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Title: Doctor Cupid
Author: Broughton, Rhoda, 1840-1920
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  DOCTOR CUPID



      Ich komme, Ich weiss nicht woher;
      Ich gehe, Ich weiss nicht wohin;
      Ich bin, Ich weiss nicht was;
      Mich wundert dass Ich so fröhlich bin



  DOCTOR CUPID

  A Novel

  BY

  RHODA BROUGHTON

  AUTHOR OF 'COMETH UP AS A FLOWER,' 'NANCY,' 'GOOD-BYE, SWEETHEART!'
  'SECOND THOUGHTS,' ETC.


  '_Oh, Doctor Cupid, thou for me reply_'
                        SIR PHILIP SIDNEY


  _A NEW EDITION_


  LONDON

  RICHARD BENTLEY & SON, NEW BURLINGTON ST.

  Publishers in Ordinary to Her Majesty the Queen

  1891



DOCTOR CUPID



CHAPTER I


WHAT THE BIG HOUSE OWES TO US.

1. As much of our company as it likes to command.

2. As much dance music as it can get out of our fingers.

3. The complete transfer of all the bores among its guests from its
shoulders to ours.

4. The entire management of its Workhouse teas.

5. The wear and tear of mind of all its Christmas-trees and bran-pies.

6. The physicking of its sick dogs.

7. The setting its canaries' broken legs.

8. The general cheerful and grateful charing for it.

WHAT WE OWE TO THE BIG HOUSE.

1. Heartburnings from envy.

2. Headaches from dissipation.

3. The chronic discontent of our three maids.

4. The utter demoralisation of our boot-boy.

5. The acquaintance of several damaged fine ladies.

6. A roll of red flannel from the last wedding.

7. The occasional use of a garden-hose.


'There! I do not think that the joys and sorrows of living in a little
house under the shadow of a big one were ever more lucidly set forth,'
says an elder sister, holding up the slate on which she has just been
totting up this ingenious debit and credit account to a pink junior,
kneeling, head on hand, beside her; a junior who, not so long ago, did
sums on that very slate, and the straggle of briony round whose
sailor-hat tells that she has only just left the sunburnt harvest-fields
and the overgrown August hedgerows behind her.

'We have had a good deal of fun out of it too,' says she, rather
remorsefully. 'Do you remember'--with a sigh of recollected
enjoyment--'the day that we all blackened our faces with soot, and could
not get the soot off again afterwards?'

To what but a mind of seventeen could such a reminiscence have appeared
in the light of a departed joy?

'I have left out an item, I see,' says Margaret, running her eye once
again over her work; 'an unlimited quantity of the society of Freddy
Ducane, when nothing better turns up for him! Under which head, profit
or loss'--glancing with a not more than semi-amused smile at her
sister--'am I to enter it, eh, Prue?'

'Loss, loss!' replies Prue, with a suspiciously rosy precipitation. 'No
question about it; no one makes us lose so much time as he! Loss, loss!'

Margaret's eyes rest for an instant on her sister's face, and then
return not quite comfortably to the slate, upon which she painstakingly
inscribes the final entry, 'An unlimited quantity of Freddy Ducane's
society, when nothing better turns up for him!'

'"The acquaintance of several damaged fine ladies!"' reads Prue over her
sister's shoulder. 'I suppose that means Lady Betty?'

'I name no names,' replies Margaret gravely. 'I keep to a discreet
generality--

                    '"If it do her right,
    Then she hath wrong'd herself; if she be free,
    Why, then, my taxing like a wild-goose flies,
    Unclaimed of any man."'

'Dear me!' repeats Prue, under her breath, in a rather awed voice; 'I
wonder what it feels like to be damaged!'

'You had better ask her,' drily.

'I suppose she says dreadful things,' continues the young girl, still
with that same awed curiosity. 'I heard Mrs. Evans telling you that she
"stuck at nothing." I wonder how she does it.'

'You had better ask her,' more drily.

'Damaged or not damaged,' cries Prue, springing up from her knees and
beginning to caper about the room, and sing to her own capering, 'we
shall meet her to-night--

    '"For I'm to be married to-day, to-day,
      For I'm to be married to-day."

Or if I am not to be married, I am to go to my first dinner-party, which
is a step in the right direction. Do you remember your first
dinner-party, Peggy? How did you feel? How did you look?'

'I looked very plain, I believe,' replies Peggy sedately. 'At least, I
was told so afterwards. I remember that I felt very swollen. I had a
cold, and was shy, and I think both combined to make me feel swelled.'

'It is a pity that shyness has not the same effect upon me,' says Prue,
stretching out a long girlish arm, whose thinness is apparent even
through its chintz muslin covering. 'The one thing that would really
improve my appearance'--stopping before the only looking-glass that the
little room boasts, and putting her finger and thumb in the hollows of
cheeks scarcely rounded enough to match the rest of the pansy-textured
child face--'the one thing that would really improve my appearance would
be to have the mumps.'

Peggy laughs.

'_Unberufen!_ I should catch them, and you cannot say that they would
improve me.'

'Never mind!' cries Prue, turning away with a joyous whirl from the
mirror. 'I shall do very well. There are people who admire bones! I
shall pass in a crowd.

    '"For I'm to be married to-day, to-day,
      For I'm to be married to-day."'

Her dance and her song have carried her out into the garden--the small
but now opulent garden; and, partly to look at her, partly to pasture
her eyes upon a yet more admired object, Peggy has followed her as far
as to the French window, and now stands leaning one handsome shoulder
against the door-post, and looking out upon her kingdom of flowers.

'We owe the Big House one good thing, at all events,' she says, a smile
of satisfaction stealing into her comely eyes. 'I never knew what peace
of mind was until I had a garden-hose.'

At this moment, in the hands of Jacob the gardener, it is playing
comfortably on the faces of the tea-roses, and a luxurious drip and
patter testify to their appreciation.

Prue has come back panting, and sunk out of breath on the window-sill.
The briony garland has fallen from her hat, and a little hairy dog is
now galloping about the lawn boastfully with it, his head held very
high. Something in his attitude gets on the nerves of the other animals;
for the parrot, brought out to sun himself upon the sward, raps out his
mysterious marine oath, which he generally keeps for a crisis; and the
white cat forgets herself so far as to deal him a swingeing box on the
ear as he passes her.

'I met the brougham from the Big House as I came up the lane,' says
Prue, trying to cool herself with the inadequate fan of a small
pocket-handkerchief; 'it was on its way back from the station. How tired
those poor horses must be of the road to the station! It had three
people inside it--Lady Betty, Mr. Harborough, and some third person.'

'Her maid, probably.'

Prue shakes her head.

'No; the maid followed in a fly with the nurses and children. Dear me,
Peggy, what a number of servants they take about with them--maid, one;
valet, two; footman, three; two nurses, five!'

'Nurses, five!' repeats Margaret inattentively, not thinking of what she
is saying, and with her eyes still riveted on the hose; 'surely that is
a very unusual number, isn't it?'

'I could not see the third person distinctly,' continues Prue
narratively; 'but I think it was the man whom Lady Betty brought with
her last year. She seems always to bring him with her.'

'More shame for her!' replies Peggy severely.

'Mr. Harborough was very fond of him, too,' says Prue reflectively. 'He
called him "John."'

'More fool he!' still severelier; then, with a sudden and happy change
of key, 'That is right, Jacob. Give it a good souse; it is covered with
fly.'

'Do not you wonder what we shall do to-night?' cries Prue, her mind
galloping gaily away from the blackness of Lady Betty's deeds to the
splendid whiteness of her own immediate prospect. 'Charades? dancing? I
prophesy dancing.'

    '"For Willy will dance with Jane,"'

bursting out into song again--

    '"And Betty has got her John."'

She breaks off, laughing. Margaret laughs too.

'Betty may have got her John, but I am sure I do not know who Peggy and
Prue will have, unless Freddy can split himself up into several young
gentlemen at once. He can do most things'--with a touch of
bitterness--'possibly he can do that too.'

'Or perhaps we shall go out star-gazing in the walled garden,'
interrupts Prue, hurriedly and redly shying away from the name thus
introduced. 'I always think that the stars look bigger from the walled
garden than anywhere else in the world.'

'Was it there that you and Freddy went to look for Cassiopeia's Chair?'
inquires Peggy drily; 'and were more than an hour and a half before you
could find her?'

'It is so odd that I had never noticed her before,' cries Prue hastily.
'She is such a queer shape, more like a long straggling W than a chair.'

'And, after all,' continues Margaret slowly, with an uneasy smile, and
not paying any heed to her sister's interpolation, 'she turned out to be
in the kiosk.'

Prue is silent. The little hairy dog has brought her ruined garland back
to her feet; and, holding it between his fore-paws, is painstakingly
biting off each leaf and tendril, and strewing them over the
close-shaven sward. The parrot is going to sleep, standing on one leg,
and making a clacking noise with his beak; not a posture that one would
have thought _à priori_ conducive to slumber.

'It was not a place in which one would have expected to find a large
constellation, was it?' asks Peggy, still with that same rather rueful
smile, and stroking her sister's childish head as she speaks--'the
darkest corner of a kiosk.'

But at that Prue leaps to her feet; and having, in the twinkling of an
eye, twitched the hose out of Jacob's hand, she points it at her sister.

'Mention the word kiosk once more,' cries she desperately, and winking
away a couple of tears, 'and you will not have a dry stitch upon you.'



CHAPTER II

    'Ave Maria! 'Tis the hour of prayer!
     Ave Maria! 'Tis the hour of love!'


Ave Maria! 'tis the hour of dinner, too; and towards that dinner, about
to be spread at the Big House, the inmates of the little one are
hastening on foot through the park. Brougham have they none; goloshes
and a lanthorn their only substitute. The apricot sunset and the harvest
moon will be their two lanthorns to-night; but upon the goloshes Peggy
has, in the case of her sister, sternly insisted. Hastening through the
park--alternately hastening, that is to say--and loitering, as Prue's
fear of being too late, and Peggy's better-grounded apprehension of
being too early, get the upper hand.

'How calm you are!' cries the young girl feverishly, as Margaret stops
for a moment to

    'Suck the liquid air'

of the ripe harvest evening, and admire the velvet-coated stags
springing through the bracken. 'How _can_ you be so calm? Were you calm
at your first dinner-party?'

'I cannot recollect,' replies Peggy, honestly trying to recall the now
five-years-old dead banquet referred to. 'I can only remember that I
felt swelled.'

'Do not you think that we might go on now?' asks Prue, anxiously kicking
one golosh against the other. 'We cannot be much too soon; our clocks
are always slow. It would be awkward, would not it, if we sailed in
last of all?'

Though inwardly convinced that there is very little fear of this
catastrophe, Peggy good-humouredly complies; and still more
good-humouredly refrains from any 'told-you-so' observation upon their
finding themselves sole occupants of the flamboyant Louis Quatorze
chairs and Gobelin sofas in the large drawing-room, where the housemaids
have evidently only just ceased patting cushions and replacing
chair-backs.

'Never mind!' says Prue joyfully; 'we shall have all the more of it, and
we shall see everybody come in. I shall love to see everybody come in.
Who will be first? Guess! Not Lady Betty! she will be last. I remember
your saying last year that she was always late, and that she never
apologised.'

'That was very ill bred of her,' replies Margaret austerely.

'And that one night Mr. Harborough scolded her, and you saw her making a
face at him behind his back. Oh! how I wish'--breaking out into
delighted laughter--'that she would make a face at him to-night, and
that he could catch her doing it!'

Her laughter is checked by the thrilling sound of the folding-doors
being rolled back to admit some new arrivals. It is nobody very
exciting, however; only Mr. Evans, the clergyman of the parish, whom
they see every day, and that household angel of his, upon whose
testimony lies the weight of Lady Betty Harborough's conversational
laxities.

A stranger would be thunderstruck to hear that Mrs. Evans is in her
wedding-dress, as the sable rook is less black from head to heel than
she; but to those who know and love her, it is _le secret de
Polichinelle_ that her gown--through having since taken an insignificant
trip or two to the dye-pot, and been eked out with a selection of
funeral scarves and hat-bands--is verily and indeed the one in which
she stood in virgin modesty beside Mr. Evans at the altar, fifteen
rolling years ago. During a transition stage of red, it has visited the
Infirmary Ball for five years; it had an unpopular interval of
snuffy-brown, during which it did nothing remarkable; and in its present
inky phase it has mourned for several dead Evanses, and for every
crowned head in Europe.

'I am so glad we are not last,' says Mrs. Evans, relaxing her entrance
smile, and sinking into an easy conversational manner, as she sees that
she has only her two young parishioners to accost; 'not that there is
ever much fear of that in this house, but Mr. Evans could not get the
horse along. Have you any idea'--looking curiously round--'whom we are
to meet? Lady Roupell's note merely said, "Dear Mrs. Evans," or "My dear
Mrs. Evans"--I forget which--"will you and Mr. Evans come and help us to
eat a haunch of venison?" She knows that Mr. Evans would go any distance
for a haunch of venison.'

To this somewhat extravagant statement of his appreciation of the
pleasures of the table the pastor is heard to make a captious demurrer;
but his wife goes on without heeding him.

'Of course that gave one no clue. I think people ought to give one some
clue that one may know what to put on. However, I thought I could not go
far wrong in black; never too smart, and always smart enough, you know.'

Peggy assents, and, as she does so, a trivial unbelieving wonder crosses
her mind as to what the alternative 'toilette,' which Mrs. Evans
implies, but upon which the eye of man has never looked, may be.

'And you are no wiser than we?' pursues the vicar's wife
interrogatively. 'I wonder at that, living so near as you do. Have not
you heard of anybody at all?' with a rather discouraged intonation.

'I am not sure--I think--the Harboroughs----'

'The Harboroughs?' cries the other eagerly. 'Mr. and Lady Betty? Her
father died last winter; he was the second duke; succeeded by his eldest
son, her brother. The Harboroughs!--and Mr. Talbot, of course?' with a
knowing look.

'I do not know,' replies Margaret cautiously; 'perhaps.'

'I am afraid it is more than perhaps,' rejoins Mrs. Evans significantly.
'I am afraid it is----'

But her sentence dies unfinished, killed by the frou-frou of silk that
announces the approach of a smart woman, and of the white-waistcoated
gentleman who has bought the privilege of paying for the silk. Then
follows an unencumbered man, whose speech bewrayeth him to be a
diplomate, and who has a great deal to say to the smart woman.

After five minutes more frou-frou is audible, heralding the approach of
a second smart woman--Lady Betty herself this time--with her lawful
Harborough stepping somewhat insignificantly behind her.

Lady Betty is so exceedingly glad to see the two girls that Peggy asks
herself whether her memory has played her false as to the amount of
intimacy that existed between them last year. She has not overheard the
aside that passed between her ladyship and her husband as she sailed up
the long room:

'Who are they? Have we ever met them here before? Are they all one lot?'

Nor, indeed, would it ever have entered into the guileless Peggy's mind
as possible that a woman who took her by both hands, and smiled into
both eyes, could have clean forgotten, not only her name, but her very
existence.

Once more the folding-doors roll wide, to admit this time, at last, the
hostess, Lady Roupell, and her nephew, Freddy Ducane, who--both
chronically late for everything--arrive simultaneously; the one still
fastening his sleeve-link, and the other hastily clasping her bracelets.

'I beg you all a thousand pardons, good people,' cries the old lady,
going round and dealing out hearty handshakes to her injured guests. 'I
am sure you must all have been blessing me; but if you had seen me five
minutes ago, you would wonder that I am here now--ha! ha! Well, at all
events we are all assembled at last, are not we? No! Surely we are short
of somebody; who is it? John Talbot, of course! Where is John Talbot?'
looking round, first at the general company, who are quite unable to
answer her; and turning, secondly, as if involuntarily, towards Lady
Betty. 'Where is John Talbot?'

But at this instant, in time to save Lady Betty's blushes, which indeed
are in no great hurry to show themselves, John Talbot appears to answer
for himself--John Talbot, the third occupant of the brougham, the 'man
whom Lady Betty always takes about with her.'

His entry is not quite what is expected, as he enters by no means alone.
Clasped in his embrace, with her fat arms fastened round his neck, and
her face buried--a good deal to its detriment--in his collar, is a young
person in her nightgown; while running by his side is a little barefoot
gentleman, with a long dressing-gown trailing behind him.

'We hope that you will forgive us,' says the young man, advancing
towards his hostess; 'but we have come to say good-night. I suggested
that our costume was not quite what is usual, but I was overruled.'

As he speaks his fair burden makes it clear by a wriggling movement that
she wishes to be set down; and, being obliged in this particular,
instantly makes for her mother, and, climbing up into Lady Betty's
splendid lap, begins to whisper in her ear. The boy stands shamefaced,
clutching his protector's hand, and evidently painfully conscious that
no other gentleman but himself in the room is in a dressing-gown.

'Do you know what she is asking me?' cries Lady Betty, bursting into a
fit of laughter. 'Freddy, I must congratulate you upon a new bonne
fortune. She is asking whether she may kiss Freddy Ducane! There, be off
with you! Since'--with a look of casual careless coquetry at
Talbot--'you have introduced my family, perhaps you will be good enough
to remove them.'

Mr. Talbot complies; and, having recaptured Miss Harborough--a feat of
some difficulty, as, unlike her brother, she enjoys her _déshabillé_,
and announces a loud intention of kissing everybody--departs in the same
order in which he arrived, and the pretty little couple are seen no
more.



CHAPTER III


It is obvious that, whatever else he may be, John Talbot is, with the
exception of Mr. Evans, the man of smallest rank in the room, since to
him is assigned the honour of leading Peggy into the dining-room. She
had not at all anticipated it; but had somehow expected fully to see
him, in defiance of precedence, bearing off his Betty. Nor is she by any
means more pleased at, than prepared for, the provision made for her
entertainment. John Talbot, the man whose name she has never heard
except in connection with that of another man's wife! John Talbot, 'the
man whom Lady Betty always takes about with her!' In Heaven's name, why
does not she take him about with her now, and not devolve the onus of
his entertainment upon other innocent and unwilling persons?

With thoughts such as these, that augur but ill for the amusingness of
his dinner, running through her mind, Margaret lays her hand as lightly
as it is possible to do, without absolutely not touching it, upon the
coat-sleeve presented to her, and marches silently by its side into the
dining-room, inwardly resolving to be as laconic, as forbidding, and as
unlike Lady Betty to its owner as politeness towards her hostess will
allow, and to devote as nearly as possible the whole of her conversation
to her neighbour on the other side. Nor does her resolution flinch, even
when that other neighbour reveals himself as Mr. Evans. It is certain
that no duty compels her to take the initiative. Until John Talbot
begins, she may preserve that silence which she would like to maintain
intact, until she rises from the feast to which she has but just sat
down. Doubtlessly he is of the same mind as she; and, maddened by
separation from his idol, irritated against her, who, for even an hour,
has taken that idol's place, he will ask nothing better than to sit mute
in resentful pining for her, from whom Lady Roupell has so inhumanly
parted him. As to his intentions to be mute, she is soon undeceived; for
she has not yet finished unbuttoning her gloves when she finds herself
addressed by him.

'I think I had the pleasure of meeting you here last year?'

Nothing can be more banal than the observation; more serenely civil,
less maddened than the tone in which it is conveyed. He is not going to
leave her in peace then? She is so surprised and annoyed at this
discovery that for a moment she forgets to answer him. It is not until
reminded of her omission by an expectant look on his face that she
recollects to drop a curt 'Yes.'

'I came'--thinking from her manner that the incident has escaped her
memory, and that he will recall it by becoming more circumstantial--'I
came with the Harboroughs.'

Another 'Yes,' still more curt and bald than the last. H'm! not
flattering for him, certainly; but she has obviously not yet overtaken
the reminiscence.

'It was about this time of year.'

'Yes.'

What is the matter with the girl? there is certainly something very odd
about her. He has noticed her but cursorily so far, but now gives her an
attentively examining look. She appears to be perfectly sane, and not in
the least shy. Is that handsome mouth, fresh and well cut, absolutely
incapable of framing any syllable but 'Yes'? He gives himself some
little trouble so to compose his next question that the answer, 'Yes,'
to it shall be impossible.

'Do you happen to recollect whether it was this month or September? Lady
Betty Harborough and I had an argument about it as we came up from the
station.'

_Lady Betty Harborough!_ With what a brazen front he himself has
introduced her! She, Peggy, would as soon have thought of flying in the
air as of mentioning that name which he has just so matter-of-factly
pronounced.

'I am afraid that I do not remember,' she answers frostily.

He looks at her again, in growing wonder. What _does_ ail her? Is it,
after all, a mysterious form of shyness? He knows under how many odd
disguises that strange malady of civilisation hides itself. Despite his
thirty-two years, is not he shy himself sometimes? Poor girl, he can
feel for her!

'Not only did we meet here,' pursues he, with a pleasant friendly smile,
'but Lady Roupell was good enough to take me down to call upon you at
your own house.'

'Yes?'

Well, it is uphill work! If he has to labour at the oar like this from
now until dessert, there will not be much left of him at the end. Well,
never mind! it is all in the day's work; only he will ask Lady Roupell
quietly not to inflict this impossible dummy upon him again.

'We came down upon you in great force, I remember--it was on a
Sunday--Lady Roupell, Freddy, the Bentincks, the Harboroughs.'

He pauses, discouraged, despite himself. She has been leisurely sipping
her soup, and now lays down her spoon, looking straight before her. He
heaves a loud sigh, but not even that induces her to look round at him.

'Lady Roupell often brings people down on Sunday afternoons,' she says,
in an indifferent voice, which implies that it is a quite impossible
feat for her memory to separate the one insignificant Sunday to which he
alludes from all or any others. In point of fact, she remembers it
perfectly, and the recollection of it adds a double chill to her tone.

On that very Sunday afternoon did not this man and his Lady Betty
flagrantly lose themselves for an hour in an orchard six yards square?
Did not Lady Betty, without leave asked or given, eat all the mulberries
that were ripe on Peggy's one tree? Did not she, in rude horse-play
pelting a foolish guardsman with green apples, break a bell-glass that
sheltered the picotee cuttings cherished of Jacob's and of Peggy's
souls?

Ignorant of the offensive reminiscences he has stirred up, Mr. Talbot
blunders on:

'I remember you had a tame----'

He stops. He cannot for the life of him recollect what the tame animal
was that he was taken to see. He can only recall that it was some beast
not usually kept as a pet, and that it lived in a house in the
stable-yard. Of course if he pauses she will supply the word, and his
lapse of memory need never be perceived.

But he has reckoned without his host. She has indeed turned her face a
little towards him, and says 'Yes?' expectantly.

It is clear that she has not the least intention of helping him; and is
it, or is it not, his fancy that there is a slight ill-natured tremor
about that corner of her mouth which is nearest him?

'A tame--badger,' suggests he desperately.

But the moment that he has uttered the word he knows that it was not a
badger.

'A tame badger!' repeats she slowly, and again gazing straight before
her; 'yes, what a nice pet!'

She is not shy at all, nor even stupid. She is only rude and
malevolent. But he will not give her the satisfaction of letting her see
that he perceives it.

'Perhaps Lady Roupell will have your permission to bring us down to see
you next Sunday, when I may have an opportunity of stroking my old
friend the badger's' (he smiles, as if he had known all along that it
was not a badger) 'head once again.'

'I do not know what Lady Roupell's plans for next Sunday are,' replies
she snubbingly; and so turns, with a decided movement of head and
shoulder, towards her other neighbour, Mr. Evans, who, however, is not
nearly so grateful for her attentions as he should be.

Mr. Evans has the poor and Peggy Lambton always with him, but he has not
a haunch of fat buck-venison more than three times a year. In everyday
life he is more than willing to give his share of the Vicarage dinner to
such among the sick and afflicted of his flock as can be consoled and
supported by underdone shoulders of mutton and batter-puddings; but on
the rare occasions when the opportunity offers of having his palate
titillated by the delicate cates of the higher civilisation, he had very
much rather be left in peace to enjoy them. He has no fault to find in
this respect with Prue Lambton, to whom, as having taken her in to
dinner, he might be supposed to have some conversational obligations.

Why, then, cannot Peggy, to whom he owes nothing, be equally
considerate? Perhaps Peggy's heart speaks for him. At all events, after
one or two vain shots at the harvest-home and the Workhouse tea, she
desists from the futile effort to lead him into chat; but subtly remains
sitting half turned towards him, as if talking to him, so as to baffle
any further ventures--if, indeed, he have the spirit to make such--on
the part of her other neighbour. Her tongue being idle, she allows her
eyes to travel. It is true that the thick forest of oats and poppies
which waves over the board renders the sight of the table's other side
about as difficult as that of the coast of France; but at least she can
see her fat hostess at the head of the table, and her slim host at the
foot. Freddy Ducane is in his glory--something fair and female on either
hand. On his right Lady Betty, who, being a duke's daughter, takes
precedence of the other smart woman, who was only a miss before she
blossomed into a viscountess; on his left, to ensure himself against the
least risk of having any dull or vacuous moments during his dinner, he
has arranged Prue Lambton--'his little friend Prue.' Beyond the mere
fact of proximity--in itself, of course, a splendid boon--she does not,
so far, seem to be much the gainer by her position.

However, he snatches a moment every now and then to explain to
her--Peggy knows it as well as if she heard his words--how entirely a
matter of irksome duty and hospitality are his whispers to Lady Betty,
his tender comments upon her clothes, and long bunglings with the clasp
of her pearls. And, judging by her red-stained cheeks, her empty plate
(which of us in his day has not been too superbly happy to eat?), and
the trembling smiles that rush out to meet his lame explanations, Prue
believes him. Poor little Prue!

Margaret sighs sadly and impatiently, and looks away--looks away to find
John Talbot's eyes fastened upon her with an expression of such innocent
and genuine curiosity that she asks involuntarily:

'Why do you look at me?'

'I beg your pardon a thousand times!' he answers apologetically. 'I was
only wondering, to be quite sincere--by the bye, do you like people to
be quite sincere?'

'That depends,' replies Peggy cautiously.

'Well, then, I must risk it. I was wondering why on earth you had
thought it worth your while to snub me in the way you have been doing.'

She does not answer, but again looks straight before her.

How very offensive in a woman to look straight before her! She ought to
be quite certain of the perfection of her profile before she presents it
so persistently to you.

Shall he tell her so? That would make her look round pretty quickly.

'I was trying to see whether I could not regard it in the light of a
compliment,' continues he audaciously.

'That would not be easy,' replies she drily.

'It was something that you should have thought me worth wasting your
powder and shot upon,' he answers.

Certainly her profile is anything but perfect; her chin projects too
much. In her old age, if she had a hook nose (which she has not), she
would be a mere nut-cracker.

Shall he tell her that? How many disagreeable things he might tell her!
It puts him into quite a good humour with her to think of them.

'Now, about that badger, for instance,' says he.

But at that, against her will, she laughs outright.

'Dear little beast!' she cries maliciously; 'so playful and
affectionate! such a pet!'

She has laughed. That is something gained, at all events. It is not a
nice friendly laugh. On the contrary, it is a very rude, ill-natured
one: she is obviously a rude, ill-natured girl; but it is a laugh.

'You can see for yourself,' pursues he, holding out one of the _menus_
for her inspection, 'that we are only at the first _entrée_; we shall
have to sit beside each other for a good hour more. Lady Roupell does
not want to talk to me; and your neighbour--I do not know who he is, and
I will not ask you, because I know you would not answer me civilly--but
whoever he is, he will not talk to you. I saw you try to make him, and
he would not; he snubbed you. I was avenged! I was very glad!'

Peggy would much rather not have laughed; but there is something that
seems to her so ludicrous in the fact of her abortive advances to Mr.
Evans having been overheard and triumphed at, that she cannot help
yielding to a brief and stifled mirth at her own expense. And, after
all, what he says is sense. He is a very bad man, and she dislikes him
extremely; but to let him observe to her that the news from Afghanistan
seems warlike; or to remark in return that she has never seen the
root-crops look better, need not in the least detract from the
thoroughness of her ill opinion of him, and may make the ensuing hour a
shade less tedious to herself than would entire silence. So she turns
her candid eyes, severely, serenely blue, for the first time, full upon
him, and says:

'I think you are right; I think we had better talk.'

But of course, at that sudden permission to talk, every possible topic
of conversation flies out of his head. And yet as she remains, with her
two blue eyes sternly fixed upon him, awaiting the question or questions
that she has given him permission to put, he must say something; so he
asks stupidly:

'Who is your neighbour?'

'Our vicar.'

'What is his name?' (How infinitely little he cares what the vicar's
name is; but it gives him time.)

'E V A N S,' replies she, spelling very distinctly and slowly, afraid
that she may be overheard if she pronounce the whole name.

'Oh, thanks; and the lady opposite in mourning is Mrs. E V A N S?'
(spelling too).

'She is Mrs. Evans; but she is not in mourning; she is in her
wedding-gown!' replies Peggy, breaking into a smile.

She never can help smiling at the thought of Mrs. Evans's wedding-dress,
any more than Charles Lamb's Cheshire cats can help laughing when they
think of Cheshire being a County Palatine. She is smiling broadly now.
Well, if her smile come seldom, there is no doubt that it is a very
agreeable one when it does come. What sort of thing could he say that
would be likely to bring it back?

'I did not know that people were ever married in black.'

She shakes her head oracularly.

'No more they are!'

She is smiling still. (What a delightful wide mouth! and what _dents de
jeune chien_!)

'It is made out of an old Geneva gown of his?' suggests Talbot wildly.

Again she shakes her nut-brown head.

'Wrong.'

'I have it!' he cries eagerly. 'I know more about the subject than you
think; it has been dyed.'

The mirth has retired from her mouth, and now lurks in the tail of her
bright eye.

'You did not find that out for yourself,' she says distrustfully; 'some
one told you.'

'Upon my honour, it is my own unassisted discovery,' replies he
solemnly, and then they both laugh.

Finding herself betrayed into such a harmony of light-hearted merriment
with him, Margaret pulls herself up. After all, she must not forget that
there is a medium between the stiff politeness she had planned and this
hail-fellow-well-met-ness into which she finds herself somehow sliding.
Nor does his next sentence, though innocently enough meant, at all
conduce to make her again relax her austerity.

'I should not allow my wife to dye her wedding-gown black.'

His wife! How dare he allude to such a person? He, with his illegal
Betty ogling and double-entendre-ing and posturing opposite! How dare he
allude to marriage at all? He to whom that sacred tie is a derision! She
has frozen up again.

Without having the faintest suspicion of the cause, he is wonderingly
aware of the result. Is it possible that she can object to his
introducing his hypothetical wife into the consideration? She is more
than welcome to retort upon him with her supposititious husband. He will
give her the chance.

'Would you?'

'Would I what?'

'Dye your wedding-gown black?'

She knows that she would not. She knows that she would lay it up in
lavender, and tenderly show the yellowed skirt and outlandish sleeves to
her grandchildren forty years hence. But in the pleasure of
contradicting him, truth is worsted.

'Yes.'

'You would?' in a tone of surprise.

She must repeat her fib.

'Yes.'

'Well, I should not have thought it.'

He would like her to ask him why he would not have thought it; but she
does not oblige him.

'I think it would show a want of sentiment,' pursues he perseveringly.

'Yes?'

Good heavens! If she has not got back again to her monosyllable!

'Do not you?'

'No.'

'I should think it would bring ill-luck, should not you?'

'No.'

'Should not you, really?'

'I do not think that it is worth arguing about,' replies Peggy, roused
and wearied. 'I may dye mine, and you need not dye yours, and we shall
neither of us be any the worse.'

'And yet----' he begins; but she interrupts him.

'After all,' she says, turning once more upon him those two dreadfully
direct blue eyes--'after all, I am not at all sure that it is not a good
emblem of marriage--the white gown that goes through muddy waters, and
comes out black on the other side.'

There is such a weight of meaning and emphasis in her words that he is
silent, and wishes that she had kept to her monosyllables.



CHAPTER IV

    'Yon meaner beauties of the night,
       That poorly satisfy our eyes,
     More by your number than your light;
       You common people of the skies,
       What are you when the moon shall rise?'


'Oh, Peggy! I have had such a dinner!' cries Prue, in an ecstatic voice,
drawing her sister away into a window as soon as the ladies have reached
the drawing-room.

'Have you indeed?' replies Margaret distrustfully, and wilfully
misunderstanding. 'Had you two helps of venison, like Mr. Evans?'

'Oh! I am not talking of the food!' rejoins the other impatiently. 'I do
not know whether or not I ate anything; I do not think I did. But they
were so amusing, I did not want to talk. He saw that I did not want to
talk, so he let me sit and listen.'

'That was very considerate of him.'

'She was so amusing; she told us such funny stories about Mr.
Harborough--no harm, you know, but rather making game of him. I do not
know what Mrs. Evans meant by saying that she stuck at nothing. She said
one or two things that I did not quite understand; but I am sure there
was no harm in them.'

'Perhaps not.'

'And she was so kind to me,' pursues Prue, with enthusiasm; 'trying to
draw me into the conversation, asking how long I had been out.'

But here the sisters' _tête-à-tête_ is broken in upon by the
high-pitched voice of the subject of their conversation.

'Who would like to come and see my children in bed? Do not all speak at
once. H'm! nobody? This is hardly gratifying to a mother's feelings.
Miss Lambton, I am sure you will come; you look as if you were fond of
children. And you, Miss Prue, I shall insist upon your coming, whether
you like it or not!'

So saying she puts her hand familiarly through the delighted little
girl's arm, and walks off with her, Peggy following grudgingly. She has
not the slightest desire to see the young Harboroughs, asleep or wake;
though she has already had to defend her heart against an inclination to
grow warm towards them, upon their rosy nightgowned entry before dinner.
She has to defend it still more strongly, when, the nursery being
reached, she sees them lying in the all-gentleness of perfect slumber in
their cribs. Even that not innumerous class who dislike the waking
child, the self-assertive, interrogative, climbing, bawling, smashing,
waking child, grow soft-hearted at the sight of the little sleeping
angel. Is this really Lady Betty bending over the little bed? recovering
the outflung chubby arm from fear of cold, straightening the coverlets,
and laying a light hand on the cool forehead? Peggy ought to be pleased
by such a sign of grace; but when we have formed a conception of a
person we are seldom quite pleased by the discovery of a fact that
declines to square with that conception.

'You are very fond of them?' she says in a whisper, that, without her
intending it, is interrogative; and through which pierces perhaps a tone
of more surprise than she is herself aware of.

Lady Betty stares.

'Fond of them! Why, I am a perfect fool about them; at least I am about
him! I do not care so much about her; she is a thorough Harborough! Did
you ever see such a likeness as hers to her father? He' (with a
regretful motion of the head toward the boy's bed) 'is a little like him
too; but he has a strong look of me. When his eyes are open he is the
image of me. I have a good mind to wake him to show you.'

'Oh, do not!' cries Margaret eagerly; 'it would be a sin!'

But the caution is needless. The mother had no real thought of breaking
in upon that lovely slumber.

'Did you ever see such a duck?' says she rapturously, stooping over him;
'and his hand!'--taking the little plump fist softly into her own
palm--'look at his hand! Will not he be a fine strong man? He can pummel
his nurse already, cannot he, Harris? And not a day's illness in all his
little life, bless him!'

Her eyes are almost moist as she speaks. The colour would no doubt come
and go in her cheeks, only that unfortunately it has contracted the
habit of never going, unless washed off by eau-de-Cologne. Against her
will, Peggy feels her ill opinion melting away like mist; but happily,
on her return to the drawing-room, she is able to restore it in its
entirety. For no sooner have the men appeared than Lady Betty
disappears. The exact moment of her flight and its companion Peggy has
been unable to verify; as, at the moment when it must have taken place,
she was buttonholed by Mrs. Evans on the subject of rose-rash, an
unhandsome little disorder at present rioting among the Evans's ranks;
and for which Peggy is supposed to have a specific. But though she did
not actually see the person who shared Lady Betty's evasion, she is as
sure as to who it was as if her very bodily eyes had looked upon
him,--John Talbot, of course. With John Talbot she is now dishonestly
philandering under the honest harvest-moon; to John Talbot she is now
talking criminal nonsense, with those very lips that five minutes ago
were laid upon the sacred velvet cheeks of her little children. With a
curling lip Margaret looks round the room.

Why, Prue is missing too, and Freddy! Prue, the prone to quinsy, to
throats, to delicacy of all kinds, straying over the deep-dewed grass
without cloak or goloshes! For it would be expecting something more than
human of her to suppose that when invited out by her admirer to hear all
that the poets have said of Orion and Arcturus and the sister Pleiads,
she should stop him in the full flow of his inspiration to inquire after
what the Americans prettily call her 'gums.' If she will only have the
sense to keep to the gravel paths! The elder sister has walked to the
window, and now stands straining her eyes down the long alley to see if
she can catch any glimpse of the little figure that, since its wailing
infancy seventeen years ago, has caused her so many anxious hours. Shall
she take upon herself the invidious office of spy, and follow her? or
trust to the child's common sense, and to the possibility of her
occasionally dropping her eyes from the enormous moon, now queening it
in a great field of radiance above her head, to her own thin-shod feet?
She is still hesitating when a voice, coming from behind her, makes her
start.

'What a night!'

She turns to find that the utterer of this original ejaculation is none
other than John Talbot. Is it possible that they have already returned
from their lovers' ramble? But no! there is no sign of Lady Betty. It is
clear that _he_ could not have been the companion of her stroll. For the
second time this evening Margaret has found herself in error.

'_You?_' she says, in a tone of rather vexed surprise.

'Why not?'

'I thought that you were out.'

'_I!_ no!'

A moment's silence. Whom then could she have lured into her toils?
Freddy? But Freddy must be with Prue. Mr. Evans? the diplomate? There is
not much choice.

Her speculations are again broken in upon by the voice:

'Will not you take a turn?'

'I think not; that is to say'--correcting herself--'I shall only go a
few steps, just to find my sister.'

'May I help you to find her?'

'I do not know why I should give you that trouble.'

A moment's silence, spent by both in reflections. This is the outcome of
his.

'I do not think that I have done anything fresh.'

'Anything fresh?'

'Not since we parted; nothing to earn me a new set of snubs.'

She smiles a little. 'You have not had much time.'

'And I will not do anything fresh.' Then aside, 'I am blessed if I know
what I did.'

'That is rather a rash engagement,' smiling again.

It is fortunate that her teeth are so good, for she shows a great many
of them.

'But if I keep it I may come?' pertinaciously.

'I suppose so;' and out they step together.

It cannot be helped, but it is a little perverse of fate that, after
all, it should be she who, in appearance at least, is the one to
philander in the moonlight with this despiser of the marriage law. And
whether or no it is his presence that brings her ill-luck, it is some
time before she succeeds in the object of her search. The grounds are
rather large, with meandering walks and great clumps of shrubs that hide
them from one another.

Each of Prue's favourite resorts has been visited, but without result.
The walled garden, hushed and sleeping; the trellised wall, where
ancient brick has disappeared beneath the thronged faces, diversely
dazzling, of the brown, orange, tawny and sulphur nasturtiums; the
retired seat beneath the tulip-tree. All, all are empty. Nothing remains
but the kiosk, and Peggy feels sure that Prue is not in the kiosk.

Thither, however, they bend their steps; but before they reach it a turn
of the walk reveals to them two seated figures. One is certainly the
Prue whom they seek; Prue sitting upon an uncomfortable garden bench, on
which nobody ever sits--on which she herself has never sat before. But
is it conceivable that, since dinner, Freddy can have doubled in size,
can have lost all the hair off the top of his head, and have exchanged
his cambric shirt-front and his diamond and turquoise studs for a
double-breasted waistcoat buttoned to the chin?

With a feeling akin to stupefaction Peggy realises that it is Mr. Evans,
and not Freddy, who is Prue's companion. As they approach he rises
reluctantly. He had much rather that they had not come. Prue never wants
to talk to him. She lets him sit and silently ruminate and dream beside
her; a cigarette between his lips, and a blessed oblivion of dissenters,
boys' schooling, girls' ugly faces, rickety baby, Christmas bills,
invading his lulled brain. Prue neither rises nor changes her position.
Her arms lie listlessly on her lap, and she is staring up at Cassiopeia,
the one constellation for ever exalted above its fellows by having had
Freddy Ducane for its exhibitor.

'Do you think you are quite wise to sit out here, with nothing over your
shoulders?' asks Margaret, stooping over her sister, and speaking in a
tone of such exceeding gentleness as positively to astound Talbot, who
had not calculated upon the existence of such tones in a voice which has
conscientiously employed only its harsher keys for his benefit.

'I am not cold,' replies Prue dully.

'How long have you been here? Long?'

'I do not know.'

'We were too comfortable to take note of time, were not we, Miss Prue?'
says Mr. Evans, with a sigh for his lost peace. 'A southern moon, is not
it?' to Talbot.

'Quite long enough, I am sure,' rejoined Peggy, putting her hand
persuasively on her sister's shoulder. 'Come with us! come!'

Talbot cannot help hearing that 'Come!' even while exchanging original
remarks upon the stars of the southern hemisphere with the vicar; nor
can he further help speculating as to whether, if that 'Come!' were
addressed to himself, and were inviting him to follow it to Lapland, to
Hong Kong, or to some yet hotter place, he should have the force of mind
to decline. But at all events Prue has.

'I had rather stay here,' replies she, _sotto voce_, with an accent of
miserable irritation. 'Why should I come? Nobody wants me; nobody misses
me! Please leave me alone.'

There is nothing for it but to comply. With a heavier heart than that
with which she reached it, Margaret leaves the bench and its ill-sorted
occupants. She takes little heed as to the direction of her steps until
she finds herself and her companion approaching the kiosk, whence is
plainly audible the sound of voices, which, as they advance nearer to
it, grows hushed. It is too dark to see into the interior, as above the
little gimcrack temple, memorial of the bad taste of fifty years ago,
rises a brotherhood of tall, spruce firs that project their shade over
and before it.

Just in front of it Talbot stops her to point out to her a shooting-star
that is darting its trail of glory through the immensities of space. Has
he not heard those voices--he must have been deaf if he did not--nor
observed that marked succeeding silence? He shows no sign of uneasiness
or curiosity. His eye is resting apparently, with a calmer enjoyment
than she can bring to it, on the gold mist rolling its gauzy-billows in
the hollows of the park.

It is only to those who come to her with a tranquil and disengaged mind
that the great mother gives the real key of her treasure-houses; and
Peggy's mind to-night is too ruffled to give her any claim to the great
endowment.

They are standing silently side by side, when a noise, proceeding from
the inside of the kiosk, makes itself audible--a noise apparently
intended to counterfeit the mewing of a cat, followed by the crowing of
a most improbable cock.

Talbot does not even turn his head.

'We are not at all frightened, and not much amused,' he says, in a clear
matter-of-fact voice.

'You had not an idea that we were here, had you?' cries Lady Betty,
springing out of the temple, followed by Freddy Ducane. 'Did not I mew
well? and did not Freddy crow badly? Freddy, you have no more idea of
crowing than a carp.'

'I can do better than that,' replies Freddy, in self-defence. 'I am not
in voice to-night.'

'But you had not a notion that we were here, had you?' repeats Lady
Betty pertinaciously.

'As we had heard you talking at the top of your voices for half a mile
before we came up to you, we had some slight inkling of it.'

Peggy wonders whether the cold dryness of his tone is as patent to the
person to whom it is addressed as it is to herself. She supposes that it
is, since she instantly takes possession of him; and, under the pretext
of showing him a plant which can scarcely be distinguishable from its
neighbours under the colourless moonlight, walks him off into a dusky
alley.

Margaret remains alone with Freddy.

    '"Why so dull and mute, young sinner?
      Prithee, why so mute?"'

says he familiarly, approaching her.

She looks him fully and gravely in the face. Most people find it
difficult to look at Freddy Ducane without smiling. Peggy feels no such
inclination. Between her and this image of youth and sunshine there
rises another image--a poor little image, to whom this gay weather-cock
gives its weather--a little image that expands or shrinks as this
all-kissing zephyr blows warm or cold upon it.

'Because I have nothing to say, I suppose,' replies she shortly.

'Come with me to the walled garden'--in a wheedling voice--'and show me
the stars.'

'Thank you, I can see them quite well here.'

    '"My pretty Peg, my pretty Peg,
      Ah, never look so shy!"'

cries he, breaking into a laugh, which she does not echo.

'I am not your pretty Peg; and I have told you several times that I will
not be called "Peg."'

'_Peggy_, then. Personally, I prefer _Peg_; but it is a matter of
opinion. Peggy, are you aware that you have been poaching?'

'I do not know what you mean.' But she does.

'Her ladyship did not much like it, I can tell you,' continues he
delightedly. 'She manifested distinct signs of uneasiness. I could not
keep her quiet, though I went through all my little tricks for her. She
_would_ make those ridiculous noises; and she whipped him off pretty
quickly, did not she? Ah, Peggy'--tenderly--'you would have done better
to have kept to me! _I_ would not have left you in the lurch.'

To this she deigns no answer.

'Where is Prue?' asks he, a moment later, with an easy change of topic.
'What have you done with Prue?'

'I have done nothing with her,' rather sadly.

'You have sent her home with her nurse to bed, I suppose?' suggests he
reproachfully. 'I sometimes think that you are a little hard upon Prue.'

_Hard upon Prue!_ She, whose one thought, waking and sleeping, is how
best to put her strong arm round that fragile body and weakling soul, so
as to shield them from the knocks of this rough world! This, too, from
him, who has introduced the one element of suffering it has ever known
into Prue's little life.

'Am I?' she answers quietly; but her cheek burns.

'There is no one that suits me so well as Prue,' says the young man
sentimentally, looking up to the sky.

    '"She's like the keystone of an arch,
        That doth consummate beauty;
      She's like the music of a march,
        That maketh joy of duty!"'

Peggy's eye relents. He may mean it--may be speaking truth--it is not
likely, as he seldom does so; but after all, the greatest liars must,
during their lives, speak more truth than lies. One is prone to believe
what one wishes, and he _may_ mean it.

'There is no one that I am so fond of as I am of Prue,' pursues he, with
a quiver in his voice.

'You have an odd way of showing it sometimes,' says she, in a softened
tone.

'Are you alluding to _that_?' asks he, glancing carelessly over his
shoulder at the kiosk. 'Pooh! I hated it. I shall get milady to pull it
down some day. I was so glad when you and Talbot came up: it was so
dark, and I felt the earwigs dropping on my head.'

'Then why did you go there?' inquires she.

He bursts into a laugh, from which sentiment and quiver are miles away.

'The woman tempted me; at least' (seeing his companion's mouth taking a
contemptuous upward curve at this mode of expression)--'at least, she
seemed to expect it. I always like to do what people seem to expect.'

And Margaret's heart sinks.



CHAPTER V

    'To one that has been long in city pent,
       'Tis very sweet to gaze upon the fair
       And open face of heaven--to breathe a prayer
     Full in the smile of the blue firmament.'


It is the next day. John Talbot has spent a very happy morning. He is a
countryman at heart. Fate has put him into the Foreign Office, and made
him a great man's secretary, and tied him by the leg to London for ten
months out of the twelve; but the country, whose buttercups brightened
his childhood, keeps his heart--the country, with its little larks
upsoaring from its brown furrows; with its green and its russet gowns;
with its good, sweet, innocent noises, and its heavenly smells. He has
been lying on the flat of his back on the sward, with his hands under
his head, staring in luxurious idleness up at the sky, and listening to
the robin's song--in August scarcely anybody but the redbreast
sings--and to the pleasant swish of the wind among the lime-tops. Lying
there alone on the flat of his back--that is to say, at first.
Afterwards he has plenty of company. Not, indeed, that either his host
or his fellow-guests trouble him much. From the lair he has chosen he
has a view of his lady's window. It is true that he looks but seldom
towards it, nor do its carefully closed casements and drawn curtains
hold out much hope of a descent of the sleeping goddess within. Lady
Roupell lets it be understood that she does not wish to be seen or
spoken to till luncheon; and the rest are dispersed, he neither knows
nor cares whither. And yet he has companions. They are in the act of
being escorted out to walk by their nurses when they catch sight of him.
In an instant they bear down upon him as fast as their fat legs will
carry them.

'Just think!' cries Lily, beginning to shout at the top of her voice
long before she reaches him--'just think what Franky has been doing! Is
not he a naughty boy? He took the water-can and emptied it over Nanny's
skirt! She says she will ask mammy to whip him!'

'Which mammy will most certainly decline to do,' says Talbot _sotto
voce_ to himself.

He has raised himself on his elbow, the more safely to receive their
onslaught. He is aware of an idiosyncrasy of Miss Harborough's--that of
narrating hideous crimes as having been committed by her little brother,
which have in reality been executed by herself.

'If it was Franky who upset the water-can, how is it that it is your
frock which is wet?' asks he judicially.

She does not answer, beyond putting her head affectedly on one side, and
rubbing her shoulder against her ear.

'Are you sure that it was not you, and not Franky?'

Instantly, with the greatest ease and affability, she acknowledges that
it was she; and the nurses at that moment coming up, she is about to be
walked off for chastisement, when weakly interceded for by Talbot, who
has the further lunacy to request that both children may be left in his
charge. After that he has a very eventful morning. He is in turn a pony,
a giraffe, a hyæna, a flamingo (unhappily for him the little Harboroughs
have lately visited the Zoological Gardens), a rabbit (about the natural
history and domestic life of which animal he hears some very startling
facts), and the captain of a robber band. Finally, he has to take part
in a terrible game--the one most dreaded by their family of all in the
little Harborough repertoire--Ingestre Hall destroyed by fire, done
with bricks. And the odd thing is that he likes it--likes it better than
Downing Street and the great statesman.

When the luncheon gong sounds he can hardly realise that it is two
o'clock. He is so much dishevelled by his transmigrations--which,
indeed, have been as numerous as Buddha's--that, after having repaired
the injuries to his toilette, he finds that everybody is already in the
dining-room--finds the inevitable chair left vacant for him beside Lady
Betty. He has sat by Lady Betty through so many luncheons and dinners
that it has lost the gloss of novelty, and they speak to each other
scarcely more than a husband and wife would do. It is her voice that he
hears prevailing over those of the rest of the company as he enters the
room, for she has not Cordelia's gift.

'Lambton? Are they any relation to Lord Durham?'

'I do not think so,' replies the hostess carelessly. 'Their father was a
small squire in these parts, who over-farmed himself, and died very much
out at elbows. And their mother--well, their mother was nothing but a
very poor creature' (with a shrug), 'who was always fancying herself
ill, and whom nobody believed until she proved it by dying! Ha! ha! Poor
soul! I do not think that anybody cried much, except Peggy; she cried
her eyes out.'

'Not quite out,' thinks Talbot, remembering the severe blue darts that
shot at him over-night; and to his own soul, at this testimony to her
tender-heartedness, he says, 'Nice Peggy!'

'Which was Peggy?' asks Mr. Harborough, looking up from his cutlet; 'the
big one? Yes? I like Peggy. I do not know when I have seen such a
good-looking girl.'

His wife bursts into a laugh.

'I knew that Ralph would admire her. Did not I tell you so?' turning to
Talbot. 'She is just his style; they cannot be too big for Ralph; he
admires by avoirdupois weight.'

'As to that, my dear,' retorts Mr. Harborough tranquilly, 'we all know
that you are not much in the habit of commending your own sex; but I
think you will find that I am not alone in my opinion.'

There is a moment's silence. Men are cowardly things. Not one of them is
found to take up the cudgels for poor Margaret.

'She would be good-looking perhaps if she were bled,' pursues Lady
Betty; 'she looks so aggressively healthy!'

'You cannot make the same complaint of poor Prue, at any rate,' says
Lady Roupell, in a voice that betrays some slight signs of
dissatisfaction with her guest's observations, for she likes her
Lambtons.

'No; she is a high-coloured little skeleton!' rejoins Betty, looking
with pensive ill-nature at her plate. 'What a pity that they cannot
strike a balance! The one is as much too small as the other is too big;
they are like a shilling and sixpence!'

And having thus peaceably demolished the sisters, whom nobody defends,
she passes smilingly to another subject.

After luncheon Talbot is lounging before the hall door, with a
cigarette, thinking, with a sort of subdued disgust (engendered,
perhaps, by the fragment of conversation but now related) of himself,
his surroundings, and his life in general, when he is joined by his
hostess, dressed for walking--as villainously dressed as only a female
millionnaire dares be: a frieze jacket like a man's, a billycock hat set
on the top of her cap, and a stout stick in her hand. She tells him that
she is going down to the farm to see how the stacks are getting on, and
he strolls along aimlessly beside her. He knows that he ought not--he
knows that his unwritten laws bind him for all the afternoon to the side
of the hammock where Lady Betty is swinging; and yet he goes on
strolling along by the side of an old woman to whom no laws, either
God's straight or man's crooked ones, bind him, simply opening his
nostrils to the pungent perfume of the hot bracken, and his eyes to the
sight of the gentle doves watching him from under Queen Elizabeth's oak.

Arrived at the farm, he is slowly making up his mind to return to his
duty, when his companion addresses him:

'Will you go a message for me?'

'With all the pleasure in life,' replies he, a slight misgiving crossing
his mind as to how he will be received on his return after so prolonged
a truancy.

'It is only just to run over to the Lambtons'.'

'The Lambtons'?'

'Yes--Peggy and Prue.'

'Of course, of course; but--but how am I to find them?'

'I thought you knew the way; I took you there last year. You cannot miss
it; a hundred yards down the road'--(pointing)--'just outside the park;
a little old red house. You cannot miss it.'

She is turning away back to her ricks and her reapers when he recalls
her.

'But what am I to say when I get there?'

'Pooh?' she says, laughing; 'what a head I have! I forgot the message.
Tell Peggy we are all coming down to-morrow afternoon, Sunday, as usual;
and bid her have plenty of muffins for us.'

As he walks along the road he ponders with himself whether, if Margaret
looks at him with the unaccountable austerity of last night, he shall
ever be able to give her that insolent order for unlimited muffins.

Lady Roupell was right. There is no missing the way. He almost wishes
that there was. He has rung the bell--how much too loudly! It seems as
if it would never stop clanging. And yet the odd thing is that he has
produced no result by his violence; nor does the stout Annian door
show any signs of rolling back on its hinges. He stares up at the face
of the house; every window wide open, and above each a little
century-and-a-half-old decoration of Cupids and cornucopias, and
apples and grapes; a broken arch over the relentless door, and on
either hand of it a great bush of traveller's joy, with its pretty
welcoming name; and a Virginia creeper, in its dazzling decay, showing
the stained and faded red brick what red can be. Is that one of the
windows of the drawing-room on the right-hand side--that window into
which he has so much difficulty in hindering himself from
looking--with the green earthenware cruches and the odd-shaped
majolica pot crammed with corn marigolds on the window-ledge? It is
certainly very strange. He rings again, more mildly, but still very
distinctly, without any further result than before. A third time; the
same silence. A ridiculous idea crosses his mind that perhaps Margaret
has seen from an upper window who her visitor is, and has forbidden
any of her household to admit him; and, though he dismisses it as
incredible, he is so disheartened by it, and by his thrice-repeated
failures to attract attention, that he is turning away towards the
entrance-gate, when, at last, something happens. A figure appears,
flying round the corner of the house; a figure so out of breath, so
dishevelled, so incoherent, that it is some seconds before he
recognises in it the younger Miss Lambton--the 'high-coloured little
skeleton,' as his gentle lady had sweetly baptized her. High-coloured
she is now with a vengeance!

'Oh! it is you, is it?' she cries pantingly. He has never been presented
to her, nor have they ever exchanged a sentence; but, in great crises
like the present, the social code goes to the wall. 'Oh, I wonder could
you help us? we are in such trouble!' Her tone is so _navré_ that his
heart stands still. Peggy is dead, of course. 'The fox has got out!'
pursues she, sobbing; 'got out of his house, and we do not know what has
become of him!'

'_The fox!_' repeats he, relieved of his apprehensions, and with a
flash of self-reproach--'of course it was a _fox_! of course it was not
a _badger_!'

Surprise at this observation checks Prue's tears.

'No!' says she; 'who ever thought it was?'

And at that moment another tumultuous figure appears round the corner of
the house. This time it is Margaret; Margaret nearly as breathless, as
scarlet, as tearful as Prue. On catching sight of Talbot she pulls
herself into a walk, and with a laudable, instantaneous struggle to look
cold and neat and repellent, she holds out her hand.

'I hope you have not been waiting long,' she says formally. (The little
unconquerable pants between each word betray her.) 'Did you ring often?
I am afraid that there was nobody in the house; we were all, servants
and all, about the fields and garden. Oh!' (nature and sorrow growing
too strong for her) 'have you heard of our misfortune?'

'That I have,' replies Talbot, throwing as much sympathetic affection as
that organ is capable of into his voice; 'and I am so sorry!'

'He has never been out except upon a chain in all his life, poor little
fellow!' says Peggy, sinking dejectedly upon a large old-fashioned round
stone ball, one of which ornaments each side of the door. 'He will know
no more than a baby how to take care of himself!'

'Have you searched everywhere?'

'Everywhere.'

'The hen-house?'

'Yes.'

'Stables?'

'Yes.'

'Coach-house?'

'Yes.'

'Hayloft?'

'Yes.'

'Boot-hole?'

'Yes.'

'Cellar?' growing wild in his suggestions. 'Once I knew a hard-pressed
fox run right into a cellar.'

'Even there.'

Talbot is at the end of his ingenuity. But at least there is one thing
gained--she has spoken to him as to a fellow-sufferer.

This is no great advance perhaps, since were a new Deluge to cover the
earth, which of us would not cling round the neck of a parricide if he
were on a higher ledge of rock than we?

'If he is once away in the open,' says Margaret desperately, 'he is sure
to get into a trap or be worried by a dog; he has no experience of life.
Oh, poor little man!'

Her eyes brim up, and her voice breaks.

Prue has fallen, limp and whimpering, upon the other stone ball. Talbot
stands between the mourners.

'Come,' says he stoutly, 'let us be doing something. Let us rout out
every possible hole and corner once again; and if he does not turn up, I
will go and tell the game-keepers and the farm-labourers to be on the
look-out for him.'

Something in the manly energy of his tone puts new life into the
dispirited girls, and the search recommences.

The procession is swelled by the three maids, with their aprons over
their heads; by the stable-boy, and by Jacob with a pitchfork. It is led
by Talbot, whose zeal sometimes degenerates into ostentation, as when he
insists on exploring chinks into which the leanest lizard could not
squeeze itself, and on running his stick through little heaps of mown
grass where not a field-mouse could lie perdue.

The party has gradually dispersed in different directions, and Talbot
finds himself alone in the tool-house, which has been already twice
explored. In one corner stands a pile of pots of all sizes, reaching
almost to the roof, and with its monotony enlivened by a miscellaneous
stock of rakes, pea-sticks, and scythes leaning against it. The whole
erection looks too solid to admit of its being a hiding-place for
anything, but it is possible that there may be a hollow behind it.

After prying about for a few moments on his knees, he finds indeed an
aperture, which has been hidden by a pendent bit of bass-matting--an
aperture large enough to admit the passage of a small animal. To this
aperture he applies his eye. What does he see? Two things like green
lamps glaring at him from the darkness. Aha! he is here!



CHAPTER VI


Talbot looks round apprehensively. Heaven send that no one, neither
meddlesome Jacob, nor gaping boy, nor screaming maids, nor--worst of
all--Peggy herself, may come up till he has got at his prey, may come up
to rob him of the glory of safe recovery and restoration. In his haste
he incautiously thrusts in his arm, feels something warm and woolly, but
feels too, at the same instant, a smart stinging sensation as of little
teeth fastening on his finger. He draws his hand away quickly, and
shakes it, for the pain is acute.

'You are there, my young friend, that is very clear.'

But he cannot be stopped by such a trifle! He hastily binds up his wound
with his pocket-handkerchief, and begins quickly to enlarge the opening.
As it grows, he has to fill it with his body, to obviate the danger of
the fox making a dash past him. In the course of his labours, several
little pots fall about his ears; a dislodged spade-handle gives him a
brisk blow on the shoulder; old cobwebs get into his mouth. But he is
rewarded at last. Through the breach he has made daylight pours in, and
shows him a little red form crouched up against the wall, and showing
all its dazzling white teeth in a frenzy of fear. Poor little beast!
Probably some indistinct memory of the cruel hounds that tore its mother
limb from limb is giving its intensity of terror to that grin. But if he
is suffering from fear, he is also perhaps at present a little
calculated to inspire it. It just crosses Talbot's mind how exceedingly
unpleasant it will be, if, in these very close quarters, the companion
of his _tête-à-tête_ makes for his nose. There is nothing for it but to
take the initiative. It occurs to him that he may have a pair of
dog-skin gloves in his pocket; and this on examination, proving to be
the case, he puts them on. The right-hand glove will of course not go
over the handkerchief that binds his finger. It--the handkerchief--has
therefore to be removed, and the blood spurts out afresh. What matter?
Thus protected, without further delay he makes a bold grab, past that
grinning, gleaming row of fangs, at the scruff of the fox's neck, and
having got a good grip of it, proceeds to back out of the hole, dragging
his booty after him; the booty snapping, and holding on to the ground
with all his four pads in agonised protestation.

To back out of a hole, with all the blood in your body running to your
head, smothered in cobwebs, with dusty knees and barked knuckles--this
is hardly the way in which a man would wish to present himself to a
woman with whom he is anxious to stand well. And yet it is under these
conditions that Peggy, at whose feet he finds himself on having
completed his retrograde movement, first sees anything in him to admire.

'So you have found him?' cries she, dropping on her knees, and turning a
radiant face towards the procession on all-fours which has now quite
emerged into the daylight; 'behind the pots? and we thought that we had
searched everywhere so carefully. How clever of you!--but' (her tone
changing) 'you have hurt him!' her glance falling on a few drops of
Talbot's blood which, stealing from under the glove, have dropped on the
fox's fur.

'I do not think so,' replies the young man drily; but he does not more
directly claim his own property, nor protest against the--as it
happens--rather ingenious injustice of this accusation.

'Then he has hurt you!' says she, drawing this obvious inference; and
her blue eye darts like lightning at his hand. 'He has bitten you! oh,
how shocking of him! Not badly?'

'He mistook me for a hound, I suppose,' replies John, smiling.

'He was determined that you should not forget a second time that he was
a fox,' says she, breaking into a charming mischievous laugh, lapsing,
however, at once again into grave solicitude; 'but it is not a bad bite,
is it? Let me look! Here, Prue! take this little villain home, and shut
him up, and let us hear no more about him!'

Prue complies, and the two young people remain in the tool-house alone.

'Let me look,' says she, beginning very delicately to pull off the
glove, so as not to hurt him. 'How did he manage to get at you through
this thick glove?'

'I did not put it on till afterwards,' replies Talbot. 'Of whom does
that trait remind you? If it is Simple Simon, do not mind saying so!'

They both laugh.

'But it is a dreadful bite!' says she, holding the wounded finger with
two or three of her slight yet strong ones--fingers a little embrowned
by much practical gardening, and down which he now feels little shivers
of compunction and concern running. 'Almost to the bone! oh, poor
finger! I feel so guilty. Come with me into the house, and let me tie it
up for you.'

He is in no great hurry to have it tied up. He likes the dusty
tool-house, and is not at all alarmed at the sight of his own gore; but,
consoling himself with the reflection that Prue will probably pass some
time in weeping over and fondling their amiable pet, and that he has a
good chance of, at all events, some further _tête-à-tête_ over the rag
and oil-silk, he follows her docilely, and presently finds himself
inside the little room into which he had had so much ado to hinder
himself from peering during his long kicking his heels at the hall door.

It proves to be not a drawing-room after all--to have more of the
character and informality of a little sitting-hall; a room where dogs
may jump on the chairs with as valid a right as Christians; a room with
an oak settle by the chimney-corner, and a great cage full of twittering
finches in a sunny window, and into which half the flowers of the field
seem to have walked, and colonised its homely vases; a room with nothing
worth twopence-halfpenny in it, and that yet is sweet and lovable.

He has not many minutes in which to make his explorations, for she is
promptly back with her appliances, and silently binding round his finger
her bit of linen that smells of lavender.

As she stoops over his hand he can look down on the top of her head, and
admire her parting--a thing which not many ladies possess nowadays. Hers
is as straight as a die; and on each side of that narrow white road
rises the thick fine hair, bright and elastic.

It is many years since Betty has owned a parting. On the other hand, she
has two very nice toupets--a morning and an evening one. Talbot has once
or twice seen one of these toupets off duty, and has regretted his
knowledge that it came off and on. Well, there is nothing about Peggy
that comes off and on.

How quickly and daintily she has dressed his wound, and--oh! if here is
not Prue already back again!

'Have you shut him safely in?' looking up from her nearly finished task.

'Yes.'

'And given him his dinner?'

'Yes; but he will not eat it. I think he is seriously vexed; he tried to
bite me, too!'

Talbot laughs.

'What could have made you choose such a pet?'

'We did not exactly choose him,' replies Margaret gravely; 'he was sent
to us; all the rest of the litter were killed. He was the only one the
huntsman could save. He brought him to show us. He was a mere ball of
fluff then. One could not turn away a poor little orphan ball of fluff
from one's door, could one?'

'He was a very tiresome orphan then, as he always has been since,' says
Prue drily. 'No one but Peggy would have been bothered with him; he was
far more trouble than a baby. She had him,'--turning towards Talbot--'to
sleep in her room for a whole fortnight, and got up every two hours all
through the night to feed him.'

Margaret reddens.

'He would have died else!'

'But no other person on earth would have had the patience, would they?'
cries Prue, warming with her theme.

'Prue!' says Peggy severely, 'is my trumpeter dead, and are you applying
for the situation?'

At this moment the door opens, and one of the three neat maids whom John
has already seen careering about the pleasure-grounds in pursuit of the
fox, enters with a tea-tray.

The sight of a covered dish of hot cakes recalls to Talbot the original
object of his visit.

'Oh, by the bye, I was forgetting! I have a message for you from Lady
Roupell.'

'Have you?'

She is standing, straight and lithe as a young poplar, by the tea-table,
brandishing a brown teapot in her hand.

'Yes. She bid me tell you that they are all coming down to see you
to-morrow afternoon.'

Is it his imagination that a sudden slight stiffening comes over her as
he speaks--a stiffening that seems to extend even to the friendly
teapot?

'And also,' continues he, not much liking his errand, and hastening to
get it over, 'she desired me to say that, as she is particularly fond of
muffins, and as yours are an exceptionally good----'

'Are you sure that she said all that?' interrupts Prue, with a sceptical
gaiety. 'She is not generally so polite. She generally says only,
"Girls, I'm coming; have lots of muffins!"'

Talbot laughs, convicted.

'Perhaps that was nearer the mark.'

'I am so glad that they are all coming,' pursues Prue, with excitement.
'Will Lady Betty come? Oh, I hope so! How beautiful she is! What eyes!
What a colour!'

Talbot looks sheepish. The alarmingly increased volume and splendour of
his Betty's carnations of late have been the cause of several sharp
altercations between him and her. And yet he cannot doubt that the child
says it in all good faith. It is not at the corners of _her_ mouth that
that tiny malicious smile is lurking. To him how much pleasanter a topic
was the fox! He relishes the change in the conversation so little that
he scalds his throat in his haste to drink his tea and be gone.

As he walks home across the park he entertains himself with the
reflection how he shall account to Betty for his finger.



CHAPTER VII


Next day is

    'The day that comes between
     A Saturday and Monday,'

as the pretty old song obliquely puts it. Such of the parish as are not
Dissenters, drunkards, or the mothers of young babies (it does not leave
a very large margin), have been to morning church. The Vicarage, the
Manor, and the Red House have all been represented. The Vicarage sits
immediately below the pulpit, so that the preacher's eloquence may soar
on stronger pinions, upborne by the sight of the nine ugly faces to whom
he has given the light of day. The Manor, with its maids, footmen, and
stables, spreads half over the aisle; and in one of its pews the Red
House, pewless itself, is allowed to take its two seats.

On this particular morning Peggy's devotions are a good deal distempered
by the fact of her having Miss Harborough for a neighbour--Miss
Harborough without her nurse; Miss Harborough wriggling a good deal,
bringing out of her pocket things new and old; and finally (the devil
having entered into her), when the hymn begins, striking up in rivalry,
'Over the Garden Wall.' As, however, no one perceives this piece of
iniquity except Peggy, who feigns not to hear it, she desists, and
adopts instead the less reprehensible but still somewhat embarrassing
course of closely copying Peggy's every smallest gesture--unbuttoning
her glove, turning a page of her prayer-book, whipping out her
pocket-handkerchief at the very same instant as her unwitting model. It
is even a relief when this flattering if servile imitation gives way to
loud stage-whispers, such as, 'Franky has got his book upside down;'
'Don't you wish you were as tall as John Talbot?' 'Evans is all in
white;' 'Did you hear me say the Lord's Prayer?' etc. etc.

It is afternoon now. You need not be either a Dissenter, a drunkard, or
a mother, not to go to church in the afternoon. Nobody goes--nobody,
that is, except Mr. Evans and the children whom he catechises, asking
them questions which they never answer, and which he would be very much
embarrassed if they did. Luncheon is over.

'Let us give them all the slip,' says Lady Betty. 'I know what milady's
Sunday walks are--she does not spare one a turnip or a pigsty; and as to
going to tea with the Lambtons, I say, like the man in the Bible, "I
prithee have me excused."'

Talbot, to whom this is addressed, follows her in silence, to where,
beneath a great lime-tree only just out of flower, hangs the hammock,
spread the wolf-skins, stand the wicker-chairs and tables, the iced
drinks, and the Sunday papers.

'Now we'll be happy!' says Betty, sitting down sideways on the hammock,
and adroitly whisking her legs in after her. 'As soon as milady's back
is turned I will have a cigarette, and you shall talk me to sleep. By
the bye,' with a slight tinge of umbrage in her tone, 'your conversation
of late has rather tended to produce that effect.'

'And what better effect could it produce?' asks John ironically. 'I
sometimes wish that I could get some one to talk me to sleep for good
and all!'

'How tiresome!' cries his fair one, not paying much heed to this
lugubrious aspiration, and feeling in her pocket. 'I have left my
cigarette-case in the house; go, like a good fellow, and get it for me.
Ask Julie for it.'

He goes with the full docility of a pack-horse or a performing poodle,
and on his way indoors meets his young host, sent by his aunt in search
of the truants, and to whom he imparts Betty's change of plans.

'So you are not coming!' says Freddy, in a broken-hearted voice,
throwing himself into a chair. In his soul he is rather glad.

'So I'm not coming!' repeats she, mimicking his tone.

'May not I stay too?' travelling over the sward in his chair nearer the
hammock, and lightly touching the pendent white hand.

'What! and leave your little anatomical specimen lamenting?' cries she
ill-naturedly.

He winces.

'I do not know to whom you are alluding. But may not I stay?' with a
slight tremble in his voice.

'Of course you may,' replies she cheerfully. 'Who hinders you?--stay by
all means!'

He looks confused. He has not the slightest wish to stay. He has only
followed his habitual impulse to say what he imagines to be the
agreeable thing--an impulse that has already led him into many
quagmires, and will lead him into many more.

'I would not be so selfish,' he says with a charming smile of
abnegation; 'I know my place better,' with an expressive glance at the
back of the disappearing John. And, suiting the action to the word, he
disappears too; when she screams after him:

'Give my love to the sack of potatoes and the skeleton!'

By the time that Talbot returns with the cigarette-case the coast is
quite clear, and Betty is at liberty to light her cigarette as soon as
she pleases; a liberty of which she immediately avails herself.

