The girl sat on the table at her father's side, watching them seriously. She flung her arms behind her head and then suddenly—
"I can dance too," she said.
They pulled the table back and watched her.
It was something quite simple and unaffected—not, perhaps, in any way great dancing, but having that quality, so rarely met with, of being exactly right and suited to time and place. Her arms moved in ripples like the waves of the sea—every part of her body seemed to join in the same motion, but quietly, with perfect tranquillity, without any sense of strain or effort. The golden lamps, the coloured clothes, the red-brick floor, made a background of dazzling colour, and her black hair escaped and fell in coils over her neck and shoulders.
Suddenly she stopped. "There, that's all," she said, binding her hair up again with quick fingers. She walked over to the sailors and talked to them with perfect freedom and ease; at last she stayed by the handsomest of them—a dark, well-built young fellow, who put his arm round her waist and shared his drink with her.
Harry, as he watched them, felt strangely that it was for him a scene of farewell—that it was for the last time that the place was to offer him such equality or that he himself would be in a position to accept it. He did not know why he had this feeling—perhaps it was the talk of the Club about the Cove, or his own certain conviction that matters at the House were rapidly approaching a crisis. Yes, his own protests were of no avail—things must move, and perhaps, after all, it were better that they should.
Bethel came in, and as usual joined the group at the fire without a word; he looked at the pedlar curiously and then seemed to recognise him—then he went up to him and soon they were in earnest conversation. It grew late, and at the stroke of midnight Newsome rose to shut up the house.
"I will go back with you," Bethel said to Harry, and they walked to the door together. For a moment Harry turned back. The girl was bending over the sailor—her arms were round his neck, and his head was tilted back to meet her mouth; the pedlar was putting his wares into his pack again, but some pieces of yellow and blue silk had escaped him and lay on the floor at his feet; down the street three of the sailors were tramping home, and the chorus of a chanty died away as they turned the corner.
The girl, the pedlar, the colours of the room, the vanishing song, remained with Harry to the end of his life—for that moment marked a period.
As he walked up the hill he questioned Bethel about the pedlar.
"Oh, I had met him," he said vaguely. "One knows them all, you know. But it is difficult to remember where. He is one of the last of his kind and an amusing fellow enough——" But he sighed—"I am out of sorts to-night—my kite broke. Do you know, Trojan, there are times when one thinks that one has at last got right back—to the power, I mean, of understanding the meaning and truth of things—and then, suddenly, it has all gone and one is just where one was years ago and it seems wasted. I tell you, man, last night I was on the moor and it was alive with something. I can't tell you what—but I waited and watched—I could feel them growing nearer and nearer, the air was clearer—their voices were louder—and then suddenly it was all gone. But of course you won't understand—none of you—why should you? You think that I am flying a kite—why, I am scaling the universe!"
"Whatever you are doing," said Harry seriously, "you are not keeping your family. Look here, Bethel, you asked me once if I would be a friend of yours. Well, I accepted that, and we have been good friends ever since. But it really won't do—this kind of thing, I mean. Scaling the universe is all very well, if you are a single man—then it is your own look-out; but you are married—you have people depending on you, and they will soon be starving."
Bethel burst out laughing.
"They've got you, Trojan! They've got you!" he cried. "I knew it would come sooner or later, and it hasn't taken long. Three weeks and you're like the rest of them. No, you mustn't talk like that, really. Tell me I'm a damned fool—no good—an absolutely rotten type of fellow—and it's all true enough. But you must accept it at that. At least I'm true to my type, which is more than the rest of them are, the hypocrites!—and as to my family, well, of course I'm sorry, but they're happy enough and know me too well to have any hope of ever changing me——"
"No—of course, I don't want to preach. I'm the last man to tell any one what they should do, seeing the mess that I've made of things myself. But look here, Bethel, I like you—I count myself a friend, and what are friends for if they're not to speak their minds?"
"Oh! That's all right enough. Go on—I'll listen." He resigned himself with a humorous submission as though he were indulging the opinions of a child.
"Well, it isn't right, you know—it isn't really. I don't want to tell you that you're a fool or a rotter, because you aren't, but that's just what makes it so disappointing for any one who cares about you. You're letting all your finer self go. You're becoming, what they say you are, a waster. Of course, finding yourself's all right—every man ought to do that. But you have no right to throw off all claims as completely as you have done. Life isn't like that. We've all got our Land of Promise, and, just in order that it may remain, we are never allowed to reach it. Whilst you are lying on your back on the moor, your wife and daughter are killing themselves in order to keep the home together—I say that it is not fair."
"Oh, come, Trojan," Bethel protested, "is that quite fair on your side? Things are all right, you know. They like it better, they do really. Why, if I were to stay at home and try to work they'd think I was going to be ill. Besides, I couldn't—not at an office or anything like that. It isn't my fault, really—but it would kill me now if I couldn't get away when I want to—not having liberty would be worse than death."
"Ah, that's yourself," said Harry. "That's selfish. Why don't you think of them? You can't let things go on as they are, man. You must get something to do."
"I'm damned if I will." Bethel stopped short and stretched his arms wide over the moor. "It isn't as if it would do them any good, and it would kill me. Why, one is deaf and blind and dumb as soon as one has work to do. I'm a child, you know. I've never grown up, and of course I hadn't any right to marry. I don't know now why I did. And all you people—you grown-ups—with your businesses and difficult pleasures and noisy feasts—of course you can't understand what these things mean. Only a few of you who sit with folded hands and listen can know what it is. I saw a picture once—some people feasting in a forest, and suddenly a little faun jumped from a tree on to their table and waited for them to play with him. But some were eating and some drinking and some talking scandal, and they did not see him. Only a little boy and an old man—they were doing nothing—just dreaming—and they saw him. Oh! I tell you, the dreamer has his philosophy and creed like the rest of you!"
"That's all very well," cried Harry. "But it's a case of bread and butter. You will be bankrupt if you go on as you are!"
"Oh no!" Bethel laughed. "Providence looks after the dreamers. Something always happens—I know something will happen now. We are on the edge of some good fortune. I can feel it."
The man was incorrigible—there was no doubt of it—but Harry had something further to say.
"Well, I want you to let me take a deeper interest in your affairs. May I ask your daughter to marry me?"
"What? Mary?" Bethel stopped and shouted—"Why! That's splendid! Of course, that's what Providence has been intending all this time. The very thing, my dear fellow——" and he put his arm on Harry's shoulder—"there's no one I'd rather give my girl to. But it's nothing to do with me, really. She'll know her mind and tell you what she feels about it. Dear me! Just to think of it!"
He broke out into continuous chuckles all the way home, and seemed to regard the whole affair as a great joke. Harry left him shouting at the moon. He had scarcely meant to speak of it so soon, but the thought of her struggle and the knowledge of her father's utter indifference decided matters. He went back to the house, determining on an interview in the morning.
Mary meanwhile had been spending an evening that was anything but pleasant—she had been going through her accounts and was horrified at what she saw. They were badly overdrawn, most of the shops had refused them further credit, and the little income that came to them could not hope to cover one-half of their expenses. What was to be done? Ruin and disgrace stared them in the face. They might borrow, but there was no one to whom she could go. They must, of course, give up their little house and go into rooms, but that would make very little difference. She looked at it from every point of view and could think of no easier alternative. She puzzled until her head ached, and the room, misty with figures, seemed to swim round her. She felt cruelly lonely, and her whole soul cried out for Harry—he would help her, he would tell her what to do. She knew now that she loved him with all the strength that was in her, that she had always loved him, from the first moment that she had known him. She remembered her promise to him that she would come and ask for his help if she really needed it—well, perhaps she would, in the end, but now, at least, she must fight it out alone. The first obvious thing was that her parents must know; that they would be of any use was not to be expected, but at least they must realise on what quicksands their house was built. They were like two children, with no sense whatever of serious consequences and penalties, and they would not, of course, realise that they were face to face with a brick wall of debts and difficulties and that there was no way over—but they must be told.
On the next morning, after breakfast, Mary penned her mother into the little drawing-room and broached the subject. Mrs. Bethel knew that something serious was to follow, and sat on the edge of her chair, looking exactly like a naughty child convicted of a fault. She was wearing a rather faded dress of bright yellow silk and little yellow shoes, which she poked out from under her dress every now and again and regarded with a complacent air.
"They are really not so shabby, Mary, my dear—not nearly so shabby as the blue ones, and a good deal more handsome—don't you think so, my dear? But you say you want to talk about something, so I'll be quiet—only if you wouldn't mind being just a little quick because there are, really, so many things to be done this morning, that it puzzles me how——"
"Yes, mother, I know. But there is something I want to say. I won't be long, only it's rather important."
