He spoke with a smile now and in a softer voice; but Lesley was much too hurt and depressed to say a word. He looked at her steadfastly for a minute or two, and decided that she was sullen.
"I will see about the lessons for you," he said, getting up and speaking decidedly, "and I hope you will make the most of your opportunities. How much time have you been in the habit of devoting to your singing every day?"
"An hour and a half," said Lesley, in a very low voice.
"And you left off practising as soon as you came here? That was a great pity; and you must allow me to say, Lesley, very silly into the bargain. Surely your own conscience tells you that it was wrong? A voice like yours is not meant to be hidden."
Lesley wished that at that moment she could find any voice at all. She sat like a statue, conscious only of an effort to repress her tears. And Mr. Brooke, having said all that he wanted to say, took up a book, and thought how difficult it was to manage women who met remonstrances in silence.
Lesley got up in a few moments and walked quietly out of the room. But she forgot her book. It fell noiselessly on the soft fur rug, and lay there, with leaves flattened and back bent outwards. Caspar Brooke was one of the people who cannot bear to see a book treated with anything less than reverence. He picked it up, straightened the leaves, and looked casually at the title. It was "The Unexplored."
He held it for a minute, gazing before him with wide eyes as if he were troubled or perplexed. Then he shook his head, sighed, smiled, and put it down upon the nearest table. "Poor little girl!" he said. "I wonder if I frightened her at all!"
AT MRS. ROMAINE'S.
The reason why Caspar Brooke spoke somewhat sharply to Lesley was not far to seek. He had been to Mrs. Romaine's house to tea. The sequence of cause and effect can easily be conjectured.
"How charmingly your daughter sang!" Mrs. Romaine began, when she had got Mr. Brooke into his favorite corner, and given him a cup of her best China tea.
"Yes, she sang very well," said Brooke, carelessly.
"I had no idea that she could sing! Why, by the bye—did you not tell me that she said she was not musical?—declined singing lessons, and so on?"
"Yes, I think I said so. Yes, she did."
"She must be very modest!" said Mrs. Romaine, lifting her eyebrows.
"I don't know—I fancy she did not want to be indebted to me for more than she could help."
Mrs. Romaine looked pained, and kept for a few moments a pained silence.
"My poor friend!" she said at last. "This is very sad! Could she"—and Brooke knew that the pronoun referred to Lady Alice, not to Lesley—"could she not be content with abandoning you, without poisoning your daughter's mind against you?"
Caspar said nothing. He leaned forward, tea-cup in hand, and studied the carpet. It was, perhaps, hard for him to find a suitable reply.
"It is too much," Rosalind continued, with increasing energy. "You have taken not a daughter, but an enemy into your house. She sits and criticizes all you do—sends accounts to her mother, doubtless, of all your comings and goings. She looks upon you as a tyrant, and a disreputable person, too. She has been taught to hate you, and she carries out the teaching—oh, I can see it in every line of her face, every inflection of her voice: she has been taught to loathe you, my poor, misjudged friend, and she does not disguise her loathing!"
It is not quite pleasant for a man to hear that his daughter hates him, and makes no secret of the hatred. Caspar immediately concluded that Lesley had made some outspoken remarks upon the subject to Mrs. Romaine. Secretly he felt hurt and angry: outwardly he smiled.
"What would you have?" he said, lightly but bitterly. "Lady Alice has no doubt indoctrinated her daughter, as you say; all that I can expect from Lesley is civility. And I generally get that."
"Civility? Between father and daughter? When she ought to be proud of such a father—proud of all that you are, and all that you have done! She should be adoring you, slaving for you, ready to sacrifice herself at your smallest word—and see what she is! A machine, silent, useless, unwilling—from whom all that you can claim is—civility! Oh, women are capable sometimes of taking a terrible revenge!"
She threw her hands out with a gesture of despair and deprecation, which was really fine in its way; then she rose from her chair, went to the mantelpiece, and stood with her face bent upon her clasped hands. Caspar rose too, and stood on the hearthrug beside her, looking down at the pretty ruffled head, with something very like affection in his eye.
He did not quite understand this emotion of hers, but its sincerity touched as well as puzzled him. For she was sincere as far as he was concerned, and this sincerity gave her a certain amount of power, such as sincerity always gives. The ring of true feeling in her voice could not be counterfeited, and Caspar was flattered by it, as any man would have been flattered at having excited so much sympathy in the heart of a talented and beautiful woman.
He knew that Alice had been jealous of Rosalind Romaine, but, he thought, quite unreasonably so. Poor Rosalind, tied to a dry old stick of a husband, to whom she did her duty most thoroughly, was naturally glad to talk now and then to a man who knew something of Art and Life. That was simple enough, and he had been glad of her interest and sympathy, especially as these were denied to him by his wife. There was nothing for Lady Alice to be jealous about. And he had dismissed the matter impatiently from his thoughts. Alice had left him because she hated his opinions, his manner of life, his profession—not because she was jealous of Rosalind Romaine. But Rosalind knew better.
The woman's sympathy affected him so far, however, that, after standing silent for a minute or two, he laid his hand softly upon her arm. It was a foolish thing to do, but then Caspar Brooke was never a particularly wise man, in spite of his goodness of heart and fertility of brain. And Rosalind felt, by the thrill that ran through her at his touch, that she had gained more from him than she had ever gained before. What would he say next?
Well, he did not say very much. "Your sympathy, Rosalind," he said, "is very pleasant—very dear to me. But you must not give me too much of it. Sympathy is enervating, as other men have found before me!"
"May I not offer you mine?" she said, plaintively. "It is so hard to be silent! If only I could make Lesley understand what you are—how noble—how good——"
Caspar laughed, and took away his hand. "Don't talk to her about me; it would do no good," he said.
He stood in the firelight, looking so massive, so stern, so resolved, that Mrs. Romaine lost herself for a moment in admiration of his great frame and leonine head. And as she paused he spoke again.
"I have not lately observed much hostility to myself in Lesley's demeanor," he said. "At first, of course—but lately—well, I have been more struck by a sort of languor, a want of interest and comprehension, than anything else. No doubt she feels that she is in a new world——"
"Ah yes, a world of intellect and activity to which she has not been accustomed," said Mrs. Romaine, briskly. Since Caspar had removed his hand she had been standing erect, watchfully observant of him. It was by his moods that she intended to regulate her own. "I suppose she has been accustomed to nothing but softness and self-indulgence; and she does not understand this larger life to which she now has access."
"Poor child!" said Mr. Brooke.
But this was not at all the remark that Mrs. Romaine wanted him to make. She tried to beat back the tide of paternal affection that was evidently setting in.
"She wants rousing I am afraid. She ought not to be allowed to sink into a dreamy, listless state. It must be very trying for you to see it; you must be pained by the selfishness and waywardness from which it proceeds——"
"Do you think it does?" said Mr. Brooke, almost wistfully. "I should be sorry to think Lesley selfish. Sophy says that she is more ignorant than selfish."
"But what is ignorance save a form of selfishness?" cried Rosalind, indignantly. "She might know if she chose! She does know the common duties of humanity, the duty of every man or woman to labor for others, to gain knowledge, to make broad the borders of light! Oh, I cannot bear to hear ignorance alleged as an excuse for self-love! It is impossible that any one with Lesley's faculties should not see her duty, even if she is idle and indifferent enough to let it pass when she does see it."
Mr. Brooke sat down, regardless of the fact that Mrs. Romaine was standing, and looked at the carpet again with a sigh.
"You may be right," he said, in a pained tone; "but if so, what am I to do?"
"You must speak to her," said Rosalind, energetically. "You must tell her not to be idle and obstinate and wayward: you must show her her duty, so that she may have no excuse for neglecting it."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"That's not a man's duty, it seems to me. Woman to woman, man to man. I wish you would do it, Rosalind!"
"Oh, no; I have not a mother's right," said she, softly.
But the remark had an effect which she had not anticipated.
"That is true. It is a mother who should tell a girl her duty. Poor Lesley's mother has not done all that she might do in that respect. Our unhappy quarrel has caused her to represent me to the girl in very dark colors, I believe. But I have lately been wondering whether that might not be amended. Did you hear that man's taunt this afternoon—about the wife that had left me? I can't endure that sort of thing. Think of the harm it does. And then the child must needs go and sing 'Home, Sweet Home.' To me, whose home was broken up by her mother. I had the greatest possible difficulty in sitting through that song, Rosalind. And I said to myself that I was a great fool to put up with this state of things."
His sentences were unusually short, his tones abrupt; both covered an amount of agitation which Mrs. Romaine had not expected to see. She sat down and remained silent and motionless: she even held her breath, not well knowing what to expect. Presently he resumed, in a lower tone—
"I know that if I alter existing arrangements I shall give myself some pain and discomfort, and inflict more, perhaps, upon others; but I think this is inevitable. I am determined, if possible, to end my solitary life, and the solitary life also of a woman who is—I may say it now—dear to me." He spoke with deliberate gravity. Mrs. Romaine's pulses beat faster: the hot color began to steal into her cheeks. "I never wished to inflict pain upon her. I have always regretted the years of separation and loneliness that we have both spent. So I have resolved—perhaps that is too strong a word—I am thinking of asking her to share my home with me again."
"Again?" The word escaped Rosalind's lips before she knew that she had spoken.
"Yes, once again," said Caspar, quite unconscious of her emotion. "We did not get on very well when we lived together, but we are older now, and I think that if we made a fresh start it might be possible—I wonder if Alice would consent?"