There is a prospect before them of an unbroken _tête-à-tête_ until eight
o'clock. With how deep a joy and elation ought this reflection to fill
him! A year ago it would have done so. To-day with how leaden a foot
does the stable clock pace from quarter to quarter. And yet there is no
lack of talk. He himself, indeed, does not contribute much; but Betty is
in a fine flow. She favours him--not for the first time by many--with
several unamiable traits in Mr. Harborough's character, with the
dreadful things her dearest friend said of her last week--faithfully
reported to her by her second dearest--together with various shady
particulars in the personal history of both friends. She gives him the
latest details of an internecine broil between two ladies, both
candidates for the favour of a great personage. She makes some good
jokes upon the death of a relation, and the approaching collapse of an
intimate acquaintance's reputation; and, in short, dots her _i_'s and
crosses her _t_'s, and calls a spade a spade, and enjoys herself
famously. And _he_? He listens in a sort of wonder.

This, then, is what he has for five years sacrificed his career to.
This, then--to be alone with this--he has manoeuvred for invitations,
planned risky rendezvous, abandoned the hope of home's sanctities. A
heavy leaden sickness seems to steal over him. He is recalled to the
present by a tone of very decided indignation in his lady's voice--his
lady, who, by an easy transition, has slipped from scandal to the hardly
dearer or less dear subject of clothes.

'Shepherd is a beast! Just fancy! he sent me out deer-stalking in a silk
skirt! Why, you are not listening to a word I say!'

It is in vain for him to protest. On cross-examination he shows so
culpable an ignorance as to who Shepherd is--though heaven knows that in
his day he has heard enough of the great woman's tailor--that her
ladyship's anger is heightened instead of appeased.

'You certainly are not amusing to-day,' cries she, flouncing out of the
hammock.

'I never was much of a Jack Pudding,' replies he wearily. 'Was I ever
amusing? I do not recollect it. I think that I left that to you.'

His tone is so dry that she reddens even under her rouge.

'Perhaps it is your finger that pains you too much,' says she, looking
round her armoury for a weapon of offence, and rather cleverly hitting
upon this one. 'We have never got to the bottom of that mysterious wound
yet. I believe it is somehow connected with your Blowsabella. Perhaps
you became too attentive, and she had to set her dog or her cat upon you
in self-defence.'

There is such a horrible caricature of the truth in this supposition,
and her tone is so insulting, that he turns pale, and it is a moment or
two before he can speak; then:

'Do not you think it would be a good thing if you gave up this sort of
joke?' he asks, with a rather dangerous quietness. 'They are not very
ladylike. Had you not better leave them to Julie?'

He has no sooner finished these sentences than Betty bursts into tears.
She had imagined that she was amusing him as much as herself; and,
indeed, he has often before laughed heartily at things not less
ill-natured or more harmless; now the disgust and _ennui_ of his tone
are a disagreeable revelation to her. And besides, as I have before
observed, her paint is of that quality that she may confidently afford
herself a few tears. But even if it were not to be done with safety she
must give way to them now, anger and mortification forcing them from her
eyes.

Now if there is one thing that a waning lover dreads more than a
quarrel, it is the reconciliation that follows it. So, by the time that
Betty has sobbed, and wished herself and him dead, and announced her
intention of telling Mr. Harborough, and going away to-morrow and taking
Freddy Ducane with her, and been apologised to and comforted, her
admirer is reduced to such a pitch of flat lassitude of mind that there
is no bidding of hers which he would not tamely execute. He therefore
acquiesces dumbly when, her smiles being at length restored, she
proposes that they shall go to tea with the Lambtons after all. They can
easily overtake the others, and perhaps it will be more amusing than
sitting here quarrelling--'though there is a certain charm in
quarrelling too!' she adds sentimentally.

As he cannot echo this, he pretends not to hear it. His mind is occupied
by the doubt, which he is unable to resolve, whether her proposal is
dictated by a generous desire to make an _amende_, or by further malice.
She is perfectly capable of either. They have not a very pleasant walk.
Betty's preposterous heels turn under her at every three steps; and
though she always says that she is very fond of the country, she
generally forgets to look at it, while John loves it too heartily and
deeply dear to say anything about it to such ears.

As they near the Red House his heart sinks lower and lower. He has never
had the moral courage to confess his yesterday's visit, and the episode
that marked it. There are ninety-nine chances to one against his
escaping without some inquiry after his finger, some mention of the fox,
some chance allusion which will betray him. And then? what then? Why,
another quarrel, another reconciliation. Pah! No; sooner than face that
he will be telegraphed for back to Downing Street.

They are not kept waiting at the door at all to-day, but are at once
ushered through the house into the garden, where they are told that they
will find Miss Lambton.

As she hears their footsteps she looks up, and sees them
approaching--Betty stepping smartly ahead, and Talbot following
sheepishly behind. He is conscious of there being a sort of false air of
man and wife about them--a happy couple spending their Sunday afternoon
in parading their domestic bliss before their friends. By an intuition
that he would far rather have been without, he sees the same idea
passing through Margaret's mind, and reflected in a sudden cloud, and as
sudden honest redness on her face. Certainly any stranger coming in upon
the scene would be more likely to credit him with the honour of being
Lady Betty's owner than he would the insignificant figure kneeling and
mysteriously bending over something on the top of the stone steps that
lead down a gentle bank from the gravel walk to the sward and the vivid
August borders--a figure whose manoeuvres are interestedly watched by
the rest of the company, and which does not take the trouble to turn its
head an inch at the sound of its wife's voice.

'We have been quarrelling,' cries Betty, with a sprightly candour which
grates horribly upon Talbot, 'and we have come to you to help us to keep
the peace. Oh!'--making a face--'so Ralph is showing you some of his
tricks. I would not look at them if I were you. He will never leave you
any peace if you encourage him! The whole of the first year of our
married life he spent in teaching me to tie knots in my
pocket-handkerchief and swallow spoons; and I have never found that I
have been much the better for either.'

Not a shadow of a smile shows itself upon Margaret's face, but Prue has
smiles enough for the two.

'He is showing us how to mesmerise a hen!' cries she delightedly. 'Oh!
it is _so_ clever! I cannot think how he does it!'

In effect, upon closer examination, Mr. Harborough is seen to be
grappling with a large barn-door fowl, which is squawking a good deal,
and resisting his efforts to hold her nose down upon the stone step;
while Freddy, with a piece of chalk, draws a straight line from her beak
to the end of the step.

'You must none of you speak!' says Mr. Harborough, with authority. 'If
you talk, you will prevent her going off into the mesmeric sleep.'

Dead silence. The protesting squalls have ceased. After a few moments
the hands that hold her are lightly removed. She lies quite still.

'There!' says the operator, in a tone of subdued triumph; 'she will not
awake until the chalk line is rubbed out. Curious, is not it?'

But even as he speaks Dame Partlet, to give him the lie, has struggled
to her legs, and lustily screeching, makes off with her longest stride
and fluttered wings. Instantly the whole company gives chase. John
Talbot, Mr. Harborough, Freddy Ducane, Margaret, Prue, even
Chinese-footed Betty, two collies, and a terrier, who have been standing
officiously round, all off in full cry at once. Across the garden-beds;
through Jacob's best potatoes; over the sunk fence into the open park,
helter-skelter they go--John leading, closely followed by Freddy and Mr.
Harborough, while the three women tear madly behind.

John has got her! Not at all! She has slipped between his fingers, and
he has measured his length on the grass! Then it is Freddy's turn, but
she runs between his legs, and down goes he too. Certainly she is a
gallant hen! John is up again, and now both he and Peggy make an
unsuccessful lunge at her as she passes; and if it had not been for
Mink, who adroitly pinned her by the wing--a feat for which he was
afterwards much blamed, though they profited by his discourtesy--they
would probably still have been tumbling over each other in pursuit of
that speckled hen.

At the moment when Peggy and John had made their joint and futile grab
at the object of their chase, her hand had come with some violence into
contact with his wounded one. Instantly she is off her guard, and down
from her stilts.

'Did I hurt your finger?' very anxiously.

'Not in the least, thanks.'

'Are you quite sure?'

'Quite.'

'But I am afraid that I must have done.'

'I assure you no! How is the fox?'

He adds the last words with a hasty attempt to keep the conversation to
the one topic over which alone they seem fated to be friendly.

'He is very well! better'--with a slight smile--'than he deserves.'

'I should like to see him, to tell him that I bear no malice.'

She looks irresolute for a moment; then, 'Would you? Come this way!'

Before they have made three steps Betty is after them.

'Where are you two making off to in such a hurry?'

'We are going to see the fox,' replies Peggy coldly.

'The fox? What fox?'

'Why, my tame fox,' rejoins Peggy, with a little air of surprise; 'the
one that bit Mr. Talbot when he was here yesterday.'

The murder is out.

'H'm!' says Betty, in a very dry voice; 'so the mystery is solved!'

'What mystery?' asks the other, in a tone of ever colder and growing
astonishment. 'There is no mystery; it is only that my fox escaped from
his house yesterday, and Mr. Talbot was good enough to catch him again
for me; and in so doing was unfortunately bitten. What mystery is there
in that?'

Her displeased blue eyes turn in inquiry from one to the other, but
neither has any answer ready for her. Nor does she again repeat her
question; but Talbot, stealing one guilty look at her, sees that she has
comprehended that he has been afraid to own his visit to her, and that
she despises him heartily for it.



CHAPTER VIII


John Talbot spends a wretched night. He does not owe this to the fact of
Betty's infantine gambols, her ogles and cats'-cradles with Freddy
Ducane through the previous evening; nor yet to any physical ill. It is
one ray of honest contempt from a country-bred girl's heaven-blue eye
that kills his rest. It seems to shine in upon his whole life, as a beam
of clear morning sunshine shines in upon some ugly over-night revel,
bringing out into all their unlovely prominence the wine-stains, and the
guttered candles, and the faded flowers. A desire, whose futility he
recognises, but which is none the less real for the impossibility of its
ever being gratified, to set himself right with this thrice-seen
stranger, takes possession of him; a desire to tell her his story--to
lay before her the reasons why she should be lenient with him. Would she
think them very cogent? His memory, made acuter by the darkness,
journeys back over the past five years, weighing, sifting,
recalling--back to the beginning, that August when his chief's affairs
kept him in London after everybody else had left; when, sick at heart
from a recent grief, he had fallen sick in body too; and when Betty,
also detained in London by some accident--Betty, whom he had hitherto
met only as one meets in the world, hearing of his sad plight, had come
out of pure kind-heartedness--yes, he is quite sure that at first it was
only out of pure kind-heartedness--to sit beside his sofa; Betty, laden
with sweet flowers; Betty, with compassionate eyes and a womanly smile;
Betty, with less paint and a lower voice; with more clothes and fewer
after-dinner stories; and last, fatalest of all, with that likeness,
fancied or real, to the sister he had just lost. He remembers the day on
which he first told her of that resemblance. In the dark night he
recalls again many another little landmark in that first period of his
passion, and grows half tender again as their dead faces rise before
him. But what did that first idyllic stage lead to? To nothing, indeed,
as criminal as the world, as Margaret probably gives them credit for,
but to those unhandsome shifts and expedients which have made of his
life since one long shuffle and evasion. The kotowing to people he
disliked and despised for invitations to meet her; the risky rendezvous;
the mad jealousies; the half-heartedness in his work; the entire
disintegration of all his plans, liable to be upset at a moment's
notice, in order to dovetail in with her convenience; the irrepressible
senseless friendliness, which he dare not refuse, on the part of the
stupid worthy Harborough; the genuine fondness of that Harborough's
little children--he looks back upon them all with nausea. No! there is
nothing to be said for him! She would say that there was nothing to be
said for him! He has slidden down a precipice, it is true, whose first
slope was easy and gentle; but there were many bushes at which he might
have caught in his downward passage to save himself if he had wished;
and he caught at none. And now he is at the bottom! The very passion
which gave some slight tinge of a bastard nobility to his ignoble life
is dead--dead as the roses that flushed its dawn, and he must still be
tied to its lifeless body as fast as--nay, faster than--he was to its
living charms. This is his conclusion; and it is one not much calculated
to lull him into slumber.

To prove the difference between a bad conscience and a good one,
Margaret sleeps calmly; but she wakes in the morning with the sense of
something faintly disagreeable having happened. She shakes it off as she
goes about her garden and her chicken-pens, the more easily as Prue is
in bounding spirits, which is to be accounted for by the fact of Freddy
having invited her to go out riding with him in the afternoon, and
promised to mount her upon one of his own horses--a privilege often
before accorded to her, but which never fails to lift her into Elysium.
She is too excited to settle to anything more solid than jumping over
the garden-beds and the tennis-net, to and fro with Mink. If you are in
paradise, why trouble yourself with earth's sordid tasks? But Margaret,
not being in paradise, is meditatively grubbing on hands and knees in
the rather overgrown border, when a ring at the door-bell brings her
somewhat quickly to her feet. A sudden thought sends the indignant blood
to her cheek. Is it possible that it can be Talbot? After yesterday, is
it conceivable that he can have the presumption again to force himself
upon her? She moves hastily towards the house to forbid his admission,
if it be he. But she is too late. The visitor has been already let in;
and proves to be one to whom her door is never shut--only Freddy Ducane.

'Have you come to fix the time for your ride?' asks she cordially,
beaming upon him. He, at least, has wrenched himself out of Circe's sty.
'Do you want Prue? She is in the garden.'

The young man looks a shade embarrassed.

'Yes,' he says; 'I do. No; I do not--at least, I have something to say
to her, but I think'--insinuatingly--'that I had rather say it to you.
You know, Peggy, how fond I am of saying things to you! There is no one
to whom I can say things as comfortably as I can to you.'

At this preface her heart sinks a little.

'What is it?' she asks curtly.

'Oh, only my luck!' throwing himself into a chair. 'By Jove'--looking
round the room--'how cool you feel! and how good you smell!'

'I do not suppose that you came here to say that,' rejoins she, still
standing over him in expectant anxiety.

His answer is to try and get possession of her hand.

'Peggy,' he says plaintively, 'that is not a nice way to speak to me;
that is not the way I like to be spoken to. The reason why I came
here--it is very inhospitable of you to insist upon my giving a
reason--was to say'--sighing profoundly--'that I fear dear little Prue
and I shall have to give up our ride this afternoon.'

Her foreboding was a true one then!

'Why?'

'Oh, because--because--just my luck!'

'I understand,' replies she caustically. 'You are in the case of the man
who telegraphed to the house where he did not wish to stay, "So sorry.
Cannot come. _No lie ready._"'

Freddy colours.

'Peggy, if I were not so really fond of you,' he says, in an injured
voice, 'I should not allow you to speak to me like that. There are days
when you rasp one like a file. Prue never rasps one.'

'Is that the reason why you think yourself justified in always letting
her go to the wall?' asks Margaret, with a bitterness that seems out of
proportion to the occasion; but in her mind's eye she sees the poor
little figure that has been frolicking among the geraniums with dog and
cat--sees, too, the metamorphosis that will be worked in it.

Freddy rolls his curly head uneasily to and fro on the chair-back.

'You talk as if I were not quite as disappointed as she,' he says, in a
lamentable tone. 'But what is one to do? When one has guests, one must
entertain them. Somebody must entertain _her_.'

'Must entertain whom?'

'Oh, you know as well as I do! You are only asking out of ill-nature.
Betty, of course!'

'Betty, of course!' repeats she after him, with an indefinable accent.

'Well, Peggy, I appeal to you. What could I do, when she asked me
point-blank? You know that I never can refuse to do anything that
anybody asks me point-blank.'

'Then suppose that _I_ ask you point-blank to throw _her_ over?'
suggests Margaret, looking full at him with her straightforward blue
eyes.

'But you would not,' returns he hastily. 'You dear thing, it would not
be the least like you; and it would only make her hate Prue for life.
Ah, you do not know Betty!'

'And, meanwhile, where is her _âme damnée_, pray?' asks Margaret with a
curling nose.

    '"Where is John Talbot? Where is valiant John?"'

Freddy shrugs his shoulders.

'Valiant John is a little slack of late; he wants poking up a bit.
But'--with a coaxing change of tone--'it will be just the same to Prue
to go another day, will not it? and you will tell her, will not you?
I--I really am in a great hurry this morning; and I--I--think I had
rather _you_ told her.'

'I will do nothing of the kind,' replies Peggy severely. 'You may do
your own errands.'

Nor do any of his blandishments, any of his numerous assertions of the
reverential attachment he has always felt for herself, any of his
asseverations of the agonising grief it causes him to give the slightest
pain to Prue, avail to make her budge one inch from her original
resolution. She watches him as, with a somewhat hang-dog air, he walks
across the grass-plot to meet her sister, who comes treading on air to
meet him. And then Margaret looks away. She cannot bear to witness the
extinction of that poor short radiance. She does not again meet young
Ducane; nor does Prue reappear until luncheon-time, when she comes down
from her bedroom with red eyes, but an air of determined cheerfulness.

'It would have been much too hot for riding to-day,' she says, fanning
herself; 'unbearable, indeed! We are going a far longer ride in a day or
two. He says he does not think that they will stay long. He was so
bitterly disappointed. I do not think that I ever saw any one so
disappointed--did you?' casting a wistful glance at her elder.

'He _said_ he was,' replies Peggy sadly.

The incident has made her own heart heavy; and it is with an unelastic
step that she sets off in the afternoon to the Manor, summoned thither
by one of Lady Roupell's almost daily cocked-hat notes, to hold sweet
converse upon the arrangements of an imminent village concert. A casual
sentence to the effect that everybody but the old lady herself will be
out has decided Margaret to obey the summons, which, did it expose her
to a meeting with Lady Betty and John Talbot, she would have certainly
disregarded.

Prue accompanies her to their gate, still with that strained look of
factitious content on her childish face; and, as she parts from her
sister, whispers feverishly:

'Find out how soon they are going!'

Dispirited as she was on leaving her own home, Miss Lambton's
cheerfulness undergoes still further diminution before she reaches her
goal; as, in passing through the park, has not she, in a retired and
bosky dell, caught a glimpse of a white gown, and of a supine male
figure, with a curly head and a poetry book, stretched beside it? She
starts at the sight.

Freddy had certainly implied that he was going out riding with Lady
Betty. On searching her memory, she found that he had not actually said
so; but he had knowingly conveyed that idea to her mind. It is not the
first time by many that Freddy Ducane has succeeded in conveying
impressions that do not absolutely tally with the fact; but each fresh
discovery of his disingenuousness gives her a new shock. Lady Roupell's
boudoir is upstairs; and, following her usual custom, Margaret repairs
thither unannounced. In doing so she passes the day nursery's open door;
and, through it, sees Miss Harborough sitting on the floor, buttoning
her boots. Peggy stops a moment to throw the child a greeting; but is
instantly checked by the nurse.

'Oh, please, ma'am, do not speak to her! I am sure that she does not
deserve it! she has been a real naughty girl!'

On inquiry, it appears that the enemy of man having again entered into
Miss Lily, she has cut the string of her necklace, strewed the beads all
over the floor, and then told a barefaced lie, and entirely denied it.

During this recital of her iniquities she continues her buttoning quite
calmly; and merely says, with a dispassionate tone of indifference and
acquiescence:

'Yes, I am bad.'

It is two hours later--so long does the discussion over the penny
reading last--before Margaret again passes the nursery door. The
interval has been filled by a discussion as to which of the local talent
must be invited to contribute, and which may be, without giving too much
offence, left out; but the larger part has been spent in a confederate
consultation as to how best to prevent Mrs. Evans from singing 'Love,
the Pilgrim.'

The matter is arranged at last; and Peggy puts on her hat and gloves
again to depart. As she repasses the nursery door she finds that an
entire change of decoration has taken place. Instead of the young cynic
defiantly buttoning her boots in the teeth of the law, she sees a little
pious figure in a white nightgown, kneeling by its nurse's side. The
instant, however, that the saintly little form catches sight of her it
is up on its bare legs, and rushing towards her.

'Oh, Miss Lambton, do let me say my prayers to you! it would be so
pleasant!--No, Franky,' with a disposition to hustle her little brother,
who is putting in a like claim; 'you are too little; you can say yours
to Nanny!'

As she speaks she pulls Peggy by the gown into the room; and, placing
her in a chair, kneels down at once--so that there may be no chance of
her escaping--beside her, with hands devoutly folded, but a somewhat
roving eye.

'Which shall I say?' asks she, with a wriggle of the back and an air of
indifference: '"Our Father" or "Gentle Jesus"?'

'Say whichever you please,' replies Margaret gently; 'only attend and
make up your mind which.'

'Oh, then,' with another wriggle, 'I will say "Gentle Jesus."'

After a pause:

'Do you think that there would be any harm in my praying for John
Talbot?'

Margaret gives a little jump. It is, then, an hereditary passion! But
she answers drily:

'Not the least.'

Another pause. The wriggling has ceased.

'Only,' pursues Peggy, quite determined not to supply the form of
petition for Talbot's welfare, 'only you must say it out of your own
head. I am not going to tell you what to say.'

'Oh, then,' with an air of resolution, 'I had better say, "God bless
John Talbot; and I am glad he is here."'

She has pronounced this last somewhat eccentrically-worded supplication
rather loud, and at the end of it her wandering eye takes in an object
which makes her spring from her knees as hastily as she had done before.

'Oh! there is John Talbot!' cries she, tearing out barefoot into the
passage, and flinging herself into his arms.

'I have been praying for you!' cries she, hugging him. 'Miss Lambton
said that I might.'

At this unexpected colouring given to her reluctant permission Peggy
reddens.

'I said that there was no harm in it,' explains Peggy hurriedly; 'there
is no _harm_ in praying for any one.'

'And the more they need it the greater charity it is,' replies he,
looking at her with so sad and deprecating a humility that her anger
against him melts.



CHAPTER IX

     'God Almighty first planted a Garden. And indeed it is the Purest
     of Humane pleasures. It is the Greatest Refreshment to the Spirit
     of Man; Without which Buildings and Pallaces are but Grosse
     Handy-works: And man shall ever see that when Ages grow to
     Civility and Elegancie they come to Build Stately, sooner than to
     Garden Finely: as if Gardening were the Greater Perfection.'


I do not know whether Peggy had ever read Bacon, but she certainly
endorsed his opinion.

'The garden is the only really satisfactory thing,' she says to herself,
three days after that on which she had conducted Miss Harborough's
devotions, as she stands beside her carnation-bed, and notes how many
fat buds have, during the night, broken into pale sulphur and striped
and blood-red flowers.

To few of us, I think, has not at one time or other of our lives the
doubt presented itself, whether the people we love are not a source of
more pain than pleasure to us, what with their misfortunes, their
ill-doings, and their deaths. But despite frost, and snail, and fly, and
drought, and flood, the joy in a garden must always enormously exceed
the pain. The frost may shrivel the young leaves, but the first sun-kiss
brings out green successors; the drought may make the tender herbs bow
and droop, but at the next warm rain-patter they look up again. The
frost that nips our human hearts often no after-sunbeam can uncongeal;
and the rain falls too late to revive the flower that the world's cruel
drought has killed.

'Did you find out how soon they are going?' asks Prue breathlessly,
running down the road to meet her sister on her return from the Manor,
in her eagerness to get her tidings.

It has been the one thought that has filled her mind during the three
hours of Margaret's absence. Peggy shakes her head despondently.

'Milady did not know.'

'I suppose that they had gone out riding before you got there.'

This is not a question, so Margaret thinks herself exempted from the
necessity of answering it.

'Had they gone out riding before you got there?' repeats Prue, with
feverish pertinacity.

It _is_ a question now, so she must make some reply. She only shakes her
head.

'Then you saw them set off?'--very eagerly. 'How did she look?
beautiful, I am sure!'

'I did not see them.'

It is a moment before the younger girl takes in what the last sentence
implies; then she says in a changed low key:

'You mean to say that they did not go out riding at all?'

'No,' replies Peggy, softly putting her arm round her sister's
shoulders, as if she would ward off the imminent trouble from her by
that kind and tender gesture; 'they did not go out riding at all; they
sat in the park together instead.'

There is a short silence.

'Then he threw me over for nothing?' says Prue, in a choked whisper.

'Yes,' in a whisper too.

Prue has snatched herself out of Peggy's arms, and drawn up her small
willowy figure.

'He shall not have the chance of playing fast and loose with me again in
a hurry,' she says, her poor face burning.

Alas! he would have the chance next day, if he chose to take it; but he
does not even take the trouble to do that. Two whole days pass, and
nothing is either seen or heard of him. And through these two long days
Prue, with flagging appetite and fled sleep, rejecting occupation,
starting at the sound of the door-bell, watches for him; and Peggy
watches too, and starts, and is miserable for company.

During those weary two days Prue's mood changes a hundred times, varying
from pitiful attempts at a dignified renunciation of him, always ending
in a deluge of tears, to agonised efforts at finding excuses for his
neglect, and irritation at her sister for not being able to say that she
thinks them sufficing ones.

'He is so hospitable,' she says wistfully, as the sun sets upon the
second empty day; 'he has almost exaggerated ideas of what he owes to
his guests. And after all, there is no one else to entertain them.
Milady does not trouble her head about them; he has such good manners;
he is so courteous! Come now, prejudiced as you always are against him,
you yourself have often said, "How courteous he is!"' Then, as Peggy
makes but a faint and dubious sign of acquiescence, she adds irritably:
'Whether you own it or not, you have said so repeatedly; but there is no
use in talking to a person who blows hot and cold, says one thing to-day
and another to-morrow.'

The third morning has come. In the garden, dew-crisped and odorous, but
whose spicy clove-carnation breath brings no solace to her careless
nostril, Prue sits bent and listless, her fragile prettiness dimmed, and
the nosegay of her choicest flowers--usually most grudgingly
plucked--extravagantly gathered by Margaret five minutes ago, in the
hope that their morning beauty may tempt her sick chick to a smile,
lying disregarded on the grass beside her, and sniffed at by Mink, who
makes a face of unaffected disgust at the mignonette.

'He has never in his life been so long without coming to see us when he
was at home,' says Prue dejectedly; 'once he was thirty-six hours, but
that was accounted for afterwards by his having had one of his neuralgic
headaches. Do you think'--with a little access of life and
animation--'that he can be ill?'

'It is possible, of course,' replies Margaret gravely; 'but I do not
think it is probable.'

'If I could only _know_,' says the other wearily; 'if I could be _sure_;
it would be something to be _sure_ of anything! I am so tired of
wondering!'

'I might go up to the Big House to find out for you,' suggests Peggy,
magnanimously swallowing down her own acute distaste to this
proposition, and speaking with a cheerful relish, as if she liked it. 'I
could easily make an excuse to go up to the Big House; shall I go?'

The capricious poppy colour has sprung back into Prue's thin cheek.

'Oh, if you would!'

'Of course I will,' replies Margaret gaily; 'it will be a nice walk for
me; the garden makes me so lazy about walking. What time shall I go?
morning or afternoon?'

'Oh, if you did not mind, morning is the soonest.'

The words are scarcely out of her mouth before ting, tang! sharply
sounds the hall-door bell. It is a bell that is hardly ever pulled in a
forenoon, save by one person--a person who does not confine himself to
the canonical hours of calling.

In a moment there is a light in Prue's dimmed eyes, and Margaret's great
blue ones beam for company.

'I think that I need not go up to the Big House, after all,' she says,
with soft gladness.

'Shall I go away,' asks Prue, in a trembling whisper, 'and not come back
for ten minutes or so? Perhaps he would think better of me if I did not
seem so eager to meet him. Shall I?'

'I think I would not,' answers Peggy gently; 'I would sit quietly here,
just as if nothing had happened. I think it would be more dignified.'

They wait in silence. What a long time Sarah is in putting on a clean
apron and turning down her sleeves! But he is admitted at last, has
passed through the house, and is stepping across the turf towards them.

_He!_ But what he? Alas for Prue! there are more he's than one in the
world--more he's that call at uncanonical hours!

'Oh, Peggy!' she says, with almost a sob, 'it is only John Talbot! It is
not he after all.'

Peggy does not answer. Her feelings, though nearly as poignant as her
sister's, are a good deal more complex. An indignation for which she can
perfectly account, and an agitation for which she can give herself no
reason at all, make her disappointment, though not far from being as
bitter, less simple than Prue's.

She advances to meet her visitor with an air that would make a more
impudent heart than his sink. Over her face is written, though the words
do not actually pass her lips, that least reassuring of salutations, 'To
what are we indebted for the honour of this visit?'

A woman's anger is seldom wholly reasonable, and on this occasion
Margaret's indignation against Talbot is called forth not only by his
being himself, but by his not being Freddy Ducane, which is certainly
more his misfortune than his fault. After all, he is, for a villain, not
possessed of very much effrontery, since the austerity of so young an
eye strikes him dumb.

The only person who shows him any civility is Mink, who, being of a
rather superficial character, is glad of any addition to his social
circle, and does not inquire too nicely into its quality.

It is probable that Talbot, being a man of the world, would have
recovered the use of his tongue in time; but as he is rather slow about
it, Margaret takes the initiative.

'Is it something about the village concert?' she asks.

He looks puzzled.

'The village concert! I am afraid that I have not heard anything about
the village concert.'

'Oh!' returns she, coldly surprised. 'I thought that probably Lady
Roupell had asked you to leave a message with me about it. It is not
that, then?'

She continues to look expectantly at him. Since it is not that, it must
be on some other errand he has come. She clearly thinks it an impossible
impertinence on his part to have called on her at eleven o'clock in the
morning without an excuse.

And yet such is the case. He has come because he has come; he has no
better reason to give, either to her or to himself. A wild idea of
trumping up the expected message, and another of feigning that he has
come to inquire after the fox, cross his mind; but he dismisses both:
the first because he knows he should be found out, and the second
because Miss Lambton might take it as a fresh demand upon her pity for
the wound got in her service.

'I am afraid I have no message,' he says boldly. 'I was passing your
door, and I--I--rang. By the bye' (smiling nervously as the utter
inadequacy of his explanation falls upon his ears), 'what a loud bell
yours is! I was so frightened at the noise I made that I was half
inclined to run away when I had rung it.'

She does not say that she is glad he did not; she does not say anything
civil. She only asks him to sit down, which, when he has shaken hands
with Prue, and wondered inwardly what she can have been doing to make
herself look so odd, he does.

Again silence, and again it is broken by Margaret. After all, she cannot
be conspicuously rude even to him in her own house. It is, indeed, one
of the problems of life, 'When is it permissible to insult one's
neighbour?' Not in one's own house; not in his. There is, then, only the
open street left.

For the sake of saying something, and also because she knows that she is
giving voice to her sister's unspoken wish, Peggy inquires civilly
whether they are all well at the Manor.

'Yes, I think so,' replies Talbot slowly. 'I have not heard any of them
complain of any disease beyond the long disease of life.'

His tone is so little what one would expect from the happy lover of a
fashionable beauty, that Margaret, with that charity that thinketh no
evil, to which we are all so prone, instantly sets it down to
affectation.

'That is a disease that I daresay does not hinder you all from amusing
yourselves,' returns she sarcastically.

'Amusing ourselves? Oh yes, very well. I do not complain.'

There is such an obviously true ring about the depression with which
this announcement of his contentment with his lot is uttered, that even
she can no longer doubt of its reality. So he is not happy with his
Betty after all! And a very good thing, too! Serve him right! But
perhaps the discovery tends to mollify a little the tone of her next
observation.

'Are you thinking how badly we want mowing?' she asks, her eyes
following the direction of his, which are absently bent upon the sward,
to-day not shorn to quite its usual pitch of velvet nicety. 'So we do,
indeed. But Jacob has unluckily fallen ill, just as milady lent me the
machine, and there it and the pony stand idle, and we'--regretfully
eyeing her domain--'are, as you see, like a hay-meadow.'

Talbot does not speak for a moment. A great idea is labouring its way to
birth in his mind--an idea that may give him a better foothold here than
any casually escaped fox or precarious porterage of messages can ever
do.

'Why should not I mow?' asks he at last.

'_You?_'

'Yes, I; and you lead the pony.'

She looks at him, half inclined to be angry.

'Is that a joke?'

'A joke--no! Will you tell me where the pony is? May I harness it?'

Again she looks at him, waveringly this time, and thence to her turf. It
is already an inch and a half too long; by to-morrow morning it will be
three inches, an offence to her neat eye; and when Jacob falls ill he is
apt to take his time about it. She yields to temptation.

'I will call the boy.'

But the boy is out--_marbleing_, vagranting after his kind about the
near village, no doubt.

They have to harness the pony themselves; and by the time that they have
put the bridle over her head, inserted her feet into her mowing shoes,
and led her out of her dark stall into the sunny day, John has almost
recovered the ground he had lost since that fortunate hour when, with
three drops of his blood, he had bought a square inch of oil-silk and a
heavenly smile.

They set off. Loudly whirs the machine. Up flies the grass in a little
green cloud, which the sun instantly turns into deliciously scented
new-mown hay; sedately steps the pony; gravely paces Margaret beside
her; honourably John stoops to his toil behind. It is not a pursuit that
lends itself much to conversation; but at least he has continuously
before his eyes her flat back, her noble shoulders, the milky nape of
her neck; and can conjecture as to the length of her unbound hair by
counting the number of times that the brown plait winds round the back
of her broad head. Every now and then they pause to empty out the grass,
and each time a few words pass between them.

'Is Jacob very ill?'

'I am afraid that he suffers a good deal.'

'Is he likely to die?'

'Heaven forbid!'

'Because if he is, I wish you would think of me.'

He is half afraid when he has said this; it verges, perhaps, too nearly
upon familiarity.

But she is not offended. Her eye, flattered by her shaven lawn, cannot
rest very severely upon him who has shaven it for her. Her spirits have
risen; exhilarated by the wholesome exercise, by the sunshine, by who
knows what. Only when her look falls now and again upon Prue, still
flung listlessly on the garden-seat, with her nosegay--not more flagging
than she--withering on the ground beside her, does a cloud come over it.

'Should I get a good character from your last place?' returns she
playfully.

'From the Foreign Office?'

'Was it the Foreign Office?' with a momentary impulse of curiosity for
which she instantly pulls herself up. 'You know one always expects to
get a character from the last place.'

'I do not know whether it is a good one. It is a nine-years' one.'

Then they set off again. Next time it is about Prue.

'I hope she is not ill?' his eyes following Margaret's to the little
forlorn figure under the Judas-tree.

'No-o.'

'Nor unhappy?'

'We all have our Black Mondays'--evasively--'only some of us have Black
Tuesdays and Black Wednesdays as well--ah!'

What has happened to her? Her gloomy sentence has ended in a suppressed
cry of joy, and her cheeks have changed from pink to damask. He turns to
seek the cause of this metamorphosis.

'Why, there is Ducane!'

In an instant his eyes have pounced back upon her face. It is settling
again into its pretty normal colours, but the joy is still there.

'Yes, there is Freddy!' she acquiesces softly.

A sharp needle of jealousy pricks his heart. This, then, is why she
received him so frigidly. She was expecting the other.

'We stop now, I suppose?' he says abruptly.

'What! tired already, Jacob's would-be successor?' asks she rallyingly.

'Hardly. But I supposed that you would wish to stop.'

'On account of Freddy?'--with a little shrug. 'Pooh! he is a fly on the
wall; and besides, he--he is not coming this way.'

It is true. Straight as a die young Ducane is making for the Judas-tree;
and from under that Judas-tree a little figure, galvanised back into
youth and bloom, rises, walking on air to meet him.

The eyes of John and Margaret meet, and he understands. As he goes home
he feels that he has made a real step in advance this time. He shares a
secret with her. He knows about Prue!



CHAPTER X

    'Our Master hath a garden which fair flowers adorn,
     There will I go and gather, both at eve and morn:
     Nought's heard therein but Angel Hymns with harp and lute,
     Loud trumpets and bright clarions, and the gentle, soothing flute.

    'The lily white that bloometh there is Purity,
     The fragrant violet is surnamed Humility:
     Nought's heard therein but Angel Hymns with harp and lute,
     Loud trumpets and bright clarions, and the gentle, soothing flute.'


'Well,' cries Peggy anxiously, as, the young men having taken leave, she
sees her sister come running and jumping, and humming an air, to meet
her, 'is it all right?'

'Of course it is all right,' replies Prue, vaulting over the tennis-net
to let off a little of her steam. 'If it had not been for your long
face, I should never have doubted it.'

'Yes?'

'It was just as I expected; he was too polite to leave them. He says he
never in his life remembers spending two such tedious days; but he is so
unselfish. He says himself that he knows he is full of faults, but that
he cannot understand any one being selfish, even from the point of view
of their own pleasure. He said it so simply.'

'H'm!'

'I was so sorry for you, Peggy--saddled with that tiresome John Talbot
all morning. Of course I ought to have helped you; but you know I had
not a word to throw to a dog. It was very provoking of him, wasting all
your morning for you.'

'My morning was not wasted,' rejoins Margaret calmly. 'He may be a very
bad man, but he mows well.'

'He might as well have finished it while he was about it,' says Prue,
captiously eyeing the lawn. 'It looks almost worse than it did before,
half mown and half unmown.'

For an instant Margaret hesitates; then, with a slight though
perceptible effort over herself, she says:

'I suppose he thought so; for he has offered to come again to-morrow to
finish it. He said one could not leave it half-shaven, like a poodle.'

She looks at her sister a little doubtfully as she speaks--as one not
quite sure of the soundness of the comparison, and that would be glad to
have it confirmed by another judgment. But Prue's wings have already
carried her up again into her empyrean.

'We are to ride quite late this afternoon. He wants me to see the
reapers reaping by moonlight as we come home. He says he always
associates me with moonlight. I am to ride the bay. He says he quite
looks upon her as mine--that it gives him a sort of turn to see any one
else on her;' and so on, and so on.

Margaret smiles rather sadly; but as it is no use going to meet trouble
half-way, she allows herself to be carried away by Prue's infectious
spirits, on however rickety a foundation those spirits may be built. In
her heart she is scarcely more pleased with her own conduct than with
her sister's.

'One cannot touch pitch without being defiled,' she says to herself
severely.

She says it several times--is, indeed in the act of saying it next
morning, when, on the stroke of eleven, punctual to his minute, the poor
pitch reappears. She sets him at once to his mowing, and allows him very
short intervals for rest and conversation. Since he has come to work,
let him work. No doubt as soon as he discovers that it is honest labour
and not play that is expected of him he will trouble her with no more of
his assiduities. And yet, as he bids her good-bye, leaving behind him a
smooth sweep of short velvet for her to remember him by, he seems to
linger.

'How is Jacob?' he asks.

'No better.'

'The garden looks a little straggly,' suggests he insidiously, knowing
her weak side. 'A great many things want tying up. The beds need edging,
and the carnations ought to be layered.'

'You are very learned,' says she, smiling. 'Does the F.O. teach you
gardening?'

'Well, no; that is not included in the curriculum. That is an extra.'

'Who did teach you, then?' asks she, with an inquisitiveness which, as
soon as the words are out of her mouth, shocks and surprises herself.

Can it be Betty? A Betty that loves her children and digs in her garden!
If it is so, Peggy will have to reconstruct her altogether.

'My sister.'

His sister! What a relief! It would have been so humiliating to have had
her strongest taste degraded by a community with painted, posturing
Betty.

'You have a sister?'

'_Had._ There is a good deal of difference.'

And with that he leaves her abruptly. But he returns next day at the
same hour; and, as there has blown a boisterous wind in the night, which
has prostrated top-heavy plants, torn off leaves, and scattered
flower-petals, she has not the heart to refuse his aid in a general
tidying and sweeping up. Next day he clips the edges of the borders
very nicely with a pair of shears; and the next day they gather lavender
off the same bush. Gathering lavender, particularly off the same bush,
is a good deal more productive of talk than mowing; nor is it possible
to her to keep her new servant within the bounds of a silence to which
she had never attempted to confine her old one.

But, indeed, by the time that they have come to the lavender day the
wish for his silence has ceased. On the second--the general sweeping
day--he had told her about his sister--had told her in short dry
sentences how he had lost her; and she had cried out of sympathy for him
who did not cry, and had said to herself, 'What if it had been my Prue?'
On the third day, though assuredly no word or hint of Betty had passed
his lips, somehow, by woman's instinct, sharpened by observation, she
has sprung to a conclusion, not very erroneous, as to his garish
mock-happiness and his shattered life. On the fourth day she asks
herself why he never comes except in the forenoon; and herself answers
the question, that it is because lazy Betty lies late, and until one
o'clock has no knowledge of his comings or goings. On the fifth day she
resolves that he shall come in the afternoon. She will be visited openly
or not at all. So when, giving his bundle of lavender into her hands, he
says with a valedictory formula, 'The same hour to-morrow?' she answers
quietly:

'I am afraid not; I have an engagement with Mrs. Evans for to-morrow
morning; we must give up the garden to-morrow, unless'--as if with an
afterthought--'unless you could come later--some time in the afternoon?'

His countenance falls. What property has he in his own afternoons? His
weary afternoons of hammock and scandal and cigarettes?

'I am afraid----' he begins; but at once he sees her face hardening. She
knows. She understands. Cost what it may, he will not see again in her
mouth and eyes that contempt whose dawning he had once before detected,
to the embittering of his rest. He will not leave her with those tight
lips and that stern brow. Pay for it as he may, he will do her bidding.

'At what hour, then?' he asks readily. 'Four? five? it is all one to
me.'

She hesitates a moment. She has laid a trap for him, and he has not
fallen into it.

'Shall we say five?'

He sees the surprise in her look, and is rewarded by it. But as he walks
home he ponders. How is he to break to Betty the act of insubordination
of which he has pledged himself to be guilty? For the last week he has
been leading a double life; dissembling his happy mornings from the
monopoliser of his weary afternoons. A sense of shame and revolt comes
over him. He will dissemble no longer. Know as he may that from the
tyranny whose yoke he himself fastened about his neck--from the chain
which he himself has encouraged to eat into his life, only death or
Betty's manumission can--according to honour's distorted code--free him;
yet there is no reason why he should deny himself the solace of such a
friendship as a good woman who divines his miserable story will accord
him: a woman who lies under no delusion as to his being a free agent; in
whose clear eyes--their innocence not being a stupid ignorance--he has
read her acquaintance with his history; and whose strong heart can run
no danger from the company of one whom she despises. Nor as the time
draws near, though the natural man's aversion from vexing anything
weaker than itself, coupled with his knowledge of his lady's unusual
tear-and-invective power, may make him wince at the thought of the
coming contest, does his resolution at all flag as to asserting and
sticking to his last remnant of liberty. He might, as it happens, have
cut the knot by flight, Betty having given him the occasion by
forsaking him for a game of billiards with Freddy; but he is determined
to fight the battle out on the open field. She has rejoined him now, and
the weather being fresher than it was, and Betty the chilliest of
mortals, they are walking briskly up and down the terrace, she wrapped
in a 'fluther' of lace and feathers, and with her children frisking
round her, a good and happy young matron. She is very happy just now,
dear Betty. She has beaten Freddy at billiards, and made him break tryst
with Prue. She is going to make him break another to-morrow. Is it any
wonder that she looks bright and sweet? Little Franky has hold of her
hand; and Lily is backing along the gravel walk before her. Betty
laughs.

'Can you imagine what can be the pleasure of walking backwards with your
tongue out?' asks she of Talbot. 'Franky darling, you are pulling my
hand off; would not you like to run away and play with Lily?'

But the little spoilt fellow only clutches her fingers the tighter.

'No, no; I like to stay with you, mammy!'

'And so you shall,' cries she, hugging him; 'you shall always do
whatever you like. But Lily'--in a colder key--'you may run away; we do
not want you. What are you staring at me so for, child?'

Lily puts her head on one side, and hoisting up her shoulder to meet her
cheek, rubs them gently together, with her favourite gesture.

'I was only thinking, mammy,' replies she pensively, 'what much smaller
ears than yours Miss Lambton has. Do you think that she will grow deaf
sooner than other people because her ears are so small?'

'Nonsense!' rejoins the mother sharply; 'do not get into the habit of
asking stupid questions. Run away!'

'Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings,' etc. The way has been paved
for Talbot in a way that he could not have expected. Miss Harborough
walks away slowly, dragging her legs, and with a very deep reluctance.
She scents an interesting conversation in the air.

'It is odd that Lily should have mentioned Miss Lambton,' says Talbot,
taking the plunge; 'for I was just going to mention her myself.'

'It is what you do not often do,' replies Betty drily; '"out of the
abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh," cannot be said of you.'

'Her gardener is ill,' continues Talbot, leaving unnoticed this little
fling, and speaking in as matter-of-fact a tone as he can assume; 'and I
promised to help her to water her garden. By the bye'--with an
unnecessary glance at the stable clock--'if you could spare me for half
an hour--I said I would be there by five--I ought to be off.'

There is an ominous silence. Then:

'How do you know that her gardener is ill? Did she think it necessary to
write and communicate that interesting fact to you?'

'No.'

'She has not been here since Monday?'

'I believe not.'

'Then you have been there?'

'Yes.'

'What day?'

He hesitates. Shall he make a clean breast of it? Yes; 'in for a penny,
in for a pound.'

'I have been there five days,' replies he slowly, and looking down.

Another pause. He keeps his eyes resolutely averted from her face, but
he hears an angry catch in her breath.

'In the morning, I suppose, before I was up?'

'Yes.'

She breaks into a rather shrill laugh.

'What an incentive to early rising! The early Blowsabel picks the
worm.'

Her tone is so inexpressibly insulting that he has to bite his lips hard
to keep in the furious retort that rises to them; but he masters
himself. Of what use to bandy words with an angry woman? And, after all,
from her point of view she has some cause of complaint. Franky has
altered his mind, and trotted off after his senior, for whose
tree-climbing, cat-teasing, general mischief-doing powers he entertains
a respect tempered with fear. They are alone.

Betty is walking along with her nose in the air, a smile of satisfied
ire at the happiness of her last shaft giving a malicious upward curve
to her pretty mouth.

'How I should have laughed,' says she presently, 'if any fortune-teller
had told me that it would be my fate to be supplanted by a sa----'

'You are going to say "a sack of potatoes,"' says he, interrupting her.
'Do not. If you must call names, invent a new one!'

'Why give myself that trouble,' asks she insolently, 'when the old one
fits so admirably? _Supplanted by a sack!_' (dwelling with prolonged
relish on the obnoxious noun). 'What a good title for a novel! Ah!
Freddy, my child!' catching sight of the young fellow, who is just
stepping out of the window of the drawing-room. 'I was afraid you had
gone to dry your skeleton's eyes. Come and dry mine instead: I assure
you they need it much more.'

As she speaks she goes hurriedly to meet Ducane, and disappears with him
round a corner of the house.

Talbot is free to pursue his scheme with what heart he may. The last ten
minutes' conversation has taken all the bloom off his project. That the
whole pleasure to himself has been eliminated from it is, however, no
reason why he should break his word to Peggy, and, if he wishes to obey
her with the punctuality that he has always hitherto shown, he must set
off at once. He begins to walk towards a turn-stile that leads into the
park!



CHAPTER XI

    'Her cheeks so rare a white was on,
     No daisy makes comparison
     (Who sees them is undone);
     For streaks of red were mingled there,
     Such as are on a Catherine pear,
     The side that's next the sun.'


He has not gone above a hundred yards when he hears a small thunder of
feet behind him, and turning, finds Miss Harborough flying at the top of
her speed to overtake him.

'Mammy said I might go with you,' cries she breathlessly.

He stops and hesitates. Is it possible that she has sent this innocent
child to be an unconscious spy upon him?

'Mammy said I might go with you,' repeats Lily, seeing his hesitation,
and beginning to drop her long lashes, and rub her cheek with her
shoulder, according to her most approved methods of fascination.

'But I did not say so,' returns he gravely.

'Oh, but you will,' cries she, flinging herself boisterously into his
arms; 'and I--I'll help you over the stiles.'

Who could resist such a bribe as this? Certainly not Talbot. They walk
off amicably hand-in-hand. After all, he ought to be thankful for
anything that distracts him from his own thoughts, which are certainly
neither pleasant nor profitable enough to be worth thinking. To-day he
is sad, not only on his own account, but on Margaret's. Short as has
been the time of his acquaintance with her, he has got into a habit,
which seems long, of being sorry with her sorrows. He knows that to-day
will be a black day for Prue, and that Peggy will be darkened in
company. Is it not better then, seeing that he cannot stir a finger to
lift the weight from the three hearts he would fain lighten, that he
should have his eight-year-old companion's chatter to be distracted by,
that he should be initiated into the hierarchy of her affections, and
learn the order and degree in which her relations and friends are dear
to her? He is surprised and flattered at the extremely high place
assigned to himself immediately after father, and some way above mammy;
but is less exhilarated on finding out that he shares it with the
odd-man, who has made and presented a whistle to her.

'And Franky? where does Franky come?' asks John, really quite interested
in the subject.

'My dear little brother!' exclaims Lily, with an extravagant affection
of sisterly tenderness. 'I am _so_ fond of him! Poor little brother! he
has _no_ toys!'

John smiles rather grimly. He knows that Miss Lily squabbles frightfully
with her little brother in real life; and how entirely mendacious is her
statement as to his destitution of playthings.

'I have given him most of mine,' pursues Lily, casting one eye subtly up
to watch the effect of her words, 'but he has broken them nearly all,
and now we neither of us have any!'

John receives this broad hint in a silence which Miss Lily feels to be
sceptical; but as her attention is at the same moment diverted by the
sight of Miss Lambton's Red House, and of Mink's face looking through
the bars of the gate, on the anxious watch for passing market-carts to
insult, she does not pursue the subject.

Mink takes them for a market-cart at first, and insults them; but
afterwards apologises, and shows them the way to the garden, jumping up
at Lily's nose, with an affectation of far greater pleasure than he can
really feel.

They find his mistress standing alone in the middle of her domain, a
great gutta-percha snake lying on the ground behind her, and the hose
directed at a thirsty verbena-bed.

As they come up with her, the chiming church clock, having finished its
preliminary stave of 'Home, Sweet Home,' strikes five. Whether the
chimes or her own thoughts have deafened her, she does not hear their
approach.

'Is not that punctuality?' asks Talbot, drawing near. 'Which is better,
to have only one very small virtue, and to have it in absolute
perfection, or to have a smattering of several large ones?'

At his voice she starts, and turns, her eye falling upon him, and also,
of course, upon the child. The latter instantly flings herself into her
arms.

'Mammy and John Talbot said I might come!' cries she effusively.

'You did not give John Talbot much choice in the matter,' returns he
drily.

'But mammy told me to come,' urges Lily in eager self-defence; 'she told
me to run fast that I might be sure to overtake you!'

John feels a dull red rising to his brow; but he will not let his eyes
sink: they meet Peggy's full and straight. She shall see that this time,
at all events, he has been neither ashamed nor afraid to proclaim his
visit to her.

Peggy has gently unclasped the child's arms from about her neck.

'What a dear little doggy!' cries Lily, chattering on, and deceived by
Mink's manner, as all strangers are, into the belief that he has
conceived a peculiar fancy for her. 'What is his name?'

'Mink.'

'And what kind of dog is he?'

'That is what no one--not even himself--has ever been able to make out,'
returns Margaret, with a smile. 'Sometimes he thinks that he is a
Yorkshire terrier, and sometimes he does not. I bought him at the Dogs'
Home, because he was the most miserable little dog there, and because I
was quite certain that if I did not, nobody else would. He has grown so
uppish now that sometimes I have to remind him of his origin--have not
I, Minky?'

'Mammy had a Yorkshire terrier once,' says Miss Harborough
thoughtfully--'John Talbot gave it her--but he died. She had him
stuffed: he looks horrid now!'

Talbot writhes. It seems to him as if he had never before tasted the
full degradation of his position. He makes a clumsy plunge at changing
the conversation by inquiring after Prue.

'She is lying down,' replies Peggy, while he sees a furrow come upon her
white forehead. 'The heat tries her; at least'--her eye meeting his with
a sort of appeal--'she is very easily tired; and she has been waiting
all afternoon with her habit on. She was engaged to go out riding at
three, and now it is five; people ought not to make engagements if they
are not prepared to keep them!'

'I am afraid he had forgotten all about it,' answers Talbot sadly.

Margaret's only answer is a dispirited shrug; and Lily having by this
time scampered off to visit the fox; if possible, with safety, pull his
brush; eat anything that is eatable in the kitchen-garden; and make
friendly advances to the stable-boy--Miss Lambton again takes up the
hose.

'This,' says she, looking at it affectionately, 'is the one solid good I
have ever got from the Big House!'

He does not answer. Though he certainly does not class himself under the
head of a solid good, her words give him a vague chill.

'It sounds ungrateful,' pursues Peggy; 'but I often wish we could move
this acre of ground, with everything that is on it, fifty miles farther
away.'

'Do you?'

'Of course,' pursues she gravely, 'we get a great deal more society here
than we should anywhere else; but I often think that that is a doubtful
good. We grow to know people whose acquaintance we should be far better
without.'

He winces. Does he himself come under this category? But she means no
offence.

'You can have no notion how our lives are cut up,' she continues. 'We
live in a whirl of tiny excitements, that would not be excitements to
anybody but us. We never can settle to any serious occupation; the
moment we take up a book there is a note: "Prue, come out riding;"
"Peggy, come and look over the accounts of the Boot and Shoe Club;"
"Peggy and Prue, come and dine to meet the--the----"'

Harboroughs is the name which rises to her lips, and which she
suppresses out of politeness to him.

He knows, too, that the plural pronoun which she has employed throughout
has been used only as a veil for Prue's weakness; that the picture she
has drawn has no likeness to her own steady soul.

'I sometimes think seriously of moving,' she says presently. 'It would
be a wrench'--looking round wistfully. 'The only two big things that
ever happened to me have happened here: Prue was born here, and mother
died here. Yes, it would be a wrench.'

He listens to her in a respectful silence. It would be impertinent in
him to express overt sympathy in her trouble, the trouble she has never
put into words.

'Sometimes I think that we should do better in London,' she goes on,
looking at him almost as if appealing to him for counsel; 'there would
be more to interest and distract us in London.'

'What, and leave the garden?' says he, lifting his eyebrows.

'She does not care really about the garden,' answers Margaret,
forgetting herself, and using the singular pronoun which she might have
employed all along. 'And as for me'--with a little laugh--'I would grow
mignonette in a box; and buy a load of hay, as I heard of one
country-sick lady doing, and make myself a haycock in the back-yard.'

'I cannot fancy you in a town,' says he, almost under his breath.

It is true. It is impossible to him to picture her except with a
background of waving trees, a floor of blossoming flowers, a spicy wind
to toss her hair, and finches to sing to her. His imagination is not
strong enough to transplant her to the narrow bounds of a little South
Kensington home, lost in the grimy monotony of ten thousand others.

'It is very difficult to know what to decide,' she says, almost
plaintively, 'and I have no one to advise me. Though I am not very
young--twenty-two--I have very little experience of life. There must be
a best; but it is hard to find. Do you never feel it so?'

Her large pure eyes are upon him, asking him, as well as her mouth does,
for an answer to this unanswerable question. For a moment he hesitates,
then:

'Do not you know that there are some people who have arranged their
lives so ingeniously that for them there is no best; that the only
choice left them lies between bad and worse?'

'I do not believe it,' answers she solemnly. 'God gives us all a best,
if we will only look for it; and' (in a lighter key) 'never fear but I
shall find mine before I have done!'

After that they finish their watering almost in silence. When he bids
her good-bye, having recaptured his Miss Harborough, who is restored to
him a good deal smirched by a delirious half-hour in the hayloft with a
litter of kittens, Margaret thanks him simply, yet very heartily, for
his services to her.

'Why are you so grateful to-day particularly?' asks he, alarmed. 'You
make me feel as if the band were playing "God Save the Queen," and
everything was at an end.'

'Jacob comes back to his work to-morrow,' answers she, 'and you know,'
with a smile, 'I cannot afford to keep two gardeners.'

'He must be very weak still.'

'Do not be afraid,' laughing again; 'I will not overwork him.'

'Then I am to consider myself dismissed?'

'With thanks--yes.'

'Out of work? Turned into the street?'

'Yes.'

'And without a character?'

'I daresay you will not miss it,' replies she, a little cynically. 'Many
people do without one.'

He winces. She is not half so nice when she is cynical.

'Come along, Lily,' he says, in a vexed voice; 'we are not wanted here
any longer. We are old shoes, sucked lemons, last year's almanacs. Let
us go.'

'My child!' cries Margaret, her eye falling for the first time on a
gigantic rift in the front of Miss Harborough's frock, 'what have you
done to yourself? What will Nanny say to you?'

'I do not care what she says!' replies Lily swaggeringly. 'She is an old
beast! Oh, Miss Lambton,' with a sudden change of key, 'may not I come
again to-morrow? Alfred wants me to come again to-morrow.' (Alfred is
the stable-boy.) 'May not I come with John Talbot again to-morrow?'

'You see that we are both of one mind,' says John, with a melancholy
whine, walking off with his young lady.



CHAPTER XII


The Harboroughs' and Talbot's invitation to the Manor had been for a
fortnight. Of that fortnight fully a week has already elapsed. To the
house which comes next in the Harboroughs' autumn programme John Talbot
has, by some strange oversight, not been asked. For this reason--to mark
her indignation at so flagrant a departure from the code of civilised
manners--Betty shows every symptom of an intention to throw up her
engagement.

But for once Mr. Harborough's love of sport exceeds his pliability. From
a house which possesses some of the best grousing on the Yorkshire
moors, not even the fact that his wife's admirer is not bidden to share
it can keep him; and what is more, as it is an old-fashioned house which
expects to see husband and wife together, he will make Betty go too.

Talbot's engagements are more elastic. By an easy readjustment of them
he might spare another seven days to his present quarters. It is true
that Lady Roupell has not as yet definitely asked him to prolong his
visit, but he knows that she is hardly aware whether he goes or stays;
and as to Freddy, he is always brimming over with an easy hospitality
which costs him nothing, and makes every one say what a good fellow he
is.

A whole week of absolute freedom, afternoons as well as mornings; a
whole week during which he need not pretend to be jealous--pretend to be
fond--pretend to be everything that he once was, and is not, and never
will be again! It is possible, too, that Jacob may have a relapse. In
that case, a whole week of mowing, of clipping edges, of picking
lavender, and gathering groundsel for the cage-birds! He knows that
there must always be eleven bits gathered, because there are eleven
birds, and she cannot bear one to be without. He smiles softly at this
tender-hearted puerility of hers.

And meanwhile, since she has made it clear to him that she does not
desire any more of his immediate company, he keeps himself away for two
whole days. What business has he, who can never claim any rights over
her, to expose her, by his assiduities, to the coarse gossip of a gaping
village?

But though his eye is not enriched by her, her presence and her words
are with him night and day. One of her sentences rings for ever in his
ears--'God gives us all a best, if we will only look for it.' Look for
it as he may, how can he find his best? and finding, how dare he take
hold of and make it his? His best! The best for him--does not it
apparently stare him in the face?

To shake off this chain that was once of flowers, and is now of cold
eating iron, and to walk the world a free man, free for honest work and
honest love. Ay, but to the riveting of that chain there went an oath,
from which the mere fact of his having grown tired of wearing its
fetters does not, in his opinion, release him. He is bound by an
engagement the more perversely sacred, because none can hold him to it.

Only by her with whom it was made can he be emancipated from it; and for
that emancipation how can he ask her? How can he go to her and say, 'I
have grown tired of you; I have grown fond of another woman. Let me go!'

It is only as a free gift from her hand that he can accept his
dismissal; and, of the improbability of her ever making him that gift,
his sinking spirit assures him. It is not only vanity and habit that tie
her to him. Deep in his heart he knows that, cold wife, partial mother,
bad friend as she is, to him she has been, and is, a fond and faithful
lover; that, if he were but to hold up his finger, she would toss to the
winds position, diamonds, toilettes, admirers, everything that for her
life holds of valuable, to face opprobrium and poverty by his side. He
knows that he and Franky are the two things in the world she really
loves, and for whom her foolish heart beats as truly under its worldly
'fluther' of lace and satin as did ever Cornelia's for her Gracchi, or
Lucretia's for her lord.

It is absolutely impossible that he can cut her adrift. Bitterly
unsatisfactory, wrong, senseless, and now oppressive as is the
connection that binds him to her, he must hope for none other, none
better, none dearer, as long as her and his lives last.

Such being the case, is not it the height of unwisdom to himself,
perhaps of injustice to that other woman, that he should seek her
company with the consciousness of a heart he dare not give, and a hand
he dare not offer?

This is the question that dings perpetually in his ears, as he lies down
and as he rises up, as he walks moody and alone in the park, as he
answers Lily's startling questions, and evades her broad hints; or
listens to Betty's anathemas of her man-milliner, or her petulant
lamentations over the expected loss of his society during the ensuing
week.

He has not yet answered it on the third day after his last visit to the
little Red House, when he meets Peggy in the lane, staggering under a
philanthropic load of framed lithographs, which he helps her to carry to
the workhouse, and to hang up on the walls, whose dreary monotony of
whitewash they agreeably and gaudily vary. He has not yet answered it
the next day, when he carries a message to her from Lady Roupell, a
message which must be preposterously long, since it takes two hours and
a half to deliver; he has not yet answered it on the day after, nor on
the day after that again, which is the last of the Harboroughs' visit.

On the afternoon of that day some business has brought Peggy reluctantly
up to the Manor, where she had not appeared for above a week. John and
Lily, as is but civil, escort her home again! It is true that Miss
Harborough has had a near shave, at the moment of setting off, of being
recaptured by her nurse--a danger from which she has been rescued only
by her own presence of mind, a presence of mind made all the acuter by
her excessive desire to flirt with John, and to overhear
what--unintended for Lilyan ears--he has to say to his companion.

'Oh, Miss Lambton!' cries she, pulling down Peggy's face in order to
whisper importantly into her ear; 'do not you think I had better come
with you? There are the stiles! I do not see,' with an affectation of
excessive delicacy, 'how you are to get over the stiles with only John
Talbot!'

Her plea is admitted as sound.

They all three spend a long dawdling afternoon at the Little House. They
take the fox out for a run in the field on his chain; and in his joy he
gallops round and round, tying all their legs together, even throwing
Miss Harborough down--an accident which fills her with delight. He
offers to play with Mink, who growls, and receives his advances with
such hauteur that he has to be reminded of the humility of his own
beginnings, and of the Dogs' Home. The snubbed fox throws himself on the
sward and pants, swishing his brush from side to side like a cross cat.
Then they restore him to his prison, at which he opens his red mouth
wide, making little angry wild noises.

After they have done with the fox, they have still the garden to water;
the kittens in the hayloft--to which they ascend, on the joint
invitation of Alfred and Lily--to see; peas to throw to the pretty prosy
pigeons, long-windedly courting in fans and pouts, and prism-coloured
throats on the dove-cot roof. And when at length her guests take their
tardy leave, Peggy is insensibly lured, step by step, into accompanying
them more than half-way home.

Into what could not such an evening lure one? Through a barley-field
first; all the pale spears slanting westward in the level sun; then a
field of old pasture, knapweeds purpling, little hawkweed clocks telling
the time in fairyland, loitering buttercups. Then a hedgerow with woody
nightshade and long blue vetch; then the green night of a little wood.
Though the sun is nearing his declension, the delicious smell that all
day long he has compelled the grass and the flowers to bring him, in
odorous tribute, still tarries, making the air rich--_âcre_, as the
French say; a word for which there is no precise English equivalent. On
the farther side of the tiny forest they part; if so short a severance
can indeed be called to part. Are not they to meet again in an hour or
so, at that dinner-party at the Manor, to which both Peggy and Prue are
bidden? and even if it were not so, have not they to-morrow, and again
to-morrow, and yet to-morrow again, to look forward to? This being so,
why is it that such a curious last-time feeling clings to Talbot as he
crosses the park with his little chattering comrade, making him turn his
head again and again in futile seeking towards the sylvan gate whence
his tall and white-gowned friend has already disappeared?

On entering the house, and going through an upper passage to his room,
he is accosted by Betty's maid, who tells him that her ladyship's
headache is better; that she is on the sofa in Lady Roupell's boudoir,
and that she has expressed a wish to see him as soon as he comes in. He
follows with a guilty conscience and a sinking heart. Has he for one
moment of his long blissful afternoon remembered the headache, to which
alone he owed his freedom; the headache genuine enough--though it took
its birth from mortification and spleen--to keep her stretched in pain
and solitary darkness the livelong day? She is in semi-darkness still,
her windows closed (a headache always makes her chilly); not a glint of
apricot cloud or suave blue sky-field reaching her. A sense of pity,
largely touched with remorse, comes over him, as he takes her hand, and
says softly:

'You are better at last? Come, that is well!'

She leaves her hand, languid and rather feverish, lying in his.

'It is time that I should be better!' she says, with an impatient sigh.
'What a day I have had!--our last day!' There is such genuine grief and
regret in the accent with which she pronounces the three final words
that his remorse deepens; but that increase of self-reproach does not
make it the least more possible to him to echo her lamentation. 'I asked
Julie how often you had been to inquire after me,' continues she,
turning her eyes, innocent to-day of their usual black smouches,
interrogatively upon him; 'she said she could not remember.'

Talbot blesses the wisely ambiguous maid; and, to hide his confusion,
stoops his head over the hand, which he still--since it is evidently
expected of him--holds.

'I wish my inquiries could have made you better,' says he, taking--and
feeling with shame that he is taking--a leaf out of Julie's book. 'I am
afraid that you will not be able to come down to dinner.'

'Oh, but I shall!' returns she sharply. 'Why do you think I shall not?
Is the wish father to the thought?'

He laughs constrainedly, taking refuge in what is often the best
disguise, truth.

'Yes, that is it!'

'Milady would never forgive me,' pursues she, rolling her head
restlessly about upon the cushions, 'if I left her to struggle with the
natives alone; I am sure I have not the heart to struggle with any one!
Oh, how miserable I am! John!'--laying her other hand on his, and
clasping it between both hers--'how _am_ I to get through the next
fortnight?'

Talbot wonders whether the burning blush that he feels searing him all
through his body shows in his face, whether he looks the double-faced
cur that he feels. Probably he does not, or else the faint light helps
him; for she goes on unsuspiciously:

'You have never told me where you have decided to go to-morrow--to the
Mackintoshes or the Delaneys? If you ask my advice,' with a rather
showery smile, 'I should say the Delaneys; for you will be less well
amused there, and have more time to think of me! Remember that you have
not given me your address; give it me now, lest you should forget it!'

The tug of war has come. He would rather have put it off until her
headache was gone--until he could meet her upon more equal terms. What
chance has a man against a woman lying on a sofa with her eyes full of
tears, and a handkerchief wetted with eau-de-Cologne tied round her
aching brows? None. His hesitation is so obvious that she cannot but
notice it.

'Well,' she says, with some sharpness, 'why do not you answer me? Where
is the difficulty?'

He laughs artificially.

'The difficulty,' he says, trying to speak carelessly--'the difficulty
is that there is no difficulty. You have my address already. I am going
to stay here!'

He has deposited his box of dynamite: he has now only to wait for the
explosion. But for twenty or thirty heart-beats she remains entirely
silent, and, at the end of that time, only repeats his own words:

'To--stay--here!'

'Yes.'

Another silence. He begins to wish that the explosion would come. It
would at least be better than this. She has sat up on her sofa, and
pushed back the wet bandage from her damp and straightened hair. She has
neither belladonna nor rouge. He has always strongly deprecated and even
reviled the use of either; and yet he cannot help thinking, though he
hates himself for so thinking, that she looks old and haggard without
them.

'And this,' says she at last, speaking between her teeth in a low voice,
'is your delicate way of intimating to me that I am superseded!'

He has risen to his feet. They stand staring each at each in the
twilight room, the one not whiter than the other. How much worse it is
than he had feared! Close outside the window a robin is piping blithely.
A stupid wonder flashes across his mind as to whether he is one of those
for whom Peggy scatters crumbs on her window-sill.

'I think that that is a question not worth answering,' he replies,
trying to speak calmly.

'But all the same it must be answered,' rejoins she, with symptoms of
rising excitement. 'You shall not leave the room until it is answered.'

'Will you please to repeat it then in a more intelligible form?' asks
he, with a forced composure.

For a moment she glares at him with dead-white face and shining eyes;
then, rising from her sofa, flings herself into his arms.

'How can you expect me to say such words twice?' cries she, bursting
into a tempest of tears; 'but if it is so, tell me the truth. You have
always blamed me for not speaking truth; learn your own lesson: tell me
the truth. Is it all over--all at an end?'

She has withdrawn herself again from him, and now stands holding him at
arm's length, a hand upon each shoulder, her dimmed eyes fixed upon his
face, searching for the least sign of faltering or evasion upon it. But
she finds none.

'You know,' he answers, in a low quiet voice, whose gentleness is the
cover for a bottomless depression, 'that there will never be an end to
it until you make one.'

Something in his tone dries her tears.

'Then why do you want to stay here?' asks she, her voice still shaking
from her late gust of passion.

He is silent. Her words find an echo in his own heart. Why indeed? Seen
in the hell-light of his renewed bondage, his plan for that one little
halcyon week ahead seems to him to have been a monstrosity of folly and
unreason. How could he, for even a moment, have entertained it?

Betty has sat down again upon the sofa; and wiping rather viciously the
eyes in which an ireful light is flashing, she says softly, as if she
were saying something rather pleasant:

'I am sure you would not wish to hurt _her_, or blight _her_ young
affections; and yet it seems to me that you are on the high-road to do
both.'

He writhes, but he could not speak, if flaying alive were to be the
penalty of his dumbness.

'I do not think'--still in that silky key--'that you have any right to
turn the poor thing's head with attentions such as she has probably
never received before.'

At that he laughs out loud, and insultingly:

'Turn her head! Ha! ha!'

'It is very amusing, no doubt,' rejoins Betty, her false suavity giving
way to a most real fury, breast heaving, and colour rising, 'and such
hilarity becomes you extremely; but, as she has probably never seen any
one more attractive than the village apothecary, it would be no great
excess of coxcombry on your part to suppose that you might be his
successful rival.'

But this taunt fails to extract any reply. Exasperated by her insuccess
in driving him into angry speech, she goes on:

'I do not think you have had to complain of her rigour; how many
days'--with an innocent air of inquiry--'has she allowed you to mow her
lawn, and milk her cow, and feed her pig for her? Six? Seven? I suppose
you have been with her to-day, too?'

At that he unwisely abandons his fortress of silence, and speaks:

'You had better ask Lily; you have set her on more than once as a spy.
Have your child in and ask her!'

To this cold and withering taunt her own weaker sarcasms succumb; and
again abandoning all self-control, she bursts into an agony of weeping,
burying her head in the sofa-cushions, and convulsed from head to foot
by her sobs.

'Is it any wonder,' she moans, 'that I do not want to see the only thing
I have in the world go from me? What am I saying?'--pulling herself up
suddenly--'how dare I say the only thing? have not I my Franky? I shall
always have my Franky!'

The grief of her tone is so poignant and so real that his heart softens
to her, despite her former gibes. He lays his hand upon her shoulder.

'What is all this about?' he asks kindly. 'You know as well as I do that
you will have me--such as I am--as long as you choose to keep me!'

'Then you will not stay here?' cries she precipitately, quitting her
desperate posture, and springing back with startling suddenness into
life and animation again; 'then you will go to-morrow?'

There is a pause. He walks to the window. Through it there comes the
peaceful sound of bleating sheep; and the distant sharp bark of a little
dog. Can it be Mink? He has a sharp bark. Poor little Mink! He will
probably never see Mink again. And to-morrow, according to Peggy, Mink
had promised to tell them all about the Dogs' Home!

He smiles transiently at the recollection of her childish jest. How many
things they were to have done to-morrow! Then he walks slowly back from
the window and says:

'I will go to-morrow!'

Perhaps there is something in the tone of this concession which takes
away from the value of it, for Betty begins to sob again; this time more
in wrath than in sorrow.

'I do not think you need make such a favour of it; I do not think it is
much to ask, considering all things--considering how I have
com--com--compromised my reputation for your sake for the last five
years!' cries she hysterically.

He does not defend himself; only a thought, whose want of generosity
shocks him, flashes across his mind, that that was already a _fait
accompli_ when he had first made her acquaintance.