"Yes, dear—only don't scold. You look as if you were going to scold. I can always tell by that horrid line you have, dear, in your forehead. I know I've done something I oughtn't to, but what it is unless it's those red silks I bought at Dixon's on Friday, and they were so cheap, only——"
"No, mother, it's nothing you've done. It's rather what I've done, or all of us. We are all in the same boat. It's my managing, I suppose; anyhow, I've made a mess of it and we're very near the end of the rope. There doesn't seem any outlook anywhere. We're overdrawn at the bank; they won't give us credit in the town, and I don't see where any's to come from."
"Oh, it's money! Well, my dear, of course it is provoking—such a horrid thing to have to worry about; but really I'm quite relieved. I thought it was something I'd done. You quite frightened me; and I'm glad you don't mind about the red silks, because it really was tempting with——"
"No, dear, that's all right. But this is serious. I've come to the end and I want you to help me. Will you just go through the books with me and see if anything can be done? I'm so tired and worried. I've been going at them so long that I daresay I've muddled it. It mayn't be quite so hopeless as I've made out."
"The books! My dear Mary——" Mrs. Bethel looked at her daughter pathetically. "You know that I've no head for figures. Why, when mother died at home—we were in Chertsey then, Frank and Doris and I—and I tried to manage things, you know, it was really too absurd. I used to make the most ridiculous mistakes and Frank said that the village people did just what they liked with me, and I remember old Mrs. Blenkinsop charging me for eggs after the first month at quite an outrageous rate because——"
"Yes, mother, I know. But two heads are better than one, and I am really hopelessly puzzled to know what to do." Mary got up and went over to her mother and put her arm round her. "You see, dear, it is serious. There's no money at all—less than none; and I don't know where we are to turn. There's no outlook at all. I'm afraid that it's no use appealing to father—no use—and so it's simply left for us two to do what we can. It's frightening always doing it alone, and I thought you would help me."
"Well, of course, Mary dear, I'll do what I can. No, I'm afraid that it would be no good appealing to your father. It's strange how very little sense he's ever had of money—of the value of it. I remember in the first week that we were married he bought some book or other and we had to go without quite a lot of things. I was angry then, but I've learnt since. It was our first quarrel."
She sighed. It was always Mrs. Bethel's method of dealing with any present problem to flee into the happy land of reminiscence and to stay there until the matter had, comfortably or otherwise, settled itself.
"But I shouldn't worry," she said, looking up at her daughter. "Things always turn up, and besides," she added, "you might marry, dear."
"Marry!" Mary looked up at her mother sharply. Mrs. Bethel looked a little frightened.
"Well, you will, you know, dear, probably—and perhaps—well, if he had money——"
"Mother!" She sprang up from her chair and faced her with flaming cheeks. "Do you mean to say that they are talking about it?"
"They? Who? It was only Mrs. Morrison the other day, at tea-time, said—that she thought——"
"Mrs. Morrison? That hateful woman discussing me? Mother, how could you let her? What did she say?"
"Why, only—I wish you wouldn't look so cross, dear. It was nothing really—only that Mr. Trojan obviously cared a good deal—and it would be so nice if——"
"How dare she?" Mary cried again. "And you think it too, mother—that I would go on my knees to him to take us out of our trouble—that I would sweep his floors if he would help the family! Oh! It's hateful! Hateful!"
She flung herself into a chair by the window and burst into tears. Mrs. Bethel stared at her in amazement. "Well, upon my word, my dear, one never knows how to take you! Why, it wasn't as if she'd said anything, only that it would be rather nice." She paused in utter bewilderment and seemed herself a little inclined to cry.
At this moment the door opened—Mary sprang up. "Who is it?" she asked.
"Mr. Henry Trojan, miss, would like to come up if it wouldn't——"
"No. Tell him, Jane, that——"
But he had followed the servant and appeared in the doorway smiling.
"I knew you wouldn't mind my coming unconventionally like this," he said; "it's a terrible hour in the morning—but I felt sure that I would catch you."
He had seen at once that there was something wrong, and he stopped confusedly in the doorway.
But Mrs. Bethel came forward, smiling nervously.
"Oh, please, Mr. Trojan, do come in. We always love to see you—you know we do—you're one of our real friends—one of our best—and it's only too good of you to spare time to come round and see us. But I am busy—it's quite true—one is, you know, in the morning; but I don't think that Mary has anything very important immediately. I think she might stop and talk to you," and in a confusion of tittered apologies she vanished away.
But he stood in the doorway, waiting for Mary to speak. She sat with her head turned to the window and struggled to regain her self-command; they had been talked about in the town. She could imagine how it had gone. "Oh! the Bethel girl! Yes, after the Trojan money and doing it cleverly too; she'll hook him all right—he's just the kind of man." Oh! the hatefulness of it!
"What's up?" He came forward a little, twisting his hat in his hands.
"Nothing!" She turned round and tried to smile. Indeed she almost laughed, for he looked so ridiculous standing there—like a great schoolboy before the headmaster, his hat turning in his hands; or rather, like a collie plunging out of the water and ready to shake himself on all and sundry. As she looked at him she knew that she loved him and that she could never marry him because Pendragon thought that she had hooked him for his money.
"Yes—there is something. What is it?" He had come forward and taken her hands.
But she drew them away slowly and sat down on the sofa. "I'm tired," she said a little defiantly, "that's all—you know if you will come and call at such dreadfully unconventional hours you mustn't expect to find people with all the paint on. I never put mine on till lunch——"
"No—it's no good," he answered gravely. "You're worried, and it's wrong of you not to tell me. You are breaking your promise——"
"I made no promise," she said quickly.
"You did—that day on the moor. We were to tell each other always if anything went wrong. It was a bargain."
"Well, nothing's wrong. I'm tired—bothered a bit—the old thing—there's more to be bought than we're able to pay for."
"I've come with a proposition," he answered gravely. "Just a suggestion, which I don't suppose you'll consider—but you might—it is that you should marry me."
It had come so suddenly that it took her by surprise. The colour flew into her cheeks and then ebbed away again, leaving her whiter than ever. That he should have actually said the words made her heart beat furiously, and there was a singing in her ears so that she scarcely heard what he said. He paused a moment and then went on. "Oh! I know it's absurd when we've only known each other such a little time, and I've been telling myself that again and again—but it's no good. I've tried to keep it back, but I simply couldn't help it—it's been too strong for me."
He paused again, but she said nothing and he went on. "I ought to tell you about myself, so that you should know, because I'm really a very rotten type of person. I've never done anything yet, and I don't suppose I ever shall; I've been a failure at most things, and I'm stupid. I never read the right sort of books, or look at the right sort of pictures, or like the right sort of music, and even at the sort of things that most men are good at I'm nothing unusual. I can't write, you know, a bit, and in my letters I express myself like a boy of fifteen. And then I'm old—quite middle-aged—although I feel young enough. So that all these things are against me, and it's really a shame to ask you."
He paused again, and then he said timidly, bending towards her—
"Could you ever, do you think, give me just a little hope—I wouldn't want you to right away at once—but, any time, after you'd thought about it?"
She looked up at him and saw that he was shaking from head to foot. Her pride was nearly overcome and she wanted to fling herself at his feet, and kiss his hands, and never let him go, but she remembered that Pendragon had said that she was catching him for his money; so, by a great effort, she stayed where she was, and answered quietly, even coldly—
"I am more honoured, Mr. Trojan, than I can tell you by your asking me. It is much, very much more than I deserve, and, indeed, I'm not in the least worthy of it. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid it's no good. You see I'm such a stupid sort of girl—I muddle things so. It would never do for me to attempt to manage a big place like 'The Flutes'—and then I don't think I shall ever marry. I don't think I am that sort of girl. You have been an awfully good friend to me, and I'm more grateful to you than I can say. I can't tell you how much you have helped us all during these last weeks. But I'm afraid I must say no."
The light from the window fell on her hair and the blue of her dress—a little gold pin at her throat flashed and sparkled; his eye caught it, and was fixed there.
"No—don't say actually no." He was stammering. "Please—please. Think about it after I have gone away. I will come again another day when you have thought about it. I'm so stupid in saying things—I can't express myself; but, Miss Bethel—Mary—I love you—I love you. There isn't much to say about it—I can't express it any better—but, please—you mustn't say no like that. I would be as good a husband to you as I could, dear, always. I'm not the sort of fellow to change."
