The doctor nodded, and went straight up to the child's bed. Lady Alice, raising herself after careful arrangement of some wooden animals on the sick child's table, came face to face with a very handsome man of about thirty, who seemed to be regarding her with especial interest. He moved away with a slight bow when she looked back at him, but he did not go far. He paused to chat with another little patient, and Lady Alice noticed that all the small faces brightened at the sight of him, and that two or three children called him imperiously to their bedsides. Something about him vaguely interested her—perhaps it was only his pleasant look, perhaps the affection with which he was regarded, perhaps the expression which his face had worn when he looked at her. She remembered him so well that she was able when she paid a second visit to the hospital to describe him to one of the Sisters, and ask his name.
"Kenyon," she repeated, when it was told to her. "I suppose it is not an uncommon name?"
Lesley had spoken of a Mr. Kenyon. It was not this Mr. Kenyon, of course!
But it was "this Mr. Kenyon;" and thus Maurice met the mother of the girl he loved in the ward of a London hospital, whither Lady Alice had been urged by that impulse towards "The Unexplored," of which her husband was the author. And in another ward of the same hospital lay a patient whose destiny was to influence the fates of both—an insensible man, whose name was unknown to the nurses, but whom Oliver would have recognized as his brother, Francis Trent.
The house in which the Kenyons resided was built on the same pattern as Mr. Brooke's, but it was in some respects very unlike Mr. Brooke's place of residence. Maurice's consulting-room and dining-room corresponded, perhaps, to Mr. Brooke's dining-room and study: it was upstairs where the difference showed itself. Ethel's drawing-room was like herself—a little whimsical, a little bizarre; pretty, withal, and original, and somewhat unlike anything one had ever seen before. She was fond of novelties, and introduced the latest fashions in draperies or china or screens as soon as she could get hold of them; and the result was occasionally incongruous, though always bright and cheerful-looking.
It was the incongruity of the ornaments and arrangements which chiefly struck the mind of Oliver Trent as he entered Ethel's drawing-room one afternoon, and stumbled over a footstool placed where no footstool ought to be.
"I wish," he began, somewhat irritably, as he touched Ethel's forehead with his lips, "that you would not make your room quite so much like a fancy fair, Ethel."
Ethel raised her eyebrows. "Why, Oliver, only the other day you said how pretty it was!"
"Pretty! I hate the word. As if 'prettiness' could be taken as a test of what was best in art."
"My room isn't 'art,'" pouted Ethel; "it's me."
The sentence might be ungrammatical, but it was strictly true. The room represented Ethel's character exactly. It was odd, quaint, striking, and attractive. But Oliver was not in the mood to see its attractiveness.
"It is certainly a medley," he replied, with some incisiveness. "How many styles do you think are represented in the place? Japanese, Egyptian, Renaissance, Louis Quinze, Queen Anne, Early Georgian——"
"Oh, no! please don't go on!" cried Ethel, with mock earnestness. "Not Early Georgian, please! Anything but that!"
"It is all incongruous and out of taste," said Oliver, in an ill-tempered tone, and then he threw himself into a deep, comfortable lounging chair, and closed his eyes as if the sight of the room were too much for his nerves.
Ethel remained standing: her pretty mignonne figure was motionless; her bright face was thoughtful and overcast.
"Do you mean," she said, quietly, "that I am incongruous and out of taste too!"
There was a new note in her voice. Usually it was light and bird-like: now there was something a little more weighty, a little more serious, than had been heard in it before. Oliver noted the change, and moved his head restlessly; he did not want to quarrel with Ethel, but he was ill at ease in her presence, and therefore apt to be exceedingly irritable with her.
"You wrest my words, of course," he answered. "You always do. There's no arguing with—with—a woman."
"With me you were about to say. Don't spare me. What other accusations have you to bring!"
"It is not nonsense, Oliver." Her voice trembled. "I have felt for some time that all was not right between us. I can't shut my eyes. I must believe what I see, and what I feel. We must understand one another."
Oliver's eyes were wide open now. He began to see that he had gone a little too far. It would not do to snub Ethel too much—at least before the marriage. Afterwards—he said to himself—he should treat her as he felt inclined. But now——
"You are mistaken, Ethel," he said, in a tone of half appeased vexation which he thought very effective. "What on earth should there be wrong between us! Open your eyes and your ears as much as you like, my dear child, but don't be misled by what you feel. The wind is in the East,—remember. You feel a chill, most probably, and you put your malaise down to me."
His tone grew more affectionate as he spoke. He wanted her to believe that he had been suffering from a mere passing cloud of ill-temper, and that he was already ashamed of it.
"I feel the effects of the weather myself," he said. "I have been horribly depressed all day, and I have a headache. Perhaps that is why the brightness of your room seemed to hurt my eyes. You know that I always like it when I am well."
He looked at her keenly, hoping that this reference to possible-ill-health might bring the girl to his feet, as it had often done before in the case of other women; but it did not seem to produce the least effect. She stood silent, immobile, with her eyes still fixed upon the floor. Silence and stillness were so unusual in one of Ethel's vivacious temperament, that Oliver began to feel alarmed.
"Ethel," he said, advancing to her, and laying his hand upon hers, "what is wrong? What have I done?"
She shook her head hastily, but made no other reply.
"Look at me," he said, softly.
And then she lifted her eyes. But they wore a questioning and not a trustful look.
"Ethel, dearest, what have I done to offend you? It cannot be my silly comment on your room that makes you look so grave? Believe me, dear, it came only from my headache and my bad temper. I am deeply sorry to have hurt you. Only speak—scold me if you like—but do not keep me in this suspense."
He was skilled in the art of pleading. His pale face, usually so expressionless, took on the look of almost passionate entreaty.
Ethel was an actress by profession—perhaps a little by nature also—but she was too essentially simple-hearted to suspect her friends of acting parts in private life, and indeed trusted them rather more implicitly than most people trust their friends. It had been a grief to her to doubt Oliver's faith for a moment, and her eyes filled with tears, while they flashed also with indignation, as she replied,
"You must know what I mean. I have felt it for a very long time. You do not care for me as you used to do."
"Upon my soul, I do!" cried Oliver, very sincerely.
"Then you never cared for me very much."
This was getting serious. Oliver had no mind to break off his engagement. He reserved the right to snub Ethel without giving offence. If this was an impracticable course to pursue, it was evident that he must abandon it and eat humble pie. Anything rather than part from her just now. He had lost the woman he loved: it would not do to lose also his only chance of winning a competency for himself and immunity from fear of want in the future.
"Ethel," he said, softly, "you grieve me very much. I acknowledge my faults of temper—I did not think you mistook then for a want of love."
"I do not think I do. It is something more real, more tangible than that."
"What is it, dear?"
She paused, then looked keenly into his face. "It seems to me, Oliver, that Lesley Brooke has won your heart away from me."
He threw back his head and laughed—a singularly jarring and unpleasant laugh, as it seemed to her. "What will you imagine next?" he said.
"Imagine? Have I imagined it? Isn't it true that you have been at her house almost every day for the last three or four weeks? Do you come here as often? Is it not Lesley that attracts you?—not me!"
"Oh, so you are jealous!"
"Yes, I suppose I am. It is only natural, I think."
They faced each other for a moment, defiantly, almost fiercely. There was a proud light in Ethel's eyes, a compression of the lips which told that she was not to be trifled with. Oliver stood pale, with frowning brows, and eyes that seemed to question both the reality of her feeling and the answer that he should make to her demand. It was by a great effort of self-control that at last he answered her with calmness—
"I assure you, Ethel, you are utterly mistaken. What have I in common with a girl like Miss Brooke—one of the most curiously ignorant and wrong-headed persons I ever came across? Can you think for a moment that I should compare her with you?—you, beautiful and gifted and cultured above most women?"
"That is nothing to the point," said Ethel, quickly. "Men don't love women because of their gifts and their culture."
"No," he rejoined, "but because of some subtle likeness or attractiveness which draws one to the other. I find it in you, without knowing why. You—I hoped—found it——"
His voice became troubled; he dropped his eyes. Ethel trembled—she loved him, poor girl, and she thought that he suffered as she had suffered, and she was sorry for him. But her outraged pride would not let her make any advance as yet.
"I may be a fatuous fool," said Oliver, after an agitated pause, "but I thought you loved me."
"I do love you," cried Ethel, passionately.
"And yet you suspect me of being false to you."
"Not suspect—not suspect"—she said, incoherently, and then, was suddenly folded in Oliver's arms, and felt that the time for reproach or inquiry had gone by.
She was not sorry that matters had ended in this way, although she felt it to be illogical. With his kisses upon her mouth, with the pressure of his arm enfolding her, it was almost impossible for her to maintain, in his presence, a doubt of him. It was when he had gone that all the facts which he had ignored came back to her with torturing insistence, and that she blamed herself for not having refused to be reconciled to him until she had ascertained the truth or untruth of a report that had reached her ears.
With a truer lover she might have gone unsatisfied to her dying day. A faithful-hearted man might never have perceived where she was hurt; he would not have been astute enough to discover that he might heal the wound by a few timely words of explanation. Oliver, keenly alive to his own interests, reopened the subject a few days later of his own accord.