'_We_ know that there is no harm in our friendship,' pursues she, a
slight red staining her tear-washed cheeks; 'but nobody else knows it.
The world is always only too pleased to think the worst, and in one
sense'--again mastered by her emotion--'it is right! I would have given
up _anything--everything_ for you--you know I would! and you--you--will
give up _nothing_ for me, not even such a trifle as this!'

Once again pity gets the upper hand of him; but a pity crossed by such a
bottomless regret and remorse at having let himself slide into this
tangled labyrinth of wrong, when honour and dishonour have changed
coats, and he does not know which is which, as the Lost Souls in Hell,
if such there be, might feel in looking back upon their earthly course.

'You are right,' he says; 'we must do the best we can for each other! We
must not make life harder for one another than it already is. I will do
what you wish! I ought! I will! Such a trifle, too!'



CHAPTER XIII

    'At length burst in the argent revelry,
       With plume, tiara and all rich array,
     Numerous as shadows haunting fairily
       The brain new stuffed in youth with triumphs gay
     Of old Romance.'


The 'argent revelry' has burst into the Manor in the shape of what Lady
Roupell, with more vigour than elegance, is apt to call one of her
'Beast Parties,' _i.e._ one of those miscellaneous gatherings of the
whole neighbourhood to which she thinks herself bound twice or thrice in
the year--gatherings which, though dictated by hospitality, are not
usually very successful. It is Lady Roupell's principle to override all
the small social distinctions of the neighbourhood, to invite all the
people who quarrel, all the people who look down upon each other, all
the people who are bored by one another, all the people who are trying
to avoid each other, to hobnob at her bounteous board.

'They all go to God's house together, my dear; why should not they come
to mine?' asks she, with a logic that she thinks unanswerable. And so
they do; but they do not enjoy themselves.

That, however, is no concern of milady's. The 'Beasts' _must_ like to
talk to one another, or, if they do not, they ought to like it.

Having thrown open her house to them, having given them every
opportunity of over-eating themselves on her excellent food, and being
exhilarated by her admirable wines, she washes her hands of them; and
having enjoyed her own champagne and venison, sits down to her
Patience-table, which is set out for her every night of her life, and
would be were Queen Victoria to honour her with a visit.

Of the Beast Parties the Evans pair invariably form a constituent part.

'I always ask the Evanses,' says milady good-naturedly. 'It is quite
pretty to see the way in which he enjoys his dinner; and she likes to
wear her dyed gown, good woman, and smuggle candied apricots into her
pockets for those ugly urchins of hers, and look out my friends in her
"Peerage" next day!'

So the Evanses are here, and several harmless rural clergy; like them to
the outer eye, though no doubt to the inner as dissimilar as each
island-like human soul is from its neighbour. There are some large
landowners with their wives, and some very small lawyers and doctors
with theirs. There is a tallow-merchant, who to-day grovels in hides and
tallow, but to-morrow will probably--oh, free and happy England!--soar
to a seat in the Cabinet. There is a Colonial Bishop imported by one
neighbour, and a fashionable buffoon introduced by another; and lastly,
there are Peggy and Prue.

Never before has Peggy set off to a Beast Party with so light a heart.
She knows how little chance of rational or even irrational entertainment
such a feast affords; and yet, do what she will, she feels gay. Prue is
gay too, extravagantly gay, for did not Freddy stroll in half an hour
ago with a flower for her, and a request to her to wear her green gown
for his sake?

Before setting off Peggy bids her eleven birds good-night, telling them
that to-morrow they shall have a swinging ladder in their large cage to
remind them of the swinging tree-tops. Has not Talbot promised to make
them a ladder?

The girls have timed their arrival better than on a former occasion. The
room is already full when they walk in with their breeze-freshened
cheeks and their simple clothes.

Margaret has not even her best dress on. She had looked at it waveringly
and hankeringly at dressing-time; but a sort of superstition--an
undefined feeling that she is not going to meet any one for whom she has
a right to prank herself out, prevents her wearing it. But she cannot
help having her best face on. There is sunshiny weather in her heart.
Even her repulsion for Lady Betty is weakened. Possibly she has been
unjust towards her. Certainly she is not the human octopus from whose
grasp no prey can escape alive, for which she took her. She herself has
the best reason for knowing that from this octopus's arms prey can and
does escape alive and well. After all, she has condemned her upon mere
loose hearsay evidence. Henceforth she will trust only the evidence of
her own eyes and ears. At present her eyes tell her that Betty is very
highly rouged, and rather naked; and her ears--thanks to the din of
tongues--tell her nothing.

For a wonder, Lady Roupell is down in time, her gown properly
laced--usually, from excessive hurry, her maid has to skip half the
eyelet-holes--and with her ornaments duly fastened on. She is following
her usual rule, talking to the person who amuses her most, and leaving
all the others to take care of themselves.

As soon as dinner is announced, and Freddy has walked off with his
allotted lady, she turns with an easy smile to her company, and says:

'Will everybody take in somebody, please?'

At this command, so grateful and natural in a small and intimate party,
so extremely ill-suited to this large and miscellaneous crowd, there is
a moment of hesitating and consternation. The hearts of those who know
that they are never anybody's voluntary choice, but whom conventionality
generally provides with a respectable partner, sink to the soles of
their shoes. The young men hang back from the girls, because they think
that some one else may have a better right to them. All fear to grasp at
a precedence not their due.

At length there is a movement. The tallow-merchant, true to his
principle of soaring, offers his arm to the wife of the Lord-Lieutenant.
The parsons and doctors begin timidly to exchange wives. The Colonial
Bishop casts his landing-net over Prue. Margaret's is one of the few
breasts in the room in which the order for promiscuous choice has
excited a spark of pleasure. In the ordinary course of things she is
aware that it is improbable that Talbot would be her portion. If it is a
case of selection, the improbability vanishes. She smiles slightly to
herself as she recalls the surly indignation with which she had
discovered that he was to be her fate on the last occasion of her dining
here. She is still smiling when he passes her by with Betty on his arm.
For a few seconds it seems as if the handsomest girl in the room were to
be left altogether overlooked and unclaimed; and, in point of fact, she
is one of the latest to be paired. Usually such a blow to her vanity
would have disquieted her but little, as her pretensions are never high.
To-day she is shocked to find how much it galls her.

The ill-sorted party have taken their seats, precedence gone, natural
barriers knocked on the head, reciprocal antipathies forced into close
contact, in that topsy-turvy Utopia of universal equality and amity
which it is Lady Roupell's principle to produce.

Margaret looks round the table to see how the principle has worked. Mrs.
Evans has been led in by the doctor, to whom she is fully persuaded that
she owes the death of the last Evans but one. The next largest squiress
in the parish to Lady Roupell is made sulky for the evening by having
had to accept the arm of her man of business. Prue's Bishop has
innocently planted her as far as the length of the interminable table
will allow from Freddy. Betty and Talbot, though distant, are in sight.
She can see that they are sitting side by side in total silence. Is this
their mode of expressing their sorrow at their approaching separation?
Possibly; but, at all events, what a depth of intimacy does such a total
silence imply! Margaret's own mate is the buffoon. She has often heard
his name as that of the pet of royalty; the darling of the fine ladies;
the crowning sparkle in each choicest social gathering. To her, whether
it be that her mental palate is out of taste, he seems dull and coarse;
his wit made up of ugly faces, elderly _double-entendres_, flat
indecencies.

'It is clear that I am not made for good company,' she says to herself
sadly and wearily. 'Jacob, and the birds, and the fox--these are my
society! They are the only ones I am fit for.'

The long dinner ends at last, and the incongruous couples part--in most
cases with mutual relief. Neither Margaret nor her merry man ever wish
to set eyes upon each other again. In the drawing-room natural
affinities reassert themselves: intimates gather into little groups. The
squiress, escaped from her presumptuous solicitor, makes her plaint to
her fellows. Mrs. Evans makes hers to Peggy.

'Did you see how unlucky I was?' cries she. 'I assure you it gave me
quite a shudder to put my hand upon his arm! I declare I look upon that
man as as much the murderer of my Natty as if he had stuck a knife into
her. I could hardly bear to speak to him. However, I managed to secure
some crackers for the children'--indicating a tell-tale bulge in the
direction of her pocket. 'Their last word to me before I came away was,
"Mother, be sure you bring us some crackers!"'

Then it is Prue's turn to make her lament, which she begins with almost
the same words as Mrs. Evans:

'Did you ever see anything like my ill-luck? I was the farthest from
_him_ of anybody at the table. There were eighteen between us. I
counted. But did you notice how he rushed to open the door? As I passed
him he said to me, "Thank you, Prue." That was because I had put my
green gown on. He is always so grateful for any little thing that one
does for him.'

She pauses rather suddenly, for Lady Betty has drawn near.

'What a pretty frock!' says she, stopping before the two girls. 'As
green as grass, as jealousy, as green peas! Come and talk to me, Miss
Prue, and tell me what you have all been doing to-day. You may have been
up to any amount of mischief for all I can tell. Do you know that I have
been writhing on a bed of pain from morning to night? No? but I have.
Are not you sorry for me?'

As she speaks she draws the childish figure down on the sofa beside her.

Margaret walks away. She would like to take Prue away too. There seems
to her to be something unnatural and sinister in an alliance, however
temporary, between these two, and from the distant corner to which she
has retired her eye often wanders uneasily back to them.

Presently her view is obscured. It is no use her looking any longer. The
sofa is shut out from her by a ring of black coats that has clustered
round it. Only now and then, through the interstices, she catches the
glint of one of the numerous hornets, lizards, frogs, flashing in
diamonds upon Betty's breast. Bursts of laughter come from the group,
which Freddy and the buffoon have joined. In the intervals of the other
conversations buzzing around Peggy can hear Betty's high voice
piercing. She cannot hear what she says; but apparently it is always
followed by torrents of mirth, among which Prue's girl-tones are plainly
audible. Oh, what is Prue laughing at? If she could but get her away!

As she so thinks, herself wedged in among a phalanx of women, she sees a
stir among the band she is watching. It expands and moves, pursuing
Betty, who has walked to the piano. Evidently she has been persuaded to
sing.

As soon as this intention has become manifest in the room there is a
polite hush in the talk. Wives look menacingly at unmusical husbands.
The Bishop, who is fond of music, approaches the instrument. Betty has
seated herself leisurely, her audacious eyes wandering round and taking
in the prelate with a mischievous twinkle.

'I am not quite sure that you will like it,' Peggy hears her say. 'But,
you know, I cannot help that--I did not write it. It is supposed to be
said by an affectionate husband on the eve of his setting out for the
wars.'

With this prelude she sets off--

    'Oh! who will press that lily-white hand
        When I am far away?
          Some other man!'

Two more lines in the nature of a chorus follow, but they are so drowned
by a roar of applause that Peggy can't catch them. She can only
conjecture their nature from the look of impudent laughing challenge
which the singer throws at the men around her. Under cover of that roar
of applause the Bishop turns abruptly away.

The second verse follows--

    'Oh! who will kiss those ruby lips
        When I am far away?
          Some other man!'

Again the two drowned lines. Again the chord and the applause; but this
time it is very evident that the approbation is confined to the circle
round the piano.

Betty has been well taught, and her enunciation is exceedingly pure and
distinct. Not a word of her charming song is lost. She has reached the
third verse--

    'Oh! who will squeeze that little waist
        When I am far away?
          Some other man!'

Again that roar of admiring laughter from the men round the piano--all
the more marked from the displeased silence of the rest of the room.

But is it only men who are encoring so ecstatically? Is not that Prue
who is joining her enraptured plaudits to theirs?--Prue, with flushed
face and flashing eyes, and slight shoulders convulsed with merriment?
If she could but get her away! But that is out of the question; Prue is
in the inner circle, utterly beyond reach.

    'Oh! who will pay those little bills?'

Peggy cannot stand it any longer; it makes her sick. A gap in the ranks
of ladies that had shut her in gives her the wished-for opportunity to
escape. She slips towards an open French window giving on the terrace.
Before reaching it she has to pass Lady Roupell and her Patience. As she
does so she hears the old lady saying, in a voice of tepid annoyance, to
the man beside her:

'I wish that some one would stop her singing that indecent song. She
will not leave me a rag of character in the county!'



CHAPTER XIV.

                      'Whilst she was here
    Methought the beams of light that did appear
    Were shot from her; methought the moon gave none
    But what it had from her.'


Safely out on the terrace in the moonlight! Not, it is true, a great
wash of moonlight such as went billowing over the earth when she paid
her former night-visit to milady's garden; but such small radiance as a
lessening crescent, now and then dimmed by over-flung cloud-kerchiefs,
can lend. The stars, indeed, seeing their lady faint and fail, eke her
out with their lesser lights. Peggy stands drawing deep breaths, staring
up at them with her head thrown back, as they shine down upon her in
their overwhelming, overpowering distance, and purity and age. But
between her and their august and soothing silence comes again that
odious refrain:

    'Some other man!
     .....'

She puts her fingers in her ears and runs, nor does she stop until she
has reached the close of the long, broad gravel walk that keeps the
house-front company from end to end. Then she pauses and listens. No,
she is not far enough off even yet. Fainter, but still perfectly
audible, comes the vulgar ribaldry:

    'Some other man!
     .....'

and then the storm of applause. Let her at all events reach some spot
where she will be unable to detect any tone of Prue's in that insane
mirth! But is there such a spot? To her excited fancy it seems as if in
the remotest dell, the loneliest coppice of the park, she would still
overhear her Prue's little voice applauding that disgusting pleasantry.

She walks quickly on, between flower-borders and shrubberies, until she
reaches a wrought-iron gate that leads into the walled garden. She opens
it and passes through, then stands still once again to listen. She has
succeeded at last. Not an echo of Betty's high-pitched indecencies
attains to this quiet garden-close to offend her ears. There is no noise
less clean and harmless than that of the south wind delicately wagging
the heads of the slumberous flowers.

The garden, as its name implies, is hedged in from each rude gust on
three sides by stout walls, stone-coped and balled. On the fourth,
towards the sun-setting, it is guarded only by a light decorated iron
railing, now muffled in the airy fluff of the traveller's joy, and
embraced by the luxuriant arms of the hop, the clematis, and the
wandering vine. Between their tendrils, between the branches of the
strong tea-rose and the Virginia creeper's autumn fires, one catches
friendly glimpses of the church tower and the park, and the gentle deer.
Inside, the garden is encompassed by wide and crowded flower-borders,
but the middle is sacred to the green simplicity of the velvet grass.

Margaret draws a deep breath of relief, and begins to walk slowly along.
A row of tall, white gladioli, nearly as high-statured as herself,
looking ghostly fair in the starshine, keep her company, lovely and
virginal as May lilies; and from the farther side of the garden comes an
ineffable waft of that violet smell which we used to connect only with
spring. As she paces to and fro the ugly din fades out of her ears and
the ireful red out of her cheeks. A sort of peace settles down upon
her--only a _sort_ of peace, however! Her mind is still oppressed by the
image of Prue, and by a vague misgiving of coming trouble, coupled with
a sense, which she will not own to herself, of personal disappointment,
and of a mortified covert self-gratulation upon not having worn her best
gown, or in anywise tricked herself out.

To one, however, whose hand is on the garden-latch, as she so thinks,
she looks tricked out enough, indeed, in her own fairness; enough to
make his heart sick with the hopelessness of its longing as he goes
towards her. After all, she is not much surprised at his having followed
her! Possibly he may have a message of recall for her.

'Well!' she says, meeting him with a delicate moonlit smile.

Low as the light is, it is light enough to show that there is no
answering smile on his face.

'So you escaped at last!' he says, with a sort of groan. 'I watched to
see how long you could stand it.'

The shadow that the star-beams, and the violet breath, and Heaven knows
what other gentle influence, have chased from her features, settles down
on them again.

'I am never fond of comic songs,' she answers stiffly; 'and I do not
think that that was a particularly favourable specimen.'

He makes a gesture of disgust.

'Pah!' Then adds: 'I should have followed you before, only that I wanted
to get Prue away. I knew that you would be glad if I could; but it was
impossible!'

He has never spoken of her as 'Prue' before; but in his present
agitation--an agitation for which Peggy is at a loss to account--he has
obviously clean forgotten the formal prefix.

She is too much touched by his thoughtfulness for her to answer.

'My chief motive for following you,' continues he, speaking in an
unusual and constrained voice, 'was that I thought I might possibly not
have another opportunity of giving you _this_.'

As he speaks he puts a small parcel into her hands.

'It is only the ladder for the birds.'

She breaks into a laugh.

'They are in no such great hurry for it,' says she gaily; 'they could
have waited until to-morrow.'

He sighs.

'I am afraid that they would have had to wait longer than until
to-morrow!'

'Well, I daresay that they might have made shift until Wednesday,'
returns she.

The entire unsuspiciousness of her tone makes his task a tenfold harder
one than it would otherwise have been.

'It is--it is better that you should take it yourself to them,' he says,
hesitating and floundering. 'I--I--might be prevented after all from
coming. There is a chance of my--my--being obliged after all to go
to-morrow!'

The star and moonlight are falling full on her face, lifted and
attentive: he can see it as plainly as at high noonday. It seems to him
that a tiny change passes over it. But still she does not suspect the
truth.

'What!' says she; 'has your chief telegraphed for you? What a thing it
is to be so indispensable!'

Shall he leave her in her error? Nothing would be easier! Leave her in
the belief that a legitimate summons to honourable work has called him
away; leave her with a friendly face turned towards him, expecting and
perhaps lightly hoping his return. The temptation is strong, but he
conquers it.

'No,' he says, trying to speak carelessly; 'my chief is innocent this
time of breaking into my holiday. I expect that he is enjoying his own
too much; I am not going Londonwards; but--but--other reasons compel me
to leave to-morrow.'

How unutterably flat and naked it sounds! There is no mistake now as to
the change in her face--the change that he has dreaded and yet known
would come--the hardening of eye and tightening of lip. Well, it is
better that it should come! And yet, do what he may, he cannot leave her
in the belief that, as he sees, has in one moment stolen all the frank
sweetness out of her eyes.

'I--I--am not going north, either,' he cries, in miserable, eager
stammering. 'I--I--do not know where I am going!'

'You are compelled to go, and yet you do not know where you are going!
is that a riddle?' asks she ironically.

Her tone jars horribly upon his strung and aching nerves.

'Not much of a riddle,' he answers, with a bitter laugh. 'I do not know
the exact road I am going to take; I only know the direction--downhill.'

She fixes her eyes steadily upon his for a moment or two, a ray of
compassion stealing into them. So they are to pass each other, like
ships upon the sea! After all, he has not been able to wrench himself
out of the arms of his octopus! A transient flash of self-derision
crosses her mind for having ever supposed it possible that he could,
coupled with an immense pity.

This is to be their last speech together; for some instinct tells her
that he will not return. Let it not, then, be bitter speech! Poor
fellow! There are aloes enough, God wot, in the cup he has brewed for
himself!

'Well!' she says, smiling kindly, albeit very sadly, at him, 'whether
you go uphill or downhill, the birds and I must always have a good word
for you. I do not know what we should have done without you; you have
been so kind to us all--to me and my Prue, and my fox and my birds!'

He ought to make some acknowledgment of this farewell civility of hers;
but to 'ought' and to do have, since the world was, never been one and
the same thing. He receives it in a suffocated silence.

'And I was so rude to you at first,' pursues she, lightly brushing, as
she speaks, her own lips with a bit of mignonette she has gathered from
the odorous bed at her feet, perhaps to hide the slight tremble of which
she cannot but be conscious in them--'so angry at being sent in to
dinner with you! but, then'--with another friendly starlit smile--'you
must remember that I did not know how well you could _mow_!'

He is still silent, his throat choked with words he dare not utter. Oh,
if she would only stop! But she goes on in all innocence:

'You never took your bunch of lavender after all to-day. I thought of
bringing it up for you to-night, but then I remembered that I should see
you to-morrow, so I did not; I wish I had now.'

Cannot he find even one word? one word of prayer to her in mercy to be
silent? Not one!

'Are you going by an early train?' continues she; 'because, if not, I
might send up Alfred with it in the morning, if you really cared to have
it.'

Perhaps it is that last most unnecessary clause that loosens the string
of his tied tongue.

'Do not!' he says almost rudely; 'I hope I shall never smell the scent
of lavender again!'

For a moment she looks at him, astonished at his discourtesy; but
probably his face explains it, for her eyes drop. When next she speaks
it is in a rather colder key.

'At all events I must send you back your books; you left some books with
us to-day, if you remember.'

_If he remember_ the Keats from which he was to have read aloud to her
to-morrow, sitting beside her under the Judas-tree, with her little
finches calling to her from the house, with Mink crouched on her white
skirt, and the parrot waddling over the sward, with his toes turned in,
to have his head scratched by her! _If he remember!_ She must be the
very 'belle dame sans merci' of whom John Keats spake, to ask him that!
May not he at least beg her to keep his Keats to remember him by--laying
here and there among the leaves a sprig of the lavender they together
plucked? No! No! No! Out of her life he and his Keats must depart, as
she and her lavender out of his. Who, in his place, will read her 'La
Belle Dame sans merci'? As if in devilish mockery of the jealous anguish
of this question comes Betty's disgusting refrain darting across his
mind:

    'Some other man!
     .....
     .....'

He grinds his teeth. It is some minutes before he can regain sufficient
command over himself to answer with a tolerable appearance of composure:

'You are right; I will send for them!'

A little sighing gust has risen; sighing for him perhaps, he thinks,
with a flash of imaginative self-pity, as he watches its soft antics
among the lily-like flowers, and its light ruffling of Peggy's gown. It
has mistaken her for one of the flowers! What foolish fancies are
careering through his hot brain! There can be none in hers, or how could
she be holding out such a cool hand and lifting such a suave calm look
to his?

'I must be going,' she says, speaking in a rather lower voice than is
her wont; 'good-bye! Since'--a wavering smile breaking tremulously over
her face--'since you are so determined to go downhill, I suppose I dare
not say that I hope our roads will ever meet again!'

Her hand slides out of his unreturning clasp. He feels that if he keep
that soft prisoner for one instant, he must keep it through eternity.

'Good-bye!' he says.

He would like to bid God bless her; but he can no more do it than
Macbeth could say 'Amen.' What right has he to bid God bless her? Will
God be more likely to send her a benison for his unworthy asking? So he
lets her go unblessed.



CHAPTER XV


The Beast Party is over. It has not differed materially from its
predecessors, though it may perhaps glory in the bad pre-eminence of
having left even more ill-feeling and mortification in its wake than did
they.

The little Evanses, indeed, bless its memory, gobbling the bonbons and
strutting about the Vicarage garden in the masks and fools' caps that
they have extracted out of its crackers. And Lady Roupell, too, is
perfectly satisfied with it. Her guests have come, have eaten and drunk,
have gone away again, and she need not trouble her head about them for
another six months. To-day she gets rid of all her friends except the
Harborough children, and is left at liberty to waddle about in her
frieze coat, and with her spud in her hand, in peace--a peace which, at
the worst of times, she never allows to be very seriously infringed. But
there are gradations of age and shabbiness in her frieze coats, and
to-day she may don the oldest.

The peace of the Manor, like its gaieties, is apt to be reflected in the
Cottage: an exodus from the one is virtually an exodus from the other;
and, as such, is apt to be rejoiced over by Margaret as the signal for
Prue to begin to eat her dinner better, sleep sounder, and engage in
some other occupation than running to the end of the garden to see
whether there is a sign of any messenger coming from the Manor. She is
at her post of predilection this morning--the end of the garden that
overhangs the highway--that highway along which all arrivers at and
departers from the Big House must needs travel. She is looking eagerly
down the road.

'Prue!' cries her sister from under the Judas-tree, where she is
sitting, for a wonder, unoccupied.

'Yes,' replies Prue, but without offering to stir from her post of
observation.

'Come here. I want to talk to you.'

'In a minute--directly--by and by.'

A few moments pass.

'Prue?'

'Yes.'

'What are you looking at? What are you waiting for?'

'I am waiting for the Harboroughs to pass. I want to kiss my hand to
Lady Betty as she goes by; she asked me to.'

Margaret makes a gesture of annoyance, and irritably upsets Mink, who
has just curled himself upon her skirt; but she offers no remonstrance,
and it is a quarter of an hour before--the brougham with its
Harboroughs, late as usual, and galloping to catch the train, having
whirled past and been watched till quite out of sight--Prue saunters up
radiant.

'She kissed her hand to me all the way up the hill!' says she, beaming
with pleasure at the recollection. 'I threw her a little bunch of
jessamine just as the carriage went by. She put her head out in a
second, and caught it _in her teeth_!' Was not it clever of her? She
_is_ so clever!'

'Why should she kiss her hand to you? Why should you throw her
jessamine?' asks Peggy gloomily.

'Why should not I?' returns the other warmly. 'I am sure she has been
kind enough to me, if you only knew!'

'You were not so fond of her last week,' says Margaret, lifting a pair
of very troubled eyes to her sister's face. 'Have you already forgotten
the three days running that she robbed you of your ride?'

'I cannot think how I could have been so silly!' returns Prue, with a
rather forced laugh. 'Of course, it was a mere accident. _He_ says he
wonders how I could have been so silly; he was dreadfully hurt about it.
He says he looks upon her quite as an elder sister.'

'An elder sister!' echoes Peggy, breaking into a short angry laugh. 'The
same sort of elder sister, I think, as the nursery-maid is to the Life
Guardsman!'

'I cannot think how you can be so censorious!' retorts Prue, reddening.
'He says it is your one weakness. He admires your character more than
that of any one he knows--he says it is--it is--laid upon such large
lines; but that he has often been hurt by the harshness of your
judgments of other people.'

'Indeed!' says Peggy, with a sort of snort. 'But I daresay that Lady
Betty bandages up his wounds.'

'You must have noticed how kind she was to me last night,' continues
Prue, thinking it wiser to appear not to have heard this last thrust.
'Of course, every one was longing to talk to her, but she quite singled
me out--_me_, of all people! Oh, if you only knew!'

'If I only knew what?' inquires Margaret, struck by the recurrence of
this phrase, to which on its first utterance she had paid little heed,
as being the vague expression of Prue's girlish enthusiasm.

Prue hesitates a moment.

'If--if--you only knew the delightful plan she has made!'

'What plan?' shortly and sternly.

'She--she--I cannot think why she did it; it must have been the purest
kind-heartedness--she asked me to go and stay with her.'

The colour has mounted brave and bright from Margaret's cheeks to her
brow.

'She asked you to stay with her?' repeats she, with slow incisiveness;
'she had the impudence to ask you to stay with her!'

Prue gives a start that is almost a bound.

'_The impudence?_'

'The woman who had the effrontery to sing that song last night,' pursues
Peggy, her voice gathering indignation as it goes along, 'has now the
impudence to invite a respectable girl like you to stay with her! Oh,
Prue!' her tone changing suddenly to one of eager, tender pain, 'just
think what I felt last night when I saw you standing among all those men
in fits of laughter at her stupid indecencies! Oh! how could you laugh?
What was there to laugh at?'

Prue has begun to whimper.

'They all laughed. I--I--laughed be--be--cause they laughed!'

'And now you want to go and stay with her!' says Margaret, touched and
yet annoyed by her sister's easy tears, and letting her long arms fall
to her side with a dispirited gesture, as if life were growing too hard
for her.

'I am sure it would be no great wonder if I did,' says Prue, still
snivelling. 'I, who never go anywhere. She--Lady Betty I mean--could not
believe it when I told her I had only been to London twice in my life;
and He says that the Harboroughs' is the pleasantest house in England!'

'What does He say?' inquires a soft, gay voice, coming up behind them.
'Why, Prue, what is this? Why are the waterworks turned on? It is early
in the day for the fountains to begin playing!' and Freddy Ducane--the
flower-like Freddy--with his charming complexion, his laughing eyes, and
his beautifully-fitting clothes, stands between the agitated girls.

He has taken Prue's hands, both the one that contains the small damp
ball of her pocket-handkerchief and the other. But she snatches them
away and runs off.

'You seem to have been having rather a quick thing,' says the young man,
bringing back his eyes from the flying to the stationary figure.

The latter has risen.

'Did you know of this invitation?' asks she abruptly, without any
attempt at a preliminary salutation.

'I do not much like that dagger-and-bowl way of being asked questions,'
returns Freddy, sinking pleasantly into the chair Margaret has just
quitted. 'What invitation?'

'You know perfectly well what invitation!' retorts she, her breast
beginning to heave and her nostril to quiver, while her pendent right
hand unconsciously clenches itself.

Freddy has thrown back his curly head, and is regarding her luxuriously
from under his tilted hat, and between his half-closed lids.

'I wish you would stay exactly as you are for just two minutes,' he says
rapturously; 'I never saw you look better in my life! What a pose! And
you fell into it so naturally, too! I declare, Peg, though we have our
little differences, there is no one that at heart appreciates you half
as much as I do!'

'I suppose that you suggested it?' says Margaret sternly, passing by
with the most absolute silent contempt her companion's gallantries, and
abandoning in the twinkling of an eye the admired posture which she had
been invited to retain.

'_I suggested it!_' repeats Freddy, lifting his brows. 'Knowing my Peggy
as I do, should I have been likely to call the chimney-pots down about
my own head?'

'But you knew of it? You had heard of it?'

'I daresay I did. I hear a great many things that I do not pay much
attention to.'

'And you think that Lady Betty Harborough would be a desirable friend
for Prue?' says Peggy in bitter interrogation, and unintentionally
falling back into her Medea attitude, a fact of which she becomes aware
only by perceiving Freddy's hand covertly stealing to his pocket in
search of a pencil and notebook to sketch her.

At the sight her exasperation culminates. She snatches the pencil out of
his hand and throws it away.

'Cannot you be serious for one moment?' she asks passionately. 'If you
knew how sick I am of your eternal froth and flummery!'

'Well, then, I _am_ serious,' returns he, putting his hands in his
pockets, and growing grave; 'and if you ask my opinion, I tell you,'
with an air as if taking high moral ground, 'that I do not think we have
any of us any business to say, "Stand by! I am holier than thou!" It has
always been your besetting sin, Peggy, to say, "Stand by! I am holier
than thou!"'

'Has it?' very drily.

'Now it is a sort of thing that I never _can say_' (warming with his
theme). 'I do not take any special credit to myself, but I simply
_cannot_. _I_ say, "Tout savoir c'est tout pardonner!"'

'Indeed!'

'And so I naturally cannot see'--growing rather galled against his will
by the excessive curtness of his companion's rejoinders--'that you have
any right to turn your back upon poor Betty! Poor soul! what chance has
she if we all turn our backs upon her?'

'And so Prue is to stay with Lady Betty to bolster up her decayed
reputation?' cries Peggy, breaking into an ireful laugh. 'I never heard
of a more feasible plan!'

'I think we ought all to stand shoulder to shoulder in the battle of
life!' says Freddy loftily, growing rather red.

'I shall do my best to prevent Lady Betty and my Prue standing shoulder
to shoulder anywhere,' retorts Peggy doggedly.

A pause.

'So that was what Prue was crying about?' says Freddy, with a quiet air
of reflection. 'Poor Prue! if you have been addressing her with the same
air of amenity that you have me, it does not surprise me. I sometimes
wonder,' looking at her with an air of candid and temperate speculation,
'how you, who are so genuinely good at bottom, can have the heart to
make that child cry in the way you do!'

'I did not mean to make her cry,' replies poor Peggy remorsefully. 'I
hate to make her cry!'

'And yet you manage to do it pretty often, dear,' rejoins Freddy
sweetly. 'Now, you know, to me it seems,' with a slight quiver in his
voice, 'as if no handling could be too tender for her!'

Peggy gives an impatient groan. At his words, before her mind's eye
rises the figure of Prue waiting ready dressed in her riding-habit day
after day--watching, listening, running to the garden-end, and crawling
dispiritedly back again; the face of Prue robbed of its roses, clipped
of its roundness, drawn and oldened before its time by Freddy's 'tender
handling.' A bitter speech rises to her lips; but she swallows it back.
Of what use? Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his
spots?

Another pause, while Margaret looks blankly across the garden, and
Freddy inhales the smell of the mignonette, and scratches Mink's little
smirking gray head. At length:

'So you do not mean to let her go?' says the young man interrogatively.

'I think not,' replies Peggy witheringly. 'If I want her taught ribald
songs I can send her to the alehouse in the village, and I do not know
any other end that would be served by her going there.'

Freddy winces a little.

'I daresay you are right,' he rejoins blandly. 'I always say that there
is no one whose judgment I would sooner take than yours; and, in point
of fact, I am not very keen about the plan myself; it was only poor
Prue's being so eager about it that made me advocate it. You see,' with
a charming smile, 'I am not like you, Peggy. When persons come to me
brimming over with pleasure in a project, I have not the strength of
mind instantly to empty a jug of cold water all over them! I wish I had!
it would,' sighing pensively, 'make life infinitely less difficult!'

'You are going to Harborough yourself, I suppose?' asks Peggy brusquely,
brushing away like cobwebs her companion's compliments and aspirations.

He shrugs his shoulders.

'How can I tell? Do I ever know where I may drift to? I may wake up
there some fine morning. It is not a bad berth, and,' with a return to
the high moral tone, 'if one can help a person ever so little, I think
that one has no right to turn one's back upon her!'

'Of course not!' ironically.

'And I have always told you,' with an air of candid admission, 'that I
am fond of Betty!'

'I know,' returns Peggy, with a somewhat sarcastic demureness--'I have
heard; you look upon her quite as an elder sister; it is a charming
relationship!'

Freddy reddens, but instantly recovering himself:

'I am not so sure about that! I must consult Prue!' cries he, going off
with a laugh, and with the last word.



CHAPTER XVI


She remains behind without a laugh. She is not, however, left long to
her own reflections, for scarcely is young Ducane out of sight before
Prue reappears. Her eyes are dried, and her cheeks look hot and bright.

'Well?' she says, in a rather hard voice, coming and standing before her
sister.

'Well, dear!' returns Peggy, taking one of her hands and gently stroking
it.

'Has he been talking to you about it?' asks the young girl, with a quick
short breathing.

'I have been talking to him about it,' returns Margaret gravely, 'if
that is the same thing.'

'And you have told him that I--I--am not to go?'

'Yes.'

Prue has pulled her hand violently away, which for a few moments is her
only rejoinder; then:

'I hope,' she says in a faltering voice, 'that you told him as--as
gently as you could. You are so often hard upon him; it must have been
such a--such a bitter disappointment!'

'Was it?' says Peggy sadly; 'I think not! Did you hear him laughing as
he went away? You need not make yourself unhappy on that score; he told
me he had never been very eager for the plan!'

'_He said so!_' cries Prue, with almost a scream, while a deluge of
carnation pours over her face. 'Oh, Peggy! you must be _inventing_. He
could not have said that! I think--without intending it of course--you
often misrepresent him! Oh, he could not have said it! Why, only last
night, as we were walking home in the moonlight, he said that to have me
there under those chestnuts--I believe that the Harboroughs have some
very fine old Spanish chestnuts in their park--would be the realisation
of a poet's dream.'

Peggy groans.

'If he did say it,' continues Prue, in great agitation, 'it was to
please you. He saw how set against the plan you were, and he has such
beautiful manners--such a lovely nature that he cannot bear saying
anything that goes against the person he is talking to.'

'Perhaps you are right in your view of his character,' says Peggy
quietly, but with a tightening of the lines about her mouth that tells
of acute pain; 'in fact he told me that the only reason of his having
ever advocated the project was that you were so keen about it.'

If Peggy imagines that the drastic medicine conveyed in this speech will
have a healing effect upon her sister's sick nature, she soon sees that
she is mistaken.

'And is it any wonder if I _am_ keen about it?' asks she, trembling with
excitement. 'I who have never had any pleasure in all my life!'

'Never any pleasure in all your life!' repeats Peggy, in a tone of sharp
suffering. 'Oh, Prue! and I thought we had been so happy together! I
thought we had not wanted anything but each other!'

Prue looks rather ashamed.

'Oh! of course we have been happy enough,' returns she; 'just jogging
along from day to day--every day the same. But that--that,' her
agitation gathering volume again, 'that is not _pleasure_.'

'_Pleasure!_' repeats Margaret, with reflective bitterness; 'what _is_
pleasure? I suppose that the party last night was pleasure. I think,
Prue, that pleasure is an animal that mostly carries a sting in its
tail.'

'I--I should not be among strangers either,' urges Prue, with that
piteous crimson still raging in her cheeks; '_he_ would be there.'

'And he would be such an efficient chaperon, would not he?' returns
Peggy, unable to help a melancholy smile. 'But from what he said to me,
even his going seems problematical.'

'Oh no, it is not!' cries Prue hurriedly. 'There is no doubt about that;
the very day is fixed. I--I,' faltering, 'was invited for the same one,
too.'

Again Margaret gives vent to an impatient groan at this fresh proof of
Freddy's unveracity, but she says nothing.

'Is it quite sure that I am not to go?' asks Prue, throwing herself upon
her knees at her sister's feet, and looking up with her whole fevered
soul blazing in her eyes. 'I do not feel as if I had ever wished for
anything in my whole life before.'

Peggy turns away her head.

'I shall have to begin to live on my own account some time!' continues
Prue, her words tumbling one over another in her passionate beseeching.
'I cannot always be in leading-strings! Why may not I begin now?'

'Are you going to kill me, then?' asks Margaret, with a painful laugh.
'Am I to die to be out of your way? I am afraid, for your sake, that I
do not see much chance of it.'

'I have never in my whole life stayed in the same house with him,'
pursues Prue, too passionately bent upon her own aim to be even aware of
her sister's sufferings. 'He says himself that our meetings are so
scrappy and patchy that he sometimes thinks they are more tantalising
than none.'

'And whose fault is it, pray, if they are scrappy and patchy?' cries
Peggy, bursting out into a gust of irrepressible indignation. 'Who
hinders him from coming here at sunrise and staying till sunset?'

'You never did him justice,' returns Prue irritably. 'You never see how
sensitive he is; he says he thinks that every one's privacy is so
sacred, that he has a horror of intruding upon it. Ah! you will never
understand him! He says himself that his is such a complex nature, he
fears you never will.'

'I fear so too!' replies Peggy sadly.

There is a short silence.

'I--I--would behave as nicely as I could,' says poor Prue, beginning
again her faltering beseechments. 'I--I--would not do anything that I
was not quite sure that you would like.'

The tears have stolen again into her great blue eyes, and across
Margaret's mind darts, in a painful flash, the recollection of Freddy's
late reproach to her, for the frequency with which she makes his Prue
cry.

'I am sure you would not!' cries the elder sister, in a pained voice,
taking the little eager face, and framing it in both her compassionate
hands. 'Oh, Prue, it is not _you_ that I doubt!'

'But indeed you are not just to her!' returns the young girl, eagerly
seizing her sister's wrists, and pressing them with a violence of which
she herself is not aware, in her own hot, dry clasp. 'You should see her
at home! He says that you should see her at home; that every one should
see her at home; that no one knows what she is at home, and that she has
a heart of gold--oh, such a good heart!'

'They always have good hearts!' rejoins Margaret, with a sad irony.
'These sort of women always have good hearts.'

'And every one goes there,' urges Prue, panting and speaking scarcely
above a whisper. 'Last year the Prince of Morocco was there.'

'H'm! Nice customs curtsey to great kings!'

'And the Bishop.'

'What Bishop?'

'Oh, I do not quite know. _A_ Bishop; and when he went away he thanked
Lady Betty for the most delightful three days he had ever spent.'

'H'm!'

'_He_ thought it so beautiful of him; he said it showed so large a
charity.'

'So it did.'

'And if a _Bishop_ visits her' (redoubling her urgencies, as she fancies
she detects a slight tone of relenting in her sister's voice)----

'Do you think that she sang to him?' interrupts Margaret scathingly.
'Oh, Prue!' (as the vision of Betty with her song, her naked shoulders,
bismuthed eyes, and dubious jests, rises in all its horrible vividness
between her and the poor, simple face, lifted in such passionate begging
to hers), 'I _cannot_; it is no use to go on asking me. Oh, do not ask
me any more; it only makes us both miserable! I tell you' (with rising
excitement) 'I--I had rather push you over that wall' (pointing to the
one at the garden-end, which drops sharply to the road), 'or throw you
into that pool' (indicating a distant silver glint), 'than let you go to
her!'

There is such an impassioned decision in both eyes and words that Prue's
hopes die. She rises from her knees, and stands quite still on the sward
opposite her sister. Her colour has turned from vivid red to
paper-white, with that rapidity peculiar to people in weak health. In a
moment she has grown to look ten years older.

'I suppose,' she says in a low but very distinct key, 'that it is John
Talbot who has made you hate her so!' Then she turns on her heel and
walks slowly towards the house.

As long as she is in sight Peggy stares after her wide-eyed, and as if
stunned; then she covers her face with both hands and bursts into a
passion of tears, in comparison with which Prue's small weepings are as
a summer shower to a lashing winter storm. Can it be that there is any
truth in her sister's words?

       *       *       *       *       *

A few days pass, and to a superficial look the Big House and the Little
House wear precisely the same aspect as they did before the invasion of
the former by its last batch of guests. It is only to a more careful eye
that the presence of the little Harboroughs in the Manor nurseries, to
which they are chiefly confined--milady having no great passion for the
society of other people's children--is revealed; and it would require a
still nicer observation to detect the change in the Little Red House.
There is no longer any question there of the Harborough invitation. It
has been declined, though in what terms the refusal was couched Peggy is
ignorant. At all events the letter to Lady Betty has gone. Freddy has
gone too. It had been understood, or Margaret imagined that it had been
understood, that he, at least, was to have remained; that he had, in
fact, been counting the hours until the departure of importunate
strangers should leave him free to show the real bent of his
inclinations.

However that may be, he has gone, having deferred his going no later
than the day but one after that which saw the Harboroughs' exodus. He
leaves behind him a misty impression of having reluctantly obeyed some
call of duty--some summons of exalted friendship. It is a duty, a task
that involves the taking with him of two guns, a cricket-bag, and some
fishing-rods.

The Manor is therefore tenanted only by its one old woman, and the Red
House by its two young ones. This is a condition of things that has
existed very often before without any of the three looking upon herself
as an object of pity in consequence of it.

Milady is far, indeed, from thinking herself an object of pity now. But
the other two? Prue has made no further effort to alter her sister's
decision. She has beset her with no more of those tears and entreaties
that Margaret had found so sorely trying, but she has exchanged them for
a mood which makes Peggy ask herself hourly whether she does not wish
them back. A heavy blanket of silence seems to have fallen upon the
cheerful Little House, and upon the garden, still splendid in colour and
odour, in its daintily tended smallness. The parrot appears to have
taken a vow of silence, in expiation of all the irrelevant and loose
remarks of his earlier years; a vow of silence which the greenfinch and
the linnet have servilely imitated. Even Mink barks less than usual at
the passing carts; and though his bark, as a bark, is below contempt for
its shrill thinness, Peggy would be glad to hear even it in the absence
of more musical sounds.

Prominent among those more musical sounds used to be Prue's singing, and
humming, and lilting, as she ran about the house, and jumped about the
garden with Mink and the cat. Prue never now either sings or runs. She
is not often seen in the garden: dividing her time between the two
solitudes of her own room and of long and lonely walks. If spoken to,
she answers briefly and gravely; if her sister asks her to kiss her, she
presents a cold cheek; but she volunteers neither speech nor caress. She
eats next to nothing, and daily falls away in flesh and colour.

By the close of the week Peggy is at her wits' end. She has spent hours
in the hot kitchen trying to concoct some dainty that may titillate that
sickly palate. In vain. To her anxious apostrophes, 'Oh, Prue! you used
to like my jelly!' 'Oh, Prue! cannot you fancy this cream? I made it
myself!' there is never but the one answer, the pushed-away plate, and
the 'Thank you, I am not hungry!'

One morning, when the almost ostentatiously neglected breakfast, and the
hollow cheeks that seem to have grown even hollower since over-night,
have made Peggy well-nigh desperate, she puts on her hat and runs up to
the Manor. She must hold converse with some human creature or creatures
upon the subject that occupies so large and painful a share of her
thoughts. Perhaps to other and impartial eyes Prue may not appear so
failing as to her over-anxious ones. She reaches the Big House just as
milady takes her seat at the luncheon-table. Miss and Master Harborough,
who have been given swords by some injudicious admirer, have been
rushing bellowing downstairs, brandishing them in pursuit of the
footmen. Nor has the eloquence of the latter at all availed to induce
Franky to relinquish his, even when he is hoisted into his high chair
and invested with his dinner-napkin. He still wields it, announcing a
doughty intention of cutting his roast-beef with it.

'You will do nothing of the kind!' replies milady, who, on principle,
always addresses children in the same tone and words as she would
grown-up people; 'it would be preposterous; no one ever cuts beef with a
sword. You would be put into Bedlam if you did.'

And Lily, whose clamour has been far in excess of her brother's, chimes
in with pharisaic officiousness, 'Nonsense, Franky! do not be naughty!
You must remember that we are not at home!'

'Bedlam!' repeats Franky, giving up his weapon peaceably, and pleased at
the sound. 'Where is Bedlam? Is that where mammy has gone?'

Milady laughs.

'Not yet! Eat your dinner, and hold your tongue.'

Franky complies, and allows the conversation to flow on without any
further contribution from himself.

'It was not such a bad shot, was it?' says milady, chuckling; 'I heard
from her this morning.'

'Yes?'

'They are still at the B----'s. She says that the one advantage of
visiting them is, that it takes all horrors from death! Ha!--ha!'

'Prue heard from her the other day,' says Peggy, speaking slowly and
with an overclouded brow; 'she asked Prue to pay her a visit.'

'H'm! What possessed her to do that, I wonder? I suppose Freddy wheedled
her into it. Well, and when is she to go?'

'She--she's not going.'

'H'm! You would not give her leave?'

Peggy glances expressively at Miss Harborough, who has dropped her knife
and fork, and is listening with all her ears to what has the obvious yet
poignant charm of not being intended for them.

'Pooh!' replies milady, following the direction of Margaret's look. 'Ne
faites pas attention à ces marmots! ils ne comprennent pas de quoi il
s'agit!'

At the sound of the French words a look of acute baffled misery has come
into Lily's face, which, later on, deepens on her being assured that she
and her brother have sufficiently feasted, and may efface themselves.
Franky gallops off joyfully with his sword; and his sister follows
reluctantly with hers. As soon as they are really out of earshot--Peggy
has learnt by experience the length of Lily's ears--she answers the
question that had been put to her by another.

'Do you think that I ought to have let her go?'

Milady shrugs her shoulders.

'Everybody goes there. Lady Clanranald, who is the most straitlaced
woman in London, takes her girls there; one must march with one's age.'

The colour has deepened in Margaret's face.

'Then you think that I ought to have let her go?'

Lady Roupell is peeling a peach. She looks up from it for an instant,
with a careless little shrug.

'I daresay that she would have amused herself. If she likes
bear-fighting, and apple-pie beds, and practical jokes, I am sure that
she would.'

'And _songs_?' adds Peggy, with a curling lip; 'you must not forget
_them_.'

'Pooh!' says milady cynically; 'Prue has no ear, she would not pick them
up; and, after all, Betty's bark is worse than her bite.'

'Is it?' very doubtfully.

'Why do not you go too, and look after her?' asks the elder woman,
lifting her shrewd eyes from the peach, off whose naked satin she has
just whipped its rosy blanket, to her companion's troubled face.

'I am not invited.'

'And you would not go if you were--eh?'

'I would sooner go than let her go by herself,' replies poor Peggy with
a groan.

'She is looking very ill,' says Lady Roupell, not unkindly. 'What have
you done to her? I suppose that Freddy has been teasing her!'

'I suppose so,' dejectedly.

'I wish that he would leave her alone,' rejoins milady, with irritation.
'I have tried once or twice to broach the subject to him, but he always
takes such high ground that I never know where to have him.'

'I wish you would send him away somewhere!' cries Peggy passionately.
'Could not you send him on a tour round the world?'

The old lady shakes her head.

'He would not go; he would tell me that though there is nothing in the
world he should enjoy so much, it is his obvious duty to stay by my
side, and guide my tottering footsteps to the grave.'

She laughs robustly, and Peggy joins dismally. There is a pause.

'She _does_ look very ill,' says the younger woman, in a voice of
poignant anxiety; 'and long ago our doctor told us that she was not to
be thwarted in anything. Oh, milady,' with an outburst of appeal for
help and sympathy, 'do you think I am killing her? What _am_ I to do?
oh, do advise me!'

'Let her go!' replies the elder woman half-impatiently, yet not
ill-naturedly either. 'She will fret herself to fiddlestrings if you do
not; and you will have a long doctor's bill to pay. I daresay she will
not come to much harm. I will tell Lady Clanranald to have an eye upon
her; and if she fall ill, I can promise you that nobody will poultice
and bolus her more thoroughly than Betty would; she loves physicking
people.'

Even this last assurance fails very much to exhilarate Margaret. She
draws on her gloves slowly, takes leave sadly, and walks heavily away.
She does not go directly home, but fetches a compass through the lanes,
on whose high hedges the passing harvest-waggons have left their ripe
tribute of reft ears; over a bit of waste land, barrenly beautiful with
thistles, some in full purple flush, some giving their soft down to the
fresh wind. Singing to them, sitting on a mountain-ash tree, is a sleek
robin. Peggy stands still mechanically to listen to him; but his
contented music knocks in vain at her heart's door. There is no one to
let it in. In vain, too, the reaped earth and the pretty white clouds,
voyaging northwards under the south wind's friendly puffs, and the
thistle's imperial stain ask entrance to her eye. Whether standing or
walking, whether abstractedly looking or deafly listening, there is but
one thought in her mind; one question perpetually asking itself, 'Is it
really and solely for Prue's good that I have prevented her going?'
Neither the thistles nor the redbreast supply her with any answer. The
only one that she gets comes ringing and stinging back in Prue's own
words: 'I suppose it is John Talbot who has made you hate her so.' 'Can
there be any truth in them?' she asks again, as she had asked with tears
when they were first spoken.

Her aimless walk has brought her, when the afternoon is already
advanced, to the gate of the Vicarage. It is open, swinging to and fro,
with a bunch of ugly little Evanses clustered upon its bars. This slight
fact of its being open just makes the scale dip towards entering. She
enters. Mrs. Evans is in the nursery, as the nurse is taking her
holiday. She is sitting with a newish baby in a cradle at her side, and
an oldish one alternately voyaging on its stomach across the scoured
boards, and forcing its sketchy nose between the uprights of the tall
nursery fender. A basket of unmended stockings balances the cradle on
Mrs. Evans's other side, and an open Peerage lies upon her lap.

'Why, you are quite a stranger!' she says. 'I have not seen you since
the party at the Manor. I was just looking out some of the people who
were there. I have not had a moment to spare since; and you know I like
to find out who is who.'

Peggy sits down, and the old baby props itself against the leg of a
chair to stare at her.

'How is Prue?' asks Mrs. Evans, discarding the Peerage. 'Mr. Evans met
her yesterday on Wanborough Common, five miles away from home. Do you
think it is wise to let her take such long walks?'

'I did not know that she had been so far,' answers Peggy dispiritedly.

'I do not like her looks,' continues the other, consulting Peggy's face
with a placid eye, full of that comfortable and easy-sitting compassion
with which our neighbours' anxieties are apt to inspire us. 'Do you ever
give her cod-liver oil?'

'She has been taking it for the last two months.'

'Or malt? Malt is an excellent thing; the extract, you know--half a
glass taken after meals. It did wonders for Billy. No one would have
known him for the same boy.'

'I have tried that too.'

'I expect that what she wants is change of air,' says Mrs. Evans,
shaking her head as she thrusts her hand into the foot of a stocking,
running an experienced eye over the area of its injuries. 'Could not you
manage to give her a little?'

For an instant Margaret is silent; then she says abruptly:

'Lady Betty Harborough has invited her to pay her a visit.'

'_Lady Betty Harborough!_' cries Mrs. Evans, dropping stocking and
darning-needle. 'Dear me! what luck some people have! And you, too? No?
I wish she had asked you too.' It is the measure of how low Peggy has
fallen that she goes nigh to echoing this wish. 'Well, she must be a
very kind-hearted woman,' pursues Mrs. Evans, resuming her
darning-needle, 'as well as a very pretty one. And what a charming voice
she has! That was a horrid song she sang; I did not hear the words very
clearly myself. Mr. Evans says it was just as well that I did not; but
how well she sang it! What spirit! When does Prue go?'

'I--I--am not sure that she is going at all.'

'I would not put it off longer than I could help, if I were you,' says
Mrs. Evans. 'Do not you think that she has fallen away a good deal of
late? And such an opportunity may not come again in a hurry. Dear me!'
with a sigh and a glance towards the two babies and the stocking-basket,
'some people are in luck!'

It is evident that Margaret is not destined to draw much consolation
from her visits to-day. At the gate Mr. Evans is waiting to greet her,
having routed that numerous detachment of his offspring which was
ornamenting it on Peggy's arrival. There are day's on which Mr. Evans's
children appear to him intolerably ugly, and his lot unbearably sordid.
On such days he lies under a tree, reading Morris's _Earthly Paradise_,
and his family give him a wide berth.

'How is Miss Prue?' he asks, holding the gate open for her to pass
through. 'I met her yesterday on Wanborough Common, looking like a----'

'Yes, yes, I know,' interrupts Peggy, almost rudely. 'Mrs. Evans told
me.'

'Are you quite happy about her?' inquires he, not perceiving his
companion's shrinking from the subject, glad to escape for a few moments
from the contemplation of his own unpicturesque ills to the more poetic
ones of other people, and walking a few paces down the road at her side.
'Had not you better take care that she does not slip through your
fingers?'



CHAPTER XVII


A fortnight later, and Peggy is alone. Prue has gone after all--gone to
that paradise, in yearning for which she seemed to be stooping towards
the grave; she has gone to empty jugs of water over stairs on
Guardsmen's heads, to put crackers into the coat-tail pockets of
Secretaries of Legation, and set booby-traps for Members of Parliament.
No wonder that even before entering upon these glories their mere
prospect had restored her to more than her pristine vigour. She has
gone, with Peggy's one string of pearls in her trinket-case; with
Peggy's best gown, contracted and modified to her smaller shape, in her
trunk. She has gone, nodding her head, waving her hand, and blowing
kisses, altogether restored apparently to the blithe Prueship of earlier
days. But at what price?

Peggy's repugnance to the plan has been in no degree diminished by the
fact of her having consented to it. She has consented to it, driven
partly by a suspicion that her opposition has been half-due to no
solicitude for her sister's welfare, but to a resentment and an ache of
her own; driven much more, though, by Mr. Evans's few light words, 'Take
care that she does not slip through your fingers!' They pursue her by
day and by night. 'Slip through her fingers!' There seems a dreadful
fitness in the very form of the phrase. Other people may die, may be
killed. Prue would just slip away! Oh, if he had but used another form
of expression! As she lies on her wakeful, anxious bed, one couple of
lines torments her with what she feels to be its prophetic
applicability:

    'Like a caged bird escaping suddenly
     The little innocent soul flitted away!'

Some day she will wake to find her arms empty of little Prue, whom for
seventeen fond years they have girdled. That Prue has always been sickly
and often forward, has from the moment of her birth caused her far more
pain than pleasure, makes no sort of difference. The sea does not reckon
how many little rills run into it. A great love has no debit and credit
account; it gives vastly, not inquiring for any return. People in weak
health, who can become genuinely moribund upon opposition, possess a
weapon which the sound cannot pretend to emulate.

On the evening of the day of Margaret's visit to the Vicarage Freddy
Ducane had unexpectedly returned to the Manor.

'I believe that that wretched little Prue is going to die on purpose to
spite Peggy for not letting her go to the Harboroughs!' says milady
crossly, vexed at her nephew's serene flower face. 'I cannot think what
possessed you to put such an idea into her stupid little head!'

And Freddy looks mournful, and answers sweetly that he supposes it is
useless his trying to explain that he had no hand in the matter, but
that he is afraid he shall never be able to inflict gratuitous pain upon
any one as long as he lives.

Despite his assertion of innocence, he has in his pocket a second letter
of invitation from Lady Betty for Prue, which he reads with her next day
under the Judas-tree while Peggy is away at the workhouse. She comes
back a little too soon, before the reading is quite finished, just in
time to see Prue stick the note hastily into her pocket. At this
gesture her heart sinks--Prue is beginning to look upon her as an enemy.

'You need not hide your letter, Prue. I am not going to ask to see it,'
she says, in a wounded voice, either forgetting or omitting to make any
salutation to Freddy.

Prue reddens.

'I should not have hidden it, only that I knew it would make you angry,'
she answers, with a sort of trembling defiance. 'Lady Betty has invited
me again. I cannot help it; it is not my fault.'

Freddy has risen, and, scenting a coming storm, follows his instincts by
beginning to edge away.

'How bad of you--you dear Peg!' cries he affectionately, holding out
both hands--'to come back just as I am obliged to be off! That is the
way you always treat me--is not it, Prue?'

'You needn't go,' replies Margaret, neglecting his hands, and looking
rather sternly at him. 'I shall not be here a moment; and we are not
going to quarrel, if that is what you are afraid of. Prue, since Lady
Betty is so urgent, and you wish it so much, tell her that you will go
to her.'

Then she leaves them with a steady step, but when she reaches her own
room her tears gush out. That gesture of Prue's hand to her pocket has
cut her to the quick; Prue, whose one first impulse through all her
seventeen years' span has hitherto been to run to her sister with
whatever of good or bad--be it broken head or new doll--fate has brought
her. That one small gesture tells her that the old habit is for ever
broken, and she cries bitterly at it. She may cry as much as she pleases
during the silent fortnight that follows, certain that neither Mink nor
the cat will ask her why; but she does not weep again. Through the
gossamer-dressed September mornings, and the gold-misted September
noons, she lives alone. Alone with her thoughts--thoughts none the less
worth thinking perhaps for their new tinge of deep sadness--with her
unpretending charities, with Jacob and her hollyhocks. It is a novel
experience, since never before in all Prue's little life has she borne
to have the child out of her sight for as much as a week.

Three months ago she would have thought it too hard a thing to have
asked of her to forego Prue's songs and kisses for a whole fortnight;
but of late Prue herself has so entirely robbed their intercourse of its
old confident sweetness, has put such a bitter sting into it, that for
the first few days after her departure Peggy (albeit with self-reproach)
experiences a sense of relief in no longer meeting the small miserable
face with its mute and dogged upbraidings. So little does she dread her
own company that she avails herself but sparingly even of such society
as is within her reach, _i.e._ that of the Manor and milady, with her
spud and frieze-coat; that of the Vicarage with its stocking-basket and
its _Earthly Paradise_. The only visitors of whom she sees much are the
little Harboroughs, who still adorn the Manor nurseries, and call upon
her almost daily, with that utter absence of misgiving as to being
always welcome that few people--and those only the most consummate
bores--are able to preserve in later life.

She likes them--the boy best; and even if she herself is not quite in
tune for their chatter, there is always the red fox to pant at them,
with pretty cunning face and hot wild breath, from behind the wire walls
of his house; the pump to wet their clothes, and the stable kittens to
scratch them. So no wonder that they come every day. She would enjoy
their conversation more if it did not involve so ceaseless a reference
to one whom she has neither the need nor the desire to have thus hauled
back into her memory. But it seems as if John Talbot had been so inwoven
with the very woof of their lives that no anecdote of their little past
is complete without it. She could endure it, however, if they confined
themselves to anecdotes. It is the perpetual appeal to her for her
opinion about him that she finds so trying.

'Oh, Miss Lambton! do not you like John Talbot? When is he coming back?
Do not you wish he would come and live with you here always? Do you like
him better than father? Franky says _he_ does. Is not it naughty of
him?'

And the questions of childhood are not like those of a maturer age,
which may be evaded or put aside. They must and will be directly
answered. Peggy cannot help a vexed internal laugh as she hears herself,
allowing that she likes John Talbot, asseverating that she has no wish
that he should come and live with her always, and explaining that it is
possible to appreciate him and father too. But she is always deeply
thankful when the conversational charms of Alfred the stable-boy, or the
chicken-feeding hour, or any other timely distraction releases her from
this trying interrogatory. Of John Talbot, except through the too glib
tongues of his little partisans, she has heard absolutely nothing. On
the morning of his departure she had sent his Keats and one or two other
of his books up to the Manor after him.

As she was neatly wrapping them in paper a sprig of lavender fell out of
the Keats--a sprig which, as she remembered, he had put in as a mark
into the unfinished 'Eve of St. Agnes,' on their last reading. She
stooped and picked it up, looking hesitatingly at it. Shall she return
it to its place? Why should she? No one could ever connect the idea of
Betty with lavender. Gardenias would bring her image at once--gardenias
wired and overpowering; but the clean and homely lavender--never! She
throws it pensively away; and as she does so a foolish fancy comes over
her, as if it were herself that she had just been tossing away out of
his life! That he acquiesces in that tossing away is but too evident.
He does not even send her a formal line to acknowledge the receipt of
his restored property. So it is not his fault that his image walks
beside her so often down the garden alleys; both at high blue noon and
when, on fair nights, she steps abroad to look at the thronged stars.

One must think of something; and there are many interstices in her
thoughts which cannot all be filled up by the one topic--Prue. Into them
he creeps; the more so as she lives almost wholly in her garden; and
with that his memory is so entangled that there is scarcely a plant that
does not say something to her of him. She thinks of him always without
bitterness; generally with deep compassion; never with any hope of
pulling lavender with him again. But she thinks of him. Perhaps there
was some truth in Betty's fleer, of her never having known any better
company than that of the village apothecary. The only outward incidents
of her life come in the shape of Prue's letters. These begin by being
long and full of ecstasies; end by being short and full of nothing.

Before the first week is over they are hurried up, ere the sheet is
full, with some excuse. She must go and get dressed to go out riding.
They are just off to a tennis-party. They are to go out shooting with
the men. The expressions of enjoyment grow fewer in each. Yet in not one
is the slightest wish expressed for a return home. In fact, before the
fortnight ends comes a feverish note, evidently written in hot haste and
deep excitement, begging for a further reprieve of a week. It gives
Peggy a little fresh pang to notice that this petition is urged as a
criminal might urge some request upon his executioner, not as one would
beg a boon of a tender friend.

But she is used to such pain now; rises up and lies down with it; and
to-day puts it patiently aside. What she cannot put aside is her
perplexity as to how to answer. She has a deep repugnance against
complying; and yet the memory of her terror at Prue's rapid decline upon
her former opposition makes her tremblingly shrink from adopting a
course that may all too probably bring back that condition. She dares
not decide upon her own responsibility. She will consult milady.

On her way to the Manor she goes round by the Vicarage, and looks in.
Over the lawn there is a festal air. It is evident that the little
Evanses have been drinking tea out of doors, in honour of a visit from
Miss and Master Harborough. The Vicar is nowhere to be seen; a fact
which does not surprise Peggy, as she knows that any signs of
conviviality on the part of his children are apt to make him disappear.

On catching sight of her Franky Harborough precipitates himself towards
her as fast as his fat legs will carry him. He is in wild spirits, and
has evidently, on his own showing, been extremely naughty.

'Oh, we have been having such fun!--we have had tea out of doors! Mrs.
Evans said that the next child who shook the table so as to upset
anything should have no tea! I,' with a chuckle, 'had finished my tea,
so I gave it a good shake!'

He looks so rosily delighted with his own iniquity, and is so
flatteringly glad to see her, that poor Peggy, who feels as if not many
people were glad to see her nowadays, has not the heart to rebuke him.

With her admirer's small soft hand tightly clutching hers, she advances
to where, under a copper beech's shade, sits Mrs. Evans--the
stocking-basket banished, and engaged upon some genteeler industry--in
company with a female friend.

'We were just talking of you,' says the Vicar's wife, putting out a
welcoming hand. 'Let me introduce you to my cousin, Miss Jones; she has
been staying in the neighbourhood of the Harboroughs; she saw Prue.'

'Did you indeed?' cries Peggy, turning with anxious interest to the new
comer. 'Was she well? Did she look well?'

'She looked extremely well.'

'She must have been very well indeed, I should think,' adds Mrs. Evans,
with a meaning smile. It is a smile of such significance that, for a
moment, Peggy dares not ask an explanation of it; and before she can
frame her question Mrs. Evans goes on. 'How very oddly people seem to
amuse themselves in smart houses nowadays!--one never heard of such
things when I was a girl; but I suppose, as it is the fashion, it is all
right.'

'Were they--were they doing anything very strange?' asks Peggy, with
rising colour and wavering voice, addressing the visitor.

'They seemed to be enjoying themselves very thoroughly,' replies the
latter, with a prim evasive smile.

'They were all driving donkey tandems full gallop down the main street
of the town,' cries Mrs. Evans, taking up the tale; 'it seems that there
is a town about three miles from Harborough Castle. Prue was driving
one!'

'PRUE?'

'Yes, _Prue_! I was as much surprised as you can be; but it must have
been Prue; there was no other unmarried girl there!' Peggy is silent.
'My cousin says it was wonderful how she got her donkeys along! She was
at the head of the party; and they were all shouting--shouting at the
top of their voices!' Still Margaret makes no comment. 'My cousin says
that the whole town turned out to look at them; they were all at their
doors and windows. I am sure so should I have been,' with a laugh; 'but
it seems a childish romp for grown-up people, does not it?'

Peggy's answer is a slight assenting motion of the head, but her words
are not ready. Her eyes seem fixed attentively on the distant gambols
of the children--on Lily Harborough swarming a cherry-tree, and being
pulled down by the leg by an indignant nurse; on Franky giving a covert
pull to the end of the white tea table-cloth, in the pious hope of
precipitating all the teacups to the ground.

'Another day,' pursues Mrs. Evans cheerfully, 'they drove into the town
and bought all the penny tarts at the confectioner's, and pelted one
another with them in the open street.'

Peggy has at length recovered her speech.

'It was very, _very_ stupid,' she says, in a voice of acute annoyance;
'senseless. But after all there was no great harm in it.'

'Of course one does not know what they did indoors,' rejoins Mrs. Evans,
as if, though a good-natured woman, unavoidably anxious to knock even
this prop from under our poor Peggy. 'People said--did not they?'
turning to her cousin--'that they sat up smoking till all hours of the
night, and ran in and out of each other's rooms; and the ladies put
things in the men's beds----'

'I am afraid I must be going on,' interrupts Margaret, starting up as if
she had been stung; 'I have to see Lady Roupell.'

She takes leave abruptly. It seems to her as if she should not be able
to draw her breath properly until she is alone. She pants still as she
walks on over the stubble fields, across the park, under the September
trees, whose green seems all the heavier and deeper for their
nigh-coming change of raiment. She pants at the recollection of the
picture just drawn for her of her Prue--_her Prue_--shouting, smoking,
making apple-pie beds!

Her worry of mind must have written itself upon her face, for no sooner
has she joined milady, whom she finds out in the shrubberies leaning on
her spade, like Hercules upon his club, than the old lady asks sharply
what she has been doing to herself.

'Nothing that I know of,' replies Peggy, 'except that I have been rather
bothered.'

'Prue, eh?'

'Yes.'

'What about her now?' with a slight accent of impatience.

'She wants to stay away another week.'

'And have you given her leave?'

'I came to ask your advice.'

Milady is neatly squirting a plantain or two out of the turf. She waits
until she has finished before answering. Then she says with decision:

'Have her back.'

'You think so? But if,' very anxiously, 'she falls ill again as soon as
she gets home?'

'Pish!' rejoins the other in a fury; 'give her a dose of jalap and a
whipping.'

But Peggy does not even smile.

'Have you--have you heard anything of the party?' she asks hesitatingly;
'of whom it consists, I mean? Prue is not very communicative. Is Lady
Clanranald there still?'

'No, she is gone,' replies milady shortly, digging her weapon into a
dandelion. 'She could not stand it. Betty is an ass!'

_Could not stand it!_

In a dismayed silence Margaret awaits further explanation, but none
comes. Milady, whatever she may know, is evidently determined not to be
diffuse on the subject.

'Have her home!' repeats she briefly, lifting her shrewd old eyes to
Peggy's, and replacing her billycock hat on the top of the cap from
which her stooping attitude has nearly dismounted it; 'have her home,
and do it as quickly as possible.'

Beyond this piece of short but very definite advice, nothing is to be
got out of her. She will explain neither why Lady Clanranald took flight
nor why Betty is an ass.

In an uneasiness all the deeper for the vagueness of milady's
implications, Peggy takes her way home to her little solitary Red House,
and writes the letter which is to summon Prue back.

But with how many tears is that letter penned! How many fond and anxious
apologies! Wrapped in what a mantle of loving phrases does the
unpalatable fiat go forth! However, it has gone now, and there is
nothing for her but to await its result. Between the day on which it was
sent and that appointed for Prue's homecoming there is ample time for an
answer to be returned; but none comes. The day arrives; the servant who
is to be Prue's escort sets off in the early morning, and through the
long hours, forenoon, noon, afternoon, Peggy waits. Not in idleness
though. She is hard at work from dawn till sunset, cooking, gardening,
rearranging, planning surprises that are her fatted calves for the
prodigal. As she works her spirits rise. The small house looks so
bright; perhaps, after all, Prue will not be very sorry to find herself
back in it; and how pleasant it will be to hear her little voice singing
about the garden, and to see her jumping over the tennis-net with Mink
again! Mink has not jumped over the tennis-net once since she left. With
a lightened heart Peggy stoops to ask him why he has not, but he answers
only by a foolish smirk.

The expected moment has come. For half an hour beforehand Peggy has been
standing at the garden-end straining her eyes down the road, and making
up her mind that there must have been an accident. But at length the
slow station fly with its dusty nimbus heaves in sight, rolls in at the
gate, stops at the door.

Before Prue can well emerge her sister has her in her arms.

'Oh, Prue! how nice it is to have you back! How are you? Have you
enjoyed yourself? Are you a little glad to see me?'

Prue's first remark can hardly be said to be an answer to any of these
questions. She has disengaged herself from her sister, and stands
staring round, as if half-bewildered.

Prue does not look like herself. She has an oddly-shaped hat; there is
something unfamiliar about the dressing of her hair; and can it be
fatigue or dust that has made her so extremely black under the eyes.

'What a squeezy little place!' she says slowly, with an accent half of
wonder, half of disgust. 'Surely it must have shrunk since I went away!'

And Peggy's arms drop to her sides, and her hopes go out.



CHAPTER XVIII


A wretched month follows--a month of miserable misery--misery, that is,
that springs from no God-sent misfortune; that has none of that fateful
greatness to which we bow our heads, stooping meekly before the storm of
the inevitable; but a misery that is paltry and reasonless--one of those
miseries that we ourselves spin out of the web of our own spoilt lives.
It seems such a folly and a shame to be miserable in the face of these
yellow October days that by and by steal in, pranked out in the cheerful
glory of their short-lived wealth, with such a steadfast sun throwing
down his warmth upon you from his unchanging blue home; with a park full
of such bronze bracken to push through at your very door; and with such
an army of dahlias, ragged chrysanthemums, and 'Good-bye-Summers,' with
their delicate broad disks, to greet you morning after morning as you
pass in your pleasant ownership along their gossamered ranks.

So Peggy feels; but that does not hinder her from being wretched to her
very heart's core. The inside world may throw a sunshine on the outside
one, as we all know--may make June day out of January night--'the winter
of our discontent' into glorious summer; but the outside can throw no
sunshine on the inside unless some is there already. So Peggy's
'Good-bye-Summers,' though they never in their lives have flowered for
her so beautifully before, smile at her in vain. She has no answering
gladness to give them back. It has not taken twenty-four hours from the
time of her return to prove that it has become absolutely impossible to
please Prue. It is nothing that, on the first evening of her arrival,
she has, as it were, walked over all poor Peggy's little planned
surprises without even perceiving them; that she has turned her dinner
over disdainfully, and remarked how much worse Sarah cooks than when she
went away. These may be but the childish fretfulnesses engendered of
fatigue, and that a good night's rest will sweep away. But when
twenty-four hours have passed, when a week, when a fortnight have gone
by, and find her still cavilling at the smallness of the rooms, the
garden's confined space, and the monotony of their lives, then, indeed,
Margaret's spirits sink as they have never sunk before.