"No"—she was speaking quickly as though she meant it to be final—"no, really, I mean it. I can't, I can't. You see one has to feel certain about it, hasn't one?—and I don't—not quite like that. But you are the very best friend that I have ever had; don't let it spoil that."
"Perhaps," he said slowly, "it's my age. You don't feel that you could with a man old enough to be your father. But I'm young—younger than Robin. But I won't bother you about it. Of course, if you are certain——"
He rose and stumbled a moment over the chair as he passed to the door.
"Oh! I'm so sorry!" she cried. "I——" and then she had to turn to hide her face. In her heart there was a struggle such as she had never faced before. Her love called her a fool and told her that she was flinging her life away—that the ship of her good fortune was sailing from her, and it would be soon beyond the horizon; but her pride reminded her of what they had said—that she had laid traps for him, for his money.
"I am sorry," she said again. "But it must be only friendship."
But she had forgotten that although her back was turned he was towards the mirror. He could see her—her white face and quivering lips.
He sprang towards her.
"Mary, try me. I will love you better than any man in God's world, always. I will live for you, and work for you, and die for you."
It was more than she could bear. She could not reason now. She was only resolved that she would not give way, and she pushed past him blindly, her head hanging.
The drawing-room door closed. He stared dully in front of him. Then he picked up his hat and left the house.
She had flung herself on her bed and lay there motionless. She heard the door close, his steps on the stairs, and then the outer door.
She sprang to the window, and then, moved by some blind impulse, rushed to the head of the stairs. There were steps, and Mrs. Bethel's voice penetrated the gloom. "Mary, Mary, where are you?"
She crept back to her room.
He walked back to "The Flutes" with the one fact ever before him—that she had refused him. He realised now that it had been his love for her that had kept him during these weeks sane and brave. Without it, he could not have faced his recent troubles and all the desolate sense of outlawry and desolation that had weighed on him so terribly. Now he must face it, alone, with the knowledge that she did not love him—that she had told him so. It was his second rejection—the second flinging to the ground of all his defences and walls of protection. Robin had rejected him, Mary had rejected him, and he was absolutely, horribly alone. He thought for a moment of Dahlia Feverel and of her desertion. Well, she had faced it pluckily; he would do the same. Life could be hard, but he would not be beaten. His methods of consolation, his pulling of himself together—it was all extremely commonplace, but then he was an essentially commonplace man, and saw things unconfusedly, one at a time, with no entanglement of motives or complicated searching for origins. He had accepted the fact of his rejection by his family with the same clear-headed indifference to side-issues as he accepted now his rejection by Mary. He could not understand "those artist fellows with their complications"—life for him was perfectly straight-forward.
But the gods had not done with his day. On the way up to his room he was met by Clare.
"Father is worse," she said quickly. "He took a turn this morning, and now, perhaps, he will not live through the night. Dr. Turner and Dr. Craile are both with him. He asked for you a little while ago."
She passed down the stairs—the quiet, self-composed woman of every day. It was characteristic of a Trojan that the more agitated outside circumstances became the quieter he or she became. Harry was Trojan in this, and, as was customary with him, he put aside his own worries and dealt entirely with the matter in hand.
Already, over the house, a change was evident. In the absolute stillness there could be felt the presence of a crisis, and the monotonous flap of a blind against some distant window sounded clearly down the passages.
In Sir Jeremy's room there was perfect stillness. The two doctors had gone downstairs and the nurse was alone. "He asked for you, sir," she whispered; "he is unconscious again now."
Harry sat down by the bed and waited. The air was heavy with scents of medicine, and the drawn blinds flung grey, ghost-like shadows over the bed. The old man seemed scarcely changed. The light had gone from his eyes and his hand lay motionless on the sheets, and his lips moved continually in a never-ceasing murmur.
Suddenly he turned and his eyes opened. The nurse moved forward. "Where's Harry?" He waved his arm feebly in the air.
"I'm here, father," Harry said quietly.
"Ah, that's good"—he sank back on the pillows again. "I'm going to die, you know, and I'm lonely. It's damned gloomy—got to die—don't want to—but got to."
He felt for his son's hand, found it, and held it. Then he passed off again into half-conscious sleep, and Harry watched, his hand in his father's and his thoughts with the girl and the boy who had rejected him rather than with the old man who had accepted him.
Meanwhile there was Robin—and he had been spending several very unhappy days. In the gloom of his room, alone and depressed, he had been passing things in review. He had never hitherto felt any very burning desire to know how he stood with the world; at school and Cambridge he had not thought at all—he had just, as it were, slid into things; his surroundings had grouped themselves of their own accord, making a delicately appreciative circle with no disturbing element. His friends had been of his own kind, the things that he had wished to do he had done, his thoughts had been dictated by set forms and customs. This had seemed to him, hitherto, an extraordinarily broad outlook; he had never doubted for a moment its splendid infallibility. He applied the tests of his set to the world at large, and the world conformed. Life was very easy on such terms, and he had been happy and contented.
His meeting with Dahlia had merely lent a little colour to his pleasant complacency, and then, when it had threatened to become something more, he had ruthlessly cut it out. This should have been simple enough, and he had been at a loss to understand why the affair had left any traces. Friends of his at college had had such episodes, and had been mildly amused at their rapid conclusion. He had tried to be mildly amused at the conclusion of his own affair, but had failed miserably. Why? ... he did not know. He must be sensitive, he supposed; then, in that case, he had failed to reach the proper standard.... Randal was never sensitive. But there had been other things.
During the last week everything had seemed to be topsy-turvy. He dated it definitely from the arrival of his father. He recalled the day; his tie was badly made, he remembered, and he had been rather concerned about it. How curious it all was; he must have changed since then, because now—well, ties seemed scarcely to matter at all. He saw his father standing at the open window watching the lighted town.... "Robin, old boy, we'll have a good time, you and I..."—and then Aunt Clare with her little cry of horror, and his father's hurried apology. That had been the beginning of things; one could see how it would go from the first. Had it, after all, been so greatly his father's fault? He was surprised to find that he was regarding his uncle and aunt critically.... It had been their fault to a great extent—they had never given him a chance. Then he remembered the next morning and his own curt refusal to his father's invitation—"He had books to pack for Randal!" How absurd it was, and he wondered why he should have considered Randal so important. He could have waited for the books.
But these things depended entirely on his own sudden discovery that he had failed in a crisis—failed, and failed lamentably. He did not believe that Randal would have failed. Randal would not have worried about it for a moment. What, then, was precisely the difference? He had acted throughout according to the old set formula—he had applied all the rules of the game as he had learnt them, and nevertheless he had been beaten. And so there had crept over him gradually, slowly, and at last overwhelmingly, the knowledge that the world that he had imagined was not the world as it is, that the people he had admired were not the only admirable people in it, and that the laws that had governed him were only a small fragment of the laws that rule the world.
When this discovery first comes to a man the effect is deadening; like a ship that has lost its bearings he plunges in a sea of entangled, confused ideas with no assurances as to his own ability to reach any safe port whatever. It is this crisis that marks the change from youth to manhood.
Three weeks ago Robin had been absolutely confident, not only in himself, but in his relations, his House and his future; now he trusted in nothing. But he had not yet arrived at the point when he could regard his own shortcomings as the cause of his unhappiness; he pointed to circumstances, his aunt, his uncle, Dahlia, even Randal, and he began a search for something more reliable.
Of course, his aunt and uncle might have solved the problem for him; he had not dared to question them and they had never mentioned the subject themselves, but they did not look as though they had succeeded—he fancied that they had avoided him during the last few days.
The serious illness of his grandfather still further complicated matters; he was not expected to live through the week. Robin was sorry, but he had never seen very much of his grandfather; and it was, after all, only fitting that such a very old man should die some time; no, the point really was that his father would in a week's time be Sir Henry Trojan and head of the House—that was what mattered.
Now his father was the one person whom he could find no excuse whatever for blaming. He had stood entirely outside the affair from the beginning, and, as far as Robin could tell, knew nothing whatever about it. Robin, indeed, had taken care that he should not interfere; he had been kept outside from the first.
No, Robin could not blame his father for the state of things; perhaps, even, it might have been better if his advice had been asked.