There was a moment's pause. Then—"You think of asking Lady Alice to come back to you?" said Mrs. Romaine, in a hard, measured voice, which made Caspar look at her with some transient feeling of surprise. But he put down the change of tone to her astonishment at his proposition, and went on unmoved.
"I thought of it—yes. It would be much better for Lesley."
"Are you so devoted to Lesley that you want to sacrifice your whole life for her?" asked Rosalind, in the same hard, strained voice.
"My whole life? Well, no—but you exaggerate, Rosalind. I do not sacrifice my whole life by having my wife and daughter in my house."
"That is plausibly said. But one has to consider what sort of wife and daughter yours are, and what part of your life will have to be devoted to them."
Brooke sat and stroked his beard. He began to wish that he had not mentioned his project to Mrs. Romaine. But he could not easily tell her to hold her tongue.
"I am not going to presume," said Rosalind, "to say anything unkind—anything harsh of your wife: I know I have not the right, and I know that you would—very properly—resent it. So don't be afraid. But I only want to remind you that Lady Alice is not even where she was when, as an over-sensitive, easily-offended girl, she fled from you. She has had twelve years of life under conditions differing most entirely from yours. She has lived in the fashionable world—a world which of all others you dislike. What sympathy can there be between you? She may be perfect in her own line, but it is not your line: you are different; and you will never be happy together."
"That is a hard thing to say, Rosalind."
"It will be a harder thing for you if you try it. Believe me, Caspar"—her voice trembled as she used his Christian name, which she very seldom did—"believe me that if it would be for your happiness I would welcome the change! But when I remember the discord, the incompatibility, the want of sympathy, which used to grieve me in those old days, I cannot think——"
She stopped short, and put her handkerchief to her eyes.
"Lady Alice could not understand you—could not appreciate you," she said. "And it was hard—hard for your friends to look on and say—nothing!"
Brooke rose abruptly from his chair. "No one ever had a truer friend than I have in you," he said, huskily. "But it seems to me that Alice may have changed with the lapse of years; she may have become easier to satisfy, better able to sympathize——"
"Does she show that spirit in the way she has spoken of you to your daughter? What do you gather from Lesley as to her state of mind?" said Mrs. Romaine, keenly.
He paused. She knew very well that the question was a hard one for him to answer.
"Ah," he said, with a heavy sigh, "you know as well as I do."
Then he turned aside, and for an instant or two there was a silence.
"I suppose it would not be wise," he continued, at last. "But I wish that it could have been done. It would be better in many ways. A man and wife ought to live together. A girl ought to live with her parents. We are all in false positions. And, perhaps, if any one is to be sacrificed, it ought to be myself," he said, with a curious smile.
"You forget," said Mrs. Romaine with emotion, "that you sacrifice others in sacrificing yourself."
"Others? No, I don't think so. You allude to my sister?"
"No—not your sister."
"Sophy could go on living with us and managing the household affairs," said Brooke, who had no conception of what poor Mrs. Romaine meant; "and she is not a person who would willingly interfere with other people's views or opinions. Indeed, she carries the laisser-faire principle almost to an extreme. Sophy is no proselytizer, thank God!"
"I did not mean Sophy: I meant your friends—old friends like myself," said Rosalind, desperately. "You will cast us all off—you will forget us—forget—me!"
There was unusual passion in her voice. Then she hid her face in her hands and burst into tears. Brooke made two steps towards her, and stopped short.
"Rosalind!" he exclaimed. "You cannot think that! you cannot think that I shall ever forget old friends!"
Then he halted, and stood looking down at her, and biting his beard, which he was crushing up to his lips with one hand, after his fashion when he was embarrassed or perplexed. Some glimmer of the truth had begun to manifest itself to him. A hot, red flush crossed his brow.
"Rosalind," he said, in a softer but also a colder tone, "you must not take this matter so much to heart. Rest assured that I—and my wife, if she comes back, and my daughter also—will always look upon you as a very dear and valued friend."
"I am so alone in the world," she said, wiping away her tears and slightly lifting her head. "I cannot bear to think that the day will come when I——"
She paused—perhaps purposely. But Caspar was resolved to treat the subject more lightly now.
"When you are without friends? Oh, that will never be. You are too kind and sympathetic to be without as many friends as you choose to have."
"Oh, I am of a very constant disposition," he said, cheerfully. "I suppose it is for that reason that I want Alice back. You know that in spite of all our disagreements, I have always held to it that I never saw a woman half as charming, half as attractive, as Alice."
This was a speech not calculated to soothe Mrs. Romaine's wounded feelings, or to implant in her a liking for Lady Alice. For Mrs. Romaine was not very generous, and she was irritated by the thought that she had betrayed her own secret. She rose to her feet at once, with a quick and rather haughty gesture.
"You are indeed a model of constancy," she said. "Some men would resent insults, even if offered to them by wives. You are capable, it seems, of much forgetfulness and much forgiveness."
"Do you think that a fault?" asked Brooke, calmly. Her mood changed at once. She burst into a shrill little laugh.
"Oh, not at all. Most convenient—for the wife. There is one danger—you may incur the censure of more worldly men; but then you are too high-minded to care for that!"
Caspar shrugged his broad shoulders.
"I think I can take care of myself," he said, good-humoredly. "And now I must go. Pray don't distress yourself on my account. I will not do anything rash."
They stood facing each other, she with her eyes down, he looking straight into her face. Some instinct told her not to break the spell by looking up. There was a conflict going on in Caspar Brooke's mind—a conflict between pity (not love) and duty. He was a tender-hearted man, and it would have been very easy to him just then to have given her some friendly, comforting words, or even——
Yes, he acknowledged to himself, he would have liked to kiss those soft lips of hers, those downcast eyelids, slightly reddened by recent tears! And he did not think that she would resent the caress.
But how could he ask his wife to return to him if he did this thing? As he had indicated by his words, he still loved Lady Alice. He had the courage to be faithful to her, too. For Caspar Brooke was a man of strong convictions, steadfast will, and stainless honor. However great the temptation might be, he was not going to do a thing that he knew he should afterwards regret.
"Good-bye, Mrs. Romaine."
"Good-bye, Mr. Brooke."
So they took leave of each other; and Rosalind went to bed with a bad headache, while Caspar Brooke returned home to find fault with his daughter Lesley.
THE WIFE OF FRANCIS TRENT.
Far away from the eminently respectable quarter of London, adorned by the habitation of families like the Brookes, the Kenyons, and the Romaines, you may find an unsavory district in Whitechapel which is known as Truefit Row. It is a street of tall and mean-looking houses, which seem to be toppling to their fall; and the pavement is strewn with garbage which is seldom cleared away. Many of the windows of the houses are broken; many of the doors hang ajar, for the floors are let out in flats, and there is a common stair for at least five and twenty families. It is a dreary-looking place, and the dwellers therein look as dreary as their own abode.
In one of these houses Mr. Francis Trent had found a resting-place for the sole of his foot. It was not a fashionable lodging, not even a particularly clean one; but he had come down in the world, and did not very much care where he lived, so long as he had plenty to drink, and a little money in his pockets. But these commodities were not as plentiful as he wanted them to be. Therefore he passed a good deal of his time in a state of chronic brooding and discontent.
He had one room on the third storey. The woodwork of this apartment was so engrained with grime that scarcely any amount of washing would have made it look clean; but it had certainly been washed within a comparatively recent date. The wall paper, which had peeled off in certain places, had also been repaired by a careful hand; and the curtains which shaded the unbroken window were almost spotlessly clean. By several other indications it was quite plain that a woman's hand had lately been busy in the room; and compared with many other rooms in the same building, it was quite a palace of cleanliness and comfort.
But Francis Trent did not think so. He sat over his small and smouldering fire one dark November afternoon, and shivered, partly from cold and partly from disgust. He had no coals left, and no money wherewith to buy them: a few sticks and some coke and cinders were the materials out of which he was trying to make a fire, and naturally the result was not very inspiriting. The kettle, which was standing on the dull embers, showed not the slightest inclination to "sing." Francis Trent, outstretched on a basket-chair (the only comfortable article of furniture that the room contained), gave the fire an occasional stir with his foot, and bestowed upon it a deal of invective.
"It will be out directly," he said at last, sitting up and looking dismally about him; "and it's nearly five o'clock. She said she would be here at four. Ugh! how cold it is! If she doesn't come in five minutes I shall go to the Spotted Dog. There's always a fire there, thank goodness, and they'll stand me a glass of something hot, I daresay."
He rose and walked about the room by way of relieving the monotony of existence, and causing his blood to circulate a little faster. But this mode of activity did not long please him, and he threw himself back in his chair at last, and uttered an exclamation of disgust.
"Confound it! I shall go out," he said to himself.
But just at that moment a hand fumbled at the latch. He called out "Come in," an unnecessary call, because the door was half open before he spoke, and a woman entered the room, shutting the door behind her.
She was slight, trim, not very tall: she had a pale face and dark eyes, dark, glossy hair, and delicate features. If Lesley had been there, she would have recognized in this woman the ladies' maid who called herself Mary Kingston. But in this part of the world she was known as Mrs. Trent.
Francis did not give her a warm welcome, and yet his weak, worn face lighted up a little at the sight of her. "I thought you were never coming," he said, grumblingly, and his eyes fell greedily to the basket that she carried on her arm. "What have you got there?"