The one definite property that Prue seems to have brought back from her
Harborough visit is a sickly and contemptuous disgust for whatever had
formerly given her pleasure; a standard by which to measure all the
conditions of her own life, and find them grossly wanting. About the
visit itself she is singularly reticent. Not a word does she breathe of
her own prowess in donkey tandem-driving; not a hint does she let drop
of any midnight gambols.

Once and again Margaret sadly fancies that she sees faint signs of the
old lifelong habit of telling her everything trying to reassert its
sway; but in a moment it is checked. Often Prue seems to her sister like
a child who, engaged in some naughtiness, has been charged by its
confederates not to tell. And Prue does not tell. Yet, from indications
which she cannot help letting fall, Peggy gathers that the visit has not
been all pleasure; that fits of bitter disappointment, sharp jealousy,
grisly disillusion, freaked the surface of its feverish joy. And yet
Freddy had been a co-guest with her through the whole fortnight! This
fact Margaret has elicited by direct inquiry; it would never have been
volunteered.

'Come, Prue,' she says coaxingly, on the morning after the young girl's
return, as they stroll about the garden, whose flowers Prue notices only
to disparage, 'I let you off last night because you were so sleepy, but
you must tell me something about your visit now. Was Freddy there?'

'Yes.'

'All the time?'

'Yes.'

'Did you see much of him?'

A slight hesitation, and then an accent of impatience:

'Of course. Were not we staying in the same house?'

'And--and--did Mr. Harborough mount you? You know, don't you--I told
you, I think,' a beam of pleasure shining in her anxious blue
eyes--'that milady has lent you the little gray mare for the whole
winter?'

'I do not think that I care for riding as much as I did,' replies Prue
listlessly, plucking the seed-vessel from an overblown dahlia in the
border beside her, and idly scattering the seeds over the walk. 'We did
not ride much; there were so many more amusing things to do.'

'What sort of things?'

'Oh, they would not have amused you!'

'How do you know that, until you tell me what they were?'

'Oh, they would not have amused you; you are not easily amused. _He_
always says so; and besides,' sinking down with a sigh on the bench
under the Judas-tree, 'of what use to talk of them now they are over?'

For a second Peggy shrinks into herself in baffled discouragement, but
immediately recovers. She will not be so easily disheartened.

'If they are so amusing,' she says cheerfully, 'perhaps we might adopt
some of them here. We are not above learning, are we?'

Prue smiles disdainfully, curling her childish nose.

'In these extensive grounds?'

Nor as time goes on does she grow more communicative about her visit,
though it is clear that its incidents occupy her thoughts to the
exclusion of all other subjects, and though its influence may be traced
in each fragment of her sparse talk. It is one of Peggy's severest daily
penalties to recognise in her sister's languid speech continually
recurring phrases of Betty's; thin echoes of her flippancies. Prue is
even growing to have a dreadful likeness to her model. Possibly this may
arise only from Betty's old hat, which she persistently wears; or from
the mode of hair-dressing, slavishly copied from her original. That the
now fixed bloom in her cheek may be derived from the same source as Lady
Betty's, and cause the undeniable resemblance that exists between them,
is a supposition too bad to be faced, and that Peggy drives away from
her mind as soon as it presents itself. But it recurs. How many
disagreeable things do not recur nightly as she lays her head on that
pillow which is oftener than not wetted with her tears?

'Oh, why did I let her go?' she sobs. 'Why did I take any one's advice?
What has happened to her? What shall I do? It is not my Prue at all that
has come back to me!'

Now and again, indeed, there is a tantalising glimpse of the old Prue,
hidden away, as it were, behind the new one. Once, twice, there is a
curly head resting voluntarily on Peggy's knees; thin arms thrown--and
oh, how thankfully welcomed!--round her glad neck; a little voice
plaining to her of some small physical ill, with a touch of the old
childish confidence in Peggy's power to kiss any wound well. But in a
moment she is gone again; and the new Prue, the dreadful, new, cynical,
imitation Betty Prue is back. It is this new Prue who daily steals with
surreptitious haste to meet the postman, lest the eyes, whose love has
enveloped her through life, should now dare to alight upon her
correspondence. And yet Peggy knows by the after-mood of the day, as
well as if she had scanned superscription and seal, whether or not the
expected missive has come. Judging by this test, the postman is for
Prue, far oftener than not, empty-handed. Once, twice, as Margaret
learns from Lady Roupell, Freddy is expected at the Manor. Once, twice,
at the last moment, some motive of exalted self-sacrifice prompts him to
telegraph that he is unable to come. And now he can no longer be
expected, for mid-October is here; the Universities have reopened their
long-shut arms to their children, and Freddy has returned to Oxford. To
add still further to the discomfort of the situation, the weather,
hitherto so far beyond praise, becomes suddenly as much beyond blame.
There follows a week of pouring, tearing, ruthless rain. The
'Good-bye-Summers' say good-bye indeed.

Three days after the fall of this final blow to Prue's hopes the two
girls meet milady coming out of morning church; milady in her reluctant
and temporary divorce from her spud and frieze-coat. They walk down the
yellow, leaf-strewn church-path with her, as they always do, while she
throws her brusque nods, and her good-hearted greetings to her
fellow-worshippers. As she seats herself in the carriage she pulls a
letter accidentally out of her pocket with her pocket-handkerchief.

'Oh, by the bye,' says she, 'I heard this morning from Freddy; I came
away in such a hurry that I had not half time to read it. If I had been
a little farther off the Vicar,' laughing, 'I would have read it during
the sermon. (Poor dear man!' in a loud aside, 'he really ought to treat
us to a new one.) Freddy says that he is ill.'

'_Ill_, is he?'

'So he says,' with a shrug. 'He says that he has caught a chill. Oh, I
am not very much disturbed,' laughing again. 'I daresay that we are not
going to lose him this time. You know he always cries out some time
before he is hurt.'

She rolls cheerfully away, resuming the reading of her letter as she
goes. Peggy turns apprehensively to her sister. The congregation have
all issued into road and bridle-path, and they are alone. Peggy has time
for an impulse of thankfulness that such is the case; for Prue is
leaning, whiter than her pocket-handkerchief, against the lych-gate.

'_Ill!_' she says gaspingly, under her breath. 'Ill! and all alone!
nobody with him!'

'Pooh!' replies Peggy lightly, and with a half tone of contempt. 'I
daresay it is not much; he is always frightened about himself. Do not
you remember the time when he thought he was going into a consumption,
and bid us all good-bye? How white you look, darling! Had not you better
sit down a moment? Take my arm.'

But Prue will not sit down--will not take her sister's arm. She walks
home unhelped, and on getting there, refuses all Peggy's simple
cordials. But she leaves her luncheon untouched, and is out the whole
afternoon on a long aimless, solitary ramble. She comes in again a full
hour after dusk has fallen, and, complaining of headache, goes to bed.
The next morning she is up, and at her usual stand, lying in ambush for
the postman. After he is gone Peggy catches distant glimpses of her
walking up and down the kitchen garden, reading a letter. She has heard,
then, from him. Thank God! Perhaps her heart will be more at ease.

With her own mind relieved, Margaret goes about her morning's work with
a better courage; and it is eleven o'clock before she again thinks of
her sister. The striking of the hour reminds her that Prue will probably
forget to take her tonic, and that it will be safer to administer it
herself. She pours it out, and opening the drawing-room door, calls
'Prue! Prue!' There is no answer. She moves to the foot of the stairs
and repeats her call, 'Prue!' No answer. She sets the glass down upon a
table, and runs into the garden. 'Prue! Prue!' There is an answer this
time, but unfortunately it is not the right one. It is the parrot
officiously replying, 'Yes,'m,' in the cook's voice. She re-enters the
house. Possibly Prue may be in her own room--one of her new tendencies
is to lock herself in there for hours together--and with the door shut
Peggy's summonses may, though in so small a house it is not likely, have
remained unheard. She runs up and knocks. No answer. She turns the
handle, the door opens, and she looks in. In vain! The room is empty.
She can see this at a glance. It is not likely that Prue is hiding in
her own cupboard, or beneath her narrow chintz bed; and yet her sister,
pushed by what vague suspicion she does not know, enters. A note in
Prue's handwriting and addressed to herself, lying on the small
writing-table in the window, at once catches her eye. In an instant she
has sprung upon and torn it open. What is this? There is neither
beginning nor ending; only a few unsteady lines straggling across a
sheet of paper:

     'I have not asked your leave, because I knew that you would not
      give it; but I could not--could not let him die alone. Oh, Peggy,
      do not be very angry with me! I am so miserable, and I could not
      help it.'

That is all. It has not taken Margaret two seconds to master the
contents; and having done so, she stands vacantly staring at the empty
envelope still held in her hand. It is a minute or two before she has
recovered her wits enough to realise that it is not yet empty; that it
contains a second sheet. This is in a different handwriting, one of
those small, clear, clever handwritings affected by the cultured youth
of the day.
                                                     'Ch. Ch. Oxford.

     'MY PRUE,

     'Send me a little word. I am suffering, and I am all alone. I am
     scratching you these few pencil-lines in case--as, I fear, is too
     probable--I may be too ill to write to-morrow. Oh, my Prue! "The
     whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint." What would not I
     give for one of your little cold white hands to lay on my
     throbbing brow?
                                                    'Your
                                                             'FREDDY.'

It was only with a half comprehension--so stunned was she--that Peggy
had read Prue's missive; but at the end of Freddy's the dreadful white
light of full understanding breaks upon her soul. Prue has gone to
Oxford!--gone to fulfil young Ducane's aspiration--to 'lay her little
cold hand on his throbbing brow.' Can it be possible? Can even Prue's
madness have gone so far? She snatches up her sister's note again, and
greedily reads it afresh, in the wild hope of finding that she has
mistaken its drift. Alas! there is no room for misapprehension. If she
need further confirmation of her worst fears it comes in the voice of
Sarah, who looks in, duster in hand, through the half-open door.

'Please, 'm, did you want Miss Prue? She has gone out.'

'Gone out!' repeats Margaret breathlessly. Then, making a great effort
over herself for composure, she adds, 'Yes, yes, I know; how did she go?
did she walk or drive?'

'She went in the pony-carriage, 'm.'

'Did she take Alfred with her?'

'No, 'm; she said she should not want him.'

'And how--how long ago did she set off?'

'Indeed, 'm, I did not much notice. I happened to look out of the
passage window as I was dusting the stairs, and I saw her drive off; it
must be the best part of an hour ago.'

_The best part of an hour ago!_ Like lightning it dawns upon Peggy that
a train leaves her station for Oxford at ten minutes to eleven. It is a
slow one, as all must be which draw up at the little wayside platform;
not so slow, however, but that a crawl of a hundred and twenty minutes
will land Prue as hopelessly beyond her power of reach as if it were the
'Flying Dutchman' itself, at Oxford station. She is as little able to
hinder her sister from forcing her mad way into the young man's room as
she would be to stop God's lightning from splitting the tree it is
appointed to rend.

With a gesture of rage and despair she dashes Freddy's note to the
ground, and flings her own head down on the open blotting-book whose
pages keep the imprint, scarcely dry, of her sister's insane words. But
in a few minutes she has pulled herself together. There is only one
thing for her to do--to follow and overtake her sister as quickly as
possible. _As quickly as possible!_ But how quickly is that? This is the
first thing to be discovered.

She goes down into the cheerful hall, where the birds in their big cage
are swinging on John Talbot's ladder, and chattering to each other as
jovially as if no disaster had fallen on their roof-tree; where Mink is
lying on his small hairy side in a sun-patch, with his little paws
crossed like a dying saint's. Margaret searches for the _Bradshaw_,
which apparently Sarah has tidied away. Her first impulse is to call to
her, and ask where she has put it; but her second corrects it. Why
should the household learn any sooner than is unavoidable that Prue has
fled?

By and by she discovers the missing volume, and sitting down, buries
herself in its pages. What she had feared is realised. There is no
second train for Oxford until 2.15. Three hours of forced inaction
stretch before her--three hours for Prue to carry out whatever cureless
folly her burning heart and rudderless mind may dictate.

She starts up. To sit still with such thoughts for company is out of the
question. She wanders back again to Prue's room, picks up Freddy's note
which she had left in her ire lying on the carpet; tears both it and
Prue's into small pieces, and throws them into the grate; then,
misdoubting their being sufficiently destroyed, collects the fragments
again and burns them--tears out even that sheet of the blotting-book
upon which Prue had dried her words, and burns it too.

Then she goes downstairs, and looks at the clock. It has seemed to her
as if she had been a long time over her burning. Yet the clock-hand
points only to a quarter past eleven. She must force herself to some
occupation. To read is impossible. Needlework and gardening both sharpen
instead of deadening thought. It is the day for doing up the week's
accounts. She will compel herself to do them as usual. But the figures
swim before her eyes. The simplest addition baffles her. The names of
Prue, Freddy, Oxford, force themselves into her record of expenditure,
making nonsense of it, defacing her neat columns; and after half an
hour's vain efforts, she desists with a sigh. When one o'clock comes at
last she sits down to luncheon, calmly telling Sarah that she does not
expect Prue back; and having obliged herself, for the sake of
appearances, to eat something, she puts on her hat and jacket.

Leaving word with her household as indifferently as she can that they
are not to be surprised if she and her sister are late in returning, she
sets forth on her walk to the station. She has reflected that she would
start early, in order to give herself plenty of time to walk slowly.
But she does not walk slowly; she walks fast; towards the end she runs.
Who knows whether her clocks may not be slow? whether on coming in sight
of the little upstart red-brick house that constitutes the station, she
may not see the train sliding away without her? She arrives breathless,
to find that she has half an hour to wait--half an hour in which to
admire the station-master's canariensis and his mignonette, which greets
each dusty train-load with its whiff of perfume.

By and by another intending traveller or two arrive. The Manor omnibus
drives up, and disgorges the little Harboroughs and their nurses. Peggy
had known and forgotten that they were to return home to-day. She feels
rather guilty at her own cold inability to echo their loud expressions
of pleasure at this unexpected meeting with her. But they apparently
detect no lack of warmth in her answering greetings, as they each at
once take possession of one of her hands, and march up and down with
her. In the intervals of a searching interrogatory as to the goal and
object of her journey, they continue a quarrel apparently begun in the
omnibus; putting out their red tongues at each other before her face,
and executing agile kicks at one another's legs behind her back.

When the train draws up they insist upon deserting their own suite and
getting in with her. She had rather that they would not have done so;
and yet perhaps it affords a wholesome diversion from her own thoughts
to be continually jumping up to grasp Franky by the seat of his
sailor-trousers, and hinder him from breaking his neck by tumbling out
of the window, or his legs by his endeavours to climb up into the
netting. Lily is not nearly so troublesome. She is sitting quite still,
and _showing off_; trying, that is, to impress by her remarks two quiet
ladies who are fellow-occupants of the carriage with a sense of her
importance.

'I hope,' she says, in a loud voice, 'that my large box is in;' as she
speaks she turns her eyes upon the strangers to see whether they look
awed; but as they do not, she adds, in a still louder key, 'because it
is full of clothes!'

The train slides on through the bright-dyed autumn country; past the
flooded flat meadows lying a-dazzle in the sun, blinding mirrors for the
gorgeous October trees; across and then again across the broad ribbon of
the silver Thames; past distant country houses, lifting their shoulders
out of the gold and red billows of their elms and beeches; past big
villages and little towns, till, after several previous stoppages, they
come to a standstill at the platform of a small station, as destitute of
importance as the one from which they set off. It is that at which the
little Harboroughs are to get out.

'Mammy is coming to meet us,' Lily had announced; 'she will give Franky
such a hug! She never hugs me--I am father's child.'

She throws one final look at her fellow-travellers, to see whether they
are not rather struck by the last statement, before joining her brother
at the window, and jostling her hat against his in the endeavour to have
the glory of obtaining the first glimpse of their common parent. Of
this, however, she is balked, as, whatever may be her after-assertions
to the contrary, there is no doubt that the shrill cries of boy and
girl, 'There she is!' 'There's mammy!' rang out absolutely simultaneous.

Their curly heads fill up the window-space so completely that Peggy, for
a moment, hopes to escape detection and recognition. She hopes it the
more, since, for the first minute, Betty has no eyes save for her boy,
whom she has caught in her arms; relieving Peggy at length from her
convulsive hold of his small-clothes, and burying him under a perfect
smother of kisses.

'My blessing--my beauty! so I have got you back at last! You must
never--never leave your poor mammy again! Well, Lily, how are you?
Goodness, child, what a figure you are! You are one large freckle! Oh,
Miss Lambton, is that you? Where are you off to? Is Prue with you? No?
What fun Prue is! I had no idea until she stayed with me what capital
fun she was. You must let me have her again before long.'

The train moves off, and Margaret, a little heavier-hearted than before,
with it. Some impulse prompts her to pull back the curtain of the little
side-window in order to watch, as long as it is in sight, that figure on
the little platform. Yes, Prue is certainly like her; but, alas! it is
to be not even a good imitation for which she has foregone her own
woodland grace. Margaret had forgotten how pretty Betty was. How
charming she looks now, with her face full of wholesome mother-love,
perfectly unconscious, indifferent as to whether any one is looking at
her or not, clasping her little rosy child.



CHAPTER XIX


'Ox--ford! Ox--ford!' Her goal is reached; and as she has no luggage,
and is therefore independent of the scanty-numbered and not particularly
civil porters, in two minutes after the stopping of the train she is in
a hansom, spinning up to Christ Church. At Tom Gate she gets out, and
rather timidly entering the archway, bends her steps to the porter's
lodge. He comes out politely to meet her.

'Can you tell me where Mr. Ducane's rooms are?'

'Certainly, ma'am. Peckwater Quad, third door on the left hand, second
staircase.'

As she is moving off hurriedly in the direction indicated her informant
adds:

'I am afraid that you will not find him in, ma'am.'

'Not in?' repeats she, in a tone of the most acute astonishment. 'Is not
he ill, then?'

'Not that I am aware of, ma'am; he went out about half an hour ago with
a lady.'

At the mention of the lady a sudden vermilion flies up into Peggy's
face.

'Did you happen to notice,' she asks precipitately--'can you tell me
which way they--they went?'

'I think they may have been going to the meadows, ma'am; they went out
by the Hall.'

Almost before he can lift his finger to point out the line she is to
take she is off upon it. Across the wide quad she speeds, under the
exquisite stone umbrella that has held itself for over three centuries
above the staircase up which thousands of stalwart young feet have
tramped to their dinner in the Hall. Along the still, gray cloisters;
past the mean flimsiness of the new buildings, erected apparently as a
bad practical joke, out into the sunshine and dignity of the Broad Walk.

She stands for a moment or two uncertainly, looking from the new avenue
to the old one. From the stripling rows of limes and poplars which will
shade 1900 and 2000--those strange-faced centuries, of which we that are
having our little innings willy-nilly now, and will have had them then,
think with a certain startled curiosity--she turns to the elm-veterans,
who are paying their two-hundredth tribute of amber and tawny leaves to
the passing season. Her eye travels the whole length of both long
alleys; but in neither does she discover a trace of the two figures she
is in quest of. Men in flannels she sees in plenty (_men_ they call
themselves; but have men such smooth lady-faces? do men laugh like
that?)--men by twos and threes and fours and ones going down to, or
coming up from, the glinting river. However, she cannot stand hesitating
for ever at the top of the diverging avenues; so, since both hold out
equally little promise to her, she takes the Broad Walk. It is a bright,
crisp afternoon. Above her the elms, thinned of their leaf-crowns, arch
their bicentenary heads; the flooded meadow flashes argent on either
hand. Merton's gray-gabled front, rose-climbed, and Magdalen's more
distant tower lift their time-coloured faces against the blue. On seats
beneath the trees, with the shadows, thinner than in high summer,
stretching at their feet, climbs here and there a child; rest an old
man; sit a pair of lovers. Here and there also--alas, too
frequently!--comes a gap in the ancient elm-brotherhood, ill filled by
some young puny twig, that shows where the storm laid low the
honourable age of a giant whose green childhood the Stuarts saw.

She has reached the end of the walk, and again glances about her
uncertainly. There is still no sign to be traced of her truants having
passed this way. Whither shall she now bend her steps? She is not long
in deciding. On her right a narrower path stretches, following the
windings of the Cherwell--narrower, yet delectable too; tree-hung,
shadow-pranked, and with the flush river for companion. The country
round is all in flood; the fair town sitting among the waters.

Margaret walks quickly along, her look anxiously thrown ahead of her,
eagerly asking of each new turn in the walk to give her the sight she
seeks. On she goes through the golden weather. A great old willow,
girthed like an oak, golden too, stoops over the brimful stream that
runs by, in silent strength--stoops with a flooring of its own gold
beneath it. There is no wind to speak of; yet the trees are dropping
their various leaves on the Cherwell's breast. She, speeding along all
the while, watches them softly fall--a horse-chestnut fan; a lime-leaf;
a little shower of willow-leaves, narrow and pointed like birds'
tongues--softly fall and swiftly sail away. At a better time who would
have enjoyed it all so much as she? but she draws no grain of pleasure
from it now. She can take none of nature's lovely substitutes in the
place of the two human objects she is pursuing. If she does not find
them here, where else shall she seek them? What clue has she to guide
her?

With a sinking heart she is putting this question to herself when, as
the sight of the moored barges, the flash of oars, the sound of shouting
voices tell her that she is nearing the spot where the Cherwell and Isis
join in shining wedlock, she comes suddenly upon them.

On the seat that runs round a tall plane-tree they are sitting side by
side. At least they have not chosen any very sequestered spot. His
blonde head is thrown back, and resting against the trunk; while from
his lips a stream of mellow words is pouring. He is obviously spouting
poetry; while she, in feverish unconsciousness of what she is doing,
tears into strips a yellow plane-leaf, her eyes down-dropped, and a
deeper stain than even that of Betty's prescribing on her cheeks.

Peggy noiselessly draws near.

                            '"Dearest, bury me
    Under that holy oak, or gospel tree,
    Where, though thou seest not, thou may'st think upon
    Me, when thou yearly go'st procession;
    Or, for mine honour, lay me in that tomb
    In which thy sacred reliques shall have room
    For my embalming, sweetest----"'

'Good heavens, Peggy!'

Some slight rustle of her gown must have betrayed her neighbourhood. The
lovers both spring to their feet; and for a moment all three young
people stand silently eyeing each other. Prue's hot roses have vanished,
but they have not travelled far. It is perhaps a sign that there is
still some grace left in him, that they are now transplanted to Freddy's
cheeks. Margaret is the first to speak.

'I am here to take you home, Prue,' she says in a low grave voice. 'Are
you ready?'

'Come, Peggy dear!' cries the young man, recovering his complexion and
his _aplomb_, never very far out of reach; 'you need not look so
tragic!--you quite frighten us! Do not scold her much,' laying a coaxing
hand on Peggy's arm; 'I have scolded her well myself already.'

'You!'

There is such a depth of contempt in this one monosyllable, and it is so
elucidated--if indeed it needed elucidation--by the handsome lightning
of her eye, that Freddy's colour again changes.

'I was coming home. I should have come home by the next train,' falters
Prue, hanging her head; and as this tremulous explanation is received by
her sister in a sorrowful silence, she adds with passionate eagerness,
'He was ill, really--very ill. It was not pretence--he was really ill.'

'No doubt,' replies Peggy, in withering quotation from Freddy's own
billet; '"the whole head was sick, and the whole heart faint."'

Not vouchsafing him another word or look, she takes her sister's
unresisting arm, and leads her away. Without exchanging a syllable, they
reach St. Aldate's. Then Peggy hails a hansom, and bids the cabman drive
as quickly as he can to the G. W. station. But both her injunctions and
his speed are vain. They gallop up only to find the train, reduced by
distance to a small puff of smoke, steaming unattainably northwards.
There is not a second one for another hour and a half. There is nothing
for it but to wait. After all, as Peggy reflects with some bitterness,
they are not returning to such a very happy home that they need be in
any scrambling hurry to get there.

In mid-October the days are already beginning to close in early, and
even before the light goes there comes a sharpness into the air. It is
blowing chilly through the draughty station now. Peggy looks
apprehensively at Prue. Neither of them have had the forethought to
bring any wraps with them. Prue is shivering in a thin summer jacket;
her face looks weary, drawn, and cold.

'Had not you better go and rest in the waiting-room?' asks Margaret
solicitously, addressing her for the first time, as she takes off her
own cloak and wraps it round her.

'Yes, if you wish. I do not mind,' replies Prue apathetically.

When she has been settled in the warmest corner, and her vitality raised
a little by a cup of hot tea, Peggy leaves her. There is a painful
irksomeness in her company that makes Peggy prefer to it even a silent
and solitary march up and down the platform, each footstep beating time
to some heavy thought. Her march is not destined to be solitary for
long, however. Before she has taken three turns a soft young voice with
an intonation of excessive deprecation sounds at her elbow:

'May I take a stroll with you, dear?'

She does not deign him one syllable in answer, but walks along as
before, looking straight ahead. He sighs patiently.

'When you come to think it over, dear, I am sure you will acknowledge
that you are unjust. I can perfectly see your side of the question. I
think that one ought always to try to see both sides; but whether you
believe me or not, I can assure you that I never was more horrified in
my life than I was this morning, when poor Prue walked in.'

And for once, at all events, Freddy speaks truth.

'Then why,' cries Peggy, blazing around upon him, 'did you write and
tell her you were dying? Why did you ask her to come and "lay her little
cold white hand upon your burning brow"?'

Freddy winces; and the tone of his charming cheeks rises several
degrees.

'I do not quite know, dear, how you justify to yourself the reading of
other people's letters,' he says sweetly; 'but if you must quote me, I
had rather that you did it correctly.'

'Do you mean to say,' cries she, turning her great honest eyes and her
indignant rose face full upon him, 'that you did _not_ ask her to "lay
her little cold white hand upon----"'

'Oh, you need not say it all over again,' says Freddy, writhing. 'How
dreadful it sounds, hammered out in that brutal voice! What a knack you
have, Peggy, of turning everything into prose! I did not _ask_ her to
lay her hand upon my forehead; I said I should like it. So I should; so
would you, if your head had been as hot as mine was yesterday.' He
pauses; but Peggy has no biting rejoinder to make. 'If I had for a
moment supposed,' continues Freddy, 'that poor Prue would have taken it
_au pied de la lettre_, I would have cut off my right hand before I
would have written it. It is always so much less painful,' he adds
thoughtfully, 'to hurt one's self than to hurt any one else.'

But Margaret does not seem much disarmed by this touching sentiment.

'If you did not want her to come, why did you write her that silly
letter?' she asks doggedly.

Again Freddy changes colour.

'As I before observed, Peggy dear,' he answers, with some symptoms of
exasperation in his soft voice, 'I do not think it would be a bad plan
if you confined yourself to your own correspondence.'

The girl's face flushes as much as his own has done.

'Prue left it for me to read,' she says coldly and proudly. After a
pause, drawing a long resolute breath, 'Well, next time that you are
dying, you will have to look out for some other hand to cool your
burning brow; for Prue's will be beyond your reach.'

'So it was now,' rejoins Freddy, showing symptoms of an inclination to
lapse into levity. 'Poor Prue! she would have had to make a long arm
from the Red House here.'

'As soon as I get home,' continues Peggy, annoyed by, and yet not
deigning to notice, his frivolous interpellation, 'I shall put the house
into the hands of a house-agent. There is nothing left us--you have left
us nothing but to go!'

'To go! Where?'

She shrugs her shoulders dispiritedly.

'I do not know--somewhere--anywhere--out of this misery.'

Her whole attitude and accent speak so deep a despondency that Freddy's
tendency to gaiety disappears. He feels thoroughly uncomfortable; he
wishes he had not come. He would like exceedingly to slip away even now;
but unfortunately it is impossible.

'My dearest Peg,' he cries, in a very feeling voice, 'you break my
heart! You are always so self-sufficing, so apt to rebut sympathy, that
one hardly likes to offer it; but if----'

'Sympathy!' she repeats, with a scornful lip that yet trembles;
'_sympathy_ from _you_, who are the cause of all my wretchedness?'

'I?'

'Yes, you!' turning upon him with gathering passion--a passion that is
yet not loud in its utterance; that passes unobserved by the few
listeners about the station. 'Have not you eyes to see that you are
killing her? You might have set yourself a task that would do your
philanthropy more credit than breaking an old friend's heart--than
turning a poor little childish head.'

Her voice wavers as she utters the last few words, and she stops
abruptly. Perhaps it is by accident that Freddy's eye strays furtively
to that spot on the platform where 'Way Out' is legibly inscribed.

'When you talk of "childish,"' he says, in an extremely pained tone, yet
one of gentle remonstrance, 'you seem to forget that I am not so very
old myself. You talk to me as if I were a hoary-headed old sinner. Do
you remember that I shall not be twenty-one till Christmas?' She looks
at him with a sort of despair. What he says is perfectly true. It seems
ludicrous to arraign this pink and white boy as guilty of the tragedy of
her own and Prue's lives. 'I assure you, dear,' he says, in a very
caressing tone, drawing a little nearer to her side, 'I often have to
tell myself that I am grown up; I am so apt to forget it.' Then, as she
is silent, he goes on, 'It would make our relations so much easier,
Peggy, if I could get you to believe in me a little--mutual confidence
is so much the highest and wholesomest basis for human relations. I
think we ought all to try and trust one another; will not you'--edging
nearer still, and dropping his voice to a very persuasive whisper--'will
not you trust me a little?'

Peggy has heard that whisper many times before; has heard it beguiling
her into frequent concessions that her judgment has disapproved. It is
therefore with a very unbelieving, even if half-relenting, voice that
she asks:

'How much the better shall I be if I do?'

'It makes things so much easier if one feels that one is believed in,'
he says touchingly, if a little coaxingly. 'Oh, Peggy dear, will not you
believe in me? Will not you trust me a little? Will not you wait--wait
till I have taken my degree? _Then_ you shall see!'

In his eagerness he has seized her hand, unmindful of the publicity of
the place; and she, unmindful of it also, is poring in disconsolate
anxiety upon his features to see if they look as if he were for once
speaking the truth.

'See _what_?' she asks drily; but he apparently does not hear the direct
question.

'And you will not let the Red House?' he pursues coaxingly. 'That was
only a threat, was not it? Of course, I can perfectly understand your
irritation; but you will not let it? Dear little house! if you only knew
what a sacred spot it is to me! And you yourself, Peggy--why, you are
like a limpet on your rock. You would be miserable anywhere else.'

'Thanks to you, I am miserable there too,' replies she bitterly.

She has withdrawn her hand sharply from him; and they now again walk
side by side along the platform, begun to be lit up for the evening
traffic.

'I think,' says Freddy reproachfully, 'that if you at all gauged the
amount of pain that those sort of speeches inflicted, you would be less
lavish of them.' As she makes no sort of rejoinder, he continues, with a
heavy sigh, 'Where shall you go? Where shall you take her?'

'That can be no concern of yours,' replies she brusquely. 'It will at
all events be beyond your pursuit.'

The moment that the word is out of her mouth she sees that it is an
unfortunate one; and, by the light of a gas-lamp which they are at that
moment passing, she detects on Freddy's face a curious smile, which
denotes the perception in him of a certain humorousness in the present
employment of that particular noun.

In this case it is certainly not he that is the pursuer. The station is
growing fuller; a train must be expected; not Peggy's, unfortunately,
which is still not nearly due. A good many undergraduates have appeared
on the platform; several recognise Freddy, and look curiously at his
companion. Whether it be their scrutiny that annoys her, or the
consciousness of the unlucky character of her last phrase that gives
added bitterness to her tone, it is with some asperity that she makes
her next observation:

'I hope you are not going to stay to see me off! I had very much rather
that you did not.'

'Of course I will not _force_ my society upon you,' replies Freddy in a
melancholy voice, under which, however, Margaret fancies that she
detects a lurking alacrity; 'however much it may cost me, I will go at
once, if you bid me.'

'Then I do bid you,' she answers curtly.

'And you--you will not do anything rash?' he says, looking extremely
wheedling, and sinking his voice to a coaxing whisper. 'You will let
things go on just as they are for a--for a little while? You--you will
trust me?'

Her only answer is a derisive laugh.

'You--you will not decide in a hurry; you will take time to consider?'
he pursues, with an agitation that seems genuine, following her, for she
has already begun resolutely to walk away from him towards the
waiting-room. 'You will--you will do nothing _rash_?'

'I do not know what you call rash. I shall write to the agent
to-morrow.'

'You will not!' cries he, keeping up with her, and trying to retard her
progress. 'You could not be so inhuman. I know that it is a matter of
absolute indifference to you what suffering you inflict upon me, but,'
with a tremble in his voice, 'you cannot, you must not hurt Prue!'

Again she gives that withering laugh.

'No, certainly not! I should not think of it; I leave that to you!
Good-bye!'

So saying she disappears determinedly from his vision within the
waiting-room door.

There is nothing left for him but to take the tears out of his smile and
the tremor out of his voice, and walk away.

       *       *       *       *       *

Peggy is as good as her word. On the very next morning she writes, as
she had announced that she would, to the local house-agent, putting the
dear little Red House into his hands. The deed is done. The letter lies
with others in the bag, awaiting the postman; and Peggy goes out of
doors to try and dissipate the deep sadness in which her own deed, and
much more its causes, have steeped her. Into the garden first, but she
does not remain there long. It is too full of pain. Though it is
mid-October, the frost has still spared many flowers. There is still
lingering mignonette; plenty of Japanese anemones, their pure white
faces pearled with the heavy autumn dew; single dahlias also, variously
bright. It would have been easier to walk among them with that farewell
feeling had the mignonette lain sodden and dead, and the dahlias been
frost-shrivelled up into black sticks. But no! they still lift their gay
cheeks to the kiss of the crisp air.

How much longer we lure our flowers into staying with us than we did
twenty years ago! Perhaps by and by we shall wile them into not leaving
us at all.

To distract her thoughts from her sad musings Peggy begins to talk to
Jacob; but even he adds his unconscious stab to those already planted in
her heart. He can talk of nothing but next summer. To escape from him
she leaves the garden, and passes out into the road. She walks
purposelessly about the lanes, careless of the splendour of their
brambles. She meets a detachment of Evanses blackberry-laden, their
plain faces smeared with blackberry juice. They stop her to brag of
their booty, and tell her that she must come blackberrying with them
next year. _Next year_ indeed!

She throws a friendly word of greeting across the hedge to a cottager
digging up his potatoes. He tells her they are very bad, but he hopes
she will see them better next year. She looks in at a farm to 'change
the weather' with a civil farmer's wife, who shows her her chicken-yard,
and volunteers a neighbourly hope that she will be able to give her a
setting of game-fowl's eggs next summer. They seem to have _se donné le
mot_ to tease her with their 'next summer.'

She strays disconsolately home again to the little spoilt house, only
six months ago so innocently gay, so serenely content, before Freddy
came to lay its small joys in ashes. Can it be because she is thinking
of him that she seems to see his wavy-haired head lying back in its old
attitude on the bench under the Judas-tree, with another head in close
proximity to it? She quickens her steps, but long before she can reach
the rustic seat Prue has fled to meet her with a cry of joy.

At this now unfamiliar sign of welcoming poor Peggy's heart leaps for a
moment up. Can it indeed be she that Prue is so glad to see? But is this
indeed Prue? this radiant, transfigured creature, laughing, though her
eyes are brimming with divinely happy tears?

'Oh, Peggy, where have you been?' cries the young girl, throwing her
arms almost hysterically round her sister's neck; 'I thought you were
never coming! I have been longing to tell you! Who was right? Who knew
him best? Did not I say it would be all right? No! do not keep me! He
will tell you!'

And away she speeds into the house, with Mink yapping his
congratulations at her heels, and the parrot rapping out a friendly oath
in Sarah's voice at her from the hall window as she passes him.

In an agitation hardly inferior to Prue's, Margaret advances to meet the
young man, who has risen gracefully from his lounge, and is coming to
meet her.

'What does she mean by saying it is all right?' asks Margaret sternly,
and breathing quickly.

'It is very kind of dear Prue to put it that way,' replies he quietly.
'I suppose she means that I have asked her to be my wife. I have run
over from Oxford on purpose, without leave, and shall probably be sent
down for it. There is something a little comic, is not there, Peg,'
breaking into an ungovernable smile, 'in the idea of my having a wife?
Does it remind you at all of "Boots at the Holly-Tree Inn"? Well, dear!'
lapsing into a pensive and quasi reproachful gravity, 'you see, you
might have trusted me! Be not afraid; only believe!'



CHAPTER XX


The autumn is throwing down its red and amber tributes before other feet
besides Margaret's; before Betty's, before Talbot's. It does not,
however, rain the same shower on both. Betty's famed chestnuts supply no
leaf for Talbot's tread. For the first time for five years Harborough
Castle gets no share in John Talbot's autumn holiday. This is more
through his misfortune than his fault, as Betty, though with angry,
thwarted tears, is compelled to allow. From the visit to which after
leaving the Manor he had betaken himself, he had been recalled to London
with peremptory prematureness by a telegram. A crisis in public
affairs--an unlooked-for and unpleasant turn in foreign politics has
reft his chief--to that great man's unaffected disgust--from his thymy
forest and his amethyst moor back to the barren solitudes of Downing
Street. It has kept, if not the big, at least the lesser man bound hand
and foot there until the opening of the autumn session, which in any
case, even if he had not been defrauded of his legitimate playtime,
would have summoned him back to harness. So that Talbot sees no red
leaves except those which St. James's Park can show him. To a
country-hearted man you would think that this would be a great
privation; but this year John is glad of it. To him the country must
henceforth mean Harborough. If he has no holiday, he need not, he cannot
go to Harborough; and in his heart he says that the loss is well bought
by the gain. It is true that Betty has, on various pretexts, run up
several times to see him; that he has had to take her to the play; to
give his opinion upon her new clothes; to sit on the old low seat beside
the old sofa, in the old obscurity of the boudoir, without the old
heart. She has even, contrary to his advice, and very much against his
wishes, insisted on coming to tea with him in his rooms in Bury Street;
and, as a matter of course, has expected him to see her off at
Paddington. But on the whole he feels, as he speeds back in a
hansom--this last duty punctually done--drawing an unintentional sigh of
relief as he does so, that he has got through it pretty well. He has
provoked not much anger, and, thank God, no tears. Thank God a hundred
times more, too, that he has been miraculously spared any fleers at that
other woman, towards whom, perhaps, the completeness of his lady's
victory may have rendered her magnanimous. And that other woman! Well,
he lets her image tease him as little as he can help it. Whether that is
much or little, he himself scarcely knows. Sometimes again he does know,
knows that it is infinitely much. But that is only now and then, when
some trifling accident has given him a tiny momentary glimpse, such as
outsiders often catch, at some keen happiness _à deux_; some two happy
souls together blent,

                'As the rose
    Blendeth in odour with the violet;
    Solution sweet.'

Then, indeed, he catches his breath with the sharpness of the pain that
runs through his lonely heart, saying to himself, before his will can
arrest and strangle the lovely, useless thought, 'That might have been
Peggy and I.' But this, as I have said, is only now and again. As a
matter of fact, his life is too full of genuine continuous hard work,
too throbbing with great excitements, too full of the large fever of
to-day's hot politics, to have much space for the cherishing of any
merely personal ache. Sometimes for a whole day together he keeps his
heart's door triumphantly barred against her. For a day--yes; but at
night, willy-nilly, she lifts the latch, and cool and tall walks in. In
the night she has her revenge. In the day he may think of nations
clashing, of party invectives, of discordant Cabinets, and Utopian
Reforms; but at night he thinks of Mink, and of the little finches
swinging and twittering on _his_ ladder; of the mowing-machine's whir,
and the pallid sweet lavender bush.

As the winter nears, and such considerable and growing portion of the
world as spend some part at least of the cold season in London, refill
their houses, he goes a good deal into society, and when there he seems
to enjoy himself. How can each woman to whom he offers his pleasant,
easy civilities know that he is saying to his own heart as he looks at
her:

'Your skin is not nearly so fine grained as Peggy's; your ear is double
the size of hers; your smile comes twice as often, but it is not nearly
so worth having when it does come'?

And so he seems to enjoy himself, and to a certain extent really does
so. It is quite possible not only to do a great deal of good and
thorough work, but to have a very tolerable amount of real, if surface
pleasure, with a dull ache going on in the back of your heart all the
time. He has as little nourishment on which to feed his remembrance of
her as she has hers of him; nay, less, for he has about him no
persistent little Harborough voices to ask him whether he would not like
Peggy to come and live with him always. Sometimes it strikes him with an
irrational surprise that no one should ever mention her name to him;
though a moment later reason points out to him that it would be far more
strange if they did, since her very existence is absolutely unknown to
all those who compose his surroundings. Of no one were Wordsworth's
lines ever truer than of her:

    'A maid whom there were none to praise,
     And very few to love.'

One day he meets Freddy at Boodle's, and rushes at him with a warmth of
affectionate delight that surprises that easy-going young gentleman.
However, as Freddy is himself always delighted to see everybody, he is
delighted to see Talbot now; and immediately gives him a perfectly
sincere, even if the next moment utterly forgotten, invitation to spend
Christmas at the Manor. He has forgotten it, as I have said, next
half-hour; he does not in the least perceive the lameness of his
friend's stuttered excuses, and he would be thunderstruck were he to
conjecture the tempest of revolt, misery, and starved longing that his
few careless words, 'Could not you run down to us for Christmas? no
party, only ourselves and the Lambtons,' have awoke in that unhappy
friend's breast.

Christmas! yes, Christmas is drawing near--Christmas, the great feast
that looses every galley-slave from his oar. With how sinking a heart
does one galley-slave watch its approach! How much he prefers pulling at
his oar, with all the labour and sweat it entails, to the far worse
bondage to which his emancipation from it will consign him! There will
be no shirking it this time. To all humanity Christmas brings its three
or four days of liberation; and these three or four days he must--unless
the earth open or the heaven fall between this and then to save
him--spend at Harborough. He will have to decorate Betty's church; light
the candles on Betty's Christmas-tree; have Betty's children hanging
about his neck, and Betty's husband reproaching him for his long
absence.

Betty herself accepting his present, thanking him for it, manoeuvring
to get him alone. Her present! He must be thinking about it. He has not
yet bought it. He will have to make time to go and choose it. He yawns.
When you are in the habit of giving a person a great many presents, it
is extremely difficult to vary them judiciously. If it were a first gift
now, how much simpler it would be! Certainly quite without his consent,
the thought darts across him that he has never given Peggy a present.
How easy, how delightful, how enthralling it would be to make her some
little offering! something slight and comparatively valueless that it
would not hurt her pride to accept, but that yet would be worth thanking
him for. He feels sure that Peggy has not received many presents in her
life. He hears her--his sweetheart--thanking him for that ungiven,
never-to-be-given fairing; and at the same moment his eye, falling
accidentally upon Betty's last letter lying on the table before him,
recalls to his mind that it is not Margaret whom it is now a question of
endowing with a Christmas gift. His yawn is exchanged for a sigh. Poor
Betty! He undoubtedly does not grudge her her present; but how very much
it would simplify matters if she could be induced to choose it for
herself. So reflecting he takes his hat, and repairing to the great
jewellers', turns over Hunt and Roskell's newest trinkets in dubious
half-hearted efforts at selection.

Betty is not altogether of the mind of those present-receivers who hold
that the cost of the gift is as nothing; the giver's intention
everything. Betty likes both; she likes something rather valuable, but
that yet has a sentiment attached to it--something that tells of love,
and thought, and love's cunning.

To Talbot, a year, still more two years ago, nothing had seemed easier
than this combination. To-day, more than two hours elapse before he can
cudgel out of his dull heart and fagged brain something that may, if not
too closely scanned, bear the semblance of a fond invention. Christmas
is now but a week off; but a week, as eager schoolboys, and pale clerks,
and worn seamstresses tell themselves. Perhaps it may be because she
knows that they will soon meet, that Betty's daily letter to Talbot has
now for two whole days been intermitted. It is a lapse that has never
before occurred, so far as he can recall, in the whole five years of
their connection; her billets appearing as regularly as the milkman. Is
it possible that she may have conceived some occult offence against him?
That he may have unwittingly committed some mysterious sin against
love's code? This thought darts across his mind, presenting itself first
as a hope, and then as a dread. When it comes as a hope, it suggests
that in the case of her having taken umbrage at any of his doings, or
non-doings, she may show her resentment by excluding him from her
Christmas gaieties; but this idea does not live beyond a moment. It is
not much sooner conceived than it is transmogrified into a fear.

If they have quarrelled they will have to make it up again. Perhaps even
his laboriously chosen love-gift will not be held a sufficient
peacemaker. Perhaps he will have to expend himself in those expletives
and asseverations that used once to come so trippingly, nay burningly,
from his tongue, but that now have to be driven by main force from his
lips, slow and cold and clogged.

A third morning has dawned. Again no letter. It is certainly very
strange.

Talbot walks to Downing Street, pondering gravely what can be the cause
of this unprecedented silence. Can it be that she is ill? She must be
ill indeed not to write to him! A flash of distorted remorse--distorted,
since it is for being unable better to return the tenderness of another
man's wife--crosses his mind at the thought of her great love for him.
No, if she had been ill, too ill to write, Harborough would certainly
have sent him word of it, since no one is ever half so anxious to give
him tidings of Betty, to further their meetings and impede their
partings, as Betty's worthy, blockhead husband. It is most unlikely
that the post, which indeed strangely seldom misbehaves itself, should
have erred three times running.

He has reached Downing Street before any solution of the problem has
occurred to him. In the course of the day he goes very nigh to
forgetting it in the absorption of his work. That work is, on this
particular day, specially pressing--specially monopolising. From morning
to night he has not a moment that he can call his own. He does not even
return home to dress for dinner, but snatches a hasty mouthful of food
at the House of Commons, whither he has to accompany his chief, who is
to speak on a subject at that moment engaging both House and nation's
most passionate attention. The House is thronged to hear the great man.
He is for three hours on his legs; and his speech is followed by a hot
debate, adorned by the usual accompaniments of senseless obstruction,
indecent clamour, and Irish Billingsgate.

It is half-past two in the morning before Talbot finds himself turning
the key in his Bury Street door. The whole household has apparently gone
to bed; but in his sitting-room the fire has been made up. A touch of
the poker upon the coals makes them leap into a blaze, and he sits down
in an arm-chair to finish his cigar, and cast an eye over the notes and
telegrams that have come for him during his absence. Of the former there
are several; of the latter only one. He looks at the addresses of the
letters first, to see whether any one of them may be in Lady Betty's
handwriting; but such not being the case, he lays them down, and tears
open the telegram. He does it without any special excitement. In all our
lives telegrams are daily, in his they are half-hourly, occurrences. But
not such telegrams as this one. He has been too lazy to light his
candles; and now reads it by the firelight that frolics redly over the
thin pink paper and the clerkly writing:

     '_From_                      |      '_To_
                                  |
     LADY BETTY HARBOROUGH,       |      JOHN TALBOT,
          Harborough Castle,      |        Bury Street,
                  ----shire.      |          St. James's,
                                              London, W.
     'Come at once, and without a moment's delay, on receipt of this.'

When the contents of a missive that we receive, or of a speech addressed
to us, diverge very widely from anything that we have been at all
expecting, it is some time before the meaning of the words, however
simple, succeeds in reaching our brain. Such is Talbot's case. He reads
the telegram three times before he fully grasps its signification; and
it is quite two minutes before it occurs to him to look at its date.
'Sent out at 11.10 A.M. Received at 11.35.' It has been lying waiting
for him for fourteen hours and more. He reads it a fourth time. 'Come at
once, and without a moment's delay, on receipt of this.' What does
it--what can it mean? To obey it now, in the sense in which it meant to
be obeyed, is as impossible as to 'call back yesterday out of the
treasures of God.' It is true that he can set off, without a moment's
delay, on the receipt of it. But as that receipt has been delayed
fourteen hours longer than its sender calculated upon, his obedience
will be a virtual disobedience. Why has she sent for him? In any case
she would have seen him in five days. What can she have to say to him of
such surpassing urgency as cannot brook that short delay? His eye rests
doubtfully on the vague yet pressing words. In the mouth and from the
hand of any one save Betty, they would certainly imply some grave
crisis--some imminent or already fallen catastrophe. In Betty's they
_may_ mean nothing. More than once before, during the past five years,
has she telegraphed for him with the same indefinite peremptoriness; and
when--always at great personal inconvenience, once gravely offending his
chief, and seriously imperilling his future prospects--he has made
shift to obey her summonses, he has discovered that it had been prompted
merely by some foolish whim. Once the broken-haired terrier, which he
had given her, had had a fit; once Mr. Harborough had spoken sharply to
her before the servants; once she had felt so low that she could not get
through the day without seeing him. These recollections combine together
to form his resolution.

He lays down the paper. He will not go. Accident has made him
disobedient; intention shall make him further so. Had she known at what
an hour her message would reach him, even she could not have expected
compliance with it.

So thinking, his cigar being by this time finished, he rises, and
lighting his bedroom candle, turns to go to bed. Only, just as he is
leaving the room, some impulse prompts him to read the telegram yet a
fifth time. The words have certainly not changed since he last glanced
at them; and yet they seem to him to have a more compelling look. Why
can't he force them to be more explicit? He pauses; telegram in one hand
and candle in the other. What can she want with him? It is just within
the bounds of possibility that she may really need his presence; how or
why, he is unable to hazard the faintest conjecture. But it is just
within the limits of the possible that she may. Various suggestions of
what shape that possible may take flit across his puzzled brain. Can it
be that her husband has at length made the discovery of what for five
years has been the open secret of all his acquaintance? In that case, as
he, Talbot, has long known--known at first with leaping pulses, latterly
with the cold sweat of an unspeakable dread, she would not have waited
for him to come to her--she would have fled to him. It cannot, then, be
that. Various other conjectures suggest themselves, but are dismissed as
impracticable; but though they are dismissed, the fact remains that the
woman to whom he once swore--_once_, nay, millions of times swore a love
eternal, unalterable, exclusive--has sent him an imperative summons to
her side; and he is preparing entirely to neglect it.

He sets down the candlestick, and takes up an 'A B C' lying on the
table, as if officiously close at hand. He will just look to see if
there is a train that would take him to her. If there is not, that will
settle the matter. He turns to the name of the small station at which
travellers to Harborough get out. Of course not. Nothing stops at that
little wayside place before eleven o'clock. By that time he will be
installed in Downing Street for the day, with his chief's correspondence
before him.

He heaves a sigh of relief; and once more turns bedward. But before he
has reached the door another thought has arrested him. Though there is
no train which could take him to the little station close to her gate,
yet there may easily be one which would carry him to Oxford, only five
miles away from her.

Again he picks up the 'A B C,' and runs his finger and his eye down the
page from the Paddington that heads it. Paddington 5.30; arrives at
Oxford 7.40. Yes, there is one. It is, for the last ten miles of its
course, a slow crawler; but, if up to its time, reaches Oxford at 7.40.
A good hansom would convey him to Harborough in half an hour. He would
have twenty minutes in which to learn her will; a second half-hour's
drive would take him back to Oxford, to catch the nine o'clock up-train,
which would land him in London in time for his day's work. It is
possible, then--quite possible. The question is, shall he embrace that
bare possibility? Shall he pick out the one chance for, out of the
ninety-nine against, there being any real meaning in her message, to
build upon it this fool's errand. At all events, he has plenty of time
in which to think it over. It is only three o'clock. There are two good
hours before he need set off.

He sits down again in his arm-chair, replenishes the fire, and lights
another cigar. A year ago he would have gone without hesitation. Two
years ago he would have stood on his head with joy at having the chance
of going; but _this_ year---- Well, it is true that it is no longer the
voice of the passionately loved woman calling to him--a voice before
whose sound obstacles vanish, space shrivels, time contracts; but it may
be the voice of a fellow-creature in distress. _A fellow-creature in
distress!_ He laughs to himself at the flat pomposity of the phrase.
What kind of distress the fellow-creature's can be--a fellow-creature so
lapped in cotton-wool, so apparently beyond the reach of most of life's
ennuis--he is absolutely at a loss to conjecture! He spends two hours,
and smokes three cigars in conjecturing; and at the end, being as wise
as he was at the beginning, knocks up his servant, puts on his fur coat,
arms himself with as many wraps as he can muster, jumps into a hansom,
and through the murkiness--black as midnight--of a hideous December
morning, has himself driven to the Paddington Departure Platform; where,
for three minutes, he stamps about, telling himself that no such fool as
he walks, has ever walked, or, as far as he knows, will ever walk upon
God's earth; and is then whirled away.



CHAPTER XXI


There are not so many passengers by the 5.30 train as to hinder its
being punctual. It is almost faithful to its minute. So far--it can't be
said to be very far--fortune favours the one of its occupants with whom
we have any concern. He rolls out, cross and furry, still repeating to
himself with an even greater intensity of inward emphasis than he had
employed at Paddington, that unflattering opinion of his own wisdom with
which he had embarked on his present venture. If it had appeared a
fool's errand when looked forward to dispassionately from the warmth and
ease of his own fireside, what does it appear now? Now that, having
picked out the most promising-looking of the few sleepy hansoms awaiting
unlikely passengers, and bidden the mufflered purple-nosed driver take
him as fast as his horse can lay legs to the ground to Harborough
Castle, he finds himself spinning through the Oxford suburbs out into
the flat country beyond--ugly as original ugliness, further augmented by
a December dawning and a black and iron frost, can make it. At each mile
that carries him nearer and nearer his goal, his own unreason looms ever
immenser and yet immenser before him. By such a gigantic folly as this
even Betty herself may be satisfied. At every echoing step the horse
takes on the frozen ground it seems to him less and less likely that
Betty has had any real reason for sending for him, any reason that may
at all account for or palliate his appearance at this unheard-of hour.
Even Betty herself has asked no such insanity of him as this. She had
reckoned upon her telegram reaching him at mid-day, and upon his
arriving in obedience to it sometime in the afternoon, an hour at which
any one may arrive at a friend's house without provoking special
comment. But now? At the spanking pace at which, in accordance with his
own directions, he is getting over the ground, he will reach the Castle
by eight o'clock, just as the housemaids are beginning to open the
shutters and clean the grates. When the door is unbarred to him by an
astonished footman struggling into his coat, whom shall he ask for? What
shall he say? Lady Betty? Impossible! At eight o'clock in the morning!
Mr. Harborough? Neither is he, any more than his wife, an early riser;
and if, in answer to his, Talbot's, astounding summons, he should drag
himself from his couch, and come in sleepy _déshabillé_ to meet him,
what has he, Talbot, to say to him? What does he want with him? How can
he explain his own appearance? Had he better ask for no one, then?--say
nothing, but just slip in, trusting to the thoroughness of the
Harborough servants' acquaintance with his appearance to save him from
any inconvenient questions? Shall he wait in some cold sitting-room in
process of dusting, with its chairs standing on their heads, and the
early besom making play on its carpet until his half-hour is up, and he
can return whence he came, having at least done what he was bidden to
do? He laughs derisively at himself. And meanwhile _how_ cold he is! He
has been up all night, in itself a chilly thing; a hansom is by no means
a warm vehicle, at least to one to whom any nipping air is preferable to
having the glass let chokily down within a half-inch of his nose. The
dawn is being blown in by a small wind--small, but full of
knife-blades--and the griding frost that holds all earth and water in
the rigidity of death's ugly sleep, has pierced into his very bones. In
his life he has seldom taken a colder drive, and yet he dreads its
being over. What shall he say to Harborough? The chance of his seeing
him is indeed remote; but remote chances do sometimes become facts. If
this becomes fact, what is he to say to him? Even through Harborough's
hippopotamus-hide there must be some arrow that will penetrate. If
anything can open the stupid eyes, so miraculously sealed through five
years, surely this insane apparition of his will do it.

They have reached the park gates. The lodge-keeper at least is up and
dressed, and runs out with alacrity. She need not have been in such a
hurry. He would have been much more obliged to her if she had crawled,
and bungled, and delayed him a little. Now he is rolling through the
park, by the dead white grass and the pinched brown bracken; under the
black arms of the famous chestnuts, beneath which he and Betty have so
often strayed; through half a dozen more gates; through a last gate, on
leaving which behind them, turf more carefully trimmed, flower-beds now
hard and empty, clumps of laurustinus and rhododendron tell of his
neighbourhood to the house, which a turn in the approach now gives to
his view. His eye flies anxiously, though with little hope, to the
front. Does it look at all awake? Are there any blinds up? It would be
ludicrous to hope that Betty's could be; Betty who is never seen a
moment before eleven o'clock, and very often not for many moments after.
He looks mechanically, though quite hopelessly, up at her windows--the
three immediately above the portico--and so looking, starts, and gives
utterance to an involuntary ejaculation. In the case of all three,
shutters are open and blinds up. What can have happened? What can so
flagrant a departure from the habits of a lifetime imply? He has reached
the door by now, and, jumping out, rings the bell. He will probably have
long to wait before it is answered, the servants, expecting no such
summons, being probably dispersed to other quarters of the house. But,
as in the case of the lodge-keeper, he is mistaken.

With scarce any delay the great folding-doors roll back; nor is there in
the faces of the couple of footmen who appear any of that blank
astonishment which he had been schooling himself to meet. There is no
surprise that he can detect upon their civil features, any more than
there would have been had he and his portmanteau walked in at five
o'clock in the afternoon.

'Of--of course no one is up yet?' he says, with an air that he, as he
feels, in vain tries to make easy and disengaged.

'Oh yes, sir; her ladyship is up! Her ladyship has been up all night.'

_Up all night!_ Then some one must be ill! Is it Harborough? Harborough
ill? Will he die? In one thought-flash these questions, with all that
for him and his future life an answer in the affirmative would imply,
dart through his mind--dart with such a sickening dread that he can
scarcely frame his next and most obvious question.

'Is any one ill, then?'

For the first time the servant looks a little surprised. If it is not on
account of the illness in the house why has Mr. Talbot presented himself
at this extraordinary hour?

'Yes, sir; Master Harborough has been very ill for two days. Sir Andrew
Clark and Dr. Ridge Jones came down yesterday to see him, and he was
hardly expected to live through the night.'

Master Harborough! Not expected to live through the night! At this news,
so entirely unlooked for--since, amongst all the possibilities whose
faces he has been scanning, that of something having happened to the
children has never once presented itself--Talbot stands stock-still,
rooted to the spot, in sad amazement. Poor little Master Harborough! In
a moment he is seeing him again as he had last seen him--seen the little
sturdy figure that, in its rosy vigour, seemed to be shaking its small
fist in defiance at age, or decay, or death. Yes; he sees him
again--sees, too, his mother, laughing at his naughtiness, bragging of
his strength, smothering him with her kisses. Poor, poor Betty! A great
rush of compassionate tenderness floods his heart towards the woman
against whom he had just been harshly shutting that heart's doors;
discrediting her truth; grudging the service she has asked of him;
crediting her even in his thoughts with the indecency of summoning him
to her husband's death-bed. Oh, poor Betty! On his heart's knees he begs
her pardon.

His agitation is so great and so overcoming that, for the moment, he can
ask no more questions, but only follows the butler, who by this time has
appeared on the scene, in silent compliance with his request to him to
come upstairs--a request accompanied by the remark that he will let her
ladyship know that he is here. Having led him to Betty's boudoir, the
servant leaves him to look round, with what heart he may, on all the
objects of that most familiar scene. How familiar they are--all her toys
and gewgaws! Many he himself has given her; some they had chosen
together; over others they had quarrelled; over others, again, they had
made up--but how well he knows them, one and all! He looks round on them
with a triple sorrow--the sorrow of his past love and present pity for
her joining hands, in melancholy triad, with his deep and abiding
self-contempt. He looks round on the countless fans--fans
everywhere--open, half-open; on the great Japanese umbrella, stuck up,
in compliance with one of the most senseless fashions ever introduced,
in the middle of the room, with Liberty silk handkerchiefs meaninglessly
draped about its stem; on the jumping frogs and mechanical mice; on the
banjo she has often thrummed to him; on the mandoline she has tried to
wheedle him into learning to play, that he may sing her Creole
love-songs to it.

He turns away from them all with a sick impatient sigh. How hideously
out of tune they and all the fooleries they recall seem with this
soul-and-body-biting December dawning--with 'Master Harborough not
expected to live through the night!'

He has never seen Betty in the grasp of a great grief. He is as much at
a loss to picture how she will bear it as he would be to fancy a
butterfly drawing a load of coals. How will she take it? How will she
look? What shall he say? How shall he comfort her? That she has had any
other motive in sending for him than the child's impulse to show the cut
finger or the barked shin to a friend never occurs to him. His poor
Betty! No selfish regret enters his mind at having been summoned through
the midwinter night helplessly to see a little child die. He can think
of nothing but how best to console her. He is very far from being ready
with any consolations that even to himself appear at all consoling, when
the door opens, and she enters.

At the sound of the turning handle he has gone to meet her, with both
hands out as if to draw her and her misery to that breast whose doors
are thrown wider to her than they have been for many months; but no
answering hands come to meet them. Some gesture of hers tells him that
she does not wish him to approach her.

'How late you are!' she says.

If he were not looking at her, and did not see with his own eyes that
the words proceeded out of her mouth, he would never have recognised her
voice. By that voice, and by her whole appearance, he is so shocked,
that for a moment he cannot answer. Even upon the face of a girl in the
first flush of youth, and whose only ornamentings come from the Hand of
God, two long nights' vigils, extravagant weeping, the careless
dishevelment of heart-rending anguish, write themselves in terrible
characters. What, then, must they do to a woman like Betty, whose whole
beauty is a carefully built-up fabric, on which no sun must look, and no
zephyr blow too inquisitively?

For the first time in his life Talbot fully realises what a built-up
fabric it is. Through his mind flashes the doubt, whether, if without
expecting to meet her, he had come across her in the street, he should
have recognised her. She looks fifty years old. Her hair is in damp
disorder; at the top all rough and disturbed, where it has evidently
been desperately buried in a little counterpane. She is not now crying;
but her unnumbered past tears have partially washed the rouge off her
cheeks. A dreadful impression of the ludicrous, inextricably entangled
with his unspeakable compassion--an impression for which he tells
himself that he ought to be flayed alive--conveys itself to Talbot from
her whole appearance. But though he ought to be flayed alive for
receiving it, still it is there. And meanwhile she has spoken to him a
second time. He must say something to her; not stand staring with stupid
cruelty at her in her ruin and abasement.

'I expected you all yesterday,' she says in that same strange, dreadful
voice.

He gives a sort of gasp. Can that indeed be the voice whose pretty
treble has so often run with rippling laughter into his ears? the voice
that sang him comic songs to that very banjo--now lying in its irony
beside him--almost the last time that he heard its tones? His head is in
a grisly whirl between that Betty and this. Which is the true one? Is
this only a hideous nightmare? It seems at least to have the suffocating
force of one; a force through which it is only by the strongest
self-compulsion that he can break to answer her.

'I came as soon as I got your telegram.'

Her eyes, washed away to scarcely more than half their size, are
resting upon him; and yet it seems by her next speech as if she had
either not heard or not heeded his answer.

'You might have come quicker,' she says.

'But indeed I could not,' cries he, genuine distress lending him at last
fluent speech. 'I was at the House till two in the morning; I never
received it until I got home to Bury Street; I came by the very next
train. Oh, Betty, how could you doubt that I should?'

As he speaks an arrow of self-reproach shoots through his heart at the
thought of how near a chance the poor soul's cry for help had run of
being altogether disregarded.

'I wanted to speak to you,' she says, a spark of fever brightening the
chill wretchedness of her look. 'I have something to say to you; that
was why I sent for you.'

'Of course, of course!' he answers soothingly. 'I was delighted to
come.'

'I can't stay more than a minute,' she says restlessly. 'I must go back
to him; I have never left him for eight and forty hours. He is asleep
now--only under opiates--but an opiate sleep is better than none, is it
not?' consulting his face with a piteous appeal.

'Much--much better,' replies Talbot earnestly.

'You have heard--they have told you--how ill he is?'

A sort of hard break makes itself heard in her voice; but she masters it
impatiently.

'Yes, they have told me.'

'What have they told you?' asks she sharply. 'I daresay that they have
told you a great deal more than the truth. If they have told you that
there is no hope, they have told you wrong. They had no right to say so;
there is hope!'

'They never told me that there was not,' replies he, still more
soothingly than before; for it seems to him that no finger can be laid
too gently on that terrible mother-ache.

'It all came so suddenly,' says she, putting her hand up with a
bewildered air to her damp forehead and disordered hair. 'And yet now it
seems _centuries_ since he was running about. _How_ he ran and jumped,
did not he? There never was such an active child. And now it seems
_centuries_ that he has been lying in his little bed.'

For a moment she breaks down entirely, but fights her way on again.

'It was only a cold at first--quite a slight cold! He was not the least
ill with it, and I thought nothing of it; and then on Tuesday there came
an acrobatic company to Darnton'--the little neighbouring
market-town--'and he was so excited about them, and begged so hard to be
allowed to go and see them, that I took him; and he was so delighted
with them--he clapped and applauded more than anybody in the house; and
all the evening afterwards he was trying to do the things he had seen
them do--you know how clever he always is in imitating people--and
telling nurse about them. Nurse and I agreed that we had never seen him
in such spirits. But he did not sleep well; he was always dreaming about
them, and jumping up; and next morning he was in a high fever, and I
sent for the doctor, and he has been getting worse ever since; and
_now_----'

Again she breaks down, but again recovering herself, goes on rapidly:

'But it is not the same as if it were a grown-up person, is it? Children
have such wonderful recovering power, have not they?--down one day and
up the next. They pull through things that would kill you or me, do not
they? He _will_ pull through, won't he? You think that he _will_ pull
through?'

'I am sure that he will,' replies Talbot earnestly.

It is, of course, an answer absolutely senseless, and in the air; but
what other can he give, with those miserable eyes fastened in such
desperate asking upon his?

'Oh, if you knew what it has been,' she says, her arms falling with a
gesture of measureless tired woe to her sides as she speaks, 'to have
been kneeling by him all these two days, hearing him moan, and seeing
him try to get his breath!--he does not understand what it means; he has
never been ill before. He thinks that I can help him. O God! he thinks I
can help him, and that I don't! He turns to me for everything. You know
that he always did when he was well, did not he? He is always asking me
when the pain will go away? Asking me whether he has been naughty, and I
am angry with him? Angry with him! I _angry_ with him! O God! O God!'

Her excitement and her grief have been gaining upon her at each fresh
clause of her speech, and at the end she flings herself down on the
ground and buries her face in the cushion of a low chair, while dry,
hard sobs shake her from head to foot.

What is he to say to her? Nothing. He will not insult such a sorrow by
the futility of his wretched words. He can only stoop over her, and lay
his hand no harshlier than her mother would have done, no harshlier than
she herself would have laid hers upon her little dying boy, on her
heaving shoulder. But she shakes off his light touch, and raising her
distorted face, again tries to address him. But the rending sobs that
still convulse her make her utterance difficult; and her words, when
they come, scarcely intelligible.

'Do not touch me! leave me--leave me--alone! I--I have not yet said
what--what I had to say to you. That--that was not what I had to say to
you! I--I--must say what I--sent for you--to say.'

She pauses, gasping. It seems as if the task she had set herself was
beyond her present strength.

'Do not tell me,' he says most gently; 'if it is anything that hurts
you, do not tell me now; wait and tell me by and by.'

He has withdrawn at her bidding his hand from her shoulder, but has
knelt down in his deep pity beside her, and tried to take in his her
cold and clammy fingers. But she draws them sharply away.

'Did not I tell you to leave me alone!' she cries in a thin voice. 'Let
me--let me say what I have to say to you, and have done with it. I will
say it now! I _must_ say it now! What business have you,' turning with a
pitiful fierceness upon him, 'to try and hinder me?'

'I do not--I do not!' speaking in the tenderest tone. 'Tell it me of
course, whatever it is, if it will give you the least relief.'

'I sent for you to tell you that it is all over--all over between us,'
she says, having now mastered her sobs, and speaking with great rapidity
and distinctness; 'that is what I sent for you to tell you. I wanted you
to come at once, that I might tell you. Why did not you come at once? I
have been a very wicked woman----'

'No, dear, no! indeed you have not!' he interrupts with an accent of
excessive pain and protest.

But she goes on without heeding him:

'Or if I have not, it has been no thanks to me; it has been thanks to
you, who have saved me from myself! But whatever there has been between
us, it is over now. That is what I sent for you to tell you. _Over_! do
you understand? _Gone! done with!_ Do you understand? Why do not you say
something? Do you hear? Do you understand?'

'I hear,' he answers in a mazed voice; 'but I--I do not understand! I do
not understand why, if you want to tell me this, you should tell it me
_now_ of all times.'

'It is _now_ of all times that I want to tell you--that I must tell
you!' cries she wildly. 'Cannot you see that it is on account of _him_?
Oh, cannot you think what it has been kneeling beside him with his
little hot hand in mine! You do not know how fiery hot his hand is! Last
night his pulse was so quick that the doctor could scarcely count the
beats--it was up to 120; and while I was kneeling beside him the thought
came to me that perhaps this had happened to him on--on--account
of--_us_! that it was a judgment on me!'

She pauses for a minute, and he tries to put in some soothing
suggestion, but she goes on without heeding him.

'You may call it superstition if you please, but it came to me--oh, it
seems years ago now!--it must have been the night before last!--and as
the night went on, it kept getting worse and worse, as he got worse and
worse; and in the morning I could not bear it any longer, and I sent for
you! I thought that you would have been here in a couple of hours.'

'So I would! So I would! Heaven knows so I would, if it had been
possible!'

'And all yesterday he went on growing worse--I did not think that he
could have been worse than he was in the night, and live--but he was.
All day and all last night again he was struggling for breath!--think of
having to sit by and see a little child struggling for his breath!'

She stops, convulsed anew by that terrible dry sobbing, that is so much
more full of anguish than any tears.

'Poor little chap! poor Betty!'

'I have been listening all night for you! I could not have believed that
you would have been so long in coming; it is such a little way off! I
knew--I had a feeling that he would never get better until you had
come--until I had told you that it was all over between us; but I have
told you now, have not I? I have done all that I could! One cannot
recall the past; no one can, not even God! He cannot expect that of me;
but I have done what I could--all that is left me to do, have not I?'

There is such a growing wildness in both her eye and voice that he does
not know in what terms to answer her; and can only still kneel beside
her, in silent, pitying distress.

'I see that you think I am out of my wits!' she says, looking
distrustfully at him; 'that I must be out of my wits to talk of sending
you away--you who have been everything to me. Cannot you see that it is
because I love you that I am sending you away? if I did not love you it
would be nothing--no sacrifice!--it would be no use! But perhaps if I
give up everything--everything I have in the world except him'
(stretching out her hands, with a despairing gesture of pushing from
herself every earthly good)--'perhaps then--_then_--God will spare him
to me! perhaps He will not take him from me! It may be no good! He may
take him all the same; but there is just the chance! say that you think
it _is_ a chance!'

But he cannot say so. There are very few words that he would not try to
compel his lips to utter; but he dares not buoy her up with the hope
that she can buy back her child by a frantic compact with the Most High.
Her eyes drop despairingly from his face, not gaining the assent they
have so agonisedly asked for; and she struggles dizzily to her feet.

'That is all--I had--to--tell you!' she says fiercely. 'I have nothing
more to say!--nothing that need--need detain you here any longer. I must
go back to him; he may be asking for me!--asking for me, and I not
there! But you understand--you are sure that you understand? I have
often sent you away before in joke, but I am not joking now' (poor soul!
that, at least, is a needless assertion); 'I am in real earnest this
time! I am not sending you away to-day only to send for you back again
to-morrow; it is real earnest this time; it is for ever!--do you
understand? _For ever_! say it after me, that I may be sure that you are
making no mistake--_for ever_.'