But everything drove him back to the ultimate fact from which, indeed, there was no escaping—that there was every prospect of his finding himself, within a few weeks' time, the interesting centre of a common affair in the Courts for Breach of Promise; and as this ultimate issue shone clearer and clearer Robin's terror increased in volume. To his excited fancy, living and dead seemed to turn upon him. Country cousins—the Rev. George Trojan of West Taunton, a clergyman whose evangelical tendencies had been the mock of the House; Colonel Trojan of Cheltenham, a Port-and-Pepper Indian, as Robin had scornfully called him; the Misses Trojan of Southsea, ladies of advanced years and slender purses, who always sent him a card at Christmas; Mrs. Adeline Trojan of Teignmouth, who had spent her life in beating at the doors of London Society and had retired at last, defeated, to the provincial gentility of a seaside town—Oh! Robin had laughed at them all and scorned them again and again—and behold how the tables would be turned! And the Dead! Their scorn would be harder still to bear. He had thought of them often enough and had long ago known their histories by heart. He had gazed at their portraits in the Long Gallery until he knew every line of their faces: old Lady Trojan of 1640, a little like Rembrandt's "Lady with the Ruff," with her stern mouth and eyes and stiff white collar—she must have been a lady of character! Sir Charles Trojan, her son, who plotted for William of Orange and was rewarded royally after the glorious Revolution; Lady Gossiter Trojan, a woman who had taken active part in the '45, and used "The Flutes" as a refuge for intriguing Jacobites; and, best of all, a dim black picture of a man in armour that hung over the mantel-piece, a portrait of a certain Sir Robert Trojan who had fought in the Barons' Wars and been a giant of his times; he had always been Robin's hero and had formed the centre of many an imaginary tapestry worked by Robin's brain—and now his descendant must pay costs in a Breach of Promise Case!
They had all had their faults, those Trojans; some of them had robbed and murdered with little compunction, but they had always had their pride, they had never done anything really low—what they had done they had done with a high hand; Robin would be the first of the family to let them down. And it was rather curious to think that, three weeks ago, it had been his father who was going to let them down. Robin remembered with what indignation he had heard of his father's visits to the Cove, his friendship with Bethel and the rest—but surely it was they who had driven him out! It was their own doing from the first—or rather his aunt and uncle's. He was beginning to be annoyed with his aunt and uncle. He felt vaguely that they had got him into the mess and were quite unable to pull him out again; which reflection brought him back to the original main business, namely, that there was a mess, and a bad one.
It was one of his qualities of youth that he could not wait; patience was an utterly unlearned virtue, and this desperate uncertainty, this sitting like Damocles under a sword suspended by a hair, was hard to bear. What was Dahlia doing? Had she already taken steps? He watched every post with terror lest it should contain a lawyer's writ. He had the vaguest ideas about such things ... perhaps they would put him in prison. To his excited fancy the letters seemed enormous—horrible, black, menacing, large for all the world to see. What had Aunt Clare done? His uncle? And then, last of all, had his father any suspicions?
Whether it was the London tailor, or simply the reassuring hand of custom, his father was certainly not the uncouth person he had seemed three weeks ago; in fact, Robin was beginning to think him rather handsome—such muscles and such a chest!—and he really carried himself very well, and indeed, loose, badly-made clothes suited him rather well. And then he had changed so in other ways; there was none of that overwhelming cheerfulness, that terrible hail-fellow-well-met kind of manner now; he was brief and to the point, he seldom smiled, and surely it wasn't to be wondered at after the way in which they had treated him at the family council a week ago.
There had been several occasions lately on which Robin would have liked to have spoken to his father. He had begun, once, after breakfast, a halting conversation, but he had only received monosyllables as a reply—the thing had broken down painfully. And so he went down to his aunt.
It was her room again, and she was having tea with Uncle Garrett. Robin remembered the last occasion, only a week ago, when he had made his confession. He had been afraid of hurting his aunt then, he remembered. He did not mind very much now ... he saw his aunt and uncle as two people suddenly grown effete, purposeless, incapable. They seemed to have changed altogether, which only meant that he was, at last, finding himself.
There hung a gloom over Clare's tea-table, partly, no doubt, because of Sir Jeremy—the old man with the wrinkled hands and parchment face seemed to follow one, noiselessly, remorselessly, through every passage and into every room ... but there was also something else—that tension always noticeable in a room where people whose recent action towards some common goal is undeclared are gathered together; they were waiting for some one else to make the next move.
And it was Robin who made it, asking at once, as he dropped the sugar into his cup and balanced for a moment the tongs in the air: "Well, Aunt Clare, what have you done?"
She noticed at once that he asked it a little scornfully, as though assured beforehand that she had done very little. There was a note of antagonism in the way that he had spoken, a hint, even, of challenge. She knew at once that he had changed during the last week, and again, knowing as she did of her failure with the girl, and guessing perhaps at its probable sequence, she hated Harry from the bottom of her heart.
"Done? Why, how, Robin dear? I don't advise those tea-cakes—they're heavy. I must speak to Wilson—she's been a little careless lately; those biscuits are quite nice. Done, dear?"
"Yes, aunt—about Miss Feverel. No, I don't want anything to eat, thanks—it seems only an hour or so since lunch—yes—about—well, those letters?"
Clare looked up at him pleadingly. He was speaking a little like Harry; she had noticed during the last week that he had several things in common with his father—little things, the way that he wrinkled his forehead, pushed back his hair with his hand; she was not sure that it was not conscious imitation, and indeed it had seemed to her during the last week that every day drew him further from herself and nearer to Harry. She had counted on this affair as a means of reclaiming him, and now she must confess failure—Oh! it was hard!
"Well, Robin, I have tried——" She paused.
"Well?" he said drily, waiting.
"I'm afraid it wasn't much of a success," she said, trying to laugh. "I suppose that really I'm not good at that sort of thing."
"At what sort of thing?"
He stood over her like a judge, the certainty of her failure the only thing that he could grasp. He did not recognise her own love for him, her fear lest he should be angry; he was merciless as he had been three weeks ago with his father, as he had been with Dahlia Feverel, and for the same reason—because each had taken from him some of that armour of self-confidence in which he had so greatly trusted; the winds of the heath were blowing about him and he stood, stripped, shivering, before the world.
"She was not good at that sort of thing"—that was exactly it, exactly the summary of his new feeling about his aunt and uncle; they were not able to cope with that hard, new world into which he had been so suddenly flung—they were, he scornfully considered, "tea-table" persons, and in so judging them he condemned himself.
"I'm so very sorry, dear. I did my very best. I went to see the—um—Miss Feverel, and we talked about them. But I'm afraid that I couldn't persuade her—she seemed determined——"
"What did she say?"
"Oh, very little—only that she considered that the letters were hers and that therefore she had every right to keep them if she liked. She seemed to attach some especial, rather sentimental value to them, and considered, apparently, that it would be quite impossible to give them up."
"How was she looking—ill?" It had been one of Robin's consolations during these weeks to imagine her pale, wretched, broken down.
"Oh no, extremely well. She seemed rather amused at the whole affair. I was not there very long."
"And is that all you have done? Have you, I mean, taken any other steps?"
"Yes—I wrote yesterday morning. I got an answer this morning."
"What was it?" Robin spoke eagerly. Perhaps his aunt had some surprise in store and would produce the letters suddenly; surely Dahlia would not have written unless she had relented.
Clare went to her writing-table and returned with the letter, held gingerly between finger and thumb.
"I'm afraid it's not very long," she said, laughing nervously, and again looking at Robin appealingly. "I had written asking her to think over what she had said to me the day before. She says:
"'DEAR Miss TROJAN—Surely the matter is closed after what happened the other day? I am extremely sorry that you should be troubled by my decision; but it is, I am afraid, unalterable.—Yours truly,
"Her decision?" cried Robin quickly. "Had she told you anything? Had she decided anything?"
"Only that she would keep the letters," answered Clare slowly. "You couldn't expect me, Robin dear, to argue with her about it. One had, after all, one's dignity."
"Oh! it's no use!" cried Robin. "She means to use them—of course, it's all plain enough; we've just got to face it, I suppose"; and then, as a forlorn hope, turning to his uncle—
"You've done nothing, I suppose, Uncle Garrett?"
His uncle had hitherto taken no part in the discussion, but sat intent on the book that he was reading. Now he answered, without looking up—
"Yes—I saw the girl."
"You saw her?" from Clare.
"What! Dahlia!" from Robin.
"Yes, I called." He laid the book down on his knee and enjoyed the effect of his announcement. He could be important for a moment at any rate, although he must, with his next words, confess failure, so he prolonged the situation. "Some more tea, Clare, please, and not quite so strong this time—you might speak about the tea—why not make it yourself?"
She took his cup and went over to the tea-table. She knew how to play the game as well as he did, and she showed no astonishment or vulgar curiosity, but if he had succeeded where she had failed she must change her hand. She had never thought very much about Garrett; he was a thorough Trojan—for that she was very grateful, but he had always been more of an emblem to her than a man. Now if he had got the letters she was humiliated indeed. Robin would despise her for having failed where his uncle had succeeded.