They had completely made up their quarrel—to all outward appearance, at any rate—and were sitting together one afternoon in Ethel's obnoxious drawing-room. They had been laughing together at some funny story of Ethel's associates at the theatre, and to the laughter had succeeded a silence, during which Oliver possessed himself of the girl's hand and carried it gently to his lips.
"Ethel," he said, softly, "what made you so angry with me the other day?"
"Your bad behavior, I suppose!" she said, trying to treat the matter in her usual lively fashion.
"But what was my misbehavior? Did it consist in going so often to the Brookes'?"
"Oh, what does it matter?" exclaimed Ethel, petulantly. "Didn't we agree to forgive and forget? If we didn't, we ought to have done. I don't want to look back."
"But you are doing an injustice to me. Ethel, I dare not say to you that I insist on knowing what it was. But I very strongly wish that you would tell me—so that I might at least try to set your mind at rest."
"Well," said Ethel, quickly, "if you must know—it was only a bit of gossip—servants gossip. I know all that can be said respecting the foolishness of listening to gossip from such a source—but I can't help it. One of the maids at Mr. Brooke's——"
"Sarah?" asked Oliver, with interest. "Sarah never liked me."
"Who, it was not Sarah.—it was that maid of Lesley's—Kingston her name is, I believe—who said to one of our servants one day that you went there a great deal oftener than she would like, if she were in my place. There! I have made a full confession. It was a petty spiteful bit of gossip, of course, and I ought not to have listened to it—but then it seemed so natural—and I thought it might be true!"
"What seemed natural?" said Oliver, who, against his will, was looking very black.
"Why, that you should like Lesley; she is the sweetest girl I ever came across."
In his heart Oliver echoed that opinion, but he felt morally bound to deny it.
"You say so only because you have never seen yourself! My darling, how could you accuse me merely on servants' evidence!"
"Is there no truth in it, Oliver?"
"None in the least."
"But you do go there very often!"
Then Oliver achieved a masterpiece of diplomacy. "My dear Ethel," he said, "I will go there no more until you go with me. I will not set foot in the house again."
He knew very well that Mr. Brooke would not admit him. It was clever to make a virtue of necessity.
"No, no, please don't do that! Go as often as you please."
"It was simply out of kindness to a lonely girl. I played her accompaniments for her sometimes, and listened to her singing. But as you dislike it, Ethel, I promise you that I will go there no more."
"Oh, Oliver, forgive me! I don't doubt you a bit. Do go to see Lesley as often as you can. I should like you to do it. Go for my sake."
But Oliver was quite obdurate. No, he would not go to the Brookes' again, since Ethel had once objected to his going. And on this pinnacle of austere virtue he remained, thereby reducing Ethel to a state of self-abasement, which spoke well for his chances of mastery in the married life which loomed before him.
LADY ALICE'S PHILANTHROPY.
Meanwhile, Lady Alice Brooke, in pursuit of her new fancy for philanthropy and the sick poor, had wandered somewhat aimlessly into other wards beside those set apart for women and children—at first the object of her search. She strayed—I use the word "strayed" designedly, for she certainly did not do it of set purpose—with one of the nurses into accident wards, into the men's wards, where her flowers and fruits and gentle words made her welcome, and where the bearded masculine faces, worn sometimes by pain and privation of long standing, appealed to her sensibilities in a new and not altogether unpleasant way.
For Lady Alice was a very feminine creature, and liked, as most women do like, to be admired and adored. She had confessed as much when she told the story of her life to her daughter Lesley. And she had something less than her woman's due in this respect. Caspar Brooke had very honestly loved and admired her, but in a protective and slightly "superior" way. The earl, her father, belonged to that conservative portion of the aristocratic class which treats its womankind with distinguished civility and profoundest contempt. In her father's home Lady Alice felt herself of no account. As years increased upon her, the charm of her graceful manner was marred by advancing self-distrust. In losing (as she, at least, thought) her physical attractions, she lost all that entitled her to consideration amongst the men and women with whom she lived. She had no fixed position, no private fortune, nothing that would avail her in the least when her father died; and the gentle coldness of her manner did not encourage women to intimacy, or invite men to pay her attentions that she would scorn. In any other situation, her natural gifts and virtues would have fairer play. As a spinster, she would still have had lovers; as a widow, suitors by the dozen; as a happily married woman she would have been courted, complimented, flattered, by all the world. But, as a woman merely separated from a husband with whom she had in the first instance eloped, living on sufferance, as it were, in her father's house, "neither maid, wife, nor widow," she was in a situation which became more irksome and more untenable every year.
To a woman conscious of such a jar in her private life, it was really a new and delightful experience to find herself in a place where she could be of some real use, where she was admired and respected and flattered by that unconscious flattery given us sometimes by the preference of the sick and miserable. The men in one of the accident wards were greatly taken with Lady Alice. There was her title, to begin with; there were her gracious accents, her graceful figure, her gentle, beautiful face. The men liked to see her come in, liked to hear her talk—although she was decidedly slow, and a little irresponsive in conversation. It soon leaked out, moreover, that material benefits followed in the wake of her visits. One man, who left the hospital, returned one day to inform his mates that, "the lady" had found work for him on her father's estate, and that he considered himself a "made man for life." The attentions of such men who were not too ill to be influenced by such matters were henceforth concentrated upon Lady Alice; and she, being after all a simple creature, believed their devotion to be genuine, and rejoiced in it.
With one patient, however, she did not for some time establish any friendly relations. He had been run over, while drunk, the nurses told her, and very seriously hurt. He lay so long in a semi-comatose condition that fears were entertained for his reason, and when the mist gradually cleared away from his brain, he was in too confused a state of mind for conversation to be possible.
Lady Alice went to look at him from time to time, and spoke to the nurse about him; but weeks elapsed before he seemed conscious of the presence of any visitor. The nursing sister told the visitor at last that the man had spoken and replied to certain questions: that he had seemed uncertain about his own name, and could not give any coherent account of himself. Later on, it transpired that the man had allowed his name to be entered as "John Smith."
"Not his own name, I'm certain," the nurse said, decidedly.
"Why not?" Lady Alice asked, with curiosity.
"It's too common by half for his face and voice," the Sister answered, shrewdly. "If you look at him or speak to him, you'll find that that man's a gentleman."
"A gentleman—picked up drunk in the street?"
"A gentleman by birth or former position, I mean," said the Sister, rather dryly. "No doubt he has come down in the world; but he has been, at any rate, what people call an educated man."
Lady Alice's prejudices were, stirred in favor of the broken-down drunkard by this characterization; and she made his acquaintance as soon as he was able to talk. Her impression coincided with that of the Sister. The man had once been a gentleman—a cultivated, well-bred man, from whom refinement had never quite departed. Over and above this fact there was something about him which utterly puzzled Lady Alice. His face recalled to her some one whom she had known, and she could not imagine who that some one might be. The features, the contour the face, the expression, were strangely familiar to her. For, by the refining forces which sickness often applies, the man's face had lost all trace of former coarseness or commonness: it had become something like what it had been in the days of his first youth. And the likeness which puzzled Lady Alice was a very strong resemblance to the patient's sister, Rosalind Romaine.
Lady Alice was attracted by him, visited his bedside very often, and tried to win his confidence. But "John Smith" had, at present, no confidence to give. Questions confused and bewildered him. His brain was in a very excitable condition, the doctor said, and he was not to be tormented with useless queries. By the time his other injuries had been cured, he might perhaps recover the full use of his mind, and could then give an account of himself if he liked. Till then he was to be let alone; and so Lady Alice contented herself with bringing him such gifts as the authorities allowed, and with talking or reading to him a little from time to time in soothing and friendly tones. It was to be noted that before long his eyes followed her with interest as she crossed the ward; that his brow cleared when she spoke to him, and that all her movements were watched by him with great intentness. In spite of this she could not get him to reply with anything but curtness to her inquiries after his health and general welfare; and it was quite a surprise to her when one day, on her visit to him, he accosted her of his own accord.
"Won't you sit down?" he said suddenly.
"Thank you. Yes, I should like to sit and read to you a little if you are able——"
"It isn't for that," he said, interrupting her unceremoniously; "it's because I have something special to say to you. If you'll stoop down a moment I'll say it—I don't want any one else to hear."
In great surprise, Lady Alice bowed her head. "I want to tell you," he said gruffly, "that you're wasting your time and your money. These men in the ward are not really grateful to you one bit. They speculate before you come as to how much you are likely to give them, and when you are gone they compare notes and grumble if you have not given them enough."
"I do not wish to hear this," said Lady Alice, with dignity.
"I know you do not; but I think it is only right to tell you. Try them: give them nothing for a visit or two, and see whether they won't sulk and look gloomy, although you may talk to them as kindly as ever——"
"And if they did," said Lady Alice, with a sudden flash of energy and insight which amazed herself, "who could blame them, considering the pain they have suffered, and the brutal lives they lead? Why should they listen to my poor words, if I go to them without a gift in my hand?"
She spoke as she would have spoken to an equal—an unconscious tribute to the refinement which stamped this man as of a higher calibre than his fellows.
"It is a convenient doctrine for them," said John Smith, and buried his head in the bedclothes as if he wanted to hear nothing more.
For Lady Alice's next two visits he would not look up, or respond when she came near him, which she never failed to do; but on the third occasion he lifted his head.
"Well, madam," he said, "you have after all been trying my plan, I hear. Do you find that it works well?"