And he, looking down into the agony of her sunk eyes, not permitted even
to touch in farewell her clammy hand, echoes under his breath, '_For
ever!_'



CHAPTER XXII

    'Das Herz wuchs ihm so sehnsuchtsvoll
      Wie bei der Lichsten Gruss.'


_For ever!_ All through the wintry day they hammer at his ears--those
two small words that take up such a little space on a page, and yet
cover eternity. There is nothing that does not say them to him. The
hansom horse's four hoofs beat them out upon the iron-bound road; the
locomotive snorts them at him; the dry winter wind sings them in his
ears; Piccadilly's roar, and the tick of the clock on the chimney-piece
of the room where he works in Downing Street, equally take their shape
to him. _For ever!_ They must always be solemn words, even though in the
slackness of our loose vocabulary they are often fitted to periods no
longer than ten minutes, than an hour, than six months. But one never
quite forgets that they can stretch to the dimensions of the great sea
that washes Time's little shores. _For ever!_ At each point of his
return journey there recurs to him the memory of some unkind thought
that he had had of her on his way down. Here he had accused her of some
paltry motive in sending for him! There he had protested against the
dominion of her whims. Here again, he had groaned under the thought of
having, within five days, to pass a second time this way in order to
spend his compulsory Christmas with her.

Well, that Christmas is no longer compulsory--no longer possible even.
He has his will. He may keep for himself that present which he had so
grudged the trouble of choosing for her. _For ever!_ Those two words are
the doors that shut away into the irredeemable past that portion of his
life in which she has shared. Only five years after all! He need not
have grudged her only five years.

An intense and cutting remorse for the bitterness of his late thoughts
of her; for his impatience of her fond yoke; for his weariness of her
company, and passionate eagerness to escape from her, travels every step
of the way with him as he goes. Well, he may be pleased now. He has his
wish. He has escaped from her. But has he escaped? Can that be called
escape, not for one moment of that day, or any succeeding days, to get
the bottomless wretchedness of those poor eyes, the pathos of those sunk
and ghastly cheeks, and of that damp ruffled hair from before his own
vision; never for one instant of the whole noisy day to have his ears
free from the sound of that thin, harsh mother-voice, asking him whether
her boy will live? Between him and the paper on which he writes that
face comes. It rises between him and the speakers in the House. It
closes his eyes at night. It figures with added distortion in his
dreams. It comes with the dull dawn to wake him. He spends his Christmas
alone with it in London. To do so seems to him, in his remorse, some
slight expiation of the unlovingness of his late past thoughts towards
her. He would deem it a crime to join any happy Christmas party while
she is kneeling with that face beside her dying child. Since he cannot
go to her, he will go nowhere.

Once indeed--nay, to tell truth, twice, thrice, the thought has recurred
to him of Freddy Ducane's affectionate invitation to the Manor, and that
there is now nothing--no pre-engagement to hinder him from accepting it.
But each time he dismisses the idea, as if it had been a suggestion of
Satan. Scarcely less ruthlessly does he put to flight a face that, as
the days go by, will come stealing in front of the other; a face
that--albeit modest--is pertinacious too; since, despite his routings,
it comes back and back again. And meanwhile he hears no news from
Harborough. To telegraph inquiries would seem to him a contravention of
her will--hers, who has so passionately decided that their paths are
henceforth to diverge. But he anxiously and daily searches the obituary
for that name he dreads to find; looks anxiously, too, about the streets
and round his clubs in search of some common acquaintance--some country
neighbour--to whom he may apply with probability of success for tidings
of the child. But for some days he looks in vain. London has emptied
itself for the Christmas holidays, and it appears to him as if he were
the only one of his acquaintance left in it. That the boy is still
fighting for his life is proved by the fact of his name not having been
entered in the list of deaths. Still fighting! He still panting, and she
still kneeling beside him! It makes Talbot draw his own breath gaspingly
to think of it.

As the days go on, his anxiety to get news--any news, whether it may be
bad or good--of how that drama being played out on the narrow stage of a
little bed, and the one act of which that he has seen haunts him with
such a persistency of torment, grows more urgent and intense. London has
filled again. The Christmas holiday week is over, and humanity's
innumerable beasts of burden have returned to their yokes. The frost
still continues, and the clubs are nearly as crowded as in June; crowded
with every one whom he does not wish to see; empty of any one that he
seeks. Hitherto, as long as he has had no desire for their company--has
avoided it rather, from the associations it has had with his own
entanglement--he has met acquaintances made at Harborough, people living
in the neighbourhood of Harborough, friends of the Harboroughs, at every
turn. They have claimed his acquaintance; have insisted on greeting
him; on forcing upon him pieces of local information which have no
manner of interest for him. Now, however, that they might do him a
substantial service; now that they might, nay, _must_, give him the
tidings he is craving for, all such persons appear to have been swept
from the face of the earth. Look as he may, in club, and street, and
private house, he can find none.

One Sunday afternoon, a cold and ugly Sunday, he is walking down St.
James's Street, turning over in his mind how best to obtain some
certainty as to that subject, his miserable uncertainty upon which is
desolating his life, when in one of the numberless passing hansoms his
eye suddenly alights upon a surely very well-known profile. If it is not
the profile of Betty's husband, he is deceived by the most extraordinary
accidental likeness that ever beguiled human sight. Harborough is in
London, then? What does that mean? Does it mean that the boy is better?
or does it mean that it is all over? A spasm of pain contracts his
heart. Poor little chap! Perhaps his father's presence here only means
that he is already hidden away in the grave, and that there is nothing
left for father-love, or mother-love either, to do for him.

Talbot's eye has eagerly singled out the hansom, and followed it.
Happily for him, it stops at not a hundred yards' distance from him, at
the St. James's Club, and a figure--indubitably Mr. Harborough's--jumps
out. Talbot hastens after him. It is a club to which he himself belongs,
and he enters it not a minute after the object of his pursuit. Some
irrational fear that that object may even yet evade him--that he may be
even yet balked of that news for which he seems to have been months,
years, thirstily waiting, lends wings to his feet. He is so close upon
his friend's heels that the latter has not had time to get beyond the
hall. One lightning-glance tells Talbot that he looks much as usual;
that there is no crape on his hat; and that his insignificant face is
as innocent of any expression beyond its ordinary banal good humour as
he has ever seen it. Then the child is not dead! That little jolly face
that has been so often pressed against his own is not companioned with
the dust. Thank God for that! But his one minute's look, though
unspeakably reassuring, has not yet so entirely banished his fears that
he can delay for one instant putting the question which has been for ten
weary days on his lips, unable to be asked.

'The boy? How is the boy?'

Mr. Harborough starts.

'Hullo! it is you, is it? delighted to see you!' shaking his hand with
the same prolonged and mistaken warmth under which Talbot has so often
writhed.

He does not writhe now. He repeats his eager question:

'How is the boy?'

'Oh! you have heard of our trouble about him?' returns Harborough
cheerfully. 'Well, to tell truth, the young beggar did give us a fright!
but he is as right as a trivet again now, or at least he is on the high
road to be so; but he had a near shave of it, poor little man! not one
of us thought he would pull through. Andrew Clark himself did not. We
all of us--his mother, I, everybody--thought he was going to give us the
slip; but not a bit of it. I never saw such a boy! There he is, shouting
and kicking up such a row, they can scarcely keep him in bed; and
eat--he would eat an old shoe--he would eat you or me if we gave him the
chance.'

He ends with a jovial, if not very wise, laugh; but Talbot does not echo
it, though Heaven knows that he is glad enough at heart for any
expression of mirth.

'You must run down and see him,' pursues the other hospitably; 'it is a
long time since you have paid us a visit. Come now, fix a day; there is
no time like the present.' 'You forget,' replies Talbot, with an
embarrassment which, however, is not perceived by his interlocutor,
'that I am not one of those lucky fellows like you whose time is their
own. I cannot take a holiday whenever I choose; you must remember that
mine is just over.'

'Stuff and nonsense!' rejoins Betty's husband, with rough good humour.
'Do not tell me that they keep you as tight as that! I know better! I
will take no excuses; only two days ago Betty was saying to me what an
age it was since we had seen anything of you.'

Before he can hinder it, Talbot's jaw drops. Betty had said so? _Betty?_
Has sorrow then robbed her of her wits?

'By the bye,' continues Harborough, correcting himself, and happily
ignorant of the effect produced by his last words, 'it was the other way
up; it was I who said so to her. But it is all the same thing; she will
be delighted to see you. She will never forgive me if I let you escape
us this time; and the boy, you positively must come and help us to keep
that boy in order. I never saw such a boy!' (beginning again to
chuckle).

It is not without very considerable difficulty, not without some
sacrifice of truth, some vague promises, that Talbot at length succeeds
in making his escape without having tied himself down to any special day
for making his appearance at that house from whose doors the wife has
warned him off with as great an eagerness as--it cannot be greater
than--the husband now shows to force him into them. As long as he is in
Harborough's company, the necessity for baffling his friend's stupid
urgencies, the awkwardness of rebutting civilities so well meant,
prevent him from realising the full intensity of his relief. But when he
has reached his own rooms, when he is alone, then indeed he knows the
weight of the burden that has rolled from his shoulders. The boy is
_not_ dead; riotously alive rather. Thank God--thank God for that! And
she is no longer kneeling beside him, no longer out of breath for
company. He may drive away for ever from before his eyes that hideous
vision of her as he had last seen her, and which has been for fourteen
days poisoning sleep and waking for him. He may drive it away; and not
only so, but he may replace it by any other vision he chooses. _Any
other!_ In the first stupefaction of that thought--for joy has her
stupefaction as well as pain--he covers his face with both hands, as if,
by shutting out all other objects, he could the better bring that
astounding change home to his mazed brain and his leaping heart. He is
free! He has to say the word over many, many times to himself before he
can at all take in its full significance. He is free!--free, too, with a
freedom that has been given to him, that has been gained by no violent
bursting of bars, and which therefore he may taste with that fulness of
joy that those alone can feel who have long lain fast bound in misery
and iron. He has been so long a bondman, the irons have cut so deeply
into his flesh, that on first coming out into God's good light he
staggers blindly as one drunk.

He walks to the window and looks out. The bells are ringing to afternoon
church, and the congregations are passing staidly by. He looks out at
them all, with a joyous smile at the _endimanché_ shop-boys, each with
his sweetheart on his arm; at the little children holding fathers' and
mothers' hands. He, too, may have a sweetheart. He, too, may be blessed
with little children. There are none of the possibilities which make
life lovely to other men, to which he, too, may not aspire. The happy
tears crowd into his eyes.

From the window he walks to his bureau, and out of a secret drawer takes
a tiny tissue-paper parcel, and from it carefully extracts its contents.
They consist of only one sprig of dried lavender, thieved from the
garden of the little Red House, and at which for five months he has not
dared to look. He may look at it now; may pass it lovingly across his
lips; may inhale whatever yet lingers of its innocent cottage sweetness.
There is enough still left to recall the parent-tree. He may see again
that spreading flowered bush; may see again Minky galloping like a
little gray whirlwind across the lawn; may hear again the parrot
swearing in the cook's voice, and sleepily clacking with his black
tongue in the sunshine; may watch the eleven birds--are there still
eleven, he wonders?--hopping and quarrelling and twittering up and down
upon his ladder; may see Jacob and the mowing-machine; and--_her_. Can
any bodily eyes show her to him much more plainly than his spirit's eyes
see her now, summoned up before him by that delicate, homely perfume,
that is to him so indissolubly associated with her?--see her as he saw
her last in the walled Manor garden, standing among the moon-shimmering
white gladioli, and saying to him with farewell smile and wavering
voice:

'Since you are so determined to go downhill, I suppose I dare not say
that I hope our paths will ever meet again.'

But now--but now! God knows how he has long hated his downhill course;
and now--and now there is no reason, none in heaven above or earth
beneath, why their paths should not for ever merge. His head sinks
forward on his clasped hands, still jealously clasped upon the lavender
sprig, and his hot tears rain on its little dry buds. In his whole life
before he has never cried for joy. At night he cannot sleep for that
same troublesome joy; but, indeed, he would grudge any slumber that
robbed him for even a moment of the consciousness of his blessedness. He
feels no need of that lost sleep all next day as he walks, treading on
air, through the murky London streets, that seem to him gold-paved,
diamond-shining. He knows that he must look senselessly radiant; for, in
the course of the day, several people of his acquaintance meeting him
ask what he is smiling at. One inquires whether some one has left him a
fortune. Before he can stop himself, he has almost answered, 'Yes.' Is
not it true--most true? His state of exaltation lasts, with no
perceptible lessening, through all that day, through the night--almost
as sleepless as the preceding one--that follows it; but on the
succeeding morning there comes a check, a very slight one, but still a
check to the triumphal course of his felicity. Amongst that morning's
letters is one which, at the first glance, he imagines to be from Betty;
and though a second look reassures him on this point, and though, on
opening it, it proves to be merely an invitation to dinner from a slight
acquaintance, yet the train of thought induced by the shock of that
first impression successfully pulls him down from his empyrean. What
security has he that Betty may not write to him; that now that her
terror and her grief are alike past, she may not deride as superstition
the conduct dictated by that grief, and, like a child, ask to have back
again her given and repented gift? What security has he--a cold sweat
breaks out on his forehead at the thought--that any day, on his return
from his work, he may not find her standing by the fire, ready to throw
herself into his arms, and tell him with sobs that she cannot bear her
life without him, and that they must take up again the old relations?
And if she does so--there is such a horrible probability in the idea,
that it is as well to face it--what answer is he to make her? Would it
be chivalrous, loyal, to take her at that word wrung from her anguish,
wrung from her when she was no more her real self than if she had been
raving in a fit of madness? To make her keep to it, when with tears and
prayers she is begging him to let her resume it? And if not, if
not--with what a heart-sinking does he face the suggestion--must he
again bow his neck to the yoke? Must he again put on his gyves? God save
him from that hard alternative!

And so, in the fear of it, he goes day and night. For weeks it takes the
edge off his bliss; for weeks he never glances at the addresses of his
letters without a pang of dread; for weeks he never turns the handle of
his door on his return home from his work without a shiver of
apprehension. But not once does his eye alight on that feared
handwriting; always his room is empty of that once so longed-for, and
now dreaded presence. Ah, he is not so indispensable to her as he had
fancied! She can do better without him than in his self-value had
appeared possible. He need not be afraid that her fingers will ever
again trace his name upon paper, or hurriedly lift his latch. As he
realises this, so unaccountable is human nature, a slight pang of
irrational regret mingles with the profundity of his relief and joy. But
as the days, lengthening and brightening in their advance toward spring,
go by, the pang vanishes as the fear had done; only yet more quickly,
and his visions possess him wholly. When--_when_ may he make them
realities? How soon, without appearing brutally unfeeling towards,
prematurely forgetful of, his old sweetheart, may he take his new one by
her white hand under the Judas-tree, saying, in the lovely common words
that all the world uses and none can improve upon, merely, 'I love
you'?



CHAPTER XXIII


No one can be in profounder ignorance than is Peggy of the fact of any
one breathing passionate sighs towards her from Downing Street. The only
news that she has heard of John Talbot is a casual mention by Freddy of
the fact of his having invited him to spend his Christmas at the Manor,
and of his having refused without giving any particular reason.

'He does not care for our simple pleasures, I suppose,' says Freddy,
with a smile; 'and, on the whole, I am not sorry. He is a good fellow;
but we are really much more comfortable by ourselves. I like to have you
two dear things all to myself.'

As he speaks he extends a hand apiece impartially to his betrothed and
her sister. Peggy is in these days in possession of one of Freddy's
hands oftener than she altogether cares about; but, since he is always
reminding her that he is now a more than brother to her--in fact, as he
has long been in feeling--she decides that it is not worth making a fuss
about, and lets her cool and careless fingers lie in that fraternal hand
without paying any attention to it. For her the winter has passed _tant
bien que mal_. Christmas had brought her love to Prue, and the mumps to
the Evanses; and both events have supplied Peggy with plenty of work.

The Evanses are one of those families who have all their diseases
bountifully. Their very mumps are severe and simultaneous. They _all_
have them--father, mother, schoolboys, old baby, new baby. A hireling
tells the Christmas news from Mr. Evans's pulpit, while Mr. Evans sits
in his study, with the door locked to hinder the intrusion of his
suffering progeny, stooping his swelled features over his _Earthly
Paradise_, and thinking with envy and admiration of the institution of a
celibate clergy. Both babies bawl from morning to night at this
practical joke played upon them by Providence at the outset of their
career; and the boys wistfully press their enlarged faces--unnecessarily
enlarged, since they were large before--against the frozen panes of the
Vicarage windows, in futile longing for the unattainable joys held out
to them by the view of the iron-bound Vicarage pond, and the glassy
slideableness of the turnpike road.

The calamity to her clergy has thrown the conduct of the whole of the
parish charities and gaieties on Peggy's hands. Nor is she without a
little nursing on her own account; for Freddy, by dint of keeping his
Prue out on the leads till ten o'clock at night, talking to her about
himself and the fixed stars, has succeeded in giving her such a cold on
the chest, that neither can she hear the Christmas tidings. However, he
is so touchingly repentant for what he has done, says such cutting
things about himself, and sits by her side so devotedly for hours,
reading poetry to her in a charming sympathetic voice, that nobody can
be seriously angry with him--least of all Prue, whose one heart-felt
prayer is that her cold may become chronic, or that at least she may
have a new one every month.

'He has been reading me such beautiful poetry!' she says in a soft voice
one day, when Peggy rejoins her after her lover has taken his daily
departure. 'Very deep, you know; so that one had to put one's whole mind
to following it. But beautiful, too--like Browning, only better?'

Peggy lifts her eyebrows.

'_Like Browning, only better!_'

'And when I said so,' pursues Prue, with hot cheeks and bright proud
eyes, 'he told me that he never knew any one who had such an unerring
instinct for what was good in literature as I.'

'And whose was it?' inquires Margaret, a little suspiciously.

'He would not tell me. I could not get him to tell me; but I think--oh,
Peggy, I cannot help fancying that it was his own!'

'That would account for his looking upon your instinct as unerring,
would not it?' retorts Peggy, laughing.

But she does not always laugh over Freddy and Prue. Though young Ducane
repeats to her oftener than once or twice a day that he is now her more
than brother, in fact as well as in feeling, he does not tell any one
else so. Despite all Peggy's representations, entreaties, protests, he
has not yet given the slightest hint of his new situation to his aunt.

'I must insist upon your telling her,' Peggy has said. 'As things now
stand, I cannot bear to meet her; I feel an impostor and a cheat. It is
putting us all in such a false position; it makes me miserable to think
that she has not a suspicion that the old conditions are not quite
unaltered.'

'Poor old conditions!' says Freddy dreamily, leaning with thrown-back
head in the rocking-chair, and staring up at the ceiling, as in the
summer he used to stare up at the sky and the jackdaws. 'It is a sad
thought that one never can gain anything in this world without some
counterbalancing loss! Life is a sort of compromise; is not it, Peg?'

'If you do not tell her, I warn you that I shall tell her myself.'

Her tone is so resolute that Freddy forsakes his pensive generalities,
and sits up.

'I am sorry once again, my Peggy, to have to remind you of that
well-known firm who realised a large fortune by minding their own
business.'

'It is my own business,' retorts Peggy firmly, though her cheek burns,
'it is Prue's business; and Prue's business is mine. If you do not tell
milady, I repeat that I shall tell her myself.'

'I daresay you will,' replies Freddy sadly; 'and if you do, you will
give a great deal of pain to a person who has never wittingly given you
anything but pleasure in all her life.'

'Why should I give her pain?' returns Margaret, rising in high
excitement from her chair, and standing before the fire, with quivering
nostril and flashing eye. 'What is there to give her pain in----'

'It would give her pain, acute pain, to hear such a piece of news from
any one but myself,' answers Freddy, with the same air of subdued
sadness.

'Then why do not _you_ tell her?' persists Margaret.

For all answer he rises too, and tries, unsuccessfully this time, to put
his brotherly arm about her waist. 'Wait till I have got through my
schools,' he says in a melting whisper; 'wait till I have taken my
degree. When I have taken my degree she can no longer look upon me as a
child, bless her old heart!'

'I see no signs of her looking upon you as a child now.'

'Oh, but she does,' replies Freddy confidently; 'to her' (beginning to
laugh) 'I am still the lisping little innocent whom she took to her arms
eighteen years ago.' Then, growing grave again, 'I do not think that you
quite understand how difficult it is for an old person to realise that
we are grown up; as I have told you several times, I find it difficult
to realise it myself. Do not you too? No? Well, dear, because you are
strong yourself do not be harsh to weaker vessels; but,' sinking his
voice to a coaxing whisper, 'be the dear thing I have always found you,
and wait till I have taken my degree.'

She has not the slightest ambition to be the 'dear thing he has always
found her;' and his beguilements would have been absolutely wasted upon
her, nor served to turn her by one hair's breadth from her purpose, had
not they been so strenuously backed up by Prue.

'Oh, Peggy, for pity's sake do not interfere!' she has implored, with
eyes full of tears and an agonised voice. 'Leave it all to him. He has
such exquisite tact that he is sure to choose the best moment for
telling her; and if you told her, and anything disagreeable came of it,
it might give him a turn against me. He is so finely strung--he knows it
himself, and looks upon it as quite a misfortune; the other day he asked
me if I thought there was any use in his trying to change it--so finely
strung that he cannot bear a contact with anything harsh or violent;
and, as he often says, our love now is like a poem; and he thinks that
anything that seemed to vulgarise it, or pull it down to a common level,
would _kill_ him.'

'Very well, dear, very well,' replies Peggy, with a long impatient sigh,
stroking her sister's hair; 'have it your own way; only I fancy he would
take more killing than that.'

And now Christmas has gone, and the New Year come; and Freddy has
returned to his studies, leaving his aunt still in ignorance of those
tidings which his exquisite tact has not yet found the right moment to
communicate.

And now the spring is coming on with slow green steps. The brown earth
is rubbing her eyes, in preparation for her blossomed wakening. Peggy's
garden, so long iron-bound, is beginning to turn in its sleep. Jacob and
she have gone together round their domain, counting over the dead and
wounded that the long frost has left them in legacy. Among the dead, the
irrecoverably dead, to which no Easter sunshine or April rains can bring
back any little green shoots of life, is the old lavender-bush.

What matter? There are plenty of young ones. And yet, as she stands
looking at the dry wreck of last year's fragrance, a hot and foolish
tear steals into each eye. Her back is turned towards Jacob, who is
examining the mowing-machine, which will soon be again needed.

'It wants fettlin' a bit,' he says in a grumbling voice; 'it has never
been the same since that Muster Talbot meddled wi' it.'

Poor Muster Talbot! There is not much fear of his meddling with the
mowing-machine ever again. She lifts her eyes, still a little obscured
by those tears, to the sky, and they follow a pigeon, its wings
silver-white as they turn in the sun. It is flying southwards. She
wishes idly that it would fly to him to tell him that the lavender-bush
is dead, and the mowing-machine broken; only it should choose a moment
when Lady Betty is not by, as such silly news would not interest her.

She strolls away from Jacob, his last remark having given her a distaste
for his conversation; strolls away into the little orchard, listening to
the birds. How loud they are! and despite the long winter, how many!
What a honeyed Babel of strong little voices! There is the thrush, of
course:

    'The wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
     Lest you should think he never could recapture
     The first fine careless rapture!'

But besides the thrush's dominant harmony, how many others there are!
There are the chiff-chaff's clear reiterations; the wren, with a voice
so much bigger than her tiny body; the chaffinch's laugh-like notes; the
robin's, who, not content with his own pretty song, that perhaps he
thinks smacks too much of winter, puzzlingly mimics other singers. She
lifts her eyes, shaded by her hand, to look at them, as they
swing--jubilant specks--on twig and tree-top. How they are bragging of
their happiness! outbragging one another! They are extravagantly gay,
and yet their melodies bring the tears to her eyes. Perhaps they remind
her that she is alone. Perhaps--more likely, indeed, since she is not
very apt to be thinking of herself at all--they remind her of another
extravagant gaiety, over which she rejoices or half rejoices in
trembling. It is only in trembling that any human soul can see one they
love uplifted to such a height of extravagant joy as that on which Prue
now sits queening it over the workaday world. 'Can it last?' is the
anxious question that Peggy asks herself a hundred times a day; finds
herself feverishly asking when she wakes up at night.

If Prue's beauty, such as it is, can keep him, then indeed she has a
better chance than ever; for love has put a meaning into the poor soul's
insignificant lilies and roses, and made her transiently beautiful. If
love, insane and limitless; love at once grovelling and soaring; love
that would kiss the dust from his feet, or be burned by a slow fire to
give him a moment's pleasure--if love such as this can bind him, then is
he bound indeed. But can it?

'I wish you would not spoil him so,' Peggy says grudgingly one day,
during the Easter vacation, when her sister has come hurrying from
garden to house, on some errand of Freddy's. 'I cannot bear to see you
fetching and carrying for him; it is such a reversal of the right order
of things. You spend your life in waiting upon him hand and foot!'

'How could I spend it better?' replies Prue, the rapturous colour coming
into her face, and the moisture into her radiant eyes.

And so Peggy has to submit, has to overhear ten and twenty times a day:

'My Prue, if you are going to the house--of course, do not go on
purpose--my darling, I could not hear of such a thing! What do you
suppose that I am made of? Well, of course, if you insist! it is awfully
good of you! I will do as much for you when I am as young as you are,'
etc. 'Prue, there is a fly on my forehead! I cannot get at my own hands
somehow; do you think you could flick it off for me!' 'Oh, Prue! my head
burns so! feel it! You do not happen to have any eau-de-Cologne in the
room, do you? No? Then do not trouble to go upstairs for it. What? You
have been to fetch it! Bad Prue! and I told you not!'

Easter has fallen late this year, and so has come with pomp of
pear-blossom, with teeming primroses, with garden hyacinth and field
daffodil; has come, too, with a breath like June's. The garden-chairs
are set out; and on them, just as if it were midsummer, only that above
their heads the Judas-tree holds leafless arms, the lovers sit, through
the splendour of the lengthening days.

Freddy has said many a charming thing about the pear-blossom; about
nature's awakening; about the hymeneal birds--things that, as Prue says,
are almost poetry just as he speaks them, without any alteration. But he
will not be able to say any more to-day, since he lies under one of his
mysterious obligations--an obligation which he not darkly hints to have
been imposed upon him by his aunt--to dine and sleep at a house in the
neighbourhood.

'Milady has ignored them for twenty years,' he says of his intended
hosts; 'and now she is sending me out as her dove, with her
olive-branch. Of course I could not be so selfish as to refuse her.
But,' with a heavy sigh, 'I wish she would carry her olive-branch
herself!'

'I wish she would,' replies Prue dejectedly, her small face already
overcast at the prospect of twenty-four hours' separation.

'It seems hard that one can never be perfectly well off without there
coming some element of change and disintegration,' says Freddy, with a
subdued sadness. 'Well, God bless you, darling! Take care of her, Peggy!
Take good care of my Prue! Be waiting for me, Prue, at the garden-gate
at twelve o'clock to-morrow!'

And Prue does wait, is waiting long before the appointed hour; waits--it
would be piteous to say for how long after that hour--waits in vain, for
Freddy comes not. He does not return all that day; nor is it till late
on the next that he comes stepping, cool and smiling, across the evening
shadows.

'Do not go to meet him,' says Peggy half crossly; 'he does not deserve
it!'

But she speaks, as she had known that she would, to inattentive ears. It
was, indeed, only as a relief to her own feelings that she had given
that futile counsel. It is some time before they rejoin her, and when
they do--

'It was not quite so bad as you expected, I suppose?' Margaret says, a
little drily.

'When is anything so bad as one expects?' replies Freddy evasively,
throwing himself into his accustomed chair; 'by Jove! how the pear-tree
has come out since I left!'

'That was two whole days ago!' says Prue, rather wistfully.

'Two whole days ago!--so it was--

    "Measured by opening and by closing flowers!"

Prue, do you happen to have a needle about you? No? Of course I do not
mean to give you the trouble of going into the house to fetch one; some
people have a crop of needles always about them. Oh, Prue!--stop! I am
shocked--that is the last thing I meant!'

But poor Prue is off like a lapwing.

'You stayed longer than you intended?' says Peggy interrogatively.

'Yes;--by Jove, Peggy! do not you wish you could paint? Did you ever see
anything like the colour of that sky behind the pear-blossom?'

'Did you like them?'

'Oh, you know I like everybody,' answers he vaguely; 'I do not think I
possess the faculty of dislike. I think,' pensively, 'that in every
human soul, if one gets near enough to it, there is something to love;
and,' with a change of key, 'good heavens, are not they rich! They have
a yacht of 500 tons; they are going round the world in her next autumn;
they asked me to go too. I should like to go round the world.'

'To go round the world!' repeats Peggy, with a rather blank look; 'but
by that time you will have taken your degree. You will have settled down
to some steady work, will not you?--whatever work you have decided upon.
By the bye, are you any nearer a choice than you were when last I spoke
to you?'

Freddy agitates his curly head in an easy negative.

'I am afraid not the least; but, after all, there is no great hurry. I
think,' with his serious air, 'that one ought to interrogate one's own
nature very deeply before one decides on a question of such moment; and
meanwhile,' becoming gay again, 'I should like to go round the world
with the Hartleys--would not you, Peg? No?--well, I should.'



CHAPTER XXIV


It is May morning, but May morning as yet in early childhood--a radiant
infancy that but few persons comparatively are awake to see. It has not
struck five; and yet on the top of Magdalen Tower, in Oxford, Talbot is
standing. Love has not driven him crazy, as might be the inference drawn
from this fact. But those who know Oxford, know too that, as some say,
since the time of Henry VIII.--though that overshoots the mark--Magdalen
College has observed the rule of sending up her sweet-voiced choir to
the summit of Wolsey's Tower on each new May morning, to greet the sun's
uprising with a monkish hymn. And there are never wanting those who
think it worth while to leave their beds almost before night has
withdrawn, to hear those sweet singers greet the dawn with the ancient
piety of their Latin hymn; and amongst them, as chance has brought him
to Oxford, stands Talbot. He has run down to Oxford for Sunday; and
since some of his fellow-guests have willed to rise and be present at
the keeping of this unique and old-world custom, the fancy has taken him
to come too. Not since the first year of his undergraduate-ship has he
stood, as he now stands, on that stern height, looking for once at the
world as the birds look, having climbed the steep and endless corkscrew
stair. The years that have passed him since then seem to go by him in a
solemn procession--solemn as this ante-dawning hour; solemn as the worn
pinnacles above his head that have cut the blue of day, and pointed to
the planets of night, through three hundred rolling years; solemn as the
great and dying moon that is only waiting for her greater brother's
upspringing to fade away and be not.

In each interval of the ancient balustrades, and through the opening in
the pierced stone, Talbot can see far down a picture differently lovely.
Here the world-famous street, taking its way between its schools and
stately college-fronts; and with its Mary church's noble spire and the
Radcliffe's dome for crown and finish. Here again the low, scarce
swelling hills that so softly girdle the fair town, with the morning
mists, not yet sun-pierced, streaming across their dim flanks. Here the
river stealing; there the bridge, with its black cluster of men and
women, waiting to hear the Hymnus Eucharisticus float down. Here a white
snow of cherry-blossom in some garden; there, close at hand, so that he
can look down, far below, upon their rooks' nests, Magdalen's tenderly
greening trees. Infinite gradations of tender green; infinite gradations
of delicate blue dying into dreamy gray, all woven into a mantle in
which to wrap the yet sleeping city; and above it all, above Talbot, as
he stands, lifted half-way to heaven, as it seems, in the august hush of
the dawn, is the arch, severely beautiful, of a sky that seems made out
of one pale, perfect turquoise.

He has moved away from his companions. He does not want them; does not
want any companion. He leans against the parapet; and his eyes rise to
the great old pinnacles, whose time-painted gray is married in such
marvellous harmony to the cold azure into which they climb. Talbot is
thinking of Peggy. She can never be at any very great distance from his
thoughts, since there is no fair sight that does not, in one instant,
conjure her back to them. There is nothing beautiful whose beauty he
does not gauge by its worthiness to be looked at by her. To that height
of excellence he acknowledges that the spectacle he is now looking upon
attains. He would like her to see it. Where is she now? What is she
doing? Doing? Why, asleep, of course; placidly slumbering; or perhaps
not so placidly dreaming of Prue. But why is it that on this May morning
Talbot is only _thinking_ of Peggy? Why, since it is now more than four
months since he was set free to seek her, is he still seeking her only
in thought? Surely even his busy life may have spared him the necessary
moment to put his fortune

        'To the touch,
    To win, or lose it all.'

He had meant to have sought her at Easter. To put a lesser interval than
that which stretches from Christmas to Easter between the decent
interment of the old love and the proclamation of the new would have
seemed to him a disrespect--a disloyalty to that now dead but once so
living passion. Why, by showing such an overhaste to take upon himself
another tie than hers, should he cut to the quick her who, not so long
ago, was all earth, and all heaven too to him? But when Easter comes, it
brings with it the news, borne on the breath of common fame, of the
serious illness of that old love; and again his loyalty forbids
him--while she, who for five years made sunshine or storm in his life,
lies on what may perhaps be her death-bed--to go courting another than
she. And before the tidings of her recovery reach him his holiday has
been long over. He will have no other worth the name until Whitsun. But
to Whitsun there are now only twenty-one days. 'Only twenty-one days!'
he says to himself under his breath, still looking up at the pinnacle.
He could of course have written to her; but from that he has shrunk with
unconquerable repugnance. To put a cold proposition in cold black and
white upon cold paper? What could she do but say 'No' to it? He will ask
her by word of mouth; if possible under the Judas-tree, with Minky
lying on her gown, so that she can't rise up hastily and flee from him.
Will ask her by word of mouth, eye to eye; and with such a compelling
urgency of look and speech that she shall say 'Yes' to him--if out of
nothing else, out of sheer pity for his great and utter need of her.
'Twenty-one days and twenty-one nights!' he repeats to himself once
again.

The choristers stand surpliced, looking eastwards to where the sun is
rearing his red shoulder. The crowd on the old lead roof is thickening.
Undergraduates in cap and gown; fat Fellows, thin Fellows; young ladies,
old ladies--every moment a new head, with an expression of relief upon
its features at having come to the end of its corkscrew scramble,
appears at the head of the ladder that closes the climb. Talbot is not
paying much attention to any of them, least of all, perhaps, to his own
party, when a voice that has surely a familiar ring in it brings him
back to the present.

'You see, dear, you need not have been in such a fuss; we are in plenty
of time. The sun has waited for us, as I told you he would.'

Talbot's eyes have sprung to the speaker. Yes, of course it is Freddy
Ducane. But after all there is nothing very wonderful in that; for has
not he already known Freddy to be pursuing his studies in Oxford? But
who is it whom Freddy has addressed as 'dear'? As to that, Talbot is not
long left in doubt. Close behind young Ducane, as though afraid of being
separated from him by the press, two girls are eagerly following. There
are two in reality, but Talbot sees only one. She is not asleep after
all; not dreaming of Prue, or of any one else. She is here, wide awake,
on the top of Magdalen Tower, not three feet from him, and with her
great blue eyes plunged into his. There are some moments in looking back
upon which afterwards one wonders how it came about that they did not
kill one.

Sometimes, in the retrospect of after-days, Talbot marvels what he could
have been made of, not to have fallen dead at her feet on the top of
that giddy tower out of sheer joy. He has but just realised her
presence, when five grave strokes beat the air. The clock is telling
that it is five, the immemorial hour at which the May-Day hymn is wont
to soar heavenwards. In a moment a hush has fallen upon the buzzing
crowd. Off goes every college cap. All eyes look eastward to where the
vanquishing sun has now fairly emerged from night and mist, and sweetly
and softly upsails to heaven the ancient monkish hymn:

    'Te Deum Patrem colimus,
     Te laudibus prosequimur;
     Qui corpus ciborificis,
     Coelesti mentem gratia.'

The harmony has swelled up skywards, and again died into silence; and no
sooner has it ceased than the great bells imprisoned in the belfry below
take up the tale. Standing so immediately above them, they do not sound
like bells, rather like some loud vague booming music; and to that loud
booming music the meeting of Talbot and Margaret is set.

'Talbot!' Freddy has cried cordially, on catching sight of him; 'my dear
fellow, I am delighted to see you! Peggy, Prue, are you awake enough to
realise that this is Talbot? Who on earth would have expected to find
you up here?'

And Prue's little voice has echoed, 'Who indeed?' and Peggy has said
nothing; but the touch of her hand in his--the thirsty aching dream of
so many empty months--is a reality; and for him too the day is breaking,
not less genuinely than is the real day so superbly opening--

    'Nor dim nor red, like God's own head,
     The glorious sun uprist.'

The first beam has struck one of the lofty pinnacles, and made laughter
and gaiety of its tercentenary gloom. Now it is laying long shadows
about mead and street--shadows of noble buildings, of cropping cows, of
commonplace yet dawn-ennobled houses, and of vernal trees. Far below on
the bridge is the pigmy crowd, with the vulgar din of its May horns,
blown thus early, in ill-survival of some Puritan custom, to drown the
notes of the Latin hymn. But here, high up above the world, is no music
but that august one of the loud bells; no sight but the arch of the
perfect sky, and the solid grandeur of God's first best gift to man--new
light.

In this stately dawning they stand together, he and she, despite the
crowd, virtually alone; for Prue has drawn away Freddy to point out to
him what is indeed startlingly obvious, the rocking of the tower under
the vibration of the bells. Several undergraduates--more indeed than
not--are taking off their college caps, and flinging them down over the
battlements. The wind blows colder with the sunrise, but they pay little
heed to its chill admonishment. With their bare young heads they stand
laughing and leaning down to watch the fate of their mortar-boards. Most
alight on the college roofs; one sticks on a pinnacle, greatly to its
owner's delight. There is a noise of young voices, exclamations, bets,
jolly laughter, on the crisp morning air. And meanwhile Talbot and
Margaret stand staring at each other, silent at first; for how from such
a torrent of words as he has to pour out before her can he choose which
to begin with?

At last, 'I--I--did not expect to meet you here,' he says stupidly.

'Nor I you.'

'Are you staying in Oxford?'

'Yes, at the Mitre. Freddy was very anxious that we should come, and so
Lady Roupell brought us.'

She answers him quietly, in a rather low voice, but she does not on her
side originate any question. Can it be that she is struggling with a
difficulty in any degree akin to his own? Urged by this dazzling
possibility; urged still more by the shortness of the time--since what
security is there that Prue may not be back upon them at any moment with
some fresh discovery about the tower or the bells?--he hazards a speech
of greater significance, of such significance in his own eyes that he
trembles almost as much as the bell-rocked tower in making it.

'At the moment I first caught sight of you, and before that, I was
thinking of you.'

'Were you?'

'I suppose that there are few things in the world more unlikely than
that _you_ were thinking of _me_?'

She hesitates a second. He sees by a sort of distress in her sweet,
candid eyes, that she would like to be able to tell him that she had
been thinking of him. But she evidently had not, and is too honest to be
able to feign that she had.

'I was not thinking of you at that moment,' she answers reluctantly; 'I
was too much out of breath with my climb,' she adds, with a rather
embarrassed laugh, 'to be thinking of anything.'

'Oh, Peggy,' cries Prue, breaking in upon them, in realisation of
Talbot's fear, 'he has thrown his cap over too! Is not it foolish of
him? Is not he sure to catch cold? And I do not see how he is ever to
get it again.'

'As to that, dear,' replies Freddy philosophically, gracefully winding
his gown about his neck and over his head, 'I am not at all anxious, as
it was not mine.' So saying, he again draws away his little sweetheart,
or she him, and the other pair are a second time alone. But for how
long?

'Are they--are they--_all right_?' inquires John, recalling what strides
to intimacy he had formerly made by the agency of Prue's love affairs.

'I think so,' she answers doubtfully; 'it is hard to say; pretty right.'

'_She_ looks as if it were all right.'

'Yes, does not she?' returns Peggy eagerly. 'Is not she improved? Is not
she wonderfully prettier than when last you saw her?'

Talbot hesitates a second. He knows, of course, that Prue has a face;
but whether it is a pretty or an ugly one, a bettered or a worsened one
since last he looked upon it, he knows no more than if it had never been
presented to his vision.

'Whether you see it or not,' says Peggy, a little piqued at his
unreadiness to acquiesce, 'it is so; everybody sees it.'

'But she always was pretty, was not she?' asks he eagerly, trying to
retrieve his blunder. 'Could she be prettier than she always was? and
happiness is mostly becoming.'

He looks wistfully at her face as he speaks, as if he would not mind
trying the effect of that recipe upon his own beauty--so wistfully that
she turns away with a sort of confusion; and, resting her hand on the
battlement that is still swaying almost like a ship on a sea under the
bells' loud joyaunce, looks down. The sun has risen higher. Opposite him
his pale sister is swooning away in the west. Before his proud step the
spring green grows vivider. The smoke from the morning fires new lit,
curls, beautiful as a mist, above the ennobled dwelling-houses,
swallowing what is vulgar from sight, as unworthy of the new King's
eyes.

The two young people stand tranced for a moment or two side by side
without speaking; then Peggy says in a low voice, and with an apparently
complete irrelevance to anything that had gone before:

'The lavender-bush is dead.'

'_Dead?_'

'And the mowing-machine is broken,' adds she, beginning to laugh, though
a little tremulously. 'Jacob says it has never been the same since you
meddled with it.'

'Jacob and I were always rivals. Then he is not dead too?'

'No.'

'Nor the fox?'

'No.'

'Nor Mink?'

'No.'

'Nor the parrot?'

'No.'

How delightful it seems to him to be standing there in the dawning,
asking her after them all! He would like to inquire by name after every
one of the eleven finches in the big cage. The crowd has very much
thinned. There has been for a quarter of an hour a continual
disappearance down the ladder of successive anxious human heads.

'Oh, Peggy!' cries Prue, again running up; 'are you ready? We are going
down; which way shall you go--backwards or forwards? He says forwards;
but I think I had rather go backwards, because I shall not see what is
coming. Which way shall you?'

'I shall go forwards,' replies Peggy, with a sort of start. 'I had
always rather see the worst coming, whatever it is.'

As she speaks she turns, with what he recognises as a good-bye look, to
Talbot. Is it over already, then? Is this to be all? Can it be his fancy
that there has come upon her face a sort of reflection of the blankness
of his own--that her eyes, lifted in farewell to his, ask his eyes back
again, as his are asking hers, 'Is this to be all?' What! let her slip
now that God has sent her to his arms on this strange high place in this
blessed vernal morning? The thought fills him with a sort of rage that,
in its turn, lends him a boldness he had never before known with her.

'Are you going to say "Good-bye" to me?' he asks, with a kind of scorn.
'Then you may save yourself the trouble; for I have not the remotest
intention of saying "Good-bye" to you.'

Prue has fled away again to the stairhead, and from it her little voice
now sounds in peremptory imploring:

'Peggy! Peggy! come quick! I want you to go down first. I shall not be
frightened if you will go down first. I want you to show me which way
you mean to go--backwards or forwards. Peggy! Peggy!'

And Peggy, obedient to the tones which, whether querulous or coaxing,
have constituted her law for seventeen years, turns to obey. She will
slip from him after all! The thought frenzies him. Before he knows what
he is doing he has laid his hand in determined detention on her wrist.

'You shall not go!' he says, with an authority which has come to him in
his extremity he does not know whence. 'She does not need you a
thousandth part as much as I do. Has not she her Ducane? She is greedy!
Must she have everything? Let her call!'

Peggy's course is arrested. She stands quite still, with her blue eyes,
bluer than he has ever seen them, looking straight at him, in a sort of
waking trance.

'But--she--wants me!' she falters.

'And do not I want you?' asks he, unconsciously emphasising his pressure
on her wrist. 'Dare you look me in the face, and tell me that I do not
want you? You are a truthful woman--too truthful by half, I thought, the
first time I met you. Look me in the eyes if you dare, and tell me that
you believe I do not want you.'

She does what he tells her--at least half of it. She looks him
penetratingly full in the eyes. If the least grain of falsity lurk in
either of his, that clear and solemn gaze of hers must seek it out.

'If you do want me,' she says slowly, and with a trembling lip, 'it has
come lately to you.'

'Lately!' echoes he, his voice growing lower as the tide of his passion
sweeps higher. 'What do you call lately? I wanted you the first moment I
saw you; was not that soon enough? How much sooner would you have had
it? The first moment I saw you--do you recollect it? when you were so
angry at being sent in to dinner with me that you would not be commonly
civil to me; that you turned your back upon me, and insulted me as well
as you knew how--I wanted you then. I have wanted you ever since--every
hour of every day and every night; and I want you--God knows whether I
want you--now!'

Prue's callings have ceased; the small laughters, exclamations, appeals,
have died into silence. Her and Freddy's pretty heads have both
disappeared. Talbot and Peggy are left the last upon the tower-top. Her
lip trembles.

'You did not want me last autumn, and you have not seen me since.'

'No, worse luck!' cries he passionately; 'but you need not throw that in
my teeth. You might pity me for it, I think. Eight whole months gone,
Peggy--wasted, lost out of our short lives! But how dare you stand there
and say that I have not wanted you, do not want you, autumn, winter,
summer, spring? You are confusing, perhaps, between yourself and me.
_You_ do not want _me_, that is likely enough. You could not even
pretend to have been giving me one poor thought when I asked you. You
would have been glad--I saw by your face that your kind heart would have
been glad--if you could have told me, with any semblance of truth, that
you had been thinking of me; but you had not. I was _miles_ away from
you.'

Her lip is trembling again, and her chest heaving. She has not had many
love-tales told her; not many more perhaps, or of much better quality,
than those with which Lady Betty had spitefully credited her. She has
let her eyes fall, because she feels them to be filling up with foolish
drops; but now lifts them again, and they look with their old
directness, though each has a tear in it, into his.

'Why did you go away?'

_Why did he go away?_ That is a question to which, in one sense, the
answer is easy enough. 'Because Lady Betty Harborough sent him.' In
another--the only one, unfortunately, in which he can employ it--it is
absolutely unanswerable.

'Why did you go away?' She has asked the question, and, with her eyes on
his, awaits the answer.

And he? He but now so fluent, with such a stream of eager words to pour
straight and hot from his heart into hers, he stands dumb before her.

She does not repeat the question; but she does what is far worse, she
moves away to the stairhead and disappears, as all the other votaries of
the ceremony, as Freddy and Prue have disappeared, down the ladder.

He follows her, baffled and miserable, gnashing his teeth. Is it
possible that the gyves he had thought to have cast off for ever are
here, manacling him again as soon as he tries to make one free step? Is
the old love to throttle him now with the same strangling clasp, dead,
that it had done living? Before God, no! Not if he can hinder it. She
has not waited for him at the tower-foot; but he overtakes her before
she has reached the High Street, and without asking her leave.

The crowd on the bridge has dispersed. The city clocks, with their
variously-toned voices, are striking six; to their daily toil the
workmen, with tools on back, are swinging along. To them there is
certainly nothing unfamiliar, probably nothing lovely, in the morning's
marvellous clean novelty, that novelty renewed each dawning, as if God
had said not once only but day by day, 'Lo, I make all things new!'

'You asked me a question just now,' says Talbot abruptly.

'Yes.'

'And I did not answer it; I could not. I cannot answer it now. As long
as you and I shall live, I can never answer it!'

He stops, pale and panting, and looks at her with a passionate anxiety.
O God! Is Betty's shadow to come between them still? Betty renouncing
and renounced; Betty gone, swept away, vanished. Is she still to thrust
herself between him and his new heaven? Still to be his bane, his evil
demon? Still to lay waste that life, five of whose prime years she has
already burnt and withered? If it be so, then verily and indeed his sin
has found him out.

In passionate anxiety he looks at his companion; but she is holding her
head low, and he cannot get a good view of her face.

'Why do you walk so fast?' he asks irritably, his eyes taking in the
rapidly diminishing space that lies before him. 'Is not the distance
short enough in all conscience without your lessening it? Walk slower.'

She slackens her pace; but still she does not speak.

'You asked me why I went away?' he continues almost in a whisper, and
with his heart beating like a steam-ram. 'Does that mean that it made
any difference to you? May I make it mean that it did? Stay--do not
speak--I will not let it mean anything else. If you say that it did not,
I will not believe you. I cannot afford to believe you!'

He has forbidden her to speak, and yet now he pauses, hanging in a
suspense that is almost ungovernable--for they have passed Queen's
classic front, are passing 'All Souls'--upon her slow-coming words.
There is a little stir upon her face; a tiny hovering smile.

'I was sorry that you went without your lavender!'

'I am coming back for it,' he cries passionately, the joy-tide sweeping
up over his heart to his lips, and almost drowning his words. 'Coming
back for it--for it and for all else that I left behind me!'

The smile spreads, red and wavering.

'You left nothing else; I sent all your books after you.'

'Yes,' he says reproachfully, 'you were very conscientious. It would
have been kinder to be a little dishonest. You might have kept back the
one that we had been reading out of. I had a faint hope that you might
have kept it back.'

'I did think of it,' she answers, under her breath.

'The mark is in it still!' he cries joyfully. 'Shall we take it up again
where we left off? Where shall we sit? Under the Judas-tree?'

Her flickering smile dies into gravity.

'You are getting on very fast,' she says tremulously. 'Are you sure that
it is not too fast?'

They have passed St. Mary's; noble porch and soaring spire lie behind
them.

'Is it worth while your coming,' she continues, with evident difficulty,
and with a quiver she cannot master in her low voice, 'when at any
moment you may be obliged to go away again?'

'Why should I be obliged to go away again?'

Her voice has sunk to a key that is almost inaudible.

'I am only judging of the future by the past.'

He groans. The past! Is he never to escape from the past? never to hear
the last of it? Is it always to dog him to his dying day?

'Are you sure?' she pursues, lifting--though, as he sees, with untold
pain--the searching honesty of her eyes to his, while a fierce red spot
burns on each of her cheeks, 'that you are not promising more than you
can perform when you talk of coming? Are you sure that--you--are
free--to come? You know--you were--not free to stay.'

His face has caught a reflection of the crimson dyeing hers, but his
look shows no sign of blenching.

'I _am_ free,' he answers slowly and emphatically. 'Why do you look as
if you did not believe me? Cannot you trust me?'

At his words a shadow passes over her face. Is not Freddy Ducane always
inviting her to trust him? She has grown to hate the phrase.

'I am not good at trusting people,' she says plaintively, with a slight
shiver. 'I do not like it.'

They have reached the door of the Mitre.

'Over already!' cries Talbot, in a voice of passionate revolt and
discontent; 'my own good hour gone before I had well laid hold of it?
Who could believe it? Then at least,' speaking very rapidly, 'say
something to me--something else--something better! Whether you trust me
or not--God knows why you should not--do not let me go away with that
for----'

'Peggy dear,' interrupts a soft and rather melancholy voice from an
upper window above the door--and yet not very much higher than they, so
low and unpretending is the old and famous inn in comparison with its
staring towering competitors--'we would not for worlds begin breakfast
without you; but I am afraid that Prue is growing rather faint.'



CHAPTER XXV


Whitsun is here. Again the tired workers are let loose. Again the great
cities pour out their grimy multitudes over the fair green country, upon
which, year by year, day by day almost, their sooty feet further and
further encroach. Among the multitudes there are, of course, a good many
who are not grimy. Cabinet ministers are, as a rule, not grimy--nor
fashionable beauties--nor famous lawyers; but yet they all volley out,
too, with the rest, to drink the country air, and smell the cowslips.
All over the country the churches are being pranked for Whit-Sunday. It
is that festival for which there is least need for devout souls to strip
their hothouses and conservatories. In each parish the meadows need only
be asked to give a few never-missed armfuls out of their perfumed
plenty, and the church is a bower. The brunt of the labour of decorating
her church, as of most other parish festivities, falls upon the
shoulders--happily vigorous ones--of Peggy Lambton. The Whitsuns,
Easters, Christmases, on which Mrs. Evans is not hovering on the verge
of a new baby or two, and consequently handicapped for standing poised
on ladders, are so few as not to be worth taking into consideration.
Prue is willing; but her flesh is weak, and she tires easily. With the
aid, therefore--an interchangeable term, as she sometimes thinks, for
hindrance--of half a dozen of the best among the young Evanses, Peggy
endures the toil, and reaps the glory alone. She has been standing most
of the day, and for the greater part of the time with her arms
uplifted, so that she is sufficiently weary; but as the work is not yet
done, and there is no one to take her place, she treats her own fatigue
with the contempt it deserves.

It is tolerably late in the afternoon, and Mrs. Evans has just looked
in. Being in her normal condition, she has at once sunk down upon a
seat. Mr. Evans has sauntered in after her. He has not much that is
beautiful in his life; and the sight of the garlanded church gives him a
sort of pale pleasure, something akin to that produced by the luscious
flow of his favourite poem. He could not stir a finger to produce the
effect himself; but he likes it when it is done for him.

'What a size these gardenias are!' says Mrs. Evans, fingering the
blossoms in a box of hothouse flowers reserved for the altar. 'From the
Hartleys of course? They are double as big as milady's. I wonder how her
gardener likes having all the prizes carried off from under his nose!
Dear me! what a thing money is! Burton, the butcher, told me the other
day that five and twenty prime joints go into that house every week,
beside soup-meat and poultry; and of course they have their own game and
rabbits. Five and twenty prime joints, and a yacht that they can go
round the world in! Not, I am sure, that I envy them _that_; for I am
such a wretched sailor.'

Peggy makes no answer. Perhaps her attention is sufficiently occupied by
the management of her long garland of cowslips, catchfly, and harebell;
perhaps she has already heard, though not from Mrs. Evans, more about
that world-girdling yacht than she cares to hear. She sighs, and her
sigh is taken up and echoed in a deeper key by the Vicar; though whether
his sigh is caused by regret at the sinful profuseness of a parishioner,
or by a reflection upon the inequality of human destiny, that sends five
and twenty prime joints into one man's kitchen, and sets a solitary leg
of mutton spinning on another man's spit, may be best decided by those
most acquainted with Mr. Evans's habitual turn of thought.

'It is a great disadvantage to a neighbourhood having a millionnaire in
it,' pursues Mrs. Evans, going on contentedly with her trickle of talk;
'it sends up the price of everything--even eggs. I was saying so just
now to Mrs. Bates at the Roupell Arms. I wanted to know whether she
could let me have a dozen fresh ones. My hens are all sitting; and you
would not believe the number of eggs we get through at the
Vicarage--egg-puddings, and so on. Oh, by the bye,' with a change to an
alerter key, 'from what she told me, I suppose that Lady Betty
Harborough is expected at the Manor.'

The garland, whose dexterous disposition has cost Peggy ten minutes'
labour, drops suddenly loose and wavering--a long rope of flowers--in
the air.

'Lady Betty Harborough!' she repeats slowly--'with milady away?--most
unlikely. Oh, now I see!' with a sudden dawn of relief breaking over her
face; 'now I understand how the report has arisen! The children are to
arrive to-day, and so it was supposed that she must be coming with
them--of course, of course!'

'No; it has nothing to say to the children,' rejoins the Vicar's wife
cheerfully; 'and I cannot say that I have heard in so many words that
she is coming. It was only' (looking cautiously down the aisle, and
lowering her voice)--'I suppose one ought not to talk scandal in a
church, but it really is such an open secret--that I concluded it must
be so, because a friend of hers is expected.'

'A friend of hers!' repeats Peggy slowly, the blood rushing to her cheek
and brow, as she stands poised in space, with the unfinished wreath
still dangling forgotten before her.

'Rather more than a friend, I am afraid,' returns Mrs. Evans, with a
significance by no means devoid of enjoyment. 'Dear me! I do not half
like talking of it here; but, after all, the truth is the truth. To the
Roupell Arms of all places, too! and there can be no mistake about it,
for I have just seen his portmanteau with "John Talbot, Esq.," in large
letters upon it; his man arrived in charge of it this afternoon, and he
is to follow by a later train. It really is too barefaced, is not it? I
could see that Mrs. Bates herself thought so though of course I did not
breathe a word to her.'

Peggy has put out a hand to steady herself on the ladder, since, for a
moment, church and heaped flower-baskets, guelder roses and lilac
branches, whirl round with her. His portmanteau come, and he coming! It
would be a pity then if to-day, of all days, she were to break her neck.

It is nearly three weeks since she had parted from him at the door of
the Mitre, in the middle of a sentence which Freddy Ducane never gave
him the chance to finish, or her to answer; and since then she has heard
neither tale nor tidings of him. Why should she? Of course his octopus
has him again. Poor fellow! no doubt from those hundred straggling
polypus arms it is harder than she, with her life ignorance, can
estimate to tear himself free. And yet he had said he was free; said
so--yes. But men's words and their actions are not apt to tally very
nicely; at least, the words and the actions of the only man with whom
she has any intimacy are not. 'They are all alike,' she has said to
herself, and so has gone heavily--a little more heavily perhaps for that
bootless, barren morning meeting on the tower-top--about her daily work.
And now he is here--as good as here, at least--for does not his herald
portmanteau make sure his approach?

'I wonder how he will like his quarters,' continues Mrs. Evans, with a
rather malicious laugh. 'The beds are clean, I will say that for Mrs.
Bates; but how a man accustomed to a French _chef_ will enjoy her chops
and rashers, is another question. She is very nervous about it herself,
good woman!'

Peggy laughs; a little low laugh.

'Of course Lady Betty will make a pretence of coming to see her
children,' pursues Mrs. Evans, warming with her theme; 'and indeed,
after the escape that boy had, I cannot think how she can ever bear him
out of her sight. And as milady and Freddy are both away, they will have
the park all to themselves to philander in. It really is too barefaced.'

'Too barefaced, is it?' repeats Peggy, softly smiling, and staring at a
great sheaf of sweet nancies that she has absently picked up.

'_Is it?_' echoes Mrs. Evans in astonishment; 'why, _is not it_? What
other motive could bring him to such a dull village as this?'

'What indeed?' replies Peggy with emphasis, while the thought crosses
her mind that she ought to feel mortified at its evidently never having
come within the range of the Vicaress's possibilities that any one could
visit a dull village in search of her. 'It cannot surprise her more than
it does me,' she says to herself.

'One can only hope that he will be too uncomfortable to stay long,' says
Mrs. Evans, slowly rising, and preparing to depart. 'Well, I wish I
could help you' (this is a formula that recurs as often as do the
festivals of the Church); 'but you are getting on capitally. Do you
think that the font is quite as pretty as it was last year? I am so glad
I sent the children to help you; do not overtire yourself.'

She strolls away, with the contented feeling of having done her part in
the church decoration; but it is a couple of hours later before Peggy
follows her example. It is nearly eight o'clock when, with stiff arms
and tired legs, she enters the hall--embowered in spring blossoms, like
the church she has just left--of the Red House. As she comes in Prue
springs to meet her.

'Oh, Peggy, Peggy! have you heard?'

The elder sister's heart leaps. Prue understands. Prue is glad--gladder
than she had had any conception that she would have been. Kind little
Prue!

'Yes,' she falters, grateful surprised tears at her sister's sympathy
rushing to her eyes; 'yes, I have heard. Oh, Prue, how nice of you to be
glad!'

'Nice of me to be glad!' repeats Prue in a tone of profound wonderment,
her eyes growing round. 'Why is it nice of me? It would be very odd of
me if I were not glad; but I do not see anything _nice_ about it. How
did you hear? Has milady come back? Have you seen any one from the Big
House? Why, I only got the letter by the second post.'

'The letter?' repeats Peggy stupidly; 'what letter?'

'_What letter?_ why, _his_ letter of course, telling me that he is not
going to stay up for Commemoration after all: he says that without me
the balls would be Dead Sea apples to him, so he will be home a week
sooner; and the Hartleys are going, and they will not find him there
after all. But oh, Peggy! how could you have heard? I do not believe
that you did. Why did you say you had?'

The sparkle, but now as bright in Peggy's eyes as in her junior's, dies
out; a cold ripple of disappointment rises, and flows over her heart.
Prue was not glad for her, after all. It was her own preoccupation that
had credited her sister with a knowledge and an interest of which she is
quite innocent.

'You shall tell me about it at dinner,' she answers in an altered voice,
turning away.

And at dinner Prue does tell her all about it. Too excited to eat, she
chatters through their simple repast about the beauty of Freddy's
renunciation; his thoughtfulness for others; the irreparable loss that
Commemoration will sustain by his absence; the bitter disappointment of
Miss Hartley.

Into the middle of her talk, near the close of their short dinner, comes
the sound of a railway whistle, announcing the arrival of one of the few
stopping trains--in this case the last train of all that touches at
their little station. Peggy involuntarily puts up her hand, and cries:
'Hush!'

'The wind must be changed,' she says, reddening at the consciousness of
her own motive, though she is safe indeed from having it divined, 'one
hears the train so plainly; it is late to-night!'

'What of that?' cries Prue gaily; 'are you expecting a friend by it? Ah,
me! how I wish that _I_ was! He came by that train last time.'

And so Peggy keeps her tidings to herself. Perhaps if she had had some
one to impart them to they would not have made her so restless. As it
is, she cannot settle to any occupation. The wheels that will roll him
from the station to his inn must pass her door; and through all the
trickle of Prue's talk her ear is pricked to catch them. But it is
market night, and from the many vehicles noisily passing by, her hearing
is incapable of disentangling his. He must have reached the Roupell Arms
by now. Is Mrs. Bates setting a very unappetising dinner before him, so
unappetising that it will, in accordance with Mrs. Evans's pious
aspiration, drive him prematurely away?

'How fidgety you are!' cries Prue, surprised at her sister's unusual
restlessness. 'I should have thought that you would have been thankful
to sit down, after being on your legs all day.'

'So should I,' replies Peggy, again blushing, and sitting down; 'and I
have been upon them since ten o'clock in the morning, have not I?'

'It is quite disgraceful the way in which the Evanses put everything
upon you!' cries Prue indignantly; 'though indeed'--with an accent of
remorse not very common to her--'I do not think that they are much worse
than the rest of us. Why does everybody put everything upon you, Peggy?
You do everything for everybody, and nobody ever does anything for you.'

Peggy's eyes brim up at this unexpected recognition of her services by
the seventeen-years sovereign of them. Are all good things to come to
her together?



CHAPTER XXVI


It is Whit-Sunday. The morning service is over. The parish has had an
opportunity of admiring Peggy's nosegays, and of having their nostrils
comforted by the scent of her lilac branches and sweet nancies, and of
the Hartleys' giant gardenias. Among them a stranger has knelt.
Strangers are not very apt to be allured to Roupell Church by the fame
of Mr. Evans's sermons; and, indeed, to-day he has preached the same
sermon as he did last Whit-Sunday. It would have passed among his flock
for a new one, had it not been for an unusual phrase which they remember
and recognise. But since they recognise it with pleasure, as an old
friend, there is no harm done.

'Did you see that he was in church?' cries Mrs. Evans, hurrying
breathlessly out after Peggy, and joining her before she has reached the
lych-gate. 'Did you ever hear of anything so barefaced? It never
occurred to me that he would come to church. Oh, here are the children!
now we shall learn whether _she_ has arrived too.'

As she speaks the little Harboroughs, who apparently have hitherto been
kept at bay by their nurses, are seen--having broken away from them--to
be elbowing their vigorous small way through the press of country
people, who smilingly make way for them. In another second, both, with
entire disregard of the Vicaress's blandishments, have flung themselves
upon Peggy.

'Oh, Miss Lambton, we came last night! How is the fox? I saw Alfred in
church. What a lot of freckles he has got! May not I come and see Mink
and the kittens? May Franky come too?' asks Lily volubly.

'Of course he may,' replies Peggy kindly, warmly returning the little
boy's ardent embrace. 'Why, Franky dear, I have never seen you since you
were so ill!--you were very ill, were not you?'

'The doctor thought he was going to die,' answers Lily, officiously
replying for her brother before he can set his slower tongue in motion;
'and mammy never took off her clothes for three nights, and father
cried; and if Franky had died, I should have had no little brother!' She
makes this last statement in a rather triumphant tone, as a fact
redounding a good deal to her own credit. 'Why, there is John Talbot!'
cries she. 'Franky wanted to go to him in church. Did you ever hear of
anything so silly? Now, Franky, who will get to him first?'

But as she dishonestly sets off before poor Franky has had time to
withdraw his sturdy body and fat legs out of Peggy's embrace, there is
not much doubt as to the answer to her question. However, though Franky
is the last to arrive, and arrives weeping at his sister's injustice,
and crying, 'You nasty thing, you did not start fair!' yet he has, by
much, the warmer welcome.

Is not one welcomed back from the grave's brink deserving of a closer
clasp, of tenderer kisses, than one who has only returned from his daily
walk? Franky has quite forgotten--if, indeed, he ever, save through
Lily's information, knew--how nearly his curly head had been laid in the
dust. But Talbot cannot forget it.

'I wish he would not hug those children,' says Mrs. Evans, _sotto voce_;
'it gives me quite a turn. Well, Fanny,' as one of her own offspring
plucks her by the sleeve, 'what is it now? Mr. Allnutt wants to speak to
me? Dear me! some one is always wanting to speak to me!'

She turns aside reluctantly to interview her parishioner, and Peggy goes
on alone. But it can hardly be said to be _tête-à-tête_, or without a
chaperone, that she puts her hand in Talbot's under the lime-leaves,
young and juicy, stirring in the brisk spring wind.

'Oh, Miss Lambton,' cries Lily, 'may not John Talbot come to the Red
House too?'

As she speaks the face of the object of her kind patronage falls
perceptibly.

'Are you coming to the Red House?' he asks, with a slight accent of
disappointment; 'what, both of you?--now?'

'Miss Lambton says we way,' rejoins she, happily innocent of the motive
that had prompted her friend's inquiry; 'and we may stay to luncheon,
and all afternoon, may not we?'

Peggy laughs.

'We will see about that.'

'And John Talbot may come too?' urges Miss Harborough pertinaciously,
making play with her eyelashes; 'he would like to come.'

'And stay to luncheon, and all afternoon?' adds Talbot, emphasising his
apparently playful suggestion by a long pressure of the hand he has
forgotten to drop.

He has to drop it soon, however; for it is claimed by Franky, as well as
one of his own. Franky insists upon walking between his two friends;
where, by dragging well at their arms, he is enabled to execute many
playful somersaults, and, from under the ægis of their protection, to
make faces at his sister; who, having discovered that she can thereby
better watch their countenances, is backing before them.

Under these circumstances, conversation between the elders is not easy,
nor is there much of it. But the birds in the thickets they pass make
talk for them; and the leaves fresh escaped from their sheaths, and to
whom the wind is a new playfellow, rustle their pleasure in his gambols
to them, as they walk along beneath; and across the barrier of the
little rosy child their hearts cry out to each other. They would be in
heaven; but that Lily, by a judicious pull of the skirts, brings them
down to earth again.

'Why do you never come to Harborough now?' inquires she, fixing Talbot
with the unescapable vigilance of her large child-eyes; 'you used to be
always coming. Would not you like to come? I will get mammy to ask you.'

There is a moment of silence. For a second even the kind finches seem
cruelly still. Then,

'What are you holding my hand so tight for?' asks Franky plaintively.
'Why have you begun to squeeze it so? You hurt me!'

'I asked mammy the other day,' pursues Miss Harborough, with all her
species' terrible tenacity of an idea once grasped, 'why you never came
to see us now, and she began to cry; and when I asked her what she was
crying for, she boxed my ears: she never boxes Franky's ears!'

This remark is followed by another silence. Peggy is apparently looking
straight before her; but yet out of the tail of her eye she manages to
see that Talbot is quite beyond speech. She must come to the rescue.

'I have no doubt that you richly deserved it,' says she in a voice that,
despite her best efforts, is not steady. 'Why? Oh, I do not know why!
because you did. There! run--run away like a good child, and open the
gate for us.'

Lily complies, and Franky races after her.

Talbot draws a long breath. For a few moments, at all events, he will
have a respite from that terrible catechism. But from the effects of it
he cannot at once sufficiently recover to pass into easy speech.
Perhaps, too, the sight of the little Red House--the house that has been
built into so many of his dreams--helps to make him momentarily dumb.

It is a differently clad Red House from what it was when last he looked
upon it. The Virginia creeper and the clematis have laid aside their
purple and crimson ardours; and in their place a wistaria is hanging the
pale droop of its long clusters. Lilacs push up their blossoms against
its casements. The ineffable sappy green of spring everywhere sets and
embowers it.

He gives another sigh, a long, low sigh of happiness this time, and
turning, wordless at first, clasps her two soft hands--hands no longer
claimed by any little dimpled imperative fingers--in his.

She leaves them peaceably to him; but the variations of her colour from
red to white, and back from white to splendid red, sufficiently tell him
that though she is nearly twenty-three years old, to her a long lover's
look, a close lover's clasp, are unfamiliar things.

His heart bounds at the thought; but at the same moment is pierced by an
arrow of pain. On what an inequality are they meeting! It is all new to
her; while to him! Oh that he had but God's great gift of erasure! that
he could sponge out from his life those other looks and clasps! that he
could bring to her such eyes, such a heart, such a hand as she is
bringing him!

How, save through his own giving to her, could Lily Harborough have had
the power to poison these, his fairest moments?

'Will they be here all afternoon?' he asks under his breath.

'I think it is more than probable,' she answers in the same key, while
right under his eye, over her cheeks, the lovely carnations and lilies
are chasing and dispossessing each other.

It is part of his punishment, perhaps, that across his mind, as he
looks, there flashes a recollection of Betty's paint; a comparison that
he hates, and that yet he cannot avoid, between that colour and this.
Which is brightest?

'Could not you send them away?'

'Lily would not go,' replies Peggy, with a slight shrug. 'And as for
him, poor little fellow, I cannot bear to be unkind to him, when he is
only just out of the jaws of death. Did you know that he had been at
death's door?'

'Yes, I knew,' he answers briefly.

At this reply there comes, or at least it seems to him that there comes,
a tiny cloud over the clear blue heaven of her eye; and seeing it, he
hastens on:

'Is there no place where we can escape from them--where we can be by
ourselves? Oh, Peggy, Peggy! do you think that I came down from London
to talk to Lily Harborough?'

The cloud stirs a little, but does not altogether remove.

'Did you know that they were here?'

'I! of course not! How should I?'

A passer-by along the road, throwing in a casual glance between the bars
of the gate, gives her a pretext for sliding her hands out of his. It
strikes him that she is over-ready to avail herself of it.

'Do they ever go to church in the afternoon?' he asks, catching at this
last straw.

A faint ripple of amusement steals over her lips.

'Never.'

She lifts the latch of the door as she speaks, and through the aperture
the sun pours in, making a royal road into the cool and shaded interior,
where he can catch a glimpse of the birds setting his own ladder aswing;
of the Kabyle-pots full of country posies; of the familiar worn
furniture he had grown last year to think so beautiful. He follows her
with alacrity. It is morally impossible that the children can be
inside. He is standing once again on the old Turkey carpet. Here is her
sandal-wood workbox, among whose reels he has seen Franky ravaging. Here
is the chair whose leg he had helped to mend. Here is the cottage
eight-day clock, with the good-humoured moon-face, which they had all
agreed to have a look of milady peeping over its dial-plate. Here is
Mink, civil and smirking. Here is--herself!

'It is like coming home,' he says softly.

As he speaks a slight noise behind him makes him turn his head. Can it
be Lily again? Lily, with more dreadful questions, more terrible
invitations to draw out of her armoury of torments? But no! it is not
Lily; it is only Prue. Prue, often a little out of sorts, a little sorry
for herself, rising with the inevitable poetry-book in her hand, and
with a look full of astonishment, from her oak settle by the fireside.
He had forgotten Prue's existence.

'Mr. Talbot!' cries she; 'is it possible? I heard a man's voice; I could
not imagine whose it could be. Are you staying at the Manor? Is milady
back? Is there any one else there? A party?'

He laughs confusedly. 'I have no connection with milady.'

'Are you at the Hartleys' then?' (a greatly increased eagerness); 'do
you know the Hartleys?'