"Well, have you got them?"
Robin bent forward eagerly.
"No, not precisely," Garrett answered deliberately. "But I went to see her——"
"With what result?"
"With no precise result—that is to say, she did not promise to surrender them—not immediately. But I have every hope——" He paused mysteriously.
"Of what?" If his uncle had really a chance of getting them, he was not such a fool after all. Perhaps he was a cleverer man than one gave him credit for being.
"Well, of course, one has very little ground for any real assertion, but we discussed the matter at some length. I think I convinced her that it would be her wisest course to deliver up the letters as soon as might be, and I assured her that we would let the matter rest there and take no further steps. I think she was impressed," and he sipped his tea slowly and solemnly.
"Impressed! Yes, but what has she promised?" Robin cried impatiently. He knew Dahlia better than they did, and he did not feel somehow that she was very likely to be impressed with Uncle Garrett. He was not the kind of man.
"Promised? No, not a precise promise—but she was quite pleasant and seemed to be open to argument—quite a nice young person."
"Ah! you have done nothing!" There was a note of relief in Clare's exclamation. "Why not say so at once, Garrett, instead of beating about the bush? There is an end of it. We have failed, Robin, both of us; we are where we were before, and what to do next I really don't know."
It was rather a comfort to drag Garrett into it as well. She was glad that he had tried; it made her own failure less noticeable.
Robin looked at both of them, gloomily, from the fireplace. Aunt Clare, handsome, aristocratic, perfectly well fitted to pour out tea in any society, but useless, useless, useless when it came to the real thing; Uncle Garrett and his eyeglass, trying to make the most of a situation in which he had most obviously failed—no, they were no good either of them, and three weeks ago they had seemed the ultimate standard by which his own life was to be tested. How quickly one learnt!
"Well, what is to be done?" he said desperately. "It's plain enough that she means to stick to the things; and, after all, there can only be one reason for her doing it—she means to use them. I can see no way out of it at all—one must just stand up to it."
"We'll think, dear, we'll think," said Clare eagerly. "Ideas are sure to come if we only wait."
"Wait! But we can't wait!" cried Robin. "She'll move at once. Probably the letters are in the lawyer's hands already."
"Then there's nothing to be done," said Garrett comfortably, settling back again into his book—he was, he flattered himself, a man of most excellent practical sense.
"No, it really seems, Robin, as if we had better wait," said Clare. "We must have patience. Perhaps after all she has taken no steps."
But Robin was angry. He had long ago forgotten his share in the business; he had adopted so successfully the role of injured sufferer that his own actions seemed to him almost meritorious. But he was very angry with them. Here they were, in the face of a family crisis, deliberately adopting a policy of laissez-faire; he had done his best and had failed, but he was young and ignorant of the world (that at least he now admitted), but they were old, experienced, wise—or, at least, they had always seemed to him to stand for experience and wisdom, and yet they could do nothing—nay, worse—they seemed to wish to do nothing—Oh! he was angry with them!
The whole room with its silver and knick-knacks—its beautifully worked cushions and charming water-colours, its shining rows of complete editions and dainty china stood to him now for incapacity. Three weeks ago it had seemed his Holy of Holies.
"But we can't wait," he repeated—"we can't! Don't you see, Aunt Clare, she isn't the sort of girl that waiting does for? She'd never dream of waiting herself." Dahlia seemed, by contrast with their complacent acquiescence, almost admirable.
"Well, dear," Clare answered, "your uncle and I have both tried—I think that we may be alarming ourselves unnecessarily. I must say she didn't seem to me to bear any grudge against you. I daresay she will leave things as they are——"
"Then why keep the letters?"
"Oh, sentiment. It would remind her, you see——"
But Robin could only repeat—"No, she's not that kind of girl," and marvel, perplexedly, at their short-sightedness.
And then he approached the point—
"There is, of course," he said slowly, "one other person who might help us——" He paused.
Garrett put his book down and looked up. Clare leaned towards him.
"Yes?" Clare looked slightly incredulous of any suggested remedy—but apparently composed and a little tired of all this argument. But, in reality, her heart was beating furiously. Had it come at last?—that first mention of his father that she had dreaded for so many days.
"I really cannot think——" from Garrett.
"Why not my father?"
Again it seemed to Clare that she and Harry were struggling for Robin ... since that first moment of his entry they had struggled—she with her twenty years of faithful service, he with nothing—Oh! it was unfair!
"But, Robin," she said gently—"you can't—not, at least, after what has happened. This is an affair for ourselves—for the family."
"But he is the family!"
"Well, in a sense, yes. But his long absence—his different way of looking at things—make it rather hard. It would be better, wouldn't it, to settle it here, without its going further."
"To settle it, yes—but we can't—we don't—we are leaving things quite alone—waiting—when we ought to do something."
Robin knew that she was showing him that his father was still outside the circle—that for herself and Uncle Garrett recent events had made no difference.
But was he outside the circle? Why should he be? At any rate he would soon be head of the House, and then it would matter very little——
"Also," Clare added, "he will scarcely have time just now. He is with father all day—and I don't see what he could do, after all."
"He could see her," said Robin slowly. He suddenly remembered that Dahlia had once expressed great admiration for his father—she was the very woman to like that kind of man. A hurried mental comparison between his father and Uncle Garrett favoured the idea.
"He could see her," he said again. "I think she might like him."
"My dear boy," said Garrett, "take it from me that what a man could do I've done. I assure you it's useless. Your father is a very excellent man, but, I must confess, in my opinion scarcely a diplomat——"
"Well, at any rate it's worth trying," cried Robin impatiently. "We must, I suppose, eat humble pie after the things you said to him, Aunt Clare, the other day, but I must confess it's the only chance. He will be decent about it, I'm sure—I think you scarcely realise how nasty it promises to be."
"Who is to ask?" said Garrett.
"I will ask him," said Clare suddenly. "Perhaps after all Robin is right—he might do something."
It might, she thought, be the best thing. Unless he tried, Robin would always consider him capable of succeeding—but he should try and fail—fail! Why, of course he would fail.
"Thank you, Aunt Clare." Robin walked to the door and then turned: "Soon would be best"—then he closed the door behind him.
His father was coming down the stairs as he passed through the hall. He saw him against the light of the window and he half turned as though to speak to him—but his father gave no sign; he looked very stern—perhaps his grandfather was dead.
The sudden fear—the terror of death brought very close to him for the first time—caught him by the throat.
"He is not dead?" he whispered.
"He is asleep," Harry said, stopping for a moment on the last step of the stairs and looking at him across the hall—"I am afraid that he won't live through the night."
They had both spoken softly, and the utter silence of the house, the heaviness of the air so that it seemed to hang in thick clouds above one's head, drove Robin out. He looked as though he would speak, and then, with bent head, passed into the garden.
He felt most miserably lonely and depressed—if he hadn't been so old and proud he would have hidden in one of the bushes and cried. It was all so terrible—his grandfather, that weighty, eerie impression of Death felt for the first time, the dreadful uncertainty of the Feverel affair, all things were quite enough for misery, but this feeling of loneliness was new to him.
He had always had friends, but even when they had failed him there had been behind them the House—its traditions, its records, its history—his aunt and uncle, and, most reassuring of all, himself.
But now all these had failed him. His friends were vaguely unattractive; Randal was terribly superficial, he was betraying the House; his aunt and uncle were unsatisfactory, and for himself—well, he wasn't quite so splendid as he had once thought. He was wretchedly dissatisfied with it all and felt that he would give all the polish and culture in the world for a simple, unaffected friendship in which he could trust.
"Some one," he said angrily, "that would do something"—and his thoughts were of his father.
It was dark now, and he went down to the sea, because he liked the white flash of the waves as they broke on the beach—this sudden appearing and disappearing and the rustle of the pebbles as they turned slowly back and vanished into the night again.
He liked, too, the myriad lights of the town: the rows of lamps, rising tier on tier into the night sky, like people in some great amphitheatre waiting in silence for the rising of a mighty curtain. He always thought on these nights of Germany—Germany, Worms, the little bookseller, the distant gleam of candles in the Cathedrals, the flash of the sun through the trees over the Rhine, the crooked, cobbled streets at night with the moon like a lamp and the gabled roofs flinging wild shadows over the stones ... the night-sea brought it very close and carried Randal and Cambridge and Dahlia Feverel very far away, although he did not know why.