Lady Alice hesitated. The averted faces and puzzled, downcast—sometimes sullen—looks of the sick men and boys to whom she had of late given nothing but kind words, had grieved her sorely.
"I suppose it proves the truth, in part, of what you say," she answered gently, "but on the other hand I find that my gifts have been judged excessive and unwise. It seems that I have a great deal to learn in the art of giving: it does not come by nature, as some suppose. I have consulted the doctors and nurses—and I have to thank you for giving me a warning."
A look of surprise passed across the man's face.
"You're better than some of them," he said, curtly. "I thought you'd never look at me again. I don't know why I should have interfered. But I did not like to see you cheated and laughed at."
Lady Alice colored, but she felt no resentment against the man, although he had shown her that she had made herself ridiculous when she was bent on playing Lady Bountiful, and posing as an angel of light. She said after a moment's pause—
"I believe you meant kindly. Is there nothing that I can do for you?"
He shook his head. "I don't think so—I can't remember very well. The doctors say I shall remember by and by. Then I shall know."
"And if I can, you will let me help you?"
"I suppose I ought to be only too glad," said the patient, with a sort of sullenness, which Lady Alice felt that she could but dimly understand. "I suppose I'm the sort of man to be helped; and yet I can't help fancying there's a—Past—a Past behind me—a life in which I once was proud of my independence. But it strikes me that this was very long ago."
He drew the bedclothes over his head again, and made no further reply. Lady Alice came to see him after this conversation as often as the rules of the hospital would allow her; and, although she seemed to get little response from him, the fact really remained that she was establishing an ascendancy over the man such as no nurse or doctor in the place had yet maintained. Others noticed it beside herself; but she, disheartened a little by her disappointment in some of the other patients, did not recognize the reality of his attachment to her. And an event occurred about the time which put John Smith and hospital matters out of her head for a considerable time to come.
Old Lord Courtleroy died suddenly. He was an old man, but so hale and hearty that his death had not been expected in the least; but he was found dead in his bed one morning, and the doctors pronounced that his complaint had been heart disease. The heir to the title and estate was a distant cousin whom Lady Alice and her father had never liked; and when he entered upon his possessions, Lady Alice knew that the time had come for her to seek a home elsewhere. She had sufficient to live upon; indeed, for a single woman, she was almost rich; but the loneliness of her position once more forced itself upon her, especially as Lesley was not by her side to cheer her gradually darkening life.
She wrote the main facts concerning Lord Courtleroy's death and the change in her circumstances in short, rather disjointed letters to Lesley, and received very tender replies; but even then she felt a vague dissatisfaction with the girl's letters. They were full of a wistfulness which she could not understand: she felt that something remote had crept into them, some aloofness for which she could not account. And as Captain Harry Duchesne happened to come across her one day, and inquired very particularly after Miss Brooke, she induced him to promise to call on Lesley when he was in London, and to report to her all that Lesley did or said. If it was a somewhat underhand proceeding, she told herself that she was justified by her anxiety as a mother.
Lord Courtleroy had left a considerable sum to Lesley, and when mother and daughter were reunited, as Lady Alice hoped that they would shortly be, there was no question as to their having means enough and to spare. Lady Alice began to dream of a dear little country house in Sussex, with an occasional season in London, or a winter at Bagneres. She was recalled from her dreams to the realities of life by a letter from her husband. Caspar Brooke wrote to ask whether, under present circumstances, she would not return to him.
Lesley's life seemed to her now much less lonely than it had been at first. The consciousness of having made friends was pleasant to her, although her affection for Ethel had been for a time overshadowed by the recollection of Oliver's unfaithfulness. But when this impression passed away, as it gradually did, after the scene that had been so painful to her, she consoled herself with the belief that Oliver's words and actions had proceeded from a temporary derangement of judgment, for which he was not altogether responsible, and that he had returned to his allegiance; therefore she might continue to be friendly with Ethel without any sensation of treachery or shame. An older woman than Lesley would not, perhaps, have argued in this way: she would have suspected the permanence of Oliver's feelings more than Lesley did. But, being only an inexperienced girl, Lesley comforted herself by the fact that Oliver now avoided her; and said that it could not be possible for her to have attracted him away from Ethel, who was so winning, so sweet, so altogether delightful.
Then, apart from the Kenyons, she began to make pleasant acquaintances amongst her father's friends. Caspar Brooke's house was a centre of interest and entertainment for a large number of intellectual men and women; and Lesley had as many opportunities for wearing her pretty evening gowns as she could have desired. There were "at homes" to which her charming presence and her beautiful voice attracted Caspar's friends in greater numbers than ever: there were dinner-parties where her interest in the new world around her made everything else interesting; and there was a constant coming and going of people who had work to do in the world, and who did it with more or less success, which made the house in Woburn Place anything but a dull abode.
The death of her grandfather distressed her less from regret for himself than from anxiety for her mother's future. Lady Alice's notes to her were very short and somewhat vaguely worded. It was, therefore, with positive joy that, one afternoon in spring, she was informed by her maid that Captain Duchesne was in the drawing-room, for she felt sure that he would be able to tell her many details that she did not know. She made haste to go down, and yet, before she went, she paused to say a word to Kingston, who had brought her the welcome news.
"I wish you would go out, Kingston; you don't look at all well, and this spring air might do you good."
It was certainly easy to see that Kingston was not well. During the past few weeks her face had become positively emaciated, her eyes were sunken, and her lips were white. She looked like a person who had recently passed through some illness or misfortune. Lesley had tried, delicately and with reserve, to question her; but Kingston had never replied to any of her inquiries. She would shut up her lips, and turn away with the look of one who could keep a secret to the grave.
"Nothing will do me good, ma'am," she answered dryly.
"Oh, Kingston, I am so sorry!"
"Go down to your visitor, ma'am, and don't mind me," said Kingston, turning her back on the girl with unusual abruptness. "It isn't much that I've got to be sorry for, after all."
"If there is anything I can do to help you, you will let me know, will you not?" said Lesley.
But Kingston's "Yes, ma'am," fell with a despairing cadence on her ear.
Kingston had been to her husband's lodgings only to find that he had disappeared. He had left some of his clothes, and the few articles of furniture that belonged to his wife, and had never said that he was going away. The accident that had made Francis Trent a patient at the hospital where Lady Alice visited was of course unknown to his landlady, as also to his wife. And as his memory did not return to him speedily, poor Mary Trent had been left to suffer all the tortures of anxiety for some weeks. At first she thought that some injury had happened to him—perhaps that he was dead: then a harder spirit took possession of her, and she made up her mind that he had finally abandoned her—had got money from Oliver and departed to America without her. She might have asked Oliver whether this were so, but she was too proud to ask. She preferred to eat out her heart in solitude. She believed herself deserted forever, and the only grain of consolation that remained to her was the hope of making herself so useful and acceptable to Lesley Brooke, that when Lesley married she would ask Mary Kingston to go with her to her new home.
Kingston had made up her mind about the man that Lesley was to marry. She had seen him come and go: she had seen him look at her dear Miss Lesley with ardently admiring eyes: she believed that he would be a true and faithful husband to her. But she knew more than Lesley was aware of yet.
Lesley went slowly down into the drawing-room. She remembered Captain Duchesne very well, and she was glad to think of seeing him again. And yet there was an indefinable shrinking—she did not know how or why. Harry Duchesne was connected with her old life—with the Paris lights, the Paris drawing-rooms, the stately old grandfather, the graceful mother—the whole assembly of things that seemed so far away. She did not understand her whole feeling, but it suddenly appeared to her as if Captain Duchesne's visit was a mistake, and she had better get it over as soon as possible.
It must be confessed that this sensation vanished as soon as she came into the actual presence of Captain Duchesne. The young man, with his grave, handsome features, his drooping, black moustache, his soldierly bearing, had an attraction for her after all. He reminded her of the mother whom she loved.
It was not very easy to get into conversation with him at first. He seemed as ill at ease as Lesley herself had been. But when she fell to questioning him about Lady Alice, his tongue became unloosed.
"She does not know exactly what to do. She talks of taking a house in London—if you would like it."
"Would mamma care to live in London?"
"Not for her own sake: for yours."
"But I—I do not think I like London so much," said Lesley, with a swift blush and some hesitation. Captain Duchesne looked at her searchingly.
"Indeed? I understood that you had become much attached to it. I am sure Lady Alice thinks so."
"I do love it—yes, but it is on account of the people who live in London," said Lesley.
"Ah, you have made friends?"
"There is my father, you know."
"Yes." And something in his tone made Lesley change the subject hurriedly. Captain Duchesne would never have been so ill-bred as to speak disparagingly of a lady's father to her face; and yet she felt that there was something disparaging in the tone.
"Have you seen the present Lord Courtleroy?" she asked.
"Yes; I have met him once or twice. He is somewhat stiff and rigid in appearance, but he is very courteous—more than courteous, Lady Alice tells me, for he is kind. He wishes to disturb her as little as possible—entreats her to stay at Courtleroy, and so on; but naturally she wishes to have a house of her own."
"Of course. But I thought that she would prefer the South of France."
"If I may say so without offence," said Captain Duchesne, smiling, "Lady Alice's tastes seem to be changing. She used to love the country and inveigh against the ugliness of town; but now she spends her time in visiting hospitals and exploring Whitechapel——"
Lesley almost sprang to her feet. "Oh, Captain Duchesne, are you in earnest?"