"Just a few little things for your tea," said Mary, depositing the basket on the table. "And, oh—what a wretched fire! Have you no coals?"
"Neither coals nor food nor drink," he answered, sullenly, "nor money in my pocket either."
The woman stood and looked at him. "You had two pounds the day before yesterday," she said.
"Billiards," he answered, laconically. But he turned away so as not to see her face.
She gave a short, sharp exclamation. "You promised to be careful!"
"The luck was against me," he said. "I thought I should win, but my hand's taken to shaking so much that I couldn't play. I don't see why you should blame me—I've precious few amusements."
She did not answer, but began to take the parcels, one by one, from her basket, and place them on the table. Her own hands shook a little as she did so. Francis turned again to watch her operations. She took out some tea, bread, butter, eggs, and bacon. There was a bottle of brandy and a bundle of cigars. Francis Trent's eyes glistened at the sight. He stole closer to his wife, and put his arm around her.
"You're a good soul, Mary. You'll forgive me, won't you? Upon my honor, I never meant to lose the money."
"I have to work hard enough for it," she said dryly.
"I know you have! It's a shame—a d——d shame! If I had my way, you should be dressed in satin, and sit all day with your hands before you, and ride in your own carriage—you know you should!"
"I don't know that I should particularly care about that kind of life," said Mary, still coldly, but with a perceptible softening of her eye and relaxation of the stiff upper lip. "I would rather live on a farm in the country, and do farm-work. It's healthier, yes, and it's happier—to my thinking."
"So it is; and that's the life we'll lead by and by, when Oliver pays us what he has promised," said Francis, eagerly. "We will have some land of our own, and get far away from the temptation of the city. Then you will see what a different fellow I'll be, Mary. You shan't have reason to complain of me then."
"Well, I hope so, Francis," she said, but not too hopefully. Perhaps she noticed that his hand and eye both strayed, as if involuntarily, towards the bottle of spirits on the table. And at that moment, the last flicker of light from the fire went out.
"Have you no candles?" she asked, abruptly.
"I'll go out and fetch them, and some coal too. Sit down quietly, and wait. I won't be long. And as I haven't a corkscrew, I'll take the bottle with me, and get it opened downstairs."
Francis dared not object, but his wife's course of action made him sulky. He did not see why she should not have left him the bottle during her absence: he could have broken its neck on the fender. But he knew very well that she could not trust him to drink only in moderation if he were left alone with the bottle; and, like a wise woman, she therefore took it with her.
She was back again in a few minutes, bringing with her fuel and lights. Francis was lying in his bed, his face turned sullenly to the wall. Mary poured a little brandy into a glass, and brought it to him to drink.
"You will feel better when you have had that," she said, "and you shall have some more in your tea if you want it. Now, I'm going to light up the fire."
So well did she perform her task that in a very short time the flames were leaping up the chimney, the shadows dancing cheerfully over the ceiling, the kettle hissing and puffing on the fire. The sight and sound drew Francis once more from his bed to the basket chair, where he sat and lazily watched his wife as she cut bread, made tea, fried bacon and eggs, with the ease and celerity of a woman to whom domestic offices are familiar. When at last the tea-table was arranged, he drew up his chair to it with a sigh of positive pleasure.
"How homelike and comfortable it looks: Why don't you always stay with me, Mary, and keep me straight?"
"You want so much keeping straight, Francis," she said, but a slight smile flickered about the comers of her lips.
It was characteristic of the pair that he allowed her to wait on him, hand and foot: he let her cut the bread, pour out the tea, carry his plate backwards and forwards, and pour the brandy into his cup, without a word of remonstrance. Only when he had been well supplied and was not likely to want anything more just then, did he say to her——
"Sit down, Mary, and get yourself a cup of tea."
Mary did not seem to resent the condescending nature of this invitation. She thanked him simply, and sat down; pouring out for herself the dregs of the tea, and eating a piece of dry bread with it. Francis had the grace to remonstrate with her on the poverty of her fare.
"It doesn't matter what I eat now," she said. "I have the best of everything where I'm living, and I don't feel hungry."
"I hope you're comfortable where you are," said Mr. Trent, politely.
"Yes, I'm very comfortable, thank you, Francis. Though," said Mrs. Trent, deliberately, "I think I should be more comfortable if I wasn't in a house where Mr. Oliver visited."
"Oliver! Do you mean my brother Oliver? Why do you call him Mr. Oliver? It is so absurd to keep up these class-distinctions."
"So I think," said Mary, "but when other people keep them up it's not much use for me to be the first to cast them over board. Your brother Oliver comes to the house where I'm living much oftener than I think he ought."
"What house is it? You never told me."
"It's Mr. Brooke's. Mr. Caspar Brooke—him as wrote 'The Unexplored.' I brought it to you to read, I remember—a good long time ago."
"Awful rot it was too!" said Francis, contemptuously. "However, I suppose it paid. What are you doing there? Wasn't it his wife who ran away from him? I remember the row some years ago—before I went under. Is she dead?"
"No, she's living with her father, Lord Courtleroy. It's her daughter I've come to wait on: Miss Lesley Brooke."
"Brooke's daughter!" said Francis, thoughtfully. "I remember Brooke. Not half a bad fellow. Lent me ten pounds once, and never asked for it again. So it's Brooke's daughter you—hm—live with. Sort of companion, you are, eh, Mary?"
"Maid," said Mary, stolidly. "Ladies' maid. And Miss Lesley's the sweetest young lady I ever come across."
Francis shrugged his shoulders. "Your employment is causing you to relapse into the manner—and grammar—of your original station, Mary. May I suggest 'came' instead of 'come'?"
Mrs. Trent looked at him with a still disdain. "Suggest what you like," she said, "and think what you like of me. I never took myself to be your equal in education and all that. I may be your equal in sense and heart and morals; but of course that goes for nothing with such as you."
"Don't be savage, Mary," said Francis, in a conciliatory tone. "I only want you to improve yourself a little, when you can. You're the best woman in the world—nobody knows it better than I do—and you should not take offense at a trifle. So you like Brooke's daughter, eh?"
"Yes, I like her. But I don't like your brother Oliver."
"I know that. What is he doing at Brooke's house? Let me see—he isn't engaged to that girl? It's the actress he's going to marry, isn't it?"
He had finished his meal by this time, and was smoking one of the cigars that his wife had brought him. She, meanwhile, turned up her sleeves, and made ready to wash the cups and plates.
"Tell me all about it," said Francis, who was now in high good humor. "It sounds quite like the beginning of a romance."
"There's no romance about it that I can see," said Mrs. Trent, grimly. "Your brother is engaged to Miss Kenyon—a nice, pretty young lady: rich, too, I hear."
"Yes, indeed! As you and I are going to find out by and by, old lady," and he chuckled to himself at the thought of his prospective wealth.
"And he ought to be content with that. Instead of which, he's never out of our place; and when he's there he never seems to take his eyes off Miss Lesley. Playing the piano while she sings, reading to her, whispering, sitting into her pocket, so to speak. I can't think what he's about, nor other people neither."
"What does Miss Kenyon say?" asked Francis, with sudden sharpness. For it occurred to him that if that match were broken off he would not get his two thousand pounds on Oliver's wedding-day.
"She doesn't seem to notice much. Once or twice lately I've seen her look at them in a thoughtful, puzzled kind of way, as if something had set her thinking. She looks at Miss Lesley as if she could not quite make her out—though the two have been friends ever since Miss Lesley came home from school."
"And the girl herself?" said Francis, with considerable and increasing interest. "What does she do?"
"She looks troubled and puzzled, but I don't think she understands. She's as innocent as a baby," said Mrs. Trent, with compassion in her tone.
"I wonder what he's doing it for," soliloquized Francis. "He can't marry her."
Mary Trent paused for a moment in her housewifely occupations. "Why can he not?"
"Because——well, I may as well tell you as not I've never mentioned it—I don't know why exactly—but I'll tell you now, Mary. A few weeks ago, when we were so down on our luck, you know—just before you began to work again—I met Oliver in Russell Square, and told him what I wanted and what I thought of him. I brought him to terms, I can tell you! He had just got himself engaged to Miss Kenyon; and she has twenty thousand pounds besides her profession; and he promised me two thousand down on his wedding-day. What do you say to that? And within six months, too! And if he doesn't keep his word, I shall not hold my tongue about the one or two little secrets of his that I possess—do you see?"
"Perhaps," said Mrs. Trent, slowly, "he thinks he could manage to pay you the money even if he married Miss Brooke? So long as you get the two thousand, I suppose you don't mind which girl it is?"
"Not a bit," answered her husband frankly. "All I want is the money. Then we'll go off to America, old girl, and have the farm you talk about. But Brooke's daughter won't have two thousand pounds, so if he marries her instead of Miss Kenyon, he'll have to look out."
Mrs. Trent had finished her work by this time. As she stood by the table drying her hands there was a look of fixed determination on her features which Francis recognized with some uneasiness.
"What do you think about it? What are you going to do?" he asked, almost timidly.
"I am not going to see Miss Lesley badly treated, at any rate."
"How can you prevent it?"
"I don't know, but I shall prevent it, please God, if necessary. Your brother Oliver is engaged to one girl, and making love to another, that's the plain English of it; and sooner than see him break Miss Lesley's heart, I'd up and tell everybody what I know of him, and get him turned out of the house."
"And spoil my game?" cried Francis, rising to his feet. His faced had turned white with anger, and his eyes were aflame. She looked at him consideringly, as if she were measuring his strength against her own.