'I have not that honour.'

'At the Evanses'? No! impossible! I cannot imagine any one in their
right mind staying at the Evanses'.'

'I do not know whether I am in my right mind, but I am not at the
Evanses'.'

'Where _can_ you be then?'

'I am at the Roupell Arms.'

'The little inn in the village? Not really?'

He makes an affirmative sign. Surely, if the girl is not a perfect fool,
she will understand, she will efface herself, she will take herself
off, and leave them to themselves, as Peggy has so often left her and
her Freddy to themselves. But to a person whose whole being is
habitually permeated by one idea, other ideas are slow in penetrating.
Prue has not the least intention of effacing herself. Her
curiosity--always, save on one theme, a languid emotion--satisfied, she
prepares to replace herself on her settle.

'The Roupell Arms!' repeats she; 'what a funny idea! I never heard of
any one staying at the Roupell Arms; I am afraid you will be very
uncomfortable. Peggy, would you mind covering me again with this shawl?
I do not know what any one else feels, but I feel chilly.'

It is clear that to no member of her household has it ever occurred to
efface herself for Peggy. Presently the luncheon-bell rings, and the
children come bouncing in, delighted at the prospect of dining without
pinafores, and the consequent opportunity for beslobbering their best
clothes. Talbot's chance of a _tête-à-tête_ seems to be retreating into
a distance to which his eye cannot follow it. But at least his eye can
follow her, as she tries to coax Prue's sickly palate, as she cuts up
Franky's dinner. Into this last occupation Lily manages to introduce a
slight element of awkwardness.

'When I was little John Talbot used to cut up my dinner sometimes,' says
she narratively--'sometimes he cut it up, and sometimes mammy did; but
before I was as old as Franky I could cut it myself.'

'You are a very wonderful little girl,' says Talbot angrily, losing his
temper at the consciousness that he is reddening, 'we all know that; but
suppose that we do not hear any more about you just at present.'

After luncheon they are all dragged out by the children to see the
wonders of the stable-yard. It is true that the hayloft kittens have, to
Franky's surprise, expanded into sad and sober cats; but this not wholly
unexpected metamorphosis has not found Alfred unprepared. He has
brought instead, out of his treasure, ferrets new and old; and to see
these interesting animals lift their pale noses and hands, and their red
topaz eyes out of their box, Talbot has again indefinitely to defer the
possession of his love's sole company. Franky is warmly clasping his
hand, and Lily is hanging heavily on Margaret's arm.

'How red Alfred's ears are!' says she, in a stage aside; 'and how they
stick out!'

Alfred becomes purple.

'Lily,' cries Peggy reprovingly, 'how can you be so rude? You ought
never to make personal remarks.'

Lily tosses her head and giggles, and Franky giggles too, simply because
he has a faint delighted sense that he ought not. There is an atmosphere
of rising naughtiness about them both. Oh that they would but commit
some sin big enough to justify their being sent to bed, or packed off
home in charge of Sarah! But no. They are wily enough to keep on the
hither side of any great iniquity. They are just naughty enough to
prevent attention from being ever for more than a moment withdrawn from
them; but they avoid incurring any guilt so great as to call down
special vengeance on their heads.

Prue has long ago sauntered back to the settle and her rhyme-book. But
for these imps he would have Peggy all to himself. He has several times
begun eager speeches to her, which have met with interruptions such as
these: 'Do you think that they can have fallen into the swill-tub?'
'What _can_ they be doing to the parrot to make him swear so
dreadfully?' 'They will pull out poor Minky's tail!'

By the end of an hour, Talbot, genuine child-lover as he is, is
beginning to feel leniently towards Herod the Great. However, the French
proverb says that everything comes to him who knows how to wait. It may
be true, though some have to carry their waiting into the dark grave
with them. Talbot has not to carry his quite so far. Just in time to
save him from such an outrage to chivalry as would be implied by boxing
Miss Harborough's ears, appear upon the scene, though late, yet better
than never--gods out of the machine--the Harborough nurses. They sweep
off both culprits, despite their earnest and sincerely believed-in
asseverations that Miss Lambton wants them to stay all day. Franky,
indeed, is borne away dissolved in bitter tears at being torn from the
friends who, as he honestly thinks, have been so thoroughly enjoying his
society. Franky's naughtiness is of a wholly imitative character; but
his little warm heart is his own.

Lily, on the other hand, trips away with her head up, having poured one
last stage whisper into Peggy's ear: 'Would it be a personal remark if I
were to tell John Talbot that I think him handsome?'

The object of this flattering inquiry watches the maker of it with a
poignant anxiety, until she, her brother, and her attendants have turned
the corner, and are really and entirely out of sight. Then he heaves a
sigh of profound relief.

'At last!' he says, sweeping a look round the horizon.

It is quite clear. There is not a living soul in sight. Being Sunday,
not even Jacob. Everything comes to him who knows how to wait. He has
known how to wait, and now his moment has come.

'Let us sit under the Judas-tree,' he says, and she acquiescing
passively, they turn their steps thither.

But before they have gone three yards, there is a light foot on the turf
behind them. Prue has fled across the sward from the open window-door,
and is whispering something in Peggy's ear. Almost before he has had
time to feel aghast at this new interruption, she has fled back again.
He looks after her with an irritated inquiry, born of his long
tantalisation.

'Well, what is it now?' he asks angrily; 'anything fresh that you are to
do or leave undone?'

Peggy reddens.

'It was only that she asked us not to sit under the Judas-tree; she
cannot bear any one to sit there--any one else.'

'Any one else!' he repeats, his brief and surface wrath dying away into
a smile of passionate happiness; 'any other lovers, you mean. You may
blink the _word_, Peggy; but you cannot blink the _thing_: we _are_
lovers.'

Peggy does not answer. She has sat down on a seat, above which a great
old thorn is just breaking into a foam of blossom. She has taken up this
position in all unconsciousness of the advantages it presents, but of
which Talbot's eager eye has instant cognisance. The thorn, now thick
with flowers, effectually masks all sitters on that seat from the view
of any eyes darted at them from the house, the only point whence
observation need be dreaded; for what lover minds the robin's round
bright eye, or the chaffinch's surveillance?

'We _are_ lovers!' he repeats, sitting down resolutely beside her.

The thorn, leaning as old trees will, projects so far beyond their heads
as to make a natural arbour for them, and tosses down now and again
whiffs of its pungent perfume, which some strange persons affect to
dislike.

'Are we?' she says, the words travelling softly out on a long sigh. 'You
will think me very stupid'--the red rose of Lancaster for the moment
chasing her pale sister of York out of her face--'but, old as I
am--twenty-three next birthday--I do not know what love--that kind of
love--feels like. I--I--have never had any opportunity of knowing.'

He stares at her in an enraptured astonishment. For such a confession as
this, his apprenticeship to Betty has certainly not prepared him. Can
it be conceivable that he is the first--the very first--to reap the
flowers of this fairest field?

'Do you mean to say,' he inquires, almost with incredulity, 'that you
have never given back one small grain of love to any one of the many men
who must have showered it upon you?'

'But they have not,' returns she, a slight humorous smile pushing its
way through her blushes. 'You are determined that I have had so many
lovers, and I have had scarcely any. Two or three people have wanted to
marry me--not many. Oh, not at all many! You could count them on one
hand, with several fingers to spare; and I do not think that they loved
me. They did not give me that impression. They thought I should be a
useful wife, strong and active; but love--love--love,' repeating the
word dreamily--'no,' shaking her head. 'There are not many women of
twenty-three who can say so, I suppose; and I see that you have a
difficulty in believing me; but love has never come near me.'

'And are you resolved that it never shall?' he asks, under his breath.

She pauses a moment before answering, while her eyes escape from the
tyranny of his, and fix themselves on a row of tulips, rearing their
striped and colour-splashed cups upon their strong, straight stalks, in
the border before her. With the potent light smiting through them, they
look as if they were cut out of some hard precious stone--sardonyx, or
beryl, or bdellium--goblets to be filled with fairy wine at the feast of
some mage-king.

'I do not know,' she says, with her lips trembling; 'I am not sure. When
I see Prue--when I know that it has brought all the pain she has
suffered--and she has suffered a good deal--more than you would think,
to look at her, that she could bear--into her life--my one prayer is to
keep clear of it; and yet--and yet'--with a yearning in her voice--'one
would not like to die having quite missed it. Oh, tell me'--with a
change in her tone to one of compelling entreaty, bringing back the eyes
but now so sedulously averted from him, and plunging them into his under
the shade of the hawthorn bough--'were you really speaking truth when
you said you had come down from London only to see me? Are you quite
sure--quite--that that was your real motive?'

'Quite.'

'Nobody would believe it,' she says, with a sort of wonder in her voice;
'nobody thinks so. They all'--faltering a little--'they all think
something quite different.'

'What does it matter what they think?' he cries hotly, the colour which
unluckily is equally the livery of brazen guilt and oppressed innocence
again mantling his face. 'What have we to do with their blatant
suppositions? Are you going to let _them_ come between us?'

'You will think me very suspicious,' she says tremulously--'very hard to
be convinced of what most women would find it easy enough to
believe--but--but--I care for very few people,' she goes on, beginning a
fresh sentence without finishing the former one; 'but when I do care, I
care very badly. Do not be angry with me if I say that I have a sort of
dread of caring very badly about you.' If he had had his will, the
conclusion of that sentence would have found her in his arms; but she
holds herself gently aloof. 'If I once let myself love you,' she says,
the tears stealing afresh into her eyes, 'I know that I could never
unlove you again--never while I lived, try as I might; and if afterwards
I found out----'

'Found out what?' breathlessly.

'You know,' she goes on, trying to speak firmly--'I am sure you must
know--that when first I saw you, I had heard nothing but what was bad of
you. That was my only excuse for the way in which I behaved to you. I
had heard things about you--no; do not be afraid,' a writhing motion on
his part conveying to her what her words are making him suffer. 'I am
not going to ask you whether they were true. I have no business with
your past; but what I _must_ ask you--what I shall never have any peace
until I _have_ asked you,' her agitation deepening--'is whether if
people said them now they would still be true?'

There is a moment's stillness before he answers--a moment long enough
for the hawthorn's perfume to be for ever after wedded in her memory to
that pregnant pause. It is almost in a whisper that she has put her
question, and it is quite in a whisper that his answer comes:

'If they would be true, should I be here now, Peggy?'

She heaves a deep, long sigh, as one off whose heart a great stone's
weight had rolled; and the over-brimming drops roll soft and hot over
her cheeks.

'And will they never be true again?' she asks, still under her breath;
'are you sure--quite sure of it? I will believe you if you tell me so.
Oh, I _want_ to believe you! Dog with a bad name as you are,' breaking
into an unsteady laugh--'angry as I was at being sent in to dinner with
you--I _want_ to believe you.'

The south wind brings a jangle of far church bells to their ears;
outside their arbour a starling sits on a tree with its nose in the air,
saying odd, short, harsh things; and upon this homely music the souls of
Talbot and Peggy on Whit-Sunday float together into love's heaven.



CHAPTER XXVII

    'We'll lose ourselves in Venus' Groves of Mirtle,
     When every little bird shall be a Cupid,
     And sing of Love and Youth; each wind that blows
     And curls the velvet leaves shall breathe Delights,
     The wanton springs shall call us to their Banks,
     And on the perfum'd Flowers we'll feast our Senses;
     Yet we'll walk by, untainted of their Pleasures,
     And, as they were pure Temples, we'll talk in them.'


The shadows have put on their evening length. Even Minky, as he stands
with his little face pushed through the bars of his gate, barking at the
servants as they return from church--a mere civility on his part, an
asking them, as it were, how they enjoyed the sermon--boasts one that
would not disgrace a greyhound or a giraffe.

'Are you there, Prue?' softly asks a voice, coming out of the darkening
green world outside; coming with an atmosphere of freshness, of dew, of
hawthorn, into the little hall, and peering toward the fireside-settle,
which, both from the waning light and its own position, hints but dimly
that it has an occupant. 'Are you asleep?'

'I do not know,' replies a disconsolate small treble. 'I tried to go to
sleep, to get over some of the time. Oh dear, what a long Sunday it has
been! Is he gone?' struggling up into a sitting posture out of her
enveloping shawls.

'Yes.'

'And you did not sit under our tree?'

'No.'

'How laconic you are!' cries Prue fretfully; 'and I have not exchanged
words with a creature since luncheon. Do come here; turn your face to
the light. What have you and Mr. Talbot been talking of for the last
four hours? John Talbot, as those horrid children call him. I think it
is so impertinent of them; but I suppose their mother taught them.'

A slight contraction passes over the radiant, dewy face, so docilely
turned towards the western shining.

'Peggy!' cries the younger girl in an altered tone, forgetting her
invalidhood, and springing off the settle; 'how odd you look! You do not
mean to say--is it possible? You do not suppose that I do not see--that
you can hide anything from me!'

'There is nothing that I want to hide,' replies Peggy with dignity,
though the blood careers under the pure skin to cheek, and brow, and
lily throat; then, with a sudden change of tone to utmost tender
deprecation, 'Oh, Prue, you do not mind? You are not vexed? It will not
make any difference to you!'

Prue is silent.

'It will make no difference to you,' repeats Peggy, rather faltering at
the total dumbness in which her tidings are received. 'Of course you
will go on living with me just as you have always done.'

For all answer, Prue bursts into a passion of tears.

'Oh, do not say so!' she cries vehemently. 'You talk as if I never were
going to have a home of my own! Oh, it would be too cruel, too cruel!'

Her sobs arrest her utterance. She has collapsed upon the settle, and
sits there a disconsolate heap, with its hands over its face. Peggy
stands beside her; a sudden coldness slackening the pulsations of her
leaping heart.

'You will not care any longer about him and me,' pursues Prue
weepingly. 'You will have your own affairs to think of. Oh, I never
thought that I should have to give up _you_. It was the last thing that
ever would have entered my head. Whatever happened, I always counted
upon having _you_ to fall back upon!'

The dusk is deepening. Peggy still stands motionless and rigid.

'I know that I am not taking it well,' pursues Prue a minute later,
dropping the fingers wetted with her trickling tears, and wiping her
eyes; while her breath still comes unevenly, interrupted by sobs. 'I
know that I ought to pretend to be glad; but it is so sudden, such a
surprise--he is such a stranger!'

The cold hand at Peggy's heart seems to intensify its chill. Is there
not some truth in her sister's words? Is not he indeed a stranger? Has
not she been too hasty in snatching at the great boon of love that has
been suddenly held out to her--she, whose life has not hitherto been
furnished with over-much of love's sweetness?

'I know that you must think me very selfish,' continues the younger
girl, still with that running commentary of sobs. 'I _am_ selfish,
though he says that I am not--that he never knew any one who had such an
instinct of self-abnegation; but then he always sees the best side of
people. Yes, I _am_ selfish; but I will try to be glad by and by--only,'
with a redoublement of weeping, 'do not expect it of me to-night.'

And, with this not excessive measure of congratulation, poor Peggy has
to be content, on the night of her betrothal. She goes to bed with the
cold hand still at her heart; but in the morning it has gone. Who can
have a cold hand still at her heart when she wakes at early morning at
lilac-tide, to find a little round wren, with tiny tail set on perfectly
upright, singing to her from a swaying bough outside her casement, with
a voice big enough for an ostrich, and to know that a lover is only
waiting for the sun to be well above the meadows to lift the latch of
her garden-gate.

Before the dew is off the grass they have met. It is presumable that
familiarity with her new position will come in time to Peggy; but for
the present she cannot get over the extraordinariness of being--instead
of anxiously watching for some one else's tardy lover--going to meet her
own. And when they have met and greeted, the incredulity, instead of
lessening, deepens. Is it conceivable that it can be _her_ whom any one
is so extravagantly glad to see? All through the day--all through
several after-days--the misty feeling lingers that there must be some
mistake; that it must be some one else; that it cannot be the workaday
Peggy, whom she has always known, who is being thus unbelievably set on
high and done obeisance to.

'Have you told Prue?' asks Talbot, when he has enough got over the
ecstasy of that new morning meeting, to speak connectedly.

'Yes.'

'And what did she say?'

Margaret hesitates a moment.

'She--she was very much upset.'

'Upset!' repeats Talbot, his tone evidencing the revulsion of feeling of
one who had imagined that all Creation must be rejoicing with him. 'What
was there in it to upset her?'

'She said it was such a surprise; she was not at all prepared for it. In
that,' blushing, 'she was like me.'

He is silent. It is a mere speck in his heaven; but he would have liked
Prue to have been glad too.

'She said that you are such a stranger,' continues Peggy, looking
half-shyly up at him, with a sort of light veil of trouble over her
limpid eyes. 'When I come to think of it, so you are; if it were not,'
laughing a little, 'that I am always hearing the children call you by
it, I should not even know what your Christian name was.'

'A stranger!' repeats Talbot, in a rather dashed voice.

'Never mind; you will not be a stranger long,' returns Peggy, laughing.
'She will soon grow used to you; and so' (again with that flitting
blush)--'and so shall I. You must tell me all about yourself,' she goes
on, a few moments later, when, in order to escape from the aggressive
din that Jacob is making with the mowing-machine, as if to assert his
exclusive right to that engine, they have passed beyond the garden
bounds into the green sea of the adjoining park. 'You must begin at the
very beginning; you must tell me _all_.'

Is it his fancy that she lays a slight but perceptible emphasis on that
concluding word, which insists on the entirety of his confession?
Whether it be so, or that the stress exists only in his own imagination,
he winces. They have sat down under a horse-chestnut tree, whose
hundreds of blossom-pyramids point like altar tapers to the fleckless
sky; at their feet the bracken, so tardy to come, so in haste to go, is
beginning to spring and straighten its creases. Far as the eye can
reach, the park's green dips and rises are flushed with the rose and
cream of flowering thorn-bushes.

'Will you?' with a soft persistency.

'Of course I will,' replies Talbot; 'only,' with a laugh that does not
ring quite naturally, 'you do not know what you are bringing upon
yourself. Well, where am I to begin? At the very beginning?'

'At the very beginning,' repeats she, with a sigh of satisfaction,
settling herself more comfortably with her back against the tree-trunk
to listen. 'Tell me where you were born, and,' laughing, 'what sort of a
baby you were.'

And so he begins at the very beginning; and for a while goes on glibly
enough.

There are worse occupations for a summer's morning than to sit on juicy
May grass, with the woman you love beside you; and to read in the
variations of her rapt blue eyes her divine compassion for you. For the
you, the innocent distant you of six, who had the whooping-cough so
badly; her elate pride in the scarcely less distant you of sixteen,
carrying home your school-prizes to your mother; her tearful sympathy
with the nearer you--the you who still ache at the memory of the loss
you sustained when full manhood had given you your utmost capacity for
feeling it. Up to the date of his sister's death he goes on swimmingly;
but with that date there coincides, or almost coincides, another. It was
during the physical collapse that followed that crushing blow that
Betty, with her basket of red roses, had first come tripping into his
life. He stops abruptly.

'Well?' she says expectantly, looking towards him, and wiping the
sympathetic tears from her soft eyes.

'Well!' he repeats, with an uneasy laugh. 'Have not I dosed you with
myself enough for one morning? I--I think that is about all.'

'But that was more than five--nearly six years ago,' objects she.

'Nearly six years ago,' he echoes, in a tone of almost astonishment; 'so
it was. But--but, as I need not tell you, the importance of time is not
measured by its length; there are moments that bring an empire, and
there are years that bring nothing, or less than nothing.'

'They cannot have brought _nothing_,' replies she, her luminous eyes, in
whose pupils he can see himself mirrored in little, still interrogating
his; 'they must have brought _something_, good or bad; they must have
brought something.'

'You know that there has been no change of Ministry since then,' he goes
on, speaking rather fast, and wincing under the steadiness of her look.
'I have been ----'s secretary ever since--a mere machine, a scribbling
machine; and you know that machines have no history.'

She is silent, and her eyes leave his face, as if it were useless any
longer to explore it. She presses him no further. It would be both
ungenerous and bootless to urge him to a confession which he would never
make, and in the effort to evade which he would writhe, as he is doing
now. Her breast heaves in a long slow sigh. There is nothing for it. She
must submit to the fact of the existence for ever, for as long as her
own and his being last, of that five years' abyss between them; an abyss
which, though she may skirt it round, or lightly overskim it, will none
the less ever, _ever_ be there.

There is one subject that, in their moments of closest confidence, must
ever be tabooed to them; one tract of time across which, indeed, they
may stretch their hands, but which their feet can never together tread;
one five years out of the life of him who should be wholly hers, locked
away from her to all eternity. Her hand has fallen absently to fondling
Minky's poor little gray head, no bigger than a rabbit's. Minky, who has
followed them to their love-retreat, and has now come simperingly to
offer them his little cut-and-dried remarks upon the fine day.

Talbot's eye jealously follows that long hand in its stroking movement.
He would like to take it, and lay its palm across his hot lips. Why
should not he? It is his. But that five years' gulf prevents him. A
little milky blossom with its tiny stain of red, wind-loosened, has
floated down from the horse-chestnut tree, and now rests upon her hair.
He would like to brush it off with a kiss. Why should not he? Whose but
his is now all that blonde hair? But again the gulf stretches between
them.

The sun, steadily soaring zenithwards, sends a warm dart through their
tree, which, thick-roofed as it is, is not proof against the vigour of
his May strength. The deer gather for shade under the young-leaved oaks.
The whole earth simmers in the vivifying heat, and yet they both lightly
shiver. Upon Talbot there lies a horrible fancy, as of Betty sitting
between them. It seems to him as though, if he stretched out his arm to
enfold his new love, it would instead enwrap his old one. Is there no
spell by which he can exorcise this persistent vision? Will it always be
between them? He is still putting this bitter question to himself, when
Peggy speaks:

'Well,' she says, stifling the end of a sigh, and without any trace of
resentment in her tone, 'I am very much obliged to you for having told
me all that you have. I know that you are not fond of talking of
yourself, and if--if'--the carnation mounting even to her
forehead--'there is anything in your life that you had rather not tell
me, why we--we will let it alone; we--we will not think of it any more.'

Perhaps her words may contain the spell he has been praying for; since,
in a moment, the Betty phantom has vanished, and his new sweetheart
lies, live and real, in his arms.

'At all events,' she whispers, 'I can contradict Prue, next time that
she says you are such a perfect stranger.'

She smiles as she speaks. How lovely her smile is, when he sees it as
close as he is doing now! It is not perhaps quite so radiant as the one
with which she met him at the gate--but her eyes! He lets himself
drown--drown in those heavenly blue lakes. Why should he ever come to
the surface again?

'There they are, Franky!' cries a piercing little voice, cutting the
summer air from a few hundred yards' distance, 'under that
horse-chestnut tree; how close together they are sitting!'

Another minute has brought the owner of the voice, and of another voice
more lisping and less shrill, up to their eagerly sought, if not quite
so eagerly seeking, friends.

'You are not sitting so close together as you were,' chirps Franky
innocently. 'Mammy used----'

'What do you want? What have you come for?' asks Talbot, in a voice a
good deal rougher than his little _protégés_ are apt to hear from him,
and breaking into the middle of a sentence, whose close he can only
horrifiedly conjecture, before more than its two initial words have had
time to leave its small speaker's lips.

At the extreme and unusual want of welcome in his tone, both children
stand for a moment silenced. Then Lily, with an offended hoist of her
shoulders, turns pointedly to Margaret.

'Nanny says that my tongue is white,' cries she; 'she is always telling
me so. I came to ask you; I thought that you would not mind telling me,'
with an insinuating air, 'if it really is.'

'And is not mine white too?' inquires Franky eagerly, and in a minute
both red tongues are protruded for inspection; and Talbot bursts,
against his will, into a vexed laugh.

It is not always, indeed, to have their tongues looked at; but during
the ensuing days of his courtship Talbot finds that he must hold himself
in continual readiness against onslaughts in unexpected directions from
Miss and Master Harborough, who, finding the little Red House more
amusing than the empty Manor, and being troubled with no doubts as to
their acceptableness, arrive from every point of the compass at each
likeliest and unlikeliest hour of the summer day. The only thing for
which he has to be thankful is that their arrival is generally heralded
by their eager treble voices; so that he has just time to step down out
of his seventh heaven before they are upon him. Perhaps if it were not
for this, and for one or two other slight abatements from its complete
felicity, the tuliped garden, with its lilac breath, its come pansies,
and its coming pinks, would be too like that one when the first he and
she felt the heavenly surprise of their new kisses.

For the children's intrusions are not quite the only cloud in Talbot's
Whitsun sky. It is oftener than once or twice that the phantom of the
past has seated itself between them. It is oftener than once or twice
that he has found Peggy looking at him in a pained astonishment, at his
having suddenly broken off in the middle of some fond phrase. She cannot
know, and he can never tell her, that it is because there has suddenly
flashed upon him the recollection, vivid as reality, of some occasion on
which he had showered the same words of fire upon her who has had
precedence over Peggy in his heart. He would fain cut all such words out
of his vocabulary; employ in this new worship nothing that had been
desecrated by having been offered on the altars of the old. But it is
impossible. He had poured out all his heart's best before the first
love. How then can he have anything fresh for the second? The thought
cuts him like a knife; but none the less, all the more rather--since it
is our knife-thoughts that cling most pertinaciously to us--does it come
back and back again. In return for all the wealth of her fresh
firstfruits, he has nothing to give her but what is stale, threadbare,
sullied. This is a reflection that would sit easily upon most men. If it
were not so, there would be but few unembittered love-makings. But upon
Talbot's palate it is wormwood. And lest there should be any chance of
his escaping from his past, there is always some innocent reminiscence,
allusion, or appeal on the part of Lily or Franky to bring it back to
him.

Prue, too! On the blue of his heaven, Prue forms another little cloud.
Prue makes no pretence of pleasure in the prospect of his brotherhood;
and to Prue he is sacrificed oftener than he thinks just. It is, thanks
to Prue, that he has so often been sent back prematurely to his
pot-house; that he has had prematurely to break off his trance of wonder
at the eyes, the only blackness under which springs from some slight and
fugitive fatigue; at the cheek, which his doubting finger may rub as
hard as it chooses without any other result than that of intensifying
its damask; at the hair, from which he has been allowed once to withdraw
the pins in order to convince himself by ocular demonstration that
though it may come _down_, it can never come _off_.

'I think you had better go now. She has been alone all day,' is a
formula whose recurrence he has now learnt to dread.

He shrugs his shoulders.

'I have been alone for thirty-two years.'

'I think if you would not mind going now----'

'I should mind extremely.'

She laughs softly, the happy low laugh of the consciously well-beloved,
rich in the prospect of a whole lifetime of love ahead.

'Whether you mind it or not, I am afraid you _must_ go. She had been
crying this morning.'

'More shame for her. What has she to cry about? Now if _I_ were to
cry--Peggy, you like her much better than you do me' (taking her half
angrily in his arms). 'Pah!' with a change of tone, perceiving, for the
first time, a gardenia pinned upon the breast of her gown; 'why do you
wear that horrid thing?'

'Franky gave it me. He begged it from the gardener at the Manor for me.'

'Throw it away!' cries Talbot, with more energy than the occasion seems
to warrant. 'I detest the smell. It is like a fungus.'

'It will hurt his feelings if I do.'

'It will hurt mine if you do not,' returns Talbot with emphasis; and
suiting the action to the word, he snatches the blossom almost violently
from her breast, and tosses it away.

She looks at him, her eyes tinged with a faint surprise.

'What a thing it is to have rival admirers!' she says, laughing; and
then she sends him reluctantly away.

If it were a scheme of the most deep-laid coquetry, instead of the
result of a lifetime's habit of self-sacrifice, she could not have hit
upon a better method of inflaming his passion. All through the long
light evening, whose yellow at this sweetest season is so late in
changing to night's blue, he prowls about outside her garden-fence,
peering between her lilac-clusters and laburnum-droops for a glint of
her white gown; shaking his fist at Prue's selfish little head, and
counting, through the fevered night, the strokes of the leisurely church
clock as they carry him nearer and nearer to the dewy morning hour, when
he may again hold his red rose of Lancaster in his hungry arms.

And meanwhile his short holiday is racing away. Scarcely has it seemed
to have begun when the end is already at hand. The date of the
reassembling of Parliament, of his chief's return to Downing Street, and
his own consequent reappearance there, looms nearer and nearer.

To return to Downing Street without her! He has been without her all his
life, and until the last six months has never looked upon himself as
particularly an object of commiseration on that score; but _now_ his
whole soul swells with a disgusted self-pity at the idea of his lonely
return to his Bury Street lodgings.

He has extracted from Peggy without much difficulty a promise that his
last evening shall be indeed and wholly his; that for once it shall be
Prue, not he, that goes to the wall; that he shall neither be dismissed
to his public-house, nor left to disconsolate moonings about the
inhospitable roads and fields, until it is time to betake himself to his
truckle-bed; that, on the contrary, he may for once have his fill of her
fair company, that should by rights be always his; may sit, and saunter,
and sweetly stray with her; and at length, when the stars ride high, may
leisurely bid 'God bless her!' at the garden gate, and dismiss her to
dream of him.

But lovers propose, and freakish chance disposes.

Talbot has returned to his inn to dress for dinner, and has jumped into
his dress-clothes, in miserly grudging of the moments stolen from his
final hours. He had left Peggy with eager injunctions to be equally
quick, so that a few more moments may be squeezed out before Sarah, with
her clamorous dinner-bell, breaks, with life's loud prose, into the
whispered poetry of their _tête-à-tête_. And apparently she has been
obedient to his behest, for she is--though he would have thought it
impossible--beforehand with him, and stands awaiting him, with arms
resting on the top of the gate.

But how is this? She has made no change in her dress, but is still in
her morning cotton.

As he draws near to her she stretches out her hand to him deprecatingly.

'I hope you will not be very angry!'

A slight chill of apprehension passes over him.

'But I am sure that I shall,' he answers, with a hasty instinct to ward
off the impending blow. 'What is it? What do you mean? Not,' with an
accent of incredulous indignation, 'Prue again?'

'It is not her fault,' replies Peggy apologetically, and yet defensively
too; 'nobody _enjoys_ being ill. But you know how finely strung she is;
something must have upset her.'

'Something is always upsetting her!' returns Talbot brutally.

'I am afraid she must have taken a chill,' pursues Peggy, wrinkling up
her forehead into anxious lines. 'I am sure I do not know how, but I
think she must; she has had to go to bed.'

The young man's brow clears. If Prue's illness involves only her absence
from the dinner-table, he will not very violently quarrel with it after
all.

'Very wise of her,' he says in a lighter voice; 'the best place for her!
Poor Prue!'

'But----,' begins Peggy, whose brow has not smoothed itself in sympathy
with her lover.

'But what?' inquires he sharply, his apprehensions returning. 'You are
not going to tell me that on my last evening I am to be sacrificed to a
_malade imaginaire_!'

'She is not a _malade imaginaire_,' answers Margaret half indignantly;
'her cheeks are as hot as fire, and her pulse has run up to ninety.'

'I believe she runs it up on purpose. Are you barring the gate for fear
I should force my way in?'

'Oh, no, no!' cries she, hastily dropping her arms from their
resting-place on the top rail, and flinging her portals hospitably wide.
'Come in! come in! how could you dream of such a thing? Do you suppose
that I am going to send you away without your dinner? But after
dinner----'

'After dinner?'

'When she is ill, she likes me to sit beside her, bathing her forehead
and her hands. I have always done it, ever since she was a baby. When
you are ill, I will bathe your forehead and your hands. Oh!' clasping
her fingers soft and fast upon his arm, and looking up with brimful eyes
into his angry face, 'do not look so cross at me! Do not you think that
it is hard enough for me without that?'



CHAPTER XXVIII


The dinner is over--the first _tête-à-tête_ dinner that John and Peggy
have ever shared. To dine _tête-à-tête_ with her in her own still house,
amid her old and homely surroundings, with the summer evening tossing
them in its lavish perfumes through the wide-opened windows, would have
seemed to him, a month ago, the realisation of his fairest and most
hopeless dream. But in their translation into the bald language of
reality--the jejune prose of fact--our dreams have a way of losing their
finer essence. It has escaped, without our being able to tell whither or
by what channel. Over both a sort of wet blanket has fallen. Try as he
may, Talbot's temper cannot recover from the poignant disappointment of
his lost last evening; and try as she may--broken in, as she is, by a
lifetime's habit of self-sacrifice--Peggy cannot hinder the lump from
rising in her throat, and the tears from crowding into her eyes, at the
reflection that her own hand has cut off, and flung away, the blossoms
of these final crowning hours. How many things she had saved to say to
him on this last evening--things too tender for her shamefacedness to
utter, save under the justification of an imminent severance--things
that he would have liked to have heard all through these days, but that
she had laid up in the storehouse of her heart as too close and sacred
for aught but to sweeten their parting! How can she say them now across
a dinner-table, with Sarah coming out and in, Prue sending peevish
messages to her, a score of trivial interruptions forbidding any but
the most banal talk? It was only with her head on her love's breast, in
the dusk of the starshine, that she could ever have found courage to
utter them. When will they be uttered now? The present, the brave solid
present, is our own, to caress or misuse; but who dares say to the
future, that formless form wrapped in uncertain gray, 'Thou art mine'?

And now the dinner is over, and they have separated, with spurious
coldness. Peggy has vanished upstairs to her sister, and Talbot is left
to employ the hours of his last evening as he best may. It is true that
Margaret has eagerly begged him to take possession of house and garden,
and has held out tearful hopes of snatching here and there a moment from
Prue's sick exactions to give him. But his ireful restlessness will not
allow him to accept this concession. It would be worse to be within
apparent reach of her, yet just beyond her eye and touch, than to be
quite outside her domain. He tells her so, half harshly; and opening the
gate into the park, takes himself and his ill-temper to the oaks and the
deer for consolation.

At first he walks along over the dew-freshened sward, under the isolated
oak giants, or between the more gregarious beeches and limes of spinny
and copse, without seeing them. He has no eyes, save those angry inward
ones that are turned upon his own disappointment. His last evening!--his
last evening! If it had been any but the last! Henceforth, in
retrospect, this holiday of his will take all its colour from this
bitter last evening. It is the end that stamps anything as bad or good.
Oh, cruel Peggy! He has had so few really good hours in his life; and
now she has ruthlessly robbed him of his best. And for what?

With the answer which he is compelled to give himself to this question
comes his first dawn of consolation. Certainly to no personal
gratification has she sacrificed him. He can hardly, in his most
aggrieved moments, picture her as better amused than himself as she
stoops--with the tears called up by his ill-tempered words scarcely
dried upon her cheek--over her equally ill-tempered invalid, bathing her
forehead, holding her jealous hands.

Poor Peggy! He will go back at once, and beg her pardon. But no. The
consciousness of his being hanging wrathfully about will only further
complicate her difficulties. He will take a lesson out of her book, and
efface himself wholly for this one evening, even though it is the last.
The last in one sense, but in another----?

He has sat down on a felled trunk, stripped of its branches, but not yet
removed by the wood-cutter's cart. The hawthorn comes in _âcre_ whiffs
to him. His heart, though he is alone for the whole evening--though he
will probably have to go back to his alehouse without one more glimpse
of her damask-textured face, gives a great bound. The last? For him and
her there will be no last evening until--for God, who has given him so
much, will surely give him, too, the supreme boon to die first--until,
bending over him as she now bends over Prue, her voice and her hands
smooth his passage to the easy grave.

The revulsion of feeling from his earlier ill-humour, produced by this
thought, brings the moisture to his eyes. What is this parting in
comparison with that six-months-ago one--when he had taken leave of her
with no rational hope of ever having his eyes enriched by her
again--when he had been afraid to trust his tongue to any speech, lest
it should drift into tendernesses he had believed for ever prohibited to
it? That parting in the walled garden! Why should not he go thither now,
so that, surrounded by the mute witnesses of his former despair, he may
the better gauge the extent of his new felicity? The idea, once
conceived, approves itself so instantly to his imagination that he
starts up; and, exchanging his former purposeless saunter for a quick
walk, sets off in the direction of the Manor gardens.

The evening is falling, in late May's best serenity, weighted with the
innocent sweetness of country odours. The deer--their mottled sides
growing indistinct--are browsing wakefully among the bracken. The
throstles have reached their song's last verse.

He has gained the pleasure-grounds, just as the vanguard of the stars
take possession of the emptied sky. He hastens along, almost as
hurriedly as if it were to a rendezvous with the real Peggy, instead of
with the six-months-old memory of her, that he were speeding; between
the burnished laurels; past the fresh-blown splendours of the great
rhododendron-beds, on fire with red, and pale with cream and blush and
lilac; narcissus and may taking his nostrils by storm as he brushes past
them to his goal, the still walled garden.

As he nears it, a misgiving seizes him that he may perhaps find himself
locked out--that he may perhaps have to content himself with the
mutilated satisfaction of peering in at it, between the wrought iron of
its gate; and it is with a trepidating hand that, standing at last
before it, he tries the handle with fingers not very confident of
success. But for the first time to-night Fate is kind to him. The gate
yields to his touch; and pushing it, he walks in. He has not been inside
the enclosure's quiet precincts since the night of that parting, whose
bitterness he has now come, in the wantonness of his new joy, purposely
to revive. He must indeed be happy that goes, of his own accord,
courting a dead misery. He draws a long luxurious breath, as he looks
round in search of the landmarks of that past woe. They are here, but
they wear a changed aspect. Through the wrought-iron railing, indeed,
the church tower and the yews, its brothers in age and gentle gravity,
still rise in the friendly dusk; but another race of flowers has sprung
in the place of those that witnessed his despair. The ghostly white
gladioli are gone, and the autumn-faced asters. The winter winds have
dispersed the down of the traveller's joy; and the penetrating breath of
the mignonette has long ago died off the air. But in their place another
nation has arisen; a better, he says to himself, as he stands with all
spring's scented hopefulness crowded about his feet.

He walks slowly along, seeking to recover the exact spot where that
parting had taken place; seeking to recover it by the aid of the small
landmarks that bear upon it. There had been a moon, a section of a moon,
to light it. There is none now.

He is glad. She has been the accomplice of half the world's crimes. He
wishes that the outward conditions should be as altogether changed as
the inward ones. He is glad that the trees, then wrapped in the heavy
uniformity of late summer, are now showing the juicy variety of their
early leafage. He is glad that the creepers are in bud, instead of in
lavish flower; glad of the fresher quality of the light air; glad of
anything that marks the fact that that bad old night has gone, and this
good young new one come. For so changed is his mood since the time that
he set off from the Red House gate, that his evening, though spent in
solitude, does seem eminently good to him, and his heart bounds with
almost as high an elation as if she were pacing beside him in the
starlight, with her head on his shoulder, as she will do in the future,
many hundred happy times.

He has paused in his walk. It was here that she stood--just here. He
knows the exact spot, by a comparison of the distance from the long bed
of violets, which, alone unchanged of all the flowers, still stretches
beneath the south wall, and mingles its odours with that of the new-come
flowers, as it had done with the departed ones. Just here! And he
himself had stood here. She had been facing the gate, and he with his
back to it. Thus, thus. The little crafty half-moon had shone into her
eyes, as she made him her last wistful speech:

'Since you are so determined to go downhill, I suppose that I dare not
say I hope our roads will ever cross again.'

Six months ago, only six months between the moment when he had in dumb
hopelessness acquiesced in the fact that their paths must for ever
diverge, and this in which they are, for all eternity, merged in one.
His eyes have dropped to the gravel, as if seeking the print of her dear
feet, that he may stoop and kiss it. His back is, as on that former
occasion that his imagination has so potently summoned from its grave,
turned towards the gate. He is alone. There are no witnesses to make him
ridiculous. Why may not he be as foolish as he pleases? He has actually
dropped on his knees, and is stooping his lips towards the pebbles,
which may or may not be the very ones her light step pressed half a year
ago, when the sound of the click of a latch behind him makes him raise
his head and spring to his feet. Who, at this late hour of the evening,
can be turning the handle of the gate? Who but one? She has forsaken
Prue for him after all. Love's instinct has told her the path he took;
and here, on the spot where he had for ever renounced her, she has come
to him under the stars. What welcome can he give her that will be
thankful and joyful enough for such an unlooked-for grace? He turns--his
whole face alight with ecstasy--towards her, but his feet do not move to
meet her.

By a refinement of love's cunning he will await her here; and, on the
very foot of ground that witnessed their separation, he will receive her
into his arms again. She has pushed the gate now, and, like himself, she
is within the enclosure; her white gown (he has often praised her in
white, and she must have put it on since he left her) flitting like a
snow-winged dove, along the dusky walk towards him.

'What an odd place you have chosen to say your prayers in!' cries a
high-pitched voice.

'BETTY!' For, by one of Fate's juggles, it is the old and not the new
love to whom his radiant greeting is addressed. It is the old and not
the new love whom, if his arms clasp any woman under the stars to-night,
they must enfold. They do not, indeed, show much readiness to do so.
They hang as if palsy-struck at his sides, while his voice repeats in a
horrified whisper that he would fain, if he could, make one of
incredulity, '_Betty!_'

'Do not trouble yourself to repeat it a third time,' says she, with a
flighty laugh that has yet no tinge of mirth in it. 'I do not need
convincing that _I_ am _I_, nor need you.'

'_You_ here?'

'I may return the compliment--_you_ here?'

He is staring at her with wide, shocked eyes that are also full of an
astonishment he is powerless to master. Is _this_ the Betty he had
parted from on that awful Christmas morning? _this_ the wretched woman,
clammy-handed, dishevelled, reckless of all save her own mastering
agony, who--her haggard mother-eyes unable to attain the boon of any
tears--had hoarsely forbidden him her presence for ever? Can this be
she--this hovering vision of lace and gauze--that has floated towards
him on the wings of the night, and now lifts to his, eyes that in this
light look as clear as Peggy's--cheeks whose carnations seem no less
lovely and real? Before his confused consciousness, the two visions--of
_that_ Betty and of _this_--inextricably entangled, and yet irrevocably
separated, pass and repass; and he continues standing, wordlessly,
stupidly staring, in a horror and a wonder that are beyond the weight of
his volition to conquer, at the woman before him.

After her last sentence she is wordless too, and also stands looking at
him, mute and full, as if she had forgotten his face, and were learning
it off by heart again, her factitious gaiety for the moment died down
and gone in the silent starlight. It is he who first speaks.

'You--you came here to see your children?'

'To see my children?' repeats she. 'Ha! ha! Yes, that was the reason I
gave at home; and a very pretty and laudable one too, was not it? To see
my children! But, as it happens, a woman has often more than one reason.
I had more than one.'

She has lapsed into her flippant gaiety again, and now pauses as if
expecting him to inquire into the nature of the other reason to which
she alludes; but if so, he does not gratify her. He is still fighting
with the horror of that double consciousness. Can this be the woman to
whom in that icy winter dawning his whole soul had gone out in such an
overpowering passion of pity? And if it be indeed she, has she clean
forgotten the sacred agony of their last farewell? Her laugh is still
dissonantly jarring on his stunned ear, when, finding it hopeless any
longer to wait for questioning on his part, she resumes:

'It is always well to kill two birds with one stone--is not it?' says
she, looking hardily into his eyes. 'Pardon the homeliness of the
expression! You know that reports reach even quiet places--Harborough,
for instance. Well, such a report--a _canard_ probably, but still there
was something oddly circumstantial about it--was spreading there
yesterday about a--person--I--used--to know--rather well--have some
interest in--in fact----'

She pauses again; her words have, for the last half of her speech, come
draggingly, with a little break between each, and not for one instant
does her eye release him. But again he makes no comment. Her breath is
coming perceptibly quicker when she next takes up her theme.

'You do not ask what the report was? No? I fear my little tale does not
interest you. It would perhaps be civiller on your part if you could
pretend that it did; perhaps you will think that it improves as it goes
on. Well, the subject of the report is a man; and the report itself--do
not you think that it was the simplest plan on my part to come and
verify it in person?--is that he is going to take to his bosom a--ha!
ha! I never can help laughing when I think of it--a--guess! No; you
would never guess--_a sack of pota_----'

'Do not call her names,' says Talbot, for the first time finding his
voice, and stretching out his hands, but now hanging so nervelessly at
his sides, in authoritative wrathful prohibition; 'do not dare to call
her names!'

'Then it _is_ true?'

Her laugh, little kin as it had ever had with real merriment, is
dead--strangled in her throbbing throat; and she puts up her hand as if
she were choking.

'Until you can speak of her with the respect that is her due, I will
answer no questions,' he replies sternly.

The next moment he sees her stagger in the starlight, and his heart
smites him for his cruelty. He makes a hasty movement towards her,
thinking that she is going to fall; but before he can reach her she has
steadied herself, and faces him, livid, it is true, under her paint, but
firm and collected beneath the stars. She has even recovered her laugh.

'Thank you,' she says, in a low but distinct voice, 'for the information
that you have incidentally given me, even though you refused to let me
have it direct. I have no further occasion to trouble you, and need only
offer you my congratulations and my hopes that you and your bride will
meet with some one to sweeten your married lives as you have sweetened
mine.'

So saying, she turns to leave him. If he were wise he would let her
go--would set no hindrance in her way; but which of us, in the crucial
moment of our lives, is wise? Before his reason can arrest him,
following only the impulse that forbids him to let the woman who for
five years had sat crowned and sceptred in his heart thus leave him, he
makes two hasty steps after her.

'Betty!'

At the sound of his voice, there comes a sort of wavering; but she does
not stop or turn her head.

'Betty!' he repeats, overtaking her, and preventing her egress by
setting his back against the wrought-iron gate; 'after all that has come
and gone, are we to part like this?'

'How else do you wish us to part?' she inquires in a steely voice of the
bitterest irony, while her eyes glitter, but not with tears; 'do you
expect me to dance at your wedding?'

'There is no reason why you should not,' he answers firmly, looking
steadily back at her. 'I have done you no wrong. Have you forgotten how,
and with what solemnity, you sent me away from you for ever?'

'So I did,' cries she, breaking into a hard laugh. 'Do not tell any of
my friends, or I should never hear the last of it. What an _accès_ of
superstition I had that cold morning! I will do myself the justice to
say, the first and last of its kind. I thought to save Franky by
renouncing you, was not that it? If I had known how little there was to
renounce, I might have spared myself the pains, might not I?--ha! ha!'

Again her merriment rings harshly on the soft air, and he can find no
word of rejoinder.

'How you must have been laughing in your sleeve!' pursues she, still
with that arid, withering mirth. 'Though the joke is against me, I
cannot help laughing at myself when I think of it.'

But at that he breaks in:

'I looked so like laughing in my sleeve, did not I?' he asks, panting,
and in a voice which emotion of the most painful quality he has ever
felt renders indistinct.

'No one would believe it,' she goes on, unheeding, apparently unaware of
his interruption, 'of a woman of my age, and who, as they say, has lived
every minute of her life--I _have_ done that, have not I? But it is
nevertheless Gospel truth that I was such a greenhorn as to be almost as
sorry for you as I was for myself. I suppose,' with a sort of break in
her dry voice, 'one gets into a stupid habit of thinking one's self
indispensable!'

She pauses, and making no further effort to depart, stands silent, with
set teeth and hands that unconsciously twist and tear the slight lace
pocket-handkerchief between her fingers.

What can he say to her? By what words--save words of entreaty to her to
put again the chain about his neck and the fetters upon his limbs--can
he appease or comfort her? And sooner than utter such words, he would
fall dead at her feet.

'Wretched superstition!' she says between her teeth, still rending the
morsel of lawn in her fingers; 'how could _I_, of all people, have been
such a fool as to be conquered by it? What did it matter to the Powers
above--what did they care whether I kept or threw away the one miserable
bit of consolation I had in my hideous life? The child would have got
well all the same, while I--I--but perhaps' (her tone changing to one of
alert suspicion), 'perhaps even then you had come to an understanding,
you and she. Perhaps even then you were hoodwinking me. I was so easy to
hoodwink--I, of all people, who had always thought myself so wide
awake--ha! ha!'

Again that dreadful laugh assails his ear, and makes him shiver as if it
were December's blasts that were biting, not May's breezes kissing his
cheek.

'I never hoodwinked you!' he answers, in an agitation hardly inferior to
her own; 'it was always plain-sailing between us. I went away because
you sent me.'

'And you took me at my word?' cries she wildly. 'Yes, I know that then,
at that moment, I meant you to take me at it; but I was out of my mind.
Hundreds of people less mad than I was then are in Bedlam. You might as
well have listened to the ravings of a lunatic as to mine that day;
and--you--took--me--at--my word!'

Her speech, which in its beginning was shrill and rapid, ends almost in
a whisper.

'I thought you meant it,' he says miserably; 'before God, I thought you
meant it!'

'The wish was father to the thought,' she says, again breaking into that
laugh which jars upon him far more than would any tears or revilings;
'you believed it because you wished it. I showed you a handsome way out
of your dilemma. I played into your hands. Without knowing it--oh, I
think that you will believe it was without knowing it--I played into
your hands. Without hurting my feelings--without quite giving the lie to
all your glib vows--without any disagreeable shuffling--you were free! I
set you free! _I!_ Oh, the humour of it! I wonder how you could have
kept any decent countenance that morning! and I--I--never saw it. Oh, I
must have been blinder than any mole or bat not to have seen it, but I
did not!'

She pauses, as if suffocated; but in a moment or two has recovered
breath and composure enough to resume:

'And I was _sorry_ for you. I do not know why I have a pleasure in
showing up my own folly to you; but, as you say, it has always been
plain-sailing between us, and one does not easily shake off an old
habit. Yes, _sorry_ for you! Not at first. At first I could think of
nothing but _him_; but he took a turn for the better very soon--God
bless him! As long as he was only getting well, it was enough for me to
think that I had him back--oh, quite enough!' some tears stealing, for
the first time, into her scorching eyes; 'but when he was on his legs
again, and everything going on as usual, then I began to see what I had
done.'

Her voice has sunk to a low, lagging key of utter dispiritedness.

'You never sent for me; you never wrote to me,' says Talbot hoarsely.

'Did you expect it?' she cries, a sudden eager light breaking all over
her face. 'Were you waiting for me to write? Did you watch the post for
a letter from me? Oh, if I had only known! Did you--did you?'

She has laid her hand convulsively on his coat-sleeve, and is looking
up, with all her miserable soul in her eyes, into his face. What can he
answer? He had watched the post indeed; but with how different a motive
from that with which her passionate hopes have credited him!

'No! I see that you did not,' she says, dropping her hand from his arm
with a gesture of disgust, as if she had touched a snake, a horrible
revulsion of feeling darkening all her features; 'or, if you did, it was
with dread that I should make some effort to get you back. At every post
that came in, without bringing you a specimen of my handwriting, you
drew a long breath, and said: "It is incredible! I could not have
believed it of her; but she has let me go, really!" Come, now,' with a
spurious air of gaiety, in ghastly contrast with her drawn features and
burning eyes, 'you were always such an advocate for truth; you used to
be so severe upon my little harmless falsehoods. Truth! truth! Let us
have the truth!'

'Have it, then!' he says desperately, stretching out his arms towards
her, as if transferring from his keeping to hers the weight of that
murderous confession. 'I _was_ glad!'

Again, as once before, she reels, as though it were some heavy physical
blow that he had struck her; and again his heart smites him.

'I--I--thought that we had both come to our right minds,' he says,
stammering, and seeking vainly for words that will soften the edge of
that bitter sword-thrust, and yet not incur the deeper cruelty of
bringing again that illusory radiance over her face; 'I--I--thought we
might begin our lives again--different, better! We had been most
unhappy!'

'_Unhappy!_' she repeats, in a voice that, if he did not with his own
eyes see the words issuing from her lips, he could never have believed
to be hers--'_unhappy!_ Are you telling me that you were unhappy all my
five years? Has she made you believe even this?' She stops, and fixes
her glittering look upon him with an expression so withering that he
involuntarily turns his away with a sensation as of one scorched. 'No!'
she continues, her voice rising, and growing in clearness as she goes
on; 'she may persuade _herself_ of that--what do I care what she
persuades _herself_ of?--but she will never really persuade you. No! no!
no!' a ring of triumph mixing with the exceeding bitterness of her
tones. 'There is one superiority that I shall always, to all eternity,
have over her; one that neither she nor you, do what you will, can ever
rob me of: I shall always--always have been _first_! There is nothing
you can give her that will not be second-hand!'

He has clenched his hands in his misery till the finger-nails bite the
palms. Is not this the very reflection that has been mingling its drop
of earth's gall with the honeyed sweetness of his heaven?

'Yes!' he says, panting; 'do I deny it? I can never give any one better
love than I gave you.'

'_Gave!_' she repeats, her voice dropping again to a husky whisper, and
casting her parched eyes up to heaven, as if calling on the stilly
constellations to be witness to her great woe--'_gave_! He himself said
_gave_! And I am alive after hearing it. Oh, poor I!'

Her voice shudders away in a sigh of intense self-pity; and she
hurriedly covers her face with her hands as if to shut out the view of
her own fate, as too hideous to be looked upon with sanity; while long,
dry sobs shake her from head to foot. The sight of her anguish is more
than Talbot can bear. Two steps bring him to her side; and before he can
realise what he is doing, he has taken her two hands and drawn them
forcibly away from her face.

'Betty!'

'Well!' she says dully, leaving them in his, as if it no longer mattered
where, or in whose keeping, they lay; 'what about Betty?'

'Betty!' convulsively pressing her small, burning fingers, 'you break my
heart!'

'I wish I could!' rejoins she fiercely. 'I wish to heavens I could! But
I must leave that to _her_. Tell me about her!' changing her tone to one
of factitious temperate interest. 'She is a good soul, I am told; _bonne
comme du pain_. There is nothing so pleasant as complete change, is
there? How does she show her goodness, by the bye? Does she say her
prayers every night, and make a flannel petticoat for the poor every
day, eh?'

He attempts no answer to her gibes; only, in his intense and mistakenly
shown compassion, he still holds her hands, and looks down, with a pity
beyond speech's plummet-line to sound, into the eyes whose beauty he has
long ceased to see, but whose agony has still power to stab him.

'I suppose,' she goes on, her mood changing--it is never the same for
two minutes together, and her mockery giving way to a tone of condensed
resentful wretchedness--'that if I loved you properly, as people love in
books, I should be glad to see you march off triumphantly, with drums
beating and colours flying, to be happy ever after; but I am not! I
tell you fairly I am not! If I had my will you should be as
miserable--no, _that_ you never could be; I would let you off with less
than that--as I am!'

He looks at her sadly.

'Even if I were so happy as you fear, a couple of hours ago, I think you
have cured me of it.'

'You used to be a kind-hearted man,' she says, scanning, as if in
dispassionate search, his sorrowful features; 'perhaps you are still, if
happiness has not hardened your heart. It does harden the heart
sometimes, they tell me; it is a long time since I have had a chance of
judging by experience. But, if you are, try not to let me hear much of
your happiness--try to keep it as quiet as you can.'

Her last words are almost inaudible through the excess of the emotion
that has dictated them.

'Perhaps you will have your wish,' he says gloomily, for the last
half-hour seems to have shaken all the fabric of his prospective
Elysium; 'perhaps there will not be much to hide.'

'That is a very civil suggestion on your part,' she answers, relapsing
into biting sarcasm; 'so likely, too. Go on. I am cheered already: find
out some more equally probable topics of consolation for me. Why do not
you remind me that I still have my husband--my husband whose society
_you_ have taught me so much to enjoy; my visiting-book; my--my----'

'You have your _boy_,' he interrupts sternly, goaded into anger out of
compassion by her tone.

Her hands drop from his, and a light shiver runs over her shuddering
body.

'_I--have--my--boy_,' she repeats slowly; 'so I have. God forgive me for
having even for one moment forgotten him! Yes, I have him--bless him!
but for how long? Even if he lives--oh, he _will_ live! God cannot take
_him_ too from me--I was a fool ever to fear it; but even if he lives
to grow up, he too will go from me. People will tell him things about
me; or if they do not tell him, he will pick up hints. I shall see it in
his eyes, and then he--too--will--go--from me!' breaking into a long
moaning sob. 'I suppose,' looking in utter revolt up to heaven, 'that
_They_ will be satisfied then. I shall have nothing--_nothing_--NOTHING
left!'

She has broken into a storm of frantic tears, that rain from her eyes
and career unheeded down her white gown. He can only look on miserably.

'But at least,' she says deliriously, every word marking a higher stage
in the rising sea of her frenzy, 'I shall always have been _first_!
Neither you nor she can take that from me. It may make you both mad to
think so, but you _cannot_. I shall always--always have been there
first. You may tell her so from me, if you like,' with one last burst of
dreadful laughter; 'it will be no breach of confidence, for I give you
leave.'

Then, in a moment, before he can divine her intention, or--even if he
had the heart to do so--arrest her, she has flung her arms convulsively
about his neck; and in a moment more she is gone, leaving him there
dazed and staggering in the starlight, with the agony of her good-bye
kiss on his lips, and his face wet with her scorching tears.



CHAPTER XXIX


If there is one hour of the day at which the little Red House looks
conspicuously better than another, it is that young one when the garden
grass is still wet to the travelling foot, and the great fire-rose in
the east has not yet soared high enough to swallow the shadows. So
Talbot thinks, as he takes his way next morning to his love's little
russet-coloured home. She has promised over-night to rise betimes, to
give him an early tryst before he sets off on his dusty journey back
into the world without her. He is of course by much too early; and
though he tries to hasten the passage of time by looking at his watch
every two minutes, yet he is compelled, if he would not be at her door
long before it is opened to him, to journey towards her at a very
different rate from that at which his heart is doing. He walks along,
drawing in refreshment of soul and body with every breath. He has not
slept all night, and his eyes are dry and feverish; but the air, moist
with the tears of the dawn, beats his lids with its soft pinions, and
all the lovely common sights of early morning touch healingly upon his
bruised brain, and heart still jarred and aching with the ignoble pain
of that late encounter.

At every step he takes some sweet or gently harmonious sight or sound
steals away a parcel of that ugly ache, and gives him an atom of pure
joy instead. Now it is a stray wood-pigeon beginning its day-long
sweethearting in the copse. Now it is a merry din of quiring finches,
all talking together. Now it is a glimpse of a sprinkle of cowslips in
an old pasture, shaking off their drowsiness. Now it is only a stout
thrush lustily banging its morning snail against a stone, the one
instance of gross cruelty amongst the many that the scheme of nature
offers, which the most tender-hearted cannot fail to admire. And now a
turn of the road has given him to view her house, and the tears,
cleansing as those of the morning, leap to his eyes at the sight of it.
Dear little wholesome, innocent house, giving back the sun's smile from
each one of its shining panes; giving it back, as _her_ mirroring face
will give back his own love-look, when she comes--so soon now, oh, so
soon!--across the dew-drunk daisies to his arms. With what a feeling of
homecoming does his heart embrace it--he that, for so many arid years,
has had no better home than Bury Street lodgings, or Betty's boudoir!

He looks eagerly to see whether, by some blessed accident, she may even
now be ahead of him in time, awaiting him with sunshiny face uplifted,
and firm, fair arms resting on the top-rail of the gate. He knows how
early she rises, and that no coquettish punctilio as to being first at
the rendezvous will hinder her, if she is sooner ready than he. But
apparently to-day she is not. There is no trace of her.

A slight misgiving as to Prue's illness, which until this moment he had
indignantly dismissed from his memory as imaginary, having a more
serious character than he had credited it with, makes him glance
apprehensively towards the young girl's casement. The blind is down, it
is true; but over all the rest of the house there is such a cheerful air
of everyday serenity, that, considering the earliness of the hour, he
cannot attach much importance to the circumstance.

Prue is always--how unlike his fresh Peggy!--a lie-a-bed. Mink and the
cat are standing airing themselves on the door-step, and, by the
suavity of their manner, obviously invite him to enter.

The hall-door is open, and he passes through it. It is the first time
that he has had to push uninvited into her sanctuary--the first day that
she has not met him at the gate. He checks the rising chill that the
reflection calls forth, and hurries on into the hall; meaning to hurry
through it, for surely it will be in the garden that he will find her.
Perhaps, by one of love's subtilties, she has chosen to bid him farewell
under the very hawthorn-tree where he had first called her his. But he
has not made two steps into the hall before he discovers that his
calculations have erred. Can it be by another of love's subtilties that
she is sitting here indoors, away from the morning's radiance, sitting
quite idle apparently by the table; and that, on his entry, she does not
even turn her head?

'Peggy!' he cries, thinking that she cannot have heard his step, though
it has rung not more noiselessly than usual on the old oak boards; and
that Mink, with a friendly afterthought, is firing off little shrill
'good mornings' at his heels.

There is no change of posture in the sitting figure, no movement,
unless, if his eyes do not deceive him, a slight shiver running over it.

'Peggy!' he repeats, alarmed; and, in a second, has overleaped the
intervening distance--has fallen on his knees at her feet, and grasped
her hands. 'What is it? Quick--speak to me! Is Prue worse?'

There is no answer. She has averted her face, so that he can see only
the outline of her cheek's oval, at his approach; and--what is this? She
is drawing her hands with slow decision, not with any petulance or
coquetry, but as one irrevocably resolved, out of his. Then she rises
slowly to her feet, and, having put three paces between them, turns and
looks full at him. Looks full at him, this tall, risen woman, who will
not lend him the custody of her hand! But who is she--this woman? Not
his Peggy! Nay, surely not his Peggy! His Peggy, cheeked like the dawn,
with eyes made out of sapphires and morning dew--his kindly, loving
Peggy--what has she in common with this pale austerity that is facing
him?

'What is it?' he repeats huskily, a vague horror making his knees knock
together; 'is she----'

He breaks off. The idea has flashed across him that Prue is dead! What
lesser catastrophe can account for this horrible unnamed change?

'She is better,' replies Peggy hoarsely.

'Better!--thank God for that!' drawing a long breath of relief. 'What do
you mean by looking like this? You made me think--I do not know what;
but,' his agony of perplexity returning in profounder flood, 'if so--if
she is better, what is it?--what else? For mercy's sake answer
me!--answer me quickly! Do not keep me waiting! You do not know what it
is to be kept waiting like this!'

He has risen from his kneeling attitude; but that unaccountable
something in her face hinders him from making any effort to bridge the
distance she has set between them. Across that distance comes her reply,
in a voice that seems to set her continents and seas away from him:

'Are you--quite--sure--that--I--need answer you?'

'Sure that you need answer me?' repeats he bewildered, struggling
against the ice that is sweeping up over his heart; 'why, of course I
am! Why else should I have asked you? We must be playing at
cross-purposes,' with an attempted smile. 'Of course I am
sure!'--reading the disbelief in her white face--'quite sure! What can I
say to asseverate it? As sure as that I stand here--as sure as----'

'Oh, stop!--stop!' she cries vehemently, thrusting out her hands
towards him as if in passionate prohibition, while a surge of colour
coming into her face restores her to some likeness to his Peggy; 'do
not--do not let me have to think that I have been the cause of your
telling any more falsehoods!'

'Any _more_?' echoes he, putting up his hand to his forehead, and
feeling as if she had struck him across the eyes.

'Yes,' she says, gasping, while he sees her hand go out in unconscious
quest of the table-edge, as if to steady herself. 'Yes!--do not I speak
plainly? Any _more_!'

Again he passes his hand over that brow that feels cut and furrowed by
the lash of her words.

'You--must--explain,' he says slowly; 'apparently I am dull this
morning. What other falsehoods have I told you?'

Both her hands are clutching the table now; nor is its support unneeded,
for her body sways. Only for a moment, however. In a moment she is
standing firm again.

'What other?' she repeats, half under her breath; 'what other? Oh!' with
a long shuddering groan, 'how many, many you must have told before you
could grow to do it with a face that looks so like truth!'

But at that the insulted manhood of him awakes, goaded into life, and
shakes off the paralysis engendered by his horrible astonishment.

'Come!' he exclaims, disregarding her unspoken veto, going close up to
her and standing before her, with folded arms and flashing eyes; 'this
is intolerable!--this is more than man can bear! Let me hear what you
have to say--speak your accusation; but do not tell me to my face that I
am a liar, without bringing a rag of evidence to support it!'

She looks back at him, taking in, with a startled air, his changed
demeanour--the command of his attitude--the authority of his eyes.
Then--

'You--are--right,' she says, panting, while he sees her poor heart
miserably leap under the pink cotton gown he had praised yesterday--was
it yesterday, or before Noah's flood? 'I--have no right to bring vague
accusations, as you say. Will you--will you--let me wait a minute?'

She sinks upon a chair as she speaks; and, resting her elbow upon the
table, passes her pocket-handkerchief once or twice over her face,
wiping away the cold drops of anguish that, despite the morning's
radiant warmth, are gathering upon it. He waits beside her, in a black
suspense, pushing away from him the fear that he refuses to formulate.

'There!' she says, after a year's interval, which the clock falsely
calls sixty seconds; 'I--I--beg your pardon for keeping you waiting.'
She has banished, as far as she can, all signs of emotion, and begins in
a level low voice. 'Prue got better almost immediately after you went
away last night--was it really only last night?' with a bewildered look;
then, immediately recovering herself, 'so decidedly better, that I
thought I might safely leave her.' She pauses. 'I--I--thought
I--I--would follow you.'

Another pause. It is evidently killing work to get on at all. Angry as
he is with her, clearly as he now sees what is coming, he cannot help a
compassionate wish to help her, and make it easier for her.

'I--did not know which way you had gone,' she resumes, after another
battle with herself; 'no one had seen you. But I thought--I guessed--I
fancied that it might have been to the walled garden, because--because
we had--had--said good-bye there last year.' Her voice wavers so
distressingly that he thinks she is about to lose all control over it;
but no!--in a moment she has recovered her self-mastery, and taken up
her thread again. 'As I drew near the garden, I saw that the gate was a
little open, so I knew that I had guessed right. I--looked--in;
I--saw--oh!' with a burst of indignant agony, 'are you going to make me
tell you what I saw?'

'Yes,' he says breathlessly, 'tell me!--what?' A hope, faint, and yet
tenacious, lingers in his mind that it may have been any one moment of
his last night's interview except that of the supreme embrace which she
had witnessed. He has not long to wait before this last prop is knocked
from under him.

'I--I--saw--you holding--a woman in your arms, and, a moment after, she
ran past me--and I saw--who she was!'

The answer he has insisted upon reaches him in a broken whisper; and her
strained eyes are fastened upon him, as if, in the teeth of a certainty
as absolute as that of her own identity, she were nourishing the
hopeless hope of his uttering some impossible, yet convincing, denial.
But he attempts none such. He stands before her silent, with his arms
still folded and the tide of a shoreless despair washing over his heart.
Betty has put the crowning touch to her work.

'It is true then?' Peggy asks, in a voice of such bitter suffering as if
she were realising it for the first time; as if she had not already
known it for twelve endless hours.

'What is the use of denying it?' he replies blankly; 'you say that you
saw her!'

She has risen to her feet again, risen to her full height (how tall she
is!); and once again stands confronting him, not even asking the
table-edge for any support.

'And--you--told--me--that--you--were--free!'

The words drop wonderingly from her mouth, barbed with an icy contempt
that makes him writhe. But at least he thanks God that she does not
treat him to such mirth as Betty's.

'I told you the truth,' rejoins the poor fellow doggedly--'I _was_ free;
I _am_ free!'

But the consciousness of the impossibility of really clearing his
character, save at the expense of her whom he must for ever shield,
lends a flatness and unreality to his assertion, which, as he feels
through every aching fibre, will only serve the more deeply to convince
Peggy of his guilt. It is not long before he sees that he has divined
justly.

'You need not make a laughing-stock of me,' she says with dignity,
turning towards the door. But at that, the despair which has been
paralysing him awakes, and cries out loud, giving him motion and a
voice.

'You are not going!' he cries in a tone whose agony stabs her like a
knife, flinging himself upon her passage.

'What is there to stay for?' she answers, choked. But she pauses. Can
he, even yet, have anything to say?

'Do you think that I met her there _on purpose_?' he asks, his words
pouring out in a hoarse eager flood, as if he had but little hope of
commanding her attention for long to them--'by appointment? Ask yourself
whether it is possible? Was I so anxious to leave you? Was not it you
that drove me away? I tell you I had no more idea of meeting her than I
had of meeting----' he hesitates, seeking for a comparison strong enough
to emphasise his denial--'as I had of meeting one of the dead. I did not
even know that she was in the neighbourhood. I had held no communication
with her for months. It was an accident--a mere accident!'

He breaks off suffocated. At the intense sincerity of his tone, a
sincerity which it is difficult to believe feigned, a sort of stir has
come over her face; but in a moment it has gone again.

'Was it,' she asks with a quietness that makes his hopes sink lower than
would any noisy tears or tantrums, 'was it _by accident_ that she was in
your arms?'

He is silent. In point of fact, he is as innocent of that embrace as
Peggy herself; but from telling her so he is, being a man and an
Englishman, for ever debarred. He must stand there, and bear the
consequences of that supposed guilt, whatever those consequences may
be. There is a little stillness while he waits his sentence--a little
stillness broken only by the eight-day clock's tick-tack, and by the
distance-mellowed sounds of the village rising to go about its daily
work.

'Have you nothing to say for yourself, then?' she asks at last, in a
voice which she dares not raise above a whisper for fear of its
betraying her by altogether breaking down--'no explanation to give?'

'I tell you that it was all an accident,' he repeats, with a doggedness
born of his despair. 'I can give no other explanation.'

'And that is none,' she replies, a wave of indignation sending back the
colour to her ashy cheeks, and steadying her shaking limbs as she again
turns to leave the room.

He does not, as before, throw himself in her way; he remains standing
where he is, and only says in a dull voice:

'Are you going?'

'Why should I stay?'

'Going without saying good-bye?'

'I will say good-bye if you wish.'

'Going for--_for good_?'

'Yes.'

He makes no effort to change her resolution--vents no protest--if that
indeed be not one, and the strongest he could utter, that long groan
with which he flings himself on a chair beside the table, and covers his
face with his hands. She has reached the door. No one hinders her from
opening it and leaving him, and yet she hesitates. Her sunk blue eyes
look back at him half relentingly.

'Are you sure,' she says quaveringly, while her pale lips tremble
piteously--'are you sure that you have nothing to say--nothing
extenuating? I--I should be glad to hear it if you had. I--I--I--would
try my very best to believe you.'

There is no answer. Only the mute appeal conveyed by that prone figure,
with its despairing brown head fallen forwards on its clenched hands. Is
it possible that he has not heard her? After a moment's vacillation, she
retraces her uncertain steps till she stands beside him. Feeling her
proximity, he looks up. At the sight of his face, she gives a start. Can
it be she herself--she that had thought to have loved him so kindly--who
has scored these new deep lines on brow and cheek? At the relenting
evidenced by her back-coming, his dead hopes revive a little.

'Do you know what I did when I reached the walled garden last night?--I
am afraid that you will not think the better of my common sense--I knelt
down and kissed the place where I thought that your feet might have trod
last year.'

'You did?' she says, with a catch in the breath; 'you did? and yet five
minutes afterwards you were--oh!' breaking off with a low cry; 'and this
is what men are like!'

He sees that his poor plea, instead of, as he had faintly hoped, a
little bettering his position with her, has, read by the light of her
mistaken knowledge, only served to intensify in her eyes the blackness
of his inconstancy. Well, it is only one more added to the heap of
earth's unnumbered injustices. It is only that Betty has done her work
thoroughly this time. But he cannot bear to meet the reproachful anguish
of the face that is bent above him, knowing that never on this side the
grave can he set himself right with her. If only it might be for ever,
instead of for these few hurrying moments, that he could shut out the
light of day! The clock ticks on evenly. It sounds unnaturally loud and
brutal in his singing ears; but its tick is not mixed with any light
noise of retreating footsteps. She is still lingering near him, and by
and by a long sob shudders out on the air.

'If you could persuade me that I was wrong,' she wails; 'if you could
persuade me that it was some hideous delusion of my eyes--people have
had such before now--that it existed only in my wicked fancy! Oh, if you
could--if you could!'