"Quite in earnest."
"Oh, I am so glad!"
"Why, may I ask?" said Duchesne, with real curiosity. But Lesley clasped her hands tightly together and hung her head, feeling that she could not explain to a comparative stranger how she felt that community of interests might tend to a reconciliation between the long separated father and mother. And in the rather awkward pause that followed, Miss Ethel Kenyon was announced.
Lesley was very glad to see her, and glad to see that she looked approvingly at Captain Duchesne, and launched at once into an animated conversation with him. Lesley relapsed almost into silence for a time, but a satisfied smile played upon her lips. It seemed to her that Captain Duchesne's dark eyes lighted up when he talked to Ethel as they had not done when he talked to her; that Ethel's cheeks dimpled with her most irresistible smile, and that her voice was full of pretty cadences, delighted laughter, mirth and sweetness. Lesley's nature was so thoroughly unselfish, that she could bear to be set aside for a friend's sake; and she was so ingenuous and single-minded that she put no strained interpretation on the honest admiration which she read in Harry Duchesne's eyes. It may have been partly in hopes of drawing her once more into the conversation that he turned to her presently with a laughing remark anent her love of smoky London.
"Oh, but it is not the smoke I like," Lesley answered. "It is the people."
"Especially the poor people," put in Ethel, saucily. "Now, I can't bear poor people; can you, Captain Duchesne?"
"I don't care for them much, I'm afraid."
"I like to do them good, and all that sort of thing," said Ethel. "Don't look so sober, Lesley! I like to act to them, or sing to them, or give them money; but I must say I don't like visiting them in the slums, or having to stand too close to them anywhere. I am so glad that you agree with me, Captain Duchesne!"
And not long afterwards she graciously invited him to call upon her on "her day," and promised him a stall at an approaching matinee, two pieces of especial favor, as Lesley knew.
Captain Duchesne sat on as if fascinated by the brilliant little vision that had charmed his eyes; and not until an unconscionable time had elapsed did he seem able to tear himself away. When he had gone, Ethel expressed herself approvingly of his looks and manners.
"I like those soldierly-looking men," she said. "So well set up and distinguished in appearance. Is he an old friend of yours, Lesley?"
"No, I have met him only once before. In Paris, he dined with us—with my grandfather, my mother, and myself."
"And he comes from Lady Alice now?"
"Yes, to bring me news of her."
Ethel nodded her bright little head sagaciously.
"It's very plain what Lady Alice wants, then?"
"What?" said Lesley, opening her eyes in wide amaze.
"She wants you to marry him, my dear."
"It's not nonsense: don't get so red about it, you silly girl. What a baby you are, Lesley."
"I am sure mamma never thought of anything of the kind," said Lesley, with dignity, although her cheeks were still red.
"We shall see what we shall see. Well, I won't put my oar in—isn't that kind of me? But, indeed, your Captain Duchesne looks thoroughly ripe for a flirtation, and it will be as much as I can do to keep my hands off him."
"How would Mr. Trent like that?" said Lesley, trying to carry the war into the enemy's camp.
"He would bear it with the same equanimity with which he bears the rest of my caprices," said Ethel, merrily; but a shade crossed her brow, and she allowed Lesley to lead the conversation to the subject of her trousseau.
Captain Duchesne did not seem slow to avail himself of the favor accorded to him. He presented himself at Ethel's next "at home;" and devoted himself to her with curious assiduity. Even the discovery of her engagement to Mr. Trent did not change his manner. It was not so much that he paid her actual attention, as that he paid none to anybody else. When she was not talking to him, he kept silence. He seemed always to be observing her, her face, her manner, her dress, her attitude. Yet this kind of observation was quite respectful and unobtrusive: it was merely its continuity that excited remark. Oliver noticed it at last, and professed himself jealous: in fact he was a little bit jealous, although he did not love Ethel overmuch. But he had a pride of possession in her which would not allow him to look with equanimity on the prospect of her being made love to by anybody else.
Ethel enjoyed the attentions, and enjoyed Oliver's jealousy, in her usual spirit of childlike gaiety. She was quite assured of Oliver's affection for her now; and she looked forward with shy delight to the day of her wedding, which had been fixed for the twentieth of March.
Meanwhile, Oliver was devoured with secret anxiety. For what had become of Francis, and when would he appear to demand the money which had been promised to him on the day when the marriage should take place?
MR. BROOKE'S DESIRES.
Lady Alice's movements were not without interest to Caspar Brooke, although Lesley did not suspect the fact. It was quite a surprise to her when he entered the library one day, with apparently no other object than that of saying abruptly,
"What is your mother going to do, Lesley?"
"To do?" said Lesley, flushing slightly and looking astonished.
"Yes"—impatiently. "Where is she going to live? What will become of her? Do you want to go to her? I wish to hear what you know about her arrangements."
He planted himself on the hearth-rug in what might be termed an aggressive attitude—really the expression of some embarrassment of feeling. It certainly seemed hard to him at that moment to have to ask his daughter these questions.
"I think," said Lesley, with downcast eyes, "that she is trying to find a house to suit her in Mayfair."
"Mayfair. Then half her income will go in rent and taxes. Will she live there alone?"
"Yes. At least—unless—until——"
"Until you join her: I understand. Will"—and then he made a long pause before continuing—"if she wants you to join her at once; and you wish to go, don't let this previous arrangement stand in the way. I shall not interfere."
His curtness, his abruptness, would once have startled and terrified Lesley. She had of late grown so much less afraid of him, that now she only lifted her eyes, with a proud, grieving look in them, and said,
"Do you want me to go away, then?"
"Want you to go? Certainly not, child," and Mr. Brooke stretched out his hand, and drew her to him with a caressing gesture. "No: I like to have you here. But I thought you wanted to go to her."
"So I do," said Lesley, the tears coming to her eyes. "But—I want to stay, too. I want"—and she put both hands on his arms with a gesture as affectionate as his own—"I want my father and mother both."
"I'm afraid that is an impossible wish."
"But why should it be?" said Lesley, looking up into his face beseechingly.
His features twitched for a moment with unwonted emotion. "You know nothing about it," he said—but he did not speak harshly. "You can't judge of the circumstances. What can I do? Even if I asked her she would not come back to me."
And then he put his daughter gently from him and went down to his study, where he paced up and down the floor for a good half-hour, instead of settling down as usual to his work.
But Lesley's words were not without their effect, although he had put them aside so decidedly. With that young, fair face looking so pleadingly into his own, it did not seem impossible that she should form a new tie between himself and his wife. Of course he had always known that children were conventionally supposed to bind the hearts of husband and wife to each other; but in his own case he had not found that a daughter produced that result. On the contrary, Lesley had been for many years a sort of bone of contention between himself and his wife; and he had retained a cynical sense of the futility of such conventional utterances, which were every day contradicted by barefaced facts.
But now he began to acknowledge that Lesley was drawing his heart closer to his wife. The charm of a family circle began to rise before him. Pleasant, indeed, would it be to find that his dingy old house bore once more the characteristics of a home; that womankind was represented in it by fairer faces and softer voices than the face and voice even of dear old Doctor Sophy, with her advanced theories, her committees, and her brisk disregard of the amenities of life. Yes, he would give a good deal to see Alice—it was long since he had thought of her by that name—established in his drawing-room (which she should refurbish and adorn to her heart's content), with Lesley by her side, and himself at liberty to stroll in and out, to be smiled upon, and—yes, after all, this was his dearest wish—to dare to lavish the love of which his great heart was full upon the wife and child whose loss had been the misfortune of his life.
As he thought of the past years, it seemed to him that they had been very bleak and barren. True, he had done many things; he had influenced many people, and accomplished some good work; but what had he got out of it for himself? He was an Individualist at heart, as most men are, and he felt conscious of a claim which the world had not granted. It was almost a shock to him to feel the egoistic desire for personal happiness stirring strongly within him; the desire had been suppressed for so long, that when it once awoke it surprised him by its vitality.
The outcome of these reflections was seen in a letter written that day after his talk with Lesley. He seated himself at last at his writing-table, and after some minutes' thought dashed off the following epistle. He did not stop for a word, he would not hesitate about the wording of sentences: it seemed to him that if he paused to consider, his resolution might be shaken, his purpose become unfixed.
"My Dear Alice," he wrote—"I hear from Lesley that you are looking for a house. Would it not be better for us all if you made your home with me again? Things have changed since you left me, and I might now be better able to consult your tastes and wishes than I was then. We are both older and, I hope, wiser. Could we not manage to put aside some of our personal predilections and make a home together for our daughter? I use this argument because I believe it will have more weight with you than any other: at the same time, I may add that it is for my own sake, as well as for Lesley's, that I make the proposition. Your affectionate husband,
It was an odd ending, he thought: he had certainly not shown himself an affectionate husband to her for many years. But there was truth in the epithet: little as she might believe it, or as it might appear. He would not stop to re-read the letter: he had said what he wanted to say, and she could read his meaning easily enough. He had held out the olive branch. It was for her to accept or reject it, as she would.
Lesley could not understand why he was so restless and apparently uneasy during the next few days. He seemed to be looking for something—expecting something—nobody knew what. He spent more time than usual with her, and took a new interest in her affairs. She did not know that he was trying to put himself into training for domestic life, and that he found it unexpectedly pleasant.