He watched the light of the town and the waves and the great flashing eye of the lighthouse and then turned back. As he climbed the steps up the cliff he heard some one behind him, and, turning, saw that it was Mary Bethel. She said "Good-night" quickly and was going to pass him, but he stopped her.
"I haven't seen you for ages, Mary," he said. He resolved to speak to her. She knew his father and had always been a good sort—perhaps she would help him.
"Are you coming back, Robin?" she said, stopping and smiling. There was a lamp at the top of the cliff where the road ran past the steps, and by the light of it he saw that she had been crying. But he was too much occupied with his own affairs to consider the matter very deeply, and then girls cried so easily.
"Yes," he said, "let us go round by the road and the Chapel—it's a splendid night; besides, we don't seem to have met recently. We've both been busy, I suppose, and I've a good deal to talk about."
"If you like," she said, rather listlessly. It would, at least, save her from her own thoughts and protect her perhaps from the ceaseless repetition of that scene of three days ago when she had turned the man that she loved more than all the world away and had lied to him because she was proud.
And so at first she scarcely listened to him. They walked down the road that ran along the top of the cliff and the great eye of the lighthouse wheeled upon them, flashed and vanished; she saw the room with its dingy carpet and wide-open window, and she heard his voice again and saw his hands clenched—oh! she had been a fine fool! So it was little wonder that she did not hear his son.
But Robin had at last an audience and he knew no mercy. All the agitation of the last week came pouring forth—he lost all sense of time and place; he was at the end of the world addressing infinity on the subject of his woes, and it says a good deal for his vanity and not much for his sense of humour that he did not feel the lack of proportion in such a position.
"It was a girl, you know—perhaps you've met her—a Miss Feverel—Dahlia Feverel. I met her at Cambridge and we got rather thick, and then I wrote to her—rot, you know, like one does—and when I wanted to get back the letters she wouldn't let me have them, and she's going to use them, I'm afraid, for—well—Breach of Promise!"
He paused and waited for the effect of the announcement, but it never came; she was walking quickly, with her head lifted to catch the wind that blew from the sea—he could not be certain that she had heard.
"Breach of Promise!" he repeated impressively. "It would be rather an awful thing for people in our position if it really came to that—it would be beastly for me. Of course, I meant nothing by it—the letters, I mean—a chap never does. Everybody at Cambridge talks to girls—the girls like it—but she took it seriously, and now she may bring it down on our heads at any time, and you can't think how beastly it is waiting for it to come. We've done all we could—all of us—and now I can tell you it's been worrying me like anything wondering what she's done. My uncle and aunt both tried and failed; I was rather disappointed, because after all one would have thought that they would be able to deal with a thing like that, wouldn't one?"
He paused again, but she only said "Yes" and hurried on.
"So now I'm at my wits' end and I thought that you might help me."
"Why not your father?" she said suddenly.
"Ah! that's just it," he answered eagerly. "That's where I wanted you to give me your advice. You see—well, it's a little hard to explain—we weren't very nice to the governor when he came back first—the first day or two, I mean. He was—well, different—didn't look at things as we did; liked different things and had strong views about knocking down the Cove. So we went on our way and didn't pay much attention to him—I daresay he's told you all about it—and I'm sorry enough now, although it really was largely his own fault! I don't think he seemed to want us to have much to do with him, and then one day Clare spoke to him about things and asked him to consider us a little and he flared up.
"Well, I've a sort of idea that he could help us now—at any rate, there's no one else. Aunt Clare said that she would ask him, but you know him better than any of us, and, of course, it is a little difficult for us, after the way that we've spoken to him; you might help us, I thought."
He couldn't be sure, even now, that Mary had been listening—she looked so strange this evening that he was afraid of her, and half wished that he had kept his affairs to himself. She was silent for a moment, because she was wondering what it was that Harry had really done about the letters. It was amusing, because they obviously didn't know that she had told him—but what had he done?
"Do you want me to help you, Robin?" she asked.
"Yes, of course," he answered eagerly. "You know him so well and could get him to do things that he would never do for us. I'm afraid of him, or rather have been just lately. I don't know what there is about him exactly."
"You want me to help you?" she asked again. "Well then, you've got to put up with a bit of my mind—you've caught me in a bad mood, and I don't care whether it hurts you or not—you're in for a bit of plain speaking."
He looked up at her with surprise, but said nothing.
"Oh, I know I'm no very great person myself," she went on quickly—almost fiercely. "I've only known in the last few weeks how rotten one can really be, but at least I have known—I do know—and that's just what you don't. We've been friends for some time, you and I—but if you don't look out, we shan't be friends much longer."
"Why?" he asked quietly.
"You were never very much good," she went on, paying no attention to his question, "and always conceited, but that was your aunt's fault as much as any one's, and she gave you that idea of your family—that you were God's own chosen people and that no one could come within speaking distance of you—you had that when you were quite a little boy, and you seem to have thought that that was enough, that you need never do anything all your life just because you were a Trojan. Eton helped the idea, and when you went up to Cambridge you were a snob of the first order. I thought Cambridge would knock it out of you, but it didn't; it encouraged you, and you were always with people who thought as you did, and you fancied that your own little corner of the earth—your own little potato-patch—was better than every one else's gardens; I thought you were a pretty poor thing when you came back from Cambridge last year, but now you've beaten my expectations by a good deal——"
"I say——" he broke in—"really I——" but she went on unheeding—
"Instead of working and doing something like any decent man would, you loafed along with your friends learning to tie your tie and choosing your waistcoat-buttons; you go and make love to a decent girl and then when you've tired of her tell her so, and seem surprised at her hitting back.
"Then at last when there is a chance of your seeing what a man is like—that he isn't only a man who dresses decently like a tailor's model—when your father comes back and asks you to spend a few of your idle hours with him, you laugh at him, his manners, his habits, his friends, his way of thinking; you insult him and cut him dead—your father, one of the finest men in the world. Why, you aren't fit to brush his clothes!—but that isn't the worst! Now—when you find you're in a hole and you want some one to help you out of it and you don't know where to turn, you suddenly think of your father. He wasn't any good before—he was rough and stupid, almost vulgar, but now that he can help you, you'll turn and play the dutiful son!
"That's you as you are, Robin Trojan—you asked me for it and you've got it; it's just as well that you should see yourself as you are for once in your life—you'll forget it all again soon enough. I'm not saying it's only you—it's the lot of you—idle, worthless, snobbish, empty, useless. Help you? No! You can go to your father yourself and think yourself lucky if he will speak to you."
Mary stopped for lack of breath. Of course, he couldn't know that she'd been attacking herself as much as him, that, had it not been for that scene three days ago, she would never have spoken at all.
"I say!" he said quietly, "is it really as bad as that? Am I that sort of chap?"
"Yes. You know it now at least."
"It's not quite fair. I am only like the rest. I——"
"Yes, but why should you be? Fancy being proud that you are like the rest! One of a crowd!"
They turned up the road to her house, and she began to relent when she saw that he was not angry.
"No," he said, nodding his head slowly, "I expect you're about right, Mary. Things have been happening lately that have made everything different—I've been thinking ... I see my father differently...."
Then, "How could you?" she cried. "You to cut him and turn him out? Oh! Robin! you weren't always that sort——"
"No," he answered. "I wasn't once. In Germany I was different—when I got away from things—but it's harder here"—and then again slowly—"But am I really as bad as that, Mary?"
Sudden compunction seized her. What right had she to speak to him? After all, he was only a boy, and she was every bit as bad herself.
"Oh! I don't know!" she said wearily. "I'm all out of sorts to-night, Robin. We're neither of us fit to speak to him, and you've treated him badly, all of you—I oughtn't to have spoken as I did, perhaps; but here we are! You'd better forget it, and another day I'll tell you some of the nice things about you——"
"Am I that sort of chap?" he said again, staring in front of him with his hand on the gate. She said good-night and left him standing in the road. He turned up the hill, with his head bent. He was scarcely surprised and not at all angry. It only seemed the climax to so many things that had happened lately—"a snob"—"a pretty poor thing"—"You don't work, you learn to choose your waistcoat-buttons"—that was the kind of chap he was. And his father: "One of the finest men there is——" He'd missed his chance, perhaps, he would never get it again! But he would try!
He passed into the garden and fumbled for his latch-key. He would speak to his father to-morrow!
Mary was quite right ... he was a "pretty poor thing!"