"Well—no," she said at length, "I won't spoil your game if I can help it—and I think I can get my own way without doing that. I want you to win your game, Francis. For you know"—with a weary smile—"that if you win, I win too."
Her husband's face relaxed. "You're not a bad sort, Polly: I always said so," he remarked. "Come and give me a kiss. You wouldn't do anything rash, would you? Choke Oliver off at Brooke's as much as you like; but don't endanger his relations with Ethel Kenyon. His marriage with her is our only chance of getting out of this accursed bog we seem to have stuck fast in."
"I'll be careful," said Mrs. Trent, drily.
Francis still eyed her with apprehension. "You won't try to stop that marriage, will you?"
"No, why should I? Miss Kenyon's nothing to me."
Francis laughed. "I didn't know where your sympathies might be carrying you," he said. "Brooke's daughter is no more to you than the other girl."
"I suppose not. But I feel different to her. You can't explain these things," said Mrs. Trent, philosophically, "but it's certain sure that you take a liking to one person and a hate to another, without knowing why. I liked Miss Lesley ever since I entered that house. She's kind, and talks to me as if I was a woman—not a machine. And I wouldn't like to see any harm happen to her."
"Oh, you may indulge your romantic fondness for Miss Brooke as long as you like, if you don't let it interfere with Oliver's marriage," said Francis, with a rather disagreeable laugh. "It's lucky that you did not go to live with Miss Kenyon instead of the fair Lesley. You might have felt tempted to tell her your little story."
"Ay, so I might," said the woman, slowly. "For she's a woman, after all. And a nice life she'll have of it with Oliver Trent. I'm not sure——"
She stopped, and a sombre light came into her deep-set eyes.
"Oh, for goodness' sake, don't get on that old grievance," said Francis, hastily, almost rudely. "Don't think about it—don't mention it to me. It's all very well, Polly, for you to take on so much about your sister; and, indeed, I'm very sorry for her, and I think that Oliver behaved abominably—I do, indeed; but, my dear girl, it's no good crying over spilt milk, and Oliver's my brother, after all——"
"And he's going to pay you two thousand pounds on his wedding-day," said Mrs. Trent, with cruel curtness. "I know all about it. And I understand. Why should I be above making my profit out of him like other people? All right, Francis: I won't spoil your little game at present. And now I must be getting back."
She took up her bonnet and shawl and began to readjust them. Francis watched her hands: he saw that they trembled, and he knew that this was an ominous sign. It sometimes betokened anger, and when she was angry he did not care to ask her to give him money. And he wanted money now.
But she was not angry in the way that he thought. For after a moment's silence her hands grew steady again, and her face recovered its usual calm.
"I've got three pounds here for you, Francis," she said. "And I hope you'll make it last as long as you can—you will, won't you? For I shan't have any more for some little time to come."
He nodded and took the sovereigns from her hand. A touch of compunction visited him as he did so.
"Keep one, Polly," he said. "I don't want them all."
"Oh, yes, you do. And I have no need of money where I am. You'll not spend it all at billiards, or on brandy, will you?"
"No, Polly, I won't. I promise you."
And he meant to keep his promise. But as matters fell out, he was blindly, madly drunk before the same night was out, and he had lost every penny that he possessed over a game at cards. And plunging recklessly across the street, in the darkness of the foggy night, he was knocked down by passing cab, and was carried insensible to the nearest hospital. Where let us leave him for a time in good and kindly hands.
"HER EYES WILL SEND ME MAD."
It was true, as Mrs. Trent had said, that Lesley's face often now wore a look of perplexity and trouble. This look had many differing causes; but amongst them, not the least was the behavior of Oliver Trent.
Oliver was betrothed to her friend, and she had so much faith in the honor and constancy of men, that it never occurred to her that he could prefer herself to Ethel, or that he should think of behaving as though Ethel were not the first person in the world to him. But as a matter of fact, he did not conduct himself to Ethel at all as a lover should have done. Assured of her love, he neglected her: he failed to appear at the Theatre in time to escort her home, he forgot his promises to visit her; he let her notes lie unanswered in his pocket. And when she pouted and remonstrated, he frowned her into silence, which was not at all the way in which her lover ought to behave.
Of course Lesley did not know this, for Ethel had not taken her into her confidence on the subject. But she knew very well where Oliver spent his time. Early and late, on small excuse or on no excuse at all, he presented himself at Mr. Brooke's house, and made himself Lesley's companion. At first Lesley did not dislike it. She supposed that Ethel must be busy with her theatrical studies, or at rehearsal, and that Oliver was in want of something to do. It was pleasant to have the companionship of some one younger and more congenial, perhaps, than her father or Miss Brooke; and she gained a great deal of interesting information from Oliver during the long hours that he spent with her in the drawing-room or library. He told her a great deal about London society, about modern literature, and the fashions of the day; and all this was as fascinating to Lesley as it was novel. He talked to her about plays and music and pictures; and he read poetry to her. Modern poetry, of course: a little Browning, and a good deal of Rossetti and Swinburne. For amorous and passionate poetry pleased him best; and he knew that it was likelier to serve his ends than verse of the more masculine and intellectual kind. Lesley rather preferred Browning and Arnold to Oliver's favorites, but she was never certain of her own taste, and was always humbly afraid that she might be making some terrible mistake in her preferences.
She certainly found Mr. Trent's aid very valuable in the matter of her singing. The best singing-mistress in London had been found for her, and she practised diligently every day; but it was delightful to find somebody who could always play her accompaniments, and was ready with discriminating praise or almost more flattering criticism. Oliver had considerable musical knowledge, and he placed it at Lesley's service. She made a much quicker and more marked advance in her singing than she could possibly have done without his assistance. And for this she was grateful.
At the same time she was uneasy. It was contrary to all her previous experience that a young man should be allowed to spend so much time with her. She did not think that her mother would approve of it. But she could not ask Lady Alice, because she had now no communication with her: a purely formal letter respecting her health and general welfare was all, she had been told, that she would be permitted to write. And sooner than write a letter of that kind Lesley had proudly resolved not to write at all. But she pined for womanly counsel and assistance in the matter.
Miss Brooke was certainly not proving herself an efficient chaperon. Aunt Sophy had never risen to a clear view of her duty in the matter. She herself had never been chaperoned in her life; but had gone about to lectures and dissecting rooms and hospitals with a fine indifference to sex. But then Doctor Sophy had never been a pretty woman; and no young man had shown a wish to spend his spare hours in her drawing-room. She had a strong belief in the wisdom and goodness of women—young and old—and declared that they could always take care of themselves when they chose. And nothing would induce her to believe that her niece, Lesley Brooke, required protection or guardianship. She would have thought it an insult to her own family to suggest such a thing.
So she treated Lesley's rather timidly worded suggestions on the subject with cheerful contempt, as the conventional notions of a convent-bred young woman who had not yet realized the strides made in the progress of mankind—and especially of womankind. And Lesley soon felt quite sure that any complaint or protest of hers would be dealt with simply as a sign of weak-mindedness—a stigma which she could not endure. So she said nothing, and submitted to Oliver Trent's frequent visits with resignation.
It must be said, however, that Aunt Sophy had not the least notion of the frequency of Oliver's visits. She was a busy woman, and a somewhat absent-minded one; and Mr. Trent often contrived to call when she was out or engaged. And when she asked, as she sometimes did ask of Sarah—"Any one called to-day?"—and received the grim answer "Only Mr. Trent, as usual"—she simply laughed at Sarah's sour visage, and did not calculate the number of these visits in the week. Mr. Brooke himself grew uncomfortable about the matter, sooner than did Miss Brooke.
"Sophy," he said, one day, when he happened to find her alone in the library, sitting at the very top of the library steps, with an immense volume of German science on her knees. "Sophy, have you noticed that young Trent has taken to coming here very often of late?"
"No," said Doctor Sophy, absently, "I haven't noticed." Then she went on reading.
"My dear Sophy," said her brother, "will you do me the kindness to listen to me for a moment?"
"Why, Caspar, I am listening as hard as I can!" exclaimed Miss Brooke, with an injured air. "What do you want?"
"I wish to speak about Lesley."
"Oh, I thought it was Mr. Trent."
"Does it not strike you that he comes here to see Lesley a great deal too often?"
"Rubbish," cried Miss Brooke, pushing up her eyeglasses. "Why, he's engaged to Ethel Kenyon."
"For all that," said Mr. Brooke, and then he paused for a moment. "Did it never strike you that he was here very often?"
"No," said Aunt Sophy, stolidly. "Haven't noticed. I suppose he comes to help Lesley with her singing. Good gracious, Caspar, the girl can take care of herself."
"I dare say she can, but I don't want any trifling—or—or flirtation—to go on," said Brooke, rather sharply. "We are responsible for her, you know: we have to hand her over in good condition, mind and body, at the end of the twelve months. And if you can't look after her, I must get her a companion or something. I've been inclined to come up and play sheep-dog myself, sometimes, when I have heard them practising for an hour together just above my head."
"If they disturb you, Caspar," began Miss Brooke, with real solicitude; but her brother did not allow her to finish her sentence.
"No, no, they don't disturb me—in the way you mean. I confess I should feel more comfortable if I thought that somebody was with the two young people, to play propriety, and all that sort of thing."
"I thought you were above such conventionalism," said Miss Brooke, glaring at him through her glasses from her lofty height upon the steps.