"What's this?" he said one day, picking up a scrap of paper that fell from a book that she held in her hand. "Not a letter, I think? Have you been making extracts?"
"No," said Lesley, blushing violently, but not trying to take the paper from him.
"May I see it? Oh, a sort of essay—description—impressions of London in a fog." He murmured a few of the words and phrases as he went on. "Why, this is very good. Here's the real literary touch. Where did you get this, Lesley? It's not half bad."
As she made no answer, he looked up and saw the guilty laughter in her eyes, the conscious blushes on her cheeks.
"You don't mean to say——"
"I only wrote it to amuse myself," said Lesley, meekly. "I've had so little to do since I came here, and I thought I would scribble down my impressions."
"My dear child," said Mr. Brooke, "if you can write as well as this, you ought to have a career before you. Why," he added, surveying her, "I had no idea of this. And I always did have a secret wish that a child of mine should take to literature. My dear——"
"But I don't want to take to literature, exactly," said Lesley, with a little gasp. "I only want to amuse myself sometimes—just when I feel inclined, if you don't think it a great waste of time——"
"Waste of time? Certainly not. Go on, by all means. I shall only ask to see what you do now and then; I might be able to give you a hint—though I don't know. Your style is very good already—wants a little compression, perhaps, but you can make sentences—that's a comfort." And Mr. Brooke fell to reading the manuscript again, with a very pleased look upon his face.
It was while he was still reading that a servant brought in some letters which had just arrived. He opened the first that came to hand almost unthinkingly, for his mind was quite absorbed in the discovery which he had made. It was only when his eye rested on the first page of the letter that memory came back to him. He gave a great start, rose up, putting Lesley's paper away from him, and went to the other side of the room to read his letter. It was as follows:—
"DEAR MR. BROOKE,—
"I have already found a house that I think will suit me, and I hope that Lesley will join me there as soon as you can spare her. I am afraid that it is a little too late to change our respective ways of life. It would be no advantage to Lesley to live with parents who were not agreed.
"Yours very truly,
Caspar Brooke turned round with a face that had grown strangely pale, walked across the room to Lesley, and dropped the letter in her lap.
"There!" he said. "I have done my uttermost. That is your mother's reply to me."
He strode out of the room, without deigning to answer her cry of surprise and inquiry, and Lesley took up the letter.
It was with a burst of tears that she put it down. "Oh, mother, mother!" she cried to herself, "how can you be so unkind, so unjust, so unforgiving? He is the best man in the world, and yet you have the heart to hurt him."
She did not see her father again until the next day, and then, although she made no reference in words to the letter which she restored to him, her pale and downcast looks spoke for her, and told the sympathy which she did not dare to utter. Mr. Brooke kissed her, and felt vaguely comforted; but it began to occur to him that he had made Lesley's position a hard one by insisting on her visit to his house, and that it might have been happier for her if she had remained hostile to himself, or ignorant of his existence. For now, when she went back to her mother, would not the affection that she evidently felt for him rise up as a barrier between herself and Lady Alice? Would she not try to fight for him? She was brave enough, and impetuous enough, to do it. And then Alice might justly accuse him of having embittered the relation, hitherto so sweet, between mother and daughter, and thereby inflicted on her an injury which nothing on earth could repair or justify.
Could nothing be done to remedy this state of things? Caspar Brooke began to feel worried by it. His mind was generally so serene that the intrusion of a personal anxiety seemed monstrous to him. He found it difficult to write in his accustomed manner: he felt a diminution of his interest in the club. With masculine impatience of such an unwonted condition, he went off at last to Maurice Kenyon, and asked him seriously whether his brain, his heart, or his liver were out of order. For that something was the matter with him, he felt sure, and he wanted the doctor to tell him what it was.
Maurice questioned and examined him carefully, then assured him with a hearty laugh that even his digestion was in the best possible working order.
Brooke gave himself a shake like a great dog, looked displeased for a moment, and then burst out laughing too.
"I suppose it is nothing, after all," he said. "I've been a trifle anxious and worried lately. Nothing of any importance, my dear fellow. By the by, have you been to see Lesley lately?"
"May I speak to her?" said Maurice, his face brightening. "I thought——"
"Speak when you like," Caspar answered, curtly. "I almost wish you would get if over. Get it settled, I mean."
"I shall get it settled as soon as I can, certainly," said Maurice.
And Mr. Brooke went away, thinking that after all he had found one way of escape from his troubles. For if Lesley accepted Maurice, and lived with him in a house opposite her father's, there would always be a corner for him at their fireside, and he would not go to the grave feeling himself a childless, loveless, desolate old man.
It must be conceded that Mr. Brooke had sunk to a very low pitch of dejection when he was dominated by such thoughts as these.
Maurice was no backward lover. He made his way to Lesley that very day, and found her in the library—not, as usual, bending over a book, but standing by the window, from which could be seen a piece of waste ground overgrown with grass and weeds, and shaded by some great plane and elm trees. There was nothing particularly fascinating in the outlook, which partook of the usual grimness of a London atmosphere; but the young green of the budding trees spoke, in spite of the blackness of their branches, of spring and spring's delight; and there was a brightness in the tints of the tangled grass which gave a restful satisfaction to the eye. Lesley was looking out upon this scene with a wistfulness which struck Maurice with some surprise.
"You like this window?" he said, interrogatively, when they had shaken hands and exchanged a word or two of greeting.
"Yes, it reminds me in some way of my old convent home; I don't know why it should; but there are trees and grass and greenness."
"Ah, you love the country?"
"Do not you?"
"Yes, but there are better things in the world than even trees and grass."
"Ah, yes," said Lesley, eagerly. Then, with a little smile, she added; as if quoting—"Souls of men."
"I was thinking of their bodies," said the young doctor. "But that's as it should be. You think of the spiritual, I only of the material side. Both sides ought to be considered that is where men and women meet, I take it."
"I suppose so," said Lesley, a little vaguely.
"I'm afraid," Maurice went on, "that it will be a long time before I have a country house of my own: a place where there will be trees and green meadows and flowers, such as one loves and sighs for. I have often thought"—with a note of agitation in his voice—"how much easier it would be to ask any one to share my life if I had these good things to offer. My only chance has been to find someone who cares—as I care—for the souls and bodies of the men and women around us; who would not disdain to help me in my work."
"Who could disdain it?" asked Lesley, innocently indignant.
"Do you mean"—turning suddenly upon her—"that you don't consider a hard working doctor's life something inexpressibly beneath you?"
She drew back a little hurt, a little bit astonished.
"Certainly not. Why should I?"
"You are born to a life of luxury and self-indulgence."
"My father is a journalist," said Lesley with a smile, in which amusement struggled with offence.
"But your grandfather was an earl! It is possible," with a touch of raillery, "that you prefer earls to general practitioners."
"Of the two, it is the doctor that leads the better life, in my opinion," said Lesley, rather hotly; but immediately cooling down, she added the remark—"My preferences have nothing much, however, to do with the matter."
"Have they not? How little you know your own power!"
Lesley looked at him in much amaze. Whither this conversation was tending it had not yet occurred to her to inquire. But something in his look, as he stood fronting her, brought the color to her cheeks and caused her eyes to sink. She became suddenly a little afraid of him, and wished herself a thousand miles away. Indeed she made one backward step, as if her maidenly instincts were about to manifest themselves in actual flight. But Maurice saw the movement, and made two steps forward, which brought him so close to her that he could have touched her hand if he had wished.
"Don't you understand?" he said, in an agitated voice. "Don't you see that your opinion—your preferences—are all the world to me?"
He paused as if expecting her to reply—leaning a little towards her to catch the word from her lips. But Lesley did not speak. She remained motionless, as pale now as she had been red before—her hands hanging at her sides and her eyes fixed upon the ground. She looked as if she were stricken dumb with dismay.
"I know that I have not recommended myself to you by anything that I have said or done," Maurice went on. "I misjudged you once, and I spoke roughly, rudely, brutally; but it was the way you took what I said which made me understand you. You were so fine, so noble, so sweet! Instead of making my stupidity an excuse for shutting yourself away from what your father was doing, you immediately threw yourself into it, you began to work with him and for him—as of course I might have seen that you would do directly you came to know him. I was a fool, and you were an angel—that summarizes the situation."
A faint smile curled Lesley's lips, although she did not look up. "I am afraid there is not much of the angel about me," she said.
"Ah, you can't see yourself as others see you," he answered, quite ignoring the implication in her remark which a less ardent lover might have resented. "To me, at any rate, you are the one woman in the world, the only one I have ever loved—shall ever love as long as I live—the fulfilment of my ideal—the realization of all my dreams!"
His vehemence made Lesley draw back.
"You exaggerate," she said with a slight shake of the head. "Indeed, I am not all that—I could not be. I am very ignorant and full of faults. I have a bad temper——"
"You have a temper that is sweetness itself!"
"Oh, Mr. Kenyon, how can you say so?"—with a look of reproach. "You who have seen me so angry!"
"Your temper is just like your father's," said Maurice, dogmatically. "A little hot, if you like, but sweet——"
"Something like preserved ginger?" asked Lesley.
The two young people looked at each other with laughter in their eyes. This was Lesley's way of trying to stave off the inevitable. If Maurice's declaration could only be construed into idle compliment, she would be rid of the necessity of giving him a plain answer. And what had been begun as a proposal of marriage seemed likely to degenerate into a fencing match.