That night was never forgotten by any one at "The Flutes." Down in the servants' hall they prolonged their departure for bed to a very late hour, and then crept, timorously, to their rooms; they were extravagant with the electric light, and dared Benham's anger in order to secure a little respite from terrible darkness. Stories were recalled of Sir Jeremy's kindness and good nature, and much speculation was indulged in as to his successor—the cook recalled her early youth and an engagement with a soldier that aroused such sympathy in her hearers that she fraternised, unexpectedly, with Clare's maid—a girl who had formerly been considered "haughty," but was now found to be agreeable and pleasant.
Above stairs there was the same restlessness and sense of uneasy expectancy. Clare went to bed, but not to sleep. Her mind was not with her father—she had been waiting for his death during many long weeks, and now that the time had arrived she could scarcely think of it otherwise than calmly. If one had lived like a Trojan one would die like one—quietly, becomingly, in accordance with the best traditions. She was sure that there would be something ready for Trojans in the next world a little different from other folks' destiny—something select and refined—so why worry at going to meet it?
No, it was not Sir Jeremy, but Robin. Throughout the night she heard the clocks striking the quarters; the first light of dawn crept timidly through the shuttered blinds, the full blaze of the sun streamed on to her bed—and she could not sleep. The conversation of the day before recalled itself syllable for syllable; she read into it things that had never been there and tortured herself with suspicion and doubt. Robin was different—utterly different. He was different even from a week ago when he had first told them of the affair. She could hear his voice as he had bent over her asking her to forgive him; that had seemed to her then the hour of her triumph—but now she saw that it was the premonition of defeat. How she had worked for him, loved him, spoilt him; and now, in these weeks, her lifework was utterly undone. And then, in the terrible loneliness of her room, with the darkness on the world and round her bed and at her heart, she wept—terrible, tearless sobbing that left her in the morning weak, unstrung, utterly unequal to the day.
This conversation with Robin had also worried Garrett. The consolation that he had frequently found in the reassuring comforts of his study seemed utterly wanting to-night. The stillness irritated him; it seemed stuffy, close, and he had an overmastering desire for a companion. This desire he conquered, because he felt that it would be scarcely dignified to search the byways of the house for a friend; but he listened for steps, and fancied over and over again that he heard the eagerly anticipated knock. But no one came, and he sat far into the night, fancying strange sounds and trembling at the dark; and at last fell asleep in his chair, and was discovered in an undignified position on the floor in the early morning by the politely astonished Benham.
But it was for Harry that the night most truly marked a crisis. He spent it in vigil by the side of his father, and watched the heavy passing of the hours, like grey solemn figures through the darkened room. The faint glimmer of the electric light, heavily shaded, assumed fantastic and portentous shapes and fleecy enormous shadows on the white surface of the staring walls. Strange blue shadows glimmered through the black caverns of the windows, and faint lights came from beneath the door, and hovered on the ceiling like mysteriously moving figures.
Sir Jeremy was perfectly still. Death had come to him very gently and had laid its hand quietly upon him, with no violence or harshness. It was only old age that had greeted him as a friend, and then with a smile had persuaded him to go. He was unconscious now, but at any moment his senses might return, and then he would ask for Harry. The crisis might come at any time, and Harry must be there.
He felt no weariness; his brain was extraordinarily active and he passed every incident since his return in review. It all seemed so clear to him now; the inevitability of it all; and his own blindness in escaping the meaning of it. It seemed now that he had known nothing of the world at all three weeks ago. Then he had judged it from his own knowledge—now he saw it in many lights; the point of view of Robin, of Dahlia Feverel, of Clare, of Sir Jeremy, of Bethel, of Mary—he had arrived at the great knowledge that Life could be absolutely right for many different sorts of people—that the same life, like a globe of flashing colours, could shine into every corner of obscurity, gleaming differently in every different place and yet be unchangeable. Murderer, robber, violator, saint, priest, king, beggar—they were all parts of a wonderful, inevitable world, and, he saw it now, were all of them essential. He had been tolerant before from a wide-embracing charity; he was tolerant now from a wide-embracing knowledge: "Er liebte jeden Hund, und wuenschte von jedem Hund geliebt zu sein."
They had all learnt in that last three weeks. Dahlia Feverel would pass into the world with that struggle at her heart and the strength of her victory—his father would solve the greatest question of all—Robin! Mary! Clare!—they had all been learning too, but what it was that they had learnt he could not yet tell; the conclusion of the matter was to come. But it had all been, for him at least, only a prelude; he was to stand for the world as head of the House, he had his life before him and his work to do, he had only, like Robin, just "come of age."
He did not know why, but he had no longer any doubt. He knew that he would win Robin, he knew that he would win Mary; up to that day he had been uncertain, vacillating, miserable—but now he had no longer any hesitation. The work of his life was to fit Robin for his due succession, and, please God, he would do it with all his heart and soul and strength; there was to be no false sentiment, no shifting of difficult questions, no hiding from danger, no sheltering blindly under unquestioned creeds, no false bids for popularity.
Robin was to be clean, straight, and sane, with all the sturdy cleanliness and strength and sanity that his father's love and knowledge could give him.
Oh! he loved his son!—but no longer blindly, as he had loved him three weeks ago ... and so he faced his future.
And of Mary, too, he was sure. He knew that she loved him; he had seen her face in the mirror as her lips had said "No," and he saw that her heart had said "Yes." With the new strength that had come to him he vowed to force her defences and carry her away.... Oh! he could be any knight and fight for any lady.
But as he sat by the bed, watching the dawn struggle through the blinds and listening to the faint, clear twittering of birds in the grey, dew-swept garden—he wished that he could tell his father of his engagement. He wondered if there would be time. That it would please the old man he knew, and it would seal the compact, and place a secret blessing on their married life together. Yes, he would like to tell him.
The clocks struck five—he heard their voices echo through the house; and, at the last, the tiny voice of the cuckoo clock sounded and the little wild flap of his wings came quite clearly through the silence; his voice was answered by a chorus from the garden, the voices of the birds seemed to grow ever louder and louder; in that strange dark room, with its shaded lights and heavy airs, it was clear and fresh like the falling of water on cold, shining stone.
Harry went softly to the window and drew back a corner of the blind. The dawn was gradually revealing the forms and colours of the garden, and in the grey, misty light things were mysterious and uncertain; like white lights in a dusky room the two white statues shone through the mist. At that strange hour they seemed in their right atmosphere; they seemed to move and turn and bend—he could have fancied that they sailed on the mist—that, for a moment, they had vanished and then that they had grown enormous, monstrous. He watched them eagerly, and as the light grew clearer he made them out more plainly—the straight, eager beauty of the man, the dim, mysterious grace of the woman. Perhaps they talked in those early hours when they were alone in the garden; perhaps they might speak to him if he were to join them then. Then he fancied that the mist formed into figures of men and women; to his excited fancy the garden seemed peopled with shapes that increased and dwindled and vanished. Round the statues many shapes gathered; one in especial seemed to walk to and fro with its face turned to the house. It was a woman—her grey dress floated in the air, and he saw her form outlined against the statue. Then the mist seemed to sweep down again and catch the statues in its eddies and hide them from his gaze. The dawn was breaking very slowly. From the window the sweep of the sea was, in daylight, perfectly visible: now in the dim grey of the sky it was hidden—but Harry knew where it must be and watched for its appearance. The first lights were creeping over the sky, breaking in delicate tints and ripples of silver and curving, arc-shaped, from the west to the east.
Where sky and sea divided a faint pale line of grey hovered and broke, turning into other paler lights of the most delicate blue. The dawn had come.
He turned back again to the garden and started with surprise: in the more certain light there was no doubt that it was a woman who stood there by the statues, guarding the first early beauties of the garden. Everything was pearl-grey, save where, high above the water of the fountain that stood in the centre of the lawn, the sky had broken into a little lake of the palest blue and this was reflected in the still mirror of the fountain—but it was a woman. He could see the outline of her form—the bend of her neck as she turned with her face to the house, the straight line of her arms as they tell at her sides. And, as he looked, his heart began to beat thickly. He seemed to recognise that carriage of the body from the hips, the fling-back of the head as she stared towards the windows.
The light of the dawn was breaking over the garden, the chorus of the birds was loud in the trees, and he knew that it was no dream.
He glanced for a moment at his father, and then crept softly from the room. He found one of the nurses making tea over a spirit-lamp in the dressing-room and asked her to take his place.
The house was perfectly silent as he opened the French window of the drawing-room and stepped on to the lawn. The grass was heavy with dew and the fresh air beat about his face; he had never known anything quite so fresh—the air, the grass, the trees, the birds' song like the sound of hidden waters tumbling on to some unseen rock.