"Not at all. Not where my daughter is concerned. Children teach their father very new and unexpected lessons, I find; and I don't look with equanimity on the prospect of Lesley's being made love to by Oliver Trent, or of her going back to her mother and telling her that she was left so much to her own devices. I am sure of one thing—that Lady Alice would not like it."
"And am I to give up all my engagements for the sake of sitting with two silly young people?" said Miss Brooke, the very hair of her head seeming to bristle with horror at the idea.
"By no means. I don't see that you need be always there; but be there sometimes; don't give occasion to the enemy," said Mr. Brooke; turning to go.
"Who is the enemy?" said Doctor Sophy—a spiteful question, as she well knew.
"The world," said Caspar Brooke, quite quietly: he did not choose to see the spitefulness.
"Oh," said Miss Brooke. "I thought you meant your wife." But she did not dare to say this until he was well out of the room, and the door firmly closed behind him.
But Miss Brooke was neither malicious nor unreasonable. On consideration she came to the conclusion that her brother was substantially right—as a matter of fact she always came to that conclusion—and prepared to carry out his views of the matter. Only she carried them out in her own way. She made a point of being present on the occasion of Mr. Trent's next two calls, and although she read a book all the time, she was virtuously conscious of the fact that her mere presence "made all the difference." But on the third occasion she wanted to go out. What was to be done? Miss Brooke's mind was fertile of resource, and she triumphantly surmounted the difficulty.
"Kingston," she said to Lesley's maid, "I am obliged to go out, and I don't like leaving Miss Lesley so much alone. You may take your work down to the library and sit there, and don't go away if visitors come in. You can just draw the curtains, you know."
"Am I to stay all the afternoon, ma'am?" Kingston inquired, with surprise.
"Yes. I'll speak to Miss Lesley about it. I think she ought to have some one at hand when I am out so much." So Kingston—alias Mary Trent—took her needlework, and seated herself by the library window, whence the half-drawn curtains between library and drawing-room afforded her a complete view of all visitors to Miss Lesley.
Oliver Trent was distinctly annoyed by this proceeding, but Lesley, although puzzled, was equally well pleased. It was an arrangement all the more displeasing to Oliver because the waiting-woman who sat so demurely in the library, within earshot of all that he chose to say, was his brother's wife. He felt sure that she had contrived it all; that she was there simply to act as a spy upon his actions. Francis wanted that money, and would not get it until he married Miss Kenyon; and was evidently afraid—from information conveyed to him by Kingston—that he was going to break off his engagement. Oliver flew into a silent rage at the thought of this combination, which he was nevertheless powerless to prevent. He went away early that afternoon, and came again next day. Kingston was there also with her work. And though he sang and played the piano as usual with Lesley, although he chatted and laughed and had tea with her as usual, he felt Kingston's presence a restraint And for the first time he asked himself, seriously, why this should be.
"Why, of course," he said to himself, "I promised Rosalind to make love to her. And I can't make love to her when that woman's there. Curse her! she spoils my plans."
He had shut himself up in the luxurious little smoking-room which Mrs. Romaine had arranged for him. She knew the value of a room in which a man feels himself at liberty to do what he likes. She never came there without especial invitation: she always said that she preferred seeing her brother in her own drawing-room—that she was not like Miss Brooke, and did not smoke cigarettes. But that was one of the little ways in which Rosalind used to emphasize the difference between herself and the women whom she did not love.
At any rate, Oliver was alone. The curtains were drawn, the lamp was lighted, a bright fire burned in the grate. He had drawn up a softly-cushioned lounging chair to the fire, and was peacefully smoking a remarkably good cigar.
But his frame of mind was anything but peaceful. He had been troubled for some days, and he did not know what troubled him. He was now beginning to find out.
"What are my plans, I wonder?" he reflected. "To make Lesley fall in love with me?—I wish I could! She is as cold as ice; as innocent as a child: and yet I think there is a tremendous capacity for passion in those dark eyes of hers, those mobile, sensitive lips! What lips to kiss! what eyes to flash back fire and feeling! what a splendid woman to win and show the world! It would be like loving a goddess—as if Diana herself had stooped from Olympus to grace Endymion!"
And then he laughed aloud.
"What a fool I am! Poetizing like a boy; and all about a girl who never can be my wife at all. That's the worst part of it. I am engaged—engaged! unutterably ridiculous word!—to marry little Ethel Kenyon, the pretty actress at the Novelty. The respectable, wealthy, well-connected actress, moreover—the product of modern civilization: the young woman of our day who aspires to purify the drama and vindicate the claims of histrionic art—what rubbish it all is! If Ethel were a ballet-dancer, or had taken to opera bouffe, she would be much more entertaining! But her enthusiasms, and her belief in herself and her mission, along with that mignonne, provoking, pretty, little face of hers, are altogether too incongruous! No, Ethel bores me, it must be confessed; and I have got to marry her—all for a paltry twenty thousand pounds! What a fool I was to propose before I had seen Brooke's daughter.
"If it weren't for Francis, I would break it off. But how else am I to pay that two thousand? And what won't he do if I fail to pay it? No, that would be ruin—unless I choke him off in some other way, and I don't see how I can do that. No, I must marry Ethel, I suppose, or go to the devil. And unless I could take bonny Lesley with me, that would not mend matters."
He threw his cigar into the fire, and stood for some minutes looking down at it, with gloom imprinted upon his brow.
"I must do something," he said at last. "It's getting too much for me: I shall have to stop going to Brooke's house. I suppose this is what people call falling in love! Well, I can honestly say I have never done it in this fashion before! I have flirted, I have made love scores of times, but I never wanted a woman for my own as I want her! And I think I had better keep out of her way—for her eyes will send me mad!"
So he soliloquized: so he resolved; but inclination was stronger than will or judgment. Day after day saw him at the Brookes' house; and day after day saw the shadows deepen on Ethel's face, and the fold of perplexity grow more distinct between Lesley's tender brows.
Kingston had been looking ill and uneasy for some days past, and one afternoon she begged leave to go out for an hour or two to see a friend. Miss Brooke let her go, and went out to a meeting with a perfectly contented mind. Even if Oliver Trent came to the house that afternoon it would not matter: it would be only "once in a way." And Lesley secretly hoped that he would not come.
But he came. A little later than usual—about four o'clock in the afternoon, when there was no light in the drawing-room but that of the ruddy blaze, and the tea-tray had not yet been brought up. When Lesley saw him she wished that she had sent down word that she was engaged, that she had a headache, or even that she was—conventionally—not at home. Anything rather than a tete-a-tete with Oliver Trent! And yet she would have been puzzled to say why.
His quick eye told him almost at once that she was alone. It told him also that she was decidedly nervous and ill-at-ease.
"We must have lights," she said. "Then you can see my new song. I had a fresh one this morning."
"Never mind the lights: never mind your song," he said, his voice vibrating strangely. "If you are like me, you love this delightful twilight."
"I don't like it," said Lesley, with decision. "I will ring for the lamps, please."
She moved a step, but by a dexterous movement he interposed himself between her and the mantelpiece, beside which hung the bell-handle.
"Shall I ring?" he asked, coolly. It seemed to him that he wanted to gain time. And yet—time for what? He had nothing to get by gaining time.
"Yes, if you please," Lesley said. She could not get past him without seeming rude. A slight tremor shook her frame; she shrank away from him, towards the open piano and leaned against it as if for support. The flickering firelight showed her that his face was very pale, the lips were tightly closed, the brows knitted above his fiercely flaming eye. He did not look like himself.
"Lesley," he said, hoarsely, and stretching forward, he put one hand upon her arm. But the touch gave the girl strength. She drew her arm away, as sharply as if a noxious animal had touched her.
"Mr. Trent, you forget yourself."
"Rather say that I remember myself—that I found myself when I found you! Lesley, I love you!"
"This is shameful—intolerable! You are pledged to my friend—you have said all this to her before," cried Lesley, in bitter wrath and indignation.
"I have said it, but I never knew the meaning of love till I knew you. Lesley, you love me in return! Let us leave the world together—you and I. Nothing can give me the happiness that your love would bring. Lesley, Lesley, my darling!"
He threw his arm round her, and tried to kiss her cold cheek, her averted, half-open lips. She would have pushed him from her if she had had the strength; but it seemed as if her strength was failing her. Suddenly, with a half-smothered oath, he let her go—so suddenly, indeed, that she almost fell against the piano near which she had been standing. For the door had opened, and the tall figure of Caspar Brooke stood on the threshold of the room.
MAURICE KENYON'S VIEWS.
Mr. Brooke advanced quite quietly into the room. Perhaps he had not seen or heard so very much. Certainly he glanced very keenly—first at Lesley, who leaned half-fainting against the piano, and then at Oliver Trent, who had slunk backwards to the rug before the fire; but he said nothing, and for a minute or two an embarrassed silence prevailed in the room. Lesley then raised herself up a little, and Oliver began to speak.
"I was just going," he said, with a nervous attempt at a laugh. "I haven't much time to-night, and was just hurrying away. I must come in another time."
Mr. Brooke took up a commanding position on the rug, put his hands in his pockets, and surveyed the room in silence. Perhaps Oliver felt the silence to be ominous, for he did not try to shake hands or to utter any commonplaces, but took his leave with a hurried "Good-afternoon" that neither father nor daughter returned. The door shut behind him: they heard the sound of his footsteps on the stairs and the closing of the hall door. Then Lesley bestirred herself with the sensation of a wounded animal that wishes to hide its hurt: she wanted to get away and seek the darkness and solitude of her room upstairs. But before she reached the door Mr. Brooke's voice arrested her.
