Jingo, there's no doubt about it!—this is the chance of my life. Let's see now, what does one need? A revolver with six thingamajigs—top-boots and riding breeches—a good compass—"