Maurice saw the danger, and was too quick-witted to fall unawares into the trap which Lesley had laid for him. A war of words was the very thing in which he and Ethel most delighted; and it was usually quite easy to induce brother and sister to engage upon it. But on this occasion he was too much in earnest for word-play. He laughed at Lesley's simile, and then became suddenly and almost fiercely grave.
"I can't let you turn the whole thing into a joke," he said. "You know that I mean what I say. It is a matter of life and death to me. I love you with my whole heart, and I come to-day to know whether there is any chance for me—whether you can honor me with your love—whether you will one day consent to be my wife."
His voice sank to a pleading tone, and his face was very pale. But he felt that a great display of emotion would frighten and repel the girl, and he therefore sedulously avoided, as far as possible, any appearance of agitation. He could not, however, entirely achieve the calmness which he desired, and the very suppression of his agitation, which, in spite of himself, made his voice shake, and brought fire to his eyes, had an unwontedly unnerving effect upon Lesley.
"Oh, I don't know," she said hurriedly. "I can't tell—I never thought——"
"Think now," he said persuasively. "Am I disagreeable to you?"
"Have you forgiven me for my bad behavior in the past?"
"You never did behave badly."
"But you have forgiven me?"
This was illogical, as she had previously intimated that there was nothing to forgive; but, under such circumstances, Lesley may be excused.
"And—surely, then—you like me a little!"
"A little," Lesley breathed, rather than spoke, with an unconscious smile of happiness.
"Can you not call it 'loving?'" asked Maurice, daring for the first time to take her soft little hand in his.
But the question, the look, the touch, suddenly terrified Lesley, and brought back to her mind a long-forgotten promise. What was it her mother had required of her before she left Paris for her father's house? Was it not a pledge that she should not bind herself to marry any man?—that she should not engage herself to be married? Lesley had an instinctive knowledge of the fact that to proclaim her promise would be to cast discredit on Lady Alice; and so, while trying to keep her word, she sought for means to avoid telling the whole truth.
"No, oh no," she said, withdrawing her hand at once and turning away. "Indeed, I could not. Please do not ask me anymore."
The shock was very great to Maurice. He stood perfectly silent for a moment. He had thought that he was making such good progress—and, behold! the wind had suddenly changed; the face of the heavens was overcast. He tried to think that he had been mistaken, and made another attempt to win a favorable hearing.
"Miss Brooke—Lesley—you say you like me a little. Do you not think that your liking for me might grow? When you know that I love you so tenderly, that I would lay down my very life for you, when you can hear all that I can tell you of my hopes, my dreams, my aspirations——"
"I do not want to hear," said Lesley, putting out her hand blindly. "Please do not tell me: it makes me miserable—indeed, I must not listen."
Again Maurice stood silent for a moment.
"Must not listen?" he repeated at length, with a keen look at her. "Why must you not?"
Lesley made no answer.
"You speak strangely," said Kenyon, with some slight coldness beginning to manifest itself in his manner. "Why should you not listen to me? If you are thinking of your father, I can assure you that he has no objection to me. I have consulted him already. He would be honestly glad, I believe, if you could care for me—he has told me so. Does his opinion go for nothing?"
She shook her head.
"I can't explain," she said brokenly. "I can only ask you not to say anything—at least—I have promised——"
"Promised not to listen to me?"
"To anything of the kind," said Lesley, feeling that she was making a terrible mess of the whole affair, and yet unable to loosen her tongue sufficiently to explain.
"May I ask to whom you gave this promise?"
"No," said Lesley.
There was another silence, but this time it was a silence charged with ominous significance. Maurice's face was very white, and a peculiar rigidity showed itself in the lines of his features. He was very much disappointed, and he also felt that he had some right to be displeased.
"If you were bound by any such promise, Miss Brooke," he said, "I think it would have been better that your friends should have known of it. I don't think that Mr. Brooke was aware——"
"Oh, no, he knew nothing about it."
"It was a promise made before you came here?"
"Of which your mother—Lady Alice—approves?"
"Oh, yes—it was to her—because she——"
Lesley stammered and tried to explain. There was a tremendous oppression upon her, such as one feels sometimes in a nightmare dream. She longed to speak out, to clear herself in Maurice's eyes, and yet she could not frame a single intelligible sentence. It was as though she were afflicted with dumbness.
"I think," said Maurice, deliberately, "that your father and your aunt had a right to know this fact. You seem to have kept them in ignorance of it. And I have been led into a mistake. I can assure you, Miss Brooke, that if I had been aware of any previous promise—or—or engagement of yours, I should never have presumed to speak as I have spoken to-day. I can but apologize and withdraw."
Before Lesley could answer, he had taken his hat, bowed profoundly, and left the room.
And Lesley, with lips from which all color had faded, and hands pressed tightly together, watched him go, and stood for some minutes in dazed, despairing silence before she could say, even to herself, with a burst of hot and bitter tears,
"Oh, I did not mean him to think that. And now I cannot explain! What shall I do? What can I do to make him understand?"
But that was a question for which she found no answer.
"You are quite well," said the doctor to John Smith, otherwise called Francis Trent, at the great hospital one day. "You can go out to-morrow. There is nothing more that we can do for you."
Smith raised his dull eyes to their faces.
"Am I—cured?" he asked.
One of the doctors shrugged his shoulders a little. Another answered kindly and pityingly,
"You will find that you are not as strong as you used to be. Not the same man in many respects. But you will be able to get your own living, and we see no reason for detaining you here. What was your trade?"
The patient looked down at his white, thin hands. "I don't know," he said.
"Have you friends to go to?"
There was a pause. Some of the medical students who were listening came a little nearer. As a matter of fact, Francis Trent's future depended very largely on the answer he made to this question. The statement that he was "quite well" was hazarded rather by way of experiment than as a matter of fact. The doctors wanted to know what he would say and do under pressure, for some of them were beginning to suggest that the man should be removed to the workhouse infirmary or a lunatic asylum. His faculties seemed to be hopelessly beclouded.
Suddenly he lifted his head. A new sharp light had come into his eyes. He nodded reassuringly.
"Yes, I have friends," he said.
"You have a home where you can go? Shall we write to your friends to meet you?"
"No, thank you, sir. I can find my own way home."
And then they conferred together a little, and left him, and reported that he was cured.
Certainly, there seemed to be nothing the matter with him now. His wounds and injuries had healed, his bodily strength was returning. But the haze which hung over his mind was far more impenetrable than the doctors guessed. Something of it had been apparent to them in the earlier days of his illness; but his clear and decided answers to their questions convinced them that memory had to some extent returned. As a matter of fact it was not memory that had returned, but a sharpening of his perceptive faculties, awakening him to the fact that he stood in danger of being taken for an idiot or a madman if he did not frame some answer to the questions which the doctors asked him. This new acuteness was perhaps the precursor to a return of his memory; but as yet the Past was like a dead wall, an abyss of darkness surrounding him. Now and then flashes of light seemed to dart across that darkness: he seemed on the point of recalling something—he knew not what; for the flashes faded as quickly as they came, and made the darkness all the greater for the contrast.
He was possessed now by the idea that if he could get out of hospital, and walk along the London streets, he might remember all that he had forgotten. His own name, his own history, had become a blank to him. He knew in some vague, forlorn fashion, that he had once been what the world calls a gentleman. He had not acknowledged so much to the doctors: he had not felt that they would believe him. Even when the groping after the Past became most painful, he made up his mind that he would not ask these scientific men for help: he was afraid of being treated as a "case," experimented on, written about in the papers. There was something in the Past of which he knew he ought to be ashamed. What could it be? He was afraid to ask, lest he might find himself to be a criminal.
In these haunting terrors there was, of course, a distinct token of possible insanity. The man needed a friendly, guiding hand to steer him back to the world of reason and common-sense. But to whom could he go, since he had taken up this violent prejudice against the doctors? He felt drawn to none of the nurses, although some of them had been very kind to him. The only person to whom he might perhaps have disburthened himself, if he had had the opportunity, was the sweet-voiced, sweet-faced woman whom he had warned of the ill effects of her gifts. He did not know her name, or anything about her; but before he left the hospital he asked one of the nurses who she was.
"Lady Alice Brooke—daughter of the Lord Courtleroy, who died the other day," was the reply.
"Could you give me her address?"
"No; and I don't think that if I could it would be of any use to you. She is leaving England, I believe. If you want work or help, why don't you speak to Mr. Kenyon? He's the gentleman to find both for you—Mr. Maurice Kenyon."
"Which is Mr. Kenyon?"
"There—he's just passing through the next ward; shall I speak to him for you?"
"No, thank you: I don't want anything from him: I only wanted the lady's name," said John Smith, in a dogged sullen kind of way, which made the whitecapped nurse look at him suspiciously.
"Brooke!—Kenyon?"—How oddly familiar the names seemed to him! Of course they were not very uncommon names; but there was a distinct familiarity about them which had nothing to do with the names themselves, as if they had some connection with his own history and his own affairs.