She stopped short, and looked at him. Her heart beat so suffocatingly loud and fast that she could not speak.
"I don't trust that young man, Lesley," was what her father said quite quietly.
Then there was a pause. Lesley was still tongue-tied, and Mr. Brooke did not seem to know what to do or say. He walked away from the fire and began to finger some papers on a table, although it was quite too dark to see any of these. Inwardly he was wondering how much or how little he ought to say.
"I wish he would not come quite so often," he remarked.
"Oh, so do I!" said Lesley, with heartfelt warmth.
"Do you? Why, child, I thought you liked him!"
"I never liked him much," said Lesley, faltering.
"And yet you have allowed him to come here day after day and practise with you? The ways of women are inscrutable," said Mr. Brooke, grimly, "and I can't profess to understand them. If you did not wish him to come, there was nothing to do but to close your doors against him."
"I shall be only too glad," said Lesley, eagerly.
"Oh—now? That is unnecessary: I shall do it myself," said her father, with the same dryness of tone that always made Lesley feel as if she were withering up to nothingness.
"I don't think he is very likely to come," she said, in a very low tone. Then, with a quick impulse to clear herself, and an effort which brought the blood in a burning tide to her fair face, she went on, hurriedly—"Father, you don't think I forgot that he"—and then she almost broke down, and "Ethel" was the only word that struck distinctly upon his ear.
"You mean," said Mr. Brooke, "that you do not forget that he is going to marry Ethel Kenyon? Perhaps not; but I think that he does."
"I am not to blame for that," said Lesley, with a flash of the hot temper that occasionally leaped to light when she was talking with her father.
Brooke made no immediate answer. He took a match box from his pocket, struck a match, and began to light the wax candles on the mantelpiece—partly by way of finding something to do, partly because he thought that he should like to see his daughter's face.
It was a very downcast face just then, but it was tinged with the hot flush of mingled pride and shame with which she had spoken, and never had it looked more lovely. The father considered it for a moment, less with admiration than with curiosity: this daughter of his was an unknown quantity: he never could predicate what she would do or say. Certainly she surprised him once more when she lifted her head, and said, quickly—
"I don't think I understand your English ways. I know what we should do at the convent; but I never know whether I am right or wrong here. And I have no one to ask."
"There is your Aunt Sophy."
"It is almost impossible to ask Aunt Sophy; she never sees where the difficulty lies. I know she is kind—but she does not understand what I want."
Caspar nodded. "That is one reason why I spoke to you just now," he said, much more gently than usual. "I knew that she was a little brusque sometimes; and I suppose I am not much better. As a rule a father does not talk to his girls as I have been talking to you, I fancy. I am almost as ignorant of a father's duties to his daughter as you say you are of the habits of English bourgeois society—for I suppose that is what you mean?"
He smiled a little—the slight smile of a satire which Lesley always dreaded; and yet, she remembered, his voice had been very kind. It softened again into its gentlest and most musical tones, as he said—
"You must take us as you find us, child: we shall not do you much harm, and it will not be for long."
Lesley was emboldened by the gentle intonation to draw closer to him, and to lay an entreating hand upon his arm.
"Oh, father," she said, "if you would but let me write to mamma!"
And then she uttered a little sob, and the tears filled her eyes and ran down her cheeks. As for Caspar Brooke, he stood like a man amazed, and repeated her words almost stupidly.
"Write to mamma?" he said.
"It would do me good: it would not do any harm," said Lesley, hurriedly, brokenly, and clasping his arm with both hands to enforce her plea. "I would not tell her anything that you did not like: I should never say anything but good about you; but, oh, there are so many things that puzzle me, and that I should like to consult her about. You see, although I was not much with her, I used to write to her twice a week, and she wrote to me oftener, sometimes; and I told her everything, and she used to advise me and help me! And I miss it so much—it is that that makes me unhappy; it seems so hard never to write and never to hear from her! I feel sometimes as if I could not bear it; as if I should have to run away to her again and tell her everything! Nobody is like her—nobody—and to be a year without her is terrible!"
And Lesley put her head down on her father's arm and cried unrestrainedly, with a sort of newborn instinct that he sympathised with her, and would not repulse her confidence.
As for Caspar Brooke, his face had turned quite pale: he stood like a statue, with features rigidly set, listening to Lesley's outburst of pleading words. It took him a little time to find his voice, even when he had at last assimilated the ideas contained in her speech and regained his self-possession. It took him still longer to recover from a certain shock of surprise.
"Write to your mother!" he exclaimed. "Well, but, of course—why should you not write to your mother?"
And then Lesley raised her head and looked at him with such amazement and perplexity that her father felt absolutely annoyed.
"Who on earth put it into your head that you might not write? Am I such a tyrant—such an unfeeling monster——? Good heavens! what extraordinary idea is this! Who said that you were not to write to her?"
"My mother herself," said Lesley, drawing herself a little away from him, and still looking into his face.
"Your mother? Absurd! Why, what—what——"
He faltered, frowned, turned away to the mantelpiece, and struck his hand heavily upon it.
"I never meant that," he said. It seemed as if vexation and astonishment prevented him from saying more.
"My mother said that it was agreed—years ago—that when I came to you, we were to have no communication," said Lesley, trembling, and yet resolute to have her say. "Was not that so?"
"I remember something of the sort," he answered, reluctantly, frowning still and looking down. "I did not think at the time of what it implied. And when the time drew near for you to make the visit, the question was not raised. We corresponded through a third party—the lawyer, you know. Perhaps—at the time—I had an idea of preventing letters, but not recently. Nobody mentioned it. Why"—his anger rising, as a man's anger often does rise when he perceives himself to have been in the wrong—"your mother might at least have mentioned it if she felt any doubt!"
"I suppose," said Lesley, rather haughtily, "that my mother did not want to ask a favor of you."
He flung himself round at that. "Your mother must have given you a strange idea of me!" he said, with a mixture of anger and mortification which it humiliated him to show, even while he could not manage to hide it. "One would have said I was an ogre—a maniac. But she misjudged me all her life—it is useless to expect anything else—of course she would try to bias you!"
"I never knew that you were even alive until the day that I left the convent," said Lesley. "My mother certainly did not try to prejudice me before then: she simply kept silence."
"Silence is the worst condemnation? What had I done that I should be separated from my child so completely?" said the man, the bitterness of years displaying itself in a way as unexpected to him as to his daughter. "It is not my fault, I swear, that I have lived without a wife, without—well, well! it is not you to whom I ought to say this. We will not refer to it again. About this letter writing—I might say, as perhaps I did say at the time the arrangement was made, that surely I had a right to claim you entirely for one year at least; but I don't—I won't. If I did ever say so, Lesley, I regret the words exceedingly. Ever since you came to me, I have had no idea but that you were writing to her regularly and freely; and I never—never in my right mind—wished it otherwise."
"But mamma talked of an agreement——"
"That was years ago. I must have said something in my heat which the lawyers—the people who arranged things—interpreted wrongly. And your mother, as you say, did not care to ask me for anything. I can only say, Lesley, that I am sorry the mistake arose."
His voice was grave and cold again, almost indifferent. He stood with his elbow on the mantelpiece, his hand supporting his head, his eyes averted from the girl. A close eye might have observed that the veins of his forehead were swollen, and the pulse at his temple was beating furiously: otherwise he had mastered all signs of agitation. Lesley hesitated a moment: then came up to him, and put her slim fingers into his hand.
"Father," she said, softly, "if we have misjudged you—mamma and I—won't you forgive us?"
For answer he took her face between his two hands, bent down and kissed it tenderly.
"You don't remember sitting on my knee when you were a tiny little thing, do you?" he asked her. "You would not go to sleep at nights without a kiss from me before I went out. You were rather fond of me then, child! I wish things had turned out differently!"
He spoke sadly, and Lesley returned his kiss with a new feeling of affection of which she had not been conscious before, but which she would have found it difficult to translate into words. Before she could manage to reply, the handle of the door was turned, and father and daughter stood apart as quickly as if they had had no right to stand with arms enlaced and faces almost touching: indeed, the situation was so new to both of them that they felt something like shame and alarm as they turned to meet the expected Doctor Sophy.
But it was not Doctor Sophy. It was Sarah with the tea-tray, very resentful at not having had it rung for earlier—she having been instructed not to bring it up until Miss Lesley rang the bell. And after Sarah came Mr. Maurice Kenyon, unannounced, after his usual fashion. And on hearing his voice, Lesley slipped away between the curtains into the library, and upstairs, through the library door.
"Why, Brooke, old fellow, you're not often to be found here at this hour!" began Maurice. He looked on Caspar Brooke as a prophet and a hero in his heart; but his manner before the world was characterized by the frankest irreverence. Brooke was one of those men who are never older than their companions.
"Well, you must be neglecting your patients shamefully to be here at all. What do you want at this feminine meal?"
"I didn't come for tea," said Maurice, actually growing a little redder as he spoke. "I came to see Miss Brooke."
"Oh, she's gone to a meeting of some Medical Association or other," said Caspar, indifferently, as he sat down in Lesley's place at the dainty tea-table, and poured out a cup of tea with the manner of a man who was accustomed to serving himself. "Here, help yourself to sugar and cream."
"Thanks, I won't have any tea. I did not mean your sister: I meant Miss Lesley—I thought I saw her as I came in."