'I cannot,' he replies hoarsely; 'you know that I cannot. Why do you
torment me?' He has answered without looking up, still maintaining the
attitude dictated by his despair; but when a little rustle of drapery
tells him that she is really departing, he can no longer contain
himself, but falls at her feet, crying out, 'Tell me how bad my
punishment is to be!'

For a moment she looks down on him silently, her face all quivering as
with some fiery pain; then in a very low voice:

'Punishment!' she says; 'punishment! There is no question of
_punishment_. It is only that you have killed my heart.'

'Killed--your--heart!' he repeats blankly, as if too stunned to take in
the meaning of the phrase.

'Yes,' she says, breathing fast and heavily; 'yes. I do not think you
knew what you were doing. I believe it was a sudden madness that seized
you--such a madness as,' with a touch of scorn, 'may be common to men. I
know but little of them and their ways; but--but--what security have I
against its seizing you a second time?'

He writhes. A second time? Oh, if she did but know how little it had
seized him the first!

'If I married you now,' she goes on, her voice gaining a greater
firmness, and a new and forlorn stability coming into her white face, 'I
should love you, certainly. Yes,' with a melancholy shake of her head,
'I think that I shall never leave off loving you now. But if I married
you, I should make you very unhappy; I should not take things easily--I
should not be patient. And however happy we might be when we were
together, since you have killed my trust in you, you would never be out
of sight that I should not be fancying that you were--as--as--as I saw
you last night.'

Her voice has dropped to an almost inaudible pitch. He has risen to his
feet again, and some instinct of self-respect helping him, stands
silently before her, accepting the doom which, as he hopelessly feels,
can be averted by no words that he has leave to utter.

To her ears has come the noise of nearing wheels--the wheels of the fly
he had ordered over-night to take him to the station, allowing the
smallest possible margin of time in which to get there, so that as
little as possible might be robbed from the poignant sweetness of his
last farewells.

The poignant sweetness! He almost laughs. That sound must have hit her
ears too, judging by the long sob that swells her throat, and by the
added rush of anguish in her next words:

'I ought to have believed what they told me of you, but I would not; I
would believe only you--only _you_; and this is how you have rewarded
me!'

He locks his teeth together hard. For how much longer can he bear this?
There comes over him a rushing temptation to try to buy one soft look
from her to take with him, by the hypocrisy of asking her forgiveness;
he whose whole smitten soul stands up in protest against the need of any
forgiveness.

But no. Sooner than descend to such an equivocation he will depart on
his lonely way uncomforted.

'I must go,' he says steadily, though his lips are livid. 'Will
you--would you mind shaking hands with me?'

He is going. She had known what the wheels meant, and yet there seems a
murderous novelty in the idea. She has put her death-cold hand into his;
speech is almost beyond her; but she mutters some poor syllables about
not wishing him ill.

'Peggy,' he says, with a solemnity such as that of those who are
spending their last breath in some sacred utterance; 'Peggy, you are
wrong! Any one to whom you told your story--any one who had to judge
between you and me, would say that you were right; but you--are--wrong!
If I have killed your heart, you have killed mine, so we are quits.
Good-bye!'

The next moment she is alone in the room.



CHAPTER XXX


The Whitsun garlands that had so gaily wound about the pillars of
Roupell Church have long ago been taken down, dead and faded. Poor Peggy
has once again stood all day on her ladder, and decked aisle and chancel
and font and altar with the manifold roses and the May lilies that by
Trinity Sunday are bountifully ready to her hand. Once again has Mrs.
Evans sat in a pew and helped her with moral suasion, and with easy
suggestions of alterations that would entail her undoing half her work.

The scent of the lilies is too much next day for the youngest
church-going Evans, and he has to be carried out, with his boots in the
air, to the great delight of the schoolchildren, and enlivenment of the
congregation generally. Not one of the civil parishioners, dropping in
now and again to observe her progress and offer help, would think that
the Peggy they see smiling down upon them from her ladder had been
lately treading on hot ploughshares. But yet she has. The worst is over
now, she tells herself. Which was the worst hour? Which the worst
moment? she asks, with what she thinks to be a perfectly dispassionate
inquiry. That one when she had found his glove lying quite naturally,
and as if at home, on the hall-table? That one when she had had to tell
Prue that it was all over; when through the obstinacy of the young
girl's disbelief she had had to asseverate and re-asseverate it, until
she had almost screamed out loud in the agony of that reiteration? That
one when scarce two days after the blow had fallen, going on some
necessary business to the Parsonage, Mrs. Evans had met her with the
triumphant announcement that she--Mrs. Evans--had been right after all
in her conjecture as to Lady Betty Harborough? that though it might not
be known to many persons, yet the fact was none the less certain that
she had paid a flying visit to the Manor: Mrs. Evans's nurse having had
the information from the very flyman who had driven her from the
station; adding the circumstance, that so little sense of shame did she
manifest that she insisted upon an open fly.

'Of course the children were the pretext,' pursues the Vicar's wife,
with a shrug; 'it is so shocking to think that they should be made
accomplices, as it were. One always feels,' looking affectionately round
at the various Evans specimens--old and new baby, little girl with a
cold, middle-sized boy with a stomach-ache, kept indoors by reason of
these ailments, and now littering the worn carpet--'one always feels
that one's children are one's best safeguard.'

And Peggy remembers to have smiled. That a hideous knife is cutting her
own heart in two, does not make the fact of Mrs. Evans's virtue
requiring a safeguard at all the less funny. The worst is over, so she
assures herself. The wren that sang at her chamber-window, waking her to
tell her that Talbot was at the gate, that waked her all the same when
it had no such news to tell her, is happily silent.

The pungent hawthorn-blossoms are discoloured and dead. She smiles drily
as she sees them swept up, and rolled away in Jacob's barrow. What a
mercy it would be if she could sweep up the dead brown love they
emblematise, and get Jacob to wheel it away too!

After all she is but where she was before Whitsuntide, where she has
been all her life. She has only a few, such a few steps to retrace. Ah,
but the retracing of those steps! The nights are worst. All the great
nations of the variously woeful on this sorrowful earth's face, know
that the nights are worst. Oh, the agony of that crying out of strong
souls for earth's supreme good just shown them, and then for ever
snatched away! She had thought herself happy before--quite sufficiently
happy, and had walked smiling and content along her path, until suddenly
one had taken her by the hand, and had led her into God's paradise; and
having just given her time to have her astonished eyes for ever dazzled
by the shining of that great light, had pushed her away into the
darkness, where she must stand henceforth with blind hands beating on
the unopened door. She had thought herself happy before. In the darkness
she laughs out loud. She had mistaken that wretched farthing rushlight
for day.

All night she struggles in the deep waters, foothold slipping from under
her. All night she fights with dragons, with noisome, baleful creatures,
like stout Christian in the Valley of the Shadow; wrestles with
temptations unworthy of her; with base longings to have him back, even
though it be to go shares with another in his love; to cry 'Come back,
come back! fool me, cheat me again--only come back!'

She had told him but the truth in saying that when she cared for any
one, she cared very badly. She is caring very badly now, and it goes
hard with her. What wonder that the wakening birds and the uprising wind
of morning find her daily staring dry-eyed, watchful, languid, at the
rose of dawn!

    'Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
      How can she seek the empty world again?'

But through the day no one finds out her languor; no one knows that she
is going about her daily work unfortified by sleep. Happily for her
there is no one to observe her very nicely. If there were any one to
steal anxious glances of sympathy at her to see how she is bearing it,
she must break down; but, as I have said, happily for her, there is no
one.

Prue, indeed, is quite affectionate and sorry; rather remorseful, in
fact, at the consciousness of having but grudgingly given that kindness
which, as it turns out, would have been needed only for one week. Her
method of compensation for former shortcomings, that of repeating many
times how unworthy she had always thought Talbot of her sister, is
perhaps scarcely judicious. The assertion of his unworthiness cuts Peggy
like a lash, but she bears it with set teeth and a sort of smile. It is
true. He is unworthy. And after a while--but a little while--this part
of her ordeal is over; for Prue, swallowed up in the sea of her own
coming troubles, forgets to remember that there is any one else
struggling in the waves.

And so, by and by, Peggy grows to walk her ploughshares with as
unshrinking a foot as if they were velvet turf; grows to thank God again
for her garden, and to be able to thank Him even for that one glimpse of
the supremest good, though given but to be withdrawn; last of all, to
acquiesce in that withdrawal. Since she is so urgently needed by the
poor little life beside her, it is as well, so she tells herself, that
she should have no distracting life of her own to pull her two ways.
Whatever else her Prue loses, she can now never lose her.

And as time goes on, it seems as if Prue, too, were to have her
losses. The first of these is perhaps but a little one, merely the
loss of that promised company of her betrothed through those rich June
days when Oxford is holding her yearly riot of pleasure--the riot from
which he had joyfully engaged to steal away to her quiet side. But,
as has happened not unfrequently before in Freddy's history, as it may
be confidently predicted will happen not unfrequently again, he has
promised more than when pay-day comes he is able to perform. After
all, it seems--and at that poor Prue would be the last to
wonder--Commemoration cannot get on without him.

Strange as it may appear, among the crowd, unusually large this year,
that throngs to the fair city for her saturnalia, and extensive as is
the acquaintance among undergraduates of the Hartley family--two of the
sons, indeed, being at the present time members of the University--there
is no one who is found capable of doing the honours of the festival to
these comparatively new acquaintance with the exception of Mr. Ducane.
He is therefore compelled, in compliance with his own creed of, as he
very nobly says in his letter to Prue, 'making Self march last in the
Pageant of Life,' to forego the simple joys he had planned in his
sweetheart's company, and carry his absent, yearning heart through the
bustle of theatre, ball, and _fête_. It is not until the last moment
that he has announced to Prue his change of project, not until all her
little preparations for his reception had been made, all the flowers
gathered to be laid on the altar of the poor soul's God.

'He might have told you before,' says Peggy indignantly, when one
morning the news of this defalcation is brought her by a
trembling-lipped pale Prue.

'He did not know it himself,' replies the other, in eager defence; 'he
says so somewhere, doesn't he?' (turning over the pages in feverish
search); 'or if he did know, it was out of consideration for me that he
kept me in the dark, that I might have less time to be disappointed in;
and he was right. I have had all these weeks--all this hope and looking
forward--to the good.'

Her under-lip quivers so piteously, as she makes this cheerful
statement of her gains, that she puts up her hand in haste to hide it.
But after all, Commemoration is only a matter of four days; and perhaps
it is worth while to have the pleasure of his company deferred for that
short interval, for the sake of the still higher pleasure she receives
on his return, of hearing him read aloud to her a choice little poem he
has found time to write on the subject of his own distraught wandering
through the gay throng; questioning every maid he meets as to why she
was not Prue. After he is gone, Prue repeats it--she has already learnt
it by heart--with sparkling eyes to her sister. It is not only that it
is so beautiful, as she says, but it is so _true_. Nobody could write
like that, unless he felt it, could he now? Peggy is spared the pain of
a reply by her sister's hurrying off to copy out the lines into that
gold-clasped, vellum-bound volume, in which, written out in his
sweetheart's best hand, the productions of Mr. Ducane's muse find a
splendid shelter, until that surely near moment when rival publishers
will snatch them from each other. She has plenty of time to devote her
best penmanship to them, as it turns out; since after two days at the
Manor, Freddy has to be off again. It is to London this time that a
harsh necessity drives him. Freddy never 'goes,' or 'wishes to go.' He
always 'has to go.'

'Whatever happens, we must not lose touch with the Great World-Heart
beating outside us!' he has said, looking solemnly up at the stars over
his betrothed's head, hidden sobbingly on his breast.

And she, though she knows little, and cares less, about the Great
World-Heart, acquiesces meekly, since _he_ must be right. So the Red
House relapses into its condition of female tranquillity; a tranquillity
of two balked young hearts beating side by side. The one pastures her
sorrow on the name that now appears almost daily among the titled mob
that crowds the summer columns of the _Morning Post_. The other digs
hers into the garden; paints it into pictures for the workhouse; turns
it into smiles for the sorrowful; stitches it into clothes for the
naked.

The stillness of high summer is upon the neighbourhood; all the leafy
homes around emptied of their owners; the roses, ungathered, shedding
their petals, or packed off in wet cotton-wool to London. Milady is in
London. So are the Hartleys. So is everybody; everybody, that is, except
the Evanses. The Evanses are at home. They mostly are. A family of their
dimensions, even in these days of cheap locomotion, does not lend itself
to frequent removals. A couple of years ago, indeed, milady
good-naturedly whisked off the Vicar for a fortnight's Londoning. But he
came back so unaffectedly disgusted with his cure, his offspring, and
his spouse, that the latter cherishes a hope, not always confined to her
own breast, that this act of hospitality may never be repeated. And
hay-harvest comes. The strawberries ripen, and jam-making begins. The
Evans boys are home for the holidays; and one of them breaks his leg.
The threatened baby arrives; and all the little events, habitual in the
Red House's calendar, happen punctually; for even the Vicarage fracture
is not more than the usual and expected outcome of the summer holidays.
But neither hay-time, nor hot jam-time, nor holiday-time bring back
Freddy to the Manor, whither his country-loving aunt has hastened back
joyfully to spud and billycock and shorthorns, a round month ago. He
does not even write very often. How should he? as Prue says. How could
any one who knows anything of London expect it of him? But in all his
letters, when they do come, there is invariably an underlying ring of
sadness, that proves to demonstration how cogent though unexplained are
the reasons which alone keep him from that dear and sacred spot, where
alone, as he himself says, his soul reaches its full stature. But at
length, apparently, the occult causes relax their hold of him; and when
August has begun to bind her gold stooks, and the cuckoo has said
good-bye, he comes. In August. It is a month to whose recurrence Peggy
has looked forward with dread: to her a month of anniversaries. Happily
it is only to herself that they are anniversaries. Who but she will
remember that on such a day the fox bit Talbot? Dingo himself has
certainly forgotten it; though he is as certainly quite ready to do it
again, if the chance is afforded him. Who will know, or even suspect,
that such and such days are made bitter to her by the fact that on their
fellows in last year he drove the mowing-machine, or gathered the
lavender, or cut out the new flower-bed? She smiles half sarcastically,
wrapping herself securely in the cloak of her little world's entire
indifference to her epoch-making moments.

'One has no windows in one through which one's friends can look in at
one,' she says philosophically, 'even if they would take the trouble.
Mrs. Evans perhaps would take the trouble; I do not know any one else
that would. As long as one is not foolish outside, it does not matter;
and I am not foolish outside.'

August is here; and the sacred seat under the Judas-tree, the seat that
had been forbidden to Peggy during her one triumph-hour, is again
occupied: save in the dead of the night has, for the last five days,
been scarcely a moment unoccupied; and Prue's little cup--the cup that
had run as low as mountain-springs in a droughty summer--again brims
over.

'It is so much better than if he had never gone away,' she says
rapturously, 'for then I might have thought that he liked me only
because he had never seen anything better; but now that he has had all
the most beautiful ladies in London at his feet----'

'Has he indeed?' rejoins Peggy, smiling; 'does he tell you so?'

But she has not the heart to suggest that the present emptiness of the
Manor of all inmates, except himself and his aunt, may count for even
more in Mr. Ducane's assiduities than his indifference to the London
beauties.

One afternoon she has left the young pair cooing on their rustic seat as
usual, and has betaken herself to the Manor, on one of her mixed errands
of parish business and individual friendliness to its mistress. She
finds the old lady surrounded by all the signs and symptoms of a new
hobby--plans, encaustic tiles, designs for the decorated pans and
skimmers of an ornamental dairy.

'I have a new toy, my dear!--congratulate me!' says she, looking up from
the litter around her, almost as radiant as Prue; 'an ornamental
dairy-house! I cannot think how I have lived without it for sixty-five
years! After all, there is nothing like a new toy; you would not be the
worse for one,' she adds, glancing kindly at the girl's face, a little
oldened and jaded since this time last year, its beauty lending itself
even less than it had then done to Lady Betty's sarcasm about being
improved by being bled. 'And Prue?--how is Prue? She is not in want of a
new toy _par hasard_?--still quite satisfied with the old one, eh? Well,
he is a very ingenious piece of mechanism!'

'Very!' replies Peggy drily.

'And when are the banns to be put up?' inquires the old lady abruptly,
resting her arms upon the heap of her plans and estimates, and pushing
up her spectacles on her forehead, in order to get a directer view of
her young _vis-à-vis_. 'I should like to have a week's notice, in order
to get myself a new gown; Mason was telling me this morning that I have
not one that can be depended upon to hold together.'

'The banns?' repeats Peggy, a flush of pleasure spreading over her face;
'then he has told you! Oh, I am so glad! I was afraid that he would
not!'

'Told me!' repeats the elder woman, with a withering intonation; 'not
he!--trust him for that! No doubt he has some high-falutin' reason for
not doing so; it would wound my feelings!--it would be dangerous at my
age! He had rather efface himself and his own interests for ever than
roughen, by one additional pebble, my path to the grave!' mimicking,
with ludicrous insuccess, Freddy's round young tones. 'Told me?--not
he!' The tinge brought into Peggy's face by that emotion of transient
satisfaction of which milady's words have proved the fallaciousness,
dies out of it again. 'Nobody has told me,' continues the old lady
tranquilly; 'I have only taken the liberty of seeing what was directly
under my nose. No offence to you, Peggy; but I had quite as soon not
have seen it.'

'Of course--of course,' replies Peggy, flushing again.

'I suppose that we have no one but ourselves to thank,' says milady,
with philosophy, her eye returning affectionately to one of the designs
for the front of her hobby. 'I do not care about that one; it is too
florid--it would look like Rosherville. Throw two selfish idle young
fools together, and the result has been the same since Adam's time!'

Peggy's heart swells. Idle and selfish! Never, even in the most secret
depths of her own mind, has she connected such epithets with her Prue;
and here is milady applying them to her as if they were truisms.

'I must send him away somewhere, I suppose,' pursues Lady Roupell, with
a rather impatient sigh. 'He is an expensive luxury, is Master Freddy,
as your poor little Prue would find; but no doubt it will come cheaper
in the end. Give him a couple of hundred pounds, and pack him off on a
voyage round the world! Believe me, dear,' laying her hand--whose tan,
contracted by an inveterate aversion for gloves, contrasts oddly with
its flashing diamonds--compassionately on Peggy's shoulder, 'he would
have clean forgotten her before he had got out of the chops of the
Channel.'

A great lump has sprung into Peggy's throat, constricting the muscles.

'And she?'

The old woman shrugs her shoulders.

'When we are forgotten, child, we do the graceful thing, and forget too.
I suppose we all know a little about that.'

Margaret has picked up one of the Dutch tiles that are to line the walls
of milady's new plaything; but it is but a blurred view that she gets of
its uncouth blue figures.

'She would not forget,' she says in a low voice, that, low as it is, has
yet been won with difficulty from that seeming mountain in her throat;
'she has put all--everything into one boat! Oh! poor Prue, to have put
everything into one boat!'

'And such a boat!' adds milady expressively.

For all rejoinder, Peggy fairly bursts out crying. The accumulated
misery of weeks, so carefully pent and dammed in the channels of her
aching heart, breaks down her poor fortifications. Her own life-venture
hopelessly perished! Prue's foundering on the high seas before her very
eyes! She had not cried for herself; she may, at least, have leave to
cry for Prue.

'God bless my soul, Peggy!' says the elder woman, taking off and laying
down her spectacles, and speaking with an accent of pronounced surprise
and indignation; 'you do not mean to say that you are going to _cry_!
There's an end to all argument while you are sniffing like that.' Then
as the girl rises to go, but imperfectly strangling her sobs, she adds
in a still vexed but rather remorseful voice: 'You make me feel quite
choky too. You have no right to make me feel choky! Run away! run away!
What do I care for any of you? I have got my dairy-house!'



CHAPTER XXXI


'And such a boat!' The words ring in Peggy's ears through her homeward
walk. After all, she had heard no new thing. That Freddy was an
unseaworthy craft to which to commit the precious things of a life, the
gems and spices of a throbbing human soul, has long been a patent fact
to her. But there is a wide difference between a fact that has only been
presented gently to one by one's self, and the same fact rudely thrust
under one's eyes and into one's reluctant hands by some officious
outsider.

'And such a boat!' She is unconsciously repeating milady's simple yet
pregnant commentary on her nephew's character as she re-enters her own
garden. Almost as she does so she is aware of Prue flying past her
without seeing her, a condition of things explained by the fact of her
handkerchief being held to her eyes in obvious passionate weeping.

Prue, too, crying! An idea dazedly flashes across her brain that Prue
must have overheard, and before common-sense can correct it, the girl is
gone.

With a still more uncomfortable feeling at her heart than that which had
been already there, Margaret continues her course to the Judas-tree. One
of the pair she had left smiling beneath its shade is still there, and
still smiling; or, if not actually smiling, at least in a mood that has
no relation to tears.

He is lying all along on the garden-seat--Prue's departure, though no
doubt deplored, has at least given him more room to stretch his
legs--and is murmuring something, apparently of a rhythmic nature, half
under his breath, as he stares up at the clouds.

'What have you been making Prue cry about?' asks Peggy, abruptly
stopping before him.

Freddy starts a little, and reluctantly begins to draw back his legs,
which, being too long for the bench, are elevated upon and protruding
beyond its rustic arm.

'I am sure you are not aware of it, dear,' he says pleasantly, 'but your
question has taken rather an offensive form. Prue _is_ crying, I regret
to say; but why you should instantly conclude that it is I that have
made her cry, I am at a loss to imagine. I think, Peg, I must refer you
to 1 Corinthians xiii.'

'You used to tell me that _I_ always made her cry,' returns Peggy
sternly; 'that _I_ was hard upon her; that she "needed very tender
handling."'

'Did I indeed?' says the young man, with a sort of wondering interest.
'It shows how cautious one ought to be in one's judgment of others.
Thank you for telling me, Peg!'

'What have you been talking about to make her cry?' repeats Peggy, with
a sad pertinacity. 'She was not in the least inclined to cry when I went
away. I never saw her more joyous, poor little soul!'

'I may return the compliment, dear,' retorts Freddy, carrying the war
into the enemy's quarters, and staring up with a brotherly familiarity
into her still flushed and tear-betraying face from under the brim of
Prue's garden-hat, which, as being more comfortable and wider-brimmed
than his own, he has worn all afternoon. 'What have you been talking
about to milady to make _you_ cry?'

She puts up her hand with a hasty gesture. She had not known or thought
about the ravages wrought on her face by her late weeping; but now that
the consciousness of it has been brought home to her, she is for a
moment put out of countenance. But in a second she has recovered
herself.

'We were talking of _you_,' she replies gravely. 'Milady knows; she has
found out about you and Prue.'

Freddy has abandoned his prone posture; he is sitting up, lightly
switching the end of his own boot with a small bamboo; Prue's hat, being
capacious, veils his face almost entirely.

'I should have thought that the information would have come more
gracefully from you,' continues Peggy coldly. 'I should have thought it
would have been better if _you_ had told her.'

'If I had told her,' repeats Freddy dreamily, without looking up; 'after
all, Peggy, there was not much to tell: "I love;" "I am loved." The
whole scheme of Creation lies in those two phrases; but when you come to
telling--to putting it into brutal words----'

It is a warm evening, but Peggy feels a slight sensation of cold.

'It will have to be put into _brutal words_ some day or other,' she says
doggedly, with an indignant emphasis on the three syllables quoted from
Mr. Ducane's speech.

'"Some day, some day!"' echoes he dreamily, humming the refrain of the
hackneyed song. 'Of course it will,' lifting his head again, and staring
at the heavens. 'Good Lord, Peggy, what a pace that upper strata of
cloud is driving at! there must be a strong current up there, though it
is so still down here. You know, dear, you and I have never been quite
at one upon that head. I have always thought that it took the bloom off
one's sacred things to blare them prematurely about.'

There is such a tone of firm yet gentle reproach in his voice, that, for
a second, Peggy asks herself dazedly, 'Is it possible that he is in the
right?'

'And what did milady say?' inquires the young fellow a moment later, in
a lighter key, growing tired of watching the racing vapours in the upper
air, and bringing his eyes back to earth again. 'You have not told me
what milady said. Did she recommend my being put back into
long-clothes?'

'No.'

'I am not at all sure that I should not be more comfortable in a white
frock and a sash,' continues Freddy, laughing; 'I do feel so
ridiculously young sometimes. I do not think that either you or dear
Prue quite realise how young I am. You take me too seriously, Peggy. It
is rather terrible to be taken so seriously.'

He has risen while speaking, and drawn coaxingly nearer to her. She
looks at him with a sort of despair. It is quite true. He is terribly,
ridiculously young. As her glance takes in the beardless bloom of his
face, the Will-of-the-wispy laughter of his eyes, it comes home to her
with a poignant force never before fully realised how ludicrous it
is--ludicrous if it were not tragic, that commonest of earthly
alternatives--for an agonising human soul to trust its whole
life-treasure, without one thrifty or prudent reservation, into his
butterfly keeping. Probably her thought translates itself into her sad
eyes; for Freddy fidgets uneasily under them, slashes at a tree-bough
with his bamboo, shifts from foot to foot.

'You _are_ young,' she says sorrowfully, 'but you are twenty-one; at
twenty-one----'

'At twenty-one Pitt was Prime Minister, or nearly so; that is what you
were going to say, dear, was not it? Do not! I shall never be Prime
Minister. I am like port wine,' breaking into a smile like sunshine; 'I
should be better for a couple of voyages round the Cape!' and he is
gone.

Though Margaret has been unable to extract from Freddy the occasion of
Prue's tears, she has no great difficulty in learning it from the
sufferer herself.

'It was very stupid of me,' she says, though the fountain shows symptoms
of opening afresh at the bare recollection, 'and very cruel to him; he
always says that the sight of tears unmans him so completely, that he
cannot get over it for hours afterwards' (Peggy's lip curls). 'And of
course it was only out of kindness, for my own good that he said it; as
he told me,' blushing with pleasure at the recollection, 'when one is in
possession of a gem, one naturally wishes to have it cut and polished to
the highest pitch of brilliancy of which it is capable. Was not it a
beautiful simile?'

'Yes, yes; but that was not what made you cry, surely?'

'Oh no, of course not; what made me cry,' clouding over again, 'was that
he said--he spoke most kindly, no one could have spoken more
kindly--that he was afraid that I had no critical faculty.'

'Was that all?' says Peggy, relieved. 'Well, a great many people go
through life very creditably without it. I do not think I should have
cried at that.'

'He was reading me some new poems of his,' continues Prue, not sensibly
cheered by this reassurance; 'and when he had finished, he begged me to
point out any faults I saw in them. And I told him what was the
truth--that there were not any--that I thought them all one more
beautiful than another; and then he looked rather vexed, and said he was
afraid I had no critical faculty.'

Peggy smiles, not very gaily.

'He had better show them to me next time.'

'Do you think that he would have been better pleased if I had picked
holes in them?' inquires Prue anxiously. 'But how could I? They all
seemed to me to be perfectly beautiful; I did not see any holes to
pick.'

'Do you happen to have them by you?' asks Peggy. 'If so, we might look
them over together, and provide ourselves with some criticisms to
oblige him with when next he calls.'

'No--o,' replies Prue reluctantly; 'I have not. He took them away with
him, I think--I suppose that he wanted to read them to somebody
else--somebody more intelligent. Peggy'--after a pause--'do you suppose
that Miss Hartley has a critical faculty?'

The sisters are sitting, as usual after dinner, in their little hall.
Prue stretched upon her favourite oak settle; Peggy on a stool at her
feet.

'My dear,' with an impatient sigh, 'how can I tell?'

'I dare say it must be very tiresome to be always praised,' pursues
Prue, after a pause, in a not very steady voice--'particularly if you
are, as he is, of a nature that is always struggling up to a higher
level--"agonising," as he said to-day, "after unrealisable ideals."'

Peggy coughs. It passes instead of a remark.

'I have often thought how terribly insipid he must find me,' pursues
Prue, with a painful humility. 'But I suppose, in point of fact, the
more brilliant you yourself are, the more lenient you are to other
people's stupidity; and, after all,' with a distressingly apparent
effort at reassuring herself, 'he has known it all along. It is not as
if it came fresh to him; and I do not think that I am any duller than I
was last year. Of course, if I had profited by all the advantages I have
had in his conversation, I ought to be much brighter; but at least I do
not think that I am any duller--do you?' eagerly grasping her sister's
arm as if to rivet her attention, which, in truth, is in no danger of
wavering.

'No, dear; of course not,' very soothingly.

'Come and sit on the settle by me,' cries Prue restlessly; 'we can talk
more comfortably so, and I can rest my head on your shoulder. It is such
a nice roomy shoulder.'

'Yes, darling--yes.'

There is a pause. The moon looks in from the garden. A startle-de-buzz
booms by on the wings of the night, and once an elfin bat sweeps past on
the congenial dusk.

The night is in Margaret's soul too, and not such a bland white night as
that spread outside for elves to dance in.

'I am going to say such a silly thing,' says Prue presently, heralding
her speech by a fictitious laugh. 'If it were not rather dark, I do not
think that I should dare to say anything so foolish. I am going to ask
you such a stupid question; I am sure you will not consider it worth
answering. Do you think it possible--ha! ha! I really am idiotic
to-night--that he might ever--not now, of course--if you had seen how
distressed, how heart-broken he was to-day at my crying, you would not
have thought there was much danger of its happening now--but,' her
speech growing slow, and halting with quick feverish breaths between,
'do you think it is just possible that sometime--many years
hence--twenty--thirty--he--might grow--a little--tired of me? There!
there!' her utterance waxing rapid and eager again; 'do not answer! Of
course, I do not mean you to answer!'

Peggy is thankful for the permission to be silent thus accorded to her;
but she does not long profit by it.

'I think I had rather that you did answer, too,' says Prue, with a quick
uneasy change of mind. 'It seems senseless to ask questions and get no
answer to them; and, after all, there can be but one answer to mine.'

Peggy shivers. There can indeed be but one answer; but how dare she give
it?

'Why do not you speak?' cries Prue, growing restless under her sister's
silence. 'Did not you hear me say that I should like you to answer me
after all? I believe you are asleep!'

'How can I answer, dear?' replies Peggy sadly. 'I have so little
acquaintance with men and their ways; and I am not sure,' with a small
bitter laugh, 'that what I do know of them is very much to their
credit.'

There is a ring of such sharp hopelessness in her tone as to arrest the
attention of even the preoccupied younger girl.

'You were not very lucky either, Peggy,' she says softly, rubbing her
cheek caressingly to and fro against Margaret's shoulder. 'Why do I say
_either_?' catching herself quickly up. 'As if I were not lucky--luckier
than anybody; but you were _un_lucky. Oh, how unbearable to be unlucky
in that of all things! And I was not very kind to you, was I?'

Peggy's heart swells. Her lips are passing in a trembling caress over
her sister's hair.

'Not very, dear.'

'Somehow one never can think of you as wanting any one to be kind to
you,' says Prue half-apologetically; 'it seems putting the cart before
the horse. But,' with a leap back as sudden as an unstrung bow to her
own topic, 'you have not answered my question yet! Oh, I see you do not
mean to answer it! I do not know what reason you can have for not
answering; but, after all, I do not mind. I ought never to have asked
it. I had no business. It was not fair to him. Of course he will not get
tired of me,' sitting up and clasping her hands feverishly together;
'and if he does,' with a slight hysterical laugh, 'why, I shall just die
at once--go out like the snuff of a candle, and there will be an end of
me, and no great loss either.'



CHAPTER XXXII


In order perhaps to give an ostensible reason for her last flying visit
to the empty Manor, or more likely (since she is not much in the habit
of testing the value of her actions by the world's opinion) for her own
solace and consolation, Lady Betty Harborough had taken her little son
with her on her return home; had taken also her daughter, though the
latter's company is a matter of much less moment to her maternal heart.

The departure of the children had, at the time, been an unspeakable
relief to Margaret. The recollection of the poignant pain and
inconvenience she had endured last year from their questions upon John
Talbot's departure, such as, 'When was he coming back?' 'Would not she
like him to come and live with her always?' make her look forward with
dread unutterable to a repetition of such questions, to which her new
circumstances lend an agony lacked by her former ones. How shall she
answer them if they ask her now whether she would like John Talbot to
come back and live with her always? Shall she scream out loud?

It is, then, with untold relief that she hears that they are gone,
whipped off with such promptitude by their parent as to be unable to
make their adieux to the Red House, the fox, and the fondly loved though
freckled Alfred. That they have again reappeared on the scene, she
learns only a couple of days after her interview with milady, by coming
upon them and their nurses suddenly at a turn of the Road. The shock is
so great--Lily is wearing the very same frock and Franky the same hat in
which they had burst into her love-dream on the first morning of her
engagement--that she cuts their greetings, to their immense surprise,
very short, and, under the pretext of extremest haste, breaks away from
their eager little hands and voices.

Her conscience smites her when the sound of sobbing overtakes her, and
she turns her head to see Franky fighting with his nurse to get away and
run after her, in order to rectify the, to him, unintelligible mistake
of her want of gladness at meeting him. Poor Franky! She has not so many
lovers that she can afford to rebut the tenderness of even so small a
one as Master Harborough. She will make it up to him next time. It is
not long before she is given the opportunity. On the following morning
she is sitting at her writing-table doing the weekly accounts, when a
rapping as of minute knuckles on the outer door is followed--before
permission to enter can be either given or refused--by the appearance of
a small figure, that of Miss Lily, who advances not quite so confidently
as usual.

'Oh, Miss Lambton!' she says rather affectedly, obviously borrowing a
phrase she has heard employed by her mother, 'how fortunate I am to find
you! We have come to see you. Franky wants to know whether he was
naughty yesterday that you would not speak to him. He thinks he must
have been naughty. He has sent you a present; he did not like to give it
you himself, so he has asked me. He took a bit of Nanny's letter-paper
when she was not looking, to wrap it up in. It is not hers really; it is
ours, for there is "Harborough Castle" on it. Nanny always likes to
write to her friends on paper with "Harborough Castle" on it.'

During her voluble speech, she has come up to the table and deposited in
Peggy's hand a tiny untidy parcel, piping hot, evidently from the
pressure of anxious small fingers tightly closed over it, all the way
from the Manor to the Red House. Peggy begins to unroll it; but before
this operation is nearly completed, a second little voice is heard, in
intense excitement from the door.

'It is my knife that father gave me after I was ill; it has five blades,
and a scissors, and a button-hook, and a corkscrew, and a file. It cost
ten and sixpence; and I like you to have it: it is a present.'

The next moment Master Harborough and the object of his affections are
in each other's arms. It is a long time before she can persuade the
little generous heart to take back its offering; before, with the tears
in her own eyes, she can succeed in forcing it back to its natural home
in the pocket of his sailor trousers; before general conversation can be
introduced by Lily.

'Just as we were setting off we saw Freddy going out riding,' says she
agreeably. 'He would not tell us where he was going; but Nanny thinks it
was to Hartley's. Why does she say "_Hartley's_" instead of "Mr.
Hartley's"? She always talks of _Mr._ Richards, the butcher!'

Simultaneously with this unanswerable query about her, Nanny herself
appears with a note in her hand, which she has been commissioned by Lady
Roupell to give to Miss Lambton, and which, when she is once more
alone--the children having scampered off to embrace Alfred--Miss Lambton
opens. She does so with some slight curiosity. The envelope is so large
as to imply the certainty of an enclosure. Milady's own notes are not
apt to require much space, nor is the present one any exception to her
general rule. It runs thus:

     'DEAR PEGGY,

     'This woman has asked me to forward you the enclosed. I do not
     quite know why she could not find out your address for herself.
     Freddy has worried me into saying I would go. It is such a long
     while off that we shall probably all be dead and buried first.
     Meanwhile, do not order a fly, as I can take you and Prue.

                                                'Yours,
                                                             'M. R.'

With a heightened interest Peggy turns to the enclosure. It reveals a
large and highly glazed invitation card, on which Mrs. Hartley announces
her intention of being 'At Home' on the evening of the 15th of
September, and which holds out the two lures--each lurking seductively
in its own corner--of 'Theatricals' and 'Dancing.' While she is still
looking at it, Prue comes up behind her and reads it over her shoulder;
and as she does so, the elder sister hears her breathe quicker.

'Oh, Peggy!' she cries, with agitation, 'then I shall see her at last. I
shall be able to judge for myself. It is so odd that we should never
have met her, living in the same neighbourhood; it shows how little we
go out, does not it? _He_ has always been so anxious that we should know
her, almost ever since he knew her himself. How long is that ago?'
stifling a sigh. 'Oh, a long time ago now! He says he is always trying
to make the people he likes clasp each other's hands.'

'And is he very successful generally?' asks Peggy drily.

But Prue's eyes have lit upon Lady Roupell's note, and her attention is
too much absorbed in it for her even to hear her elder's sarcastic
question. Peggy would fain have spared her the pain of reading the
sentence that refers to Freddy. But it is too late. Margaret becomes
aware of the moment when she reaches it by the slight colour that rises
to her eager face.

'He was always so good-natured about the Hartleys,' she says, in hasty
explanation; 'he would have been just the same to any one else in the
same position. He thought that people left them out in the cold; he
never can bear any one to be left out in the cold.'

'This does not look much like being left out in the cold, does it?' says
Margaret, rising, walking to the chimney-piece, and setting up the card
against the dark background of the old oak; 'since it is our only
invitation, it is well that it is such a smart one. What an odd fashion
it is, when one comes to think of it, that a woman should consider it
necessary to send these magnificent bits of pasteboard flying half over
the country, merely to tell us that she is at home!'

'There is no need for us to do that,' rejoins Prue rather
disconsolately; 'we are always at home.'

'We shall not be at home on the night of the 15th of September,' says
Peggy, laughing, and passing her arm fondly round her sister, who,
unable to keep away from the magnet of Mrs. Hartley's invitation, has
followed it to the fireplace.

'The 15th of September,' repeats the other, dismayed; 'is it possible
that it is not till the 15th of September? Oh, what a long time off! How
I wish that I could fall asleep now, and only wake up on the very
morning!'

Peggy sighs. There is to her something terrible in her sister's
eagerness, knowing, as she does, how little it has in common with the
wholesome hearty hunger for pleasure of her age. But she speaks
cheerfully:

'The play will be the better acted; the floor will be the better waxed.'

'I am sure that it was _he_ who reminded them to ask us; I am sure that
they would never have remembered us but for _him_,' pursues the young
girl, colouring with pleasure. 'He used to say--indeed,' still further
brightening, 'he said it again not so long ago, that he always felt a
sensation of emptiness about a room that I was not in.'

'Oh, Miss Lambton!' cries Franky, bursting into the room, and bringing
with him a somewhat powerful agricultural odour, 'we have been having
_such_ fun! we have been helping Alfred to fork manure. Nanny is _so_
cross; she is coming after me--oh, do not let her find me! do hide me
somewhere!'

But unfortunately Master Harborough's attendant is able to track him by
another sense than sight, and from the shelter of Peggy's petticoat,
magnanimously extended to protect him, he is presently drawn forth, and
carried off, in company with his sister, to a purification profoundly
deprecated by both.

For the next four weeks the Hartley card of invitation remains enthroned
in the place of honour on Peggy's chimney-piece. Festivities are not so
rife in the neighbourhood of the little Red House that it runs any risk
of being dethroned, or of even having its eminence shared. Freddy has
been affectionately taxed by his betrothed with having been instrumental
in its despatch, but he has delicately denied.

'I always think,' he says prettily, 'that there is a magnet in the heart
of all good people, drawing them towards each other; so that you see,
dear, there was no need for me.'

The magnet of which he speaks must be in great force in his own case
just now, judging by the frequency with which the ten long miles--always
charged by the flymen as eleven--between the Manor and the home of the
Hartleys are spanned by him. Prue does not always hear from himself of
these excursions, though, indeed, he makes no great secret of them.
Oftener an officious young Evans thrusts upon her the fact of having met
him going in the accustomed direction; oftener still, the little
Harboroughs innocently mention it as a thing of course; oftenest, her
own heart divines it. And after all, what can be more natural than that
at such a juncture his services should be needed and asked; than that he
whose mouth has always been so full of the beauty and duty of living
for others, should give them readily and freely? And again, what can be
more natural or obvious than that his presence should be needed, should
be indispensable in fact, in the endless discussions as to the choice of
a play, interminable as the ever famous ones in 'Mansfield Park;' and
that with him it should rest to adjust the jarring claims of the young
Hartleys, of whom some pipe, some harp, and some do neither, but are
none the less resolved to display themselves in one capacity or another
before the ----shire public? And, later on, when the stage with its
decorations arrives from London, what can be more natural than that
those among the scenes which do not commend themselves to the actors'
liking should be painted afresh; and that again Freddy's unerring taste
and illimitable good-nature should be called into play?

'You really are too good-natured, Mr. Ducane,' Mrs. Hartley reiterates;
'you let them impose upon you. You really ought to think of yourself
sometimes; it does not do not to think of one's self sometimes; one has
to be selfish now and again, in this world.' And Freddy, aloft on a
ladder with a large brush in his hand, and smouches of paint on his
charming face, smiles delightfully, and says he should be sorry to have
to think that. And when he does make time for a visit to the Red House,
he is so affectionate; brings with him such an atmosphere of enjoyment;
is so full of interesting pieces of news about the progress of the
preparations, of pleasant speeches as to the intense eagerness on the
part of the whole Hartley family to make Prue's acquaintance, that for
twenty-four hours after each of them her spirits maintain the level to
which the fillip of his easy tendernesses has lifted them.

'It would be tiresome if it were to last for ever, I grant you,' she
says to Peggy one day, with an assumption of placid indifference; 'but
as it is a temporary thing--so very temporary--why, in less than a
fortnight now it will be over, how silly I should be to care! In less
than a fortnight' (her face growing suffused with a happy pink) 'we
shall go back to our old ways; and the Hartleys will be off in their
fine yacht round the world--and good luck go with them! I _like_ him to
help them. I tell you I like it,' reiterating the assertion as if
knowing it to be one not very easily to be believed; 'it would not have
tallied at all with my idea of him if he had refused.'

And Peggy only rejoins despondently: 'Well, dear, if you are pleased, so
am I.'

Not, indeed, that Margaret contents herself with this depressed
acquiescence in her sister's eclipsed condition. She has on several
occasions, and despite many gently conveyed hints on his part that she
is not judicious in her choice of opportunities, endeavoured to tackle
Mr. Ducane on the subject of his future, to obtain some definite answer
from him as to the choice of a profession, etc. But her unsuccess has
been uniform and unvaried. It is not that he has ever refused to discuss
the question with her. Indeed, in looking back upon their conversation
she is always puzzled to remember how it was that he had eluded her. She
has generally ended by tracing his escape back to some exalted
abstraction; some sentiment too delicate for the wear and tear of
everyday life; some bubbling jest.

'You know, dear,' he says to her very kindly one day, when she has been
pointing out to him, with some warmth, the entire frivolity of his
present mode of life; 'you know, dear, that you and I are always a
little at odds as to the true meaning of the word "education." I have
always felt that the soul's education can be more furthered by what the
world calls "play," than by what it has chosen to define specially as
"work." There is no use in forcing one's spirit, dear Peggy. One is much
more likely to learn the lines that one's true development ought to
follow by sitting still and listening humbly to the voice of the Erd
Geist.'

'And the voice of the Erd Geist tells you to paint drop-scenes for the
Hartleys'?' replies Peggy witheringly; but her sarcasm furthers her
cause as little as do her more serious reasonings.

At the end of the month that intervenes between the arrival of the
Hartleys' invitation and the fulfilment of its promise, that cause is
exactly where it was. By milady Peggy has been spared any further
reference to the subject of her sister's engagement; nor, as far as is
known to the girl, has Lady Roupell taken any step such as she had
threatened for the separation of the lovers.

With a stab at her heart Peggy recognises the reason of this inaction.
The shrewd old woman sees how needless is her interference; and, being
kind as well as shrewd, refrains from giving the last unnecessary shove
to the tottering card-house of poor Prue's felicity.



CHAPTER XXXIII

    'At Charing Cross, hard by the way
     Where we, thou know'st, do sell our hay,
       There is a house with stairs;
     And there did I see coming down
     Such folk as are not in our town;
       Forty at least in pairs.'


On the night of the 15th of September a great many more than forty pairs
of feet were passing up and down the stairs of that magnificent specimen
of Jackson's domestic architecture, the Hartleys' new palace in
----shire. Amateur theatricals are, strange as it may appear, since
going to see them is almost invariably the triumph of hope over
experience, always an attractive bait to hold out to a country
neighbourhood. Apart from the pleasure of thinking how much better than
do the actors, one could have played their parts one's self; and that
opposite and more good-natured, if not quite so acute pleasure, of
wondering with Miss Snevellici's patroness, 'How they ever learnt to act
as they do, laughing in one piece, and crying in the next, and so
natural in both,' there is, in the present case, an element of curiosity
which adds an additional poignancy to the expectation of enjoyment usual
in such cases.

It is the Hartley _coup d'essai_ in hospitality in the county, and there
is a widespread interest manifested as to how they will do it. Almost as
widespread is the comfortable conviction that they will do it well.

An old-established squire who has been seated on his modest acres for a
couple of hundred years may venture to invite his friends to dance on a
sticky floor to the sound of a piano, and to wash away their fatigue in
libations of 50-shilling champagne; but the millionaire, who has only
within the last year set an uncertain foot upon the land, is not likely
to try any such experiments upon the county's patience. It is, then,
with a confident hope of Gunter and Coote and Tinney that the occupants
of most of the carriages step out on the red cloth--a hope that the
first glimpse of the banks of orchids that line the entrance-hall goes
far to make a certainty.

From the minds of the occupants of one carriage, to whose turn, after
long waiting in the endless string, it at length comes to set free its
load, Gunter, Coote and Tinney, and orchids are equally distant.
Milady's head is still running on her Patience, which, by the aid of a
carriage-lamp and a pack of tiny cards, she has been playing contentedly
during the whole of the long ten miles. The little portion of Peggy's
heart that is not filled with an aching compassion and anxiety for her
sister is pierced by the fear of the extreme likelihood, in so
promiscuous a gathering of three-fourths of the county, of her finding
herself face to face with the one woman whom she would compass sea and
land to avoid, and with the man whom that woman habitually carries in
her train.

And Prue?

'I think he is sure to be at the door to receive us, do not you?' she
has whispered to her sister, under cover of milady's absorption in her
solitary game, while they are still waiting in the string; 'not that I
shall be so silly as to attach any importance to it if he is not; but
after a whole week!' stifling a sigh. 'Oh dear!' letting down the glass
and craning her neck impatiently out, 'shall we never get there? I see
carriage-lamps for half a mile ahead of us still!'

A whole week! It is true. For a whole week the Red House has been
favoured with no glimpse of Mr. Ducane. How should it, indeed, since he
has been compelled by the exigencies of his situation to take up his
abode entirely at the scene of his labours? Of what use to waste upon
the long ride there and back time so precious in a last week? the time
of one upon whose inexhaustible stock of ability and good-nature every
one thinks him or herself entitled to draw.

But though he has been unable to present himself in person to his
betrothed, he has had time to scribble her a tiny pencil-note, just a
word--but then how little can the value of a letter be measured by its
length!--praying her to keep a place for him by her side at the
theatricals.

'If my Prue refuses, it will be all over with my pleasure,' he ends
simply.

The carriage, after many tantalising halts opposite dark laurels, draws
up finally before a blaze of electric light, a crowd of powdered
footmen, an arching of palm-boughs; and milady steps deliberately out in
her fur boots and her diamond 'fender,' followed by her two _protégées_.
Freddy is not at the door to receive them; and the moment that she has
discovered this fact, Prue sees the irrationality of the hope that had
led her ever to expect that he would be. He is naturally not in the
cloak-room, where milady seems, to the girl's passionate impatience, to
loiter unconscionably long, tugging at the strings of her _sortie de
bal_, which have got into a knot, and talking to the numerous friends
she meets there. To do her justice, it is not any care for her toilette
that detains her. She would quite as soon have the famous tiara--her
'fender,' as she always calls it--which the county has admired for fifty
years, on crooked as straight. The county expects to see it on great
occasions, and so she puts it on; but if Mrs. Mason were to dispose it
behind before, the circumstance would disturb but very slightly her
lady's equanimity. Mr. Ducane is not, as far as can be made out by a
first glance, in the magnificent music-room, to-night arranged as a
theatre, and at whose door Mrs. Hartley stands, smiling and splendid, to
receive her guests. But though Prue's eye has as yet to fast from the
sight of her betrothed, her ear at least is gladdened by his praises.

'Oh, Lady Roupell, I do not know how we ever can thank Mr. Ducane
enough!' she hears Mrs. Hartley exclaim. 'My girls say they do not know
what they should have done without him--so kind, so clever, and
unselfish is not the word!'

Milady grunts.

'No, I do not think it is,' she says, half _sotto voce_, as she passes
on.

At the first look, the room, superb as are its proportions, seems
already full; but a closer inspection reveals at the upper end several
still vacant rows of arm-chairs, reserved by the host and hostess for
those among their guests whom they most delight to honour. To this
favoured category belongs milady, and she is presently installed with
her two young friends by a _sémillant_ papa Hartley, in the very middle
of the front rank. For the present, nothing can be easier than for Prue
to keep the chair at her side vacant. She has already anxiously and
surreptitiously spread her white frock over it. Each of earth's glories
has probably its attendant disadvantages; a warm and consoling doctrine
for those to whose share not much of life's gilding falls; nor is a seat
in the front row of synagogue or playhouse any exception to this rule.
It has the inevitable drawback, that except by an uncomfortable
contortion of the neck-muscles, it is impossible for its occupants to
see what is going on in the body of the room; and the view of
foot-lights and a drop-scene is one that after a while is apt to pall.

Prue's head is continually turning over her shoulder, as, from the body
of the long hall, all blazing with pink-shaded electric lamps, comes the
noise of gowns rustling, of steps and voices, as people settle into
their seats. At first she had had no cause for uneasiness. The people,
as they tide in, conscious of no particular claim to chief places, pack
themselves, with laughs and greetings to acquaintances, into the
unreserved seats. But presently Mr. Hartley is seen convoying a party of
ladies and men to the top of the room with the same evidences of
deferential tenderness as he had shown to milady; and no sooner are they
disposed of, according to their merits, than he reappears with the same
smile, and a new batch. This continues to happen until the human tide,
like its prototype in its inexorable march over swallowed sands and
drunk rocks, has advanced, despite the piteous protest in Prue's eyes,
to within three chairs of her. Yes, including that one so imperfectly
veiled by the poor child's skirt, there are only three vacant seats
remaining.

'Oh, I wish he would come! Oh, I wish he would come!' she repeats, with
something that grows ever nearer and nearer to a sob in her voice. 'Oh,
Peggy, do you think he will not come after all? You are longer-sighted
than I am; do look if you can see him anywhere! Oh, I wish he would
come! I shall not be able to keep this chair for him much longer, and
then----'

Her words are prophetic. Scarcely are they out of her mouth before the
vision of the radiant host is again seen nearing them, with a fresh
freight--a freight that rustles and jingles and chatters louder than any
of the previous ones.

'Oh yes, do put me in a good place!' a high and apparently extravagantly
cheerful voice is heard exclaiming; 'I always like the best places if I
can get them--do not you? and I mean to applaud more loudly than
anybody. I have been engaged by Freddy Ducane as a claque; and I assure
you I mean to keep my word.'

Although she has been expecting it--although she has told herself that
to hear it is among the most probable of the evening's chances, yet, at
the sound of that clear thin voice, Peggy turns extremely cold. It has
come then. In a second she will certainly be called upon to hear another
voice. Let her then brace herself to bear it decently. Her hands clasp
themselves involuntarily, and she draws in her breath; but she cannot
lift her eyes. She sits looking straight before her, waiting. But
instead of the tones that with such sick dread she is expecting, she
hears only milady's voice--milady's voice not in its suavest key.

'Oh! it is you, is it? How many of you are there?--because we are pretty
full here; and I suppose you do not mean to sit upon our knees.'

'There is nothing I should like better!' cries Lady Betty friskily. 'You
are looking perfectly delightful to-night; all the more so because your
fender is quite on one side. Come now, do not be ill-natured, but make
room for me; you know I am not very----'

Peggy hears the voice break off abruptly; and involuntarily her eyes,
hitherto glued to the back of the chair in front of her, snatch a hasty
glance in Lady Betty's direction. She has turned away, and is addressing
Mr. Hartley in an altered and hurried key.

'After all, I hope you will not think me very changeable, but I believe
I should like to sit a little farther back; one sees better, and hears
better, and gets a better general idea.'

'She is going away!' whispers Prue, with a long quivering sigh of
relief. 'Oh, I was so frightened! I thought she was going to take my
chair. Why did she go? She could not have seen us!'

But this is not quite the conclusion arrived at by Peggy, as her eyes
follow Betty's retreating figure--Betty, with her

          'Little head
    Sunning with curls'

that go to bed in a box--Betty, with the docile Harborough and a couple
of Guardsmen at her heels; and--without John Talbot! That for one chance
evening she should happen to lack his attendance is, after all, but
small evidence against his being still riveted with her fetters; but
Peggy's heart swells with a disproportionate elation at the discovery.
There is, alas! not much likelihood of poor Prue's feeling a like
expansion; for scarcely has she finished drawing the long breath caused
her by Betty's retreat, than the seat which the latter had spared is
approached, settled upon, and irrevocably occupied--poor Prue's barriers
politely but ruthlessly swept away.

She has attempted a hurried protest, but it has not been even heard; and
now it is too late, for a bell has rung. The curtain has swept aloft,
with less of hesitation and dubiousness as to the result than is
generally the case with amateur curtains, and discloses to view the
second Miss Hartley seated under the rustic berceau of a wayside Italian
wine-shop, in peasant's cap and bodice, soliloquising rather nervously
and at some length. What is the drift of that soliloquy; or of the
dialogue that follows with a person of a bandit nature, whom it takes
some moments for his acquaintance to decipher into a young man Hartley;
or of the jiggy catchy songs with which the piece is freely
interspersed, Peggy will never know to her last day.

Before her eyes, indeed, there is a phantasmagoria of people going and
coming in a blaze of light--of more be-peasanted Misses Hartley, with
more banditted brothers; in her ears a brisk dialogue that must be
funny, judging from the roars of laughter coming from behind her; of
smart galloping quartettes and trios that must be humorous and musical,
from the storm of applause and encores that greet them. But to her brain
penetrate none of the gay and smiling images conveyed by her senses. Her
brain is wholly occupied by the painful and impossible effort to calm
Prue, whose agitation, rendered more unmanageable by the weakness of her
state of health and the lack of any habit of self-government, threatens
to become uncontrollable.

'Oh, Peggy, why has not he come? What has become of him? Where can he
be?' she keeps moaningly whispering.

Peggy has taken hold of one of her sister's feverish hands, whose dry
fire is felt even through her glove, and presses it now and again.

'He will be here directly,' she answers soothingly; 'no doubt he could
not get away. You heard how useful he has been! Probably he is helping
them behind the scenes. Do not you think that you could try to look a
little less miserable? I am so afraid that people will remark it.'

'If he is behind the scenes,' moans Prue, not paying any heed to,
evidently hardly hearing, this gentle admonition, 'he is with her. You
see that she is not acting either! Wherever they are, they are together!
Oh, Peggy, I think I shall die of misery!'

The close of her sentence is drowned in a tempest of riotous applause,
and Peggy's eyes involuntarily turn to the stage, to learn the cause.
One of the performers, who has been throughout pre-eminently the funny
man of the piece, is singing a solo, accompanied by many facetious
gestures. The drift of the song is the excessive happiness of the
singer--a theme which is enlarged upon through half a dozen successive
verses:

    'The lark is blithe,
         And the summer fly;
       Blithe is the cricket,
         And blithe am I.
     None so blithe, so blithe as I!'

Peggy happens to have some acquaintance with the singer off the stage;
knows him to be sickly, melancholy, poor; to-night racked with
neuralgia, yet obliged to do his little tricks, and go through his small
antics, on penalty of banishment from that society, his sole _raison
d'être_ in which is his gift of making people laugh.

'La Comédie Humaine!' she says to herself--'La Comédie Humaine!'



CHAPTER XXXIV

    'We men may say more, swear more; but indeed,
     Our shows are more than will, for still we prove
     Much in our vows, but little in our love.'


The Hartleys are wise enough to avoid the error so common amongst
amateur actors and managers, of prolonging their treat until pleasure is
turned into weariness. They are obviously mindful of the fact that among
their audience are a number of dancing feet, whose owners not even the
acting of Rachel or Mrs. Siddons would indemnify, in their own opinion,
for having the fair proportions of their dancing hours thrown away. The
operetta has only three acts, and is followed by no farce or afterpiece.
In point of fact, it is contained within the limits of a couple of
hours. Yet to two of its auditors it appears practically interminable.
To two amongst them it seems as if there never would be an end to its
songs, its facetious misunderstandings, and jocose makings up; and when
at length the curtain falls amid a hurricane of applause, only to be
instantly drawn up again in order that the whole of the final quartette
may be repeated, it appears as if they must have sat watching it for
nights. At last the curtain drops finally. At last there is an end to
the endless encores. The performers, in answer to the shouts which
demand them, have appeared in turn before the curtain, and made their
bows, and picked up their bouquets, with such differing degrees of grace
and _aplomb_ as their native gifts, or more or less familiarity with
the situation, allow.

The sad little merryman has cut his final caper, and made a grimace of
so surpassing a ludicrousness as will allow him to be peacefully
melancholy for the rest of the evening.

And now all eyes are turned away from the stage; all tongues are loosed.
The doors at the end of the hall are opened, and a stream of people is
beginning rapidly to issue through them. Every one has risen and is
looking about, glad to shift their position, say 'how do you do' to
their friends, and exchange comments on play and actors.

There is a general stir and buzz; a seeking out of expected friends, and
delighted greeting of unexpected ones; a reciprocal examination of
gowns, now first possible; and a universal aspiration for supper.

Milady and her girls have risen with the others. Prue, indeed, has been
the first person in the room on her legs. She is looking round, like the
rest of the world; at least, so to a casual observer it might appear.
But, alas! what is there in common between the smiling careless glances,
lighting with easy amusement on indifferent objects, and the tragic
searching--terrible in its one-ideaed intentness--of those despairing
blue eyes? Peggy has firm hold of one burning hand, and is murmuring
broken sentences of comfort into her inattentive ear.

'Yes, dear, yes! I will go with you wherever you like; but you know we
cannot quite leave milady; and he is more likely to find us here. I dare
say he has been looking at us all the while from behind the scenes,
trying to see how you were enjoying yourself.' She leaves off
hopelessly, since Prue is not listening to her. Snatches of talk,
disjointed and mixed, reach her ear.

'Jackson was the architect; built the new schools at Oxford; they always
strike one as rather like a splendid country house.'

'Thoroughly well built; made all his own bricks; sent them up to London
to be tested; best that ever were made!'

'Really nearly as good as professionals; better than some professionals;
might easily be that. They say that the one who acts best of all did not
act to-night--the eldest.'

'Why did not she, I wonder?'

'Better employed perhaps--ha! ha!'

At the same moment Peggy feels a convulsive pressure on her arm, and
hears Prue's passionately excited voice:

'There he is! at the far end of the room; he is looking for us! Oh, how
can we make him see us?'

She has raised herself on tiptoe, and is sending a look of such agonised
entreaty down the hall as, one would think, must penetrate even the mass
of shifting, buzzing humanity that intervenes between her and its
object. Perhaps it does. Perhaps the magnet that Freddy once prettily
suggested to be in the hearts of all good people drawing them together
is exercising its influence on his. At all events, in a few minutes they
see him smilingly pushing his way, stopped at every step by greetings
and compliments--for it has somehow become generally diffused through
the room that to him is to be ascribed most of the glory of the
entertainment--through the crowd. In a moment more he is before them.

'Here you are, you dear things!' he says, taking a hand of each, looking
flushed and handsome, and speaking in an excited voice. 'Did not it go
off wonderfully well?--not a hitch anywhere. Did you hear the prompter
once? No? Neither of you? I thought not; and yet if you had seen us half
an hour before the curtain drew up, you would have said that the whole
thing was going to be a fiasco.'

He stops to draw a long breath of self-congratulation.

'I kept the chair beside me as long as I could,' says Prue, in a
faltering voice; 'I did my best.'

His eye rests on her for a moment with a puzzled air--on her small face,
flushed like his own; but, alas! how differently! It is evident that for
the first second he does not comprehend her, having entirely forgotten
his own request. Then recollecting:

'How good of you, dear!' he says affectionately. 'Of course, it was a
bitter disappointment to me, too; but on occasions of this kind,' with a
slight resigned shrug, 'one must, of course, give up all idea of
individual enjoyment.'

He is such an embodiment of radiant joy as he speaks, that Margaret
cannot help darting an indignant look at him--a bolt aimed so full and
true, that it hits him right in his laughing eyes.

'Of course,' he says, reddening under it, 'I do not mean to say that
there has not been a good deal of incidental enjoyment; but _you_,
dear,' turning to Prue, with lowered voice--'you who always see things
intuitively--you will understand what a distinction there is between
pleasure and happiness--_Innigkeit_!'

She has lifted her eyes, cleared for the moment of their agonised
seeking, to his, and is beginning a little trembling eager speech to
assure him of her complete comprehension; but his own mind having
meanwhile flown off at a tangent, he breaks in upon it:

'Was not that song excellent--

    "The lark is blithe,
        And the summer fly"?

Quite as good as anything of Grossmith's--do not you think so! Did not
it make you laugh tremendously? Oh, I hope, dear,' with an accent of
rather pained reproach, 'that it made you laugh!'

Prue hesitates. In point of fact she had not heard one word of the
jocose ditty alluded to; as, during the whole of it, she had been
keeping up a conversation in heart-broken whispers with Peggy.

'Oh yes; of course,' she answers nervously; 'it was very
funny--excessively funny! I--I--should like to hear it again. I--I--am
sure that it is one of those things that one would think much funnier
the second time than the first.'

'It is as good as anything of Grossmith's,' repeats Freddy confidently.
Then, beginning to hum a valse, 'You can have no idea what a floor this
is! Be sure, dear, that you keep quantities of dances for me!'

'Oh yes; of course--of course,' replies she, with tremulous ecstasy.
'Which--which would you like?'

But before Mr. Ducane has time to signify his preferences, a third
person intervenes. Poor Prue has often expressed a wish to see the
eldest Miss Hartley; but the mode in which our wishes are granted is not
always quite that which we should have chosen.

'Oh, Mr. Ducane,' she says, hurrying up, 'I am so sorry to interrupt
you; but it is the old story,' laughing, and with an apologetic bow to
Prue--'we cannot get on without you. We are so puzzled to know who it is
that papa ought to take in to supper! Is it Lady Manson, or Lady
Chester? We thought you could tell us which is the oldest creation.'

Freddy has not an idea, but instantly volunteers to go off in search of
a 'Peerage' to decide this knotty point; and Miss Hartley, having
civilly lingered a moment to excuse herself to the Miss Lambtons, and to
remark in almost the same words as her mother had used upon the
extraordinary unselfishness of Mr. Ducane, flits away after him.

'It was too bad of her,' says Prue, with a trembling lip. 'She might at
least have let him tell me how many dances he wanted; but'--brightening
up--'he said "quantities," did not he? You heard him?'

Peggy's rejoinder is prevented by her attention being at the same moment
claimed by milady, and by a general forward movement of the company,
which has been requested by Mrs. Hartley to vacate the hall in order
that it may be got ready for dancing.

In the slight confusion and pushing that follows, Peggy finds herself
separated from her sister and her chaperon; and a few minutes
afterwards, the joyful tidings having spread abroad that the supper-room
doors are open, an acquaintance offers her his arm to lead her thither.
She looks around anxiously once again in search of Prue; but not being
able to catch a glimpse of either her or Lady Roupell, can only hope
that both have reached the goal of supper before her.

The room is of course thronged--when was a just-opened supper-room not
crowded?--and it is some little while before Peggy's partner is able to
elbow a way for her to the table, which, when she reaches it, is already
robbed of its virgin glory. She looks down the long rows of moving jaws;
catches milady's eye--milady eating _pâté de foie gras_, which always
makes her ill; snatches a far glimpse of Mr. Evans setting down a
champagne-glass, with the beatific smile of one who, drinking, remembers
the Vicarage small-beer; and has a nearer, fuller view of Lady Betty,
rosy and naked as Aphrodite, laughing at the top of her voice, and
pulling a chicken's merry-thought with one of her Guardsmen to see which
will be married first.

Peggy quickly averts her eyes; and, bringing them home, they alight upon
Mrs. Evans, whom, by a singular accident, she finds next door to her.

Mrs. Evans, as we know, cannot come under the condemnation of those who
'have not on a wedding-garment,' since she never wears anything else.
Despite her old dyed gown, however, she is obviously enjoying herself
with the best.

'This is not the sort of thing that one sees every day,' cries she, in a
voice of elated wonder, surveying the ocean of delicacies around her. 'I
only wish I could get hold of a _menu_ to take home with me! I am so
glad we came. I was not at all anxious to come, on account of the
distance; in fact, I yielded entirely on Mr. Evans's account. He is in
one of his low ways; you know what that means! He wants change; we all
want change. Did you hear the mistake he made last Sunday in the Psalms?
He said, "In the midst were the damsels playing with the _minstrels_."'

Peggy laughs absently.

'It sounds rather frisky.'

'I only hope that nobody noticed it,' pursues the Vicaress; 'he always
makes those kind of mistakes when he wants change. Dear me!' casting a
look and a long sigh of envy round the room; 'if I had a house like
this, I should never want change for my part; and to think that it is to
be shut up for the whole of the winter--for a whole year, in fact!'

The Hartleys' house has not, so far, afforded Peggy such a large harvest
of pleasure that she is able very cordially to echo this lamentation.

'What can possess any one to go round the world passes my
understanding,' continues her interlocutor, pelican-like, as she speaks,
forcing some nougat for her offspring surreptitiously into a little bag
under cover of the table-edge; 'not but what they will do it in all
possible luxury, of course--cheval glasses, and oil-paintings, and
Indian carpets, just as one has in one's own drawing-room.'

At this last clause, sad and inattentive as she is, Peggy cannot forbear
a smile of amusement, as the image of the Vicarage Kidder rises before
her mind's eye; but it is very soon dissipated by her neighbour's next
remark.

'By the bye, some one was telling me to-night that Freddy Ducane is to
be of the party. I assured her, looking wise, that I knew better; but
she persisted that she had had it upon the best authority--one of the
family, as far as I could understand.'

She may continue her speech to the ambient air; for, when next she looks
up from her larceny of bonbons, Peggy is gone. The hall, meanwhile, has
been cleared of its innumerable chairs, and its theatrical properties
generally, and converted into a back-room, with that surprising rapidity
that unlimited money, with practically unlimited labour at its beck and
call, can always command.

No sooner have the guests well supped, than, with no tiresome
interregnum, no waiting and wondering, they may, if they list, begin to
dance. A smooth sea of Vienna parquet spreads before them, and
established on the stage, the British Grenadiers themselves--no mere
piano and fiddle--are striking up the initial quadrille. It is some
little time before Peggy is able to make her way between the forming
sets to where milady sits, her coronet more hopelessly askew than ever,
and an expression of good-humoured resignation on her face.

'My mind is braced for the worst,' she says good-naturedly; 'get along
both of you and dance. Not that there can be much dancing in this silly
child,' pointing to Prue; 'she must be as empty as a drum. She has not
eaten a mouthful.'

She shrugs her shoulders, since it is evident that Prue does not hear.
In a state of preoccupation so intense as that of the young girl's, it
would be difficult for anything presented by the senses to make its way
into the brain. She is standing stiffly upright, her head and chin
slightly advanced, as one looking with passionate eagerness ahead. Her
lips are moving, as if she were saying some one thing over and over to
herself. Whatever of her face is not lividly white is burning; and her
eyes----

As she so stands, an acquaintance comes up, and asks her for the dance,
now well begun. She does not understand him at first; but, on his
repeating his request, she refuses it curtly.

'Thank you, I am engaged.'

'If you are neither of you going to dance,' says milady, seeing both her
_protégées_ remaining standing beside her, and speaking with a slight
and certainly pardonable irritation, 'I may as well go home to my
blessed bed.'

_Go home!_ Prue has caught the words, and cast a glance of agony at her
sister. _Go home!_

'Do not be impatient, dear milady,' says Margaret, trying to speak
lightly and look gay; 'you will be crying out in quite another key just
now. I am engaged for nearly all the programme. Ah, here comes my
partner!'

For by this time the quadrille has come to an end, and a valse has
struck up. To join it, Margaret walks off reluctantly, looking behind
her. She is profoundly unwilling to leave her sister in her present
state; but, since to dance is the only means of averting milady's
fulfilment of her threat of going home, there is no alternative.

To most girls of Peggy's age the joy in dancing for dancing's sake is a
thing of the past; but to her, from the innocency of her nature, and her
little contact with the world, which has preserved in her a freshness of
sensation that usually does not survive eighteen, the pleasure in the
mere movement of her sound young limbs, in the lilt of the measure and
the wind of her own fleetness, is as keen as ever.

Peggy loves dancing. To-night she has a partner worthy of her, in her
ears brave music beyond praise, under her light feet a Vienna parquet of
slippery perfection; and she is no more conscious of these advantages
than if she were dancing in clogs on a brick floor. Whenever she
pauses--and, long-winded as she is, she must pause now and again, in
whatever part of the pink-light-flooded room her partner lands her,
whether by the great bank of hothouse flowers at the lower end, or near
the blaring Grenadiers at the top, or beneath one of the portraits of
famous musicians that line the side walls--it seems to her that
absolutely nothing meets her eyes but that one tiny burning face,
stretched always forward in the same attitude, with its lips moving, and
its eyes turning hither and thither in forlorn and desperate search.
Prue is not dancing.

As Peggy, answering absently and _à bâtons rompus_, the civil speeches
of her companion, watches, in a pained perplexity, the features whose
misery has so effectually poisoned her own evening, she sees a fresh
expression settle upon them, an expression no longer of deferred and
piteous expectation, but of acute and intolerable wretchedness. She is
not long in learning the cause. Following the direction of Prue's
glance, her own alights upon a couple that have but just joined the
dance. It is needless to name them.

Peggy's partner catches himself wondering whether it can be any of his
own harmless remarks that has brought the frown that is so indubitably
lowering there to her smooth forehead, or that has made her red lips
close in so tight and thin. He wonders a little, too, at the request
that immediately follows these phenomena.

'Would you mind taking me to Miss Hartley and her partner? I want to
speak to them; we might dance there.'

A minute of smooth whirling lands her at Freddy's side, and fortunately
for her, at the same moment some one addressing the daughter of the
house from behind takes off her attention.

'Are not you going to dance with Prue?' she asks in a stern breathless
whisper. 'Have you forgotten that you are engaged to Prue?'

He looks at her with a gentle astonishment.

'What are you talking about, dear? Is it a thing that I am likely to
forget? Of course I must get through my duty-dances first. Dear Prue is
the last person not to understand that. You are looking _splendid_
to-night, Peg! perhaps because you are so ill-tempered--evil passions
always become you. You have not a dance to spare me, I suppose? What a
floor! Tra la la!'

Away he scampers with Miss Hartley, and Peggy, curtly resisting all her
ill-used swain's entreaties to take another turn, insists upon being led
back there and then to her chaperon. Prue shall not, through her fault,
have one second's more suspense to endure.

'It is all right!' she says eagerly, under her breath, into the young
girl's ear; 'he is getting through his duty-dances first. It is all
right.'



CHAPTER XXXV


But the execution of Mr. Ducane's duty-dances is apparently no short
task, nor one lightly or quickly accomplished. But few of them, as it
turns out, are danced in the ball-room in the eye of the world, and of
the electric light. A far larger number are danced on sofas, in obscure
corners of little-frequented boudoirs, on steps of the stairs, and under
the palm-fans and tree-ferns of the conservatory.