He was discharged—"cured." He went out into the streets with half-a-crown in his pocket, and a fixed determination to know the truth, sooner or later, about himself. At the same time he had a great fear of letting any one know the extent of the blanks in his memory. He thought that people might shut him up in a madhouse if he told them that he could not recollect his own name. A certain amount of intellectual force and knowledge remained to him. He could read, and understand what he read. But of his own history he had absolutely no idea; and the only clue to it that he could find lay in those two names—Brooke and Kenyon.
Could he discover anything about the possessors of these names which would help him? He entered a shop where a Post Office Directory was to be found, and looked at Maurice Kenyon's name amongst the doctors. He found Mr. Kenyon's private address; but as yet it told him nothing. Woburn Place? Well, of course he had heard of Woburn Place, it was no wonder that he should know it so well; but the name told him nothing more.
He sat staring at it so long that the people of the shop grew impatient, and asked him to shut the book. He went away, and wandered about the streets, vaguely seeking for he knew not what. And after a time he bought a newspaper. Here again he found the name that had attracted his attention—the name of Kenyon. "Last appearance of Miss Kenyon at the Frivolity Theatre—this week only."
"Who's Miss Ethel Kenyon?" he asked—drawing a bow at a venture—of his neighbor in the dingy little coffeehouse into which he had turned. It was ten to one that the man would not know; but he would ask.
As it happened, the young man did know. "She's an actress," he said. "I went to see her the other night. Pretty girl—going to get married and leave the stage. My brother's a scene shifter at the Frivolity—knows all about her."
"Who is she going to marry?"
"Oh, I don't know—some idle young chap that wants her money, I believe. She ain't the common sort of actress, you know. Bit of a swell, with sixty thousand pounds of her own."
"Oh," said his interlocutor, vaguely. "And—has she any relations?"
"Well, that I can't tell you. Stop a bit, though: I did hear tell of a brother—a doctor, I believe. But I couldn't be sure of it."
"Could you get to know if you wanted?"
The young fellow turned and surveyed his questioner with some doubt. "Dare say I could if I chose," he said. "What do you want to know for, mate?"
"I've been away—out of England for a long time—and I think they're people who used to know me," said Francis Trent, improvising his story readily. "I thought they could put me on the way of work if I could come across them; but I don't know if it's the same."
"Why don't you go to see her to-night? She's worth a look: she's a pretty little thing—but she don't draw crowds: the gallery's never full."
"I think I'll go to-night," said Francis, rising suddenly from his seat. He fancied that the young man looked at him suspiciously. "Yes, no doubt, I should know her if I saw her: I'll go to-night."
He made his way hastily into the street, while his late companion sent a puzzled glance after him. "Got a tile loose, that chap has," he said to the girl at the counter as he also passed out. "Or else he was a bit screwed."
So that night Francis Trent went to the Frivolity, and witnessed, from a half-empty gallery, a smart, sparkling little society play, in which Ethel Kenyon had elected to say farewell to her admirers.
He saw her, but her face produced no impression upon his mind.
It was not familiar to him, although her name was familiar enough. Those gleaming dark eyes in the saucy piquante face, the tiny graceful figure, the silvery accents of her voice, were perfectly strange to him. They suggested absolutely nothing. It was the name alone that he knew; and he was sure that it was in some way connected with his own.
Before the end of the play, he got up and went out. The lights of the theatre made him dizzy: his head ached from the hot atmosphere and from his own physical weakness. He was afraid that he should cry out or do something strange which would make people look at him, if he sat there much longer. So he turned into a side street and leaned against a wall for a little time, until he felt cool and refreshed. The evening was warm, considering that the month was March, and the air that played upon his face was soft and balmy. When he had recovered himself a little, he noticed a group of young men lighting their cigarettes and loitering about a door in the vicinity. Presently he made out that this was the stage-door, and that these young men were waiting to see one of the actresses come out. By the fragments of their talk that floated to him on the still evening air in the quiet side street, Francis Trent gathered that they spoke a good deal of Ethel Kenyon.
"So this is the last we shall see of pretty little Ethel," he heard one man say. "Who's the man she's hooked, eh?"
Nobody seemed to know.
"Why did she go on the boards at all, I wonder? She's got money, and belongs to a pre-eminently respectable family. Her brother's a doctor."
"Stage-struck," said another. "She'll give it up now, of course. Here's her carriage. She'll be here directly."
"And the happy man at her heels, I suppose," sneered the first speaker. "They say she's madly in love with him, and that he, of course, wants her money."
"He's a cad, I know that," growled a younger man.
Impelled by an interest of which he himself did not know the source, Francis Trent had drawn nearer to the stage door as the young fellows spoke. He was quite close to it, when it opened at last and the pretty actress came forth.
She was escorted by a train of admirers, rich and poor. Her maid was laden with wraps and bouquets. The manager and the actor who played the leading part were on either side of her, and Ethel was laughing the merry, unaffected laugh of a perfectly happy woman as she made her triumphal exit from the little theatre where she had achieved all her artistic success. Another kind of success, she thought, was in store for her now. She was to know another sort of happiness. And the whole world looked very bright to her, although there was one little cloud—no bigger than a man's hand, perhaps—which had already shown itself above the horizon, and might one day cloud the noontide of her love.
Francis Trent was so absorbed in watching her lovely face, and in wondering why her name had seemed so familiar, that he paid scant attention to her followers. It was only as the carriage drove off that his eye was caught by the face of a man who sat beside her. A gleam from a gas-lamp had fallen full upon it, revealing the regular, passionless features, the dark eyes and pale complexion of Ethel's lover. And as soon as he saw that face, a great change came over the mental condition of Francis Trent. He stood for a moment as if paralyzed, his worn features strangely convulsed, a strange lurid light showed itself in his haggard eyes. Then he threw his arms wildly in the air, uttered a choked, gasping cry, and rushed madly and vainly after the retreating carriage, heedless of the shouts which the little crowd sent after him.
"He's mad—he'll never catch up that carriage! What does he run after it for, the fool?" said one of the men on the pavement.
And indeed he soon relinquished the attempt, and sat down on a doorstep, panting and exhausted, with his face buried upon his arms.
But he was not mad. He was sure of that now. It was only that he had—partially and feebly, but to some extent effectually—remembered what had happened to him in the dark dead Past.
It was a difficult matter for Maurice Kenyon so to word his report to Caspar Brooke as not to excite his displeasure against Lesley. He felt himself bound to respect Lesley's confidences—if such they might be called—respecting the promise which kept her from returning his love; but he could not help a certain bitterness of tone in referring to his interview with her; and his friend observed the bitterness.
"What reason did she give for refusing you?" he asked sharply.
"I suppose she does not care for me."
"There is something else—to judge from your look. Perhaps there is—somebody else?" said Brooke.
"Well, I don't know that I'm doing right in telling you—but—God help me!—I believe there is," said Maurice, with a groan.
"She did not tell you who?"
Mr. Brooke knitted his brows. He was inclined to think that Oliver Trent had produced an impression on Lesley's susceptible heart. He could not ask questions of any of the persons concerned; but he had his suspicions, and they made him angry as well as anxious.
He made it his business during the next day or two to find out whether Oliver had been to the house since the day when he had interrupted the interview; but he could not learn that he had ventured there again. It was no use asking Dr. Sophy about Lesley's comings and goings: it was almost impossible for him to question Lesley herself.
"What rubbish it all is—this love-making, marrying, and giving in marriage!" he said, at last, impatiently, to himself. "I'll think no more about these young folks' affairs—let them make or mar their happiness in their own way. I'll think of my work and nothing else—I've neglected it a good deal of late, I fancy. I must make up for lost time now." And sitting down at his table, he turned over the papers upon it, and took up a quill pen. But he did not begin to write for some minutes. He sat frowning at the paper, biting the feathers of his pen, drumming with his fingers on the table. And after a time he muttered to himself, "If any man harms Lesley, I'll wring his neck—that's all;" which did not sound as though he were giving to his literary work all the attention that it required.
As to Lesley, she would have given a great deal at that time for a counsellor of some kind. The old feeling of friendlessness had come back to her. Her aunt was absorbed by her own affairs, her father looked at her with unquiet displeasure in his eyes. Oliver Trent had proved himself a false friend indeed. Ethel was a little reserved with her, and she had sent Maurice Kenyon away. There was nobody else to whom she could turn for comfort. True, she had made many acquaintances by this time: her father's circle was a large one, and she knew more people now than she had ever spoken to in her quiet convent days. But these were all acquaintances—not friends. She could not speak to any one of these about Maurice Kenyon, her lover and her friend. Once or twice she thought vaguely of writing to her mother about him; but she shrank from doing so without quite knowing why. The fact was, she knew her mother's criticism beforehand: she expected to be reproached with having broken her compact in the spirit if not in the letter; and she did not know how to justify herself. Maurice had taken his dismissal as final, and she had not meant him to do so. Now, if ever, the girl wanted a friend who would either encourage her to explain her position to him, or would do it for her. Lady Alice would not fill this post efficiently. And Lesley, in her youthful shamefaced pride, felt that nothing would induce her to make her own explanation to Maurice. It would seem like asking him to ask her again to marry him—an insupportable thought.
So she went about the house pale and heavy-eyed, trying with all her might to throw herself into her father's schemes for his club, writing a little now and then, occupying herself feverishly with all the projects that came in her way, but bearing a sad heart about with her all the time. She was not outwardly depressed—her pride would not let her seem melancholy. She held her head high, and talked and laughed more than usual. But the want of color and brightness in her face and eye could not be controlled.