"Anything important?" said Caspar, blandly. He was certain that Lesley had gone away to cry—women always cry!—and he did not want her to be disturbed. Although he had quarrelled with his wife, he understood feminine susceptibilities better than most men.
"Oh, no. Only to ask her to sing at the Club on Sunday. It's my turn to manage the music for that day, you know. Trent is going to sing too."
"Ah," said Mr. Brooke. Then, after a pause: "I will ask her. But I don't think she will be able to sing on Sunday. It strikes me she has an engagement."
He could not say to Ethel's brother what was in his mind, and yet he was troubled by the intensity of his conviction that she was throwing herself away upon "a cad." He must take some other method in the future of giving Maurice a hint about young Trent.
Maurice thought, not untruly, that there was something odd in his tone.
"Isn't she well?" he asked, with his usual straightforwardness. "I hope there is nothing wrong."
"I did not say there was anything wrong, did I?" demanded Caspar. Then, squaring his shoulders, and sitting well back in his chair, with his hands plunged into the pockets of his old study coat, and his eyes fixed on his visitor's face, he thus acquitted himself—"Maurice, my young friend, I am and have been a most confounded ass."
"Oh?" said Maurice, interrogatively.
"I think it would relieve me—if I weren't out of practice—to swear. But I've preached against 'langwidge' so long at the club that I don't think I could get up the necessary stock of expletives."
"I'll supply you. I shouldn't have thought that there was a lack of them down in your printing offices about one or two o'clock every morning, from what I've heard. What is it, if I may ask? Anything wrong with the Football Club?"
"Football Club! My dear fellow, I have a private life, unfortunately, as contradistinguished from your everlasting clubs and printing offices."
"It is something about Miss Brooke, is it?" said Maurice, with greater interest "I was afraid there was something——"
"Oh—well, you must excuse me for mentioning it—but wasn't she—wasn't she crying as she went out of the room? And she has not been looking well for the last month or so."
"I suppose you mean that she is not particularly happy here, with her father?"
Maurice elevated his eyebrows. "Brooke, old man, what have you got into your head?" he asked, kindly. "You look put out a good bit. Does she say she wants to leave you?"
"Oh, no, no, 'tisn't that. I daresay she does, though. You know the whole story—it is no good disguising the details from you. There's been a wretched little mistake—all my fault, no doubt, but not intentionally so: the girl came here with the idea that she might not write to her mother—some nonsense about 'no communication' between them stood in the way; and it seems she has been pining to do so ever since she came."
"And she never asked you? never complained, or said anything?"
"She broke down over it to-day. I'm ashamed to look her in the face," said Brooke, vehemently. "I'm ashamed to think of what they—their opinion of me is. A domineering, flinty-hearted, unnatural parent, eh, Maurice? Ogre and tyrant and all the rest of it. As if I ever meant to put a stop to her writing to her mother! I never heard of such an unjustifiable proceeding! I never thought of such an absurd idea!"
"Then weren't you very much to blame to allow the mistake to arise?" asked Maurice, bluntly.
"Of course I was. That's the abominable and confounded part of it. Some hasty words of mine were misinterpreted, of course. I told you I had been an ass."
"Well, I hope it is set straight now?"
"As far as I can set it straight. Probably nothing will undo the effect. She'll think that I was cruel in the first instance if not in the last."
He sat staring at his boots, with a very discontented expression of countenance. But he did not get much sympathy from Mr. Kenyon.
"Well," he said, "I suppose you've yourself to blame. I've no doubt you have been very hasty, lots of times. It's my own idea that if you went into detail over a good many actions of your past life"—this was very significantly said—"you would find that you had been mistaken pretty often. We all do. And there's one mistake that I think I can point out to you."
Caspar looked at him hard for a moment from under his bushy eyebrows.
"One subject, Kenyon," he said, seriously, "I shall ask you to respect."
"All right," said Maurice. "I am only speaking of your daughter. You must allow me to say that I think you have misjudged her, ever since she has been in your house for the last three months. I did just the same, at first. You see, she came here, as far as I can make out, puzzled, ignorant of the world, deprived of her mother's help and care, thrown on the tender mercies of a father whom she did not know——"
"And whom she took to be an ogre," said Brooke, with a bitter, little laugh.
"Brought into a world that she knew nothing about, and amongst a set of people who could not understand why she looked sad and lonely, poor child!——"
"I say, Maurice, you are speaking of my daughter, remember."
"Don't be touchy, old man. I speak and I think of her with every respect. We have all misjudged and misunderstood her: she is a young girl, little more than a child, and a child astray, pining uncomplainingly for her mother, doing her best to understand the new world she was thrown into, devouring your writings and trying as hard as she could to assimilate every good and noble idea that she came across—I say that she's a saint and a heroine," said Maurice, with sudden passion and enthusiasm, "and we've forgotten that not a girl in a thousand could have come through a trying ordeal so well!"
"She hasn't come out of her ordeal at all, Maurice: the ordeal of living in the house of a brutal father, who, in her view, probably broke her mother's heart: all that has to be proceeded with for nine months longer!"
"It need not be an ordeal if she knows that you love her: if she writes to her mother and gets the sympathy and aid she needs. Upon my soul, Brooke, it seems to me that you are hard upon your daughter!"
"Do you think I need to be taught my duty by you, young man?" said Caspar. He spoke with a smile, but his tone was undoubtedly sharp. His disciple was not so submissive as he had hitherto appeared to be.
"Yes, I do," said Maurice, undismayed. "Because I appreciate her and understand her, which you don't. I was dense at first as you are, but I have learnt better now—through loving her."
"Through what, man?"
"Through loving her. It's the truth, Brooke, as I stand here. I've known it for some little time. It is only because it may seem too sudden to her and to you that I haven't spoken before, and I did not mean to do so when I came here this afternoon. But the fact remains, I love Lesley, and I want her to be my wife."
"Heavens and earth!" said Caspar. "Is the man gone mad!"
"Not a bit of it," said Maurice sturdily. "I speak the words of truth and soberness. I've thought about it for some time."
"I'm in earnest, Brooke. Do you consent?"
"My good man," said Caspar, slowly, "you forget that I am probably the last person in the world whose consent is of any value."
"You may say 'pooh' as much as you like, but the fact remains. When Lesley leaves me, say next August or September, she goes to her mother and her grandfather, who's an earl, more's the pity. They have the guardianship, you understand."
"But you have it legally still."
"Hum—no: we had a formal separation. I named the terms, certainly: I was angry at the time, and was inclined to say that if I might not bring up the child in my own way, neither should its mother. That was why we compromised by sending her to school—but it was to be a school of Lady Alice's choice. The year with me afterwards was a suggestion of mine, of course. But I can't alter what was agreed on then."
"And as to money affairs," said Caspar, ruthlessly cutting him short, "I have been put all along into the most painful and ridiculous position that a man can well be in. I offered to settle a certain income on my wife and daughter: Lady Alice and her father refused to accept any money from me. I have paid various sums into his bank for Lesley, but I have reason to believe that they have never touched a farthing of it. You see they've put me at a disadvantage all round. And what is to be done when she marries, unless she marries with their consent, I don't quite see. She won't like to offend them or seem ungrateful when they have done so much for her; and I—according to the account that they will give her—I have done nothing. So I don't suppose I shall be consulted about her marriage."
"You are her father: you must be consulted."
"Well, as a matter of form! But I expect that she is destined to marry a duke, my dear fellow; and I call it sheer folly on your part to have fallen in love with her."
"But you don't object, Brooke?"
"I only hope that the destined duke will be half as decent a chap as you are. But I can't encourage you—Lesley will have to look out for squalls if she engages herself to you."
"May I not speak to her then?" inquired Maurice ruefully. "Not at once, perhaps, you know; but if I think that I have a chance?"
"Say what you like," said Brooke, with a genial smile; for his ill-humor had vanished in spite of his apparent opposition to Maurice's suit. "I should like nothing better—for my own part; but we are both bound to consider Lesley. You know you are a shocking bad match for her. Oh, I know you are the descendant of kings and all that sort of bosh, but as a matter of fact you are only a young medico, a general practitioner, and his lordship is bound to think that I am making something for myself out of the marriage."
"You don't think he'll consent?"
"Never, my dear boy. One mesalliance was enough for him. He has got rid of me, and regained his daughter; but no doubt he intends to repair her mistake by a grand match for Lesley."
"But perhaps she would not marry the man he chose for her?"
Brooke laughed. "Can't answer for Lesley, I don't know her well enough," he said. "Have you any notion, now, that she cares for you?"
Maurice shook his head dismally. "Not in the least. I scarcely think she even likes me. But I mean to try my chance some day."
"I wish you joy," said Lesley's father, with a slight enigmatical smile. "Especially with the Earl of Courtleroy. Hallo! there's the dinner bell. We have wasted all our time talking up here: you'll stay and dine?"
"No, thanks—wish I could, but I must dine with Ethel, and go out directly afterwards."
"When is the marriage to take place?" said Caspar, directing a keen glance to the face of his friend.
"Ethel's? There is nothing settled."
"I say, Maurice, I don't like Trent. He's a slippery customer. I would look after him a bit if I were you, and put Ethel on her guard. I think I am bound to say as much as that."
"Do you think any harm of him?"
"I think harm of him—unjustly, perhaps. I am not so sure that I know of any. I only want you to keep your eyes open. Good-bye, old man."