Her face was turned away from him and his feet made no sound on the grass. He came perfectly silently towards her, and then when he saw that it had indeed been no imagination but that it was reality, and when he knew all that her coming there meant and what it implied, for moment his limbs shook so that he could scarcely stand. Then he laughed a little and said "Mary!"
She turned with a little cry, and when she saw who it was the crimson flooded her face, changing it as the rising sun was soon to change the grey of the sea and the garden.
"Oh!" she cried, "I didn't know—I didn't mean. I——"
"It is going to be a lovely day," he said quietly, "the sun will be up in a moment. I have been watching you from my father's window."
"Oh! You mustn't!" she cried eagerly. "I thought that I was safe—absolutely; I was here quite by chance—really I was—I couldn't sleep, and I thought that I would watch the sunrise over the sea—and I went down to the beach—and then—well, there was the little wood by your garden, and it was so wonderfully still and silent, and I saw those statues gleaming through the trees, and they looked so beautiful that I came nearer. I meant to come only for a moment and then go away again—but—I—stayed——"
But he could scarcely hear what she said; he only saw her standing there with her dress trembling a little in the breeze.
"Mary," he said, "you did not mean what you told me the other day?"
She looked at him for a moment and then suddenly flung out her hands and touched his coat. "No," she answered.
For a moment they were utterly silent. Then he took her into his arms.
"I love you! How I love you!"
Her hair was about his face, for a moment her face was buried in his coat, then she lifted it and their lips met.
He shook from head to foot, he crushed her to him, then he released her.
She glanced up at him with her hand still touching his coat and looked into his eyes.
"I will love you and serve you and honour you always," she said. She took his arm and they passed down the lawn and watched the light breaking over the sea. The sky was broken into thousands of fleecy clouds of mother-of-pearl—the sea was trembling as though the sun had whispered that it was near at hand, and, on the horizon, the first bars of pale gold heralded its coming.
"I have loved you," he said, "since the first moment that I saw you—I gave you tea and muffins; I deserted the Miss Ponsonbys in order to serve you."
"And I too!" she answered, laughing. "I could not eat the muffin for love of you, and I was jealous of the Miss Ponsonbys!"
"Why did you turn me out the other day?"
"They had been talking—mother and the others; and I was hurt terribly, and I thought that you would hear what they had said and would think, perhaps, that it was true and would despise me. And then after you had gone, I knew that nothing in the world could make any difference—that they could say what they pleased, but that I could not live without you—you see I am very young!"
"Oh, and I am so old, dear! You mustn't forget that! Do you think that you could ever put up with any one as old as I am?"
She laughed. "You are just the same age as myself," she cried. "You will always be the same age, and I am not sure but I think that you are younger——"
And suddenly the sun had risen—a great ball of fire changing all the blue of the sky to red and gold, and they watched as the gods had watched the flaming ruin of Valhalla.
But the daylight drove them to other thoughts.
"I must go back," she said. "I will go down to the shore and perhaps will meet father. Oh! you don't know what I have suffered during these last few days. I thought that perhaps I had driven you away and that you would never come back—and then I had a silly idea that I would watch your windows—and so I came——"
"Why! I have watched yours!" he cried—"often! Oh! we will have some times!"
"But you must remember that there will be three of us," she answered. "There is Robin!"
"Robin! Why, it will be splendid! You and Robin and I!"
"Poor Robin——" She laughed. "You don't know how I scolded him last night. It was about you and I was unhappy. He is changing fast, and it is because of you. He has come round——"
"We have all come round!" cried Harry. "He and you and I! Oh! this is the beginning of the world for all of us—and I am forty-five! Will you write to me later in the day? I cannot get down until to-night. My father is very ill—I must be here. But write to me—a long letter—it will be as though you were talking."
She laughed. "Yes, I'll write," she cried; then she looked at him again—"I love you," she said, as though she were reciting her faith, "because you are good, because you are strong, because—oh! for no reason at all—just because you are you."
For a moment they watched the sea, and then again he took her in his arms and held her as though he would never let her go—then she vanished through the trees.
The house was waking into life as he re-entered it; servants were astir at an early hour: he had been away such a little time, but the world was another place. Every detail of the house—the stairs, the hall, the windows, the clocks, the pot-pourri scent from the bowls of dried roses, the dance of the dust in the light of the rising sun, was presented to him now with a new meaning. He was glad that she had stayed with him such a little while—it made it more precious, her coming with the shadows in that grey of breaking skies and a mysterious plunging sea, and then vanishing with the rising sun. Oh! they would come down to earth soon enough!—let him keep that kiss, those few words, her last smile as she vanished into the wood, like the visible signs of the other world that had, at last, been allowed to him. The vision of the Grail had passed from his eyes, but the memory of it was to be his most sacred possession.
He went to his room, had a bath, and then returned to his father; of course, he could not sleep.
Clare, Garrett, and Robin met at breakfast with the sense of approaching calamity heavy upon them. As far as Sir Jeremy himself was concerned there was little real regret—how could there be? Of course, there was the sentiment of separation, the breaking of a great many ties that had been strong and traditional; but it was better that the old man should go—of that there was no question. Sir Jeremy himself would rather. No, "Le roi est mort" was easy enough to say, but how "Vive le roi" stuck in their throats.
Garrett hinted at a wretched night, and quoted Benham on the dangers of an arm-chair at night-time.
"Of course, one had been thinking," he said vaguely, after a melancholy survey of eggs and bacon that developed into resignation over dry toast—"there was a good deal to think about. But I certainly had intended to go to bed—I can't imagine what——"
Robin said nothing. His mind was busy with Mary's speech of the night before; his world lay crumbled about him, and, like Cato, he was finding a certain melancholy satisfaction in its ruins. His thoughts were scarcely with his grandfather; he felt vaguely that there was Death in the house and that its immediate presence was one of the things that had helped to bring his self-content about his ears. But it was of his father that he was thinking, and of a certain morning when he had refused a walk. If he got a chance again!
Clare looked wretched. Robin thought that she had never seemed so ill before; there was, for the first time, an air of carelessness about her, as though she had flung on her clothes anyhow—something utterly unlike her.
"I am going to speak to Harry this morning," she said.
Garrett looked up peevishly. "Scarcely the time, Clare. I should say that it were better for us to wait until—well, afterwards. There is, perhaps, something a little indecent——"
"I have considered the matter carefully," interrupted Clare decisively. "This is the best time——"
"Oh, well, of course. Only I should have thought that I might have had just a little say in the matter. I was, after all, originally consulted as well as yourself. I saw the girl, and was even, I might venture to suggest, with her for some time. But, of course, a mere man's opinion——"
"Oh, don't be absurd, Garrett. It is I that have to ask him—it is pretty obvious that I have every right to choose my own time."
"Oh! Please, don't let me interfere—only I should scarcely have thought that this was quite the moment when Harry would be most inclined to listen to you."
"If we don't ask him now," she answered, "there's no knowing when we shall have the opportunity. When poor father is gone he will have a great deal to settle and decide; he will have no time for anything at all for months ahead. This morning is our last chance."
But she had another thought. Her great desire now was that he should try and fail; that he would fail she was sure. She was eagerly impatient for that day when he must come to them and admit his failure. She looked ahead and fashioned that scene for herself—that scene when Robin should know and confess that his father was only as the rest of them; that their failure was his failure, their incapacity his incapacity—and then the balance would be restored and Robin would see as he had seen before.
"Coffee, Robin? It's quite hot still. I saw Dr. Brady just now. He says that there is no change, nor is there likely to be one for some hours. You're looking tired, Robin, old boy. Have you been sleeping on the floor, too?"
"No!" He looked up and smiled. "But I was awake a good bit. The house is different somehow, when——"
"Oh yes, I know. One feels it, of course. But eating's much the best thing for keeping one's spirits up. I suppose Harry is coming down. Just find out from Benham, will you, Wilder, whether Mr. Henry is coming down?"
The footman left the room, returning in a moment with the answer that Mr. Henry was about to come down.
Garrett moved to the door, but Clare stopped him.
"I want you, Garrett—you can bear me out!"
"I thought that my opinion was of so little importance," he answered sulkily, "that I might as well go."
But he sat down again and buried himself in his paper.
They waited, and Robin made mental comparisons with a similar scene a week before; there were still the silver teapot, the toast, the ham—they were all there, and it was only he himself who had altered. Only a week, and what a difference! What a cad he had been! a howling cad! Not only to his father, but to Dahlia, to every one with whom he had had to do. He did not spare himself; he had at least the pluck to go through with it—that was Trojan.