"You pale-faced wretch," she said to herself one Saturday evening, as she stood before her glass and surveyed the fair image that met her eye; "why cannot you look as usual? It must be this black dress that makes me so colorless: I wish that I had a flower to wear with it."
Mr. Brooke and his sister were holding one of their frequent Saturday evening parties, when they were "at home" to a large number of guests. Lesley was just about to go downstairs. Her dress was black, for she was in mourning for her grandfather; and it must be confessed that the sombre hue made her look very pale indeed. The wish for a flower was gratified, however, almost as soon as formed. Kingston entered her room at that moment carrying a bouquet of flowers, chiefly white, but with a scarlet blossom here and there, which would give exactly the touch of color that Lesley's appearance required.
"These flowers have just come for you, ma'am," Kingston said quietly.
Her subdued voice, her pale face, and heavily shadowed eyes, did not make her a cheerful-looking messenger; but Lesley, for the time being, thought of nothing but the flowers.
"Where do they come from, Kingston?" she asked, eagerly.
"I was only to say one word, ma'am—that they came from over the way."
There was no want of color now in Lesley's face. Her cheeks were rose-tinted, her eyes had grown strangely bright. "Over the way." Of course that meant Maurice. Did not he live over the way?—and was there any one else at the Kenyons' house who would send her such lovely flowers?
If he sent her flowers, she reflected, he could not have yet ceased to care for her, although she had behaved so badly to him—in his eyes, at least. The thought gave her courage and content. Perhaps he was coming that night—he had a standing invitation to all the Brookes' evening parties—and when he came he would perhaps "say something" to her, something which she could answer suitably, so as to make him understand.
She did not know how pretty she looked as she stood looking down at her flowers, the color and smile and dimples coming and going in her fair young face in very unwonted confusion. But Mary Kingston noted every change of tint and expression, and was surprised. For the little mystery was quite plain to her. It was not Mr. Kenyon who sent the flowers at all. Mr. Kenyon was too busy a man to buy bouquets. It was Oliver Trent who had sent them, for Kingston had herself seen him carrying the flowers and entrusting them to a commissionnaire with a message for Miss Brooke. She believed, too, that Lesley knew from whom they came. But she was not sufficiently alert and interested just then to make these matters of great importance to her. She did not think it worth her while to say how much she knew. With a short quick sigh she turned away, and expected to see her young mistress quit the room at once, still with that happy smile upon her face. But Lesley had heard the sigh.
"Oh, Kingston," she said, laying her hand on the woman's arm, "I wish you would not sigh like that!"
"I beg your pardon, ma'am; I did not mean to annoy you."
"I don't mean that: I mean it for your own sake. You seem so sad about something—you have been sad so long!"
"I've had a sad life, Miss Lesley."
"But there is surely some special sadness now?"
"Yes," said the woman slowly. "Yes, that is true. I've—lost—a friend."
She put a strong emphasis on the word "lost," and paused before and after uttering it, as if it bore a peculiar meaning to her. But Lesley took the word in its ordinary sense.
"I am very sorry," she said. "It must be very terrible, I think, when one's friends die."
She stood silent for a minute—a shadow from Kingston's grief troubling the sweetness of her fair face. It was the maid who broke the silence.
"Excuse me, ma'am; I oughtn't to have troubled you with my affairs to-night, just when you're enjoying yourself too. But it's hard sometimes to keep quiet."
Moved by a sudden instinct of sympathy, Lesley turned and kissed the woman who served her, as if she had been a sister. It was in such ways that she showed her kinship with the man who had written "The Unexplored." Lady Alice, in spite of all her kindness of heart, would never have thought of kissing her ladies' maid.
"Don't grieve—don't be sorrowful," said Lesley. "Perhaps things will mend by and by."
"Ah, my dear," said Kingston, forgetting her position, as Lady Alice would have said, while that young, soft kiss was warm upon her cheek, "the dead don't come back."
And when Lesley had gone downstairs, with the white and scarlet bouquet in her hand, Mary Kingston sat down and wept bitterly.
It was not the first time that Lesley had spoken words of consolation to her; but on this occasion her gentleness had gone home to Mary Kingston's heart as it had never done before. After weeping for herself for a time, she fell to weeping for Lesley too, for it seemed inevitable to her that Lesley should suffer before very long. She believed that Lesley was in love with Oliver, and that for this reason only had she refused Maurice Kenyon, which shows that Lesley had kept her own secret very well.
"I'd do anything to keep her from harm," said Mary Kingston, with a passionate rush of gratitude towards the girl for her kindly words and ways. "Francis Trent brought me grief enough, God knows; and if she's going to throw herself away on Oliver, she'll have her heart broke sooner than mine. For I've been used to sorrow all my days; and she—poor, pretty lamb—she don't know what it means. And Miss Brooke all taken up with her medicine-fads, and Mr. Brooke only a man, after all, in spite of his goodness; and my lady, her mother, far away and never coming near her—if anybody was friendless and forlorn, it's Miss Lesley. Only me between her and her ruin, maybe! But I'll prevent it," said the woman, rising to her feet with a strange look of exaltation in her sunken eyes: "I'll guard her from Oliver Trent as I couldn't guard my own sister, poor lass! I'll see that she does not come to any harm, and if he means ill by her I'll shame him before all the world, even though I break more hearts than one by it."
And then she roused herself from her reverie, and went downstairs, where she knew that her presence was required in the tea-room. Scarcely had she entered it, when she made a short pause and gave a slightly perceptible start. For there stood Ethel Kenyon, with Oliver Trent in attendance. She had not thought that he would come to the house; a rumor had gone about that he had quarreled with Mr. Brooke; yet there he was, smiling, bland, irreproachable as ever, with quite the look of one who had the right to be present. He was holding Ethel's fan and gloves as she drank a cup of tea, and seemed to be paying her every attention in his power. Ethel, in the daintiest of costumes, was laughing and talking to him as they stood together. She was quite unconscious of any reason for his possible absence. Mary Kingston gave them a keen glance as she went by, and decided in her own mind that there was more in the situation than as yet she had understood.
Oliver was playing a bold game. His marriage was fixed for the following Tuesday. From Mr. Brooke's attitude in general towards the Kenyons, he felt sure that Caspar would not place them in any painful or perplexing situation. He would not, for instance, refuse to welcome Oliver to his house again, if Oliver went in Ethel's company. Accordingly, the young man put his pride and his delicacy (if he had either—which is doubtful) in his pocket, and went with his affianced wife to Mr. Brooke's Saturday evening party.
"For I will see Lesley again," he said to himself, "and if I do not go to-night I may not have the opportunity. If she would relent, I would not mind throwing Ethel over—I could do it so easily now that Francis has disappeared. But I would give up Ethel's twenty thousand, if Lesley would go with me instead!"
Little did he guess that only on the previous night had he been recognized and remembered by that missing brother, whose tottering brain was inflamed almost to madness by a conviction of deliberate wrong; or that this brother was even now upon his track, ready to demand the justice that he thought had been denied him, and to punish the man who had brought him to this evil pass! Wild and mad as were the imaginings of Francis Trent's bewildered mind, they boded ill to his brother Oliver whenever the two should meet.
Meanwhile, Ethel's lover, with a white flower in his button-hole, occupied the whole evening in leaning idly against a wall, and feasting his eyes on the fair face and form—not of his betrothed, but—of Lesley Brooke.
IN MR. BROOKE'S STUDY.
Caspar Brooke's dingy drawing-room looked cheerful enough that night, filled by a crowd of men and women, and animated by the buzz of constant talk and movement. It was a distinguishing characteristic of his parties that they were composed more of men than of women; and the guests were often men or women who had done something in the world, and were known for some special excellence in their work. Lesley generally enjoyed these gatherings very much. The visitors were shabby, unfashionable people sometimes: they had eccentricities of dress and manner; but they were always interesting in Lesley's eyes. Literary men, professors, politicians, travelers, philanthropists, faddists—these were the folk that mostly frequented Caspar Brooke's parties. Neither artists nor musicians were largely represented: the flow of talk was rather political and literary than artistic; and on the whole there were more elderly people than young ones. As a rule, Oliver Trent was not disposed to frequent these assemblies: he shrugged his shoulders at them and called them "slow," but on this occasion he was only too glad to find admittance. It was at least a good opportunity for watching Lesley, as she passed from one group to another, doing the duties of assistant-hostess with grace and tact, giving a smile to one, a word to another, entering into low-toned conversation, which brightened her eyes and flushed her fair cheek, with another. Oliver thought her perfection. Beside her stately proportions, Ethel seemed to him ridiculously tiny and insignificant, and her sparkling prettiness was altogether eclipsed by Lesley's calmer beauty. He was not in an amiable mood. He had steeled himself against the dictates of his own taste and conscience, to encounter Caspar Brooke's cold stare and freezing word of conventional welcome, because he longed so intensely for a last word with Lesley; but he was now almost sorry that he had come. Lesley seemed utterly indifferent to his presence. She certainly carried his flowers in her hand, but she did not glance his way. On the contrary, she anxiously watched the door from time to time, as if she awaited the coming of some one who was slow to make his appearance. Who could the person be for whom she looked? Oliver asked himself jealously. He had not the slightest suspicion that she was watching for Maurice Kenyon. And Maurice Kenyon did not come.