And Caspar Brooke gave his friend's hand such a pressure that Maurice went away satisfied that Lesley's father, at any rate, and in spite of protest, was upon his side.
Miss Brooke came into dinner at the last moment, so Mr. Brooke and his daughter were saved the embarrassment of dining alone—for it could not be denied that it would have been embarrassing after the recent scene, if there had been no third person present to whom they could address remarks. Miss Brooke's mind was full of the meeting which she had attended, and she gave them a glowing account of it. Lesley spoke very little, but her face was happier than it had been for a long time, although her eyes were red. Mr. Brooke looked at her a good deal in a furtive kind of way, and with more interest than usual. She was certainly a good-looking girl. But that was not all. Caspar Brooke had passed the period of caring for good looks and nothing else. Lesley had spirit, intelligence, honesty, endurance, as well as beauty. Well, she might make a good wife for Maurice after all. For although he had declared that Kenyon was "a shocking bad match," he was inclined to think in his own heart that Kenyon was too good for his daughter Lesley.
However, he had a soft corner in his big heart for the little girl who used to sit on his knee and refuse to go to sleep without his good-night kiss, and he was pleased when she came up to him before he went out that evening, and timidly put her face up to be kissed, as if she had still been the child he loved. She had never done that before; and he took it more as a sign of gratitude for permission to write to Lady Alice than actual affection for himself.
"Are you writing your letter?" he said, touching her cheek half playfully, half caressingly.
"Yes," said Lesley, looking down. "Is there—have you—no message?"
"Why should I have a message? Your mother and I correspond through our lawyer, my dear. But—well, yes, if you like to say that I am sorry for this mistake of the last few months, you may do so. I have no doubt that she has missed your letters, and I should like her to understand that the correspondence was not discontinued at my desire. I regret the mistake."
He said it formally and gravely, and in a particularly icy tone of voice; but Lesley was for the moment satisfied. She went back to her writing-desk and took up her pen. She had already written a couple of sheets, but in them her father's name had scarcely been mentioned. Now, however, she wrote:—
"You may be wondering, dearest mamma, why I am writing to you in this way, because you told me that I must not write, and I have put off my explanation until almost the end. I could not bear to be without your letters any longer, and to-day I said so to my father. I could not help telling him, because I was so miserable. And he wishes me to tell you that it was all a mistake, and he is very sorry; he never meant to put a stop to our writing to each other, and he is very, very sorry that we thought so." Lesley's version was not so dignified as her father had intended it to be. "He was terribly distressed when he found out that I was not writing to you; and called himself all sorts of names—a tyrant and an ogre, and asked what we must have thought of him! He was really very much grieved about it, and never meant us to leave off writing. So now I shall write as often as I please, and you, dearest mamma, will write to me too.
"There is one thing I must say, darling mother, and you will not be angry with me for saying it, will you? I think father must be different now from what he was in the old days; or else—perhaps there may have been a mistake about him, such as there has been about the letters! For he is so clever and gentle and kind—a little sarcastic now and then, but always good! The poor people at the Club (which I told you about in the last sheet) just adore him; and they say that he has saved many of them from worse than death. And you never told me about his book, dear mamma—'The Unexplored.' It is such a beautiful book—surely you think so, although you think ill of the writer? Of course you have read it? I have read it four times, I think; and I want to ask him about some parts of it, but I have never dared—I don't think he even knows that I have read it. It has gone through more than twelve editions, and has been translated into French and German, so you must have seen it. And Mr. Kenyon says it sells by thousands in America.
"It was Mr. Kenyon who first told me about it, and made me understand how blind I was at first to my father's really great qualities. I know he is not like grandpapa—he does sometimes seem a little rough when compared to grandpapa; but then you always said I must not expect every man I met in the world to have grandpapa's courtly manners. And it must have been very lonely for you if he went out at such funny hours as he does now, and did not breakfast or lunch with you! But I am told that all 'journalists keep these hours,' and that it is very provincial of me not to know it! It is a very different house, and different life, from any that I ever saw before; but I am getting accustomed to it now, especially since Mr. Kenyon has talked to me.
"Dearest mother, don't think that I love you one whit the less because I am away from you, and am learning to love other people a little too. Nobody could be to me what you are, my own dear mother.—Your child,
So Lesley's girlish, emotional, indiscreet letter went upon its way to Lady Alice, who was just then in Eaton Square, and Lesley never dreamt of the tears that it brought to her mother's eyes.
The letter was a shock to Lady Alice in more ways than one. First, it showed her that on one point at least she had been mistaken—and it was a point that had long been a very sore one to her. Caspar had not meant the correspondence between mother and daughter to cease—so he said now; but she was certain that he had spoken very harshly about it when the arrangement was first made. He had even affected to doubt whether she had heart enough to care whether she heard from her child or not. Well, possibly he had altered his views since those days. Lesley said that he must be different! Poor Lesley! thought Lady Alice, how very little she knew! She seemed to have been as much fascinated by her father as Lady Alice had been, in days long past, by Caspar Brooke as a lover; but Lady Alice reflected that she had never thought of Caspar as good or gentle or "great" in any way. She thought of him chiefly in his relation to herself, and in that relation he had not been satisfactory. Yes, she remembered well enough the sarcastic remarks, the odd hours, the discomfort of her solitary meals. Lesley could see all these points, and yet discover good in the man, and not be disgusted? Lady Alice could not understand her daughter's impartiality.
Of course—it had occurred to her once or twice—that, being human, she might have been mistaken. She could have got over the dreariness and discomfort of Caspar's home, if Caspar had but loved her. Suppose—it was just a remote possibility—Caspar had loved her all the time!
"The child has infected me with her romantic ideas," said Lady Alice, at last, with a faint, sad smile. "Let me see—what does she say about her friends? The Kenyons—Ethel Kenyon—Mr. Trent—the clergyman of the parish—Mr. Kenyon—Mr. Kenyon I wonder who the Mr. Kenyon is of whom she speaks so highly. Surely not a clergyman too? Poor Caspar disliked clergymen so much. I wonder if Mrs. Romaine is still living in the neighborhood. But no, I remember: she went out to Calcutta and then to some German baths with her husband. What became of her, I wonder! If she were friendly with Caspar still, Lesley would be sure to mention her to me!"
And she read the letter through once more. But Lesley had not said a word about Mrs. Romaine: her heart had been too hot and angry with the remembrance of what Mrs. Romaine's brother had done, to lead her to say one word about the family.
Lady Alice lingered curiously over Lesley's remarks on "The Unexplored." She had not read the book herself. She had seen it and heard of it very often—so often that she thought she knew all that it contained. But for Lesley's sake she resolved to read it now. Perhaps it held strange, dangerous doctrines, against which her daughter ought to be cautioned. Of course the house did not contain a copy. But early in the day Lady Alice went to the nearest bookseller's and bought a copy. The obliging book-seller, who did not know her, remarked that "Brooke's 'Unexplored'" was always popular, and asked her whether she would like an unbound copy, or one bound in neat great cloth. Lady Alice took the latter: she had a distaste for paper-covered books.
She read "The Unexplored" in her own room that morning, but of course she was not struck by it exactly as Lesley had been. The facts which had horrified Lesley were no novelties to her. She was, in truth, slightly angry that her innocent Lesley should have so much of the great city's misery and shame laid bare to her. She acknowledged the truth of the portraiture, the beauty of the descriptions, the eloquence of the author's appeals to the higher classes; but she acknowledged it with resentment. Why had Caspar written a book of this sort? a book that taunted the higher classes with their birth, and reproached the wealthy with their riches? It was rather a disgrace than otherwise, in Lady Alice's aristocratic eyes, to be connected in any way with the writer of "The Unexplored."
Nevertheless, the book stirred in her the desire to vindicate the worth of her order and of her sex; and the next day, after having despatched a long and tender letter to Lesley (with a formal message of thanks to her husband), she went out to call on a lady, who was noted in her circle as a great philanthropist, and mentioned to her in a timid way that she wished she could be of any use amongst the poor, but she really did not see what she could do.
Her friend, Mrs. Bexley, was nothing if not practical.
"But, my dearest Lady Alice, you can be of every use in the world," she said. "I am going to drive to the East End to-morrow morning, to distribute presents at the London Hospital—it is getting so close to Christmas, you know, that we really must not put it off any longer. I generally go once a week to visit the children and some of the other patients. Won't you come with me?"
"I am afraid I should be of very little use," said Lady Alice.
"But we shall not want you to do anything—only to say a kind word to the patients now and then, and give them things."
"I think I could do that," said Lesley's mother, softly.
She went back to her father's house quite cheered by the unexpected prospect of something to do—something which should take her out of the routine of ordinary work—something which should bring her closer (though she did not say it to herself) to the aims and objects of Lesley and Caspar Brooke.
The visit was a great success. Lady Alice, with her tall, graceful figure, her winning face, her becoming dress, was a pleasant sight for the weary eyes of the women and children in the accident wards. Mrs. Bexley was wise enough not to take her near any very painful sights. Lady Alice talked to some of the little children and gave them toys: she made friends, rather shyly, with some of the women, and promised to come and see them again. Mrs. Bexley was well known in the hospital, and was allowed to stay an unusually long time. So it happened that one of the doctors, coming rather hurriedly into one of the wards, paused at the sight of a lady bending over one of the children's beds, and looked so surprised that one of the nurses hastened to explain that the stranger came with old Mrs. Bexley and was going away again directly.