And meanwhile the night swings on. Dance has followed dance. The feet
fall pat to the perfect time of the soldiers' music: valse, galop,
polka, mazurka, Lancers--Peggy dances them all.

In the Lancers chance brings her close to Lady Betty, who is romping
through them with a staid County Member, whom to the petrifaction of his
wife, watching horror-struck from afar, she makes romp flagrantly too.
Her voice throughout the evening is heard, penetratingly high, above the
band; her laugh seems to be ringing from every corner of the room,
accompanying her extraordinary antics. For Lady Betty is by no means on
her best behaviour to-night, and permits herself such innocent and
humorous playfulnesses as putting a spoonful of ice down the back of one
of the young Hartleys, popping a fool's-cap out of a cracker on the head
of a bald old gentleman perfectly unknown to her, etc. She is evidently
not fretting very badly at Talbot's absence. So Margaret thinks, as with
a sort of unwilling fascination she watches her.

Lady Betty is evidently in precisely the same mood as she was on that
evening when she had favoured milady's guests at the Manor with her
remarkable song. It would take uncommonly little persuasion to-night to
induce her to sing--

    'Oh! who will press that lily hand?'

'I think she is _drunk_!' says Mrs. Evans charitably. 'I am sure she
acts as if she were. If _I_ were to behave like that, I should expect
men to take any kind of liberty with me. I should not feel that I had
any right to complain if they did.'

Peggy laughs. The idea of Mrs. Evans dancing the can-can, and getting
kissed for her pains, is so irresistibly comic that for a minute or two
she cannot help herself.

Lady Roupell has grown tired of scolding Prue for her obstinate refusal
of all invitations to dance. Milady has happily fallen in with an old
friend, whose path hers had not crossed for thirty years. With him she
fights o'er again the battles of her youth, and forgets her 'blessed
bed.' She goes in to supper a second time, and has more _pâté de foie
gras_. Peggy sees it in the guilt of her eye when she comes out.

And meanwhile Peggy herself dances on indefatigably, returning, however,
rigorously at the end of each dance to her chaperon, in order to assure
herself that there is no change for the better in the position of Prue.

None! none! none! Always standing on precisely the same spot; the poor
little figure rigidly upright; the flushed cheekbones; the straining
eyes. Always? No, thank God, not always! At last it is gone! At last she
finds its place vacant.

'Where is Prue?' she asks eagerly, forgetting her usual gentle good
manners so far as to break with her question into milady's
_tête-à-tête_.

'Prue!' repeats the other, looking round rather tartly from her
interrupted conversation; 'God bless my soul, child! how can I tell?'
and so resumes her talk.

But though this is not a very lucid explanation of her sister's absence,
Peggy returns from it with a considerably lightened heart. Since it is a
matter of certainty that Prue would never have consented to dance with
any one but Freddy, he must have come at last. They are nowhere in
sight, therefore he must have carried her off to some retired corner,
where he is persuading her--so easy of persuasion, poor soul--of how
much he has been suffering all evening, and how extremely loftily he has
behaved. Of whatever he is persuading her, her long agony is for this
evening at least probably at an end.

Peggy draws a deep breath at the thought, and for the first time becomes
aware how good the floor is, and how pleasant the long swallow-swoop
from end to end of the ball-room. The crowd is growing much thinner.
People who have a long distance to drive are already gone. Mrs. Evans,
bulging at every point with the result of her thefts, and driving the
reluctant Vicar before her, takes herself off, having indulged herself
in one parting whisper to Peggy, to the effect that she 'shall not bow
to Lady Betty, even if she looks as if she expected it.' For Betty is
still here, and having run up the whole gamut of her schoolboy follies,
having grown tired of throwing tarts at her admirers, and pelting them
with lobster claws, has settled down into a steady audacious open
flirtation with a Rural Dean, the sight of whose good lady's jealous
writhings seems to afford her a great deal of innocent joy.

Lady Roupell's old friend has been reluctantly reft away from her by his
party, and she is beginning to show signs of uneasiness, as Peggy can
see from a distance. But since Prue's place beside her is still vacant,
the elder sister is resolved that no action of hers--however apparently
called for by the ordinary rules of politeness--shall tend to shorten
the few brief moments of happiness that have come, however tardily, to
sweeten her evening's long bitterness. She has deliberately dodged
milady's messengers sent in pursuit of her, has evaded them behind
doors, and has slipped past them in passages; and it is not until she
catches a distant glimpse of Prue returning to her chaperon on Mr.
Ducane's arm, that she at length allows herself to be captured. Milady
receives her rather testily.

'Come along! come along!' cries she fussily; 'why did not you come
before? I do not want to help blow out the lights.'

But Peggy does not answer. Her eyes are fixed in a shocked astonishment
on Prue. Instead of the radiant transformation she had expected to find
in her--a transformation hitherto as certain under three kind words from
Freddy, as the supplanting of night by red-rose day in the visible
world--she sees her livid, and with an expression of hopeless stunned
despair, such as never before in her saddest moments has been worn by
it, on her drawn face. Her hand has fallen from Freddy's arm, and her
sister snatches it.

'What is it, Prue? What is it?'

The girl does not seem to hear at first; then:

'Nothing, nothing!' she says stiffly. 'Home; let us go home.'

'She is tired!' cries Mr. Ducane--he too looks pale--caressingly lifting
her other hand, which lies perfectly limp and nerveless in his clasp,
and pressing it to his lips; 'our Prue is dead-beat. Dear milady, you
know you never can recollect that we are not all Titans like yourself.
She is worn out. Are not you, Prue?'

'She would have been all right if she had had some supper,' says milady
gruffly, probably thinking in bitterness of spirit how greatly to their
reciprocal advantage it would be, if a balance could be struck between
her own past refreshments and Prue's. Then she adds very sharply, and
with an obvious disposition in her tone to hustle her graceful nephew,
'I do not know what you are dawdling here for? Why do not you go and
look after the carriage?'

He does not require to be told this twice, and by the alacrity with
which he obeys the command, Peggy knows that it comes at this moment
most welcome. No one could enjoy looking in a face with an expression
such as Prue's now wears, knowing that he himself has brought it there;
and for one so especially partial as Mr. Ducane to wreathed smiles, it
is doubly painful and trying.

The footman and carriage are long in being found. Our party have to wait
what seems to them for a good half-hour in the hall, cloaked, and, as
far as concerns milady, fur-booted, while through the open hall-door
streams in on the mist the flash of carriage-lamps; the frosty breath of
horses--frosty though it is only mid-September--the noise of gravel
kicked up under hoofs; the sound of other people's shouted names.

Freddy comes back, and stands beside Prue, and addresses her now and
again in coaxing undertones, to which--a fact unparalleled in her poor
history--she makes no rejoinder. She is standing right in the full
draught from the open door. Her cloak is unfastened at the neck. She has
evidently not taken the trouble to tie it. The keen north-wester blows
in full upon her thin collar-bones; but when Peggy remonstrates with
her, she does not seem to hear.

'Lady Roupell's carriage!'

Thank God, the welcome sound at last! Milady, who has been nodding,
bounds to her feet and seizes the arm of her obsequious host, who has
been struggling under difficulties to give her a pleasant impression of
her last moments under his roof; under difficulties, since she has been
more than three-quarters asleep. Peggy hurries after her, and Prue and
Freddy bring up the rear. There are too many impatient carriages behind
Lady Roupell's for there to be any moment for last words. The footman
bangs the carriage-door, jumps on the box, and they are off.

Milady does not light her lamp or shuffle her Patience cards again on
the homeward drive. She is fast asleep before the Hartleys' park gates
are reached; nor does any jolt or jar avail to break her slumber, until
she finds herself being bidden good-night to, and thanked by Peggy, at
the door of the little Red House. Not one word is exchanged during the
whole ten miles between the three occupants of the brougham. Prue has
thrown herself into her corner, beside milady. Peggy, sitting back--she
always sits with her back to the horses, and has so long pretended to
like that position best, that she has at length almost persuaded herself
that she does so--leans forward every now and then and peers into the
blackness, trying to catch a glimpse of her sister's face or attitude.
In vain at first. But after a while--once at a turnpike-gate, once at a
flat railway-crossing--a ray of light streams in, and reveals her cast
prone and hopeless in her corner, with her face pressed against the
cushions.

Before they reach the Red House, though the dawn has not yet come, it is
heralded by its dim, gray forerunner--a forerunner that gives shape to
the still colourless hedges as they pass, and an outline to the vague
trees looming out of the dim seas of chilly vapour, that a couple of
hours more will turn into rich green meadows and yellow stubbles. But
the light is not strong enough to reach the recesses of the carriage, to
touch milady's sleepy head, rolling about in the tiara which makes so
uncomfortable a night-cap, or to throw any cruel radiance on the
blackness of Prue's despair.

The stopping of the carriage, which partially rouses the old lady, seems
not to be even perceived by the younger woman; and it is not until
Margaret has stooped over her, pulling her by the arm, and crying in a
frightened voice, 'Prue! Prue! we are at home. Do not you hear, dear?
at home. Come, come!' that she slowly stirs, and lifts her head. Peggy
has given her latch-key to the footman, and herself jumping out of the
carriage, stands in the raw dawn wind, and receiving into her arms her
staggering and half-conscious sister, carries rather than leads her into
the little house, whose door that sister had left with so bounding a
heart, such towering hopes of enjoyment seven or eight hours ago. In a
moment more, milady--her slumbers already resumed--is borne swiftly
away.

Peggy had forbidden the servants to wait up for her. She wishes now that
she had not. It is very eerie here alone in the little dark house, whose
darkness seems all the blacker for the faint, unsure glimmer of coming
day that here and there patches the night's garment; alone with her
half-swooning sister. Thank God! there is a lamp still burning in the
sitting-hall, though the fire is out, and the air strikes cold. She
staggers with her burden to the settle, and laying her gently down upon
it, snatches up a flat candlestick, and lighting it at the lamp, hastens
away upstairs to the closet where she keeps her drugs for the poor,
medicine for the dogs, and her small stock of cordials; and taking
thence a flask of brandy, hurries back with it, and pours some down
Prue's throat. It is not an easy task to get it down through the girl's
set and chattering teeth; but at length she succeeds, and is presently
rewarded by seeing signs of returning animation in the poor body, whose
feet and hands she is chafing with such a tender vigour.

'I am cold,' says Prue, shivering; 'so cold! May not I go to bed?'

'Do you think that you can walk?' asks Peggy anxiously; 'or shall I
carry you?'

'Walk!' repeats the other, with a little dreary smile. 'Why not? There
is nothing the matter with me.'

She rises to her feet as she speaks, but totters so pitiably that Peggy
again comes to her rescue.

'Of course you can walk,' she says soothingly; 'but I think we are both
rather tired: had not we better help each other upstairs?'

And so, with her strong and tender arm flung about her poor Prue's
fragile, shivering figure, they slowly climb together--oh, so
slowly!--the stairs, down which Prue had leaped with such gaiety eight
hours ago.

In the bedroom, which they at last reach, the fire is happily still
alight, and only needs a few fresh coals to blaze up cheerfully. But
since Prue still shivers, long shudders of cold running down her limbs
and convulsing her frame, Peggy wheels an arm-chair close to the fire,
and wrapping a warm dressing-gown about her sister, holds her cold feet
to the flame, rubbing them between both her hands. For some time Prue's
only answer to these attentions is a low moan which, after awhile,
shapes itself into articulate words:

'To bed! Let me go to bed!'

And so Peggy, unlacing with a sick heart the poor crumpled gown that had
been put on in such pride and freshness over-night, carries its drooping
wearer to her bed, and laying her down most gently in it, covers her
with the warm bed-clothes, tucking them in, and bidding God bless her,
as she has done every night for nigh upon eighteen years.

Prue lies exactly as she had laid her down, with no slightest change of
posture, with no attempt at turning over and nestling to sleep; her eyes
wide open, with that long shudder recurring at first at intervals. But
then this ceases, and she lies like a log--the very dead no stiller than
she--staring blankly before her. Peggy sits beside her through the
remnant of the night, watching in impotent pain, to see whether the
eyelids will never mercifully fall over those wide rigid eyes; watching
the insolent light march up and take possession of the curtained room;
watching its daring shafts push through chink and cranny even to the
dying fire. The clock has struck seven. The servants are up and astir;
and--oh, God be thanked!--at length Prue's eyes are closed, and her head
has fallen a little sideways on the pillow. Having waited awhile, to
assure herself of the blessed fact that she is asleep, Peggy rises
noiselessly, and, turning with infinite precaution the door-handle,
passes out.

The light seems unutterably glaring in the passage, and her tired eyes
blink as they meet it; meeting at the same moment the astonished look in
Sarah's face, called forth by seeing her still in her torn and tumbled
ball-gown. She has not the heart to spend much time in explanations,
but, passing quickly to her own room, tears off the crushed finery,
associated in her mind with an evening of such acute misery; and having
washed and again dressed in her usual chintz morning-gown, returns to
Prue's door, and listening at it for a moment, cautiously enters. But
her caution is needless, as her first glance into the room shows her.
Though she has not been absent more than half an hour, its aspect is
completely changed. The curtains are drawn back, and the blind pulled up
to the top; and Prue, sitting up in bed, with blotting-book and
ink-bottle before her, is rapidly writing. As her sister hastens up to
her, with an exclamation of surprise and dismay, she puts her two hands
over the page to hide it.

'I am writing a letter,' she says hurriedly. 'I do not wish you to see
what I am writing; you have no business to look!'

'I should not think of such a thing!' cries Peggy, drawing back pained.
'But why are you writing _now_, darling? It is only eight o'clock in the
morning.'

Prue's trembling fingers are still clutching her pen.

'It--it--is as well to be in good time,' she says. 'This is a letter
that ought to be written; the--the person to whom it is addressed
will--will expect to get it.'

Peggy is standing by the bed, tall and sorrowful. She has taken the poor
hand, pen and all, into her protecting clasp.

'Is it--is it all over then?' she asks chokingly.

'He is going round the world with the Hartleys,' says Prue, not
answering directly, and beginning feverishly to fidget with her paper
and envelopes. 'Of course I should like this to reach him before he sets
off.'

_Going round the world with the Hartleys!_ The blow has fallen, then.
Peggy had known that it was coming, as surely as she knows the fact of
her own existence. She had seen it approaching for months; and yet now
that it has come, she stands stunned.

'I suppose that that was what he was talking to her about all evening,'
pursues Prue, looking blankly away out of the window, to where, on the
top of the apple-tree outside, a couple of jackdaws are sitting swinging
in the fresh wind. 'That was what made him forget all about his dances
with me. Of course, there would be a great deal to arrange; they are to
be away a whole year. It was quite natural, quite; only it showed that
it was all over with me. Even I could see that.'

She says it quite calmly, and with a sort of smile, her eyes still fixed
on the jackdaws. Peggy is still too choked to speak.

'No one would have guessed last night that it was _I_ who was engaged to
him, would they?' pursues Prue, bringing home her straying look, and
resting it in a half-uncertain appeal upon her sister. 'And yet I was,
was not I? It was not my fancy; he did ask me once to be his wife--_his
wife_,' dwelling on the word with a long, clinging intonation--'standing
there by myself all those hours. I am sure that if he had known how it
hurt me he would not have done it; he is too kind-hearted willingly to
hurt a fly.'

Peggy's only answer is a groan.

'But of course I must write to him,' continues the younger girl,
beginning again to draw her half-written sheet of paper tremblingly
towards her. 'And--and it is not altogether an easy letter to write; you
understand that. It requires all one's attention.'

'Lie down and rest first, and write afterwards,' says Peggy, in a tone
of tender persuasion.

'No, no!' returns the other, pushing her sister away. 'I will lie down
and rest afterwards; there will be plenty of time. But I could not rest
before it was written; and do not disturb me; do not speak to me. I
should be sorry if there were anything ridiculous--anything that she
could laugh at in my last letter to him.'



CHAPTER XXXVI


Though she has begun so early, Prue is writing nearly all day; writing
sitting up in bed--writing when the eastern sun is pouring in his rays
from the gates of day--writing when he has climbed the zenith--writing
when he is reddening westwards. She has asked to be left alone, so as to
be quite undisturbed; and when, at intervals, unable longer to keep
away, Peggy returns from her sad and aimless rambles about the dahliad
garden, and, pushing the door, looks softly in, the same sight always
greets her eyes. Prue, with a fire-spot on each cheek, writing--writing.
And yet when the postman comes to take the letters, it is only one small
letter that he carries away. She is very loth to let it go, even then.
No sooner is it out of her hands than she would have it back. There is a
phrase in it that she would fain have altered, that he may think unkind.
It vexes her all through the night, that phrase. It keeps sleep away
from her, even if the oppression on her chest, caused by the heavy cold
she has contracted through standing in the draught at the Hartleys'
hall-door, would allow slumber to approach her eyes. In the small hours,
indeed, she wanders a little; and would be up, and walk after the
postman to take her letter from him. At dawn she falls into a broken
doze; and Peggy, who has sat by or hung over her all night, poulticing,
giving her drink, holding her hand, and assuring her with tears that
there is nothing in her poor sentence that could wound Freddy's
feelings, rises, stiff and cold from her vigil, and sends Alfred off on
the pony for the doctor.

He comes, and prescribes, and goes away again, leaving behind him that
little fillip of cheerfulness that the doctor's visit always gives; and
another day wears on. Prue talks a great deal throughout it, though her
laboured breathing makes speech difficult. She is very restless: would
get up; would go down into the hall; out into the garden; would sit
under the Judas-tree. She sheds no tears, gives no sign of depression;
indeed, she laughs many times at recollected absurdities told her by
Freddy. But the fire-spots blaze on her cheeks, and the fever-flame
glitters in her eyes.

Another night follows; sleepless as the previous one, and with stronger
delirium. She is going out riding with her lover. He has lent her the
bay mare, which he has taken from Miss Hartley for her sake! He is
waiting for her!--calling to her! and she cannot find her whip or her
gloves. Oh, where are they? Where can they be? Will not Peggy help her
to look for them? And Peggy, with death in her heart, feigns to search,
through the chill watches of the night, for that whip and those gloves
whose services it seems so unlikely that their young owner will ever
need again. With morning her delusions die; and, as the forenoon
advances, she falls into a heavy sleep. Such as it is, it is induced by
opiates.

Peggy has not been in bed for three nights, and an immense lassitude has
fallen upon her. It is not that she is conscious of feeling sleepy; but
her head is like a lump of lead, and her hands are ice-cold. She would
be all right if she could get into the open air for five minutes. A
greedy longing to drink in great draughts of the fresh wind that she can
hear outside frolicking so gaily, yet gently too, with the tree-tops,
lays hold of her; and, since Prue still sleeps heavily, she gives up her
place by the bedside to Sarah, and walks drearily out into the garden.
It is only two days since she had been last in it; but it seems to her
as if years had rolled by since she had last trodden that sward, seen
Jacob digging, and watched the birds pecking at the sunflower-seeds, and
the wasps pushing their way through the netting into the heart of the
peaches. It appears to her a phantasmal garden, with an atmosphere of
brilliance and joyousness that may have their home in that realm where
Thomas the Rhymer lived; but can have no relationship to her bitter
realities. But when she reaches the seat under the Judas-tree, the
kingdom of Thomas the Rhymer is gone, and reality is here in its stead.
As she looks at it, her hands clench themselves, and a tide of rage and
misery surges up in her heart.

'You have killed her!' she says out loud; 'killed her as much as if you
had cut her poor throat! When she is dead, I will tell you so!'

She walks on quickly; rapid motion may make her burden easier to bear.
But, alas! her domain is small; and no sooner has she left Prue and the
Judas-tree behind, than the hawthorn bower and Talbot face her. The
creamy foam of flowers that had sent its little pungent petals, shaped
like tiny sea-shells, floating down upon their two happy heads, has
changed to lustreless red berries.

'They are not more changed than I!' she says; and so sinks, helplessly
sobbing, upon the rustic bench, her cheek pressed against the gnarled
trunk. 'They are all the same!--all the same!' she moans. If it were not
so, would she be lying with her head achingly propped against this rough
bark? Would not it have been resting on her love's breast? Would not he
have been telling her that Prue will get well? She has no one now to
tell her that Prue will get well; and when she tells herself so, it does
not sound true.

The tears drip from under her tired lids. One moment she is here, with
aching body and smarting soul; the next she is away--how far, who shall
say? Away, at ease; all her sorrows sponged out, for God has sent her
His lovely angel--sleep.

It is two hours later when she wakes with a frightened start, and
springs--half unconscious of her whereabouts at first--to her feet. The
position of the sun in the sky, the altered angle of the shadow cast by
her may-bush, tell her to how much longer a period than she had intended
her five minutes have stretched. She begins to run, with a beating
heart, back towards the house. Prue will have missed her! Prue will have
been crying out for her! How stupid, how selfish of her to fall asleep!

She has entered the hall, when the noise of a closing door--her ear
tells her Prue's--reaches her; and by the time she gets to the foot of
the stairs she is confronted by a person coming quickly down. It is not
Sarah, nor yet the doctor. It is the person to whom, beside the
Judas-tree, she had framed that bitter message. She can give it now if
she chooses. Freddy's hair is all ruffled, and the tears are streaming
down his face--real, genuine salt tears.

'Oh, Peggy!' he cries, in a broken voice, as he catches sight of her,
seizing both her hands; 'is that you? Come and talk to me! Come and say
something nice to me! I am _so_ miserable! Oh, how dreadful these
partings are!'

As he speaks he draws her back into the hall with him; and throwing
himself on the settle, flings his arms down upon the cushions, and his
head upon them.

'Have you seen her?' asks Peggy in a shocked stern voice. 'Do you mean
to say that you have seen her?'

The answer comes, blurred and muffled, from among the pillows.

'Yes, yes.'

'You are not satisfied, apparently, with the way in which you have done
your work,' rejoins Peggy, with an intonation of icy irony, though her
voice trembles; 'you are anxious to put the finishing-stroke to it!'

'I do not know what you are talking about,' says Freddy, lifting his
tossed head and his tear-stained face, and looking at her with his wet
eyes. 'I can see by your look that you mean to be unkind--that you have
some cruel intention in your words; but you may spare yourself the
trouble. I am so wretched that I am past feeling any blow you may aim at
me. I knew nothing of her illness; her letter reached me only an hour
ago. I came to see her; she heard my voice. Oh, Peggy, you do not
realise how keen love's ears are! She asked to see me; she was lying on
the sofa in her dressing-room. My Prue!--my Prue! What have you been
doing to her? Oh, that word "Good-bye"! What long reverberations of
sorrow there are in it!'

At the sight of the young man's emotion, so overpowering and to all
appearance so genuine, Peggy's heart has been softening a little; but at
this last sentence, uttered with something of his old manner of lofty
and pensive reflection, it hardens again. Bitterness, such as had seized
upon her by the Judas-tree, is rising again in her.

'You keep to your plan, then? you are going?' she asks, breathing hard,
and with a sort of catch in her voice.

'And leave her as she now is?' answers Freddy, with an accent of wounded
reproach, which perhaps in his opinion may exempt him from answering the
question directly. 'Oh, my Peg, if I could but teach you to credit your
poor fellow-creatures with at least bare humanity!'

'Then I am to understand that you are _not_ going? that the idea is
given up?'

She is still standing inexorably over him.

'I do not know why we should discuss the subject at all to-day,' returns
Mr. Ducane, again interring his head in the cushions; 'I have not the
heart to discuss anything to-day.'

'Then you did not mention the subject to her?'

'She introduced it herself; she has quite come round to think it a good
plan--if you do not believe me, you may ask her--a year's probation to
make me fitter for my Prue'--in a voice of dreamy tenderness. 'Oh,
Peggy, cannot you understand what a sacred deposit the care of such a
soul as Prue's is? cannot you comprehend that I do not feel yet worthy
of it? You know, dear, I am very young, though you never will own it;
and you cannot put gray heads upon green shoulders. Be merciful to me,
little friend! be merciful to me!'

As he makes this coaxing request, he takes her reluctant hand and
presses his wet cheek against it. But she feels no mercy in her heart,
and promises him none even when she leaves him stretched full-length
upon the settle, shaken with real sobs. For her, he may sob as long as
he pleases; while in one panic-stricken bound upstairs she reaches her
sister. She finds her--the Prue upon whom the doctor had enjoined such a
strict confinement to bed and maintenance at one temperature--sitting,
not even lying upon the dressing-room sofa, breathing labouringly, with
every symptom of imminent bronchitis, with racing pulse and burning
hands, but with heaven in her eyes.

'You have seen him,' she says pantingly, as Margaret comes in. 'You have
heard--oh, do not scold me for getting up! I know that I ought not, but
I will go back to bed as soon as you like; and--and it _is_ real, is not
it? it _is_ true? I am not wandering. I was last night, I know; but I am
not now, am I? Give me something of his, something to hold that I may be
sure that it is true!'

Peggy has sat down upon the sofa beside her, and gathered up the little
quivering figure into her arms.

'I will go back to bed now,' says Prue restlessly; but oh, with how
different a restlessness from that of three hours ago! 'If I do not, I
shall be longer in getting well, and I want to get well quickly. If I
do not get better he will not go, and it would be selfish to hinder him
from doing what is so much the best thing for him; yes, and for me
too--for me too! Take me back to bed, Peggy.'

So Peggy takes her back to bed, and as she lays her down the thin arms
close gratefully round her neck.

'You dear old soul! It is your turn for a bit of luck next.'

And when the night comes--the night dreaded by watchers beside
sick-beds, the night that doubles fever and sharpens pain, and
accentuates grief--Prue, clasping to her feverish breast an old glove,
left behind by careless Freddy on some former occasion, wakes repeatedly
with a jump from her broken slumbers to ask in a terrified tone, 'Is it
true? Is it real?' And Peggy is always there, always awake, always
beside her to answer reassuringly that it is. It would have been too
flagrant a violation of the laws of nature and disease, if poor Prue had
escaped scot-free from her infraction of both; and, in fact, her
escapade is followed, as the meanest observer might have predicted that
it would be, by a very sharp attack of bronchitis.

For a few days her illness is so acute that it seems as if Mr. Ducane
would be placed in the painful dilemma of either leaving his betrothed
fighting hand to hand with death, or of abandoning his cherished
project. He arrives at the Red House in the morning, almost before the
shutters are opened; he strays for hours about the garden with his hands
clasped, his head bent forward, and his charming face as white as a
sheet, till even Jacob's bowels yearn over him; though the style of
observations by which he elects to show his sympathy are not perhaps
precisely of a cheering nature, consisting chiefly of remarks such as
that 'his missis says she never see any one go downhill so quick as Miss
Prue--never.'

One day when Prue is at her worst, Freddy lies on the floor at her
threshold, with his face buried in the mat, to the intense admiring
compassion of Sarah and the nurse; but he really is not thinking of
them. By and by the disease yields to treatment. Perhaps the patient's
determination to get quickly better--her eagerness to return to a life
once more become joyous and valuable to her--counts for much in the
quickness of her rally.

Whatever be the cause, Prue is certainly better--is able once again to
sit up; to shake milady's hearty hand, and eat her excellent jelly. But
by the time that she is able to do so, the Hartleys' monster yacht is
getting up her steam at Southampton; and all her passengers, with the
exception of Mr. Ducane, are off to embark upon her. Within two days the
die must be cast as to whether Freddy is to be of that ship's company or
not.

'It is for you to decide, sweet,' he says, in his south-wind voice with
all the joyousness taken out of it, as he half-lies, half-sits, beside
the dressing-room sofa, upon which she is stretched in her shadowy
convalescence, while his head rests on the pillow beside hers. 'Yes--no!
go--stay! I have no will but yours. You know that the only reason I ever
had for wishing it was that I might come back a little less unworthy of
you--with wider experience and larger horizons. As to _pleasure_'--with
a small disdainful smile--'there can be no question of _that_! I think
that my worst enemy will own that pleasure and I have waved farewell to
each other of late.'

Prue has been lying prostrate and languid; but at his words she draws
herself up into a sitting posture, and into her little face, not much
less white than her dressing-gown, has come a faint pink flush--the
flush of a generous effort.

'And, after all, it is only a year,' she says bravely. 'How absurd to
make a fuss about only a year! When one was a child, one used to think
it endless--an eternity; but now--why, it is gone by like a flash!'

'_Only_ a year!' repeats Freddy, with a moan. 'Oh, Prue, can you say
_only_? How do you do it, dear? Teach me--teach me!'

'And when it is over,' continues Prue, the colour deepening in her thin
cheeks with the pain and labour of her sacrifice, 'and you come back,
perhaps you will find me, too, changed, and not quite for the worse.
Perhaps--perhaps if I do my best--if I try hard to educate myself
between now and then--you will find me better able to understand your
thoughts, and enter into your ideas, and say something besides the
stupid praise--which I know has often vexed you, though you have tried
not to show it--of your poems.'

She stops exhausted, and her faint head droops on his breast. The tears
have sprung again to Freddy's eyes. Before he can make any rejoinder,
she has lifted her face, and is again speaking.

'You say that I am to decide?' she says, in a firm tone. 'Well, then, I
have decided. You are to go. I send you. No one,' her voice breaking a
little, 'can pity me if I send you myself--can they?'

Two days later he goes. Upon the solemnity of his last parting with his
sweetheart no one intrudes; but he prolongs his leave-taking so
unreasonably that he is within an ace of losing his train; and it is not
till after many vigorous rappings at the door, strong remonstrances, and
nervous apostrophes through the keyhole, that he at length issues from
Prue's room, livid and staggering.

'Oh, Peggy!' he says hoarsely, wringing her two hands; 'surely--surely
the bitterness of death is past! Take care of her--in God's name take
care of her for me! Do you hear?--take care of her for me!'

But Peggy answers never a word.



CHAPTER XXXVII

    'Weep with me, all you that read
           This little story,
     And know, for whom a tear you shed,
           Death's self is sorry.'


It is Sunday. The _Lapwing_ is ploughing her way through a short
chopping sea in the Bay of Biscay; and here at home, at Roupell, the
people are issuing in a little quiet stream from afternoon church. They
are coming out rather later, and with rather more alacrity than usual,
both which phenomena are to be accounted for by the fact of Mr.
Evans--never churlishly loth to yield his pulpit to a spiritual
brother--having lent it to a very young deacon, who has taken a mean
advantage of this concession to inflict fifty minutes of stammering
extempore upon the congregation.

The Vicar has sat during this visitation in an attitude of hopeless
depression, and has given out, with an intense feeling born of the
excessive appositeness of the words to his own case, the hymn after the
sermon--

    'Art thou weary, art thou languid?'

Peggy sits alone in her pew, and her mind straying away from the
fledgeling curate's flounderings, she asks herself sadly for how many
more Sundays will this be so?

Mrs. Evans overtakes her as she walks down the path after service, to
tell her that she and her whole family are to set forth on the
following Tuesday in pursuit of that change for which she has been so
long sighing.

'Mr. Evans is off on his own account!' cries she in cheerful narration.
'He does not like travelling with so large a party; it fidgets him, so
he is off on his own account. The Archdeacon wanted him to go with him
to the Diocesan Conference; but, as he justly says, what he needs to
recruit him is an entire change of ideas as well as scene. So he is
going to run over to Trouville or Deauville, or one of those French
watering-places.'

'Indeed!'

'It seems very unkind of us--I am so sorry that we are leaving you here
alone,' pursues Mrs. Evans, her elated eye and tone giving the lie to
her regretful words. 'And they tell me that you are to lose milady too;
she talks of a month at Brighton. She does not much fancy being at the
Manor at the fall of the leaf.'

'Thank you,' replies Peggy civilly; 'but we never mind being by
ourselves.'

'Oh, I know that you do not in a general way,' returns Mrs. Evans. 'But
of course just now it is different; Prue so far from well. I only
thought--I was only afraid--in case----'

'In case what?' asks Peggy curtly, while a cold hand seems crawling up
towards her heart.

'Oh, nothing! nothing! I was only going to say, in case--in case
she--she had a relapse.'

'And why should she have a relapse?' inquires Margaret sharply, in an
alarmed and angry voice, turning round upon her companion.

'Why indeed!' replies the other, looking aside, and laughing rather
confusedly. 'And at all events, you have Dr. Acton. He is so nice and
attentive, and yet does not go on paying his visits long after there is
any need for them, just to run up a bill as so many of them do.'

She is interrupted in her eulogium of the parish doctor by the
appearance on the scene--both of them running at the top of their speed,
as if they more than suspected pursuers behind them--of Lily and Franky
Harborough. They, too, being on the wing home to-morrow, have come to
bid their friend, Miss Lambton, good-bye; a ceremony which they entirely
disdain to go through either in the churchyard or in the road, or indeed
anywhere but under her own roof.

'Well, then, if you come you must be very quiet; you must make no
noise,' she has said warningly.

She repeats the caution when they have reached the hall of the Red
House, upon the settle of which there is no Prue lying; for though she
is so much better--oh, so much--she has not yet been moved downstairs
from the dressing-room.

'You must be very quiet,' Peggy repeats; 'you must remember that Prue is
ill!'

Franky has climbed upon her knee, and is playing with the clasp of her
Norwegian belt. He pauses from his occupation to ask her gravely, and in
a rather awed voice, 'Is she _very_ ill? Is she going to die?'

'God forbid!' cries Peggy, starting as if she had been stabbed. What!
are they all agreed to run their knives in their different ways into
her? 'My darling, do not say such dreadful things!'

'People do not die because they are ill,' remarks Lily, rather
contemptuously; 'you did not die!'

'No, I did not die,' echoes the little boy thoughtfully.

He sits very quietly on Margaret's lap for a while, and when at length
he climbs down, walks about the room on ostentatious tiptoe, speaking in
stage-whispers.

It is only at the moment of parting, in the eagerness of pressing upon
his friend once more for acceptance his five-bladed knife, and
self-denyingly rebutting her counter offer of the largest ferret, that
he forgets himself and Prue's invalidhood so far as to raise his little
voice above the subdued key which he has imposed upon himself.

Peggy stands leaning against the gate, watching, until it has turned the
corner out of sight, the tiny sailor-dressed figure disappearing down
the road, with its refused love-gift reluctantly restored to the custody
of its white duck trousers-pocket, with its small shoulders shaken with
its sobs, and with its hand dragging back in petulant protest against
the relentless grasp of its nurse.

'Poor little fellow! I almost wish that I had taken his knife,' she says
regretfully.

And now they are all gone, dispersed their different ways: milady in her
brougham, the children and maids in the omnibus, and the Evans family
squeezed into, packed all over, and bulging out of their own one-horse
waggonette and the inn fly. They are all gone--gone a week, a fortnight,
now a month ago.

At first Peggy is glad of their departure, even milady's. What security
has she but that, with all her hearty rough kindness, with her good
sound human heart, and her plentiful kitchen physic, she may not at any
moment stick another knife into her, with some well-intended word, as
Mrs. Evans, as little Franky have already done? She would fain see no
one--no one. The fox, swishing his brush in lazy welcome to her, and
raising his russet head to be scratched through the wires of his house,
poisons their intercourse with no insinuation that Prue is not really
better. Minky does not ask her with the terrible point-blankness of
childhood, 'Is Prue going to die?'

She will confine herself, then, to their kind and painless company.

But as the days go by, each dwindling day with the mark of night's
little theft upon its shorn proportions; as the wind's hand and the
frost's tooth make ravine among dear summer's leaves; as the beautiful
blue and green year swoons in November's damp grasp--a change comes over
her spirit, a famine for the touch of some compassionate hand, for the
sound of some humane brave voice bidding her be of good cheer. It is a
forlorn and rainy autumn. As in the days of St. Paul's shipwreck, so in
those of Peggy's, 'neither sun nor stars in many days appeared.' When
the rain-sheets are not soaking the saturated ground, the thick, dull
blue mists reign everywhere. They have left their legitimate distant
province, and have advanced even to the very walls of the Red House,
swaddling the laurels and the naked lilacs, and the China roses that
offer the delicate pertinacity of their blossoms to the autumn blast.

The garden has not yet been done up for the winter, as Jacob is waiting
until 'they dratted leaves' are all down; and the rows of
frost-blackened dahlias looming through the fog, the tattered garlands
of canariensis, the scentless ragged mignonette, seem to Margaret's
fancy, inflamed and heightened by grief and sleeplessness--for she
seldom now has an unbroken night--to be the grinning skeletons of her
former harmless joys.

The park is a fog-swathed swamp, here and there quite under water. Once
or twice when she has passed by the Manor, its shuttered windows have
appeared to scowl sullenly at her. Even the silence of the Vicarage
seems hostile, as does the shut gate, upon which no pea-shooting boys or
long-legged down-at-heel girls are swinging and shouting.

To the village, usually so often haunted by her charitable feet, she
scarcely ever now goes. She dares not enter the cottages, because she
knows what their inmates will say to her. It is no longer only Jacob's
'missis' to whom the rapidity with which Miss Prue is going downhill is
matter of outspoken compassionate wonder. They mean no unkindness. They
do as they would be done by. How many times has Peggy heard them calmly
discussing in the very presence of their dying, the probability or
improbability of their holding out until Christmas, or Candlemas, or
Whitsun, as the case may be! But the first time that a kind-hearted
cottage wife suggests to her, as in like case she would wish to have it
suggested to herself, 'What a sad thing it is to think that poor Miss
Prue will never see the primroses again, she as was allers so fond of
flowers!' Peggy has stumbled away, half-stunned, as if some great and
crushing weight had fallen on her head. And this Prue, about whom her
village friends are making such sad prophecies, how is it with her? If
you had asked her, she would have said, 'Well, very well, excellently
well!'

Every day for the last month she has been going to be moved down next
day to her settle in the hall; but whenever the new morning has come,
that move has been deferred to the next. 'There is nothing the matter
with her, really nothing; only she does not feel quite up to it; and,
after all, there is plenty of time for her to get well in. Twenty-four
hours will not make much difference, and she is so happy and comfortable
up here.'

Up here, lying on the dressing-room sofa, with the fire flickering on
the hearth beside her, talking to her cheerfully through her bad nights
and her drowsy days; with every little present given her by Freddy
ranged round her, within easy reach of her eye and hand, like a sick
child's toys, and with his letters--they are not very many, for he is
but a poor correspondent, though he says such beautiful things when he
does write--kept delicately blue-ribboned in a little packet under her
pillow, or oftener still held in her hot dry hand.

Their number has lately been swelled by the addition of a bulky one from
Southampton, over which she has rained torrents of blissful tears.
Hanging on the wall opposite to her, so that her look may rest
continually upon it, is a large card, upon which she has had the number
of the days of her lover's intended absence marked in black strokes.
Every morning at her waking she has it brought to her, in order to put a
pen-line through one more day. There are over thirty already thus scored
out, as she shows to Peggy with a radiant smile.

At the beginning of the month, her sofa had been always covered with
books. Freddy's own poems--these indeed stay to the last; the 'Browning'
he has retrieved for her from Miss Hartley; books of criticism, of
history, of verse, over which she pores laboriously, in pursuance of her
promise to him to be more able to enter into his thoughts and understand
his ideas upon his return. But by and by she has to cease from the
attempt.

'I am afraid I cannot quite manage it,' she says to her sister, with an
apologetic intonation; 'my head does not seem very clear. Sometimes I am
afraid'--the wistful tears stealing into her blue eyes--'that it is not
in me; that when he comes back he will find me just where he left me;
that he will have to put up with me as I am.'

She does not suffer much actual pain, only her nights are increasingly
broken, and her cough teases her sadly, which only makes her say that
she is quite glad Freddy is not here, as a cough always fidgets him so.
One morning in early November, after a night of more than usually
wakeful unrest on the part of her sister, Peggy, who has had a bed made
for herself on a sofa at the foot of the sick girl's, and has been up
and down with her all night, is standing at the open hall door, trying
to get a little freshness into eyes and brain. Her eyes are stiff with
watching, and her brain feels thick and woolly, so thick and woolly that
you would have thought it incapable of framing a definite idea. And yet
across it there comes shooting now and again with steely clearness a
torturing question--a question that is dressed sometimes in her own
words, sometimes in Freddy's childish lisp, sometimes in the villagers'
rough Doric; but that, however dressed, is yet always, always the same.

She has mechanically picked up the morning paper, and her languid eye is
wandering carelessly over the daily prosaic list of the born, the wed,
and the departed. As well that as anything else, though even as she
makes the apathetic reflection, the question darts again in a new and
hideous guise before her mind: 'How long will it be before there is
another entry among these?'

With a great dry sob, she is in the act of dashing down the journal,
when her glance is arrested by the letters of a familiar name,
_Harborough_. It seems that there is a Harborough dead. Can it be that
Betty has gone to her account? or that her complaisant husband has
carried his complaisance so far as to take himself out of the world, and
leave the field clear for that other? She has time to taste the full
bitterness of this new thought, in the half second before her eye has
mastered the advertisement:

     'On the 3d inst., at Harborough Castle, ----shire, after a few
      days' illness, Francis Hugh de Vere Deloraine, only son of Ralph
      Harborough, Esq., aged 6 years.'

Even now that she has read it, she does not at once understand who it is
that is dead. The string of high-sounding unfamiliar names sets her at
fault. 'Francis Hugh de Vere Deloraine.' Is it--can it be _Franky_ that
is dead? Can it be that neither father nor mother have trodden the
universal road, but that it is the little blooming child who has led the
way? Why, it is impossible! There must be some mistake. It was only
yesterday, as it were, that he was here; that she saw him passing
through that very gate. In the confusion of her ideas, she has hurried
out along the damp drive to the entrance-gate, and, standing there,
gazes irrationally down the road, as if she expected once again to see
the tiny sturdiness of the sailor figure, the tear-washed roses of the
little face turned back over its shoulder in such fond and pouting
protest at having to leave her; but the mist-bound road is empty--empty,
save of its mire and of its rotting leaves. 'Franky dead! Little Franky
dead!' She says it out loud, as if the idea could gain entrance into her
brain more easily by her ears; and then she leans her forehead against
the damp gate-post, and bursts out crying.

'I wish that I had given him another kiss! I wish that I had gone to the
turn of the road with him, as he asked me! I wish that I had taken his
knife!'

Her tears seem to make her intelligence clearer, to render sharper her
power of suffering.

'Is there _no one_ to be left alive? Is Death to have it all his own
way?'

Her dimmed eyes rest on a drift of leaves blown by the last blusterous
wind against the hedge-bank outside; a discoloured pile--the yellow
poplar leaf, the black-brown pear and the bronzed beech, the ribbed
hazel and the smooth lime--one fate has overtaken them all. Dead--dead!

At her foot is an elm-leaf half-dragged underground by the dark industry
of some blind earthworm. Underground--underground! That is the bourne of
us all; of the young green leaf, aloft two months ago on the tree-top,
visited by the voyaging birds and the gamesome airs, as of the little
bounding joyous child.

The searching vapour has penetrated her clothes, and made her shiver
with cold; but she dares not yet go indoors again, dares not yet face
her sick Prue, with those sudden tidings written on her face.

She retraces her steps along the drive, and turns into the garden--the
empty garden; empty to-day of even Jacob's presence, as he is kept at
home by his rheumatism. It is profoundly silent. The fog has got even
into the robin's throat. It is profoundly silent; and yet to Peggy, the
air is full of voices--the voices of her dead, her lost, and her dying.
Her mother, Talbot, Prue, and now little Franky. He was not much to her,
perhaps you may say; and yet she can ill spare his little drop of love
out of her empty cup. Along the walks they hurry to meet her, and yet,
as they come up to her, they pass her by with averted faces.

'I am certainly very lonely,' she says to herself, with a sort of
astonishment; 'it is a very unusual case. There has happened to me what
happens commonly to people only at eighty: I have outlived everything! I
was given very few people to love, to begin with; but I did love them
well. I gave them my very best. Oh, you cannot say, any of you, that I
did not give you my very best, and yet not one of you will stay with me.
Not one of you. God--God! What have I done to be picked out of all the
world for such a fate? Is it fair? Is it fair?'

Her voice goes wailing out into the mist; but the dying world around her
has no answer to give to her riddle. It is awaiting that to its own. She
has thrown herself down on the seat under her hawthorn bower, and from
its dull berries and sharp thorns, and few still-clinging yellow leaves,
the cold drops drip on her bare head, mix with the scalding drops on her
cheeks; but she feels them not as she lies there, huddled up, collapsed,
and despairing. Not for long, however. By and by her soul, as is the way
with souls habitually brave, puts on its courage again. She raises
herself, and lifts her drowned and weary eyes, as if through the fogs
and exhalations they would pierce to Him who, as all the world once
thought, as many still hold to be a truth far dearer than life, sits in
judgment and mercy beyond them.

'Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?' she says solemnly.
'Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?'



CHAPTER XXXVIII

    'I am not mad,--I would to heaven I were!
     For then 'tis like I should forget myself:
     Oh, if I could, what grief should I forget!
     Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
     And thou shalt be canonised, cardinal;
     For, being not mad, but sensible of grief,
     My reasonable part produces reason
     How I may be deliver'd of these woes,
     And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
     If I were mad, I should forget my son;
     Or madly think a babe of clouts were he.
     I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
     The different plague of each calamity.'


In the days that follow, the death of Franky Harborough, which at an
ordinary time would have been the sorrowful main occupation of Peggy's
thoughts, has to retire into the background of her mind. In the
foreground there is room for but one absorbing topic. Prue is decidedly
worse. In an illness such as hers--which is less a definite disease than
a decline all round, a bowing to its final ruin of a building whose
foundations have been sapped for more than a year--there is very often,
for a considerable period, but little change to be noted from day to
day; and then suddenly--no, not suddenly--in a progression rather, as
natural as that from seedtime to harvest, on some morning, at some noon
or night, there is a step down to a lower level of vitality; a
travelling along that lower level, until the time for a new and farther
descent. It would seem impossible that any breath of the chilly fog
outside could have thrust its pestilent way into the atmosphere,
regulated with so passionate a nicety, of Prue's room; and, indeed,
there is no sign of any return of that bronchitis which had been the
ostensible beginning of her illness. Nor is there any very perceptible
aggravation of any one of her symptoms.

The signs of her approaching dissolution are rather negative than
positive. It is only that Miss Prue is going downhill rather quicker
than before--that is all. There is now no longer any question of the oak
settle in the hall. Even the sofa in the dressing-room has been
abandoned. Prue no longer stirs from her bed; but she lies there quite
happily, quite as happy as she was before; for Freddy's gifts are within
as easy reach of her hand, spread on the counterpane before her, as they
were on the table in the adjoining room; and her card with its 365 black
strokes hangs quite as full in her eye, on the wall opposite her bed.

However bad her night may have been, there is always something to look
forward to at dawning, in having it brought to her to put her triumphant
pen through another day.

'I shall be glad when we have got up to forty,' she says to Peggy, with
a faint but cheerful laugh. 'I shall feel quite differently when we have
reached forty: there will be all but a ninth of the time gone then.'

It is a day on which the officious dusk of the winter afternoon--always
in such haste to shoulder away its pale brother--has already settled
down. For sixteen long hours there will be no more glint of light. This
dreary thought is passing through Peggy's mind, as she nods drowsily
over the fire. She is roused from it and from her semi-sleep by hearing
the room-door open cautiously and seeing Sarah making signs--evidently
not intended to be seen by Prue--through the aperture.

In obedience to them, Margaret rises languidly, and goes out upon the
landing.

'What is it?'

'If you please, 'm, there's a lady wishes to speak to you.'

'Oh, Sarah, you know that I can't see any one; why did not you tell her
so?'

'I did tell her so, 'm, but she would not take "No"; she says if she
stays all night she must see you.'

'What does she mean?' cries Peggy, in a voice of astonished indignation;
'who can she be? Who is she?'

'Well, 'm, I really did not recognise her until she spoke--dressed in
deep mourning and that; and she asked me not to mention her name. She
said she was sure you would not see her if I did.'

_Dressed in deep mourning!_ Peggy's legs have been somewhat shaky under
her of late, through long standing upon them. Perhaps that is why she
now catches at the banisters. It has flashed upon her who her visitor
is. What has brought her hither? Why has she come? Has she gone mad?

'Go and sit with Miss Prue, while I am away,' she says to the servant;
and so walks slowly downstairs. Outside the door of the hall she pauses
a moment to pull herself together. She is trembling violently, and her
teeth chatter.

What has brought her here? What can they have to say to each other? She
enters. Beside the table is standing Lady Betty Harborough; for it is
she who is Peggy's visitor. The lamp is lit, and burns brightly, though
nowadays there is never any one to read or work by its gentle glow. A
flourishing fire sings on the hearth; but their joint cheerfulness
serves only to throw up into higher relief the inky gloom of the figure
they illuminate. She makes no movement to go to meet Peggy, but awaits
her coming; and for a moment the two women look at each other in
silence.

As they do so, a doubt--a real, serious doubt flashes across Peggy's
mind, as to whether this is Lady Betty. Coupled with the doubt comes a
darted recollection of the two last occasions on which she has seen her;
the very last of all, sitting under a date-palm in the Hartleys'
conservatory, in the full flush of her _décolleté_ beauty and impudent
folly, out of sheer love of mischief, turning the head of a foolish
parish priest; and the time before--oh! that time before--when her own
heart had lain down and died, on that star-strewn night, when through
the gate of the walled garden she had seen her with her arms laced about
John Talbot's neck.

There is no veil to disguise the ruin of Lady Betty's face. Under her
heavy crape bonnet, her hair, uncurled by the damp of the winter night,
hangs in pitiful little tags upon her sunk forehead. There is no trace
of rouge on her pinched cheeks; nor any vestige of black, save that
painted there by agonised vigils, under her hopeless eyes. Her
mouth--that mobile mouth so seldom seen at rest, always either curved
into a smile, or formed into a red pout, or playing some pretty antic or
other--is set like a flint, and around it are drawn lines deeper and
more, many more, than those cut by old age's chisel. Can it be this
forlorn and God-struck creature that she, Peggy, has been hating so long
and so well? Beneath this dual consciousness--the same consciousness
under which Talbot had confusedly laboured once before--beneath the
waning influence of that old hostility, and this new and immeasurable
compassion, Peggy finds it impossible to speak. But her visitor saves
her the trouble.

'I must apologise for intruding upon you at such a time. I know that I
have no right to do so; I should not have taken such a liberty, only
that--that I had a message to give you--a commission from a--a person
who is dead.'

Her voice is perfectly clear and collected, without a quiver in it. It
is only by the slight hesitation before a word here and there that it
could be conjectured that it was not a matter of perfect indifference to
her of which she is speaking. There is such a lump rising in Peggy's
throat, that she could not answer if she were to gain a kingdom by it.

'Perhaps you are aware,' continues the other, quite as collectedly as
before, 'that I have lost my son. He died, after a few days' illness, on
the 3d; and when he was dying, he was very anxious that you should have
_this_,' holding out to Margaret, in a hand that does not shake, the
knife that had been so eagerly urged upon her acceptance by poor little
Franky on his last visit to her. 'He wished me to tell you that it has
five blades; and that though there is a little notch out of one of them,
it does not cut the worse for that.'

Peggy has taken the knife, and is covering it with sad and reverent
kisses.

'God bless him!' she says brokenly. 'God in heaven bless him!'

The tears are raining in a torrent down the face of Franky's friend; but
his mother's eyes are dry.

'Not long before he died,' she resumes, in that awful collected voice,
'he asked me to give it into your hands; that must be my excuse
to-night. I believe you refused it once before. I told him that I
thought you would not refuse it now. He begged you to keep it. He said
he should not want it any more; it was quite true,' her eye wandering
round the room, and speaking as if to herself, as if having forgotten
Peggy's presence--'he will never want anything any more!'

Peggy has lifted her swimming eyes upwards.

'They are in God's hands, and no evil shall touch them!' she says
solemnly.

It is not only the little innocent who has already crossed the flood of
whom she is thinking, but also of that other one in the room upstairs,
whose feet are so fast nearing the ford.

'He was very fond of you, very!' says the mother, her parched eyes
noting with an expression of surprise and envy the agitation of her
companion. 'And he was not one to take a fancy to everybody either; he
had his likes and dislikes. Yes, he was very fond of you; but,' with a
sort of hurry in her tone, 'you did not come before me; no one did that.
Mammy was always first. Last time he was staying at the Manor he wrote
me two little letters; how do you think he signed them?' with a pale,
wild smile: '"Your loving friend." Was not that an odd signature? "Your
loving friend!"'

Peggy's sobs have mastered her so completely, that she can make no
answer beyond that of once again convulsively pressing her poor little
legacy to her quivering lips.

'He suffered a good deal,' continues Betty, with that terrible composure
of hers; 'but he made no fuss about it. He asked me once or twice
whether I could not take away the pain; but when I told him that I could
not, he quite understood. Children are so patient; and he always was a
plucky little chap.'

'You _poor_ woman!' cries Peggy, in a voice almost unintelligible
through her tears. 'Oh, I wish I could do anything for you! Oh, you poor
woman!'

She has caught both Betty's icy hands into her own warm compassionate
clasp. She has clean forgotten that they are the hands of the woman who
has slain her life. She knows only that there is a most miserable
creature struggling in the deep waters beside her, to whom all her large
pitying heart goes out. The other accepts indifferently that strong and
sorrowful clasp, as what would not she so accept?

'You seem to be very kind!' she says, with a sort of stupid wonder.
'And yet, if you come to think of it, we have no great cause to love
each other; you have no great cause to be fond of me.'

'You poor soul!' returns Peggy, looking back, with all the perfect
honesty of her sad eyes, into the other's disfigured face. 'I bear you
no malice for any harm you may have done me; and I have never wittingly
done you any.'

'_Never wittingly done me any!_' repeats Betty, with a dull and dragging
intonation. 'Have not you? There were only two things in the world that
I cared about. You took one of them from me, and now God has taken the
other.'

Peggy lets go her hands in a revulsion of feeling strong beyond the
power of words to express, and steps back a horrified pace or two. Is it
possible, is it conceivable that in this most sacred hour of holy
mother-grief, she can think or speak of her own lawless passion?

'You are shocked!' says Betty, perceiving this movement on the part of
her companion. 'I do not know why you should be. If I were to pretend
that I had always been a good woman, it would not give me back my boy;
and what does anything else matter?'

Then there is silence for a minute or two. It is broken by Betty.

'When you had taken him from me, why did you send him away again?' she
asks abruptly.

For a moment it seems as if all the blood in Peggy's body had sprung to
her brain, and was hammering at her temples, and dinning in her ears in
a surge of passionate indignation. But at sight of the stricken face
before her, her anger dies down again.

'I could not say anything harsh to you to-night,' she replies gently;
'but you must know that you are the last person who has any right to ask
that question.'

'I know it,' replies Betty, with a stony indifference; 'any right, or
any need either, since I know the answer. Do not I know that you were in
the walled garden on that night last June? Did not I see you as I ran
past? I knew what you would think, and I knew, too, that I could trust
to him not to undeceive you.'

Peggy is trembling like a leaf. Must she bear it? Does Christian charity
command her to endure this ruthless, purposeless tearing open of her
scarcely cicatrised wound?

'There was no question of undeceiving,' she says brokenly, yet with
dignity. 'I did not trust to hearsay--I should not have been likely to
do that; but I could not distrust the evidence of my own eyes.'

Betty's sunken look is fixed on the girl's quivering features.

'It was a pity for your own peace of mind,' she says slowly, 'that you
did not come a moment earlier, or stay a moment or two later! You would
have seen then how much the evidence of your own eyes was worth. It
would have saved you a good deal of pain; for I suppose you have taken
it to heart--you look as if you had. I thought that you looked as if you
had when I saw you at the Hartleys' party the other night. _The other
night_'--putting up her hand to her head with a confused look--'was it
the other night! or a year ago? or when?'

Margaret's heart has begun to beat so suffocatingly fast that she can
hardly draw her breath. What is Betty saying? What is she implying? Is
it--is it----

'I suppose,' continues Lady Betty, in the same level, even, absolutely
colourless voice as before, 'that you thought we met by appointment?
Poor man!' with a catch that is almost like the echo of a ghost's laugh
in her voice; 'if you had seen his face when he first caught sight of
me, I think you would have exonerated him from that accusation. What do
you suppose that he was doing when I came upon him? Why, kissing the
spot of ground that he fancied your feet might have touched! I suppose
that that was what sent me mad! There was a time, you know, when he used
to kiss the print of _my_ feet. Yes, I suppose it was that, though it
seems odd now. If I had known how differently things would look from the
other side of my Franky's grave, how little I should have cared!'

The oppression on Margaret's breathing is heavier than ever--the
thundering of her heart more deafening; but she _must_ master them--she
_must_ speak.

'But I _saw_!' she cries, gasping; 'I _saw_!'

'You saw my arms round his neck,' returns the other, in that terrible
level voice of hers, out of which despair seems to have pressed all
modulation, not a shade of colour tinging her livid face as she makes
the admission. 'I know that you did. Do you wonder that I can own it? If
you only knew of how infinitely little consequence it seems to me now,
you would not wonder. Yes, you saw my arms round his neck; but do you
suppose that it was by his will or consent that they were there? Poor
man!' with the same ghastly spectre of a laugh as before; 'if he is as
innocent of all other crimes at the Day of Reckoning as he is of that,
he will come off easily indeed.'

Is Peggy's breath going to stop altogether? Is her heart resolved to
break altogether out of its prison in the agony of its springing? She
presses her clenched hand hard upon it. It _must_ let her listen. It
_must not_--must not burst in two until she has heard--heard to the end.

'I wish you to understand,' goes on Betty, relentlessly pursuing her
confession, 'that it was I--I--who forced my last good-bye against his
will--oh, most against his will--upon him! I knew that it was good-bye;
he had not left me much doubt upon that head. I knew that his one wish
was to be rid of me--to hear no more of me--to have done with me for
this and all other worlds; and so, as I tell you, I thrust my last
good-bye upon him, and you saw it, and misunderstood, as how should not
you? I do not know whether you will believe me--it matters little to me
whether you do or not.'

Her hopeless voice dies away on the air, and her sunk look wanders
aimlessly round the room. Peggy is reeling as she stands. Is it the fog
from outside which has come in and is misting her eyes? She puts up her
hand stupidly to them, as if to wipe it away.

'I--I--I--am sure you are speaking truth,' she says, in an almost
unintelligible broken whisper; 'but as yet--as yet--I--I--cannot take it
in.'

'I would be quick about it if I were you,' answers the other stonily. 'I
would not waste any more time. You have wasted five months already; and
we are none of us allowed much time to enjoy ourselves in. We none of us
keep our good things long. Any one would have thought that I might have
kept my Franky a little, would not they? He was only six. Did you know
that he was only six? Many people took him for seven; he was so big for
his age. What, crying again? Well, I do not much wonder; he was a very
loving little fellow, was not he? and had a great fancy for you. He
prized that knife almost more than anything he possessed, and yet he was
determined that you should have it. You will take care of it, will not
you? Good-bye!'



CHAPTER XXXIX

    'Part of the host have crossed the flood,
      And part are crossing now.'


She is gone--passed out into the blackness of the winter evening--gone
before Peggy, paralysed, half-stunned as she is, can arrest her. Was she
ever here? The doubt flashes into the girl's mind. Of late, in her long
vigils, she has seemed to be parted from the spirit-world by but the
consistency of a spider's web. Has that fine partition been broken down?
Has she been seeing visions, and dreaming dreams? Did that crape-gowned
figure ever stand really in the body beside the table? Did she herself
ever look across the lamplight into the still and bottomless despair of
its eyes? Did it really give her Franky's knife, and tell her--oh no, it
is incredible! God can never have granted to her--to her of all people,
sunk so low as she is, far beyond the reach of any joy to touch--to hear
such things as her ears seem to have heard. She looks wildly round the
room.

'It was not true!' she says out loud; 'it was hallucination. It comes of
sleeping so little.'

And yet it must be true, too; for here, clasped in her hand, is the poor
knife, the object of the mother's journey. If that be real, then must
all the rest be real too. As the splendour of this inference breaks in
dazzling overpowering light upon her soul, she sinks on her knees beside
the table, lays down her head upon it at the same spot where Talbot had
laid his head in his heart-break five months ago, while she had stood
over him pronouncing her unjust and inexorable sentence.

'Oh, love, love!' she sighs out; 'dear love! poor love! forgive me! come
back to me! how could I tell?'

And then she lifts her face up to him, as if he were there; her face
irradiated with a joy like that of morning. Yes, though Prue is dying
upstairs, though Franky's pathetic bequest is still held between her
fingers, her heart is leaping. Has not one of her dead been given back
to her? Why, then, shall they not all? In that moment of supreme
elation, it seems to her as if all things were possible; it seems to her
as if Prue must get well, as if all her other dead joys must come
crowding back to welcome that exceeding great one, that has flown to her
with widespread arms out of the night of winter and despair. Prue will
get well. God will make her well. With God all things are possible.
There is a smile of wet radiance on her pale lips, and in her tired
eyes; and she is repeating over and over again to herself, as if by
repetition she would ensure their fulfilment, these lovely promises,
when the door opens and Sarah looks in.

'If you please, 'm, could you come back to Miss Prue?'

'Oh yes, this minute--this minute! How has she been? how is she? Better?
a little better?'

There must be something strange about her own appearance, for her
servant is looking at her in undisguised amazement.

'Better, 'm?' she repeats in a wondering key; 'whatever should make you
think she was better? She has had a bad bout of coughing since you left,
and it has tired her out, so that it quite frightened me. That was
partly why I came for you.'

Before her sentence is ended Peggy is upstairs again and at her sister's
bedside; the transfiguration all dead out of her face.

'You have been a long time away,' says the sick girl feebly, and with a
little of her old querulousness; 'why did you go?'

'I will not go again, darling.'

'But why did you go?' repeats the other with the pertinacity of
sickness; 'where have you been?'

Margaret hesitates a moment; then:

'I have been with Franky Harborough's mother,' she answers gently, the
tears rushing afresh to her eyes, as she holds out the legacy of the
dead child before the faint eyes of the dying one; 'he sent me his
knife; his mother brought it me.'

'Poor Franky!' says Prue softly, but she does not manifest any
curiosity. She only turns her wan face upon the pillow, and closes her
eyes. In the watches of the night, however, she recurs more than once to
the subject, waking up to cry, 'Poor Franky!' and to say, 'How sad it is
when young people die!'

And Peggy acquiesces.

The tired servants have gone to bed. They, too, have had their share of
watching on former nights. Peggy keeps her vigil alone. In the intense
silence of the dark, in the intense silence of the little lonely country
house standing fog-muffled through the enormous November night, beside
its unfrequented country road, she keeps her vigil alone. Not even an
owl calls from the tree-tops, nor does a star look through the murk. In
her night-watching of late she has been tormented with a cruel
over-mastering drowsiness, which has filled her with a remorse such as
those must have felt to whom it was said, 'What, could ye not watch with
Me one hour?' but against which offended nature, being yet stronger than
she, she has once and again contended in vain.

To-night, however, through all the hours of her vigil, she is broadly,
acutely awake. Awake! Yes; but is she sane? That is the question that
over and over again she puts to herself. If she be, what are these
voices that keep calling to her out of the noisy silence? What are these
faces that are becking and mowing at her? What are these flashes of
light, dreader than any darkness--flashes that have the blasphemy to
look like joy--that dart now and again across the sorrow-struck
confusion of her soul? How dare they come? God-sent, or devil-sent;
messengers from heaven, or fiends from hell, how dare they come? They
shall not, shall not thrust themselves between her and her Prue.

When the tarrying dawn comes, it finds her almost as exhausted as it
does her whose stock of mornings and evenings has so nigh run out. It
has come, that tarrying dawn; and Prue, waking up with a start, as by
some infallible instinct she always does as soon as the east has sent
her first weak arrows against the great target of the dark, feebly calls
to her sister to bring her her card that she may erase the one more
parted day from the calendar. But when Peggy's strong and tender arms
have propped her up, when Peggy's fond hand has put the pen into hers it
escapes from her disobedient fingers.

'I do not know what has come to me,' she says with her little smile;
'but you must do it for me--that will be just as well, will not it? You
do not think,' with an anxious catch in her voice, 'that it is ill-luck
your doing it this once, instead of me? If you think so, I will try
again.'

As morning advances there comes a slight renewal of strength--a slight
revival to the dying girl. The servants and the doctor--the kind doctor
who still makes a feint of prescribing--urge upon Margaret to take
advantage of this slight amendment to snatch an hour or two of sleep;
but she pushes away their advice almost rudely. Is not the text still
ringing in her ears, 'What, could ye not watch with Me one hour?' And
Prue, as it turns out, needs her more to-day than most days. For she is
less drowsy and lethargic than she has been of late, able even to plan a
new arrangement of all Freddy's presents, a new grouping round her of
his photographs.

'Had ever any one so many portraits of the same person?' she says with a
tiny white smile, looking contentedly at them, when the new arrangement
has been effected. 'I am very silly about him; but he is silly about me
too, is not he?' with a look of intensely wistful asking in her blue
eyes.

When evening draws on, she begins to grow heavy again.

_When evening draws on!_ Can it be again approaching? already again
approaching--the grisly nightmare night? Why, it seems as if not more
than half an hour had elapsed since day had begun to deal out her
avaricious dole of light! and now she is again withdrawing it. The night
is approaching. The night has approached. The night is here, in dominant
black supremacy. And again Peggy watches. It is not the fault of the
servants that she does so. At any crisis--a sickness, a catastrophe, a
death--servants are almost always kind; and Margaret's are more than
willing to shorten or forego their rest in order to share with her, or
replace her in her vigil. But she dismisses their offers promptly, yet
with a resolution that shows that it would be vain to press them. She
will call them if there is any need. They go reluctantly, and once again
night settles down upon the sad little Red House.

The drowsiness that used to frighten Margaret with its threatened
mastery she has no longer any need to keep at bay. On the contrary, the
preternatural wakefulness which had been with her all last night is with
her still. With her, too, is the thundering silence, beating in her ear
like a loud drum. All her last night's enemies are here again--all but
one, the worst. She has no longer to contend with those flashes of
dreadful incongruous joy. They at least are gone--extinct, dead! He that
had called them forth is massed in her despair with her other dead. They
are all gone irrevocably. The only difference is that God took the
others, and she herself has thrown him away. But they are all equally
gone--gone! If it were not so, if she had any one left, would she be
kneeling here, in this overpowering loneliness, watching Prue go, and
asking God over and over again, in the same stupid agonised words, to
let her go easily?

Yes, it has come to this. We begin by asking such great things for our
beloved--honour, and wisdom, and long life, and riches; and we end in
this, 'Give them a short agony, an easy passing!' Is it a sign that God
has heard her prayer, that as the hours go by Prue begins to talk out
loud, with little laughs between? to talk--not of her cough, and her
physic, and her short breath--but of gay and lovely things. She is
talking to one who is not here, of fair sights that are not before her
dying eyes.

Peggy holds her breath to listen. She is sitting in the garden with
Freddy. She is riding with him through the woods. From what she says, it
must be springtime. What a sheet of harebells! Never any May that she
remembers have they been so many before! And the birds! how loudly they
are singing! She would like to know the note of each, but she is so
stupid, he must teach her!

A great dry sob breaks from the listener's breast.

'Oh, Prue, Prue!' she moans; 'take me with you! Let me, too, see the
flowers and hear the birds!'

But Prue does not heed. She babbles happily on. By and by her wanderings
die down into a sort of semi-stupor, that is neither sleep nor waking.
The silence that her voice had broken is not again wholly restored. It
is exchanged for those indefinite noises of the night which, to timid
souls, seem to share the dominion of terror with its stillness. There
are definite noises too. A mouse gnaws behind the wainscot; the wind has
risen, not into a loud and roaring storm, but into a plaintive piping
and muttering and whistling. A loose rose-branch that in summer sends
its petals flying in through Prue's casement to her feet, is now tapping
pertinaciously on the pane. It seems as if it would not take 'No' for
answer, as if it were crying to her with summoning fingers, 'Come, come!
it is time!'

The night has reached the dreariest of her little hours, that one that
seems equally remote from the comfortable shores of the gone day and the
coming one. The clocks have just struck two, and Peggy kneels on, still
reiterating that monotonous prayer that God will take her Prue gently.
To her ears, though not to her senses, come the noises of the night;
come also noises that do not rightly belong to the province of the
night, that are rather akin to the noises of the day: the sound, for
instance, of wheels outside upon the lonely road, a sound that does not
die away, gradually muffled and fading into the distance, but that
ceases suddenly on the air--ceases, only to be succeeded by the noise of
a vague, subdued stir in the house itself. But Peggy kneels on. The only
noise that she heeds is that of the beckoning rose-branch that calls
continually, 'Come, come!'

She has buried her face in the bed-clothes, praying always; and as she
lifts it again she becomes aware that in the doorway, left ajar to give
Prue more air and ease in breathing, some one is standing, some one
standing at the dead of the night, looking in upon her. But still she
kneels on. She is quite past fear. Is she wandering, like Prue? Is it
some heavenly messenger that has come out of pure pity to her help? If
it be so, it wears the homely human form, the form of one with whom she
once sat under a hawthorn bower, with her happy head upon his breast.

As her solemn, haggard eyes meet his, he advances into the room, and
kneels down beside her. They exchange no word. Their hands meet in no
greeting; only they kneel side by side, until the morning. And at
morning, when the first dawn-streak makes gray the chinks of the
window-shutters, Prue, true to her infallible instinct, wakes up out of
her trance; and, opening her eyes, cries with a loud, clear voice:

'Is it morning? Then there is another day gone. Forty days gone--forty
days!' and so, lifting her face to Peggy to be kissed, as she has done
all her life, before addressing herself to sleep, she closes her eyes,
and turns her face on the pillow with a satisfied sigh; and on that
satisfied sigh her soul slips away.

Speak softly, for Prue is asleep--asleep as Franky Harborough sleeps, as
all they sleep, the time of whose waking is the secret of the Lord God
Omnipotent.

       *       *       *       *       *

Her little world have long prophesied that Prue would die, and now she
is dead--dead, and, restless as she was, laid to rest in her moss-lined
grave. With the live green moss environing her, with the bride-white
flowers enwrapping her from dreamless head to foot, she has gone--gone
from sofa and settle and garden--gone soon from everywhere, save from
Peggy's heart. And he who is the alone lord and owner of that great
heart does not grudge its place to the poor little figure seated for
ever by that warm fireside; and if, as time goes on, he knows that the
Prue so perennially enthroned there--the Prue of whom in after-days
Peggy's children are taught to talk with lowered voices, as of some
thing too sweet and sacred for common speech--is not the real Prue who
fretted and repined, and loved to madness here on earth, he does not own
it even to himself.

       *       *       *       *       *

_Postscript._--About six months after the death of Prue Lambton, the
attention of the readers of one of the graver monthlies was arrested by
the appearance in its pages of a short ode, the melody of whose
versification, the delicate aroma of its fancy, the quaint beauty of its
imagery, and the truth and freshness of its feeling, called to their
minds the best of the Elizabethan lyrics. It was anonymous, and was
addressed 'To Prue in Heaven.'



                               THE END.



_J. D. & Co._

                _Printed by_ R. & R. CLARK, _Edinburgh_.



  +--------------------------------------------------------------+
  | Transcriber's Note:--                                        |
  |                                                              |
  | Punctuation errors have been corrected.                      |
  |                                                              |
  | The following suspected printer's errors have been addressed.|
  |                                                              |
  | Page 57. ever changed to over.                               |
  | (tumbling over each other).                                  |
  |                                                              |
  | Page 108. percedence changed to precedence.                  |
  | (to grasp at a precedence).                                  |
  |                                                              |
  | Page 206. schnsuchtsvoll changed to sehnsuchtsvoll           |
  | (Das Herz wuchs ihm so sehnsuchtsvoll)                       |
  |                                                              |
  | Page 297. yon changed to you.                                |
  | (you made me think).                                         |
  |                                                              |
  | Page 309. astonied changed to astonished.                    |
  | (to have her astonished eyes).                               |
  |                                                              |
  +--------------------------------------------------------------+





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